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WHAT DID THE ROMAN SEE UPON THE CROSS?
Lent: Minor Characters About Calvary. No 5
An eyewitness account to another person’s suffering is always of great interest for understanding the truth about what happened. When Jesus died upon the cross, there were many eyewitnesses, but one was a professional army man, who had seen many people die. He was not interested in the dispute with the Priests and Jewish leaders. His observation of the crucifixion of the death of Jesus has great insight and impartiality.
1. THE ROMAN EMPIRE IN THE TIME OF JESUS.
In 27 B.C. Caesar Augustus became the first Emperor. Augustus was extremely efficient as an administrator. Unlike Julius Caesar, Augustus treated the Senate with respect and gained theirs in return. He appointed procurators over volatile provinces where the Roman legions were stationed. Pontius Pilate was such a procurator or governor over Judea. Augustus inaugurated an extensive program of social, religious, and moral reform. Benefits were given to couples that had children. Adultery was made illegal entailing severe penalties. Traditional religion was stressed, and temples were renovated. Augustus was pontifex maximus in 12 B.C., establishing him as both political and religious head of state. Augustus built another forum as the judicial, religious, and commercial center for the city. He built basilicas, temples, theatres, libraries, baths, warehouses and the first amphitheater in Rome’s history. Extensive water systems were constructed that included artificial lakes, canals, aqueducts, and flood control. The sewage system was renovated. A police force of 3,000 men was created along with a fire-fighting force that numbered 7,000.
Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) and conducted His ministry during the reign of Augustus’s successor, Tiberius, A.D. 14–37 whose image was stamped on a silver denarius that Jesus referred to in a discussion about taxation. Luke 20:20–26 Tiberius was an able military commander and a good administrator. He followed Augustus’s example of not expanding the empire thus avoiding war. The pax Romana (peace of Rome) that Augustus had inaugurated was preserved, providing easy, safe travel throughout the empire. Pontius Pilate was appointed governor of Judea, a post he held until A.D. 36, just prior to the death of Tiberius. The success of the Roman Empire depended upon the ability of the legions, under the command of professional soldiers to keep peace throughout the world. The foot soldiers were usually prisoners of war from some other conquered land. Pax Romana was the key to prosperity and success. Greek and Latin were universal languages. The Roman Empire reached from Britain to Arabia and from Germany to Morocco.
2. THE ROMAN GOVERNOR IN THE TIME OF JESUS.
Three non-Christian writers mention Pilate’s role in the death of Jesus. Jesus posed no threat to Roman order and was not involved in any political activity. But this was why the Romans executed him. Pilate was under threat from the Emperor because of earlier failures to keep the peace. Luke reported Luke 23:12 that after Jesus’ trial Pilate and Herod Antipas became friends. Only recently Herod too had executed someone very similar to Jesus, John the Baptist, whose teachings were also popular.
3. THE FACE-OFF BETWEEN PILATE AND JESUS.
The judgement area of the palace of the Roman Governor Pilate has been excavated and is known as Lithostrotos, or Gabbatha, the place of judgement. On the raised platform or bema stood the large judgement seat from which Roman justice was dispensed. Pilate was fetched from his slumbers as the first roosters crowed at the dawn of what was to be forever known as “Good Friday”. Earlier, Jesus was dragged through a series of illegal trials by the Jewish religious system. Annas, the godfather of an ecclesiastical dynasty, examined him in his house. Jesus was then dragged next door and before the current High Priest, the crafty Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas. His burial box for his bones, with his name upon it, has been discovered.
After being abused, Jesus was roughly taken to the chamber of The Sanhedrin, where a hastily assembled group, met illegally in a pre-dawn assembly to hear the High Priest’s report of his examination of Jesus. Before the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas declared that it was essential for the sake of the nation that Jesus be put to death immediately. He charged him with blasphemy, threatening to destroy the temple, threatening the peace, claiming to be king, and representing himself as the Son of God. They did not need a fair trial. What they needed was a verdict! The Sanhedrin had no power to execute Jesus. So they sought the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate to grant execution quickly. They wanted the end before the people were aware what was happening. Jesus was dragged, still bound, past the Temple area to the Tower of Antonia in the first light before sunrise.
The Jews handed Jesus over the soldiers, then stepped back lest they defile themselves by walking on Roman territory. Little matter they were already defiling themselves by walking all over human rights in this travesty of justice! Pilate examined Jesus. He then sent Jesus back to the Jews declaring he could find nothing worthy of death in Jesus. But the Jews sent him back. They threatened that if Pilate did not find Jesus guilty and sentence Him to death, then the Sanhedrin would report Pilate to Rome as being indifferent to the threat of Roman security in the region. Pilate tried to avoid the issue of having the visiting Herod make the decision. Herod amused himself with the well-known prisoner; but was not going to make an unpopular decision when Jesus was really in Pilate’s territory.
Pilate tried to release Jesus, as part of an amnesty granting a prisoner release each Passover. But the Jews would rather have a patriot, Jesus Barabbas, arrested for offences against the Romans, released instead of Jesus. They did not know Pilate had his own inner struggle. Pilate’s wife urged him to release Jesus, as she dreamed of trouble if anything was done to Jesus. But faced with the blackmail of the scheming priests, he dismissed his wife’s fears and handed Jesus over to be crucified. The Governor had shown he wanted peace at any price. There on the Lithostrotos, the viceregal Pilate, clothed in his leather, purple robe and brass, faced his prisoner, whose hands were bound, his head and face bloodied, wearing only a seamless, homespun robe. Pilate ordered Jesus scourged and then crucified.
4. THE ROMAN SOLDIERS AT THE DEATH OF JESUS.
A centurion had oversight of the task. He was probably from Italy with some education. The Roman soldiers who scourged Jesus were uneducated men probably from some other conquered country pressed into armed service. They did their work with unbelievable cruelty. John 19:1 Scourging was done with the victim tied to a post. There were thirteen stokes on the chest and twenty-six on the back. Often the victim died from the beating. The flagellum consisted of a handle with leather thongs weighted with jagged pieces of bone or metal, to make the blows lacerate the flesh. The victim had to carry the extremely heavy cross, or crossbeam, under the lash of the soldiers to the hill outside the city walls, where the victim was nailed to it through his wrists and ankles.
Mark records only one of Jesus’ seven cries from the cross, a cry of agony “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry of Jesus reflects something of the depth of meaning of Paul’s statement 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” The ignorant and heartless bystanders mistook the first words of Jesus’ cry “Eloi, Eloi” (“My God, my God”) to be a cry for Elijah to rescue Him. “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” The soldiers were typical of all the ordinary people whose jobs involved them in the crucifixion of Jesus. They include the Romans who nailed Jesus to the Cross; the Temple Guards who arrested Jesus in the Garden, the carpenters, tree-fellers and workmen who had made the Cross without thinking of their part in the wider crime against humanity.
They cry with Hitler’s concentration camp doctors, the comrades of Stalin, the mindless teenagers of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, the scientists behind the atomic bomb, the chemists who are making the new germ warfare — “It is not our fault! We are simply doing our job! Blame the politicians, the generals, the leaders, but don’t blame us because we are just doing our job!”
“Three workmen fashioning a Cross
on which a fourth must die.
Yet not one of them the other asked,
“And why? And why? And why?”
They simply said, “This is our business,
our living we must earn,
What happens to the other bloke
is none of our concern.””
Their complacency and self-centredness crucify the Son of God afresh.
Mark does not identify the soldier who went to get the wine vinegar. The drink is posca cheap wine vinegar drunk by labourers and soldiers. But some soldier got a sponge filled with this wine vinegar and placed it on the tip of a stick of hyssop John 19:29 and held up to Jesus’ lips so that he could suck the liquid from it. Some of the bystanders wanted to prevent the soldier from giving the wine vinegar to Jesus but he insisted, “Leave Him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.” After six hours of torture, Jesus cried out and died. The loud cry of Jesus is unusual because victims of crucifixion usually had no strength left, especially when near death. But Jesus’ death was no ordinary one, nor was his shout the last gasp of a dying man. It was a shout of victory that anticipated the triumph of the Resurrection.
The Roman centurion in command of the detachment of soldiers at the cross had witnessed the scourging, mocking, spitting, lashing, and the nailing. The centurion was the officer in command of one hundred soldiers. They were usually career soldiers, and they formed the real backbone of the Roman army. Now he heard Jesus’ last cry and watched him die. The centurion was deeply impressed. He had never seen anything like this before! His statement “Surely this man was the Son of God” probably did not have its full theological sense as we understand it, yet it is the word of a man deeply moved and drawn to the person of the Righteous Sufferer on the cross.
In view of Mark’s opening words to his Gospel, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” Mark 1:1 the statement of the centurion at the climax of Jesus’ passion takes on added significance. Whether or not the centurion realized the full import of his words, they were for Mark a profoundly true statement of the identity of the Man on the cross. Jesus had said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” John 12:32 The Roman centurion became the first to look at Jesus upon the Cross, and realize, that here was a Man different from all others, and even though he did not realize the full significance of his words at that stage, said “Surely this man was the Son of God.” When we are drawn to look at Jesus on the cross, and consider the passion of the Christ was for the forgiveness of our sins, we too must say with growing faith, “Surely this man was the Son of God”