“They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ they said.” (Matthew 27:28-29)
Nobody excelled at political theatre quite like the Romans. From triumphal arches built to celebrate the conquering of walled cities to the worship of emperors, Rome did not miss an opportunity to underscore her imperial authority and supremacy. Not even in the execution of a prisoner for sedition.
Such an execution is what was going on in the Praetorium that day. The soldiers knew the score. Jesus had claimed to be king, and was to die for the offense against Caesar. To make a point of the ridiculousness of his claim they played pretend with him, dressing him up with royal robe, crown, and scepter. But the robe was a Roman soldier’s cape, showing who was really in charge; and the scepter was a rough wooden staff. The only ones to wield it were the soldiers, who would beat him with the sign of his own pretended authority. This rough abuse, along with spit and mockery, was the honor Rome gave to make-believe kings.
A CROWN OF THORNS
But what I’d like to consider here is the crown they gave Jesus that day. Throughout the ancient world, crowns were the universal symbol of royalty. Caesar himself wore a crown with plaited leaves of the laurel cast in precious metal. It was a symbol of both victory and divinity. In mocking contrast, Jesus’ crown was twisted together from thorns. Modern readers of the Gospel accounts, of course, usually focus on the pain such thorns would have caused, and no doubt the soldiers intended it to hurt. But they had already flogged him, and they were about to nail him to a cross. So physical pain doesn’t seem to have been the only thing on their minds. They were after something more—a pain that would pierce through to a man’s pride.
So they sent someone to search for thorns. And he would have had to search. No one cultivates thorn bushes, and they were in the middle of a palace in the middle of a city.
When they had found this most worthless of plants, they took its cruel leaves, and crowned what seemed a worthless man with worthless claims.
A FITTING CROWN
In fact, nothing could have been more fitting, though not fitting in the way in which those soldiers may have thought. For Jesus did not claim the throne of Rome or any other empire. No, his claim was over the whole world, the entire creation, and for that only thorns would do.
Why only thorns? To understand that, you have to stop and hear the story of thorns in the Bible. Throughout the Scriptures, thorns are a symbol and proverb for futility and pain. Wherever God’s blessing is withdrawn, wherever his curse is found, thorns abound. They are a picture of unfruitfulness and desolation. They choke out and smother good plants. They block the path of the wayfarer. A source of frustration and trouble, they are good only for burning. And it is no wonder: their origin is not on day three of creation along with the rest of the plants, but on day one of the Fall.
When God created the world, he created it good. And the Bible tells us that he created all kinds of vegetation as food for animals and people. The Bible also tells us that he created mankind to act as vice-regents under his Supreme Lordship. They were to rule the world, not as independent authorities, but as stewards under him. But Adam and Eve, our first parents and representatives, were not content to rule under God’s authority. They were not content to accept his provision or to administer his rule. They would be king and queen by themselves; they would provide for themselves, and they would decide for themselves. They rejected his command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They decided that was the fruit they wanted most. And so they reached out and took it.
And all of us have been doing the same ever since. We make up our own rules. We provide for ourselves whatever meaning to life we choose. Our empires aren’t large. Unlike Adam and Eve, we make no claim to be rulers of the world. Just rulers of ourselves. But where our rule holds sway, like Caesar, we brook no rivals.
In response to Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God cursed the productive and life-giving world he’d made. And something new appeared from the ground. In return for Adam’s painful toil, Genesis 3:18 tells us that the ground would now produce thorns and thistles, in addition to the good plants God had already created. Here then was the symbol of Adam’s rebellion, something new he could claim as a result of his rule. It’s a perfect match. Like the thorn, the autonomous rule of mankind—and the independent rule of our own hearts—has produced an unbroken history of pain, suffering, and futility. Such rule has proved as worthy as the crown it created.
But if that’s the story of thorns, how could it be fitting that Jesus Christ wore them as a crown? For here stood the incarnate Son of God, fully God and fully man, the creator of the world in his divinity, sinless in his humanity, and so doubly undeserving of such a cursed diadem! It was his throne that had been assaulted by Adam; his word that had been doubted by Eve. It was his mouth that had spoken the curse. How could it be fitting that he now wear its symbol, and, what’s worse, suffer its execution?
FOR LOVE’S SAKE
There is no reason, except for love. In love, God decided that the story of thorns would end at the cross. Out of his sheer grace and mercy, the Father, even as he spoke the curse, already planned to send his Son to take the curse upon himself. Even as he caused thorns to spring up from the ground, the Son had already decided to wear those same thorns on his brow.
So when the time was right, the Son of God put aside his heavenly glory, a crown that does not fade, and he took on flesh. And then Jesus Christ, the true and only King of the world, put on our crown and suffered the wrath of God that you and I and every other imposter king descended from Adam deserves.
And by wearing that crown, and suffering its fate, Jesus brought the reign of thorns to an end. For all who repent of their rebellion and put their faith in him, Jesus not only suffered as our substitute, paying the penalty we deserved, he also reigned as our king, rescuing us from sin’s curse and bringing us into his glorious kingdom, a new creation where thorns do not grow and brows are not pierced. A kingdom where we will wear crowns, not of our own making, but of his, crowns of righteousness which we will gladly throw at the feet of their rightful owner. For then we will see Jesus, crowned not with thorns, but with “glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on 9Marks on April 2, 2010. Used by permission.