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The Soldiers and the Cross

The Roman soldiers were professionals in execution. Like thousands before and after Jesus, they marched the Son of God to “the place of the Skull” where He was to suffer a vicious, embarrassing death. The Roman soldiers were instruments of cruelty and pain. It was the Roman soldiers who scourged Jesus (Matt 27:26). It was the Roman soldiers who put the robe on His back, who fashioned the crown of thorns and beat it into His skull (Matt 27:28-31). They mocked Him as the “King of the Jews.” They spat upon Him. They treated Jesus like one of their low-life victims. 

When we look to the Roman soldiers at the scene of the cross, we see two very different pictures.

On one hand you see the soldiers gambling for Jesus’ possessions. According to tradition, the guards were given the possessions of the condemned. You might expect the spoils to be few from a man who confessed that “foxes have holes, the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no where to lay His head” (Luke 9:58). No money. No jewelry. No matter. These soldiers will gladly gamble for whatever bounty this crucified King may have (John 19:23-24). Like Caiaphas before them, they are unknowingly playing their role in the fulfillment of prophecy (John 11:49).

In looking at the gambling soldiers, you have to wonder how many today are following in their footsteps? “What’s in it for me?” has become our national cliché. Much of modern religion seems to be built upon the creed that we are happy to be Christians provided the Provider provides. We put some cheap prices on the love of God and the blood of Jesus when we play games at the foot of the cross. “If God loved me... I wouldn’t be sick… I’d have a job… I’d have more money… my family would be happy... and seeing this, the Savior must cry.

How could they? But how can we be so close to the blood of Christ and yet be so preoccupied with our selfish interests? May it never be said of us what one author wrote of these gambling soldiers: “So close to the timber, yet so far from the blood. So close to the cross, but so far from the Christ.”

On the other hand there’s the Centurion’s confession. On a normal day he would be commanding a hundred of Rome’s finest fighting men. On this day he is supervising a four-man death squad. No doubt he had seen men die. He had heard their despair as pain overtook their resolve. He had heard them curse their executioners, their father and mother, and the day they were born. No doubt he had heard them curse God.

But on this day he heard the Son of God. He heard the Savior offer forgiveness to the mob, and hope to a thief. He heard the cry of victory and the prayer of faith. Had the Centurion seen Jesus raise the dead, walk on water, or give sight to the blind? I don’t know. But he saw Jesus die. He heard the Victor’s cry. He felt the earth quake and stood in awe of the blackness that replaced the noon-day sun. For the Centurion, the evidence was overwhelming and the conclusion was obvious: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).

Of all the things in God’s creation, it is the cross that cannot be ignored. The cross which exposes the enormity of our sin also demonstrates the depth of God’s love for man.

Two groups of soldiers. One was focused on self-gain and possessions, the other on the Lord who was slain.

What do you see when you gaze at the old rugged cross?