God is not mocked, Paul says. God is mocked, says Matthew. Who’s right? The two are in perfect harmony, but to see that, we need to run through the passage again. We’ll see that at every point, the mockery is being turned against the mockers. At every point, mockery is turned inside out; injustice becomes the pathway to restoration and redemption, mockery the road to truth.
Start with the soldiers. They mock Jesus, and in mocking Jesus mock the Jews. But their mockery reveals the truth, in all sorts of ways. Had they any discernment, the Roman soldiers could have seen the irony of the situation for themselves. During the trial, Pilate ceded authority to the Jewish people. The decision to crucify was theirs, not his, and the solders are acting on orders from the Jews. Pilate has the title “governor,” but he doesn’t do much governing here. The Jews are really in charge. So when the soldiers say that Jesus is king of the Jews, they are saying that He is their king too: They carry out His orders.
The scarlet robe is the robe of a Roman soldier, but scarlet is also a color of the tabernacle curtains and of the similar robes of the High Priest. In robbing Jesus in scarlet, they are dressing Jesus for priestly service, and the priest also wears a crown. On the day of atonement, the High Priest stripped off his garments, put on linen garments for the rituals of atonement, then put his normal clothes back on. In stripping, and reclothing, and stripping and reclothing again, the Roman soldiers are sending Jesus off to sprinkle His own blood for the covering of sin, once and for all. At the death of the high priest, his robes were stripped and placed on his son, the new high priest. So too, a priesthood is dying here, the priesthood of Aaron and Zadok, and is being replaced by a new priest, the priest after the order of Melchizedek. Scarlet is also the color of the harlot’s clothing in Revelation. By dressing Jesus in scarlet, the soldiers are unknowingly confessing that Jesus is the one who takes the harlots sins, the one who declares “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as wool; though they are red like crimson, they shall be white as snow.”
Joseph’s story was a story of clothing, of robing and disrobing. His father gave him a coat of many colors as a sign of his preeminence among his brothers, but his brothers stripped that coat and sent him naked to Egypt. Potiphar gave him another robe, but Potiphar’s wife stripped that from him. Finally, Pharaoh robed Joseph with all the authority of Egypt, and from that position he saved the brothers that had betrayed him and gave food to the world. All unknowing, the Roman soldiers prepare Jesus to be a new Joseph, who will go before His people to prepare a place for them, who will rise to receive all authority and to distribute bread.
At the cross, too, the Roman soldiers and Jews can’t help but fulfill God’s purposes. The scene is like casting for a play: They are assigning roles to everyone in this great drama. And, in spite of themselves, everything everyone does casts Jesus as King of the Jews or as the temple of God.
The Roman soldiers unwittingly fulfill prophecy. Matthew makes this explicit in verse 35. But it’s pervasive. When they give Jesus gall, they fulfill Psalm 69:21. Roman executioners were always allowed to take a criminal’s clothing, but their lots fulfill Psalm 22:16. And if the Roman soldiers stand in the place of the ones who persecute the Psalmist, then Jesus stands in the place of the Psalmist, which is to say, in the place of David, the King of Israel, King of the Jews. As Isaiah predicted, Jesus is crucified among transgressors (v. 38; cf. Isaiah 53:12; cf. Matthew 20:21-23). It’s not just that they are fulfilling prophecy; it’s not that Matthew is making some kind of apologetic point. The irony is deeper. When they fulfill prophecy, they undermine their mockery. Everything the soldiers do proves that Jesus is who He said He is.
The passers-by also fulfill prophecy, and by their mockery not only assume roles but place Jesus in a role as well. Verse 43 is a quotation from Psalm 22:8. In the original Psalm, these words come from people sneering at David. The chief priests and scribes position themselves as enemies of the Lord’s Anointed. Their actions and words show that Jesus is indeed “King of Israel,” David’s Son (v. 42). “If you are the Son of God” – where have we heard that before? It takes us back to the temptation scene (Matthew 4:3, 6). These are Satanic mockers and accusers. The chief priests, scribes, and elders join in Satanic scorn (v. 41). In describing the people as “wagging their heads,” Matthew shows that this scene is the fulfillment of Psalm 22. “I am like a worm and not a man,” the Psalm says, “A reproach of men and despised by the people. All who see me sneer at me; they separate the lip, they wag the head” (Psalm 22:7). Again, their actions place them in the role of the enemies of the Lord’s Anointed.
But the other Scriptural references to “wagging” or “shaking” the head are also in the background. When Jerusalem lies in ruins, Jeremiah says, “all who pass along the way will clap their hands in derision at you; they hiss and shake their heads at the daughter Jerusalem: ‘Is this the city of which they said, The perfection of beauty, a joy of all the earth’”? (Lamentations 2:15). Earlier Jeremiah had warned that resistance to Nebuchadnezzar would be disastrous, since Yahweh was determined to make Jerusalem and the temple and the land “a desolation, an object of perpetual hissing. Everyone who passes by it will be astonished and shake his head” (Jeremiah 18:16).
Passers-by mock Jesus for saying that He could destroy the temple and rebuild it, but they act the part of those passers-by who saw Solomon’s temple in ruins and shook their heads in sadness, or mockery, at the desolation of the once-great city. There is no beauty that they should desire Him. Passers-by and Jewish leaders mock Jesus because he claimed to be able to destroy and rebuild the temple in three days, but their actions make it clear that this is precisely what’s happening. They mock Jesus’ prophecies, even as they fulfill them. They mock Jesus’ claims about the temple, but unwittingly treat Him as the temple.
They mock Jesus as if He were an impotent, ruined temple. They should have known better. When Solomon built the temple, he prayed that Yahweh would hear prayers directed toward that place. Even when Israel went into exile, Solomon hoped, Yahweh would still hear the prayers of the people directed toward the temple (1 Kings 8). Israel finally did go into exile, and left behind the dusty ruins of Solomon’s temple, and for seventy years they prayed toward the temple, toward the ruins of the temple, hoping that Yahweh would hear and restore them. The temple did not save itself, but that ruined temple did save them: They turned to the temple ruins, prayed for restoration, and were restored. Jesus on the cross is a ruined temple, the ruins toward which we direct our prayers.
Overarching all these details is the fact that it’s mockery and torture and a kangaroo court and an unjust trial and a vicious execution of an innocent man – that doesn’t prove Jesus a liar. All that is what makes Jesus a king.
Are you a king? Pilate asks. “You say,” Jesus answers. Which is to say: It’s up to you. You can make me a king, Jesus says, and Pilate does, by delivering him over to the mockery of the soldiers, over to the mockery of the passers by, over to the mockery of the Jewish leaders, over to the mockery of brigands. Pilate’s actions, and the rejection and mockery of the Jewish leaders, place Jesus in precisely the position of David and precisely in the position of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. Mockery is not proof against Jesus kingship but the opposite, the fulfillment of the Scriptures that show us the Davidic king in precisely this position, despised by the people, rejected and scorned, trusting in God alone for His vindication!
The crowds, Jewish leaders, and robbers all join in a Satanic temptation. Jesus is Adam at the tree, but now a tree that has become a means of execution rather than a source of fruit. And the temptation of the Christ is the same as the temptation of the first Adam: Yea, has God said? Did God say that He’s rescue you? Where is He? And if Your Father promised a rescue and doesn’t come, then can God be trusted? He’s sent you to an excruciating death; He’s sent you into a place where you are surrounded by a mob of mockers. What kind of Father is that? Can you trust a Father who would lead you here? Can you trust a Father who would lead you here and then leave you on your own?
Jesus stays on the cross because He trusts that this cross is proof of His sonship, proof of His kingship. And we should too. When we suffer, we are tempted to doubt our Father’s word, tempted to doubt our Father’s goodness. When the Father puts us on a cross, we want to climb down as quick as we can. But that’s not where we belong. The cross, with all its pain, shame, humiliation, and mockery, is where we belong, because that’s where Jesus is, that’s where our King hangs, crowned in His suffering.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.