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.

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