Faces and Places Around The Cross: The Roman Barracks
“Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around Him. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him and then wove a crown of thorns and set it on His head. They put a staff in His right hand and knelt in front of Him and mocked Him. ‘Hail, King of the Jews,’ they said. They spit on Him. They took the staff and struck Him on the head again and again. After they had mocked Him, they took off the robe and put His own clothes on Him. Then, they led Him away to crucify Him.”
May God bless to us the reading and hearing of this portion of His holy Word.
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
It is a rare thing, I suppose, for a preacher to spend time detailing for his people the pains and the privations Jesus was forced to undergo at the hands of the Roman soldiers in the last hours before His death on the cross. But I wonder if that’s a good thing. Mind you, I’m not debating it. I’m just wondering. You see, when I stand in this pulpit to preach, I stand here sworn by the most solemn of vows to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. And I wonder if I am being true to that vow if I do not at least try to tell you what it really was like, if I do not try to give you some idea of what Jesus suffered for our sake in those last hours before His death. I wonder.
In any case, that’s the reason why today I would like at least to try to pull back the curtain just a bit in order to give us just a glimpse, trusting that what we see will be sufficient by the power of God to convict our hearts and claim our souls. And therefore, I wish to invite you to look with me at what the Bible tells us about what Jesus experienced at the hands of the Roman soldiers in the Roman barracks in the lower level of the Fortress Antonia in the city of Jerusalem.
The Bible tells us that the soldiers beat Jesus.
Matthew’s account shares that Pontius Pilate, after delivering the condemnation, handed Jesus over to the Roman soldiers. That was SOP, standard operating procedure, in such cases. After the sentencing, the convicted prisoner was handed over to the Roman soldiers for what was called the praeparatio ad crucem, the preparation for the cross. It involved some limited physical and verbal abuse. It was designed to soften up, as it were, the convicted prisoners for the horrors that were soon to come in death by crucifixion. That was standard operating procedure.
However, when you begin to dig into the details which are forthcoming from the pages of the Bible, you discover that what happened to Jesus was not standard operating procedure. For example, one of the details that Matthew gives us is that the whole company of Roman soldiers gathered around Jesus at this particular point. Understand, please, that in the Roman legion, a company of soldiers numbered 600 soldiers. 600 soldiers gathered around at this point practically guaranteed that Jesus was not going to undergo human cruelty in the norm. He was going to experience something far beyond that. This was a matter handled usually by 3 or 4 soldiers, but obviously, Jesus was a special case. And so now, 600 soldiers gathered around to watch the unfolding horror.
And then another detail extracted from the Bible tells us that Jesus was scourged.
To be scourged or flogged—that’s the word some translations use. To be scourged was—by the decree of Roman law, the condemned prisoner was to receive 39 lashes from a whip, which the soldiers referred to as the scorpion. The scorpion was a whip in which every single lash of the whip had embedded in it pellets of lead, jagged bits of bone, and shards of glass. 39 lashes by the scorpion. Understand, please, that scourging was usually referred to as halfway death because so few people ever emerged from the experience with both body and mind intact. And so only in the rarest of occasions would a person be sentenced both to be scourged and to be crucified. Jesus was one of the few.
And so these soldiers took Jesus, bared His back, chained Him around a stone pillar set into the floor of the Roman barracks. You can actually see those stone posts in the Fortress Antonia in Jerusalem even now. Jesus was chained around that post so that His back was exposed, and He could not move. And then two lictors—that’s what they call them—two soldiers, each one of them holding the whip called the scorpion, would then administer alternating blows to His back until at last the count reached 39. And we can be absolutely certain that the addition of these 600 soldiers caught up in the cruel frenzy of the whole thing, rather like sharks in the present of blood—these soldiers would have ratcheted those lictors up to an unspeakable level of violence. 39 lashes by the scorpion. You can imagine the result, or can you?
Doctors tell us that a beating of that nature would have completely shredded the back of Jesus, causing a terrific loss of blood. The average man has about 10 pints of blood in his body. A beating like that, doctors tell us, would have caused the loss of 4 to 5 pints of blood. It would have plunged Jesus into what doctors call hypovolemic shock. That is to say, He would have been rendered very, very weak physically, unable to walk, ride, or stand even, and given to passing out or fainting. You will recognize that that is exactly what happened to Jesus a short time later as He was being made to walk toward Calvary. But the real damage of hypovolemic shock occurs in the workings inside the body, particularly the heart. I think it is safe for us to say that the beating Jesus endured more than likely would have done irreparable damage to His heart. So Jesus experienced human cruelty at an almost unspeakable level, and the result for Jesus was nothing less than catastrophic.
Now, here is what pierces my heart. Here is what pierces my soul, that Jesus in the midst of that kind of horrendous beating never uttered a word, the Bible says, never made a sound. Silence. True, costly sacrifice. Dear friends, it might do us good, especially in times like these, to ponder what true, costly sacrifice really means. I mean, think about it. I mean, here, we’re living in a time where we make the cross out of marshmallow and cover it with chocolate and sell it in the convenience store, for heaven’s sake. We’re living in a time when we place a few dollars in the offering plate and call that sacrificial giving. We’re living in a time when, well, we usher or sing in the choir or teach Sunday school, wonderful things to do, absolutely.
And yet it takes—what?—4, 6, maybe 8 hours a week out of a 168-hour week in order to perform those tasks, and we call that sacrificial service. We’re living in a time where people expect, even demand, profuse thanks for rendering a service which actually may have cost them not very much. We’re living in a time not of sacrificial service but of superficial service. Mark this down: true, costly sacrificial service seeks no response and no reward. And so Jesus, as the scorpion lashed His back, never uttered a word. He took it all for all of us. True, costly, saving sacrifice, that’s the way of Jesus Christ.
And then the Bible tells us that the Roman soldiers ridiculed Him. Those soldiers, having devastated Jesus’ body, now sought to destroy His spirit. They played a game with Him. This was SOP, standard operating procedure. The Roman soldiers always played this game with convicted prisoners. The game was a game called Basileus, which means The King. It was actually a crude and cruel game, ah, but then, as the poet puts it, those were crude and cruel days when human flesh was cheap. The game Basileus was, I suppose you could say, in a sense, the Roman equivalent of what we call Russian Roulette. That is to say, the winner of the game was actually the loser.
Here is the way the game was played. The Roman soldiers had carved into the stone floor of the Roman barracks the game boards. You actually can still see those game boards in the stone floor of the barracks in the Fortress Antonia in Jerusalem. The game board looked rather like a child’s hopscotch game. And the soldiers would cast dice, and they would move pieces about the board until they selected the one who was the winner among the condemned prisoners. And then the winner was declared to be king for a day.
It was actually a cruel moniker because, you see, what the soldiers would then do is they would strip the winner, wrap about him garish cloths, and then stick a large rod in his hand to be used as a scepter. And then the soldiers would pour out verbal abuse to an extraordinary degree upon the prisoner. And when at last they had sated their appetite for cruelty, they would then snatch the rod out of the winner’s hands and proceed to beat him about the head and face. Basileus, The King, that’s the game they played.
Ah, but then Matthew gives us one more little detail. This was not standard operating procedure. One of the soldiers had a rather novel idea. He went over to a pile of dried thorn bushes. You see, they used dried thorn bushes as kindling for their fires. And so he walked over to one of those dried thorn bushes and picked it up, broke some branches off of it, and, because the thorns were long and sharp, very carefully he wove a kind of crown. And then, and what doctors tell us would have been excruciatingly painful, this soldier jammed his makeshift crown down on the head of Jesus. Basileus. Hail to the King of the Jews. Basileus. And the soldiers laughed their cruel laugh. Those soldiers had Jesus at their mercy, and they showed Jesus no mercy.
Have you ever wondered why it is that of all the things that happened to Jesus in the Roman barracks that the thing we most frequently remember is the crown of thorns? I think I know why that’s true. You remember in the Book of Genesis, we are told that Adam and Eve, because of their sin, were driven out of the Garden of Eden, and we’re told that from that point on—a part of the curse for their sin meant that from that point on, thorns would infest the ground. And so it was that in time, the thorn became the symbol for human sinfulness. And it is an apt symbol, wouldn’t you agree? I mean, think about it. In winter, you see a thorn sticking out from a bare branch, and you almost instinctively turn away from it. In summer, you go to pick a lovely blossom, and a thorn concealed by a leaf stabs you with pain. Yes, the thorn is an apt symbol for human sinfulness.
And let me ask you, therefore, is it not appropriate that at this point, when Jesus was carrying the weight of a whole world’s sin on Himself, when he was taking upon Himself all of my sin, all of your sin, all of it from all of us and from all people in all times and in all places, is it not appropriate that at that point Jesus would be crowned with a crown of thorns? I have to tell you, I cannot look at that crown of thorns; I cannot think about that crown of thorns without remembering how much Jesus loves me. And therefore, I would ask for my Messiah no other diadem.
So one Sunday, the Archbishop of Paris was preaching in the great Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. In the midst of his sermon, the Archbishop proceeded to tell about a day when three godless, young teenage boys wandered into that great cathedral and began laughing in ridicule at everything they saw and everything that was happening there. At one point, two of these young, godless guys bet the third that he would not go to the confessional booth and there offer a false confession to the priest. The third young man took the bet. He walked over to the confessional booth and, stifling his laughter, he stepped inside. And he proceeded then to pour out a long, lurid, bogus confession to the priest.
The wise old priest quickly recognized what was happening. And when the young man finished his so-called confession, the priest said to him, “My son, you understand that every act of confession requires an act of penance. Therefore, I want you to go over to the great crucifix that hangs in this cathedral. Kneel down before it. Look up into the thorn-crowned One who is hanging there. And then I want you to repeat three times these words, ‘All this You did for me, and I don’t care a damn.'”
The young man emerged from the confessional booth laughingly, telling his friends what the priest had said. And then he demanded that they pay up. They said, “Oh, no. You heard what the priest said. You have to complete the whole process. Then we will pay off the bet.” And so the young man walked over to the great crucifix, knelt down beneath it, looked up into that face of suffering love, and then cried out, “All this You did for me, and I—” he got no further. The tears exploded from his eyes. His heart was torn in half by remorse and repentance. Right there, right then, his old life ended, and his new life began. Finishing his sermon, the Archbishop of Paris said, “I was that young man.”
My beloved people, sometime before this day is out, sometime before you sleep tonight, sometime make some time to go back in your mind to that scene in the Roman barracks. See in your mind’s eye Jesus wearing the crown of thorns. Hear in your mind’s ear the sound of the scorpion crossing across Jesus’ back. And then seeing that in your mind’s eye, hearing that in your mind’s ear, then from the deepest places of your heart, cry out, “Jesus, my Jesus, all this You did for me. All this You did for me.”
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.