As I write this, it is Saturday March 30. Tomorrow is Easter for those denominations who use the Easter dates established by the Gregorian calendar.
Easter. What a joyous word for Christians, recalling as it does the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead after His crucifixion. During the early church, Easter was the most important celebration of the year, bar none. Christmas celebrations were not evident until sometime in the 300s, but the events of Easter, being as they were the foundation of Christianity, resonated within the church from its earliest days.
Yet I am always mindful that Easter, with all its joy, is a culmination. It is Act 2, if you will, of a play written and directed by God the Father, in which God the Son was the sole star. And I cannot think of Act 2, without thinking of Act 1. Without the Crucifixion, there would be no Easter.
So walk with me as I muse on some aspects of the Crucifixion that don’t always receive a lot of attention.
The Roman legions were the finest military on the face of the Earth at that time. Their soldiers were very hard, very tough men, who served a 25 year enlistment. And unlike modern American military practice, they were not usually transferred from station to station. They tended to stay in one location for years. The legion assigned to the area including Judea was the Legio VI Ferrata, or the Legion VI Ironclad. It was primarily based in Syria, near Damascus, but there were detachments of troops in various places, including Jerusalem.
Why do we care about Roman soldiers? Because they are laced throughout the Crucifixion accounts, beginning with the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Judas then, having received the Roman cohort, and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, came there with lanterns and torches and weapons….So the Roman cohort and the commander, and the officers of the Jews, arrested Jesus and bound Him, and led Him to Annas first; for he was father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. John 18:3, 12-14 NASB
The Passion begins with a Roman cohort being part of the people sent to arrest Jesus. It may have been the cohort of legion auxiliaries (think of them as non-Roman citizens serving in the Roman army) that was the normal garrison in Jerusalem, or it may have been a cohort of regular legionaries brought down from Damascus by Pilate when he came to Jerusalem at this time. It doesn’t matter which. They were there when Christ was arrested, and they delivered him to the priests who had ordered the arrest of Jesus.
After the farce of a trial that Jesus endured, Matthew, Mark, and John all record that Jesus was severely beaten and whipped by the Roman soldiers. Matthew and Mark record that the entire Roman cohort was gathered to participate in this. If the cohort was at full strength, this would have been close to five hundred men.
So as many as five hundred men participated in systematically beating and abusing Jesus, and according to scripture they laughed and jeered as they did it.
Once they had had their fun, Jesus was taken to be crucified. That was also done by Roman soldiers. We know this for two reasons: first, the Jewish courts did not have the authority to exact capital punishment. The Romans had reserved that right to themselves when they took over Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and the surrounding regions after the death of Herod the Great. So the Crucifixion was ordered by Pilate and would have had to have been carried out by Roman soldiers. Second, we know the Roman soldiers did it because all four of the gospels record them as being involved.
Mark records that Jesus was crucified about the third hour of the day (Mark 15:25), and that He died about the ninth hour (Mark 15:33-37). The atoning work of Jesus, necessary for the salvation of all believers of all lands of all history, was compressed into six hours.
And the thing that I want to end with, the thing that I want you to see, occurred at the end of that six hours.
Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent.” Luke 23:47-48 NASB
And when the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Mark 15:39 NASB
What I want you to consider was what kind of man this centurion was. His rank is roughly analogous to a captain in the modern U.S. Army. He probably had around 80 men under his command. And to maintain order and discipline in this group of hard, tough men—men who had just beaten and punched out and flogged Jesus—he had to be harder and tougher than they were. He probably started at the bottom and rose through the ranks. This was a man who led from the front on the battlefield, who had run his sword into enemies and watched them die. This was a man who flogged troops guilty of serious infractions of army rules. This was a man to whom crucifixions were a common occurrence. This was a hard, hard, hard man, who had no reason to consider Jesus as anything other than foreign trash from a province that had given them trouble in the past. This was a man who carried out Pilate’s orders to crucify Jesus as a matter of course, handling it in a routine business-like manner, who would ordinarily go back to his room that night and sleep well.
He had crucified men before, maybe dozens of them. What kind of impact did this crucifixion have—this execution of a wandering itinerant holy man from some scruffy village in Galilee—that it caused this man to take note of it? This hard man—this hard as nails, hard as a hammer officer to whom blood and death was all part of a day’s work—this man stood looking up at the cross as Jesus died, and said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
A testimony from a Roman.
Even in the moment of His death, Jesus touched a man and changed him.
He would change a world on the third day.
Soli Deo Gloria.