The Game of the King

This week my Tuesday night Bible class, The Jewish Context of the Bible, was on the Romans. You can find the audio online at the website of Prestoncrest Church of Christ and also on my Audio Lessons page (along with the handout).

In the lesson we talked about Roman history and how the evolution of the Roman Triumphal Procession became a powerful symbol for the believers in Rome who Mark was writing1.  I’d like to go a bit deeper into one particular aspect of the Markan crucifixion narrative now with a short study on a brutal game that Roman soldiers played, likely with Jesus as their target.

The Game of the King playing board.

The Game of the King playing board.

In the Roman Army the soldiers would be stationed all over the known world, many times very far away from home.  It was often a boring job as the day to day routine played itself out.  While Judea was a volotile province it was still probably a pretty boring job being a legionnaire from day to day and so the soldiers played games to pass the time.  On the floor of the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem (today a convent – The Sisters of Zion – is built over the site) which is where Jesus was tried by Pilate, archeologists have found the markings of the game known as The Game of the King.

It was played with sheep’s knuckles as dice and they would roll those dice on a playing board.  The soldiers would pick one of their own and make him the “king”.  They would give him robe, a crown, a scepter, and they would pay homage to him.  During the course of the day the soldiers would gamble for all of his possessions – clothes, wife, home back in Rome, etc, culminating in gambling for who got to kill him.   These Roman soldiers would pick some poor hapless new recruit and they’d make a game out of killing him. A terrible initiation ritual, but it shows you the brutality of the Roman legions.   Most of them weren’t nice people.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps Caesar Augustus in his sweeping reforms, outlawed the playing of the game because it was hurting morale and he was losing good troops, so the soldiers then moved to using condemned prisoners.  Now enter the condemned prisoner, the rabbi Jesus.  He was made to look like a king by being given a robe, a crown, and a scepter.  He was then mocked, beaten, spit upon, while they pretended to pay homage to him. Eventually all of his belongings were gambled on as they “cast lots” which was done with sheep’s knuckle dice and they killed him.

It strikes me as amazing that the reason the soldiers were all called together was to play this game with the condemned Jesus, but it served God’s eternal plan in ways they couldn’t have comprehended.  First, it fulfilled prophecy.  He was beaten and hurt for our sins (Isaiah 53) and they gambled for his clothes (Psalm 22:18).  Second, it brought them together and caused them to do all the things in the right order as to start the triumphal procession like we talked about in class.  It blows my mind that God would have things set up so perfectly that this game the soldiers played allowed for Mark to write to those Christians in Rome and fully compare – line by line, detail by detail – Jesus’ walk to the cross like the Caesar’s in Rome.

I think in a certain way, we still play The Game of the King today.  Many times we give God all the right attention but our words of praise are a hollow mockery based on the way we live our lives.

“Why are you so polite with me, always saying ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘That’s right, sir,’ but never doing a thing I tell you? These words I speak to you are not mere additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on.” (Luke 6:46-47, The Message)

Today there are many people who call out to God through declaring Jesus the Messiah and ruler of their life, but knowingly and willingly fail to obey.  Of course, as believers in Jesus we are covered by the Grace of God and we cannot do anything to earn salvation – but that’s only part of the picture.  God desires people who will do his will and merely acknowledging Jesus with your lips is no real belief, as Jesus said himself:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21, NIV)

Jesus declares that his true followers are the ones who put his words into practice.  Don’t let your crying out to God be a mockery like The Game of the King, but instead I speak these words of Paul:

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4:1)

Peace to you,



1.  For those who didn’t get the info, the comparison of the Mark crucifixion narrative to a Roman triumphal procession that we talked about in class was from an article by T.E. Schmidt in the January 1995 edition of New Testament Studies, Vol. 41 Iss. 1.  I found a copy of it at the library of Dallas Theological Seminary and it cost me $1.80 to copy it at their copy machines.  You can find it online at Cambridge Journals Online for $15, though I enjoyed actually going to the library because I found a couple other useful articles by a favorite author of mine, Dr. Brad H. Young (who is also in the Jan 1995 issue of NTS).

You can find the audio online at the website of <a href=”; target=”_blank”>Prestoncrest Church of Christ</a> and also on my <a href=”; target=”_blank”>Audio Lessons</a> page (along with the handout).

12 thoughts on “The Game of the King

  1. Most people know of the brutal “games” held in the Coliseum in Rome. People forced to fight each other to the death, people torn apart and eaten by animals…all done for the enjoyment of 80,000+ spectators in Rome. (These “games” were also held in other cities in the Roman world) Many scholars feel that this brutality was exhibited to desensitize the populace. It seemed to have done just that.

    • Yeah, it seems like it did its job in desensitizing the general populace. If they saw the coliseum games in action, why not play similar games? Good thoughts on the cause and effect behind this game!

      Feeding right into this Roman mentality is the fights in the Coliseum themselves. Since I’m a Roman history buff it always bothers me when the media (movies, TV shows) depicts the games at the Coliseum in Rome because they get one crucial detail wrong. When the fight is over and the victor stands over the loser with a weapon to his throat and he looks to the Emperor for the final decision, they always have the “thumbs down” mean to go ahead and kill him. But it’s the exact opposite. They were so perverse in their thinking that a “thumbs up” was akin to saying “YES! Kill him! Give us more bloodshed!” and a “thumbs down” was akin to almost dejectedly saying “No…let him live.” It truly was a disappointment to them to see someone live at the end of a fight which is why it rarely happened.

  2. It reminds me of how we allow ourselves to be desensitized by Hollywood. The news does it too with their specifically chosen wording degrading Christians and our beliefs. And we, wanting to be looked at favorably by people, do not stand up for what we know is right, in essence turning the other cheek I guess because it is easier and because “What can I do?”. We forget whose power is behind us and that suffering for the sake of righteousness has its own rewards.

    And now as I think about it my children want me to allow them to be desensitized by their friends. I am pressured all around to loose my focus on God and allow my children, AND myself, to be more like the world. Later, when I am re-focused on God’s will, pressuring me to get their way they point back to an earlier incorrect “yes”. It’s so much easier to be focused on God’s will to begin with than withstand the battle to take things back to where they belonged all along, God’s way. But, I just remembered His strength and He can take my mistakes and use them for learning tools. Yeah!

    We need the strength and encouragement of each other to point our thumbs up to say “Focus on God and do it His way so we have life, and more abundantly”.

    • I definitely agree with what you are saying. As a mother of two adult children and a 17 year old, it has been challenging to keep them on track and from being desensitized by what is on TV and the radio. Even in sports it has become the norm to watch athletes suffer horrific injuries over and over from every angle for what purpose? But as you say I have learned that we must stand our ground and teach our children that it is okay to stand alone in making good decisions and teaching them how to recover from the bad ones made along the way by extending grace to them and redirecting them the to Jesus , who alone can strengthen and encourage them, IF we teach them to seek Him daily.

  3. Completely stoked about this site and all the blogs. Thanks James for doing this, may God continue to bless you.

    When reading this particular post, I could not stop reading this particular line over and over.

    “Many times we give God all the right attention but our words of praise are a hollow mockery based on the way we live our lives.”

    I’m currently going through a real struggle of the way I’m living my life, particularly with my “day” job. I work for a mega bank and feel extremely useless in what I do. I feel like I should be out doing something more meaningful, like saving lives for God’s kingdom.

    I recently came across an interview with Bono from U2. He was talking about how at first he didn’t like Christians very much; but was very interested in Christ . He stated that Christians tend to judge alot, but Christ only talked about himself judging once in Matthew 25:31. It states how the sheep will be seperated from the goats. No other reason is given except, did you feed me, did you clothe me, did you visit me. I know Bono is really into helping out the world but I don’t know if this is the only way we will be judged. I’ve prayed and applied at different non-profs and other organizations which I feel would be more meaningful, and until then I wait patiently on God and his directions. May his will be done and not mine. Is there anything more that needs to be done? I do love God the best that I know how, and I hope I’m not wasting 40 hours of my week, most of my life, and I especially hope I am not a hollow mockery to him.

    I know you have your “day” job as well, and so any advice would be greatly appreciated.


    • Shalom to you as well! I’m glad you found my blog. I greatly admire what you’re doing. I too have felt that I seem to be wasting my life on a job that’s not meaningful in the long run. I sympathize with you and I think you’re on the right track. My only advice to you is this: pray to God that He will show you what He wants you to do, then explore various ministries at your local congregation, trying each one out until you find the one that you love. There will be a ministry that you cannot stop thinking about, that you love doing, and look forward to doing more than anything else. For me, it’s teaching. While on this journey, seek the counsel of your ministers and other close friends who can guide you and pray with you. Once you discover your gifts, and figure out (through prayer and the leading of the Spirit) what you’re wired for, then follow that with all your heart. If you blindly pursue something different just because you feel you should be doing something more meaningful, you might end up hating what you do and then regret it all. But if you first discover your gifts that God has blessed you with, you will be amazed at how much fruit it bears!


    • Works Cited

      Goodman, Martin. Jews in a Graeco-Roman World. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1999. p. 159. Print.

      Schmidt, T.E. “Mark 15.16-32: The Crucifixion Narrative and the Roman Triumphal Procession.” New Testament Studies 41.1 (1995): 1-18. Print.

  4. We have been to Isreal,our guide told us about the game, I was totally blown away. Thank you so much for this intresting piece of information, I was greatly blessed by a greater understanding of the Word and what Jesus actually did for us…my mind cannot comprehend.

    Many thanks

  5. James, I am interested in learning more about this game. Can you share your sources with me on this information?

    Thanks much.

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