Where Were the Soldiers at Jesus’ Crucifixion?

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Ernest Borgnine as the Centurion in the movie “Jesus of Nazareth”

“The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head” (John 19:2).

“So the soldiers took charge of Jesus” (John 19:16).

“Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear” (John 19:34).

As I was reading the four Gospel accounts of the crucifixion last Saturday (between Good Friday and Easter Sunday), I was intrigued to see that soldiers were mentioned in several places.  They had a key role in the events leading up to and during Jesus’ death on the cross.  Some soldiers were not so kind.  One of them was a believer.  As a retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant who served on active duty for twenty years, I felt compelled to study a bit more and share what I learn.

A few days later, before I had started writing this article, I was struck by another moment of divine inspiration, or what I like to call “sanctified imagination”.  What if I did a series of articles, starting with this one, and called it “Soldiers in Scripture – Warriors in the Word”?

I currently serve as a civilian staff member at the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School located at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  I work with soldiers every day.  My wife and I attend chapel services on Sundays.  I know several Army chaplains.  I thought that this might be a good series to share with the Christian military community here and around the world.  Perhaps it might bring soldiers, young and old, some much needed encouragement as they learn from God’s word what it says about those who served in the profession of arms.

Rather than starting in Matthew, and working my way through Mark, Luke, and John in order, I will break it down by major event.  It is interesting that Matthew and Mark only refer to soldiers in their respective accounts one time, Luke mentions them three times, and John does so eight times.

The Soldiers’ actions when Jesus was arrested

The first time I see soldiers involved in the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion is in the Garden of Gethsemane.  John is the only one of the four Gospel writers who specifically mentions that a detachment of soldiers was among those with Judas as he led a group of Jewish officials to arrest Jesus (John 18:3).  The other writers only mention that Judas brought a crowd of people with him.

We do not see much of anything specifically mentioned about these soldiers.  It appears that they were a security force.  We read in Matt. 26:47 that this crowd of people was “armed with swords and clubs”.  It makes sense that Judas would have brought (or rather the Jewish officials would have arranged for) a show of force in case Jesus’ disciples showed any resistance, which Peter did do.

Keener writes in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament that although this group of soldiers might have been Roman soldiers, many scholars have come to the conclusion that “this unit was undoubtedly Jewish – the temple guard.  (Roman troops would not be used for a routine police action like this one, and Romans would not have taken Jesus to the house of Annas.)”

The Soldiers’ actions while Jesus was questioned and tried

After Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, John mentions in 18:12 that soldiers arrested Jesus, bound him, and led Him away to a series of prideful leaders who believe they will determine His fate.

These soldiers (or perhaps temple guards), first escorted Jesus to the house of the former high priest, Annas, who was the first one to question Jesus.  Then they took him to his son-in-law, Caiaphas, the current high priest.  (See John 18:12-13.)  After Caiaphas pronounced judgement on Jesus for blasphemy, those who were guarding Jesus cruelly mocked and beat Him (Luke 22:63).  Elsewhere, we read that they were spitting in His face and striking Him.  (See Matt. 26:67 and Mark 14:65.)

Unfortunately, this would not be the last time we see soldiers violating laws regarding treatment of prisoners.  Next, Jesus went on trial before Herod.  Luke alone tells us that “Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him” (23:11)  Later, Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus a while and reluctantly pronounced His death sentence.  After this, Pilate’s Roman soldiers took him to the palace, where a company of soldiers gathered to mistreat Jesus.  They stripped Him, beat Him, and put a scarlet robe on Him.  Then they made a crown of thorns and put it on Jesus’ head.  Then the soldiers mocked Him, spit on Him, and beat Him repeatedly.  (See Matt. 27:27-31; Mark 15:16-20; John 19:1-3.)

The Soldiers’ actions when Jesus on the cross

There are several critical events at Jesus’ crucifixion that involved soldiers.  As a matter of fact, in many of these scenes, the soldiers’ actions were in direct fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy!  (I invite you to check out an article that I wrote on this very subject a short time ago.)

First, soldiers mocked Jesus on the way to Golgotha, where they gave Him vinegar mixed with gall (Luke 23:36).  This fulfilled Ps. 69:21.  (See also Matt. 27:34, 48; Mark 15:23; John 19:28-30.)

Next, after Jesus was hung on the cross, there were four soldiers who divided Jesus’ clothes among them and cast lots for his seamless undergarment.  All three of John’s fellow Gospel writers briefly include this story in their accounts.  (See Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34.)  However, John gives us much more detail.  His version in John 19:23-24 includes a brief conversation that explains why they cast lots, which was in direct fulfillment of Ps. 22:18.

Also worth mentioning is the astounding scene at the cross where the Roman soldiers do not break Jesus’ legs, which was fulfilled Ex. 12:46.  They did not have to do so because they knew Jesus was already dead when they pierced His side, once again in direct fulfillment of Scripture (Zech. 12:10).

There is one more event that involved a brave soldier.  Right after Jesus died, we see a centurion, a leader of a company of soldiers, responding to the miraculous signs that accompanied Jesus’ death (i.e., the curtain of the temple was split in two, an earthquake, dead coming back to life).  This soldier exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”  (See Matt. 27:51-54; Mark 15:38-39; Luke 23:44-47.)

How should Christian Soldiers act now?

I think that there are several things that soldiers can do today from seeing soldiers at the cross:

  • Submit to authority – accept your humble position and carry out the orders given to you, even if you disagree with them; make an effort to show respect for and trust your leaders
  • When in charge, take charge – take your responsibility seriously; do your duty, whether it be escorting prisoners, maintaining a vehicle, or training other Soldiers
  • Follow the Geneva convention that prohibits cruelty towards prisoners – there is a time and place to be violent; there is also a time to treat all with dignity and respect, even our enemies
  • Sometimes God will use a soldier to accomplish His purposes, sometimes unknowingly; be that soldier who makes himself or herself available for God to be used for His mission
  • Be a like the centurion who boldly declared his faith in Jesus Christ – have the confidence to express your faith at the appropriate moments; live it out every day for all to see

Next time, I will explore what the Soldiers were doing at Jesus’ tomb.  (Click here to read the article.)

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

The Theology of Work on Display During our Darkest Days

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(Note: This article was posted on the Coram Deo blog.)

It occurred to me yesterday that in the midst of this awful pandemic, it has been an extraordinary time to clearly see some of the basic tenets of the theology of work on display for all to see.  The subject of human work (and God’s very real connection to it) has been front page news for several weeks.  Let me explain what I mean.

Heroic work

At his daily press conferences, the President deliberately praises the great Americans (and companies) who are doing “heroic” work every day: healthcare workers, first responders, the military, researchers, pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers, governors, etc.  I have not seen such a public outpouring of love and support for these workers since 9/11.  Their work really matters to all of us now.

One might wonder, “Why is there is such a profound demonstration of courage, hard work, dedication, compassion, and creativity among these workers in such as time as this?”  I believe that a strong biblical and practical theology of work has relevant answers to this question.

We know from Gen. 1:26-18 that humans were created by God in His image.  God is a worker, and we were created to work also.  Men and women were given both the responsibility and the blessing to be coworkers with God to care for, sustain, and expand His creation.  (See Gen 2:15.)  Furthermore, God equipped humans with a variety of skills and talents.  As we use those talents in the communities in which we find ourselves, we can be part of the solution to meet others’ needs.

Never forget that God is always present in human work.  I call this concept Immanuel labor.  It is everywhere, especially now.

The loss of work

In contrast to the focused attention on all those multitudes of faithful workers who are doing amazing things every day to save lives and bring about restoration, millions more have lost jobs.

Tens of millions (amounting to about 10%) of American workers who are now unemployed is a major concern.  It is taking its toll on families, communities, and the nation’s economy.  Many others have had their jobs altered in significant ways due to teleworking.  Why is this such a strain on everyone?  Again, based on our divine design, humans need meaningful work to thrive.  We need what work brings us – a sense of purpose, satisfaction, and to be part of a team.

How should we respond?

  • Continue to encourage essential workers; they need courage to keep going back to work
  • Go out of your way to encourage all the other workers who are not considered essential (but truly are); they also need to know that their contributions matter
  • Remember to praise God for His provision in meeting our needs; it is He who provides for us only by His grace through the work of humans as His coworkers

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Jesus Fulfilled Old Testament Prophecy on the Cross

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(Note: This article was published in Lost Pen magazine.)

Like most Christians around the world, I tried to be intentional about focusing on Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday.  As I read through the accounts of the cross in all four Gospels over the past couple of days, I noticed how frequently the writers quoted or alluded to the Old Testament.  It became obvious that I needed to do a little research to address how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament (OT) prophecy.

The Apostle John makes this bold claim about just one of these fulfillments during the crucifixion: “These happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled” (John 19:36).  Let me unpack this a bit.

The four Gospel writers shared their unique viewpoints regarding the events around Jesus’ crucifixion.  Each of them, however, purposefully tied several details of these events to OT prophecy, showing how Jesus fulfilled them.  These fulfillments are powerful faith-builders, as they demonstrate God’s sovereignty in carefully laying out the OT Scriptures so that they would point to Jesus.

I invite you to explore this topic with me, as we take a deep dive into God’s word.  We will take three of the OT passages that are either quoted or alluded to in the Gospels and then discuss where and how they are handled in each of the Gospel accounts that connect them back to the OT.

Psalm 22:18

You might find it strange that we begin here. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that this wonderful collection of poetry called the psalms are not considered prophetic books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.  However, this psalm and many others fall into the category of messianic psalms, as they all clearly point to Jesus when we look back at them with enlightened eyes.

It is interesting that all four Gospel writers mention this event that fulfills Ps. 22:18, which states, “They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” Matthew presents it nearly word for word in Matt. 27:35, but he does not quote it directly.  We call this an allusion, because it obviously calls to the mind of the reader (both now and then) the OT verse without spelling it out.  However, there is a footnote in the NIV indicating that some late manuscripts added, “that the word spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled”, which is followed by quoting Ps. 22:18.

In Mark 15:24, Mark writes the same thing.  Luke 23:34 is where we find this event listed next.  There are no footnotes here, nor are there any direct quotes, only a note in the margin that this is a parallel passage to Ps. 22:18.

We read it again in John 19:24.  Here, John adds much more detail to his account, as he was there.  He observes that they divided Jesus’ clothes into four shares, one for each of the four soldiers.  He focuses on the undergarment which remained.  This had no seams apparently, being woven somehow in one piece from top to bottom.  John then shares a conversation between two of the Soldiers, where they agree to not tear it but cast lots to decide who would get it.  John indicates here (as he does on two other occasions in his account) that this happened in fulfillment of Psalm 22:18, which he quotes in full.

Psalm 22:1

Next, in our chronological listing of events that took place when Jesus died on the cross that had connections to the OT, is Ps. 22:1.  Unlike the previous one, this verse that begins this Messianic psalm was only quoted by two of the Gospel writers.  It is also different from our previous verse in that the Gospel writers were either alluding to or quoting the OT Scripture themselves.  Here, Jesus actually quoted the verse Himself, communicating that He identified with the psalm in a personal way.

Matthew mentions this event, as expected, since he was writing to a Jewish audience.  He consistently calls attention in his book to how the life and death of Jesus as their Messiah fulfills OT prophecy.  In Matt. 27:46, we see Jesus crying out to His heavenly Father.  He truly felt abandoned as He willingly bore the sin of the entire collection of humans around the world, past, present, and future.  For the first time, Jesus experienced complete separation from God the Father, because Jesus, as the only sinless human that ever lived, became sin for us so that we might gain His righteousness.  (See Rom. 4:25; 1 Peter 2:24.)

In Mark 15:34, we also see Jesus speaking in agony the words of this psalm.  Moyise, in Jesus and Scripture: Studying the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, states that Mark records Jesus quoting the OT 22 times.  Moyise concludes that “Mark understood Psalm 22:1 as a prophecy of the Messiah’s suffering, just as he has portrayed Jesus’ suffering as God’s will throughout his Gospel.”

I encourage you to read Psalm 22 in its entirety.  Verses 7 and 8 will also be reminiscent of the events at the cross that are mentioned in all three Synoptic Gospels.  But, let us move on to another psalm.

Psalm 31:5

Like Psalm 22:1, Jesus is quoting an OT Scripture with which He can properly identify.  Jesus quotes Ps. 31:5 in what appear to be His final words.  (It is somewhat challenging to list in chronological order all of the words of Jesus on the cross with four slightly differing perspectives.)  Interestingly, Luke 23:46 is the only place in all four Gospel narratives where we can read of this crucifixion event.

Dr. Mark D. Roberts, in his “Life for Leaders” devotional on April 10, 2020 entitled, The Seventh Word: Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit gives us some solid insights into Jesus’ use of Psalm 31.

By quoting a portion of Psalm 31, therefore, Jesus not only entrusted his future to his Father, but also implied that he would be delivered and exonerated. Jesus surely knew the full truth of Psalm 31; so he understood that God would not deliver him from death by crucifixion. But beyond this horrific death lay something marvelous. “Into your hand I commit my spirit” points back to the familiar suffering of David in Psalm 31 and forward to the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, the final word of Jesus from the cross foreshadows the coming victory and joy of Easter.

This was not intended to be a comprehensive list of all of the OT references that Jesus fulfilled at the cross.  In addition to these mentioned above, you may want to read Ps. 69:21, which is quoted by all four Gospel writers.  (See Matt. 27:34 and 48; Mark 15:23 and 36; Luke 23:36; and John 19:28-30.)  I also encourage you to read John 19:31-37, where John quotes both Exo. 12:46 and Zech. 12:10, and boldly points out that Jesus fulfilled these OT Scriptures as well.

What are the implications?

After reading all of these OT Scriptures and Gospel verses, you might be wondering, “What do I need to do with all of this good information?  Is there anything implied that I should do to apply these truths?

I do not believe that these passages were intended to lead us to change how we think, speak, or act.  These connections between the OT and NT are meant to make us amazed at God’s holy word, and amazed with His holy Word, Jesus, who against all odds perfectly fulfills hundreds of OT passages written thousands of years before He was born.  Without a doubt, we can trust and follow Him.

(Note: If you found this discussion of value to your faith and knowledge, I invite you to read a series of articles I wrote on how Jesus fulfilled the OT prophecies found in Isaiah 53:4-12.)

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Reflections on Teleworking

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(Note: This article was published on the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog, Intersect Project blog, 4Word Women blog, and the Coram Deo blog.  I invite you to read my follow-up article, written after completing four and a half months of telework here.)

“Honey, I’ll be glad to stop by the store on the way home from work and pick that up for you.”

I am not able to say this right now.  I probably will not say anything like it for quite some time.  For the past two weeks, I have been working from home, like many others, due to the Coronavirus.

Here, I will address some of the unique challenges I have faced having been forced to telework on short notice due to social distancing as a result of this pandemic.  (See previous article.)  Let me share some of what I like about this new situation, what I miss, and what has been difficult for me.  Then, I will focus my thoughts on how my Christian faith is impacted by this new environment.

What do I like?

  • I really like not having to commute forty minutes each way to work; it is saving money, wear and tear on the car, and eliminates the risk of me falling asleep on the way home
  • I like working in a place relatively free of interruptions, allowing me to concentrate on major projects, which is usually very difficult for me to do at my office
  • I like that I was able to learn how to use new video teleconferencing systems and collaborative document sharing sites to enable key leaders and staff to work as a team
  • I am grateful that some major inspections and visits from VIPs were postponed for a bit
  • I am enjoying the daily devotions that the school chaplain is putting out, where he shares a thought on one relevant Scripture and attaches a theology of work article from my blog

What do I miss?

  • I truly miss the daily face-to-face interactions with my Operations team, my leaders, fellow staff members, and all of the other folks that I occasionally run into at the headquarters
  • I do miss the frequent interruptions from customers who drop by with a question or a need
  • I actually miss the constant chaos, and the challenge of trying to maintain it
  • I also miss our Tuesday lunch Bible studies (see article published on the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog)

What has been difficult?

  • Keeping up with all of the new and old ways people contact me: email, phone, text, video-teleconference sessions, and Facebook messenger, some of which come simultaneously
  • Accepting that my roles and responsibilities have changed; some duties have temporarily stopped and I am spending a lot of time on new things I have never had to do before
  • Communication with leaders and subordinates is mostly limited to emails and texts

Immanuel labor

From a theological perspective, I have observed there were many impacts on work right away.

I have to go back to my foundational concept in my theology of work: Immanuel labor – God is present in our work.  This divine-human connection is supported in Scripture in many places.  (See article I wrote that was published on the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog and another article on my blog.)  Even though my work has changed significantly, this principle remains the same since God has not changed who He is.

I am grateful that God brought this to mind at 0730 on Day 1.  When I stepped into my temporary office from my kitchen, I recognized that I was standing on holy ground.  God was present in my new workspace.  By His grace, He would continue to work in me, with me, and through me, right here at my personal desk that now held my government computer, just has He always had done.

I still experience God’s presence while working alone.  God freely gives me His peace, wisdom, and joy whether I am in the office or at home.  However, the way that I bring the presence of God to others when I am not present with them is challenging for me.  I have to rest that His presence is continuing to flow through me as I abide in Christ whenever I text, email, or have a video chat.

Thorns and Thistles

In addition to changes in how I experience God’s presence at work, another aspect that has been drastically different in this new environment of teleworking is its unique set of thorns and thistles.

I am referring to God’s curse that made work harder than necessary as a direct result of the sins of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:17-19), others I work for (above, below, and next to me), and myself.  (See article I wrote that was published on the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University blog and another article I wrote on my blog where I shared some illustrations of thorns and thistles.)

Here are some of the things that I have discovered that make everyone’s job much harder:

  • Uncertainty – None of us knows how long this “new normal” is going to last
  • Decision-making – It is more difficult to make hard decisions when the team is scattered
  • Stress – Never-ending time-sensitive requests for information, preparation for daily briefings, ever-changing requirements, long hours, and extremely high expectations
  • Learning curve – Having to learn how to do many things outside our usual comfort zone (i.e., learning new technologies to participate in virtual meetings, no playbook to go by)

However, I have learned that we cannot stay stuck just because work has been impacted by sin.  The gospel of Jesus Christ gives me hope.  It enables me respond biblically to the thorns thistles I see at work as trials that God uses to build my character into greater Christ-likeness.  (See Rom. 5:3-5.)

Working Wisely

What clearly comes to mind is how the way in which I work has been impacted by teleworking, especially when it comes to how I relate to my employer and to my employees.  (See article I wrote on my blog where I focused on the employer-employee relationship.)

The first thing that comes to mind is the higher level of discipline that is required as I work from home.  At the start of each day, I have to lay out what I anticipate will be my boss’ priorities for me and then press on towards completion, whether she is present or absent.  My boss cannot just pop into my office to see how I am doing or to check on the status of a hot project.  (However, she does seem to do that virtually at least once a day through our desktop video-conferencing application.)

Additionally, how I submit to my employer in a tangible way from a distance is a critical thing.  Scripture tells me is my number one duty.  (See Eph. 6:5-7.)  It is to my advantage that I do this.  (See Heb. 13:17.)  I also have to remember that Jesus is my ultimate boss; I work for His glory.

How has teleworking impacted my relationships with the Soldiers that work for me? This is where I think that I have some growing to do.  I am an “out of sight, out of mind” person.  I always have been.  Since I don’t see them here in my office, they tend to get forgotten.  And that is sad.

Beforehand, I may have been tied up for a half an hour or so reading emails or updating slides, but I came out of my office occasionally to get a drink of water or just to see how everyone is doing.  For example, at 1430 nearly every day, because of my unique sense of humor, I will announce to anyone around that it is time to see the dentist.   Why?  Because it is tooth-hurty (two-thirty)!

As the weeks of teleworking turn into months, I have to work harder to find ways to intentionally reconnect with my two noncommissioned officers who work for me.  They deserve that.  More importantly, that is what I am called to do, to love my neighbors at work, whether present or not.

In closing, I trust that this reflection on how my Christian faith intersects my work in this new teleworking environment shed some light on some of the challenges many of us are facing.  I for one know that I need to spend more time praying that I will be just as faithful at the home office.

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.