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The Bruised Reed

4/25/14

“And they stripped him and laid a scarlet cloak on him. And they twisted together a crown from a thorn vine and put it on his head with a reed in his right hand, and they knelt before him and mocked him saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews.’ And they spat on him and took the reed and beat him on the head.”

(Matthew 27:28-30)

 

“And they clothed him with a purple cloak and they put on him a crown woven from a thorn vine and they began to recognize him: ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they were striking him on the head with the reed and spitting on him and bowed the knee to worship him.”

(Mark 15:17-19)

 

“And the soldiers wove a crown from a thorn vine and put it on his head and clothed him with a garment of purple. And they came up to him and said, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they gave him blows.”

(John 19:2-3)

 

 

So we have the robe, the crown, and now we are left with the reed that was given to our Lord, Jesus. And as we look at this element of Roman mockery, there seems to be two ways in which we can approach it. One of the tools of a reed in the ancient world was to form a standard of measure. Reeds were cut to a consistent length and could then be used much like we would use a yard stick. Thus, in scripture, we find Ezekiel measuring the New Temple with a measuring reed (Ezekiel 40) while John repeats that same activity toward the closing of the Canon (Revelation 11 & 21 — note that even the word “Canon” comes from this word for “reed”). As justice was measured along the lines of standards, the reed also became a symbol of righteousness worked out. That in itself helps us to see the horrible irony of this event, for the reed (of justice) is taken from the King’s hand and used to beat him.

We take this one step further, though, when we realize that in addition to making sure that justice is done, a King is given power over men that is often symbolized by the scepter that he carried. And while reeds were known for being straight, they were not known for being the sturdiest of materials to use and could be easily broken. Hence Jesus asks if, when the people went out to see John the Baptist, what they were looking to see was a “reed shaken by the wind.” Thus, the counterfeit that the Romans were using was that of placing a scepter in Jesus’ hand that represented power to be broken.

But there is a second way that this can be perceived, this time not as much in terms of the design of Roman mockery, but in terms of God’s prophetic design. Isaiah writes about the Messiah:

“A bruised reed, he will not break;

A glowing wick, he will not quench;

In truth he will bring forth justice.”

(Isaiah 42:3)

And here we have the one who will not break the wounded and broken but will restore them, having the symbol of the bruised and broken (the reed) crushed over his own head. How often God requires of his prophets seemingly strange acts so they may become living examples of his truth, justice, and grace; here is one more.

Yet, how often we are like those Romans, seeking power in the strength of men and not in the strength of God. How often people in our churches prefer force to humility, preferring to break the bruised and crushed reeds in their midst than to preserve and heal. How often truth and justice are only sought when convenient…yet how often genuine truth and justice are costly.

The Rest-Harrow

“And they stripped him and laid a scarlet cloak on him. And they twisted together a crown from a thorn vine and put it on his head with a reed in his right hand, and they knelt before him and mocked him saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews.’ And they spat on him and took the reed and beat him on the head.”

(Matthew 27:28-30)

 

“And they clothed him with a purple cloak and they put on him a crown woven from a thorn vine and they began to recognize him: ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they were striking him on the head with the reed and spitting on him and bowed the knee to worship him.”

(Mark 15:17-19)

 

“And the soldiers wove a crown from a thorn vine and put it on his head and clothed him with a garment of purple. And they came up to him and said, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they gave him blows.”

(John 19:2-3)

 

Yet, the robe isn’t the only counterfeit item placed upon Jesus to mock him…there is a reed and a crown as well. The crown is often what attracts the most attention given the cruelty of the act. The term used in the Greek is a¡kanqa (akantha) and refers to a very specific bramble known commonly as the “Rest Harrow” or scientifically as the “Onanis spinoza L.” for those of you who prefer to be technical. This is a vine that grows up in fields with a thick, woody vine with long spiny thorns (hence the distinction: spinoza). They are called “Rest Harrows” because they were so strong and stubborn to pull out that they would grab the farmer’s harrowing tool and bring it to rest. They are common in Israel both modern and ancient and bring grief to farmers both modern and ancient.

These are the thorns that Jesus spoke about in the parable of the sower which choked the seed out as it tried to grow (Matthew 13:7,22) representing the cares of this world. They are also the thorns of which Jesus spoke when he talked about good fruit not coming from a thorn bush (Matthew 7:16) and similarly is employed by the author of Hebrews to speak of a life that is worthless (Hebrews 6:8, also see 2 Samuel 23:6 for the same term in the LXX). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, they are the hedge of thorns that represents the life of the sluggard (Proverbs 15:19), the crackling of the laughter of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:6), and it is the fruit of the carefully tended vineyard of Israel in Isaiah 5:1-6 (though our translations typically render this word here as “wild grapes” in favor of the Hebrew, not the Greek, reading).

Yet, the most significant reference to this word is found in Genesis 3:18 in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The punishment for Adam and Eve’s sin is that the ground will now produce thorns and thistles — “rest harrows.” And thus, our Lord is symbolically crowned with the thorn that is the symbol of mankind’s sin and rebellion. Again, this is God’s design, there is no random chance that these things are brought together in this way without a divine hand at work.

Jesus is indeed crowned with our sin on the cross, bearing the guilt of our sin before His Father’s wrath and anger so that we might be redeemed to trust in Christ’s completed work. My prayer for you is that you are doing just that. If not, my prayer is that God will use these humble words to spark something within you that He will use to draw you in faith to himself. Jesus bore the sins of his own on that cross and as the Second Adam, he too faced the Rest Harrow and the sweat of his brow.

Counterfeit Reality

“And they stripped him and laid a scarlet cloak on him. And they twisted together a crown from a thorn vine and put it on his head with a reed in his right hand, and they knelt before him and mocked him saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews.’ And they spat on him and took the reed and beat him on the head.”

(Matthew 27:28-30)

 

“And they clothed him with a purple cloak and they put on him a crown woven from a thorn vine and they began to recognize him: ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they were striking him on the head with the reed and spitting on him and bowed the knee to worship him.”

(Mark 15:17-19)

 

“And the soldiers wove a crown from a thorn vine and put it on his head and clothed him with a garment of purple. And they came up to him and said, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they gave him blows.”

(John 19:2-3)

 

There are so many details that are part of the passion account that are contained in these few short verses. I suppose that the first of the details that we should address, though, is that of the apparent discrepancy in the color of the tunic placed on Jesus by the soldiers. Matthew describes it as scarlet while Mark and John describe it as being purple. The obvious answers that are based on a similarity in the words don’t really apply well here as there are two very distinct words being employed by the Gospel writers. The word for scarlet is ko/kkinoß (kokkinos) and the word for purple is porfurouvß (porphurous).

Historically, the scarlet robe was one worn by the Roman soldiers as it could be prepared and dyed cheaply where the purple would be worn by society’s elite, given the cost of purple dye (in those days extracted from shellfish). There is some debate amongst commentators as to what is being emphasized in this difference in colors recorded. Some seem to stretch the text in favor of spiritualizing the colors into a representation of blood but that is a stretch that is further than the text really permits. Those with lower views on scripture simply write it off as an error, yet again, yet that comes from those with no commitment to an inerrant text of scripture. So, where shall we go from here? Some suggest two cloaks, one red and one purple, and while plausible, is unnecessary to make sense of the text.

To begin with, we must ask what it is that these Roman soldiers are doing. The obvious answer is that they are mocking him — making him out loosely as a king and giving him “honor” before they destroy his life. The elements of royalty are all there — the cloak, the crown, and the staff. Yet in each case, the elements are a twisting of the reality — Calvin calls them “counterfeits.” The crown is made of thorns. The rod of rulership is made out of a flimsy reed, easily broken. And here we arrive at the cloak — what ought to have been the purple cloak of royalty, but in this case made out of a red Roman soldier’s tunic. All counterfeits…all a warping of the reality that they are meant to symbolize. And, in the case of Matthew, he focuses on the specifics of what transpired while Mark and John focus on what those specifics represented.

How often, though, we are surrounded by counterfeits in life and in the church. When people act in a way that puts on a false front, we call them hypocrites. But we find more than just hypocrites in our midst. Sadly, we often find outright liars. We find gatherings that profess to be Christian churches, but they teach a doctrine of men, not the Word of God in the scriptures. We find supposed mercy missions, but those who run the ministries line their pockets while giving only leftovers to the ones they claim to serve. We find government officials who call themselves “civil servants” yet the only ones they seek to serve is themselves. The list goes on and on, but how it calls us to live with integrity — that we make “what you see is what you get” our motto and model. That we seek to worship God in spirit and in truth should be our highest aim…not to tear down others to line our own nests.

Loved ones, this account is more about the mockery of Jesus than it is about the counterfeit that the Gospel writers help us see through, yet how often we are engaged with counterfeits in this world of ours. Reject the counterfeit that you see and call for repentance while honoring Christ in word and deed.