The Cross and the Crown: Meditations on Good Friday
by Joshua Appel
Surely, two of the most powerful and ironic statements in John’s account of the passion come from Pilate’s mouth. After displaying Jesus beaten and bloodied in robe of purple with a crown of thorns on his head, both mocking Jesus’ claim to royalty, he says, “ecce homo,” “behold, the man.” Then, just a few verses later after trying to ascertain the source of Jesus’ authority, he sat down on the judgment seat and brought Jesus before the crowd again, this time mocking them saying, “behold, your king!” A man or a king, which is it? Who is this Jesus?
In many ways, the tension in Pilate’s words reflect well the tension between Jesus’ coronation on Palm Sunday and his crucifixion as a common criminal nearly a week later. Recall for a moment the hope of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The entire scene is suffused with the hopeful signs of royalty: Jesus rides upon a donkey in manner of Israel’s kings, the crowds, especially the children, shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” Clearly, the crowds thought Jesus was coming in the likeness of his father David to inaugurate a kingdom and to crush Israel’s enemies for good. This was the moment everyone had been waiting for.
Could there then be greater disappointment in the way the following events seem to spin so completely out of control? Over the course of holy week, Jesus went from being the expected messiah to a common criminal who was accused, beaten, humiliated, and forced to carry the burden of his own cross. The title “king of the Jews” mocked him while soldiers gambled for his royal garments. The Pharisees, surely with some sense of delicious irony, noted his impotence: “He saved others, but he cannot save himself.” If Jesus came into Jerusalem with a triumphant bang, he surely left it with what seemed a tragic whimper.
The disciples and everyone else saw these two poles, the cross and the crown, as a complete contradiction.
And if the Gospels underline anything, they are clear that the disciples and everyone else saw these two poles, the cross and the crown, as a complete contradiction. To put in scriptural terms, either Jesus could be either the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 or he could be the messiah, David’s royal son, but not both.
N.T. Wright notes that “Jews who had studied Isaiah 53 had thought of the servant either as a suffering figure, but not as a messiah, or as a messiah, but not a suffering one. If they thought of the servant as the Messiah, the suffering was reversed, since it was the Messiah’s task to inflict suffering on God’s enemies, not so suffer it himself.” Even the disciples “were expecting Jesus to march on Jerusalem and, by whatever means, to overthrow the wicked Jewish leadership and the hated Romans. All the signs are that they thought he was going to be king in the normal obvious sense and that they would form his immediate circle. James and John are still agitating for the top jobs as they made their way to Jerusalem. The thought of combing this model with the powerful biblical theme of the suffering and martyred [servant] of God made no sense to them.” (Simply Jesus)
But the truth, which no one could see, was that Jesus was doing something bigger and more startling than anyone could have imagined: Rather than being the death of his kingly aspirations, the cross was the means of his conquest. Rather than a broken hill of defeat, the cross was Jesus’ royal scepter, the very instrument of His victory. In truth, Pharisees were blind to what transpired right before their eyes. As a King, Jesus saved others precisely because he did not save himself. Rather than concealing his royalty as David’ Son, the cross was the supreme revelation of what kind of king Jesus really was.
But in another sense, this should have surprised no one: God has been telling the secret of the cross since the beginning of time. We see it in Adam’s deathly sleep from which God fashions a helper to give Adam a new life. We see it in the tomb of the ark, sailing from a world swallowed up in death, into a new creation. We see it in Abraham and Sara’s bodies, good as dead, raised up to give birth to the son of promise. And in the knife poised on the mountain, ready to strike the son down and yet he rises, born again. We see it in the Passover, as the Angel of death passes by and Israel is set free from slavery in Egypt. And that’s just the beginning, the examples are everywhere: Ruth, Job, Hannah, David in the wilderness, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah’s suffering servant, Jeremiah’s weeping, Ezekiel and dry bones, and in the drama of the Israel’s exile.
Only God could take a gory instrument of death, the cursedness of hanging on a tree, and in a powerful act of his creative word, turn it into the foundation of a new creation.
All of this should leave us utterly in awe of the power and wisdom of our God. Only God could take a gory instrument of death, the cursedness of hanging on a tree, and in a powerful act of his creative word, turn it into the foundation of a new creation. That is why Jesus’ last words are so striking. Just before he gave up his Spirit, John records that Jesus cried, “It is finished!” “It’s all done,” “it’s completed,” which draws us back to the very beginning, to the sixth day of creation, when God completed all the work He had done. (N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus) Jesus’ words simultaneously signal the end and a new beginning; the end of death’s dominion and the birth of new life, new hearts, and new hope for the future. And the same cross, which was the end of all ends, now stands as a memorial of a new beginning. It has become the instrument of our freedom, the sword that severed our bondage to the power of sin and freed us from every form of condemnation.
But it doesn’t stop there. Here is the amazing thing: The New Testament shows us that just as we have been incorporated into Jesus’ own body, so now his crucified life becomes the paradigm for our own. Now His life-from-death pattern characterizes our life as the people of God. Think of Romans six where Paul asks, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4) Or again in his exhortation to the Philippians: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:5-11)
But perhaps no passage reflects this life-from-death pattern better than these confident words from II Corinthians: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (II Cor. 4:7-11)
This is the demonstration of the surpassing power of God. Everything we are promised in these passages, whether the freedom of walking in newness of life, or victory over our enemies, or the life of Jesus manifested in our mortal bodies, comes through taking up our crosses and following Jesus to Golgotha. In the rugged cross God promises that if we belong to Jesus, death cannot hurt us, because Jesus drank its bitter cup to the dregs. But even more than that, He promises to take the brokenness of our lives and turn it into a garden that displays the beauty and power of His own crucified and resurrected life. So that we can say with Paul, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Jesus’ death means that God has not only taken the curse of our sin upon Himself, but that he has fully exhausted its power. And now, mysteriously, even death cannot obscure the glory of new creation life. Because the power of Jesus’ cruciform life lives in us, the glory of His humiliation shines through the shameful cracks and broken pieces of our lives, transforming them into glorious battle scars, even marks of beauty. The miracle of Good Friday is that the cross and the crown are not enemies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus turns crosses of every kind into paths that lead to glory.