“The King of the Jews!”
King of the Jews?
Hearing the charge sparks a caustic brew of emotions for Pilate’s soldiers. Auxiliary troops recruited from the area’s non-Jewish inhabitants, they possess a deep-seated hatred for the Jews.1 The appearance of this criminal allows them to act out their disdain.
The whole cohort, 600 soldiers perhaps, parades Jesus into the courtyard of the governor’s headquarters to conduct their racist sport away from prying eyes. A self-appointed ringleader requisitions a few props while he supervises preparation of “the King” for a mock coronation. Stripping the Prisoner, they seat Him with simulated pomp on a “throne,” a rough chair procured from some dark corner. A soldier contributes his worn, red soldier’s cape as rustic imitation of royal attire. With some pageantry a duo of soldiers wrap the ragged mantle around the recently flogged and bloodied Prisoner, investing the King. Catching the cadence of the proceedings, others add their cheering, jeering voices to the mockery.
Proper coronation requires a crown and scepter. Helpers appear with a hastily woven circlet of thorn branches. The ringleader raises the thorny crown for all to see and crashes it down on the Prisoner’s head. Then comes the scepter, a plain, old stick thrust into the right hand of this faux King of the Jews. The soldiers now offer their feigned adulation in raucous volume, their jeers amplified off the stony courtyard. A phony robe. A phony crown. A phony scepter. Appropriate paraphernalia for a phony king!
The coronation is still incomplete: homage must be paid to the new King and acclamation must be offered, acknowledging His authority. A few life-of-the-party types act out this next stage. Kneeling and prostrating themselves, they offer their mocking worship. Mimicking the common cry offered to the emperor, “Ave (Hail), Caesar!,” they intone, “Hail, King of the Jews!”2 The soldiers have suppressed their savagery, but now the proceedings turn violent. Those prostrate soldiers rise, whip the stick-as-scepter from the right hand of Jesus, and bring it crashing down, repeatedly, on the crown of thorns, on His head. Standing imperiously over the Prisoner, they spit on His head.3 Soldiers queue up to join in the brutality—striking and spitting, striking and spitting. Their saliva blends with His blood, running down His face and off His beard.
When the violence subsides, the soldiers restore the Prisoner’s already-bloodied robe and “[lead] him away to be crucified” (Matt. 27:31).4
Matthew 27:27-31 is about Roman soldiers mocking and abusing a would-be king, a mock coronation, a degradation ritual.5 While Matthew means us to read the story that way, he has also skillfully encoded another story, using dramatic irony, which occurs when characters act and speak in ways they do not understand, personifying truths of which they know nothing.6 Matthew’s readers know more than the characters in his story. They can crack his code.
Matthew’s ironic, coded story echoes both Jesus’ pre-crucifixion mockery and unimaginable jubilation following His resurrection. Matthew trains his readers to decode this other story, inviting them to attend to four embedded clues:
Clue 1: Jesus is the King of the Jews. Matthew shared this clue from the start: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David . . .” (Matt. 1:1). Kingship is hereditary, and Jesus is the Son of the greatest of all the kings of Israel. Jesus is not just a king of the Jews, but the King of the Jews, the new David, born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1). The question “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (verse 2) rattles Herod the Great, who thinks he is the real king of the Jews (verse 3). When Pilate asks Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Matt. 27:11), we readers know the answer. We know Matthew’s code.
This was no phony King, nor merely an earthly one.
Clue 2: Jesus is far more than the King of the Jews. For Matthew, Jesus’ domain extends far beyond a small, troublesome Roman province.
Jesus has announced, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father” (Matt. 11:27). In the parable of the final judgment (Matt. 25:31-46), the royal Son of man presides from His “glorious throne” with “all the nations” gathered before Him. Jesus asks the sword-wielding Peter, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father” for all the forces I could need? (Matt. 26:53). A cohort of 600 soldiers mocks Jesus. Jesus can request 12 legions, 72,000 angels.
When the high priest demands of Jesus an oath that “you are the Christ, the Son of God,” Jesus, drawing on the imagery of Daniel 7:13, 14, replies, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). Jesus is far more than the King of the Jews.
Clue 3: The emperor does have clothes. In his brief story, Matthew portrays the soldiers stripping Jesus (Matt. 27:28), clothing Him in scarlet (verse 28), adding the cruel crown and scepter-like stick to His uniform (verse 29), stripping off the scarlet and re-dressing Him in His own robe (verse 31).7 Matthew’s readers would understand this elaborate clothing ritual through an element of shared cultural understanding.
Within the Roman emperor’s household was an organization called the thesaurus, a storehouse not for words, but for clothes. The thesaurus supervised the manufacture and care of the emperor’s clothing and the cubicularii, his valets who dressed him.8 The soldiers’ attentiveness to the dress of Jesus would evoke for Matthew’s readers the role of the imperial valets.
Clue 4: Kings are anointed. Ancient coronations included steps visible in Matthew’s story. A new king is: (1) investedin royal robes: note the scarlet robe (verse 28); (2) crowned: note the thorny crown (verse 29); (3) authorized: note the scepter—the “reed in his right hand” (verse 29); (4) adored: note the “kneeling before him” (verse 29); (5) acclaimed: note the announcement, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (verse 29).
The Old Testament adds: (6) anointed with oil.9 Both the Hebrew “Messiah” and the Greek “Christ” mean “the anointed One.” In Matthew, Jesus is called “Christ” or “the Christ” 16 times. Invested. Crowned. Authorized. Adored. Acclaimed. Anointed.
Summarizing Matthew’s clues: (1) Jesus is the King of the Jews; (2) Jesus is far more than the King of the Jews; (3) the emperor does have clothes; and (4) kings are anointed.
And what of Matthew’s second story?
“King of the Jews?” Enacting a fake coronation, the soldiers have no idea that the Prisoner has predicted that the chief priests and scribes would “condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked” (Matt. 20:18, 19).
They remove the prisoner’s bloody robe, unknowingly playing the role of imperial valets, serving their emperor. They mockingly invest the King, wrapping a soldier’s worn, red cape around him, unaware it is a symbol of the exaltation of this Jesus in the courts of heaven.
Could this thorny crown symbolize unbounded authority? Could this stick, forced into the Prisoner’s right hand, symbolize His power over every “rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21)?
Might their sneering homage, “Hail, King of the Jews!” prophe
sy universal adoration and acclamation? “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). Becoming violent in a rush of unhinged passion, they beat Him with the scepter-like stick and spit on His sacred head, deaf to the ancient prophecy: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3). Nor do they perceive in the mix of spittle and blood dripping off His lacerated face and beard an announcement of His anointing as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Matthew’s second story is the story of Jesus’ heavenly coronation following His resurrection. While Matthew 27:27-31 is a story about mockery and abuse, it is also this story: The King of kings is invested, crowned, authorized, adored, acclaimed, and anointed. It is Matthew’s story of the exaltation of Jesus.
Matthew connects his two stories at the cross. The soldiers who mock Jesus also lead Him away and crucify Him. They cast lots for the bloodied robe (Matt. 27:35). They hear His cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (verse 46). When He dies, they watch the upheaval of nature and are transformed: “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God’ ” (verse 54). “This was no phony King, nor merely an earthly one. He was the royal Son of God!”
Listen as Matthew ends his Gospel. In portraying the soldiers’ mockery, Matthew has already told the story of Christ’s exaltation. He need not repeat it in his conclusion. However, he does evoke it. Jesus Himself announces His exaltation: “And Jesus came and said to [the 11 disciples], ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’ ” (Matt. 28:18, 19).
Learning to read five verses in Matthew’s Gospel, we also learn to read the news, for there are always two stories at work. On the surface, it may be a tale about a death-dealing plague named COVID-19. However, between the lines, another story resonates. It forgets the death of not one victim. It treasures the tears and measures the pain. It ignores nothing. It supersedes everything. It is a story that echoes in an empty tomb. It looks upward, tracing the trajectory of Jesus. It exults in Jesus’ declaration, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (verse 18). Matthew’s double story presents this great challenge of Christian discipleship: To perceive in every story the narrative of the risen, ascended, and exalted Jesus. Then, to live into that story.
John Mc Vay is president of Walla Walla University, in the state of Washington, United States.