On the Way to Crucifixion
Jesus was scourged after His trial before Pilate (Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:15; John 19:1). Luke says only that Jesus was punished (Luke 23:16, 22), using the Greek word paideuo, which often speaks of chastising a son. Its root word is pais, “son.” Heb. 12:5-8 uses the term paideuo in relation to fathers chastening their sons. In fact, Heb. 12:6 says,
6 For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines [paideuo], and He scourges every son whom He receives.
In order to take the liability for our sin upon Himself, He had to be both scourged and killed. Scourging was the penalty for lesser sins (misdemeanors) that did not involve restitution payment (Deut. 25:3). The death penalty was applied in cases where restitution was not possible (such as in premeditated murder), or even when a man refused to pay restitution as prescribed by the law (Deut. 17:12).
When Isaiah described the sufferings and death of the Messiah, He spoke of both the death penalty and of scourging. Isaiah 53:5 says, “by His scourging we are healed.” Isaiah 53:8 says further that as a lamb led to the slaughter, “He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of My people to whom the stroke was due.” In Isaiah 53:12 we read that “He poured out Himself to death” and by Himself “bore the sin of [the] many.”
In His scourging, Jesus brought healing from disease. In His death Jesus brought healing from death itself—that is, He brought us immortality.
In Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion, Jesus was scourged over 60 times, presumably by Roman soldiers who did not know the law. But I believe that the law is prophetic and that He was given forty lashes according to the law’s limitation in Deut. 25:3. The law does not specify who ought to administer the lashes, so from that standpoint it may not matter who actually scourged Jesus.
It was a tradition that scourging should be limited to 39 lashes, so that in case of a miscount, they should not violate the law unintentionally. But they later avoided this problem by using a whip with thirteen strands known as a flagellum. Each strand had pieces of embedded metal or bone, capable of tearing apart one’s flesh in a gruesome fashion. In whipping someone three times, the lashes totaled 39 in all.
Strangely enough, it also appears that many of the Jews either were ignorant of the law or simply did not care about its limitation to forty lashes. Josephus testifies that he himself whipped some rebels without regard to this limitation:
On which occasion Josephus again used a second stratagem to escape them [2000 men who stood outside his headquarters, threatening him]; for he got upon the top of the house and … said he would comply with all their demands, in case they would but send some of their number in to him that might talk with him about it. And when the principal of them, with their leaders, heard this, they came into the house. He then drew them to the most retired [private] part of the house and shut the door of that hall where he put them, and then had them whipped till every one of their inward parts appeared naked. In the meantime the multitude stood around the house and supposed that he had a long discourse with those that were gone in, about what they claimed of him. He then had the doors set open immediately, and sent the men out all bloody, which so terribly affrighted those that had before threatened him, that they threw away their arms and ran away.” [Josephus, Wars of the Jews, II, 21, v]
Josephus was a priest and a descendant of the Hasmonean dynasty, which had ruled Judea from 163-63 B.C. As an educated man, he ought to have known the law of God, but apparently he did not follow it in this case.
The victims of this beating, however, were not fulfilling any Bible prophecy. I believe that the law prophesies of Jesus Christ, and on that basis, I believe that Jesus was scourged with forty stripes in order to take upon Himself the full penalty of our “diseases.”
Simon of Cyrene
After His beating, Jesus was sent to the top of the Mount of Olives to be crucified in a public place, where all who came to Jerusalem along that path might see and be reminded to subject themselves to the authorities. By this time Jesus was greatly weakened by the scourging. So a man was pressed into service to carry the crossbeam which was to be nailed to the upright stake that remained permanently on the Mount.
Luke 23:26 says,
26 And when they led Him away, they laid hold of one Simon of Cyrene, coming in from the country, and placed on him the cross to carry behind Jesus.
Apparently, Simon had spent the night outside of Jerusalem (perhaps in Bethany). He had just come off the Mount on his way to Jerusalem to worship at the temple. He arrived just as the crowd was walking in the opposite direction toward the Mount. Simon then carried the crossbeam up the Mount, where Jesus was crucified. We do not know for sure if Jesus fell under the weight of the crossbeam, but Simon’s act follows the spirit of the law found in Deut. 22:4,
4 You shall not see your countryman’s donkey or his ox fallen down on the way, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly help him to raise them up.
His name, Simon, probably indicates that he was a Jew who lived in Cyrene. Cyrene was a Greek colony located on the Mediterranean coast west of Egypt in Libya. It had been founded in 630 B.C., and in 323 B.C. it became part of Egypt. By Jesus’ time, Cyrene had become part of the Roman Empire, though it maintained its self-government. There were enough Jews from Cyrene that they even had their own synagogue in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9). We see their presence also on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:10.
Cyrene was famous for its School of Cyrenaics, founded four centuries earlier as a hedonist school of philosophy. According to this philosophy, pleasure—especially physical pleasure—was the most important goal in life. Pleasure was the only good in life, they said, and pain was the only evil. Hence, avoidance of pain was an important feature of this philosophy. Their hedonist philosophy was later replaced by Epicureanism, which modified this somewhat and yet still retained its most important goal of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
We do not know if Simon of Cyrene had been a student (or teacher) at this School, but it is certain that he was very familiar with its philosophy. For Simon, then, to be called upon to witness the pain and suffering of Jesus firsthand must have been a life-changing experience for him. Mark 15:21 gives us further details, saying,
21 And they pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear His cross.
Mark implies that he knew Simon well by the time he wrote his gospel. No doubt he had became a Christian, and Mark even suggests that his sons, Alexander and Rufus, were well known to his readers. Simon and Mark might even have known each other earlier:
According to the tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Church, its founder, Saint Mark was a native of Cyrene and ordained the first bishop of Cyrene.
It is unlikely, however, that Simon’s son, Rufus, was the same man mentioned in Rom. 16:13. That Rufus was apparently Paul’s half brother, as he says,
13 Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord, also his mother and mine.
If it were the same Rufus, it would indicate that the mother of both Paul and Rufus was married to Simon of Cyrene. But we know that the Roman Rufus was surnamed Pudentius, a wealthy senatorial family in Rome. So Paul calls Rufus also by his family name Pudens in 2 Tim. 4:21, while greeting also Pudens’ wife Claudia and her brother Linus (the first bishop of Rome).
I have no doubt that Simon of Cyrene was of a different family. His philosophical background as a Cyrenian was meant to present the contrast to the philosophy of God, where the Messiah’s pain and suffering would bring true pleasure and happiness to the world. “By His scourging, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5) The solution to all the pain and suffering brought about by Adam’s sin was not to engage in pleasure or to avoid pain. The solution was for Christ to die, thereby paying the penalty for Adam’s sin.
Prophecies on the Road
John 19:14 tells us,
14 Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your king. 15 They therefore cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 So he then delivered Him to them to be crucified.
The sixth hour was noon. By this time the whole city was full of life, and Jesus’ followers had heard the news of His arrest. Luke 23:27 says,
27 And there were following Him a great multitude of the people, and of women who were mourning and lamenting Him.
Jesus’ night-time trial before Caiaphas had been conducted while most people were asleep, but no doubt in the morning the news would have spread quickly while Jesus was at the Praetorium. Luke 23:28-31 says,
28 But Jesus turning to them said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do these things in the green tree, what will happen in the dry?”
Verse 29 refers back to Luke 21:23, where Jesus had explained to His disciples about the coming desolation of Jerusalem. Here Jesus quoted Hosea 10:8-10, where the prophet had prophesied divine judgment to the House of Israel on account of its worship of the golden calf at Bethel,
8 Then they will say to the mountains, “Cover us!” And to the hills, “Fall on us!”… 10 When it is My desire, I will chastise them; and the peoples will be gathered against them when they are bound for their double guilt.
It is plain that Jerusalem’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah was linked directly to the coming desolation of Jerusalem. In quoting Hosea 10:8, Jesus reminded the “daughters of Jerusalem” that Judah was as guilty as Israel had been in the days of Hosea. Hence, the same judgment would befall them.
The Two Trees
In Luke 23:31 Jesus continues, saying,
31 For if they do these things in the green tree, what will happen in the dry?”
Of Luke 23:31, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says,
“He quoted a current proverb. The application means that if such injustice can be perpetrated against an innocent man in the time of peace, what will befall the people of the city in time of war?
Jesus, then, was full of life, being the “green tree.” Judah was the “dry” tree, that is, the withered tree which Jesus had already cursed (Matt. 21:19). In Jesus’ statement in Luke 23:31, I see also the fulfillment of prophecy from Jer. 11:16,
16 The Lord called your name, “A green olive tree, beautiful in fruit and form”; with the noise of a great tumult He has kindled fire on it, and its branches are worthless [or “fruitless”].
In that context, we find that Jeremiah, too, was a type of Christ persecuted by the corrupt temple priests. The prophet tells us in Jer. 11:19, 20,
19 But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; and I did not know that they had devised plots against me, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” 20 But, O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously, who tries the feelings and the heart, let me see Thy vengeance on them, for to Thee have I committed my cause.
The priests of that time plotted against Jeremiah, even as they did with Jesus six centuries later. The plot was to “destroy the tree with its fruit,” indicating that they were cutting down a live, green tree that bore fruit. This was unlawful according to the laws of spiritual warfare found in Deut. 20:19, 20.
In this we see the contrast between the fruit-bearing tree and the barren tree that Jerusalem had become. This, I believe, is the underlying meaning of Jesus’ statement about the green tree and the dry tree. The priests were cutting down a fruit-bearing tree by crucifying Jesus—much like they plotted to do with Jeremiah many years earlier.
Jeremiah appealed His case to the divine court in verse 20, saying, “to Thee have I committed my cause.” In Jeremiah’s day the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed, along with its temple, according to the divine judgment. The same was to happen in the first century.