The ministry of John the Baptist was compelling in that it reached the hearts and minds of his audience and encouraged them to ask questions. Often we respond to ministry in an analytical way by describing it as being good, bad or indifferent in content, style and delivery. When John spoke people reacted by saying, ‘What shall we do then?’ Luke 3. 10. This was observed across a broad spectrum of his hearers including Pharisees, the common people and the soldiers. In this passage the soldiers equate with the ‘rough places’, and characteristically while the others ‘ask’ or ‘say’, the soldiers ‘demanded of him’, this indicating the force of their character.
To the soldiers John gave three words of advice: 1) do violence to no man; 2) neither accuse any man falsely; 3) be content with your wages. However, they rejected this advice not only in their dealings with the Jews generally, but particularly so in their dealings with the Lord Jesus Christ. This can be demonstrated as follows:
Do Violence to No Man
In Matthew chapter 27 we read that the soldiers took Jesus into the common hall and gathered unto Him the whole band of soldiers. While He was there He was made an object of ridicule and aggressive fun. The normal discipline of soldiers was relaxed and they felt able to do as they pleased. As Jesus stood there they ‘stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head’, vv.28-30. Evidently, soldier after soldier came up to Him and violently assaulted Him.
Yet, He stood there patiently, the foul spittle of many men running down His cheeks, buffeted and tormented. Amazingly, each time He took the reed, held it and handed it over to each soldier. Here indeed is amazing grace and a fulfilment of the scripture that He was led as a lamb to the slaughter and remained uncomplaining as a sheep being shorn. Other scriptures tell us that they smote Him with their hands and plucked the hairs from His face. The hatred of man against God and against His Christ reached its high water mark on that dark day. Contrary to the advice given by John the Baptist, the soldiers did violence to His person.
Neither Accuse any Man Falsely
The Lord was falsely accused by the Jews who misunderstood, misrepresented and wickedly maligned Him. The result was a harsh sentence from a weak judge who allowed fear of the crowd and fear of his masters to overcome what he knew to be the right decision. Consequently, Pilate handed Him over to be crucified and in so doing he implicated all who stood with him, including the soldiers.
Many events took place at the cross but we draw attention to those in which the soldiers particularly were involved. Having done the actual work of crucifixion, the soldiers were allowed as a benefit to share the clothes of the victims. Each of the four soldiers most intimately involved took one piece of Jesus’ clothing, but for His coat they decided not to rend it but to cast lots for it. To them that seemed a good idea at the time. However, it is clear that it was done that the scripture should be fulfilled. And in this vein it was a soldier who gave Him vinegar to drink, in accord with Old Testament prophecy.
Similarly, when the instruction was given to break the legs of the victims, the soldiers, when they came to Jesus and saw that He was dead already they brake not His legs. Their orders had been to break the legs, but they disobeyed this (an offence punishable by death) in order to fulfil a higher command, that the scripture should be fulfilled ‘a bone of him shall not be broken’.
Interestingly, just as one soldier did not do what he should have done, so one of his fellows did what he should not have done. No command was given to use a spear, but one of the soldiers with a spear, pierced His side … that the scripture might be fulfilled.
While they mocked Him and crucified Him they were nevertheless still in the control of God, and, in spite of everything the scriptures were fulfilled.
Be Content with your Wages
The whole city of Jerusalem had been shaken by what had happened on the day of the crucifixion. But now, in the hours following the resurrection, rumour swept the city. Reports were that Jesus had been raised from the dead and had been seen alive! Other recent events: a great earthquake; angelic appearances; the resurrection of other less well known, but nonetheless previously dead people; hours of thick darkness; the temple veil rent, now exacerbated by this news meant that the people and the authorities were on tenterhooks.
In order to calm things down, in the interest of law and order, the chief priests instructed the soldiers, ‘Say ye, “His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept”. And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him and secure you’. Matt. 28. 13-14. In order to give the soldiers an incentive to be dishonest they offered them ‘large money’, or more simply a bribe.
‘Be content with your wages’, had been the advice of John the Baptist. Alas, ‘they took the money, and did as they were taught’, Matt. 28. 15.
The soldiers of the day played a very important part in the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Yet, they were under the controlling hand of God and this should be a solace to us today in an increasingly violent world. One can but hope that the events of those days may have caused more than one of the officers to say, ‘Truly this was the Son of God’, Matt. 27. 54.
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