Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #828 -- August 30, 2021
The cruelest insult which can be offered
to the unfortunate, is to appear to
make light of their calamities.

Adam Smith [1723-1790]
The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Crown of Thorns
Cruel Mockery of our King

A little over a week ago I received the following email from a reader in Tennessee, "Good Evening, Al. I just checked your Textual Index to see if you had written anything on Jesus' crown of thorns. I was surprised that you had not yet written on this topic. Thorns were present after humanity sinned, and present as well when the Lord died for humanity's sins. That thought really interested me, so I wonder if you would consider doing a future article on this. Thanks so much for your work!" Frankly, I was just as surprised as he was, so I went and checked. He was right. I had only made mention of the crown of thorns in passing in a few of my articles, but I'd never done an in-depth examination specifically on that aspect of our Lord's passion (although I did do a sermon on it several years ago). I thank the reader from Tennessee for pointing out this deficit, which I will rectify in our present study.

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910, aka: Leo Tolstoy), a famous author who was also a member of Russian nobility, wrote, "When a man is unable to understand a thing, he ridicules it." Harsh criticisms, insults, and slanderous mockery can quickly leave the victim of such assaults discouraged and distressed. The English author and poet Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) observed, "Of all the griefs that harass the distressed, sure the most bitter is a scornful jest." And yet, as the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger (4 B.C.-65 A.D.) noted in one of his moral essays, "The success of an insult depends upon the sensitiveness and the indignation of the victim." Or, as the Latin writer Publius Syrus (85-43 B.C.) stated in one of his maxims, "A truly noble nature cannot be insulted." I can't help but think of the old childhood chant, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me." In some versions, the word "break" replaces "harm" at the end of the chant. The truly noble spirit is above being broken by the words of cruel antagonists.

Jesus, during His public ministry, faced a rather large amount of slander, ridicule, mocking, and insults that were cast His way. He was declared a drunkard and a glutton, a friend of tax-collectors and prostitutes, a transgressor of Mosaic law and Jewish tradition, with an evident "god complex" (i.e., "a delusional self-image based on uncontrolled narcissism and overblown arrogance"). In short, Jesus was not well-received by the religious elite of Judaism, and they were not averse to letting Him know how they felt at every opportunity. The OT prophecies spoke of how the Messiah would be scorned, despised, and afflicted, and Jesus Himself knew very well what He would be called to experience, especially as He neared the time of His crucifixion. As that day approached, Jesus pulled the Twelve aside and told them in no uncertain terms, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which were written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him" (Luke 18:31-33; cf. Matthew 20:17-19). When we think of the death of Jesus, we often focus upon the physical pain He experienced. We too often, however, fail to fully appreciate the magnitude of the emotional pain He suffered as well, as He was maliciously mocked. In some ways, it was just as painful, and perhaps even more so!

After going through the mockery of a trial, Jesus was given the death sentence. Once that verdict had been pronounced, and Jesus had been severely scourged, Pilate "handed Him over to be crucified" (Matthew 27:26). It was at this time that "the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him" (vs. 27). Although Jesus had experienced insults and slanderous accusations prior to this (e.g., Luke 22:63-65), and would experience more as He was led to the site of the execution and as He suffered upon the cross (e.g., Matthew 27:38-44), it was nevertheless in the Praetorium, surrounded by these soldiers, that the mocking reached new levels of intensity. Based upon the descriptive words used by the inspired writers of the four gospel records, most scholars believe the number of soldiers present in the Praetorium was at least 200, with the possibility of it having been three or four times that amount. In other words, Jesus had become the "entertainment" for these troops serving in the city of Jerusalem, and they took advantage of it. Their job was to ready the prisoner for execution, but they took it much farther.

Rather than simply and professionally doing the job assigned to them, they gave in to their baser, brutish natures, "delighting in cruel play and coarse scorn" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, pt. 2, p. 416]. "It was a form of blasphemous sport calculated also to express their contempt of the Jews" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: the NT, vol. 1, p. 514]. A number of sources concur, as we see in The Expositor's Greek Testament: "The soldiers engaged in a mockery of the nation in intention quite as much as of the particular victim" [vol. 1, p. 327]. These men "were part of the auxiliary troops Pilate had brought up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. They were non-Jews recruited from Palestine and other parts of the Roman empire" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 777]. They were soldiers away from home, on an assignment among a people for whom they had little regard, and so this unexpected diversion of a rogue rabbi placed in their midst, who thought himself to be a king or a god, was much too good to pass up. "The occasion became one of amusement and fun to these men" [Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 392]. "The soldiers were non-Jews, provincials, serving under Roman orders," perhaps bored, and so they gathered by the hundreds "to have some sport" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1 - Mark, p. 280]. John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.) of Antioch, famed as one of the greatest preachers of the early church, declared the following about these soldiers, "The devil was then entering in fury into the hearts of all. For indeed they made a pleasure of their insults against Him, being a savage and a worthless lot" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 587].

Again, their job was to prepare this prisoner for execution. Thus, while the "party" grew more vocal and more vicious (note the use of the Greek imperfect tense in the text, indicating repeated action: the continuing and progressive nature of their abuse), some of the men were undoubtedly clear-headed enough to get on with the task at hand. "These cruelties were doubtless perpetrated while a part of the band was engaged in preparation for the execution" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, p. 537]. The nature of these cruelties may be found in Matthew 27:27-31, Mark 15:16-20, and John 19:2-3 (which I would urge the reader to examine before continuing). "Here we have humanity at its worst - a scene of vicious mockery. The Jews have mocked Jesus as Messiah (Matthew 26:67-68); here the Roman soldiers ridicule Him as king" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 572-573]. "They had heard of His claim to be a King, so they determined to deride Him with the mockery of royal honors, ... taking a fiendish pleasure in torturing and insulting Him" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15 - Matthew, p. 587]. "The soldiers mocked our Lord by regarding Him as a pretender to an oriental throne" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 1 - Mark, p. 280]. Thus, they strip Jesus of His clothes (what little He had on at this point) and dress Him up like a king. They place a "royal robe" around His shoulders, which must have caused quite a bit of pain because of the scourging He had just endured. It is said to be "scarlet" in Matthew's account, although Mark and John describe it as being "purple." "The ancients did not discriminate among colors as closely as we do" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 573]. It is possible this robe was the one that had been placed upon Him earlier when He appeared before Herod: "And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate" (Luke 23:11).

In the right hand of Jesus they placed a reed or cane, which was meant to suggest the royal scepter of a king. And the crowning insult of this whole pathetic scene was when they wove together a crown (Greek: "stephanos" - a victor's crown) made of thorny branches from a nearby bush and forced it down upon His head. With this "king" thus arrayed, "they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, 'Hail, King of the Jews!' They spat on Him, and took the reed from His hand and began to beat Him on the head. After they had mocked Him, they took the scarlet robe off Him and put His own garments back on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him" (Matthew 27:29-31). As they beat Jesus on His head, keep in mind that as they did so, they were driving the thorns deeper into His scalp with every blow! "There must have been copious bleeding because the scalp is one of the most vascular areas of the body. ... The blows hitting His head from the staff drove the thorns more deeply into Jesus' scalp and caused even more profuse bleeding" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 777]. "Everybody would recognize the circlet as a crown, and what a bloody crown it was! Little trickles of blood disfigured the victim's face, not with the artistic elegance of so many of our painters, but with the stark hideousness of cruel reality" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 1247-1248]. "The crown of thorns evidently served a double function as intended by the soldiers: to mock and humiliate Jesus with a travesty of royal honor, and to increase the physical torture which was inflicted upon Him. One cannot suppose that the crown of thorns was gently laid upon His head; it was doubtless forced down with a cruel violence which emphasized their contempt for Him" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 1040], a contempt made even more obvious when they beat this crown further into His scalp with the fake scepter He had been holding. "It is difficult to imagine a greater demonstration of insensitivity and cruelty than the soldiers' treatment of Jesus" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 777].

Much has been written about this "crown of thorns" (although it should be noted that Luke never mentions it in his gospel account), far more than has been written about the robe or the scepter. There has been particular interest among scholars as to which thorny bush in the area was the source of this crown. The text says that the branches or twigs of this bush, plant or tree were "woven" or "twisted" together, which would imply they were somewhat pliable (some of the thorn bushes had branches that were rather brittle, thus they would have snapped if they were twisted and bent). "The Greek word signifying 'thorn' or 'thorn bush' (akantha), is not sufficiently definite to authorize any positive statement as to the kind of shrub or tree from which the crown was made" [Dr. Alvah Hovey, Commentary on the Gospel of John, p. 370]. "All attempts to define the botanical character of the thorns used for Christ's crown are guesses" [Dr. Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the NT, vol. 2, p. 277]. "The word used is too vague to enable us to identify the plant with certainty, but most writers have fixed on the Zizyphus Spina Christi, known locally as the Nebk, a shrub growing plentifully in the valley of the Jordan, with branches pliant and flexible, and leaves of a dark glossy green, like ivy, and sharp prickly thorns. This shrub was likely enough to be found in the garden attached to the Praetorium" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 174].

There is a certain symbolism to our Redeemer wearing a crown made of thorns, for the latter has long been associated with sin and its curse. After the fall of man, God declared, "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you" (Genesis 3:17-18). "Thorns were the fruits of the primal curse, which Christ, the second Adam, was now bearing, and by bearing was now removing" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15 - Matthew, p. 587]. Jesus took on that curse, in a sense becoming that curse for us, that it might be forever taken away. He bore the "thorns" (the curse) to the cross, so that plants (blessings) of a more helpful and pleasant kind might appear. For the redeemed, there is this promise: "Instead of the thorn bush, the cypress will come up, and instead of the nettle, the myrtle will come up" (Isaiah 55:13). In Jesus, the curse (the thorn bush) is gone; He bore it to the cross. We now have, through Him, access to the paradise of God in which we find the tree of life! "Therefore, Christ, being made a curse for us, and dying to remove the curse from us, felt and endured the pain and smart of those thorns. ... He answered the type of Abraham's ram that was caught in the thicket" [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].

As we look back on that scene, in which the wicked sought to mock, ridicule, and humiliate Jesus, making Him look ridiculous by dressing and crowning Him as a king, we see through the viciousness to the eternal victory our King gained for us. What a fearful price He had to pay, and how blessed we are that He paid it. "Christ redeemed us from the curse, ... becoming a curse for us" (Galatians 3:13). Let me close with the following quote: "The emblematic significance, afterwards seen by the Church in the crown of thorns, is possibly hinted at in Hebrews 2:9 ('For a short time He was made lower than the angels. But now we see Him wearing a crown of glory and honor because He suffered and died'). As a sacrificial victim, in being led out to death, often wore a garland of flowers, so Jesus, in the eyes of God and His own disciples, even in suffering the deepest humiliation, wears a crown of glory. In the death of Christ His Church sees mankind crowned with life, because the law of sin and death was thereby abrogated, and the Kingdom of Heaven opened to all believers. The thorns with which a hostile world pierced the Savior's brows are an emblem of the sin of man, the curse of thistles and thorns having been threatened after the Fall. But these wounds become the world's salvation. Through the sinful cruelty of man new life comes to a condemned world. God thus makes the wrath of man to praise Him. What was meant as derision is really a prediction of glory" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 1, p. 397].


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Readers' Reflections
NOTE: Differing views and understandings are always welcome here,
yet they do not necessarily reflect my own views and understandings.
They're opportunities for readers to voice what is on their hearts, with
a view toward greater dialogue among disciples with a Berean spirit.

From a Reader in Pennsylvania:

Al, I would like to order your "Reflections: The Complete Collection" CD, which has all of your Reflections articles from the first one to the most recent one. I really appreciate you providing us all of these studies on a single CD, plus your topical and textual indexes, and two of your audio sermons with the PowerPoint slides for each. That is awesome!! My check is enclosed. Thank you!

From an Author in North Carolina:

Good Afternoon. I am an author working on writing a novel on the life of Philip P. Bliss from the point of view of his wife Lucy Jane Young Bliss. It is an historical fiction novel that tells two love stories 125 years apart. In my research, I came across your article "Philip P. Bliss: The Singing Evangelist" (Reflections #283), and I found it to be remarkably accurate! So, I was hoping you might share your bibliography with me. Specifically, I am hoping to locate the diary of O. F. Young of Rome, Pennsylvania, who was Lucy's father. This diary was referenced in a work called "The History of the Rome Presbyterian Church," so I am hoping a copy of that diary is still out there somewhere. If perhaps you ran across it in your research for your article, or if you have any other leads to help me accurately depict her life, please respond when you have a chance! Thank you for preserving this special part of history with your writing! His (and hers) is a captivating story of a life well-lived.

From a PhD in Kentucky:

Dear Al, thank you so much for your quick and compelling response to my recent request for advice on a dialogue I'm having with an individual on a biblical topic. I can't believe you responded so quickly, yet so thoroughly. I continue to be amazed at your ability! I have learned more from your writings than I have learned in years of Sunday School classes. I have long enjoyed your ability to expose legalism and traditionalism in a clear, compelling, and loving way. Again, thanks for your help. You are a treasure!

From a Reader in Montana:

Al, I would be interested in hearing your spiritual perspective on vaccinations. Obviously, the COVID vaccine is front and center for us all now, but vaccinations in general, and resistance to getting them, are also pressing issues in the news. Many congregations are starting to wrestle with the fact that some don't want to be vaccinated (for various reasons), yet still want to be in physical fellowship with others who are vaccinated. This could become (and in some places is becoming) another "-ism" than can/will divide us if we don't find a way to address it. We've looked at the thoughts Paul expressed in Romans 13-15, and (no surprise) people have differing opinions on how to apply the principles laid out for us there. Eating meat offered to idols, observing special days, drinking wine: all of these are shown as examples of things that we are not to let cause us to divide. But the big difference I see, one that I can't quite get my head around yet, is that those things all physically affect only the person doing them, whereas when I am vaccinated for a disease, I am part of a process that involves (and can affect) all of society around me. If you have some thoughts to share with us via your Reflections, I would certainly appreciate it. Thanks for your continued efforts to help us think!

From a Minister in Zimbabwe, Africa:

Thank you very much, brother Al Maxey, for yet another eye-opening Reflections article: "The Saga of Sister Sadie: The Life of Sarah McCoy Crank, an Early Stone-Campbell Preacher" (Reflections #827). As a member of the Stone-Campbell Movement, being a restorationist myself, I always felt that some of the doctrines we hold conservatively do more harm than good to our unity as the Body of Christ. From my own perspective, I think it is high time that we allow women to preach and lead in many areas of the ministry work. Anything against this is chauvinistic, misogynistic, and against God's law of liberty. Keep the fire burning, brother!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Al, I just finished reading your article "The Saga of Sister Sadie." I also like going over the readers' responses that you provide after each of your articles. Several responded this last time to your two previous articles on the matter of whether or not it is okay to drink ("The One Beer Apostate: Is Drinking a Single Beer a Sin?" - Reflections #825 and "The Drunkenness Dilemma: Letting the Scriptures Draw the Line" - Reflections #826). When we were in France, we helped a man and his wife whose car had quit on them. They were so grateful that they invited us to come into their home and visit. While there, they offered us some wine. I responded, "We don't drink." A surprised look crossed his face, and he asked, "You don't even drink water?!" The drink or not drink question, I suppose, will have its advocates on both sides of the fence, with neither one being willing to surrender his position. One should keep to his convictions, yet not make false arguments to defend them, as many do. It often is easy to ridicule another's convictions, and then to feel "righteous" in doing so. That's one of the pitfalls in such differences. Such questions should not degrade the conversation. Ah, but we are humans! Even Paul and Barnabas got into it, and I'm not sure the KJV or other translations truly give the feelings behind the phrase: "the contention was so sharp between them." Perhaps the rapscallion The Message gets a little closer with its rendering: "tempers flared, and they ended up going their separate ways" (Acts 15:39). Of course, Paul did realize later that he was wrong about Mark. Al, as one brother used to say, "Soldier on!"

From a Minister in Texas:

Al, thanks for all you do and say with regard to trying to correctly interpret Scripture! I just finished reading the letters from your readers regarding your study "The Drunkenness Dilemma," and I wanted to add to what one reader correctly identified as "the lack of self-control" issue. I see people demonizing alcohol and drugs and other things like fatty foods, but rarely do they identify the proximate cause, which in my opinion is a lack of self-control. I like the idea that the fruit of the Spirit includes the gift of self-control (Galatians 5:23), because I would nominate that as the most significant problem that most of us face when dealing with any of the blessings of life. We must learn how not to abuse God's gifts to us! People damn the "demon rum," but they give a pass to Uncle Joe who "just couldn't help himself." People in prison prove to me that they can survive without alcohol, sex, and addictive drugs. The key in my mind is the willpower to not overeat or overdrink or overuse anything in life. I am currently preaching on the letter to the Galatians, and this very issue is what Paul is so fervent about. You cannot save yourself by obeying law. God has done the heavy lifting and we must decide to follow His Spirit forward. Circumcision is just another thing people want to add to the Good News that God brings humanity: "If it's good for Jews, it must be good for all Christians." Al, thank you for standing firm on what Scripture says, and for not falling into the trap of "good ideas." We all need the gift of self-control to keep us from abusing God's great gifts.

From a Minister in Grenada, Eastern Caribbean:

Greetings Al. Thank you for adding my wife's email to your mailing list for your Reflections. I was honestly surprised: I did not know she had made the request to subscribe to your writings; I had simply encouraged her to read your latest article on my device!

From a University Professor in Missouri:

Al, thank you for sharing this amazing story ("The Saga of Sister Sadie"). All my life I have heard about sister Sadie Crank. She was famous here in southern Missouri as an evangelist for the Disciples of Christ churches. Of course, many of those Disciples churches from back in the early 20th century (in the area where sister Crank preached), following the turmoil of the Restructure in the 1960s, are today Independent Christian Churches. Another sister Sadie (this one with the last name of Miles) was also quite famous in Texas county (where I live) and surrounding rural counties in southern Missouri up until her death in 1985. I remember her quite well. Of course, it was quite controversial to have a woman pastor, and this is one of the reasons cited for the withdrawal of the Houston Christian Church from the larger Disciples movement. Sadie Miles presided over a large congregation while she was pastor here. God bless you, Al.

From a Reader in South Carolina:

Good Morning Al. I fully support women serving in the church and in the worship service. I have studied this issue for several years, and I find that two different Scriptures by Paul have been taken totally out of context by those who are against women serving. I am presently writing a book titled, "The Spirituality of Women Serving in the Church." May I have your permission to use the story about Sister Sadie? Thank you!

From a Reader in Texas:
(This couple assembled with us at the Desert Hills Church of Christ
Sunday morning, August 8th; they had visited several times before).

Al, thanks for your warm reception this morning! I'm just dropping a note to let you know all went well on our return trip home. My wife and I loved the short visit this morning with you, and there is a warm spot in our hearts for the members of our spiritual family meeting with you in Alamogordo. I pray God will bless all of you continually, and I will look forward to seeing all of you again in the future. Love you, brother! I pray that you will be around for many years to come. You are a rock in God's Family, and you looked younger and healthier than I could remember from the last time we were with you. I believe God still has big plans for you!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, I haven't emailed in a while, so I hope this finds you well. I read with great interest the recent Reflections articles that dealt with the legalistic attitude of Garland Robinson, the preacher at the Leoni Church of Christ. I live and worship in the same county, although I attend a different Church of Christ congregation. The Leoni church is a King James Version only congregation, and Bro. Robinson attacks on a regular basis the other Church of Christ ministers in the county. He has gone as far as demanding other ministers condemn instrumental music from the pulpit. In one case, he even took his elders and met with one of these other ministers. When he failed to convince said minister of his views, he sought to convince some of the smaller congregations to cancel their revivals that were scheduled to use this "apostate" minister.

From a Reader in Unknown:

Al, I have a question. I know of a Church of Christ congregation where the minister is moving. He felt Men's Business Meetings were unscriptural. Therefore, they had Congregational Meetings once a month, if necessary. Some members agreed with this, but others wanted to go back to only the men meeting. There are only about 30 members, a number of whom are women (six of these without husbands). Would you help me understand both of these options?

From a Reader in Georgia:

Just read "The Saga of Sister Sadie," and I really appreciate your research and personal reflection on notable persons in our church history! Fascinating. I've always been an advocate of women pursuing their calling and applying their spiritual gifts in the Body of Christ. I faintly remember from my childhood in a NE Arkansas Church of Christ men reaching over and helping to serve the women when the Communion trays, or even the offering plates, came by. I just thought they were being polite, as we defined "politeness" in the South. But it seems now that perhaps it was to avoid the women actually passing the trays. Then it seems the "liberals" got involved and women were able to pass the trays east-to-west (side-to-side while seated), but not north-to-south (down the aisles while standing). How absurd the arguments and actions get at times. A few years ago, however, a woman commented in a social media thread about all this, and what she wrote left a lasting impression on me. She said that the attitude of some churches with regard to the limiting of women's participation during the assembly left her quite empty. It was as if they (the church leadership) were saying that although Jesus died for her sins, He didn't have any use for her on Sunday. There was practically no need for her to show up. That was a stunner!! I felt the shame and condemnation of that myself as I tried to put myself in her position. I figure one day in heaven there will be several gigantic "group repentances," of which this will be one!

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