Human Cruelty And The Gentleness Of God
It is a rare thing, I suppose, for a preacher to spend much time describing the pains and the privations which Jesus was made to endure in the last hours before His death on the cross. I think this is true for two reasons. The first reason is that the Bible, itself, spends very little time talking about the details of the physical sufferings of Jesus. The Bible gives us hints about it all, so that with a little extra digging we can begin to understand what actually happened—but for the most part, the Bible spares us the grisly details. The second reason is that most preachers understand that a congregation moved emotionally is not necessarily a congregation moved spiritually—that there is a vast difference between feeling sorry for someone and committing your life forever to that someone. So most preachers do not describe in accurate detail the suffering sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
But I wonder about that. Mind you, I’m not arguing about it. I’m just wondering about it. You see, when I stand here in this pulpit, I have sworn by the most solemn of vows to speak “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” But am I doing that when I do not tell it like it really was? The movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” does tell it like it was—or almost. While some have criticized the movie as excessive in the violence it depicts, the fact is that neither the beating nor the crucifixion of Jesus, as shown in the movie, is as bad or as violent as were the actual events themselves. Yes, I wonder if I am being faithful to my vows as a preacher if I do not try to give you some idea of just how costly the sacrifice of Jesus Christ really was.
Today then, I want us to take a brief glimpse—just to draw back the curtain for a moment or two—trusting that what little we see will be sufficient by the power of God to convict our hearts and claim our souls. Look with me then at what the Bible tells us about the experience of Jesus at the hands of the Roman soldiers.
The Bible tells us that the Roman soldiers beat Jesus.
Matthew’s account tells us that Pilate handed Jesus over to the Roman soldiers to be flogged. A couple of details to note: One is that Matthew writes that “the whole company of soldiers” were gathered around Jesus. A company in those days numbered six hundred men. It was quite a crowd. Normally, this kind of thing would be handled by just three or four soldiers but the presence of all six hundred soldiers meant that Jesus was in for an experience of human cruelty far beyond the norm. The other detail is found in that word, “flogged.” Under Roman law that meant 39 lashes from a whip called “the scorpion.” Jesus’ back was bared. He was then chained with both arms around a stone post leaving Him unable to move with His back exposed. You can still see those stone posts in the barracks of the soldiers in Jerusalem today. There were two lictors, standing on either side of Jesus; each lictor striking alternate blows with “the scorpion.” Though the law decreed 39 lashes, the Roman lictors, who did the whipping, would frequently work themselves up into a cruel frenzy and exceed the limit. We can safely assume that those six hundred soldiers watching all of this like sharks in the presence of blood, out of their own cruel frenzy, would have encouraged the lictors to an unspeakable level of violence. Doctors tell us that the wounds incurred in such a beating would cause a massive loss of blood. An average size man has about ten pints of blood in his body. The flogging would have resulted in a loss of four or five pints. That would have plunged Jesus into what doctors call “hypovolemic shock.” The immediate result would be difficulty in standing and walking with a tendency to faint or pass out—precisely what happened to Jesus on the way to Calvary—but the more profound result was terrible damage to the inner workings of the body, particularly the heart. It is clear, I think, that Jesus was beaten with all of the cruel severity those soldiers could muster. Yet through it all, the Bible tells us, Jesus uttered not a single word. True, costly sacrifice.
Frankly, dear friends, I think it might do us good to understand what true sacrifice really involves. We are living in a time when we take the cross, make it out of marshmallow, cover it with chocolate, and sell it at the convenience store. This is a time when we put a few cents or a few dollars into the offering plate and dare to call that sacrificial giving. This is a time when we usher or sing in the choir or teach Sunday School spending 4 or 5 or maybe 6 hours out of a 168-hour week performing those tasks and then label that as sacrificial service. Yes, we are living in a time of superficial sacrifice—a time when people want to be thanked profusely for a sacrifice which has cost them little. True costly sacrifice, however, seeks no reward and no response. I think that’s why Jesus, that day when the Roman whip lashed against Him and He took the blows for us, I think that’s why He never uttered a word. He took it all for us. True costly, saving sacrifice. That’s the way of Jesus Christ.
The Bible also tells us that the Roman soldiers ridiculed Jesus.
Matthew makes it clear that those soldiers having devastated Jesus’ body now sought to destroy His spirit. They played a game with Him. The Roman soldiers always did this. The game was called “basileia,” which means “the king.” It was a terrible game, but then as the poet puts it, “Those were crude and cruel days when human flesh was cheap.” The game was the ancient Roman version of the game we call today, “Russian roulette.” In other words, the winner of the game was the loser. Here’s how the game was played. Carved into the stone floor of the Roman barracks were game boards. You can still see the lines carved into the stone floor in Jerusalem even today. They look rather like a child’s hopscotch game. The soldiers would throw dice and move pieces about the board in order to select the winner from among the condemned prisoners. The winner would then be declared, “King for a day.” He would be dressed up in royal robes and the soldiers would pay him mock homage for a while. Then, at the end, the winner, “the king,” would be beaten with a board—the Bible calls it a “reed”—and then the winner would be dragged off to the hideous, horrifying death caused by crucifixion. “Basileia” was a cruel, savage, and inhuman game, and, yet, we know without doubt from these verses in Matthew 27 that this was the game the soldiers played with Jesus. It was the ultimate form of ridicule. It was meant to be totally dehumanizing. Now in the midst of this sadistic game, one of the soldiers had a novel idea. He went over to where there was a pile of dried thorn bushes—in those days they used dried thorn bushes for kindling. The soldier broke off some of the branches and then carefully, very carefully because the thorns were long and sharp, proceeded to plait a crown and then, in what doctors tell us would have been one of the most excruciatingly painful moments Jesus had to undergo, the soldier took his homemade crown and jammed it down on Jesus’ head. “Basileia!” “Hail to the king!” The soldiers laughed their cruel laugh. They had Jesus at their mercy, but they themselves had no mercy.
Have you ever stopped to wonder why it is that, of all the things that happened to Jesus in the Roman barracks that day, the thing we remember most often is the crown of thorns? I think I know why this is so. You remember when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, a part of the curse for their sin was the fact that thorns would henceforth infest the ground. From that day until this, the thorn has been the stark symbol of the world’s sin. You see it in winter exposed on a bare branch, and you turn quickly away. You reach out for some lovely blossom in the summertime, and, concealed by a leaf, the thorn stabs you. It is an appropriate symbol for the sins of the world, and Jesus, at this particular moment, was bearing the world’s sin in His life. Do you remember what Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all?” Does it not seem somehow appropriate then that He should be crowned with thorns? I cannot look at that crown of thorns without remembering how much Jesus loves me. In light of that, I ask for my Messiah no other diadem.
Once the Archbishop of Paris was preaching to a great congregation in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. In the course of his sermon, he began to tell the story of three godless teenage boys who one day wandered into the Cathedral. Two of the young men made a bet with the third wagering with him that he would not go to the confessional booth and make a false confession to the priest there. This young high school boy, laughing, accepted the wager. He went to the booth, and fighting to stifle his own laughter; he proceeded to pour out a lurid, bogus confession. Before long, the wise old priest began to realize what was happening, and, so when the young man finished his fun, the priest said to him, “My son, to every confession, there must be an act of penance. Do you see the great crucifix over there? Go to it, kneel down before it, look up into the thorn-crowned face of the One crucified, and then three times I want you to repeat these words, ‘All this You did for me and I don’t care a damn.’” The young man walked out of the confessional booth, laughingly telling his friends what had happened, and then demanding that they pay off the debt. The other two said, “No, you have to complete the whole process like the priest said, and then we’ll pay off.” So the young man walked over, knelt down, looked up into the face of suffering, sacrificial love, and then he began, “All this You did for me, and I. . .” He got no further. Tears flooded his eyes. His heart was torn in half in 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.”
Sometime before this day is out, sometime maybe even just before you go to sleep tonight, sometime take time enough to think back across the years to the scene in the Roman barracks. There see, in your mind’s eye, Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. There hear, in your mind’s ear, the sound of the whip called “the scorpion” as it cracks across His back. Seeing Him, in your mind’s eye, hearing that, in your mind’s ear, then say from your heart, “Jesus, my Lord, all this You did for me.”