Christian wisdom isn’t something that can be discerned from nature or reflection on the idea of God. In other words, you can’t think about God in his unmediated glory and infer the preaching of the prophets, apostles, and evangelists. They proclaim an unfathomable God who takes on flesh. He suffers for the sake of sinners. St. Paul calls this the “secret and hidden wisdom of God.” He says, “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” And yet, of these same rulers St. Paul also writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those who have been instituted by God…For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
What then? Were the rulers of this age acting apart from God’s authority when Pilate tried and sentenced Jesus, or when he ordered his soldiers to carry out the justice of the cross? Far from it. At Jesus’ condemnation and execution, God uses their divinely instituted offices to pour out his wrath against sin, not against you, but against his own Son, the appointed sin bearer, who willingly drinks the cup of wrath to its dregs. Does this mean that Pilate and his soldiers were innocent in their actions? No. They twisted the offices and institutions created for our good and soiled them with depravity. Still, Jesus suffered their evil for good, despite their ignorance, to obtain a justice that extends from the courts of heaven to your conscience. By the blood soaked hands of Pilate’s soldiers, Jesus justified sinners with God. He obtained forgiveness, life, and the faith filled confession of Christians everywhere. From the Gospel lesson, see how…
JESUS DIES AND THE CENTURION CONFESSES THE SON OF GOD IN FAITH.
I. The soldiers sin in their unbelieving cruelty.
II. Jesus bears the mockery, the scorn, and the pain silently.
III. The centurion, seeing Jesus die thus, confesses Jesus as the Son of God.
Soldiers have a precarious office in this world. It’s not precarious in the sense that it lacks legitimacy, Luther himself wrote on the godly vocation of soldier, but precarious in the sense that it’s all too easy for their office bearers to fall into sin, for their duties of executing violence on behalf of God-given worldly authorities to become mingled with hatred, spite, and malice. Another God-given office that’s perhaps more familiar which also becomes mingled with sin would be that of mother or father. You know how easy it is to mix discipline with excessive anger. I think that it’s even worse with soldiers.
We come close to understanding this as Americans who love and value the members of our armed forces. We know that they put themselves not only in to harm’s way, but also in moral danger. Their consciences are at risk when they have to witness, endure, and suffer unimaginable violence. We expect these men to make the difficult decisions on the battlefield. Not surprisingly, hatred, rather than duty, often consumes and motivates their actions in the heat of the moment. I know. I served as a Marine in Iraq. With every act of hatred, my conscience simultaneously become hardened to wickedness and weighed down with guilt and shame.
During the passion of our Lord, who are the ones who lay hands on Jesus and bind him? Who are the ones who strike him on behalf of the chief priests, scribes, and elders? Who are the ones who scourge, mock, spit, and drive the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet? They are the soldiers of course. “And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. 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.”
It’s hard to bear the soldiers’ callous indifference. But if there’s ever anyone who shows us what sin really looks like, it’s these men. They didn’t have to coronate Jesus by piercing his head with thorns. They didn’t have to dress him as a king in purple to mock him with their unbelieving salutes.
Their orders were to scourge him. But it couldn’t end there. From hatred, not according to their office, they struck the Lord. You can almost see their enjoyment at making this innocent man suffer.
Are you shocked? It’s easy to become indignant, but that’s a trap. In the soldiers’ actions, we see the vileness of our own hearts. When we see Jesus stricken, smitten, and afflicted by the soldiers, we should remember all the times that we enjoyed the idea of inflicting pain on someone else. We should remember when we purposely ignored the protests of conscience and hardened our hearts. We should see a reflection, if not of our actions, at least of our thoughts and desires that desire to see our neighbors suffer for little to no cause. These hardened men with hardened hearts show us what lurks underneath our hypocrisy, enmity with God and our neighbor.
In stark contrast to the soldiers stands Jesus. His doesn’t deserve his sentence. He’s innocent. And yet, Pilate hands this blameless man, instead of the murderer Barabbas, over to death. When the soldiers demean and humiliate Jesus, does he protest? Does he curse them and promise that they will pay for their abject cruelty? No. Jesus suffers patiently, silently, and without complaint. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not…He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”
The soldiers may have defiled their God-given office of bearing the sword with their wickedness, but Jesus perfectly honors and keeps his offices as king and priest as he endured their scourges and blasphemous words.
Think about this. Though they spoke out of hatred saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” they spoke truly. Jesus received their scorn, because it was necessary to draw even these men unto himself. Jesus is the King of the Jews, the Messiah who has come to sit on David’s throne forever, who would draw all nations of the world to himself. Though they don’t yet know it, in Pilate’s palace the gentile soldiers coronate and hail their new King.
What they do in unbelief would soon be turned to heartfelt confessions of joy and faith. How is this possible? Follow the soldiers to the cross.
The merciless actions of the soldiers continued as they crucified the Lord of glory. This was no ordinary execution. They used nails. They used cold, hard, stakes of metal to attach Jesus’ frail flesh to the wood of the tree. The hammer’s head fell upon the metal again and again. The text doesn’t indicate that it bothered them. Their hearts were probably as cold as the nails and the wood. Their consciences were as silent as stone. Mark tells us that everyone standing there reviled the Lord as he silently suffered his Father’s will. He drank the bitter cup of the Father’s wrath because of their abject wickedness. They are the evil ones. Yet Jesus suffers as if he alone in the world were evil and all else stood outside of God’s wrath. Is this injustice? Is this God not being fair?
Dear saints, this is Father’s justice for you. This is his mercy for you. Yes, according to your corrupted nature your thoughts and intentions are bloodthirsty and evil, but here at the cross, something incredible happens. One of the soldiers, a centurion, who very well may have been with Jesus all the way from the governor’s palace to the cross, sees the way in which this man dies. He sees this man’s silence who had every right to cry out in protest. He sees how he refused even the smallest comfort of wine mixed with myrrh. He sees how the whole world became dark, how this man cried out in dereliction to a God he still called his own, and with a loud cry breathed his last. “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
From the lips of a man who hours earlier who sneered and laughed as Jesus bled and staggered under the whip, from the man who callously cast lots for this dying man’s garments and joined in with reviling the King of the Jews, from this man came words of faith! From the least likely person came the definitive confession of Jesus’ identity. Here, at the foot of the cross, this wicked man with his cold heart and hardened conscience received forgiveness and life.
What comfort and joy this is for you and me who know the depths of our own depravity. There is not one person who is too far gone for Jesus. When he sheds his blood upon the altar on the cross, the vilest and most disgusting people on earth are made new. They are redeemed from sin, death, and the devil. They are justified by God’s grace through faith. They receive a conscience set free from guilt and shame.
When Jesus returns in glory to judge the living and the dead, you, dear saints, will see this man standing among you. You will see him wearing the same pure and perfect garment of Jesus’ righteousness. You will hear Jesus say to this man, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Behold dear saints. Here is the wisdom of God. Here is an unfathomable God who takes on flesh. He suffers. He is crucified and dies. By the blood soaked hands of Pilate’s soldiers, Jesus justifies sinners with God in heaven. He obtains forgiveness, life, and the faith filled confession of Christians everywhere. Jesus dies so that Christians of all times and places can confess their saving faith saying, “Truly, this man is the Son of God.”
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.