By James Stalker
Pilate had failed in his attempt to save Jesus from the hands of His prosecutors, whose rage against their Victim was only intensified by the struggle in which they had engaged; and there was no course now open to him but to hand Jesus over to the executioners for, at least, the preliminary tortures of crucifixion.
It is not in accordance with modern Christian sentiment to dwell very much on the physical sufferings of Christ. Once the feeling on this subject was very different: in old writers, like the mystic Tauler, for example, every detail is enlarged upon and even exaggerated, till the page seems to reek with blood and the mind of the reader grows sick with horror. We rather incline to throw a veil over the ghastly details, or we uncover them only so far as may be necessary in order to understand the condition of His mind, in which we seek His real sufferings.
The sacred body of our Lord was exposed to many shocks and cruelties before the final and complicated horrors of the crucifixion. First, there was His agony in the garden. Then--not to speak of the chains laid on Him when He was arrested--there was the blow on the face from the servant of the high priest. After His condemnation by the ecclesiastical authorities in the middle of the night they "did spit in His face and buffeted Him;" and others smote Him with the palms of their hands, saying, "Prophesy unto us, Thou Christ. Who is he that smote Thee?" The present is, therefore, the fourth access of physical suffering which He had to endure.
First, they scourged Him. This was done by the Roman soldiers by order of their master Pilate, though the governor, in all likelihood, retired from the scene while it was being inflicted. It took place, it would appear, on the platform where the trial had been held, and in the eyes of all. The victim was stripped and stretched against a pillar, or bent over a low post, his hands being tied, so that he had no means of defending himself. The instrument of torture was a sort of knout or cat-o'-nine-tails, with bits of iron or bone attached to the ends of the thongs. Not only did the blows cut the skin and draw blood, but not infrequently the victim died in the midst of the operation. Some have supposed that Pilate, out of consideration for Jesus, may have moderated either the number or the severity of the strokes; but, on the other hand, his plan of releasing Him depended on his being able to show the Jews that He had suffered severely. The inability of Jesus to bear His own cross to the place of execution was no doubt chiefly due to the exhaustion produced by this infliction; and this is a better indication of the degree of severity than mere conjecture.
After the scourging the soldiers took Him away with them to their own quarters in the palace and called together the whole band to enjoy the spectacle. Evidently they thought that He was already condemned to be crucified; and anyone condemned to crucifixion seems, after being scourged, to have been handed over to the soldiery to be handled as they pleased, just as a hunted creature, when it is caught, is flung to the dogs. And, indeed, this comparison is only too appropriate; because, as Luther has remarked, in those days men were treated as only brutes are treated now. To us it is incomprehensible how the whole band should have been called together merely to gloat over the sufferings of a fellow-creature and to turn His pain and shame into brutal mockery. This, however, was their purpose; and they enjoyed it as schoolboys enjoy the terror of a tortured animal. It must be remembered that these were men who on the field of battle were inured to bloodshed and at Rome found their chief delight in watching the sports of the arena, where gladiators butchered one another to make a Roman holiday.
Their horseplay took the form of a mock coronation. They had caught the drift of the trial sufficiently to know that the charge against Jesus was that He pretended to be a king; and lofty pretensions on the part of one who appears to be mean and poor easily lend themselves to ridicule. Besides, in their minds there was perhaps an amused scorn at the thought of a Jew aiming at a sovereignty above that of Caesar. Foreign soldiers stationed in Palestine cannot have liked the Jews, who hated them so cordially; and this may have given an edge to their scorn of a Jewish pretender.
They treated Him as if they believed Him to be a king. A king must wear the purple. And so they got hold of an old, cast-off officer's cloak of this colour and threw it over His shoulders. Then a king must have a crown. So one of them ran out to the park in which the palace stood and pulled a few twigs from a tree or bush. These happened to be thorny; but this did not matter, it was all the better; they were plaited into the rude semblance of a crown and crushed down on His head. To complete the outfit, a king must have a sceptre. And this they found without difficulty: a reed, probably used as a walking-stick, being thrust into His right hand. Thus was the mock king dressed up. And then, as on occasions of state they had seen subjects bow the knee to the emperor, saying, "Ave, Caesar!" so they advanced one after another to Jesus and, bending low, said, "Hail, King of the Jews!" But, after passing with mock solemnity, each turned and, with a burst of laughter, struck Him a blow, using for this purpose the reed which He had dropped. And, though I hardly dare to repeat it, they covered His face with spittle!
What a spectacle! It might have been expected that those who were themselves poor and lowly, and therefore subject to the oppression of the powerful, would have felt sympathy and compassion for one of their own station when crushed by the foot of tyranny. But there is no cruelty like the cruelty of underlings. There is an instinct in all to wish to see others cast down beneath themselves; and, especially, if one who has aimed high is brought low, there is a sense of personal exultation at his downfall. Such are the base passions which lie at the bottom of men's hearts; and the dregs of the dregs of human nature were revealed on this occasion.
What must it have been to Jesus to look on it--to have it thrust on His sight and into contact with His very person, so that He could not get away? What must it have been to Him, with His delicate bodily organism and sensitive mind, to be in the hands of those rude and ruthless men? It was, however, necessary, in order that He might fully accomplish the work which He had come to the world to perform. He had come to redeem humanity--to go down to the very lowest depths to seek and to save the lost; and, therefore, He had to make close acquaintance with human nature in its worst specimens and its extremest degradation. He was to be the Saviour of sinners as bad and degraded as even these soldiers; and, therefore, He had to come in contact with them and see what they were.
Thus have I passed as lightly as was possible over the details; nor would my readers wish me to dwell on them further. But it will be profitable to linger on this spot a little longer, in order to learn the lessons of the scene.
First, notice in the conduct of the tormentors of Jesus the abuse of one of the gifts of God. In the conduct of the Roman soldiers from first to last the most striking feature is that at every point they turned their work into horseplay and merriment. Now, laughter is a gift of God. It is a kind of spice which the Creator has given to be taken along with the somewhat unpalatable food of ordinary life. It is a kind of sunshine to enliven the landscape, which is otherwise too dull and sombre. The power of seeing the amusing side of things immensely lightens the load of life; and he who possesses the gift of evoking hearty and innocent mirth may be a true benefactor of his species.
But, while laughter is a gift of God, there is no other gift of His which is more frequently abused and converted from a blessing into a curse. When laughter is directed against sacred things and holy persons; when it is used to belittle and degrade what is great and reverend; when it is employed as a weapon with which to torture weakness and cover innocence with ridicule--then, instead of being the foam on the cup at the banquet of life, it becomes a deadly poison. Laughter guided these soldiers in their inhuman acts; it concealed from them the true nature of what they were doing; and it wounded Christ more deeply than even the scourge of Pilate.
A second thing to be noticed is that it was against the kingly office of the Redeemer that the opposition of men was directed on this occasion. It was different on a former occasion, when He was abused at the close of the ecclesiastical trial. Then it was His prophetic office that was turned into ridicule: "when they had blindfolded Him, they struck Him on the face and asked Him, saying, Prophesy who is it that smote thee." Here, on the other hand, the ridicule was directed against Him entirely on the ground of His claiming to be a king. The soldiers considered it an absurdity and a joke that one apparently so mean, friendless and powerless should make any such pretensions.
Many a time since then has the same derision been awakened by this claim of Christ. He is the King of nations. But earthly kings and statesmen have ridiculed the idea that His will and His law should control them in their schemes and ambitions. Even where His authority is nominally acknowledged, both aristocracies and democracies are slow to recognise that their legislation and customs should be regulated by His words. He is King of the Church. Andrew Melville told King James: "There are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland; there is King James, the head of this commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James VI. is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member." The entire history of the Scottish Church has been one long struggle to maintain this truth; but the struggle has frequently been carried on in the face of opposition almost as scornful as that which assailed Jesus in Pilate's palace. Most vital of all is the acknowledgment of Christ's kingship in the realm of the individual life; but it is here that His will is most resisted. In words we acknowledge allegiance to Him; but in which of us has the victory over the flesh been so complete that His full claim has been conceded, to have the arrangement of our business and our leisure and to dictate what is to be done with our time, our means and our services?
A third lesson is to recognise that in what Jesus bore on this occasion He was suffering for us.
Of all the features of the scene the one that has most impressed the imagination of Christendom is the crown of thorns. It was something unusual, and brought out the ingenuity and wantonness of cruelty. Besides, as the wound of a thorn has been felt by everyone, it brings the pain of the Sufferer nearer to us than any other incident. But it is chiefly by its symbolism that it has laid hold of the Christian mind. When Adam and Eve were driven from the garden into the bleak and toilsome world, their doom was that the ground should bring forth to them thorns and thistles. Thorns were the sign of the curse; that is, of their banishment from God's presence and of all the sad and painful consequences following therefrom. And does not the thorn, staring from the naked bough of winter in threatening ugliness, lurking beneath the leaves or flowers of summer to wound the approaching hand, tearing the clothes or the flesh of the traveller who tries to make his way through the thicket, burning in the flesh where it has sunk, fitly stand for that side of life which we associate with sin--the side of care, fret, pain, disappointment, disease and death? In a word, it symbolises the curse. But it was the mission of Christ to bear the curse; and, as He lifted it on His own head, He took it off the world. He bore our sins and carried our sorrows.
Why is it that, when we think of the crown of thorns now, it is not only with horror and pity, but with an exultation which cannot be repressed? Because, cruel as was the soldiers' jest, there was a divine fitness in their act; and wisdom was, even through their sin, fulfilling her own intention. There are some persons with faces so handsome that the meanest dress, which would excite laughter or disgust if worn by others, looks well on them, and the merest shreds of ornament, stuck on them anyhow, are more attractive than the most elaborate toilets of persons less favoured by nature. And so about Christ there was something which converted into ornaments even the things flung at Him as insults. When they called Him the Friend of publicans and sinners, though they did it in derision, they were giving Him a title for which a hundred generations have loved Him; and so, when they put on His head the crown of thorns, they were unconsciously bestowing the noblest wreath that man could weave Him. Down through the ages Jesus passes, still wearing the crown of thorns; and His followers and lovers desire for Him no other diadem.
Fourthly, this scene teaches the lesson of patience in suffering.
I remember a saint whom it was my privilege to visit in the beginning of my life as a minister. Though poor and uneducated, she was a person of very unusual natural powers; her ideas were singularly original, and she had a charming pleasantness of wit. Though not very old, she knew that she was doomed to die; and the disease from which she was suffering was one of the most painful incident to humanity. Often, I remember, she would tell me, that, when the torture was at the worst, she lay thinking of the sufferings of the Saviour, and said to herself that the shooting pains were not so bad as the spikes of the thorns.
Christ's sufferings are a rebuke to our softness and self-pleasing. It is not, indeed, wrong to enjoy the comforts and the pleasures of life. God sends these; and, if we receive them with gratitude, they may lift us nearer to Himself. But we are too terrified to be parted from them and too afraid of pain and poverty. Especially ought the sufferings of Christ to brace us up to endure whatever of pain or reproach we may have to encounter for His sake. Many would like to be Christians, but are kept back from decision by dread of the laughter of profane companions or by the prospect of some worldly loss. But we cannot look at the suffering Saviour without being ashamed of such cowardly fears. If the crown of thorns now becomes Christ so well as to be the pride and the song of men and angels, be assured that any twig from that crown which we may have to wear will one day turn out to be our most dazzling ornament.
 A ministerial friend told me that he once, in the hearing of Dr. Andrew Bonar, made reference to some things in the life of St. Paul which seemed to him to betray on the part of the apostle a sense of humour. He was not very sure how Dr. Bonar might take such a remark, and at the close he asked if he agreed with him. "Not only," was the reply, "do I agree with you, but I go further: I think there are distinct traces of humour in the sayings and the conduct of our Lord;" and he proceeded to quote examples. Everyone is aware how Dr. Bonar himself knew how to combine with the profoundest reverence and saintliness a strain of delightful mirth; and the absence of this is the great defect of his otherwise charming autobiography.