Evidence Demands a Verdict Matthew 27:26-27:54
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
Ultimately, that’s what the final 24 hours in Jesus’ life are about – God’s plan to redeem us to buy us back.
The account we will hear today is taken both from scriptures and from research on Roman persecution accompanied by traditions that exist around these events in the life of Christ.
Who Was a Centurion?
Mine was the only independent eyewitness account of the conduct of Jesus up to the moment of his death. I was there when Jesus was tried; I watched his flogging; I saw him fall beneath the weight of the cross; I gave the order that the nails be driven through his hands and feet; I stood with my soldiers throughout that dark afternoon waiting for the end; and I was there when he took his final excruciating breath - as I had been for so many others before.
You might say that if anyone could be blamed for the carrying out of the death of the Son of God, it was me. I was the final front.
I was a commanding officer of one hundred foot soldiers in the Roman Army, a centurion. The rank of centurion was not easily achieved. It was in fact, the highest rank to which an ordinary soldier could aspire. Unlike other posts, the rank of centurion was a career, one that paid well. We were the backbone of the entire army.
As highly respected of a position as I held, the post to which I was appointed was anything but desirable.
I was responsible for the oversight of executions. I was to ensure that capital punishment was carried out. And while early in my appointment, the punishments that we were to enforce were difficult to observe, I had become somewhat desensitized to the violence and gore that were a part of my every day life.
We were after all dealing with criminals – with lowlifes of society who deserved the discipline they received. They had been convicted of a crime and my job wasn’t to determine their guilt or innocence it was to assume their guilt and carry out their sentence. Whenever those gory details would start to bother me, I would just remind myself of their crime. It served as a way for me to shut off my emotional reactions and not get involved. I never would have lasted in my position if I had allowed myself to get involved the way I did that fateful day.
The morning began as any other had begun. The commotion outside the Antonia alerted us to a situation. My men had assembled quickly when the Jewish leaders appeared with a prisoner, one they claimed was dangerous to the Roman empire and was guilty of treason. When they were finally cornered about an exact charge they said they had a law and because he had claimed to be the “Son of God” he must die. Pilate was apprehensive, to say the least, about the entire situation and tried to convince the members of the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ innocence. But they wouldn’t have it. They insisted he be crucified. Finally it became obvious to Pilate that this was not a battle that was worth fighting, he conceded and much to his dissent handed this innocent looking prisoner over to me to be flogged and crucified.
In the contemporary, civilized culture of which you are a part, it’s hard to understand the severity of what I’m about to describe to you. It may even make you queasy. But from what I’ve been told your culture has somehow romanticized this part of Jesus’ life to the degree that you’re no longer moved by what happened. Well, hold on to your seats, because I’m going to tell you what he went through.
The means of punishment known as flogging was accomplished by repeated lashes or blows, usually with a rod or a whip. In Jesus’ case he was stripped naked and tied to a pillar about 18” in diameter with iron rings about 9’ from the ground. The soldiers then hung him by the hands from those rings so that he couldn’t touch the ground. This made it impossible for him to escape the lashes that he was about to receive.
My soldiers didn’t actually do the flogging. That duty was left to a group of convicts. These men had been convicted of murder and robbery and condemned to hard labor for life. The most hardened (those with no heart or conscience to begin with) were then solicited as executioners. They in some twisted way actually enjoyed this job.
The whip they used consisted of pieces of wood, metal balls shaped like acorns, and chips of lamb bones.
The pieces of bone dug into the body of Jesus, into his very muscles, and tore out chunks of flesh exposing the bone beneath. After a few lashes his back and limbs, were lacerated and cut in all directions leaving his skin in long ribbons.
I had seen men lose both their eyes and teeth during these floggings. The victims’ bodies would quiver and scream to the point that many would even die on the spot.
It didn’t take long before Jesus’ very veins were laid bare, and his inner muscles and sinews, even his very bowls were exposed.
I knew it was time to stop. I couldn’t let him die this way. His sentence was execution by crucifixion, so I gave the order and the soldiers pulled the drunken convicts off of him and cut his body lose from the rings that were holding him. He fell to the ground, his body collapsing in a heap in a pool of his own blood.
My soldiers picked him up. He was a terrible sight. By this point he had lost an enormous amount of blood. There was hardly a piece of skin on his entire body that had not been mutilated. They put his own clothes back on him to help stop some of the bleeding and pulled him away from the sight of the angry crowd into the guardhouse.
What took place next was really nothing new. You see, when the Romans conquered a king, they would clothe him in regal robes, place him on a mock throne, genuflect before him, and render his fallen greatness.
My soldiers took Jesus into the guardhouse and placed a garment of mockery on him and made him sit on a rock in the center of the room. They then took some thorns about 1”-2” long from a shrub called the Rhamnus and wove a crown around his head down to his ears like a hat and struck him on the head with a reed driving the thorns deeper into his flesh to the very bone. As they did the thorns swelled and caused damage to the nerve that supplies the face inflicting intense pain down his face and neck.
“Hail, king of the Jews!” they cried.
I’m not sure when it happened, but I suddenly became aware that I had broken the rule that I had made along time before – I had gotten involved with a victim. The mockery that my soldiers were taking part in was suddenly bothering me. Something about this man struck me as different. I wasn’t one to question a verdict that was handed down to me, but the evidence of this trial, the way in which this man had so graciously responded to this horrible torture, the way in which he looked with love at his executioners, caused me to wonder who this man really was.
In order to get him to the site of the crucifixion there was an elaborate custom that was to be carried out. Crime, it was argued, would be deterred if the citizens could see the manner of punishment that was inflicted upon criminals. And so the condemned would carry their own cross through the city.
In order to lead the prisoner through the city a large belt with iron spikes was placed around his waist driving them into his flesh. Chords were then tied to the belt so that if the prisoner were to collapse, which frequently happened, he could be drug. A cross piece was then brought, and placed on Jesus’ right shoulder with his and around the arm of the cross.
The procession then began. I went first with a herald blowing a trumpet to clear the way. Another soldier walked with me carrying the sign to be placed at the top of the cross, the title, the reason for his execution – “The King of the Jews.”
Behind us were servants carrying ropes, nails, hammers, baskets and the center pieces of the crosses. The Pharisees, soldiers, leading Jews, and temple priests were followed by guards with chords tied to the victim. Bringing up the tail of this parade of death were the four men who were to nail him to the cross followed by some more guards and Pilate and his soldiers.
As we moved along the street people lined the way. They gawked from rooftops. Some wept. Others jeered. Whenever he would fall my soldiers would beat him and kick him until he would continue.
We traveled the street called Hoch-Akia-Beg, the street that is now called the Via Dolorosa, or “The Sad Way.”
When we turned to leave the city, the street went up a hill that has since been leveled. Jesus couldn’t carry the cross any further. He was in shock from the amount of blood he had lost and had used every last bit of strength he could muster to get this far.
The soldiers seized a man in the crowd who apparently was from out of town and had come to offer a sacrifice at the temple. They forced him to carry the cross for Jesus until we arrived at the sight that was known as Golgotha, a location of executions. My soldiers surrounded the hill to prevent any riots and any possibility of escape. And then they began the details that would lead to his death.
I just wanted the day to be over. Maybe, I thought, I’m getting too old to do this. Maybe I should go back into the private life. Why after all these years, and all the executions that I had seen, was this one bothering me so? My head was pounding. I needed to get away. But I couldn’t leave, not yet, not till this business was finished.
The sun was directly overhead when the strangest thing happened. We were shading ourselves from the heat when all of a sudden this cool breeze came through and a darkness covered the sky as far as we could see. I had seen storms, but never anything like this one. As quickly as the darkness moved in, I was certain that a storm was about to follow. But nothing happened. There was just a strange calm, like the one before the storm, but it lasted some three hours.
As I sat there waiting for him to die my entire life flashed before my eyes. I had strived hard to make it to this position. It paid well; I was respected; I had made a good life for myself and for my family. But at what cost? What kind of man was I? I could supervise the mutilation of another man and then go home and have dinner with my family as if nothing had ever happened. I could watch as nails were driven through the limbs of other human beings and then go home and kiss my children goodnight. What used to bother me didn’t even phase me any longer. This isn’t the kind of person I wanted to become. What had happened to me? Was I any better than the men that I crucified? I knew the answer to my own question as it related to this Jesus – there was something very innocent about him. If my guilt were compared to his, even though I had the law on my side, I should be the one hanging there, not him.
But there he was. And here I am. As I watched he uttered some words in Aramaic and then breathed his last breath. Finally this would all be over, I thought.
But just then the ground began to shake underneath us. Tremors in this area were not all that uncommon, but most were minor. Not this one! Rocks that were around us split in two!
Could it be a coincidence that it happened at the very moment this Jesus died? I didn’t think so! This man wasn’t guilty of a crime! What he had claimed was true! He was the Son of God! Then I realized that I wasn’t just thinking those words. I had just spoken them out loud, loud enough that all those around me could hear.
I may have been acting insubordinately and contradicting my superior – but I didn’t care! The evidence was overwhelming. God had spoken. This man was the His Son.
Then it hit me – what had I done? I had just killed him!
I expected a lighting bolt to strike me dead on the spot. I was terrified. How angry this God must be with me.
I returned to my home as fast as I could that evening. I thought maybe if I stayed out of site I’d be safe. But everywhere I tried to hide it was as if God could see me even in the darkest corners of my house. It was as if there was no place to escape from him.
The day that followed drug on what seemed an eternity. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. And I found myself occasionally having to stop myself from shaking in fear.
The next morning I didn’t even want to go out, but a soldier of mine came and got me. He looked as if he had seen a ghost. “You’ve got to come to the graveyard sir. There’s something you need to see.” When I arrived my soldiers were surrounding the place and all of them were trembling much as I had been doing the night before. The tombs were broken open and corpses were standing around alive right there in the graveyard. It was as if they were waiting for something. For what I didn’t know, but honestly I didn’t want to stay around to find out. So I left some of my men to stand guard and notify me should they try to make an advance.
Meanwhile there was other work to be done. The Jews were apparently afraid that some of Jesus’ followers might steal the body. They said he had claimed he’d rise from the dead on the third day and so they convinced Pilate to have us stand by the tomb. We’d guarded prisoners but never a dead one before. But we did as Pilate instructed. I selected the men and they went and did as they were told – a simple enough task, so we thought.
It was early Sunday morning when they came running to me, “Sir,” they said, “he’s…. he’s… he…”
“Spit it out!” I said.
“He’s gone! Jesus is gone!”
“What do you mean, he’s gone?”
“There was this earthquake, and angel like lighting and well we… we passed out. And when we came to, his body was gone! Please don’t kill us! We’re not lying.”
Somehow I knew they were telling the truth. Darkness. An earthquake. Dead men walking. And now an angel and a missing body.
This man really was who he said he was. Then it hit me. It’s not that he was the Son of God – if he’s alive – then he is the Son of God!
Over the past five weeks you’ve heard the accounts of the final 24 hours in the life of Jesus Christ. The evidence has been presented. It’s overwhelming.
But it’s up to you to determine what you’ll do with that evidence…
Will you join the centurion – will you get off the fence – literally. Quit leaning into Christianity when it’s convenient for you and out of it when it isn’t. Get off the fence at work… At school… At home… In your neighborhood… Christ made a bold stand for you. Will you stand for him?