The Crown of Thorns

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Mark 15:16-20

Of all the many qualities Jesus demonstrated during his last day on earth – bravery, love, compassion, the readiness to forgive – none is more amazing than his self-restraint.

Jesus’ course during his final twenty-four hours on earth has taken him from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane, and from there to the house of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, for trial. The religious authorities brought him next to the political authority, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Pilate tried every way he could think of to set Jesus free, or at least to shift the responsibility for passing judgment on him to someone else. He even had his soldiers give Jesus a bloody whipping, in the hope that this would be enough punishment to satisfy the hostile crowd. But it wasn’t. They wanted all of Jesus’ blood, not just some of it. So Pilate sentenced Jesus to be put to death on the cross.

Before Jesus was taken to the place where he was crucified, he was subjected to one more piece of painful humiliation, as the gospel of Mark describes.

The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace. It was called the Praetorium. They called together the whole company of soldiers.

The soldiers put a purple robe on Jesus. Then they twisted thorns together to make a crown. They placed it on his head. They began to call out to him, “We honor you, king of the Jews!” Again and again they hit him on the head with a stick. They spit on him. They fell on their knees and pretended to honor him.

After they had made fun of him, they took off the purple robe. They put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him out to nail him to a cross.

Mark 15:16-20 (NIrV)


Apparently it wasn’t enough for the onlookers that Jesus was suffering terrible physical torments while he was dying. Many of those who saw him at his trial or on the cross also chose to make fun of him. They mocked him mercilessly, heaping scorn and abuse on his defenseless head. They laughed at his pain, they made a joke of what they thought were his sinful claims to be the Messiah, the King of Israel.

This emotional suffering Jesus experienced at the hands of those who killed him – the taunts, the ridicule, the humiliation that were part of the whole experience – seems to me almost worse than the physical pain Jesus had to endure. The mocking crowd of soldiers and bystanders didn’t just kill this good and innocent man. They laughed at him while he died. They seemed to enjoy the whole experience, as if it were a kind of entertainment for them. There’s something very perverse and twisted about that. It wasn’t enough simply to take away Jesus’ life; they also stripped him of his dignity. They dehumanized him.

Putting together details from the various gospel accounts, we get this picture of Jesus’ humiliation. The mocking began at the trial before Caiaphas, the high priest. While Jesus was being interviewed in the high priest’s hall, at one point some of the onlookers blindfolded him, walked up and struck him in the face and then said, “Prophecy to us, Messiah. Who was it that hit you?” You see the game they were playing? Jesus had demonstrated throughout his ministry that he possessed God’s Spirit in a unique way. Now his enemies made a joke of it. “So, you’re such a great prophet, huh? You can tell secrets and see hidden things? O.K. . . . whack! . . . tell us all who just hit you. Hah, hah, hah!” Oh, it was terribly funny.

The scornful laughter was renewed in Pilate’s courtyard, where the soldiers of the guard got into the act. Pilate, as noted above, had already given orders for Jesus to be whipped. But when Jesus, his back bruised and bleeding from the bite of the lash, was finally turned over to the soldiers for his sentence to be carried out, they also decided to make fun of him before taking him off to Golgotha. Pleasure before business, you see.

So they proceeded to have their little joke at his expense. They draped a piece of cloth (perhaps it was an old soldier’s cloak) over his bleeding shoulders. Mark says it was purple. Matthew says it was scarlet. Whatever the exact shade, it was meant to suggest an emperor’s royal robe. Then they dragged Jesus back onto his feet and somebody stuck a clump of sharp thorns on his head. It probably was not the carefully woven crown of thorns of our art and imagination; most likely one of the soldiers just grabbed a thorn bush growing in the courtyard there and roughly twisted it into a kind of cluster and then jammed it onto his head. They also put a reed in Jesus’ hand as a sort of scepter. Then, the mock coronation ceremony complete, the soldiers all bowed down before him. After this they began to spit upon him and strike him about the head and shoulders and roar out their mocking laughter.

Apparently these rough garrison troops had gotten wind of the charge against Jesus at his trial. They didn’t know quite what it was all about. It was something to do with being a king or claiming to have a kingdom. The particulars didn’t really matter. The soldiers got enough of it to form the basis of their taunting, and so they had their fun. “Hail, O mighty king of the Jews,” they said in sarcastic reverence, then erupting in howls of laughter. So funny; just hilarious. You know the kind of thing it was – it was typical soldiers’ humor, cops’ humor, the laughter of tough, hardened men directed against a helpless victim unable to defend himself.

But even this wasn’t the end. The mocking still continued even after Jesus was nailed to the cross.

Those who passed by shouted at Jesus and made fun of him. They shook their heads and said, “So you are going to destroy the temple and build it again in three days? Then come down from the cross! Save yourself!”

In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law made fun of him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said. “But he can’t save himself. Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross! When we see that, we will believe.”

Those who were being crucified with Jesus also made fun of him.

Mark 15:29-32 (NIrV)

Everybody seems to have gotten into the act, even one of the thieves who hung beside him. If you’ve ever been the target of a mob’s cruelty, you know what Jesus was going through. If you’ve ever been the subject of the joke when the joke was meant to hurt, if you’ve ever had to stand there while everybody laughed at you, you know how Jesus felt.


A couple of points impress themselves on my mind as I think of the shameful things Jesus endured during his last hours. I want to remember these scenes from his last day whenever I am tempted to join in the fun at someone else’s expense. The next time I catch myself ready to mock a friend or a stranger, or to gossip about an acquaintance, or to call someone a cruel name, or to make fun of a defenseless person in order to draw a laugh from the crowd, I hope I can remember that laughter in Pilate’s courtyard. I don’t want to be part of that sort of thing. Whenever we scorn or ridicule or insult someone else, we’re not just “having a little fun.” It’s much more than enjoying a harmless laugh. What we’re really doing is dehumanizing a person who was created in the image of God, a human being made in God’s likeness. To mock God’s image is to mock God himself. Cruel taunts, coarse jokes, racist terms, personal insults – these are all a kind of abuse that finally strikes at Jesus himself. Would you really want to be one of Pilate’s soldiers? I don’t think so.

I also want to remember this whole scene whenever I am the target of this kind of attack. The New Testament writers were much taken with the idea that in the way Jesus faced suffering, in particular the way he responded to all the humiliating abuse, he gave us a model to imitate. We can’t suffer like he did to pay for the sins of the world. But we should react to personal insults and attacks the same way he did. Jesus has left us an example of how we ought to respond, how we ought to behave whenever we, like him, are the objects of unjust accusation or ridicule. Peter brings this point out in the second chapter of his first epistle. “Christ suffered for you,” he writes, “leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps. When they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate. When he suffered, he made no threats, instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21-23). So there is the example. He’s left us a pattern. We need to walk in his steps. Whenever the time comes, we need to think of Jesus in Pilate’s courtyard, and act accordingly.


But most of all, I am moved to awe at the incredible self-restraint of Jesus. I am amazed by his patience and self-control. Think of what he put up with without fighting back. All the things he endured in silence! Remember the taunts they hurled at him? “Prophesy, who hit you? . . . Hail, King of the Jews! . . . Come down from the cross and we’ll believe in you!” The amazing thing is: they were all true! He knew who his tormentors were. He was the King, God’s Messiah. He could have come down from the cross. When Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, he told his disciples that 12,000 angels were at his command. He had only to say the word, and he would be delivered. The mocking taunts and hurtful laughter would choke in their throats, and his enemies would be blotted from the face of the earth.

But he didn’t say the word. Instead, Jesus chose to fulfill a prophecy made centuries before by the prophet Isaiah –

I let my enemies beat me on my bare back.

I let them pull the hair out of my beard.

I didn’t turn my face away

when they made fun of me and spit on me.

Isaiah 50:6 (NIrV)

He kept silence in the face of all the mocking, all the vicious laughter. He accepted the insults of the crowd and neither replied to them nor retaliated against them. Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, says the writer to the Hebrews. Why? “For the sake of the joy that was set before him” (see Heb. 12:2). The joy that Jesus knew he would experience in saving us and in receiving the glory that God would eventually bestow on him enabled him to keep silence and to bear the shame and humiliation of the cross.

You know, that mocking crowd spoke more truth than even they realized. “He saved others,” they said. “But he cannot save himself.” No, Jesus could not save himself. He couldn’t because he knew that in order to save us he would have to die.

Do you realize all that Jesus has done for you? Have you thanked him for it? Are you trusting him for your salvation? Are you following his example?