Date: April 3, 1938
Praise to Christ, out King
Christ, our King and only Savior:
With heart-deep gratitude we would hail Thee Sovereign of our souls; yet how can we ever sufficiently thank Thee that in Thy sufferings the coronet of shame rested upon Thy holy brow and that we, saved by faith in Thy ransoming blood, will receive the crown of blessed eternity? We cannot fathom the depth of Thy rich mercy nor grasp the measure of Thy dying love that would bring every one of us, regardless of color or class, as the redeemed sons of divine royalty back to the Father. We cannot understand Thy hallowed devotion to us despite the hideous blotches that blemish our souls. Yet, O Jesus, once thorn-crowned but now glory-crowned, if we cannot explain Thy sovereign love, teach us by Thy Spirit to believe Thy kindly grace, to trust it, to glorify it in our lives. Come with Thy gracious power into doubting hearts, questioning souls, bewildered lives, so that, as the grass and the flowers spring into newness of life in vernal beauty, a new faith in Thy cross, as the symbol of Thy kingdom, may strengthen the loyalty of our faith in Thee. Our hope is built on nothing less than Thy precious blood and righteousness. So that we may be true subjects in Thy Kingdom of Glory, bless us richly, daily, eternally. Bless us as Thou hast promised! Amen.
The soldiers platted a crown of thorns and put it on His head. – John 19:2
SAFELY guarded within the Tower of London reposes the imperial British crown, worn by Queen Victoria at her coronation and later altered for her successors. It is a glittering display of gold and jewels; for almost 2,800 diamonds and 300 pearls, besides a large assortment of sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, stud this magnificent diadem. Nobody has ever appraised its exact value, but the intrinsic worth of its carefully selected, cut, and polished gems is conservatively estimated at $2,500,000. If we could place beside this the crowns of other British sovereigns: the state crown of India at Delhi, perhaps the most splendid of all, containing more than 6,100 diamonds and a lavish profusion of choice rubies; the crown of King George displaying the Cullinan diamond, the largest in the world, with its 530 carats; if in addition the crowns that have rested on royal heads throughout the centuries were added to this collection, famed coronation pieces like the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, in its gorgeous array of pearls and polished jewels weighing seven pounds; Saint Stephen’s crown, worn by more than fifty Hungarian kings; the crown of Lombard, which Napoleon placed on his own brow; the sparkling crown of imperial Russia, studded with flawless and perfectly matched stones,—this astonishing array of kingly diadems, aggregating in value multiplied millions of dollars, representing the rule over billions of lives, would appear as cheap toys or childish trinkets in comparison with the crown of which I speak to you this afternoon.
It is the ghastliest, yet the most glorious crown of all history. Placed on the brow of One who was condemned to die a criminal, it is commemorated today as no other kingly coronation. Made not of precious gold and gorgeous gems but of worthless, unadorned material; fashioned not by painstaking craftsmanship, but in a few hasty moments by a coarse soldier, this crown has been immortalized in priceless masterpieces of art. Never guarded as the crowns in the Tower of London, it has been enshrined by a sacred faith in the hearts and hopes of generation after generation. No coronation hymn was intoned when that crown was placed on its Bearer’s brow; instead, the raucous cry arose “Crucify Him, crucify Him.” “His blood be on us and on our children”; yet the most sublime of sacred songs, the stanzas of deathless poetry, sing their hallowed tribute. It is a crown of contradiction, representing cruelty and compassion, ridicule and redemption, bestial hatred and Heaven’s highest love, the punishment and the forgiveness of sin. It was a crown of death, yet for hundreds of millions it has helped to create a crown of life. For this peerless diadem which thousands of you recognize, as you revere the love that bore it, is
THE CROWN OF THORNS
laid upon the head of the world’s Redeemer in the depth of His suffering, as Saint John writes (chapter 19, verse 2), “The soldiers platted a crown of thorns and put it on His head.”
IT IS A CROWN OF REDEEMING LOVE
Last Sunday we left the Savior before Pilate, testifying, “For this cause came I into the world that I should bear witness unto the truth.” Despite the cynical question “What is truth?” the governor is convinced of Christ’s complete innocence; and in crisp, short sentences he lets the scheming ecclesiastics know that he can penetrate their trumped-up charges. This unexpected support for Jesus enrages the priestly party, and with calculated malice they advance the one charge that Pilate cannot ignore: this Jesus of Nazareth, their crafty lies declare, is a living menace to Caesar’s rule. He has preached sedition throughout the entire territory of Judea and Galilee. The mention of Galilee suggests to Pilate the possibility of evading a decision; for that territory is under Herod’s jurisdiction. So Christ is led swiftly through the city early on that Friday morning to Herod, the governor of Galilee, who happens to be in Jerusalem; and for the fourth time Jesus, who had stood before Annas and Caiaphas and Pilate, now faces another hearing that involves His life. Again, no one arises in His behalf; none of the sick of body and soul whom His divine touch had healed dares to stand at His side; none of the disciples who had pledged their loyalty only a few hours before now makes his appearance.
The course of prejudice continues before the Galilean tetrarch; for Herod is not interested in Christ’s claim to sovereignty in an empire of men’s souls. He has heard of this remarkable Nazarene who performs unexplainable wonders, and secretly he entertains the hope that Christ will satisfy his curiosity by producing a miracle. Yet when Jesus, spurning the very thought of securing His release by a single wonder, maintains the majestic silence that fulfils Isaiah’s repeated prophecy, “He opened not His mouth,” disappointed Herod returns Him to the jurisdiction of Pilate. Through that incident the two officials become friends in much the same way that the joint hatred of Christ as the divine Savior today brings Communist and Modernist, atheist and pulpit liberalist, close in unholy alliance.
Once more, then, in His fifth hearing, Jesus reappears at Pilate’s court. A vestige of conscience remains to trouble the governor’s heathen heart. His wife, the first and only person to plead for Jesus, stirred by foreboding dreams, begs her husband not to defile his soul with any act of injustice against the “righteous” Christ; and Pilate seeks a compromise. Reminding those who accuse Christ that both he and Herod find no guilt in the prisoner, he suggests, “Why not punish Him with the lash and set Him free?” When this proposal fails, he resorts to a strategy which, it seems to him, must liberate Jesus. On the high festival each year the governor customarily pronounces amnesty and paroles a select list of prisoners; and now one of the most dangerous and brutal criminals that Jerusalem has known for years, one Barabbas, guilty of sedition and murder, is held in the imperial prison. In honor of the Passover, Pilate resolves to exercise clemency; but he leaves the decision to the Jews in the crowded judgment-hall and puts this alternative before them: “Whom will ye that I release unto you, Barabbas or Jesus?” Even his pagan sense of justice, corrupt as it is, concludes that a popular verdict will acquit Jesus. Like hungry animals the enemies of Christ have been inflamed by the smell of blood; Jesus of Nazareth must die! In the very city where five days before the cries of “Hosanna!” had greeted Christ in tumultuous welcome, the cry now swells into a discordant scream, “Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas!” As Pilate for the third time protests that Jesus is innocent, the soldiers once more lay their blasphemous hands on Christ. He had called Himself a king, they remember. A king, then, He must be! One of them spies a thorny bush that even today finds its way along the pathways of Jerusalem. He cuts off a long, spiny branch, twists and weaves it into a circlet, and rudely thrusts that cutting coronet on the head of Jesus.
Reverent minds have sought to learn which species of thorn desecrated the Savior’s brow. The Rabbis enumerated sixteen different kinds of thorny growths in Palestine; and the Savior’s crown may have been made of almost any of these. Far more vital for us, however, is this, that we find this circle of thorns emblematic of the blessed Savior’s deathless devotion to our perishing souls. Behind that Roman legionary who platted the caricature crown are your sins and mine. Only ignorance and self-conceit can point an accusing finger at the imperial authorities or the fellow-countrymen of Christ and say that they persecuted Christ, they crowned Him in this vile coronation, they crucified Him. Unless you know that your sins—the mean, ugly, lewd thoughts of your mind; the selfish, grasping, clutching desires of your heart; the profanity, filthiness, falsehood, uncharitableness of your tongue; the cruelty, pain, anguish, inflicted by your hands; the desecration and pollution of your body by the sins of the flesh; your rising in rebellion against God, your fracture of His holy will, your disregard of His mercies—have helped to weave that crown of thorns; unless you behold the “bleeding head and wounded” and cry:
My burden in Thy Passion,
Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression
Which brought this woe on Thee,
you cannot secure the personal blessings of redemption with which the thorn-crowned Savior would enrich every penitent heart that seeks refuge in Him.
Nothing that I can tell you could enhance or embellish this paramount promise of the Lenten season that Christ suffered, bled, and died for our sins. We shall never be able to understand the love of the stainless Christ for our sin-cancered world, nor is there within us, even when the Holy Spirit enlightens our mind’s eye, the power to measure and appreciate the boundless mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, even if we cannot peer beyond the first approach to the eternal magnificence of Christ’s compassion, let us, I plead with you, esteem this love of Jesus. As we see Him today broken in strength, white unto death in His countenance, with the blood running its crimson rivulets over His head and face, let us believe that Christ’s magnificent mercy is more dynamic even than the creative fiats that brought this universe into existence, more powerful than the curse of sin with which the toiling millions of all humanity have cursed themselves out of heaven and into hell.
Every one of you in this audience who has been blessed by a happy marriage knows no greater human joy in life than when your wife, perhaps in some moment of joy or impending problem, looks up to you and says, “I love you, my precious husband.” Would you, the Christian wives of America, whose home has been blessed by the radiance of Christ’s faith, give anything in exchange for those blissful moments when your husband has looked into your eyes to say, “I love you, my dearest wife”? Supported by that love, it seems that the weight of your burdens is cut in two and the joy of your life doubled. No earthly gladness which parents can mutually share is greater than the devotion of an obedient, God-fearing child that interrupts its work or play to say, “O Father and Mother, I love you both so much!” Yet the love with which Christ loved us unto the end is incomparably stronger, purer, deeper, holier. It is the love of all love, which will never be broken even by the grave. It is the one all-consuming power by which we can live a blessed life and die a blessed death. Today the Christ of the thorny crown speaks to the heart of every one who hears this message and says, “I have loved you with the imperishable love that made Me suffer and bleed. I have loved you with the tenderness and devotion that brought Me to the cross and the grave. I wore this crown of thorns for you that you, trusting My love, might have the ‘crown of righteousness,’ the ‘crown of life.’”
Fellow-sinners and fellow-redeemed, will you not acclaim this Savior your King? Will you not look beyond the crown of thorns to His crown of glory? Those who postpone their allegiance to Christ from day to day, those who have been neglecting their salvation from week to week or delaying the return from their backsliding year after year, will you not stand in Pilate’s court to see the sacred brow of Jesus encircled by thorns and with penitence for your past sins, your faith in His endless mercies, tear those torturing thorns from His head and “crown Him Lord of all” in your life? Why toy with postponing when the eternal welfare of your immortal souls is at stake? Throw away all excuses! Banish all doubts! Stifle all self-righteousness! Join us as from one ocean to the other we now say to Jesus: O Thou Christ of the cutting diadem, Thou, and Thou alone, art our Savior. In this moment and across this continent, not with the thorns of our sins, but with the glory of our faith, we crown Thee as the eternal King of our hearts and souls.
THE CROWN OF HUMILIATION
This love of Christ becomes the more magnificent when we remind ourselves that He upon whose head the crown of thorns was pressed is indescribably more than a man, even the best man, the most brilliant, the most honored, that has ever lived; that, though He walked on earth, He came from heaven; though He was held, bound, and scourged by men, all power in earth and heaven had been given to Him as King of kings and Lord of lords. That Christ of the crown was the great God of all glory.
Modern theology has done away with the full divinity of Jesus. Many of the men who preach over free radio hook-ups deny this crown doctrine. Superorganizations in Protestantism openly tolerate the rejection of Christ as God; and that attitude sickers down to the masses. If Jesus were to appear in a typical American city today and to testify to His deity, as He did in Palestine, He would be mobbed, imprisoned, attacked, even by some of our ministerial conferences; for in no chapter of American history has the sovereignty of Jesus Christ over the souls of men been opposed as wantonly as in our generation, when millions steadfastly refuse Him homage as God. Denial, doubt, and disbelief can never destroy the truth. Contradictory as it seems to our human reason, He who suffers this crowning hatred was very God of very God; for us and for our salvation He humbled Himself and patiently, lovingly, bore the indignities of that shameful crown.
We need more of that humility. Churches have waxed rich and fat. Preachers are often men of importance, with multiple university degrees behind their names. Their congregations frequently represent the best families, and incidentally the wealthiest, in the community. Churches of that prominence can be independent. They can select their membership and preach for applause of men rather than for pardon of God. Churches with that support must be heard before legislatures; their political opinions mean something (they think) and must be heard. All the while this perverted attitude which swells in pride over large numbers, big buildings, elite congregations, heavy endowments, pretty services, and a dozen other incidentals leaves the heart of Christianity untouched.
When the crusaders captured Jerusalem and Godfrey was to be crowned king in the Holy City, he steadfastly refused, stating that he could never wear a crown of gold in the city where His Savior had worn a crown of thorns. If there is one place where humility must be particularly emphasized, it is in the churches that should preach the love of the thorn-crowned Savior. Give us ministers, priests, and prophets of the suffering Savior who will forget themselves, all money-making schemes, all political ambitions, all striving for power, as they live and work and die for Christ; give us Christians who can meet the divine requirements of walking humbly with their God, men and women who understand that a Christian must be humble, since he confesses, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing,” and realizes that every assurance of salvation is granted by the overflowing mercies of Christ; give us in this age of dictators, usurpation of power, and unholy monopoly even in certain phases of church-life the humble spirit of Christ in our faith, in our life, and you will witness a new and far better day than can ever be created by any legislative, diplomatic, or industrial programs.
A CROWN OF GLORIFIED SUFFERING
Besides the love and the humility of Christ that crown of thorns shows the Savior’s patient, glorified suffering. In the depth of this disgrace Jesus utters not even one word of complaint or protest or warning. Let them complete this mock coronation by forcing a reed scepter into His hands and covering His bleeding back with a piece of discarded purple; let Pilate’s soldiers derisively bend their knees before Him and sneer, “Hail, King of the Jews”; let them, in the hellish climax of their blasphemy, rain blows on the Savior, spit in His countenance, and lash the thorn-crowned head of their defenseless Prisoner;—Jesus knows that these agonies are but the terrifying means to a radiant, magnificent end, the eternal salvation of human souls. With the assurance that by wearing this crown of thorns His faithful would once wear the crown of glory, Jesus, looking beyond the brutal godlessness, sees His sorrows as a blessed part of the eternal plan for universal redemption; and uncomplaining, unresisting, He continues to bear this disgrace.
We marvel at the courageous calm with which servants of Christ have met the pain and rack of persecution; of martyrs and missionaries who have joyfully faced excruciating pain and death in fiendish forms; yet we should not be too greatly astonished, for their heroism is the reflection of the Savior’s. John Huss, valiant witness to Christ and forerunner of the Reformation in Bohemia, was sentenced to be burned alive because he trusted in the justifying and cleansing power of the Savior’s blood. They stripped him of his priestly robes and placed upon his head a cloth cap painted with devils and inscribed with the indictment “Arch-heretic.” Huss made no protest; on the contrary, he murmured, “My Lord Jesus for my sake wore a crown of thorns. Shall I not wear this lighter disgrace for His sake? I shall indeed, and that right gladly.” In that spirit he commended his body to the cruel death by fire but his soul into the hands of God.
When grief and anguish arise, turn trustfully to the Christ of the thorn-crowned head and learn from Him how to suffer! In these bewildering days when allegedly civilized and cultured nations resemble nothing more than a ravenous pack of wolves, ready to spring at each other’s throats, when the very foundations of honesty, decency, truth, frugality, industry, honest labor, and the substructure on which these rest, the reverence of God and the love of one’s fellow-men, seem to totter as crime, vice, godlessness, antireligious movements increase, it may be that those who are Christ’s will be led to face sorrows such as have never before confronted this country. When people live too fast, work too little, play too long, drink too much, drop too far in home morality, and in spite of much leisure find no time for God, His Church, and His Bible, we have unmistakable signs of national crisis and impending upheaval. It may be that taunting unbelief will assume the upper hand and institute an inquisition and persecution unto the blood; yet in the name of this thorn-crowned King I say: Let the worst come, let the hurricanes of disaster sweep down upon us with their destruction; if the image of Christ thorn-crowned is pressed into your heart and mind, faith will give you the divine key to the mystery of suffering. Every human adversity, through the miracle of Christ, will be a divine opportunity. As Christ exchanged His thorny crown for that heavenly diadem envisioned by Saint John in the last book of the Bible, so Jesus has promised through faith in Him, “Your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”
Some of you have lost your livelihood, your position in the community; you have suffered sickness and death in the family or met sullen opposition from those who should encourage you. Think of Paul Gerhardt! Because he refused to enter a church union, which, like many of these ill-fated amalgamations in our day, simply agreed to disagree, he was deposed from his church and prohibited from holding services even in his own home. Three of his children had previously been snatched away by death; and in the midst of these troubles, when he was left penniless, his wife and his fourth child died. Yet Paul Gerhardt had looked in faith to the thorn-crowned Christ; he had taken one of the most ancient of the Church’s hymns, that which is usually ascribed to Bernard of Clairvaux, translated and reworded it, until it has come down to us in these beloved lines:
O bleeding Head, and wounded,
And full of pain and scorn,
In mockery surrounded
With cruel crown of thorn!
O Head, once crowned with glory
And heavenly majesty,
But now despised and gory,
Yet here I welcome Thee!
The impress of the thorn-crowned Savior helped Paul Gerhardt to find the strength of faith which enabled him to write 131 of the Church’s magnificent hymns and turn his afflictions into the soul’s victory. If you have acclaimed the Christ of the thorns your Savior, sickness and sorrow, disappointments and failures, tortures and agonies of life, will likewise be part of a divine and far-sighted plan by which “all things work together for good” to you because you love God.
The love that bore that cruel coronet is ready to sustain us, not only in the trials of life, but in the moment of death. Far from home, on India’s coral strands, Christian Schwartz, pioneer, self-effacing missionary, felt his last hour approaching. Gathering his native pupils around his deathbed, he joined them as they sang in their own Tamil language the closing verses of the hymn “O Bleeding Head and Wounded.” Schwartz, who knew that, while the service of Christ meant pain and affliction, it always led from cross to crown, kept singing to the last verses in this prayer:
When hence I must betake me,
Lord, do not Thou depart!
O nevermore forsake me
When death is at my heart!
When soul and body languish,
O leave me not alone,
But take away mine anguish,
By virtue of Thine own!
Then his voice broke in death; but by the promise of Christ he was awakened in heaven to sing the hallelujah of eternal praise to his glory-crowned Christ.
Should we not all strive and work and pray that we, too, in life and in death behold in faith the suffering Christ? Sometimes I become downhearted when I see, even in the churches, much of worldliness and mock Christianity, honoring Jesus with the mouth but ignoring with the heart, crying “Lord, Lord!” with the lips but “I myself, I myself!” with actions. We need a deep spiritual strengthening of our faith. My fellow-Christians, can we not change some of these deplorable situations that confront us when multitudes of those who call themselves Christians cannot find time to read and study the Word of Life, refuse to take opportunity for sincere heart-searching prayer, neglect the Lord’s Supper and its forgiving and strengthening blessings? God grant us a new and better faith!
And God grant you who are not yet Christ’s the light to see yourselves in your sins as God sees you: helplessly lost, hopelessly dead; and then, standing with the Christ of the blood-stained crown, to see yourself as you can be through faith in Him, washed, cleansed, purified, ransomed, redeemed and saved eternally! Above all else, watch and pray that, “when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away,” God grant that to you all for Jesus’ sake! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.