The Crown of Thorns

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John 19’s where we’re going to be today and we’re getting to the tail end of the story of John. There’s three chapters left in this book and if you’re familiar with the gospel of John, it’s written by the apostle John, sometimes I like to refer to him as Grandpa John, because he is the only apostle that lived to an older age. All the others were martyred and then there’s John who, his life, he was persecuted often. There was a few times where John could have been martyred, but he survived. But John in church history lives to an old age to the point where there are stories told about John where he couldn’t even walk to church. The church would go get him and pick him up and carry him and they would set him up in front of everybody and say, “Tell us something, John.” And at his age, he got to the point where the only thing he could say was just, “Love one another.” John became, his soul, just very tender, in his life.

He writes to us, the Gospel of John and then at the end of the Bible, he’s got four more books that he writes, the four of the last five books: First, Second, Third John, and the Book of Revelation. And when John writes, one of the things I love the about John that’s so endearing when you read from any of his books and even the Gospel of John, is John’s referred to as the Beloved of the Lord. He’s Jesus’s best friend, which we’ll see a little bit of that unfolding in John 19, the second half, next week.

But John is Jesus’s best friend and he’s sharing with us the story about his best friend, and he’s to the point and the pinnacle of this story, where it’s really the foundation of our faith, and he wants us to see very broadly the importance of the cross and what that means for all of us, and as he’s telling this story, we also are going to hone in on the idea of Pilate and in a particular way, how we can relate to him in our faith journey, because when you get to this story of Jesus on the cross and he focuses a little bit here on the idea of Pilate, what we recognize is there is a war for our soul and the crown, the crown of thorns, represents really that battlefield, and every day that we wake up, there is a battle that’s taking place for your soul and we see this in the life of Pilate. In this story, Pilate is in this position where he is torn over how to respond as he is interacting with Christ and he’s got the crowd now in front of him.

And that’s where we begin in our notes today is, the first point in your notes, we just want to look at together, is that Pilate is in chaos, and we want to relate this to our life. So if you have a blink in your notes, the word there is chaos, but Pilate is in chaos, and he’s trying to please the masses. And so in John 19:1, you see how this unfolds. He says, “So Pilate then took Jesus and had him flogged and the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and placed it on his head and put a purple cloak on him, and they repeatedly came up to him and said, ‘Hail the King of the Jews’ and slapped him in the face again and again.” If you remember, the crowd had an opportunity before. Pilate comes before them at the end of chapter 18 and says, “Look, this is your holiday. During your holiday, we have a tradition. We can release a prisoner to you. Do you want this Jesus? I mean, he’s a pretty incredible guy. Why not Jesus?” and the crowd chants back, “No, we want Barabbas. We want to release Barabbas, but we want to judge Jesus,” and Pilate attempts to please the crowd by then taking Jesus and having him flogged.

It is rare to encounter a politician that does not want more money, power, and popularity, and that’s exactly where Pilate is in this moment, trying to please the crowd in order to appease them for popularity and himself, but when you see this position in Pilate, I think it’s interesting how we can juxtapose the posture of Jesus in all of this. Pilate comes to, for power and popularity, please the people. Jesus is the opposite. His concern is not for power and popularity. He’s gone from being a king who’s worshiped by the angels, who has humbled himself, becoming a carpenter and serving us to the point that he becomes the ultimate sacrifice. And Pilate’s worldview, it’s a top down mentality where the king rules, and Jesus’s worldview, it’s a bottom up kingdom mentality where he who is greater, becomes the least of these to serve the needs of others.

And there’s no mistake in these verses who Jesus proclaimed himself to be. They’re even mocking him in his position that Jesus called himself king to the point that they take this crown of thorns and this purple cape and they mock Jesus and slap him in his face, and it tells us that he’s even flogged, in verse 1. There’s a little bit of a debate here as to the type of flogging that happened with Jesus, as it relates to Pilate. Some think in the Gospel of John, that this early part, that John might be referring to actually another type of flogging. There were three levels of flogging that happened in Rome and they think maybe this could have been an earlier flogging, but eventually Jesus’s flogging, we know, ultimately leads to one that’s by a flagrum, which is a whip with multiple cords and on the cords, there are heavy beads and there’s also hooks and bones attached, that when someone is flogged with this weapon, it’s used to strike terror in the hearts of people. This is a brutal flogging.

It’s as if Rome is broadcasting to the people, “Look, if you come against us, this is what’s going to happen to you,” so strikes terror in the hearts of people, for their behavior to align with Rome, and what would happen when they would strike someone this, they would stretch out the person that was to be struck. They would pull their arms, lift their arms up, so it would completely expose their back side, and when they would strike them, the balls would tenderize the flesh, and then the hooks would rip it off and it would expose organs, bone, muscle. It was excruciating. People would describe the after effects of that, where they would say that that people’s skin would hang to in such a way that it would lay like strips of cloth and when the wind would blow, it would flutter in the breeze. And Jesus, as king, endures this for you and for me.

And Pilate tries to garner sympathy for Jesus. Verse 4, he says something very interesting. He says, “And then Pilate came out again and said to them, ‘See, I am bringing him out to you so that you will know that I find no grounds at all for charges in his case,'” which is an interesting statement about someone you’ve just beaten up, right? “There’s nothing wrong with him, but we’ll go ahead for your sakes and just torture him.”

And in verse 5, Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe and Pilate said to them, “Behold, the man.” Pilate is trying to please the crowd, but still release Jesus and he introduces him, “Behold, the man.” He’s as if he’s saying, “Guys, take a look at this. Has he not end endured enough? Can he not get your sympathy?” If you were to shoot a commercial, this scene, this would be the moment where you cue the Sarah McLaughlin song and show a little picture of a cute puppy and you hear In The Arms of an Angel, right? You know how it goes, “In the arms of an…” right? This is that kind of moment that Pilate is bringing Jesus in front of the crowd. And Pilate is demonstrating himself. He’s one that will beat one in order to please the masses, but contrasting to Jesus, Jesus is one who will leave the masses to save the one. Now you see that again and again, in the life of Christ.

One of my favorite stories that we’ve read together in that sort of demonstration of Jesus, is through the woman at the well. In John chapter 4, when the story begins with the woman at the well, he says, “I must, I need to go to Samaria,” as if he’s got some sort of appointment already scheduled. It blows the disciples away that Jesus would even want to walk through Samaria. Jews didn’t go to Samaria. Samaria was the place of the people that they hated most. They would avoid that region. They would walk around Samaria. They would travel longer distances around that region, just to avoid going through it. But Jesus says, I need to go to Samaria, and when he goes to Samaria, he talks to one of the most really forsaken people on the whole earth. He talks to the woman at the well, who not only did the Jews hate, but the Samaritans didn’t even talk to her. She’s rejected by her own people and Jesus says, “I must, I need to go there,” and when you read the story of the gospels, the first person Jesus chooses to reveal that he is the Messiah to, it’s the woman at the well, the most forgotten person in all the world. And Jesus leaves the masses for the one. You’re never too far gone for the grace of God.

And Pilate could not figure out how to please the crowd and care for Jesus, so in verse 6, “So when the chief priest and the officers saw him, they shouted saying, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ and Pilate said, ‘Then take him for yourselves and crucify him, for I find no grounds for charges in his case.’ And the Jews answered him, ‘We have a law and by the law, he ought to die because he made himself out to be the Son of God.'” Pilate tries to please the crowd. There’s no pleasing the crowd, this mob that pushes back against Pilate. Mobs are not easily satisfied. I mean, we saw this on the news in the last year, in our own country, that you give an inch and they want a mile, right? And it’s the same thing that’s happening here in the life of Pilate and trying to walk the line between the two and here’s what’s interesting about this crowd: they start to quote the Bible. Chapter 7, they know their law, they know their old Testament. They quote the law and maybe here’s a lesson. Some of the most dangerous people are the people who know the Bible, but don’t know the Lord. They tend to use the Word of God like a tool of legalism to beat you up rather than a mirror to reflect into their own souls.

The Word of God without the grace of God is a weapon to wield to harm others. By the grace of God, it becomes a place of healing. When you read what their accusation is against Jesus, I reminded us last week, they had the freedom to kill Christ. John 5:18, it says that they were contemplating how they could kill Jesus, and in John 8:58, they attempted to stone Jesus, and John 10:31, they attempted to stone Jesus. The Jews had the capability of stoning Jesus, but they didn’t want to stone Jesus. Rather, they knew their own word. Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.” And they knew Rome had the authority and capital punishment to crucify someone on a tree, therefore making Jesus cursed, and then perhaps the people would turn away from him. And if they could get Rome to bring out the sentence, rather than the Jewish leaders, then it would look like the hands of Rome were at fault for killing Christ and not them.

And so they bring this charge to Pilate and Pilate, he couldn’t win. In verse 8 it says, “Therefore, when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid.” In verse 7, Pilate heard the seriousness of the accusation against Jesus. Pilate knew there was something unique about him. That’s why Pilate says, “I can’t find any wrong in him. You crucify him yourself,” and when they throw around the term, Son of God, then Pilate becomes concerned. Pilate begins to discover he’s walked a broken road, and maybe learning in himself, if you try to live to please everyone, in the end, ultimately you end up pleasing no one. His soul is torn in that battle: Jesus or the crowd.

Some of the most miserable people on earth are people who know of the goodness of Christ, yet choose to still walk with their feet in the world. Guys, can I encourage you in looking at this illustration of Pilate? I think this is where John wants to bring our lives when we think about the goodness of his best friend. What is our aim? And the Bible at least says, “Sin is fun for a season.” At least a season you can have fun if you live in the world. And in Jesus, there’s fullness of joy. But to try to walk both, tears at the soul, and Pilate, in these moments, he finds himself afraid, and then if you contrast that thought in the story with Jesus, Jesus’s posture is incredibly calm. In fact, that’s the blink in the next part of your notes. Jesus is calm in comparison to Pilate in chaos.

Here you have in this story, the most powerful figure at least in this region, juxtaposed against one who has been humiliated and humbled. And yet it’s the one who’s humbled that’s incredibly calm in the circumstance and verse 9, “And he entered the Praetorium again and he said to Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer.” The idea of John, for me, mimics beautifully the beginning of Jesus’ story as it unfolded in the Gospel of Matthew. So here we have at the end of the gospels, the Gospel of John, the end of the story, and when you consider this story and you think about Jesus’s beginning in the Gospel of Matthew, very much relatable in how Jesus’s life began and ended. Here you see Pilate. He’s anxious. He’s afraid. He’s concerned. He’s torn. He’s coming into Jesus and wanting to know, in his authoritative position, who is this one? He knows there’s something unique about him. And then when you look at Jesus’s own beginning, when he was born in the life of King Herod who ruled the land. Herod, the ruler, the great leader, he’s the one over the region and it’s the wise men that come to his castle and ask, “Where is the one who’s born King of the Jews?” And Herod and all of his power couldn’t match this baby born in humble circumstances among a young mother in a manger.

And now at the end of Jesus’s life, here he is again, before another leader, and he has all the authority and power. He’s going to say that much in just a moment, but yet it’s Jesus who is calm. We recognize in this verse, Jesus, in this moment, he chooses not to respond, which is a very wise, I think, demeanor of Christ. It’s something you learn in life, right? You can’t solve every problem and you shouldn’t try to solve every problem. And when you’re young, sometimes you tend to talk more. As you get older, you sometimes you just learn, silence is just a better opportunity to take, and Jesus, I think, in this moment, he’s looking at the circumstance. He thinks to himself, if you did not believe the miracles I have performed at this moment, what is it I can say before an angry mob?

Well, I remember when I first got married, I had a few guys come to me to impart to me their one wise thought and one particular guy, I remember he said, “You know, sometimes your wife’s just going to want to share and you don’t need to solve it. But to show that you pay attention to her, just do this. Just say, ‘Hmm…'” I didn’t really know how great advice that was until a little later on, through experience, right? But there’s something about just saying, “Hmm,” that demonstrates the wisdom that you have in the moment. What do you say before an angry mob? But Jesus’s soul, it’s secure.

Verse 10. “So Pilate said to him, ‘Are you not at speaking to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and I have authority to crucify you?’ And Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all if it had not been given to you from above. For this reason, the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.'” You see, in this section of chapter 19, the only time Jesus chooses to respond to Pilate is in this phrase, in this moment, Pilate claiming to have the authority, and Jesus responding, “You have no authority, other than what’s been given to you.” Position doesn’t mean you possess the power.

He who can influence the moment is the true leader, and this is what Jesus is teaching to Pilate, because it doesn’t matter how many people stand against you. If you go with God, you and him, you’re always the majority. Wherever you go with God, you always have the upper hand. And when you contrast these two positions, Pilate in his chaos, Jesus being calm, we could ask how, how with Pilate in all of that authority that he possesses, does his soul get to that place of calamity? And how is it, Jesus and what he endures, walks forward so calmly?

If I gave you just a few thoughts, I would say it like this: Pilate, his focus is to scramble for power and popularity, but Jesus is resting in the Father’s presence and promises. Pilate is at war, but Jesus is in worship. Pilate is at war for what he wants. Jesus is in worship for what he has. Pilate wants glory. Jesus wants to glorify. Pilate is pursuing his own good. Jesus is pursuing the Father’s good. Pilate tries to live to please everybody and ultimately satisfies nobody. Jesus lives to please the Father and ultimately blesses everyone. Pilate is haughty. Jesus is humble. Pilate is completely out of control. Jesus leans on the Father who is in control.

But here’s the question for us. You look at both characters in this story, the question for us is, which crown will you follow? There’s always a battle for your soul like Pilate, which crown do you follow? In verse 12, it says, “And as a result of this, Pilate made efforts to release him, but the Jews shouted saying, ‘If you release this man, you are not a friend of Cesar. Everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Cesar.'” Here’s what the Jews are are saying in this threat to Pilate: “Pilate, if you don’t do what we say, we’re going to bring this to a higher level and Caesar’s going to know that you approved to allow someone to live, who plainly called himself a king in Rome, without Rome’s authority for him to be called a king. And in we do that, you’re going to lose everything that you think is precious to you.” That’s the threat on Pilate’s life.

And the crowd pressures him to embrace their view rather than Jesus. Because when I think about this moment, this is nasty and this is ruthless. I don’t ever want to be a part of that crowd and we say as a church often that we want to make it hard for people to hate us. We literally want to love the hell out of people. The gospel is a stumbling block enough, and we don’t want to be any more of a stumbling block to people. We want to help people discover who Jesus is, which means we don’t leverage the truth to beat people up. We leverage the truth to serve others like Jesus, humble king, giving his life for our benefit and the Father’s glory. That’s who God calls us to be. I think, in my own life when I reflect on that desire to walk that path that I… I honestly don’t always do it perfect.

One thing that I think of from time to time, there was about a decade ago. Stacey and I were traveling back east and I remember we were walking through Walmart and I was beside my wife and she was telling me something and I’m pretty sure it was important, but she was in the middle of that, and off in the distance I saw someone I knew, but I hadn’t seen that person for probably 15 years since I was in middle school, I think was the last time. But we had grown up together, same area, elementary, middle school, and then I lost touch with him and don’t know where he ended up. But here I am in Walmart and I see him off in the distance. Next thing I know, I just… I remember seeing him off in the distance. My wife is talking.

Next thing I know, I had made a B line from my wife and I walked up to this person. I’m face to face with him, and he’s looking at me and for a minute I thought, oh, he doesn’t recognize me by the way he was looking at me. And so I asked him. I said… And I felt like going up to him that more than just seeing this person, I feel like the Lord wanted me to talk to him. And I don’t really walk around in life, looking for these premonitions for the Lord. Like, God’s word tells me what to do and that’s enough for me. But in this circumstance it just felt unique to me. And I just felt this pressing on my heart to go talk to him. And I really don’t even remember walking to him. I just remember all of a sudden I had abandoned my wife and I was in front of him, and looking at him, he was just looking past me. And the first thing I asked, I remember, is, “Do you recognize who I am?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, it’s nice to see you.”

And he’s just sitting there like, “Okay.” and I could just tell, I feel like I was more irritating him by being in front of him in that moment, and had I had the opportunity to do it over again, I should have said, I just feel like the Lord wanted me to come say hi to you and just check on you and… But he didn’t. It was very cold. And I was like, ‘Oh, okay, well, I can tell you’re up to something that’s more important than me. So I’ll just let you be, but it’s good to see you.” And I just, I remember I just walked off and then the next day, someone I knew and knew I was in town and knew that I knew him and they called me and they said, “Hey, do you remember such and such?” And I said, “Yeah, actually I just saw him yesterday.” And they said, “Well, that’s strange because they found him this morning and he was no longer alive.” And I knew this person had walked a hard life. I remember as a kid, his mom had passed to cancer. His brother had died from cancer and there was an opportunity, right?

I don’t think I walked obedient to the Lord. I don’t think God divinely came down and said, “You need to say something” but I just… I felt like there was more I could have said that I just left on the table. You know, when I talk about things like that, guys, especially in terms of suicide, I don’t say those things lightly. I know that there is pain, even in our congregation, of people that have experienced tragedy like that. When Stacey and I first got married, just a couple of months into our marriage, I will forever remember I was young guy. We were at a marriage conference together. She had to work a little late, the first day of that conference. And the entrance into this conference was in the side door and I was in the back of the room. My wife comes in, just tears pouring down her face. Her mother had taken her life, and the first funeral I ever do, brand new in ministry, is for my mother-in-law.

There is pain in this world that tears at the soul. And even historically, when you read about Pilate, there’s a little bit of mystery as to what could have happened with Pilate, but the church historian Eusebius records that Pilate actually went on beyond this, but Pilate eventually ends up taking his own life. You wonder what kind of weight this moment might have carried on him. Because you have the joy of the Lord, a gift that Jesus is offering, through a king who in his humility who has come to give you life, what crown will you follow? Verse 13, it goes on a little further. This is the last portion of verse I’ll read with us, but maybe…

There we go. Verse 13. “Therefore, when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover. It was about the sixth hour and he said to the Jews, ‘Look your king.’ So they shouted, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ And Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ And the chief priest answered, “We have no king except Caesar.'”

In verse 15, it positions really two types of authority in your life. Shall crucify your king? There is king Jesus and there is king Caesar. To whom will you bow? And Jesus already taught us in verse 11, when he… We talked about authority, that Pilate thinks that he has authority, but he really doesn’t have the authority, that ultimately the authority rests with God. You know, at any moment, at any moment in all of his authority, Jesus could have looked at this position and been like, “You know what, guys? Forget you. I’ve come to this earth. I have given myself over and over and over again.”

But for what? It’s all brought us to this point where you’ve done nothing but beat me and chant “Crucify.” I’ve had enough. I quit. I think Jesus could have been completely justified and in choosing that position, but we know he doesn’t. He doesn’t. When I think about the significance of what Jesus does here, the importance of this moment, I carry the portion of this story with me. I really am almost every day. In my office, I really only have two decorations, which sounds sad, right? It’s a boring little office, but, and these are it. Two decorations that carry office. One is the euphorbia milii. It rolls off the tongue, beautiful plant, right? Euphoria millia. But this is better known as the Christ plant. And the reason it’s known as the Christ plant is because this is the plant that creates this, which is the crown of thorns. And this actually came from Jerusalem. So if you want to come touch this later, maybe some magic will rub off on you, I guess. But if there’s nothing special about that, but it did come from Jerusalem.

When you think about the Romans crucifying Jesus, they put this crown of thorns on his head, which was intended to mock Jesus, right? They were acknowledging that they understood Jesus claimed himself to be a king, but they were using it as a way to really rub in his face that he was doing nothing about his kingship in that moment. But more than that, the thorns mean something deeper to the Jews and I think this is why John hones in on this part of the story, he talks about this in the beginning to the Jews, the thorn represents the idea of sin. It represents what happens in our life when we walk away the Lord, the effects that it has on the life of people. In fact, the thorns are referred to multiple times in scripture, but it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. It goes back to Genesis 3:18, where it went to Adam after they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God let them know that there would be a curse and the thorns would be a reminder of the effects of sin. It says, “Both thorns and thistles, it shall grow for you.”

For me, these thorns work as a reminder of what life is like when we walk away from Jesus. But more important than that, these thorns are a reminder of the story of redemption that we have when we embrace him, that he never gives up. At any moment, he could have said, “Forget you guys,” but he never gave up. All the way to the cross, Jesus goes for you and for me and here’s how the story ends for us, that in John 3:15-21, wedged in the middle of that section, is this verse. But at the beginning, in verse 15 and verse 21, is also the story of redemption. That while the thorns would grow, there is the promise of One who would come and take on the consequences of those so that you and I could be set free.

Pilate’s soul was torn because he tried to walk the fence. Your soul is not made for the fence. Sin is fun for a season, but there is eternal joy in Jesus. Which king do you follow? Jesus’s mercy is unending for you.

Jesus or Barabbas

It Is Finished