3/18/2021 12:43:17 PM
Hands of Brutality (Roman Soldiers)
Pastor Eric Schroeder - Midweek Lent 5 - Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Mom and Dad took pride that they had raised a happy kid. She was ten years old now and growing into a nice young lady. It was during her fifth-grade year, though, that her parents began to notice a change in personality. The youthful exuberance, her joy for life, and the permanent smile on her face gave way to a visible sadness. During that school year she grew increasingly distant. Her parents approached her. They took an interest; they asked, “What’s wrong?” and said, “It’s okay to talk about it.” The behavior continued. It wasn’t until the bruises started showing up that they called a meeting with the school principal. Only after hours of prodding did their daughter break down crying, admitting that she was being bullied by a group of mean girls in school.
Bullying is such a widespread and real problem that our government has set up a website, www.stopbullying.gov. It happens in our classrooms, it happens between spouses in our homes, in the workplace, in quiet neighborhoods. The site describes bullying as a pattern of behavior that is used to leverage power or control over another. It identifies three types of bullying. Verbal bullying involves name calling and threats of violence. Social bullying happens when a person is deliberately excluded or ostracized from a group, or others are encouraged not to be friends with someone. Physical bullying occurs when property is damaged as a threat of further violence, or when you actually lay your hands on someone else by pushing, kicking, tripping, or using your fists to fight.
Which of those three types of bullying did Jesus experience? Don’t we have to admit that Jesus was the victim of all three during his time on earth? His enemies, primarily religious enemies like the Pharisees and Sadducees, routinely engaged in verbal bullying. Their regular attempts to catch Jesus with a “gotcha” question is just one example. There was also the social bullying. Jewish leaders discouraged people from following Jesus, spread rumors about him, and tried to embarrass him publicly. After reading Matthew’s words, Jesus’ physical bullying is unmistakable. What happened at the Praetorium goes even beyond bullying to utter contempt and outright assault. It’s one thing for a socially awkward teenager to leverage a growth spurt to steal an underclassman’s lunch money, or for a jealous fifth grader to bully the goody-goody little kid. It is entirely another thing to bludgeon a man nearly to death for the heinous crime of preaching forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Throughout his ministry Jesus was bullied verbally and socially, but beginning late Thursday evening the physical violence escalated. Tonight, we see Jesus suffer the soldiers’ . . . Hands of Brutality.
What Matthew records for us is actually the second instance of the hands of brutality in the Passion History. Last week we heard about the intense hatred of the Jewish leaders, as they held a midnight court session that was anything but formal. They accused him, sentenced him, and then mocked him mercilessly. These church leaders blindfolded Jesus, slapped him across the face, and demanded he identify the man who hit him. They poked fun at the Son of God, spit in his face, and sent him on to Pontius Pilate.
Pilate interviewed Jesus and seemed determined to set him free. But Pilate was a politician first and a humanitarian second. The angry mob of Jews screaming that Jesus be crucified pressured Pilate into taking this action. Perhaps if Jesus were brutalized the Roman way, the Jews’ blind rage would be satisfied and Pilate could release an innocent man. So he handed him over to his whole company of soldiers—an estimated 600 men—to do their worst (v. 27).
The first thing the soldiers did was to whip Jesus’ naked back. Maybe you have heard of their torturous tools before, and to picture it is not for the faint of heart. The Jews limited the number of lashes a person could receive. But Jesus was in the hands of the Romans now, and they had no such limit. A cruel piece of irony, this treatment was so brutal that many considered it to be an act of mercy. You were so weakened by the beatings that you’d die more quickly when crucified.
What about those soldiers? For a Roman soldier, being stationed in Judea was like being sent to the end of the world. There was nothing to do. Putting up with the Jews was a pain. Their constant religious bickering and arguments were enough to make a soldier quit. They had to get their entertainment somehow, and sadly Jesus served that purpose. After his brutal whipping, the soldiers turned to ridicule. He claimed to be a king, and so they played along. They threw a scarlet robe on him—probably a soldier’s coat. They twisted together a bramble of thorns and pressed it into his skull as though it were a crown. They placed a stick of some kind into his weakened hands, and “they knelt down before him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews’” (v. 29). The company of soldiers took turns spitting on him and beating him over the head again and again. And with every blow of the whip, with every spray of spit, with every taunt and jeer Jesus fulfilled God’s Word.
We can read the prophecy in Isaiah’s words, written 700 years earlier. “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting” (Isa 50:6).
There are a lot of aggressive fathers—and more than a few mothers too—who argue that the way to handle a bully is to fight back. Punch the bully in the mouth! Jesus did no such thing. The same man who taught his followers to turn the other cheek (Mt 5:39), love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt 5:44), and do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Mt 7:12) is now the man under the microscope. Would he practice what he preached? He did more than that; he fulfilled Scripture. Again, from Isaiah: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth, he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isa 53:7).
Jesus let himself be brutalized. He offered his back. He didn’t object to his oppressors because he Was the King of the Jews. He was the King of the Gentiles! He’s King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 19:16), his name is above every name and to him every knee will bow (Php 2:9,10). Why would our almighty King let himself be brutalized? Why doesn’t he stand up and punch those bullies in the mouth? He did it for you. Jesus let himself be treated that way for you. Jesus knew it ahead of time; this was the cup of suffering Jesus asked God to take away! But God wouldn’t take it away; he made Jesus drink every last drop.
“It was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (Isa 53:10). Christ was brutalized for you as your perfect substitute. If Jesus hadn’t endured this shame, if he had avoided the indignity, if he had retreated from the cross or refused to drink even a drop of suffering, then there is no forgiveness of sins and God’s wrath on you is still in play. And you better believe that God could do to you much worse than any Roman soldier could.
So, listen to Matthew’s words and hear how much Christ sacrificed for you. Look how thoroughly he was brutalized. That’s how thoroughly you are forgiven! An ancient church father who lived in the days just after the Nicene Creed was penned, John Chrysostom, head of the church in Constantinople, explains why Christ’s whole body had to suffer at the hands of brutality. “his entire body had to suffer the most dreadful pains. His head was wounded by the crown of thorns, [and] by the blows of the fists; his face endured spitt[ing] and smiting; his entire body was scourged, stripped, and arrayed in a robe …; his hands held the [staff]; later, his tongue had to taste vinegar and gall. Because sin dwells and is active in all our members, therefore Christ desired to suffer for our sins in all his members.”
We are free from God’s wrath thanks to Jesus. And yet, we can expect the world to hate us, because it hated him first. We can expect the devil to bully us with temptations every chance he gets…and he will have many chances, because we still struggle against our own sinful cravings. But the whole reason Jesus suffered for us was so that we could be forgiven and freed. Even in our struggles, he is on our side. His forgiveness invites us to leave sin behind. His promise of heaven invites us to forsake worldly treasures in favor of souls we can bring with us. His assurance of eternity reminds us that all of our obstacles and all of our enemies will soon be left behind when he finds the perfect moment to call us home.
Until then, may Jesus give us the strength to follow him in suffering. When threats or bullying or trials come, let’s remember to take on Jesus’ attitude—to turn the other cheek, to pray for our enemies and persecutors, and love those who refuse to show love to us. Why? We ought to understand them, because whether we remember those days or not, we have been there.
It’s no wonder why the world is so unhappy. So many people are still living without Christ. They’re being bullied by sin and Satan. They feel alone and powerless as these bullies dictate their lives. But we can help. First we can show them, and then we can tell them about Jesus. Our brother, Jesus, suffered under the soldiers’ hands of brutality, and as a result we will never have to suffer God’s wrath. And, as happy kids in God’s family, we delight to bring our brother’s peace to people who need him. May God help us see and carry out each opportunity, in Jesus’ name. Amen.