If Josephus’ and Horace’ and others’ histories are to be believed, the scourging that happened before crucifixion was one of the most horrid things imaginable. The Jews limited the lashes in number – the Romans did no such thing; they scourged until it felt right. The whip of leather cords, at times tipped with balls of lead or bits of bone or nails, ripped flesh and tore ragged wounds. Historians tell how the condemned sometimes died before the crucifixion came, so maimed and scarred were they. One could assume then when Matthew mentions it in the verse before our section it means that when Jesus arrived among the cohort, his back was already one horrible wound of exposed muscle or bone and bleeding, hanging flesh. Probably enough to soak through the already crimson cloak they put on him; for it to begin to cling in the same horrible way a bandage sucks and sticks so that you fear to change it. And when the thorny-crown was jammed upon his head and blood flowed in new places; or when they drove those thorns, long into his brow with the staff, knots raised on his head; or when they slapped him in the face and struck him, bruises beneath the blood; or when they spit and he was disgusting to look upon… When the whole cohort – possibly tens, maybe hundreds of soldiers – gathered round to shout and mock and make fun they saw only a horrible something to be abused and expended. They saw an excrement being, insane enough to claim some kingship. And so they hailed him “King of the Jews!” with mocking and horrid abuse.
In this way Matthew 27 is at the same time one of the greatest and not my favorite Bible chapter. I cherish Lent and Jesus’ suffering, but I do not like to look upon it always. This is not the chapter I bring to those in dire need – not often. Often I come with the promise that Jesus rules over all things as king – glorious, ever-living, bright as lightning – the conqueror of all troubling things. If I’m honest I find that I don’t often hail this king – this abused and scorned and difficult to look upon one. Do you not too? If not, why?
Perhaps because these things are horrible? In the same way how I don’t watch those Liam Neeson movies where his daughter or wife is taken – though I know I can count on that Liam’s unrighteous vengeance will prevail – I still have three daughters and a wife and thinking of that kind of horrid thing for them… Or perhaps because I have stepped off the elevator on floor 4 or 5 or 7 at Children’s Hospital and been overwhelmed again by that familiar soap smell and the sounds I hate from personal experience and all that can happen there… Or maybe like how I just plain didn’t read any articles about that shooter at the Texas church… Because I can imagine those things, those painful, horrible things, in horrible detail – and I don’t hail them in life, greet them with respect or love or joy – so why here…perhaps I won’t…
Perhaps that’s a poor excuse, though. Do you notice – read the gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – they mention the process, the problem of the crucifixion, but not the picture – they don’t share all the gory detail; they don’t evoke gut-reflex emotion; the pain, the wounds, the shame – they tell, on them they don’t dwell. Even when they report the worst – the truest suffering in separation from God – it’s buried in darkness. My retreat from this king might be for reasons I’ve made up and fears I’ve pictured instead of what it actually says…
Perhaps it is something more personal that makes us prefer another picture. What if you have your own disgusting things? What if you know the depths of their horror – that fear as a new parent, that something as simple as sleep or crying or detaching diapers would undo you…or as an old one, things as seemingly silly that easily outspend your sanctification, not to mention all the serious things; your inability to not worry about every thing as though it were the end of everything; that discontent you have because life has gone so poorly (in your estimation)…; that fear that if you hold this king, this kind, forth too often, too boldly, too much mockery will undo you too. In all of which, at different times to varying degrees you’ve feared this exact thing – this king – that Jesus says he’s in control, but he may just be weak and powerless. Oh, you know the story, the death but the resurrection, the nail driven through hands and the hand-in-side redemption after…but that doesn’t mean you’ve always believed it. And this mocked-king Jesus reminds of how we’ve mocked his rule too.
There is this holier rub as well – something closer to repentance: you, God’s flock, you know that this mocking shame comes because of sin’s guilt – your sins and mine – and it is unpleasant to look upon our sins and their guilt and to know what they demand. Even in holy fear and love, we might not hail this king… But hail this king we must. For he is exactly what we need and he is so powerfully better than any king we could imagine.
Did you know, among religions, as they crown things king, Christianity is unique in a number of respects. It is unique today in that it praises a suffering God. No other religion in all the world claims the same – that God himself would suffer for those who don’t deserve it. They might claim that you must suffer to deserve him (and, tellingly, your own heart would have led you to that enlightened conclusion anyway). No other religion in all the world claims this – that God himself must suffer for sinners’ sins. They might claim that sins, if they exist, are a thing you can amend (and your own heart regularly claims the same). But God proclaims that sin is an attack on who he is – “all have sinned and fall short (not of measures or possibilities or social norms)…fall short of the glory of God.” So serious is sin that only divine, truly righteous payment can amend it – and so he makes it himself, in his Son.
And this shame, you might say, he doesn’t leave behind unimportant…he bears it, tells it, so you might own it. Chad Bird, failed pastor, professor, once long-haul trucker turned now writer pictures this problem and its solution as he considers it personally:
The resurrected body of Jesus must be a magnificent sight. Glorious, radiant, perfect. Yet for me, the most precious aspects of Jesus’s body are the scars that remain, even after Easter. The nail prints in his hands. The spear-pierced hole in his side. The gashes left by spikes in his feet. These everlasting wounds visually preach the gospel. As Isaiah prophesied, “With his stripes we are healed.”
And this is what we greet as we stand among the soldiers and watch with sorrow. It is nothing of the glory of a worldly king and at the same time far beyond it. We could talk about all the details – what kind of purple that robe, how many tails the whip, of what species the thorns – but we would miss the point. Matthew’s simply trying to show you this: Jesus is mocked in order that he might truly be our king like Ezekiel called him – the shepherd who said, “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them…” at my own, personal cost, to my own shame and scorn – even to death. “I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered…” no matter where I have to go or what I have to endure. “I will shepherd the flock with justice…” and face all that they cannot pay. All our sinful grasping at pride, all our strange misconceptions about who is in control of life and what is important – they deserve mocking scorn – and to satisfy God’s justice he came and took it and carried it to the cross in order to perfectly watch over us.
Rightly, we hail this mocked-king our king. Because he was made soldiers’ fun your faith will not be a laughingstock. This prince faced our death for sins. As the better Adam he rose from death himself like I could not. As the firstfruit he promises that by faith we will rise just like him. Because he faced pains and stripes you will never. Having suffered for sins and died for their payment and risen to life he declares you “not guilty”. Because he lives and rules, he assures that you will with him. Right now he rules and at the end, even death will be seen powerless, a sham, a shame, because he has crushed it himself.
Perhaps we would like to forget all unpleasant things – our own things too. Perhaps we would prefer that life and our king would always and only appear in glory with power. Maybe we’re tempted to forget this unpleasant picture therefore but, dear friends, don’t… Because by his suffering and scars he rules with healing for every scar of sin you bear. And when he bears these mockeries, he reminds that he knows all of yours – the ones you have made and those you have experienced – and he takes them for himself and away from you. He tells that everything we consider glorious he has buried in his death and the cross so that we might know from alone true and everlasting glory. And, shepherding his people like this, standing in our midst, knowing who we are, he rules with justice in love – the conqueror of all our troubles because he has faced them himself. Do not look away, but rejoice. Hail him who suffers. All glory to the inglorious one. Christ is King without compare. He is this kind of king for you. Amen.
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”