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Updated: Apr 15, 2019

Presented by Back to the Bible

I’m a Roman centurion. I serve, not in my home country, but in this God-forsaken land of stones and scorpions. I have about 100 men in my command. But don’t be impressed. I’m just a grunt in the Roman army. I do whatever I’m told. A soldier has his duty. Soldiering is never pretty work, but where would we be without armies? Ask yourself that. The Roman sword and spear are the only foundation for peace in this world. Maybe someday someone will run the world without armies. I’d like to see them try. I’m not saying that I enjoy everything I’m ordered to do. But you get used to it. You lose certain sensibilities over the years. I thought I was as hard as any other soldier. Until that day.

Actually, it began late the night before when my commander sent word to our barracks at the Antonio fortress. The Jews had come to the fortress full of their confused noise about some traitor they wanted to arrest. They wanted Roman soldiers to accompany them. There was no guessing what they really were up to. You never know what kind of crazy fanatics you’ll come up against in this cursed land. This was the time of their Feast of Deliverance, and it did not take too many brains to imagine some “deliverer” taking a swipe at Rome as part of the festivities.

So I took several hundred men with me. We went east out of the city across the Kidron Valley to an olive garden. A strange company we were; led by an informant named Judas, at his heels a group of angry priests and religious leaders, a mob with clubs and torches. They had their temple police with them. I had to wonder, “What kind of traitor needs to be arrested with both Roman soldiers and Jewish scribes, their clubs and torches alongside the iron of our spears and swords?”

We arrived at the olive grove and I got my first look at this traitor. We had come with a small army for this one man? Judas kissed Him; that was the signal. Then for an instant a sudden wave of sheer panic swept over me. The whole troop convulsed in a moment of blind confusion and lurched backward; there were soldiers all over the ground. If there had been an opposing force in the garden that night, we would have been helpless before it.

I shouted for order and my troops recovered themselves. The Nazarene was arrested and taken to the house of the Jews’ high priest. I left a small patrol nearby and led the others back to the fortress. But that was not the end of it. It was nearly dawn when the Jews brought their prisoner to the governor’s judgment hall, clamoring for Pilate. The Jews had finished their own trial and wanted the governor to approve an execution. Pilate was not interested; it was a matter of their religion. Then they put it in political terms. Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews. They demanded that Pilate sentence Him to death for treason against Caesar. It was easy to see that this man was no threat to Rome. The governor was not convinced that Jesus was guilty of any capital crime. But Pilate wanted to appease the Jews, so he told me to have the Nazarene flogged. I gave the nod.

My men scourged Him, opening His back to deep wounds, shredding the flesh until pieces-- well, if you’ve ever seen a Roman flogging, you don’t need my words. But the scourging was not enough for the Jews. They screamed for His crucifixion. Pilate finally gave in. The men enjoyed the sport. First we took Him into the Praetorium and gathered the whole battalion. They mocked the because He had said He was King of the Jews. One of them pulled some thorns beside the wall and fashioned a crown. I’d seen that kind of thing before. But for the first time in many years, I winced as they pushed it into His brow. They slapped Him, spat upon Him, ridiculed Him. I knew we were doing the right thing and I fought against the new feelings inside. You must rule with power and fear, or you cannot rule. At least, that is what we had always been taught.

I led the execution detail to the hill outside of town. Jesus had to carry His own cross, like any other convict. We crucified Him with two others who had been sentenced. Some of the chief priests were there; an unusual audience for a crucifixion. They weren’t finished mocking. They said, “If you’re really who you claim to be, come down from that cross and save yourself.” My men jeered too. “If you’re the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

I usually joined, too. But I couldn’t. This man was no criminal. And He didn’t whimper or plead like the others. I’ve never seen anyone who knew how to die. No cursing, no spite, no fear. I mean, everyone loses their nerve or struggles or whimpers. It’s only natural. But not Him. I don’t mean He didn’t suffer. Everyone suffers. It’s just the way He took it. They curse or they cry. They blaspheme their gods. I’ve seen the toughest criminals terrified. You find out what a man really believes at the cross. You see who he is. And this one was different.

The funny feeling I had at the scourging grew in me, stronger than ever. Even though I had been trained to believe that crucifixion was the only way to rule, that it was the final solution for all human crime--but watching Him on that cross--this was not Roman justice.

At midday, the darkness came. I don’t mean the sun was shaded. I mean inky darkness. Many of the spectators lost their nerve and left. But, of course, an execution guard has to remain until the prisoners are dead. Obviously, we can’t let a prisoner’s friends get him down before the work is done. We usually rotate watches because the strong ones can last two or three days. But as the hours passed, I could see that this man was really close. I stood close and watched. He looked upward and said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” And then He died. I mean, He chose the moment. Death didn’t happen to Him, dragging Him away, catching Him off guard, struggling to get away. Just a man chooses his next action, chooses a moment to sleep or sing or eat, He died. On purpose. Just like that. Nobody has that kind of power over death. It was a miracle. I heard myself say, “Certainly this was a righteous man.”

I haven’t been the same since. I will never be able to look at a cross the same way again. This God- forsaken land. Holy men and scorpions. I never expected that a man on a cross could change me so. It was the way He died. I’m not the hardened Roman soldier I once was. I have seen the death of a truly righteous man. Now I’ll never rest until I find out who He was.

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