[Note: The idea for using Matthew 27.36 for the title of this sermon was borrowed from an extraordinarily gifted communicator I heard peach a sermon with this title about 1965. The sermon below was preached on Monday evening, March 25, 2013, at the West Union Chapel, West Union, South Carolina. The reading was Matthew 27:1-36.]
And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet,
“They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots.”
And sitting down they watched him there.
Matthew’s narrative of the Crucifixion is captivating. It is a complicated story of betrayal. There are plots and sub-plots. And, of course, on Sunday morning, there is an unexpected twist.
The betrayal of Jesus by the Jewish religious and political leaders is a tale of hate and malice. The extent of their perfidy is evidenced by their uncharacteristic setting aside of their cherished traditions of justice and mercy. Demonically driven, they abandoned justice and mercy and embraced treachery and hell. In madness, they howled, “Let his blood be on us and our children.” And ignoring the law of consequences, they cursed themselves and future generations of their children and drank down shame and judgment like wine.
For many, Judas stands as the most craven character in the drama of the Cross. Whatever his reasons, he betrayed his friend and teacher and rejected his Savior and Lord for 30 pieces of silver (the price of a common slave). Indeed, at this point, if there were no other reason for hell than the just disposition of Judas, God would have had to commission an angel to construct the contours of hell and set them ablaze as a fiery maelstrom.
I think Pilate is the most disgusting player in the drama of the Cross. I hold him disgusting because I hate cowardice and dissimulation both in myself and others. He stands stereotypically for all despicable politicians, who, while holding Justice’s scales of impartiality and Government’s sword of power, wantonly abandon their duty and sacrifice truth, justice, and the innocent on the bloody altar of political expediency. Not even the 35,855 feet of water of Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is sufficiently deep and dark enough to cover such loathsomeness.
The Roman soldiers are the players in this story to which I am drawn. Theirs is a special perspective. Outwardly, they are bystanders. Their posting in Jerusalem was simply one of many in a career of 25 hard years. They didn’t volunteer for service in Palestine. No one did! It was their misfortune. Their mistreatment and mockery of Jesus were merely a part of their duty in an execution ordered by the Governor. On pain of death, they meticulously executed the prescribed rituals of humiliation and torture. Nevertheless, the spectacle of THIS execution was not only sensational, it was different. Though they were required to participate in and be witnesses to the Crucifixion, I think they were puzzled by this execution as they attempted to grasp the meaning of the events overshadowing and engulfing them in mystery. “And sitting down [as] they watched him there,” what did they know and what were some of their questions? So, let us look at the Crucifixion from the perspective of the Roman soldiers.
First of all, what did the Roman soldiers know about Jesus? A great deal, I think!
Let us not assume these Roman soldiers were ignorant of who Jesus was. In fact, because of the extent of their knowledge, I contend they were uneasy participants in Jesus’ Crucifixion.
There are two ways we can know this. First, they were soldiers. What did Roman soldiers in Jerusalem do when they were on leave? They frequented the taverns of Jerusalem where cheap wine and strong drink were served in abundance, where loose women were found, and where interesting conversations were overhead and joined. A tavern is a good place for disseminating and obtaining information about people. Without a doubt, the taverns of Jerusalem were abuzz with talk about Jesus.
The second way I know these soldiers knew a good deal about Jesus is because Jesus received soldiers gladly when they came to Him. In Luke 3:14, we read there were Roman soldiers among those who went to Him asking: “What shall we do? Jesus answered the soldiers: “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.”
The most dramatic account of Jesus and a Roman soldier is found in Luke 7.1-9.
As Jesus entered Capernaum, an unnamed Roman centurion besought the elders of the synagogue to go to Jesus and ask Him to heal a household slave who was dear to him.
When the elders approached Jesus, they prefaced their request by saying the centurion loved them and had built them a synagogue. Jesus responded by agreeing to go with them to the centurion’s home.
As they came near the centurion’s home, he heard of their coming and sent a messenger saying he was neither worthy to go to nor to receive Jesus in his home, for he was a man of authority who had soldiers under his command. He said he ordered one soldier to go and he went and another to come and he came. He instructed the messenger to tell Jesus, “Say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.”
Jesus responded by saying He had not found such faith in Israel. He then healed the centurion’s slave.
Surely a story such as this could not have been kept a secret! Such a story would have spread through the legionnaires’ camps like fire over dry grass. Indeed, the Roman soldiers witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion knew about Jesus – His teaching, His miracles, and, especially, His kindness extended to them.
Second, what did the Roman soldiers think of the spectacle unfolding before them? Were they mystified by the level of hatred poured out on Jesus by the Jewish mob?
Most certainly, the soldiers had heard of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and his subsequent suicide. They were also aware of the kangaroo court trials of Jesus by the Sanhedrin and King Herod. They were present when Jesus was brought before Pilate, they heard the angry mob call for Barabbas over Jesus, and they witnessed Pilate ceremonially washing his hands of the affair and heard him condemn an innocent man to death. Then, at the Cross, they watched as the Jewish leaders mocked Jesus as He hung on the cross and heard their insulting taunts as they called for Him to come down from the cross.
How did they account for such hatred and rejection of Jesus? Better still, how do we?
The clear teaching of the Bible is there is only one God – not many gods. The clear teaching of the Bible is Jesus is the Son of God and the promised Messiah. There is no other – in the past, the present, or the future.
The clear teaching of the Bible is Jesus is the only Savior of sinners. Jesus’ testimony in John 14.6 is “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” And the Apostolic testimony in Act 4:12 is Jesus is the ONLY Savior, “for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” In theological parlance, this is referred to as the exclusive claim of the Gospel.
No wonder the Jews hated Jesus so! They believed their scrupulous keeping of the Hebrew Law justified them before God; however, Jesus said it witnessed against and condemned them.
No wonder the pagans hated Jesus so! They believed their gods of carved stones and precious metals were real; however, the message of the Bible is they are demonic idols and stairwells to hell.
No wonder the Romans hated Jesus so! They believed Caesar, their living god of power and conquest, was king of kings. They condemned the early Christians saying “these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus” (Acts 17:7); nevertheless, the Apostolic witness is Jesus is “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6.15). And the witness of Jesus to Himself is He is “the Alpha and the Omega”, the one “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1.8), and the Amen of John in Revelation 19.16 is the name written on His vesture: “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.”
Things have not changed much, have they? The exclusive nature of the Christian faith still declares Jesus is the ONLY Savior. And the hatred of the Jesus of the Bible is as palpably evident today as it was when the Roman soldiers kept watch at the Cross
Today, no wonder Jesus is anathema to liberal, universalist, antinomian, and exsanguinated churhianity! He condemns it as a lifeless counterfeit.
Today, no wonder Jesus is anathema to idealistic and moralistic social-dogoodism! He condemns it as a fruitless passion.
Today, no wonder Jesus is anathema to the false-prophets of libertinism who worship immoral excess! He condemns these who make a lifestyle of immorality as dead even while they continue in their sins.
Today, no wonder Jesus is anathema to Islam and all other religious constructs, philosophies, and isms in our world who say theirs is another road to God! Jesus condemns them as dead end roads to eternal death.
Truly, things have not changed. If the Roman solders at the Cross were present today, they would be no less mystified by the hatred poured out on the Jesus of the Bible. Apart from divine intervention and the Holy Spirit’s quickening of the heart, the enmity of the human heart toward the God of the Bible and His Christ has not changed.
My third and last point is this: What was the response of the Roman soldiers to Jesus?
I wonder. Were their hearts stirred to faith by what they witnessed? I think such was the case. As a matter of fact, I think the faith of those soldiers contributed to the rapid spread of the early Church and portended the evangelization of the Roman world. You are asking, “How can he say this?” Well, I read ahead and found these words in Matthew 27.54: “Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared [were terrified] greatly, saying, Truely this was the Son of God.”
Do not misunderstand how the word “fear” is used in the Bible. According to the Bible, “fear” or “terror” is the common response of people when they come in contact with God and are confronted by His holiness and power. For example, “fear” or “terror” is how Gideon (Judges 6.15) and Isaiah (Isaiah 6.4) described their encounters with God. Perhaps the reason some of us find the response of fear odd is because our culture has lost its Biblical moorings and God is no longer holy or powerful for so many.
Sometimes “fear” is a synonym for “faith.” For example, Jacob swore by “the fear of his father Isaac” (Genesis 31:53), and the phrase, “the fear of the LORD,” is often used for faith in God.
Obviously, the relationship between “fear” and “faith” are close. Perhaps they are inseparable. I like to think of them in this manner: in the quickening work of the Holy Spirit, “fear” is the hammer striking the die of “faith” that sets the image of Christ on the life of the believer and identifies the believer as royal coinage.
Well, here we are again in the Easter season reviewing the events of the Crucifixion. So, sitting down and reviewing again these extraordinary events, what is your response?
The events of the Crucifixion were soul-shaking. The Roman soldiers were compelled to cry out, “Truely this was the Son of God.”
In spite of our often hearing this story, the story is no less captivating and no less soul-shaking today than it was when the Roman soldiers sat watching Jesus die on the Cross. The story is real. Does the telling of the story cause us to tremble in fear? It should! Does the telling of the story elicit in us faith that cries out, “Truely this was the Son of God”? It should!
And sitting down and reading the retelling of this story with me, is your response the response of fear and faith?
Three of the saddest words in the Bible, I think, are found in Matthew 28.17. They describe the response of some who saw Jesus after the Resurrection and did not believe. The three words are: “But some doubted.” Like the Roman soldiers, do you fear God and confess Jesus is the Son of God, or do you stand off doubting?
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