The Soldiers: Unmoved By the Cross
Two sailors had spent the night indulging in every sinful pleasure of the city where they had a layover. In the morning, as they made their way back to the ship, the one challenged the other, “I’ll bet you $100 you don’t have enough guts to go into that cathedral and confess to the priest everything you’ve done tonight. Why, he’d have a coronary!”
“I’ll take that bet,” the other said. He sauntered into the cathedral, went into the confessional, and began, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” And he gave in graphic detail all the escapades of the night before.
But the priest was perceptive enough to sense the disingenuous nature of the confession, and he said, “Son, your penance will be to go to the front of this cathedral where there’s a life size statue of Jesus dying on the cross. And I want you to look straight into the face of the suffering Savior and I want you to say, ‘Lord Jesus, all this you did for me, and I couldn’t care less!’”
The young man came out of the confessional laughing, demanding payment of the bet. But his friend said, “No, it’s not complete until you do the penance.”
“That’s no problem,” he said. He went to the front of the auditorium, looked at the crucifix, and said, “Lord Jesus, all this you did for me…”. And suddenly the teaching of his childhood swept over him: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”. “God laid on him the iniquity of us all…”. “Greater love has no man than this, then to lay down his life for a friend…”. “Lord Jesus,” he began again, “all this you did for me…”. And he burst into tears, and he said, “I am so sorry!”—and he fell to his knees in repentance.
You know there is an awesome power about the cross. Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). There is a mysterious magnetism about the cross that attracts us. The cross convicts the sinner, it convinces the skeptic, it humbles the arrogant. The Bible says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Some consider the cross “foolishness” today. They can look in the face of the crucified Christ and be totally indifferent. But to those of us who are Christian, we know that the cross forgives our sin, transforms our daily attitude, and gives us an eternal hope.
That’s why for the next several weeks I want you to stand beneath the cross and look at the Savior dying for you again. We’re going to look at the cross from the perspective of a variety of people who were there in the first century. And I hope that you will see it in a fresh way and that you’ll conclude of a truth, “This man is the Son of God, dying for me.”
Let’s look first at the soldiers who were unmoved by the cross. That account is in several of the Gospels, but let’s look at the one found in John, the 19th chapter, verses 23 and 24: “When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. ‘Let’s not tear it,’ they said to one another. ‘Let’s decide by lot who will get it.’ This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, ‘They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.’ So this is what the soldiers did.”
Now think of that for a moment. The most significant event of history was right before them, and they were missing it. They, with their own hands, were touching the Son of God, the Savior of the world, but they ignored it. And the reasons that these Roman soldiers were unmoved by the cross are the very same reasons that many people are unaffected by it today. So let’s examine those reasons in hopes that the death of Christ will move us to repentance and renewal again.
I. REASON #1: FAMILIARITY.
One apparent reason that the soldiers were indifferent was familiarity.
Crucifixions were just routine for these soldiers. When someone is executed in one of our states today it always makes headlines. Capital punishment is very rare today and always breeds much media attention and controversy. But death by crucifixion was common in the first century. In his book Crucifixion Martin Hengel, past professor of New Testament at the University of Tubingen, reports that during Titus’ siege of Jerusalem up to 500 people a day were whipped, tortured, and crucified outside the city walls of Jerusalem in hopes the gruesome sight would move the besieged to surrender.
Discipleship Journal reported on a tradition that when Jesus was a teenager there was a Jewish rebellion near where He lived. The Roman army crushed the rebellion. But to assure that it didn’t happen again, they crucified an Israelite every 10 meters along the road for a distance of 16 kilometers. Now the sight of over 1,600 people being crucified along the road a distance of about 10 miles had to leave an indelible impression on the minds of teenagers. And perhaps Jesus saw that. So when He said to His disciples, “We’re going to go up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man is going to be handed over to His enemies to be crucified,” He knew the hideous reality of that.
But these soldiers had probably performed so many crucifixions that it was methodical for them. It was nasty business, but it was their job and they got used to it. In fact, Matthew’s gospel says that after they crucified Him, after they cast lots, they sat down and watched Him there (27:35-36). And you get the impression that they were very casual about it. They just sat down and watched like they normally did.
When I was a teenager I had an older friend who drove an ambulance for a living. And at first when he had to pick up dead bodies from accidents, and people who were seriously wounded, it just ripped him apart. But he said you either had to get used to it, or you quit. And eventually he became accustomed to it. Not that he didn’t care, but he said, “You know, you could take somebody to the hospital who was seriously wounded, and an hour later go home and eat supper.”
These soldiers, I think, had become accustomed to it. They would hear the screams, they would see the grimaces, they would listen to the pitiful pleas for mercy, and they knew what to expect. In time the breathing would become more spasmodic, and life would ebb away, and they would go home and eat supper.
I fear that the cross has become so familiar today that we lose the distinction of it. We see crosses everywhere. On tops of churches, etched on Bibles, on tombstones, even crosses worn as jewelry. We’ve got the Red Cross, and the Blue Cross, and the White Cross. And it’s the most widely used and highly recognized symbol of the Christian faith. It’s kind of strange, isn’t it, that an instrument of execution, that would today be like the electric chair, has become the centerpiece of the Good News. But seldom do we really stop and think what happened there. Familiarity does not equal intimacy. There’s a big difference between displaying the cross and being transformed by the cross.
Entertainer Madonna often wears a large cross when she sings. And a few years ago she was asked why, and she said, “The cross is in.” She said, “I think the cross is sexy, there’s a naked man hanging on it!” And we cringe for her.
The Law of Familiarity reads: “No matter how valuable, given enough time everything will be taken for granted.”
Now it’s possible for those of us who have attended church for a long time, maybe those of us who grew up in church, to become so familiar with the cross that we’re no longer moved by it. Maybe you grew up in church and you can sing several stanzas of “The Old Rugged Cross” without even paying attention to the words. Maybe you went to a Christian school, or in youth group you memorized some Scripture about the cross, and every week you take communion—you know, “This is my body, this is my blood”—but you’re no longer moved by it. It’s methodical for you.
Doug Cobb, a successful Christian businessman, has for several years participated in taking the Jesus film to third world countries where they’ve never heard about Christ. They set up kind of a large outdoor theatre and people come by the thousands, because many of them have never even seen an electric light, much less a motion picture. And they’ve never heard about Jesus. And this film just goes through the life of Christ in excellent detail. But the missionaries who do that say that many times when they come to the scene where Jesus is arrested and brutalized by the soldiers, many of the natives will almost storm the screen. They are so emotional that they want to physically react to prevent it. And we kind of smile at their naïve response, but don’t you wish you could be so moved? Isn’t that preferred over our calloused indifference at having seen it so many times? Hebrews chapter 3, verse 15, says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…”.
II. REASON #2: PREJUDICE.
But there was a second contributing factor to the soldier’s indifference. Maybe they were unmoved by the crucifixion because of their prejudice against God’s people.
The Romans hated the Jews, and the feeling was mutual. I mean, think of the Jews. They were a proud independent people who chaffed under Roman oppression. There were some Jewish zealots that hated the Roman Empire so much that they would carry knives under their cloaks so that in a crowd of people, if they brushed by a Roman soldier, they would reach out and cut at him and then just disappear in the crowd. Or they would delight in trying to get one isolated in an alley somewhere and try to kill him.
And the Roman soldiers hated to be stationed in Palestine. The religious restrictions and the racial prejudice made it one of their least favorite assignments. And when an authority would say, “We’ve got a Jewish man here who needs to be tortured, they delighted in the opportunity to take advantage of that. So when Jesus was handed over to them, that’s why they beat Him with their fists, and they put this robe on Him, and a crown of thorns, and mocked Him and spit upon Him. They hated the Jews. And they were so prejudiced that it never crossed their minds that this could be somebody special, that this could actually be God in the flesh.
Maybe you’re not moved by the cross anymore because of your prejudice against the people of Christ. One guy said, “I’ll never be back to church! I got a divorce and my church would not remarry me, so I’ve had it with them!” Nancy Ortberg said, “The only time I ever saw my dad cry was when he was telling us a story about when he was a little boy during the depression, and they were so poor that his mother went to the church asking for financial assistance. And when she came back and told us that the church said no, she was so broken that she never went back to church,” she said. And Nancy Ortberg said, “When my dad told that story, he wept. And today he’s not hostile about the church, he’s just totally indifferent.”
I heard a woman tell once that she didn’t go to church for 25 years after her mother’s funeral, because the preacher at the funeral never even mentioned her mother’s name, didn’t give any hope. And she was so bitter that her insensitivity turned her off to the gospel message entirely.
Maybe you aren’t moved by the cross because a Christian exploited you and took advantage of you, or the church offended you, or a preacher turned you off. Back during the days when I was considering entering Bible college and studying for the ministry, I heard a preacher that discouraged me from preaching. He was one of these guys who was just so negative and so condemning that I thought, “I don’t want to be like that.” He preached for 45 minutes, and his points were don’t drink, and don’t dance, and don’t swear, and don’t play cards, and don’t go to movies, and don’t have premarital sex. And when I walked out of there, I wanted to do those things more than when I walked in! Do you know what I mean? And a friend who was with me said, “I knew I was in trouble when I realized, those are my seven goals in life!” And I thought, “If that’s what it’s like to preach, and if that’s the way I’ll make people feel, I don’t want to do that!”
But then I took a look again at the preaching of Jesus. The Bible tells us the common people heard Him gladly, that He ate with sinners, and that the sinners then wanted to change and become more like God. And I would challenge you today to see beyond the hypocritical imperfect Christian people in churches and look to Jesus Christ.
Remember in the Bible when the man Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector, heard that Jesus was coming through his town of Jericho, that he wanted to see Jesus? But when he went outside there was such a big crowd around Jesus, and he was such a short man, that he could not see even the head of Christ. And rather then just turning around and going home because the crowd wouldn’t let him see Jesus, Zacchaeus humbled himself and climbed up a sycamore tree. He got a higher vantage point and he could see Jesus. And Jesus saw him and invited him to lunch. And Zacchaeus’ life was transformed.
And I challenge you to get above the crowd, the people who are imperfect just like you, to see the perfect Christ.
C.S. Lewis was a brilliant English scholar who had trouble seeing beyond the church to Jesus. When he went to church he was turned off by the music. He thought the hymns of the early 20th century, in his words, “Were second rate poetry to third rate music.” But he began to study the Bible and see Jesus Christ. He became a Christian. He became the most articulate apologist for the Christian faith of our time. He wrote the book Mere Christianity that’s influenced thousands of skeptics over the years. But Lewis had to overcome his prejudice against the church, and overcome his pride, to see who Jesus really is.
Hebrews chapter 12 says, “…let us throw off everything that hinders (and it may be hypocritical people who hinder us) … and let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (vv. 1-3).
III. REASON #3: MATERIALISM.
There’s one other hint at why the soldiers were unmoved by the cross, and that is they were focused on worldly things. They had a problem with materialism.
Jesus had this garment that they didn’t want to cut up. It’s interesting they were willing to cut up the body of Jesus, but they didn’t want to cut up this seamless robe. Evidently somebody had woven this robe for Jesus—maybe even His mother. The undergarment was like a long T-shirt that would begin at the shoulders and go down to the knees. So the soldiers said, “Let’s not slice it up to divide it up, let’s just gamble for it. Let’s cast lots. Let’s draw straws.” And you’ve seen those pictures of Jesus at the cross, and the soldiers had their heads down, concerned about getting that garment, so that they don’t look up and are not concerned about the Son of God dying for them.
Maybe the reason the cross doesn’t move you is that you love the things of this world too much and you’ve got your head down all the time. I was in church a while back, another church, and right in the middle of the preacher’s sermon I heard a cell phone ringing. And a gal beside me began scrambling around, and before she could get to it it rang three times. And she finally retrieved it and began talking on the phone, right in the midst of the sermon. Please, don’t do that!
But you know, I can’t be critical of that woman. I mean, I don’t need a cell phone for my mind to be distracted. I know how, for example, during communion time, when there’s quiet time, I ought to pray. And I begin with good intentions. “Lord, I know this represents your body and your blood, and I thank you that Christ died on the cross for my sins. And I ask forgiveness for my sins. Why, just last Monday I spoke harshly to a friend and I need to go to them later and ask forgiveness. Oh, that reminds me, I have a meeting this afternoon. I forgot all about it. Let’s see, what do I need to do to get ready?” I’ve gone from the cross to a stupid meeting in 15 seconds!
Does that ever happen to you? Sitting in church, worshipping, and all of a sudden you’re thinking about the investment you’re going to make, or the ballgame this afternoon, or the pretty girl sitting across the isle, or the sale going on at the shopping center.
I watched a rerun of the epic movie “Titanic” the other day. At one point in the movie, several of the elite in first class sit at the bar while the ship is going down. And the water is coming in, they know they’re about to drown, the orchestra plays “Nearer My God to Thee”, and one of them says, “Another Brandy, please!” So enthralled in the things of this world that even at the moment when death faces them square in the eye, they’re still looking down.
If you have your head down today would you lift up your eyes and see Jesus. Folks, if it is true that our sin has alienated us from God forever (and the Bible says that it is), and if it is true that Jesus died on that cross as a substitution for us (and the Bible says that it is), and if it is true that by our accepting Jesus as Savior our sins are forgiven, and through the power of His resurrection we have the promise to live eternally with Him (and the Bible says that it is), then what happened on that cross is absolutely the most important event in all of history. Force yourself to turn off your cell phone. Shift the gears of your mind. Quiet your anxious heart. And “fix [your] eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden was a great Christian gentleman. He was a member of a Christian Church out in California. But he was once asked by a reporter how he always seemed to be so composed in the midst of pressure situations in basketball. And that familiar crinkled smile broke over his face, and he said, “Well, I carry in my pocket a small cross. And when I get too involved and the pressure mounts, I reach in that pocket and I finger that cross. I know there’s nothing magical in it, but somehow holding that cross in my hand reminds me that there’s something more important than basketball.”
The apostle Paul wrote: “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
So would you stand today and look at the cross. Even if you’ve heard the story a thousand times, even if you’ve been turned off by Christians, even if you’ve got a lot going on in the world, would you turn your eyes upon Jesus and look full in His wonderful face—and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.
The last couple of weeks I’ve been reading some things about crucifixion—some things from history, some things from the internet, etc. And in the final few minutes I just want to share with you some of the things that have been related from history about crucifixion. I want you to think about what Jesus Christ did for you.
Crucifixion was invented as a deterrent to crime and death by crucifixion was so disgraceful and brutal.
The Roman Empire would tolerate all kinds of diverse thought, but the one thing that they would not tolerate was subversion against Rome. So any kind of seditious activity was punished severely to hold up the state’s authority. Revolutionaries were publicly humiliated and tortured in order that others would think twice before rebelling against Rome. And death by crucifixion was so disgraceful and brutal that the Jews condemned it, and the Romans despised it. Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “…anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (NIV 84). So the Jews considered it blasphemous to die by crucifixion.
Crucifixion could only be mandated by the Romans, and the condemned were almost always the lowest class—the slaves, the pirates, or those who were guilty of gross rebellion against Rome. That’s why Philippians 2 says Jesus was equal with God, but He humbled himself and became a man. And He became a servant and He was obedient unto death—“even death on a cross!” (v. 8).
Now the condemned criminal, on the way to the cross, was forced to wear a tablet around his neck stating the cause for his torture and death.
And he was also made to carry a crossbeam through public areas until he reached the execution sight, which was always in public view. And once the condemned was hung on the cross, that plaque that had been hung around his neck was then put on the beam above the head so that all the public would know why this person was being executed. When Jesus was crucified there was a plaque over His head that read: “The King of the Jews.” “Hey, this is what happens to somebody who claims to be king, other than Caesar!”
But before the crucifixion the victim was almost always stripped of his clothing as further humiliation.
And whatever belongings he had would then be divided up among the soldiers who were responsible for the crucifixion as kind of a bonus for their gory detail.
And usually at the site of the crucifixion—Jesus was scourged earlier—but at the site of the crucifixion the condemned person was scourged.
Naked, he would be bound over a post so that his hands and feet were tied, he couldn’t defend himself, and he would just be buggy-whipped. And at the end of the whip would be tied bits of iron and bone. And that vicious pounding cut so deep, and drew so much blood, that many went into shock from the pain, and some died.
In intense pain, with blood running from the gaping wounds, the condemned man was then affixed to a rough wooden cross that would take one of four shapes.
It could be just a stake pounded in the ground. Or it could be in the form of an X or a T, or in the form of the traditional cross. The victim’s arms and legs would be strapped to the beams. Or in some cases, as in the case of Jesus, long spikes would be nailed through the flesh to fasten him to the cross. One archeological find of a man who had been crucified found the spikes had been driven through his heels and through the upper part of his forearms. When the Bible says Jesus hands were nailed to the cross it probably was not in the fleshy part of the palm, but rather through the wrist, which would support His weight. The Jews considered the wrist part of the hand. Even today we talk about handcuffs and the handcuffs are on the wrists. But with his extremities attached to the cross, the only other support that a condemned man had for the rest of his body was a small peg that was pounded into the midsection of the cross. And on that peg he would find a small, but very uncomfortable, place to sit.
Now you’ve got to keep in mind that the purpose of the cross was not just swift execution, but prolonged torture as a warning. So crucified victims would sometimes take a couple of days to die.
And death would come through suffocation, or exposure, or shock, or dehydration. And while waiting to die, the victims would be tortured with muscle cramps that could not be eliminated, or they didn’t have the ability to swat away crawling insects or flies. And often hard-hearted bystanders would taunt them and torture them from beneath.
Now when death did not come quickly enough for the executioners—if there was a holiday or something—to expedite death the soldiers would come beneath the cross and take a pole and just break the legs of the crucified victim so that he could no longer push up and support himself.
And when that happened the victim would die of suffocation. Since Jesus was crucified on the day before a Sabbath, they wanted to expedite the death of those dying, and they broke the legs of the two criminals beside Him. They came to Jesus to break His legs and were astonished that after six hours on the cross He was already dead. But to assure that He was dead, they took a spear and thrust it into His side and pierced His heart. But not a bone of His body was broken.
The crosses were sometimes very tall, but usually they were only about seven feet high.
This meant when they died and the people began to leave that the wild animals and the birds of prey would come and just tear apart their bodies. And that was the worst humiliation, because in that day, in antiquity, not to have a burial was just total disgrace. And Jesus body would have been torn apart, except Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus came and took his body from the cross and buried it in a new tomb because He was going to need that body again.
But the Bible says, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering … he was pierced for our transgressions, and he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:3-6).
Would you stand beneath the cross and look at the face of the suffering Savior and understand, those are real spikes, that’s real blood, that’s God, that’s my sin that nailed Him there. “Can it be upon a tree my Savior died for me? My soul is thrilled, my heart is filled, to think He died for me!”
I wonder which soldier won. What would it be like to wear the undergarment of Jesus, to have that robe that Jesus wore now next to your body. That would certainly be a privilege. But I’ll tell you a greater privilege than that. Galatians chapter 3, verse 27, says, “…for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” When you accept Christ’s death on that cross for you—you confess Him, you’re baptized into Him—He not only forgives your sins, but He clothes you with His righteousness. What a privilege! What amazing grace!