When it came time to propose to my wife, I went shopping for diamonds. Well, just for one diamond that would go in her ring.
As I visited different jewelry stores, I saw a lot of diamonds. Each offering was presented for my examination on a dark little panel of black felt. The darkness of background brought out the purity of the diamond.
Tonight we will see the same contrast between darkness and sparkling perfection when we see our crucified Savior, set on the dark background of Four Ruthless Soldiers.
John 19:23-24 (ESV)
23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, 24 so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says,
“They divided my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
So the soldiers did these things,
The soldiers who crucified Jesus were a desensitized bunch. That is an understatement that we in this room will probably never fully understand.
Like all human beings, these men were born sinful. They had grown up apart from God. They had been ruled by their sinful natures all their lives. Throughout that time, they had not been shaped by God's Word, but by the sinful world around them.
Their occupation had made them even more grim and merciless than the average man. They were soldiers in a time when wars were fought by hand. They had seen the life blood drain out of their enemies at an arms length. They had seen living eyes go blank. For these men, killing was routine.
When they received orders to crucify Jesus, they made preparations. Hammer. Nails. Cross beam. Food and water - for them, of course. They were going to be up on Golgotha for a good while, so they packed a lunch.
At one point during Jesus' trial before the Roman governor, the governor had attempted to induce the people to back down by scourging Jesus. Soldiers had scourged him with a many thonged whip tipped with bits of bone or metal. This too, was business as usual. There was no hint of mercy in their deed.
Even after Jesus' body was torn and bloody, the soldiers felt no empathy. In Mark 15 we read...
"16 And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. 18 And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him" (Mark 15:16-20 ESV).▬
Crucifying a man began by getting him to the site of execution. But since crucifixion also meant as a lesson for the living, the condemned man was usually led in a long parade through the city. The soldier who led the procession carried a placard on which was written the crime for which the man was being executed.
For the soldiers, this was again - business as usual. But it was business with a purpose. Intimidation. The parade of the condemned said, "This is what happens when you cross the Romans, they cross you". The Romans had not become a world power by being gentle. They were brutally practical.
When Jesus was led to the hill of execution, we're given an additional detail which further colors in the character of these soldiers. Along the way Jesus apparently fell under the weight of His cross. The scourging had taken too much out of Him. And so the Romans grabbed a man passing by and forced him to carry Jesus' cross. They weren't going to do it. They were the conquerors. They held the power. It was not unusual for a Roman soldier to force a Jew to carry their baggage for a mile whenever they felt like resting.
It was humiliating for a Jew to be forced to carry things for their hated enemies. But the Romans reveled in it. It was again, very practical. You could get a job done without breaking a sweat, and you could remind the Jews of their place - all at the same time.
When the soldiers finally reached their destination, they crucified Jesus. And when the nails had been hammered in, holding the victim securely to the cross, they hung the charge above His head, and turned to other matters.
Here again, the coarse practicality of the Roman army comes out in high definition. They considered a crucified man to be a dead man. And so the clothes they had taken off of Him were now up for grabs.
We're told that the four soldiers detailed to Christ's cross divided His remaining possessions up into four parts. Something for each of them. The four parts were probably a head covering, a belt, sandals and an outer garment (a wrap, like a robe).
The Gospel of Mark tells us that they cast lots to decide who got what. Basically, they rolled dice.
But, on this occasion there was one extra item. Jesus had worn a finely woven garment next to his skin. Kinda like a soft undershirt. This was a nice piece of clothing, so they decided to roll the dice one more time to figure out who got to take this prize home.
Perhpas we've heard this account so many times that we've become desensitized to the cruelty of this act.
Imagine waiting at the deathbed of a dying loved one. All the sudden you notice that he's wearing a really nice shirt. So you ask him between his rattling breaths if you might be able to get that when he's dead. I mean, he's not going to need it anyway, right?
This is what these four soldiers did just a few feet from Jesus' nail pierced feet.
These soldiers serve as a contrasting darkness to bring out the innocence of our sinless Savior. And you know, it's ironic that there were four soldiers who did this. It's not unusual, that was the typical number of Romans soldiers detailed to a cross. But it is ironic, because in the Bible the number FOUR is sometimes used as a symbolic number for Mankind. In the four soldiers hunkered near the cross of Christ we see what each of us would be apart from God grace - utterly sinful. Unfeeling, self-centered and greedy.
But there behind these dark sinners we also see Jesus, standing out in stark contrast to them. THEIR purpose was to kill and intimidate and ultimately to help Rome take and keep whatever lands they wanted.
But Jesus' whole purpose in life was not to take, BUT TO GIVE. To give spiritual sight to the blind, stumbling sinner. To call wandering people back to their Creator. To give forgiveness and eternal life through His death in the sinner's place.
These men were utterly insensitive. Gambling for Jesus' possessions in plain sight of Him.
But Jesus was so touched by pity, even for sinners who considered Him less than dirt, that He suffered FOR THEM. He paid the hell that each of THEIR sins had earned, and He did it GLADLY for the joy of saving them.
These men and other soldiers like them fed on the conquered and the hopeless. They forced the Jews to carry their burdens They offended them at every opportunity. They gathered up the possessions of the dying with no attempt to hide what they were doing.
But even while these men were gambling for Jesus' last piece of clothing, He was suffering in order to give them AN ETERNAL COVERING. He was suffering to cover their sins with HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS.
The apostle Paul once told Christian friends living in Galatia...
"...in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:26-27 ESV).We hope that these men later came to realize what Jesus had done for them. That He had left them a much more lasting and valuable garment to wear, BEFORE GOD. But we don't know in their case.
The theme of our meditations this Lent is, "Portrait of our Suffering Savior, Painted by Numbers". Tonight we've shaded the background of this portrait BLACK by examining the ruthless soldiers who crucified Him. But this isn't meant to be an exercise in passing the blame, for in their actions we see a reminder of our own dark desensitization.
How many times have we Christians repaid evil for evil instead of taking the opportunity of forgive people in the name of our great God and Savior? How many times have we Christians squabbled over material things and ignored the spiritual? How many times have we Christians laughed at jokes made at the expense of others, laughed at things that we wouldn't want others to hear us laughing about?
Oh yes, we belong with those soldiers, squatting in the dirt. Us and the rest of the world. We belong there with our backs turned to the Savior as He suffers in sinless perfection behind us.
But John leaves us with one more detail that we do well to note. In verse 24 he says...
"... This was to fulfill the Scripture which says,Here John references a prophecy found in Psalm 22. Unknowingly, these men were fulfilling yet another prophesy in the long list of prophecies fulfilled around Jesus. Another prophesy which identified Him as, not just another tortured criminal, but as the Suffering Savior foretold in Scripture. The Savior that suffered for a purpose. The Savior who died to give us forgiveness for every insensitive action, for every unfeeling sin that we've ever committed.
“They divided my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
So the soldiers did these things," (John 19:24 ESV).
We deserve to be drawn into every depiction of the cross, right beside these sinful soldiers. But not just because our sins are as dark as theirs. There at the foot of the cross, Jesus' sinless perfection shines out, and falls gently down upon us. His sparkling perfection covers us in His mercy, forgiveness and peace.
When your conscience turns your inner eye on the blackness of your sins. Remember why God gave you a conscience - so that you can see your great need for redemption. And, so that you can see clearly the diamond of Christ's righteousness which through faith in His Name has been GIVEN TO YOU.
The Peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.