Midweek Lent 4, March 27, 2019
6 Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. 8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. 9 And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. 12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” 14 And Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged[a] Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
If you’ve ever watched the movie “The Passion of the Christ”, you probably have the scene in which Jesus was whipped burned into your memory. I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart or stomach. But it probably approaches the gruesomeness of this particular part of Jesus’s suffering. Christians have long remembered this part of Christ’s suffering as one of the many bitter moments he endured on our behalf. There’s even a church in Rome today that claims to have the original column upon which Christ was tied while he received his lashes.
We say whip, or sometimes scourge or flogging. The actual Roman practice was flagellation, a far more brutal form of whipping than you’d find in the synagogues. In the Jewish synagogues, whipping was limited to 40 lashes, and so 39 was customarily applied, just to be sure. But the Romans made no such limit. The Jews used a whip made from simple leather straps. But the Romans used bits of bone and lead attached to the tips of it, to also lacerate the flesh. Under Roman law, flagellation was done publicly, and usually in the course of death sentence. It likely made those who were crucified die much more quickly. But Roman citizens were exempt from this form of punishment, as it was considered too degrading and humiliating.
And so Jesus is flogged and whipped as part of his work of humiliation. Treated as a slave or a foreigner, shamefully, for all to see. The flogging Jesus received was not to motivate him or persuade him to do or say anything. There was no real desired goal other than to inflict pain and suffering, sorrow and humiliation. It was, it seems, purely a punishment for the sake of punishment, though of course he truly deserved no such thing.
Punishment. That’s what the scourge especially represents as a symbol. The punishment that Christ endured. Now, of course, we aren’t so acquainted with punishment, at least not anymore, in our sensible and respectable modern world. Although, at one time it was more a part of everyday life. Even our own constitution mentions it – when it prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment” (the 8th Amendment). We’ve moved away, in many instances, from even the idea of punishment under the law. Take for instance, the penal system – a system that imposes penalties and punishments – but do we even call it that any more? Now it’s the Criminal Justice system. We see it less for punishment, and more in terms of rehabilitation of criminals and prison as simply a way to protect the public from potentially dangerous individuals.
We don’t often think of people receiving punishments for when they do wrong, but instead we talk about the “consequences” of “unwise actions”. Even when it comes to the fashionable methods of rearing children – the place of punishment has changed in our culture, to the point that some parents will never say a harsh word to a child, never say no. And that does not make for good parenting.
To think in terms of punishment, you have to have a moral framework to begin with – an idea of right and wrong – and these very foundations have been under assault in our prevailing culture. We don’t speak in terms of absolutes when it comes to morality, but relativism reigns. We say things like, “Oh, that’s true for you, or right for you, but maybe not for me.” “I would never do something like that, but you should be free to choose.” “Who am I to judge- I haven’t walked a mile in their shoes”. And so forth and so on.
Perhaps the closest most of us can remember to facing earthly punishment is when we were children. Maybe you even got the belt or the switch or even just a spanking as a child. Stand in the corner, or have a “time out”. Wash your mouth out with soap. The simplicity of childhood punishments might be a better window into spiritual realities than all the antiseptic veneer we place over it in the grown-up world. When you do something bad, you deserve to be punished. Or, in scriptural terms, “the wages of sin is death” and “the soul that sins shall perish”.
But oh, dearest, Jesus, what law have you broken? If there was ever an innocent man, it was Jesus. If there was ever a miscarriage of justice, it was here. If there was ever an unjust punishment, it was upon him.
The irony is thick. Here at the whipping post is the God of Gods. Here under the scourge is the one who will judge the nations. Here under punishment of men is the Creator of all. Here, receiving not what he deserves, but what we deserve. Temporal and eternal punishment.
Temporal – in time – in the here and now. Physical punishment is a very temporal. It happens. And while as brutal as it is, the scourging of Christ is not the entirety of his physical suffering and punishment. The crown of thorns, the beating, the nails in hands and feet – all of these added even more, heaping up on this man of sorrows.
But even all of the physical suffering Christ endured was only a glimpse at the true burden he bore. It was a window, but a foggy one. For here, in his passion, and especially when on the cross, God poured out his wrath upon Jesus. He made him who had no sin, to be sin, and put sin to death in his body. And so in a mystery beyond pondering, God the Father turned his back on his only begotten Son, and Jesus cries in torment, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Truly Jesus bore all the pangs of hell, for that is what eternal damnation is – being separated from God.
And yet, as we well know, this is God’s purpose. This is his plan of salvation for his wayward creatures. This is the intention from the foundation of the world – that the Lamb is slain, that the Son is sacrificed, that Jesus would take our place under punishment.
And so Isaiah would prophesy, “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Is. 53:5)
The chastisement that brought us peace. The wounds or the stripes that bring us healing. All that Jesus did, he did for you. Even this, submitting to the punishment of a criminal, at the hands of evil men, for the sins of evil men, in the place of evil men. To heal them. To heal us. To bring us peace.
Now, in Christ, we need not fear God’s punishment. No storm cloud of wrath is foreboding. No fires of hell are being stoked for us. God’s anger and wrath are put away. We don’t even see a frowning face. But rather a loving embrace, the welcome of a Father, a table prepared and a feast awaiting. A joyful reunion with God and our fellow saints in glory. And a home in his courts forever.
He was punished to free us from punishment. He was made guilty to take away our guilt. He bore the awful load, to give us a yoke that is easy and light. And he died to bring us life. Glory be to Jesus. In his holy name. Amen.