Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face (John 19:1-3).
In these words, John summarizes the beginnings of the crucifixion of Jesus. Matthew, in his Gospel, adds the detail that the Roman soldiers also put a staff in his right hand (Matthew 27:29), which clearly imitated the emperor’s scepter, just as the purple robe and crown of thorns also imitated the emperor’s other attributes.
The mockery of the soldiers is clear. Charged as “King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37), and hence as someone attempting to take the place of the emperor, the imperial attributes of robe, scepter and crown were intended as a cruel, insulting joke. But the mocking soldiers were doubtless unaware of how richly symbolic their parody actually was. The crown of thorns given to Jesus was doubtless intended as a parody of the Roman Civic Crown given to military heroes. Like the crown of thorns, the Roman Civic Crown (Latin: corona civica) was formed of plant material: of leaves of the oak tree woven into a circle. But the Civic Crown was granted only to Roman citizens who saved the lives of other citizens. So high was the honor of this crown that it became part of the imperial regalia and was worn by all the emperors from the time of Augustus, and the emperors themselves were often hailed as the “Savior” of the people.
Ironic or not, the richness of the symbolism that God allowed in the crown of thorns also finds much earlier foreshadowing in the Bible itself. Not only does the biblical story of humanity’s “fall” tell us that as a result of sin the earth would produce “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:17-19), but also the crown of thorns is more specifically foreshadowed in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Genesis 22:13 tells us that the sacrifice of Isaac was transferred to the sacrifice of the male sheep God provided, that was caught by its horns in a “thicket.” The Hebrew word used for thicket is sebak, derived from a word meaning to entwine in the sense of interwoven branches. This was perhaps the Palestine Buckthorn (Rhamnus lycioides or Rhamnus palaestinus), a bush or small thorn tree which grows on hillsides in much of Israel. Its botanical name Rhamnus refers to its intertwined, prickly branches. The ram “caught by the horns” in such a tree was thus essentially a sacrificial sheep with thorns intertwined around its head, and the ram became a substitutionary sacrifice for Isaac, just as Jesus became a substitutionary sacrifice for everyone.
So the crown of thorns given to the Messiah and intended as a cruel parody to mock him was, in fact, a fitting symbol for the One who took upon himself the thorny result of our human sin, who willingly acted as a substitutionary sacrifice for all, and whose bravery infinitely eclipsed that of heroes who may have saved others (Romans 5:7). It may have been intended as a parody, but no one else ever qualified to receive such an exalted crown as the one made of thorns worn by Jesus.