Mark 15:16-20 “The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.”
In August, 1964 Congo rebels captured Stanleyville (now known as Kisangani). In the four years since Congo’s independence from Belgium most white people had fled from the nation, or they had been captured and killed. Because Helen Roseveare was a doctor, her life was spared. She was well aware of the danger; many mission women had been abused by the marauding rebel armies. She stayed on, believing the words of C.T. Studd the founder of her Mission, “If Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.” Her house was looted, and on Saturday, August 15, 1964, a truck load of soldiers drove in and took over the hospital compound. They occupied it for five months. “They were brutal and coarse, rough and domineering. Their language was threatening and obscene. All the staff were cowed. We did exactly what they demanded, mostly without argument.” The tension was unbearable. Helen Roseveare said, “We heard that the local chief had been caught, bound and beaten; then he’d been taken to the people’s tribunal at Wamba, found guilty, flayed alive and eaten. No wonder we didn’t sleep well, and weren’t hungry.” Then Helen and the other women were taken away. “We were put into a house in the jungle – nineteen defenceless women and children surrounded by some seventy-five men, soldiers and others, all filled with evil intentions toward us. But in my heart was an amazing peace, a realization that I was being highly privileged to be identified with Christ in a new way, in the way of Calvary.” In that house Helen Roseveare was raped and humiliated by the rebels. Also in that place a deeper love for the Congolese people grew. After liberation she returned home to England, but only for a year. Then she returned to the Congo to continue her medical mission work. She had indeed shared in the sufferings of Christ. What happened to Helen wouldn’t have occurred if she hadn’t given her life to serving Christ. God gave her the blessedness of being reviled and persecuted for the sake of Jesus Christ.
1. THE ATTITUDE OF THE SOLDIERS.
Let me tell you once again about the dying of Jesus Christ. We are looking at his last days each Sunday because unless you first understand the Bible’s teaching about Christ you can’t trust in him. How can you believe what you don’t know? I was interested reading this week of one of the cases of asylum-seekers who go to a place called Taylor House in north London to make their claims to remain in this country. A couple of weeks ago a Chinese woman explained to the court that she was fleeing from persecution in China because of her religion. She told the officials that she was a Roman Catholic, but the Home Office had rejected her claim saying that Catholics were not a persecuted group in China. She made an appeal and had been asked to appear at Taylor House. The adjudicator in this appeal was curious to find out how deep was her commitment to Romanism. How long, she was asked, had she been a Catholic? ‘Two weeks’ was the reply. Who is Jesus Christ? asked the judge. ‘I don’t know.’ What is the Bible? ‘I don’t know.’ What are the central doctrines of Christianity? ‘I don’t know.’ She was not a very convincing Catholic, nevertheless that woman was not deported or even detained. Out she walked into London to disappear in the twilight world of illegal immigration. What did the judge do when she said that she was religious and that was the reason she faced persecution? He asked her about her understanding of Christianity. Who is Jesus Christ? What is the Bible? What are the central truths of Christianity? You cannot be a Christian, I say, without believing these things, and that is why you must come every Sunday and listen to the Bible being explained. You may finally reject it, but at least then you will have understood what you are rejecting.
Why did the Lord Jesus suffer what I’ve read in your hearing – by the hands of the soldiers? This was the time of the Passover feast, the morning of the first Good Friday, and what the Lord Jesus Christ is engaged in is an enormously serious work. It is the most solemn undertaking any man has ever done or will do. He is setting out to accomplish the redemption of sinners and the regeneration of the universe. The Son of God has come to deal with the vast problem of the fallenness of the world, and he will accomplish this all by himself, in one body in one place on this planet in this one event. He’ll do so by becoming the Lamb of God and taking to himself our sin and guilt. He is becoming a sacrifice of infinite and eternal merit, one who sustains and exhausts in his body the wrath of God to our sin. We know that God is not an indifferent Sphinx-like deity, ignoring what people do to one another. Rather the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against torture, and child cruelty, and rape, and theft and all such ungodliness and unrighteousness of man. God is angry with the wicked every day, but Christ the Son of God had been sent by his Father from heaven on a mission of deliverance. Now, at about 33 years of age, he is standing in the midst of the soldiers in the Praetorium, and at this very moment he is engaged in this extraordinary event of propitiating the wrath of a sin-hating God. Soldiers are doing things to him, and in the very way he responds to them Christ is doing things with regard to God, and he does this for the remainder of this Good Friday. There is a children’s hymn about the Lord Jesus which describes what he does so simply;
“He knew how wicked we had been,
And knew that God must punish sin;
So out of pity Jesus said,
‘I’ll bear their punishment instead.'”
Sin is such an offence against the infinite holiness and justice of God that it has to be punished. It deserves retribution, and that desert must be rendered, either in the sinner or in a Surety; in other words, either in us, or in Jesus Christ who is the sinner’s divine substitute, but one way or the other sin has to be condemned by God. That is the nature of the only God there is. You say that your idea of God is that it doesn’t matter to him how anyone chooses to live. “Please yourselves,” your god says. Then your god is a monster; your god is the devil, but to the one living and true God sin matters very much indeed; it is a life or death matter. So you’ll understand when I describe this first Good Friday and this work which the Lord Christ is doing in it why I say that it was the most solemn and serious work any man has ever done.
Now we live in a society which doesn’t appreciate solemnity. It wants to be amused by comedians and cartoonists and songs and movies and comics and clubs which all mock anything that is serious – for them it is all pretentious. They cry for entertainment. For them there is nothing sacred. I want to say to you that there is nothing new under the sun; so it was 2,000 years ago. Here is the incarnation of the mighty Creator, and he is engaged in a work which he alone could do;
“There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin.
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven and let us in” (Cecil Alexander 1823-95).
Yet here the Son of God was caricatured by the soldiers. This was the age of Augustus and Tiberius, an age in which satirists – and very good ones at that – abounded. This was the frequently cruel humour of the Roman Empire, more sophisticated in Rome and amongst the poets in the chief city of the empire; more violent amongst the illiterate classes. But even if this style hadn’t been fashionable in the first century men know how to mock because contempt is rooted in the hearts of fallen men. The cruel games which the soldiers played with Christ have been carried on throughout the ages in the press, on the stage, and in our day on radio and TV. Pompeii was the city near Mount Vesuvius, buried under metres of volcanic ash by an enormous eruption in the year 79. On one of those excavated walls is anti-Christian graffiti which has been preserved for almost 2000 years. There is one particular drawing of a Christian kneeling before a donkey and below it are scrawled the words, ‘Anazimenes worships his god.’
We have seen in this passage how the soldiers began with the tyranny of the scourge attacking the majesty of Christ. Now they go on to hide Christ’s majesty behind parody. They want to make God the Son a laughing stock. The angels hold their peace and cover their faces while this goes on. They, as it were, put their fingers in their ears to cut out the sound of the diabolical laughter as sinners mocked their Lord.
Cynicism about Christ is all too common today especially amongst British novelists. It is almost a precondition for being listed for the Booker Prize. It is a central part of English literary culture to disdain Jesus Christ. Martin Amis says that he became an atheist at the age of 12 dismissing religion as ‘an affront to common sense . . . it seemed an open-and-shut case . . . every religion is a massive agglutination of stock responses, of clichés, of inherited and unexamined formulations.’ Or there is Ian McEwan who has never tried to depict a character with religious faith except a stalker. For him being a follower of Jesus Christ is a pathological condition that threatens normal people. He says that after September 11 religious belief seems more objectionable than ever. Christopher Hitchens says of the New Testament, ‘the whole story is a sinister fairy tale; life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually the case.’ In a recent Guardian review Justin Cartwright wrote, “It’s time we acknowledged honestly what most people believe that religion is at bottom nonsense.” Since the time of Philip Larkin the literary elite in England have affirmed that religion entails humbug, evasion and a failure to face reality, and so they scorn it, just like these soldiers mocked the Lord Jesus Christ. These squaddies had never heard the Sermon on the Mount; they had never talked to some of the hundreds whose lives had been transformed by Jesus, who had seen his mighty signs. It was all beneath contempt; it was Jesus and his ‘religion.’ It was patently a lie and not to be considered.
So mockery of the Christian faith is going to accompany us throughout our lives, and that is no bad thing at all. I hope it does. If there were even some persecution and hatred maybe that would be easier to handle than the contempt of our peers, especially for younger people. They are going to make fun of us in school and in our work. We will come across cynicism to our faith on the radio and in the press; the scorn of men is going to get worse. The only way we will avoid it is by hiding the fact that we are Christians, by behaving just as the world does, and that, of course, is impossible. We have to keep smiling; we have to demonstrate that a gentle answer turns wrath away. We must remember that the Lord Jesus was silent under the hatred of these men. We have to ask God to give us strength so that we are never ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So that was the attitude confronting Jesus Christ and it confronts his true servants yet.
2. THE ACTIONS OF THE SOLDIERS.
The scene mark describes in his gospel has become a regular feature of our world today. There is a certain peace-keeping force in one country and the local population is angry. There are snipers and car-bombs and ambushes. Suspects are arrested and put in prison and the guards get bored. So they take revenge by humiliating a prisoner or even torturing him, and photographs are taken and leaked to the press. You find echoes of that contemporary scene in what Mark is describing to us in our text. The Roman troops in Jerusalem wouldn’t have cared two hoots about an international outcry and press reports of prisoner abuse. They just got on with what they were doing by sheer brute force. This ugly scene is the first of several snapshots that Mark takes of Jesus’ dying, moving quickly from one to another.
After the Lord Jesus has been scourged the soldiers decide to have further fun with their prisoner. They make a joke out of the grim business of crucifying three men that day. Two are in the dungeons so they vent their anger on this one. They hold the Jews in disdain and this Jew in particular, so they set up a stunt in which they can mock this self-proclaimed ‘king.’ We are told that they “called together the whole company of soldiers” (v.16), in other words anyone who happened to be present that moment in the Praetorium they shouted to them to come and join in the fun. There would be anything up to 600 men in the platoon. The ring-leaders were fascinated by this Jesus fellow actually claiming to be king of the Jews. The trial had revolved around this point. Caiaphas had made this point to Pilate that this Nazarene had announced himself as a king and the Roman governor would be no friend of Caesar if he allowed such a revolutionary to live. Here was the soldiers’ first sight of Jewish royalty; a bleeding broken man, beaten up by the Sanhedrin and its guards, and now whipped in an indescribable way. What a laugh! Was this the man who had wanted to cause trouble, stirring up a revolution by claiming he was the nation’s true king? See what a ridiculous pathetic figure he makes! See how the soldiers respond.
One soldier saunters up carrying a soldier’s robe, probably worn out, badly faded and dirty yet a good imitation of a king’s robe. What colour was it? It is described both as purple and as scarlet by the gospel writers. According to Greek scholar A.T. Robertson there were various shades of purple and scarlet in the first century and it wasn’t always easy to distinguish the colours or tints. Maybe scarlet fades to a purple colour. I don’t know. Maybe both colours were in the fabric of the robe. No one knows. How do you describe a colour? A husband will identify something as a different colour from his wife. I read that the ancients (especially the Romans) frequently used the term ‘purple’ when speaking of various shades of red. It’s not very important question is it, scarlet or purple?
So, they put this robe on him, and if you use your imagination you can see Herod the Jewish king wearing a robe rather like this. Then there is also this fact, that a king must have a crown, and that idea catches on and there is growing enthusiasm for this mockery. There are thorn bushes protecting the palace garden with long thorns two inches long. A solder gets his short sword out and chops off a lithe branch and weaves it round into a crown. He goes across and he sets it on Jesus’ head – the head that today is crowned with glory was then crowned with thorns. The idea was not to torture him by pushing the thorns into Jesus’ head. It was to mock him by this crude parody of a king’s crown. Probably the thorns splayed out rather than dug in; it was like a victor’s wreath. So ‘King’ Jesus has a royal robe and a crown. What else does have a king have? He has a scepter, and so Matthew tells us that “they put a staff in his right hand” (Matt. 27:29). The staff was a reed that bent and wobbled like a fishing rod, and that was hilarious – just the right touch to underline how pathetic and laughable Jesus was. He was a clown dressing up as a king.
So they caricatured him, and then the rest of the fun was up to their inventiveness. What else could they do in this evil pantomime? Then they “began to call out to him, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!'”(v.18). You see the scene as a group of them march up and down in front of him with someone shouting out, “Eyes right!” and they shout out as they shouted out to Caesar, “Hail! Hail, king of the Jews! Hail, king of the Jews!”
“And of that shouting multitude
I feel that I am one;
And in that din of voices rude
I recognize my own.
Around the Lord the throng I see
That mock the Sufferer’s groan;
Yet still my voice it seems to be.
As if I mocked alone.” (Horatius Bonar 1808-89)
The shouting and marching quickly got a bit boring. Jesus didn’t enter into the spirit of the occasion and quickly things got vicious. They gathered around him and all started spitting in his face (v.19); the crown of thorns was set over a face covered in spittle. Then they took the ‘sceptre’ – did Jesus let it go? Did he refuse to hold it and did that make them angry? Whatever happened a soldier picked it up and lashed him over the head with it. Mark tells us that this happened “again and again” (v.19). Thump! Thump! Thump! His back was a great wound and now his head was covered in welts, and Mark tells us “falling on their knees they paid homage to him” (v.19). After that they ran out of ideas of how to humiliate him more, and so they took the soldier’s robe from him and put his own clothes on him again and took him away to nail him to a cross.
The trial of Jesus began with the servant of Annas hitting Jesus on the face for speaking without respect to the chief priest. It ends with many other servants of Pilate hitting him continually. And through it all Jesus must keep believing in God. With all these devils around him and all the dishonour God allowed to be poured upon him Jesus kept trusting God. When the blood began to flow and there was no voice whispering, “Thou art my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” Jesus still rested in God. When not a single disciple was there to catch his eye and pour all his sympathy and understanding into a long glance which said, “I know why you are enduring all of this.” There was no such loving face; the bulls of Bashan surrounded Jesus, but he lifted his eyes up to the hills from whence came his help.
An angel drove the first Adam out of paradise and there was no one to mock. The hush of deep seriousness hung over heaven and earth. Adam and Eve had been weighed in the balances and found wanting. Now the second Adam is being driven out of this life while men mock. Jesus must keep trusting in all the pain and the loneliness without anyone stretching out a hand or giving him a cup of cold water. Jesus by faith saw his Father; he knew that everything was working together for his good; he knew that he was going to his Father’s house and was going to prepare a place for us; for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross. There were all the people whom he loved; every one given to him by the Father and he thought of them. Let me illustrate it like this, a man is lost on a barren mountain and search parties are looking for him. They cannot find him in the deep snow and blizzard conditions. For days he is all alone unable to move, under a bank of snow in a survival bag, and one of the things that keeps him alive are his thoughts of those he loves; his concern for them; his desire to be with them again. So it was with Jesus. The soldiers beat him and spit on him and mocked him, but all the time he was thinking of me, and he thought of you; “I want to save that Welsh sinner. I want to take him to myself to live with me for ever.”
For my sake he endured it all. I was the one who caused his condemnation. For my sake he was mocked. For the pain which he endured our salvation has secured. This scene of Jesus being ridiculed by the soldiers is one which shows us his infinite love, and as we read it our minds are filled with horror and compassion. To treat a man in this way is horrible, but this man was different from any other man in this wise, he has never done anything wrong. He is the only perfectly good man this world has seen. They are whipping and mocking the incarnation of pure innocence. To treat a man as holy as God in this way is doubly horrible, but have you thought this, that he is also the eternal Son of God? He is the maker of the universe. In him all these soldiers lived and moved and had their being. Their breath was in his hands. He was veiling his identity from them or they never would have killed him. In fact he was giving them the strength to beat him up. He gave the man who nailed him to the cross the energy to do that, and also the man who thrust the spear into his side. That is the horror of it all.
But the wonder of it all was that Jesus was choosing to stay there, to restrain his judgment, to love his persecuting neighbour as himself, to pray in his heart, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He was doing all that to fulfil all my righteousness; he wore the dirty purple robe that I might wear his robe of righteousness. He shed his blood that I might be clean.
“Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress.
“This spotless robe the same appears,
When ruined nature sinks in years!
No age can change its glorious hue;
The robe of Christ is ever new” (Zinzendorf, translated by John Wesley, 1703-91).
God gave the sinner Paul a single thorn in the flesh, but he gave to his Son a crown of thorns and Jesus wore it freely for me. God will not give me a crown of thorns, though I deserve it, but a crown of righteousness in the great day, and not to me only to all them that have loved his appearance. I cannot understand how every one of you is not loving this beautiful person who bore a crown of thorns in your place that you might wear a crown of righteousness. Why are you not drawn to him? Why are you still compromising with your sins when he was beaten for you? Why are you ashamed of saying that you are a Christian and a follower of Jesus Christ when he was not ashamed to be dressed like a clown for you? Have men spat on you? They spat on him when he stood in your place. Have they punched you in the head? They did not stop punching him.
Jan Hus was the great morning star of the Reformation. He was a preacher of the grace of God in what is now Czechoslovakia. He was influenced by John Wycliffe, but when he was 42 they charged him with heresy and burned him at the stake. They put on his head a crown of paper on which they had crudely painted devils. Hus saw it and smiled and said, “The Lord Jesus for my sake wore a crown of thorns. Why shouldn’t I for his sake wear this light crown.? I’ll do it willingly.” Do you have that Spirit that was in Hus? That is the Spirit of the new birth.
Christ allowed himself to be put in the hands of soldiers like a murderer condemned to death, but he is the one before whose judgment seat all the world one day must appear. There we shall be justified and welcomed, or we shall be banished from his presence for ever. The eternal Judge of all the earth was mocked by a gang of soldiers. He allowed this to happen in order that everyone who is joined by faith to him might be delivered from the pit of destruction and the torment of hell. The holy God let them spit in his face and hit his head with the rod that we sinners might be set free from every charge and be presented faultless before God with exceeding joy.
Do these things mean anything to you? Am I speaking to the wall and the ceiling or to never dying sinners? Don’t you know that you must meet this Lord of whom I speak? That is the next great appointment in your life. Is it anything at all to you that Jesus Christ should suffer as he did – that men should deal with him in a way in which they wouldn’t deal with Pilate or Caiaphas or Herod – and all of them were evil men? Does it mean nothing to you that Christ should be dealt with in a way that even the leper wasn’t treated? Does it mean nothing to you? Men wouldn’t treat a dog the way they treated Christ; is that nothing to you?
Surely at this time we must go and stand next to Christ and stay there throughout our lives. Love constrains us to go to him; we must go. We can’t remain in the camp of formal religion where every person’s ideas are equally valid. Truth and deadly erros all respectfully accepted? How wretched. I was in a prayer meeting this week and I was struck by one woman’s prayer. She thanked God like this, “We thank you for saving us from religion. O save many more from religion that they may know your Son as their Lord and Saviour.” Neither can we remain in the camp of worldly entertainment with its scorn of Christianity. We must leave the world and stand with Jesus alone.
Will you come and take your stand for him or will you go back? It is my desire and prayer that you may come with us, that you may have grace given you in this hour of your trial to go forth into the darkness where men hate my Saviour, outside the camp, and bear his reproach and shine there for him. Leave the hateful ways of sin and unbelief and never go back. Cry to God, “I must go! I must go!” I am asking you to go to a place where sometimes the world explodes in anger against those who follow Christ, where men revile you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for Jesus’ sake, but he is there saying, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” You will never be alone there; you will know all Jesus’ comfort there. Remember what Helen Roseveare said when she was surrounded by those Congolese soldiers, “But in my heart was an amazing peace, a realization that I was being highly privileged to be identified with Christ in a new way, in the way of Calvary.”
Moses lived fifteen hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ yet, by the instruction of the Holy Spirit and by focusing his faith on the promises of the coming of the Messiah he was able to stand with Christ, and really esteem the reproach of that. In other words Moses was able to say to the Egyptians, “I believe in a Messiah who is coming to this world to redeem it.” They disdained him but he considered that reproach as greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.
If, by the mercy of the Lord, you have been granted a new heart one great mark of it will be this, that you will turn your backs upon the glittering baubles, pleasures and comforts of this world. You will find such a deep desire for the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, who loved you and gave himself for you. That will be one thing that you will seek God’s powerful grace to continue to do, to go forth to him and bear his reproach. Nearer, nearer to him, clinging to him; that is it. Remember again those words of C.T.Studd, “If Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.”
Those soldiers what do we know of them? They were brutalised military men whose job it was to kill people. They were men who were surrounded by death, and yet one day they themselves all died. Then what? After death the judgment. And who was their judge? The one they hit and mocked and spat on. To think that we won’t die, to live as though death was never a possibility, that there was no need to give any thought for the end of our lives, no thought for the tremendous issues of eternity-such an attitude is most awful folly. It is an awful demonstration of the ruin that sin has brought upon the mind – the mental, intelligent powers of men – that they should be so deluded. Men are willing to remain in ignorance and darkness and carelessness as to what lies after death. Don’t dream that death can be delayed indefinitely. What are you seeking? At fifty years of age you know that many persons live to be over sixty. At sixty, you remind themselves of the ‘allotted span’ and think of another ten years. At seventy, you willingly remember the number of persons you know who have lived to eighty – but not of the greater number, by far the larger proportion of humanity, who never reach that age. Let eighty milestones be passed – still some are thinking that they might reach ninety! Then if some of life’s powers are preserved to ninety years of age they are still dreaming of reaching a centenary and getting a card from Buckingham Palace – but never a thought for eternity. Not one thought! How foolish, not to consider that eventually death is going to come to us all!
There is one person who has taken the sting of death into himself, so that we can cry, “O death where is thy sting?” The crown of thorns was worn by him. Did he think, “Plait it tightly.Weave it into a tight crown and press it on my head that not one thorn should prick my bride. Plait it higher! Plait it heavier! Secure it fast to my head. I want to endure it all for my people. I don’t want the sting of death to pierce them. I’ll take the entire sting. Hit me with the rod, and spare them. Spit on and curse me; I shall bear the curse instead of them.” That is how much Christ loved the church, that he endured all that for our sakes.
What did the soldiers cry? “Hail O king!” What must you cry? What they cried – “Hail, O King!” but with traumatic awe. Do you honour the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you bow before him? Do you bow in an exaggerated theatrical cynical way like these soldiers, or do you really bow in love falling before him? Have you bowed low before Christ? I can’t think of a more important question to settle. Have I bowed in the presence of Christ, and remained there, head down before him. Have you so honoured him as your Lord showing to him reverence and godly fear, loving and serving him? It is the only way. Learn to do it now so that when you meet with him you will be ready.
18th September 2005 GEOFF THOMAS