The Crown of Thorns & Worldly Power

The Crowning with Thorns (Caravaggio 1602-1607, click for source)
The Crowning with Thorns (Caravaggio 1602-1607, click for source)

“So the soldiers led him into the palace (that isthe governor’s residence) and called together the whole cohort. They put a purple cloak on him and after braiding crown ofthornsthey put it on himThey began to salute him: “Hailking of the Jews!” Mark 15:16-18

I’m currently reading Jacques Ellul’s book “The Meaning of the City” and a footnote on the significance of “thorns” in Isaiah struck me. Referencing Isaiah 10:16-19, he says

Isaiah here uses a traditional and well-known symbolism when he represents the army by a forest and military power by thorns and briers. The figure is to be found frequently in his book.

I immediately thought about the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head in the Gospels. A footnote in the NET bible about the crown of thorns in Mark 15:17 says:

 Their purpose would have been to mock Jesus’ claim to be a king; the crown of thorns would have represented the “radiant corona” portrayed on the heads of rulers on coins and other artifacts in the 1st century.

I think that the soldier’s intention could have been that. However, as brother Jason Storbakken reminded me recently, we should always be comparing scripture-with-scripture, and the fact that thorns are frequently symbols of military power is not insignificant. Not only were the centurion’s mocking Christ, they are providing us with a symbol of the conflict between our Lord, and the military might of the world’s kingdoms. The overwhelming beauty here, is that Jesus chooses to suffer at the hands of these powers, to rescue humanity from their grip. I did a little digging to find other places in the Bible where thorns are used this way, and there are lots. But here are just a few examples:

Isaiah 27:4 “I am not angry. I wish I could confront some thorns and briersThen I would march against them for battleI would set them all on fire,”. Here, God is “marching against” thorns and briers, implying that they represent armies, militaries which would be marched against.

Isaiah 33:12 The nations will be burned to asheslike thorn bushes that have been cut downthey will be set on fire.”

Ezekiel also uses the language to refer to nations: “No longer will Israel suffer from the sharp briers or painful thorns of all who surroundand scorn them. Then they will know that I am the sovereign Lord.” – Ez. 28:24

Hosea uses “thorns” to represent the occupying nations of Israel Look! Even if they flee from the destructionEgypt will take hold of them, and Memphis will bury them. The weeds will inherit the silver they treasure –thorn bushes will occupy their homes.” -Hos. 9:6

A quick search for “thorns” in the Old Testament will yield many more results. So, I think that the obvious mockery which the soldiers were carrying out against Jesus had a double-meaning which they did not realize, but which God certainly intentioned and used. The nations, with their military might and war-enforced-peace, are always in this relationship with God, they refuse His authority, and are a cause for His shed blood. They are thorns, and God will overcome their differences and schemes to establish his kingdom in the world. What is perhaps jaw-droopingly beautiful, is that Christ bleeds for the nations, for their peace. While their current structures and violent rule will be overthrown by Him, their existence will remain and somehow be transformed.

In the meantime, I hope to keep modeling God’s love for all, refusing to take up the sword, refusing to retaliate, refusing to play the power-games of politics and nations, and to see His kingdom spread.

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