Faces Around the Cross: The Soldiers
by: Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.
We are looking at “Faces Around the Cross.” According to the gospels an undetermined number of Roman soldiers witnessed the death of Jesus. Matthew and Mark both mention that a whole battalion mocked Jesus while he was still Pilate’s prisoner. A Roman battalion consisted of between 400 and 600 Men. John mentions that 4 soldiers gambled for the clothing of Jesus at the foot of the cross. The number of soldiers who witnessed the crucifixion lies between these two extremes. All three synoptic gospels mentions one officer, a centurion. The very title “centurion” means “leader of 100.” Given the division of opinion about Jesus in the city of Jerusalem during the week before his death—many loved him and many hated him, it may be that the centurion used rather more of his company than less for crowd control as he took Jesus from the place of judgment, through the streets of the city, to the place of execution.
I have jumped too far ahead! The first episode involving soldiers occurs during the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark, Matthew and John all three imply that those soldiers and officers who came out against Jesus were employed by the temple, and functioned more like a police force than an army.(1) Luke makes the same point even more forcibly when he has Jesus address “the chief priest, officers and the elders of the temple” who had come out against him, saying:
“Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22:52-53)
These Jewish soldiers/policemen not only arrested Jesus in the garden, they maintained order during his mockery of a trial before the Sanhedrin, and then delivered Jesus to Pilate.
In my view, the first time that Roman Soldiers appear in the Passion Narrative is when the Jewish authorities delivered Jesus to Pilate. The governor’s soldiers stood guard during his trail. Then, according to St. Mark, after Pilate condemned Jesus to satisfy the crowd that gathered before the governor’s palace, the governor’s soldiers led Jesus into the palace, where they called together their whole battalion. The soldiers then clothed Jesus in a purple cloak, and plaited a crown of thorns which they put on him. They struck his head with a reed, and spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. Then they saluted him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, and put his own clothes on him. (Mark 15:16-20a)
Matthew and John are in substantial agreement with Mark’s outline of the events.
Luke alone mentions that when Pilate learned that Jesus was a Galilean, he sent him over to Herod, the Jewish King and ruler of Galilee who was in Jerusalem at that time. Luke omits the episode with the Roman Soldiers in the governor’s place, and says that it was “King Herod and his solders who treated Jesus with contempt and mocked him.” He says that when the soldiers had done this, they dressed Jesus in “gorgeous apparel,” and sent him back to Pilate. Pilate interviewed Jesus a second time before, “releasing him to their will,” that is the will of the Jewish authorities. Luke seeks to transfer the blame for the heinous treatment of Jesus from Gentile soldiers to Jewish Soldiers, for the same reason has the Pilate say, that Jesus had done “nothing deserving death.” (2) Luke was a Gentile author appealing to Gentile readers hoping to attract other Gentiles to Jesus. (3)
We know from John 18:31 that Jews of that day had no power to execute a death sentence. Therefore there can be little doubt that Roman soldier were primarily responsible for the carrying out the sentence of crucifixion that Pilate pronounced upon Jesus. Mark tells us that the Roman soldiers (“they”), compelled Simon of Cyrene, who was coming into Jerusalem from the country, to carry the cross of Jesus. No doubt Simon looked strong, and many scholars have speculated that Jesus was too weak to carry his own cross because of the scourging he had received at the hands of the soldiers.
So, too, it was the soldiers of Rome who nailed Jesus to the cross, driving the nails through his feet, and his hands—-really his wrists, for the wrists were considered a part of the hand, and the hands were too tender to sustain an individual’s full body weight for any length of time without tearing through. Likewise it was the soldiers of Rome who placed a sign upon the cross in accordance with the order of Pilate . (Matthew 27:37; Matthew 15:26, Luke23:38; John 19:19) The sign was written in Hebrew, and Latin, and Greek, and it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (3) And they crucified him between two thieves, the presence of whom also implies that the centurion would have used additional soldiers.
The gospels attribute two more dastardly deeds to the Roman soldiers.
We have already mentioned how, in John 19:23 and 24, when the soldiers had crucified Jesus they divided his garments among themselves, one for each soldier, and then cast lots for his tunic. John says that this was done to fulfill the scripture, “They parted my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (John 19:24 cf. Psalm 22:18)
Finally, according to Luke, soldiers, which may have included both Jewish officers and police and Romans soldiers, join with the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, mocking Jesus, and offering him vinegar, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:37)
All of these events paint the soldiers in a very bad light. These are they who arrested Jesus, and watched over him during the mockery of his trial, and then scourged him (John 19:1), and made sport of him, stripping him, and spitting upon him, and placing a crown of thorns upon his head, arraying him in gorgeous apparel, and mocking him. These are they who drove him through the streets of Jerusalem, and nailed him to the cross, and mocked him in death. These are they who were cruel in thought and in action, who tortured not just a man’s body, but also his mind.
Is this the whole, story? Thankfully, it is not. On the whole the gospels are much more appreciative of soldiers than they are of religious folk.
In Luke’s gospel the soldiers are among those who respond to the preaching of John the baptist for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And when they ask, “What should we do?” John responds, And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (John 3:13-14)
One of the great stories of the New Testament is the story of Jesus and the Centurion. Both Matthew ( Matt. 8:5-13) and Luke (Luke 7:1-10) tell this story. When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, and pleaded with him saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him:
“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
And when Jesus heard this confession, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And then Jesus turned to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And St. Matthew says that the servant was healed at that very moment. Luke adds that when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well.
It is also worth mentioning that in the 10th Chapter of Acts when the Holy Spirit falls upon the Gentiles, demonstrating to Peter and those that are with him that the Gentiles as well as Jews are welcome to become followers of Jesus and members of the church, the event takes place in the house of Cornelius, who was a centurion in the Roman Legion known as “the Italian Cohort (Acts 10:1).
The Bible, like many of us, thinks highly of those who serve as soldiers. Joshua was a warrior, as was Saul, and Jonathan, and David, and many of Israel’s kings. The Bible thinks highly of those who serve as soldiers, yet there is no little anxiety about bearing arms and going to war. Jesus himself, though brave beyond measure, refused to become the leader of a revolt. According to Matthew 26:53 when he was taken prisoner in the garden, he told his disciples not to resist saying, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” So, too, Jesus taught that we are to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. (Matthew 5:43-48) For this reason Christians have long been divided over whether or not a Christian should serve in the military. Some groups—like Quakers, and Seventh Day Adventist‘s say that we should not, though both groups have demonstrated their personal bravery in a multitude of ways. Perhaps you have heard of the Seventh Day Adventist’s “white coats,” who, during the 2nd World War, refused to go into battle, but volunteered to be tested with chemical weapons deterrents. Other groups—notably Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, who have the honor of claiming John Witherspoon, the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence, have been more open to service. Still ther denominations, including our own Moravian Church, leave military service up to the conscience of individual members.
Perhaps you will recall the story of Sgt. Alvin York, who volunteered for service during the 1st World War, and then struggled with whether to bear arms. He was a crack-shot with his Enfield Rifle, but he confessed to his Captain that as a Christian he did not think he could take a human life. His captain, who regarded York as a good soldier, gave York the opportunity of returning to his home in Tennessee to determine if he could fight. In the movie version of his life, Alvin York, played by Gary Cooper is sitting on a hillside when the wind blows the pages of his Bible to Matthew 22:21 where Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are Gods.” Alvin York decided that living as a free citizen in a free country demanded he serve his country. He went back to his company, and he went to Europe, and on October 8, 1918 he led seven other soldiers in an attack on a German machine gun position during which York and his men captured 32 machine guns, killed 28 German soldiers and captured 132 more. York himself killed most of the Germans, including 6 at close range with his pistol. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. When asked about his bravery, York insisted that he had killed only to save life—including his own.
The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer made a an argument similar to York’s. Before the 2nd World War Bonhoeffer wrote in his book “No Rusty Swords,” that it was better to die, or to watch a brother die, than to take up arms. Later, he participated in the plot to kill Hitler.
I would make one caution to all who decide to serve. Jesus said, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) He does not mean that all who enter a battle will die in it. He means that even Christians who enter the battle, share the risk of all who are in the battle. Many who have been into battle credit God with delivering them from the fray. (5) However, those who enter do well to do so in the knowledge that they are sharing the risk because the cause, and those whom they fight for, and with, are worthy.
For me one of the great texts of the Bible applies specifically to those who serve their country, and one another. Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Jesus said this of himself. Yet this text is particularly appropriate for those who have given what Abraham Lincoln called “the Last full measure of devotion” in the service of their ideals, their nation, and, above all, their fellows soldiers.
Let me say again: The Bible shows a great deal of respect for soldiers. At the death of Jesus it is the centurion who makes the first confession of faith in the Crucified Messiah. Mark says that when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Elo-i, Elo-i, lama sabach-thani?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And one ran and, filled a sponge with vinegar, put it on a reed, and gave it to Jesus, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:37-39) Matthew adds color commentary (6), and says that it was not just the centurion but also his soldiers who are the first to confess that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the Son of God. This was quite a confession for a Roman Solider, as they regarded the Emperor Himself as a God.
I have known enough soldiers, sailors, airman, coasties, and marines to know that few of them are saints, especially when time, and tide, and the needs of their country, cast them ashore on foreign soil. Some, like the Staff Sgt. In Afghanistan who recently killed 16 civilians, do horrible unspeakable acts—for which they bear ultimate responsibility, despite the fact that they are acting in conditions few of us can imagine. Most commit the small indiscretions that prove their own fallible humanity is just like ours. Yet, on the whole, as a class of people it is appropriate to think that citizen warriors are represented at the foot of the cross by the centurion and his soldiers who are in the front rank for whom Jesus prayed when he said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”(7)
You and I could do well to emulate the devotion and courage of the soldiers. The apostle’s advice to Timothy is still good advice to us, “No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the aim of the one who enlisted him.” (2nd Timothy 2:4) Christ has enlisted us to do his service. He does not ask most of us to take up arms and die for us. He ask most of us to put down our weapons and live for Him. We do well to avoid all those activities that we know he would not approve. We also need the courage of soldiers. Not long ago, we sent a young man off to war. He was in an area of conflict for six months. He was fortunate. On this deployment, he lost only two or three members of his unit, and he grieved the loss. In the same time frame, we here at the church lost six or seven people, and we grieved the loss. In one sense the death of a person who is old and full of years cannot begin to compare with the death of a soldier who is just able to vote. Yet, in another sense, all of life is a combat zone. Death is the last enemy, and we all pray that we will be able face the last enemy with courage. Thankfully, we are not alone. Perhaps you remember an incident that took place when Joshua was by Jericho. A man appeared before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and challenged him saying, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And the man answered, “Neither, but as commander of the Army of the Lord I have now come.” A brave captain, Jesus Christ, now stands by our side, and he will give us the courage we need, in life, and in death.
1) See John 18:3, 12 and 2 Chronicles 8:9. Matthews says that when Judas betrayed Jesus he went to the garden with “ a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people.” (Matthew 26:47) Mark says that he had with him “a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.” (Mark 14:43) John says that Judas procured a band of soldiers and some officers “from the chief priests and the Pharisees” and went to the garden lanterns and torches and weapons” (John 18:3) I do not think that John is talking about Roman soldiers at this juncture. There is no conflict here.
2) Mark and Matthew omit this phrase. This phrase is used three more times in the twin volume of Acts! (Acts 13:28, acts 23:29, and Acts 25:25. In the same way, John’s Gospel heighten’s the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. In John 19:6 Pilate says to the authorities, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him.” Ultimately Pilate is forced the execute the sentence, but only after he ask, “Shall I crucify your king?” And the authorities of the Jews answer, “We have no king but Caesar!”
4) All four gospels mention this ironic sign, and scholars are universally agreed that Jesus was executed precisely because he claimed to be the Jewish Messiah-King, and that his claims brought him into conflict with Rome. This conflict was inevitable, for the whole empire, “had no king but Caesar.”
5) One of Rickenbacker’s most famous near-death experiences occurred in October 1942. He was sent on a tour of the Pacific Theater of Operations to review both living conditions and military operations, and also to deliver personally a secret message to General Douglas MacArthur from the President. After visiting several air and sea bases in Hawaii, Rickenbacker was a passenger in the B-17D Flying Fortress numbered 40-3089, which strayed hundreds of miles off course while on its way to a refueling stop on Canton Island in the Central Pacific Ocean. The B-17 was forced to ditch in a remote and little-traveled part of the Central Pacific.The crewmen’s food supply ran out after three days. Then, on the eighth day, a seagull landed on Rickenbacker’s head. He warily and cautiously captured it, and then the survivors meticulously divided it into equal parts and used part of it for fishing bait. They lived on sporadic rain water that fell and similar food “miracles”. Eddie Rickenbacker lived many years beyond that ordeal, but he never forgot the sacrifice of that first lifesaving seagull. And he never stopped saying, “Thank You.” That’s why almost every Friday night he would walk out to the end of a pier with a bucket full of shrimp, and Eddie and his crew spent 24 days in the rafts before being sighted by American airplanes. Eddie went from 180 to 126 pounds during that ordeal. He lived about another 30 years after that and died in 1973.
6) He reports that many of the tombs of the saints were opened, and says that the bodies of the saints came out and appeared to many in Jerusalem, but the centurion does not witness this, as it happens three days later, “after his resurrection.” Rather, it is when the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, that they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:50-54) Thus, in Matthew, it is not just the centurion, but also his soldiers who are the first to confess Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the Son of God.
7) One may argue that it was Roman soldiers who guarded the tomb of Jesus (Matthew 27:62-66) and spread abroad the story that the disciples of Jesus had stolen his body from the dead (Matthew 28:11-15). Yet, when the authorities when to Pilate with a request for a guard, he turned the table on them, saying, “You have a guard of soldiers; go make it as secure as you can.” (Matthew 27:65) The soldiers in question may have been “the officers of the Jews.”