What Have I Done

by Robert G. Witty

My name is Lucius Romulus. For the past 25 years I have served as a soldier for the Roman Empire. I have fought the enemies of Rome in many different lands including Gaul, Egypt, Africa, and Palestine. Gradually I have risen from a common soldier to the rank of centurion.

One of my hobbies has been to learn to speak the language of the people among whom I have been stationed. Though Latin is my native tongue, I am able to speak Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, and even Hebrew. I suspect that this linguistic ability, coupled with my experience, accounts for my present assignment as commander of Pontius Pilate's special guard here in Jerusalem.

The Passover Feast always presents special problems because of the thousands of pilgrims that come to celebrate in the holy city of Jerusalem. This year promised more than usual excitement because of a rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus.

This rabbi had aroused the Jewish leaders to a frenzy of hate by coming into the city riding upon a donkey accompanied by a crowd of followers waving palm branches and acclaiming him as the descendent of their King David. What incensed the priests more than the shouts of the people, Jesus strode into the Temple area and smashed tables, scattered the money changers and merchants in the area, declaring they were desecrating God's house. Before a riot could begin, Jesus had left the scene and departed from the city.

When I heard the story, I remembered that Gaius, the centurion stationed in Nazareth, had told me how this same young rabbi had healed his servant. I think Gaius actually believed that Jesus was some kind of a god, and a good one at that. 

It was near dawn following the night of the Passover when a soldier pounded on my door. "What do you want?" I demanded.

"Pontius Pilate commands you to come at once," the messenger said as he saluted.

Suspecting some kind of Jewish emergency had arisen, I dressed rapidly and hurried to Pilate's palace. Almost blocking the entrance, a crowd of Jewish leaders including the high priest himself, clamored for the Roman leader. They gave way as I pushed through them.

"Lucius, call these fanatics to appear before me," commanded Pilate, plainly annoyed. I saluted, turned, and went to the entrance.

"The procurator will see you. Come with me," I told the high priest and his followers.

"To enter the house of a Gentile at this feast is prohibited," the high priest replied. "Let the procurator come to us."

Pilate groaned in disgust at my report, but gathered his robe about him and followed me to the entrance.

"We have brought this law-breaker for you to execute," said the high priest as he thrust the condemned man toward Pilate. It was then that I recognized that the alleged criminal was none other than the rabbi who had cleansed the Temple area of the merchants.

"What crime has the man committed?" Pilate asked.

"The crime of blasphemy," the high priest began, "the crime is punishable by."

"Rome is not concerned with Jewish laws," Pilate interrupted. "Take him and punish him yourselves."

"We do not have the authority to put him to death," the high priest replied. "He has incited rebellion from Galilee to our holy city."

Pilate grasped at the excuse this offered: "As he is a Galilean I will send him to Herod, for that is his jurisdiction."

"Centurion, take this man and his accusers to Herod," Pilate ordered, as he turned away.

Though clearly disappointed at Pilate's decision, the high priest and those with him followed as I escorted the prisoner toward Herod's palace. The rabbi was bound and his face showed livid marks where he had been struck. Nevertheless, he showed neither fear nor anger, only quiet peace-almost an expression of pity.

When Jesus was thrust before Herod, the Jews repeated their accusations and their request for punishment. Jesus remained silent.

"I have heard of you, rabbi," Herod said. "Perform a miracle and prove that you are a true prophet and I will order your release," he challenged.

Jesus gave the king neither look nor word.

Surprised and perhaps irritated at being ignored, Herod ordered a soldier, "Put this royal robe on the rabbi. Perhaps he is embarrassed to be before royalty."

Jesus neither looked, spoke, nor moved.

Completely exasperated, Herod shouted to me, "Take this  dumb pretender back to Pilate with his accusers. I will have nothing to do with such."

So back to Pilate we marched the silent Jesus and his screaming accusers.

"Sir, King Herod has returned the accused to  your jurisdiction," I reported.

"Bring the rabbi into the Judgment Hall," Pilate ordered as he turned from the accusers.

In the Judgment Hall Pilate asked Jesus, "What is your answer to your accusers?"

When the young rabbi made no reply, Pilate declared, "You make no defense. Don't you know that I have power to release you or to crucify you as your accusers desire?"

With that same look of pity, Jesus told the procurator, "You have no power except that which is given you."

"Are you a king?" Pilate queried.

"You have spoken the truth," Jesus replied quietly, "but my kingdom is not of this world."

Obviously puzzled, Pilate marched the prisoner back to his accusers and said, "I find no fault in him but I will have him beaten and set free."

"But he must die," they cried. Ignoring their demand, Pilate ordered me: "Take him, scourge him, and return him to  me."

Though I obeyed without a word, Jesus looked at me as though he understood that I wanted to release him.

The horror of the Roman scourge is always indescribable but when the soldiers saw they had opportunity to vent their hatred of the Jews I will always shudder at the savagery I witnessed.

Tied to the post so that his naked body was fully exposed, two brawny soldiers stripped to the waist stood, one on each side of the young rabbi. Each man flexed his muscles as he held his scourge ready to begin the lash with the  count.

"One." The first soldier lashed; blood and skin spattered as the pieces of bone in the whip plowed through the flesh of the victim.

"Two!" The second soldier grunted as he sought to outdo the first. Blood and flesh ripped from the front of the victim as the whip twisted around Jesus' body.

"Hit him!" "Kill him!" "Harder!" "Rip him up!"

With each count the thirst for blood challenged the strength of those who  lashed the bleeding victim.

"Thirty-nine!'

"Stop!" I shouted.

A soldier brought a purple robe, threw it over the bloody, torn flesh of Jesus. Another,  who had found a thorn bush and fashioned a crude crown of the thorns, pressed it into the brow of the young rabbi. Blood from his head flowed down to join that of his torn and bloody body. Some spit in his face. Others bowed in mockery crying, "Hail, king of the Jews!"

Jesus stood silently, with that same look of pity upon his bleeding face.

"What a man," I thought. After all the lashing, he is still standing!

 Then I took Jesus back to Pilate. It was only after Pilate stood Jesus in front of the Jewish leaders that I understood why he had ordered Jesus' return.

"Behold the man!" Pilate shouted, hoping pity would soften their hatred.

Instead, the sight of blood inflamed the Jews. "Crucify him! Crucify him!" they screamed.

Disgusted, Pilate ordered a basin of water set before him. Washing his hands, he cried, "I am innocent of the blood of this just man. His blood be upon you and your children."

"Crucify him!" the mob cried. "His blood be on us!"

Fearing an insurrection, Pilate dried his hands and ordered, "Take him and crucify their king!"

Ordering the cross beam laid on the victim's bloody shoulders, I began the march through the jeering mob.

Jesus staggered under the cross, took a few steps, stumbled, and fell. 

"Wait," I shouted as one of the soldiers raised his lash to strike the fallen victim. Looking around, I spotted a burly man near the fallen Jesus. "Lift that cross and carry it," I ordered.

"For a moment, I thought the man would rebel. He looked at me with the most intense hatred-but then I saw something inexplicable. Jesus looked at the man and believe it or not, the man's hatred was replaced by an expression that I could describe only as of  peace and pity.

As he lifted the cross-beam to one shoulder, I heard  this strong man say to Jesus, "Sir, lean on me."

So our company struggled up to Golgotha: I and my soldiers armed with whips to lash the prisoners; Simon, bearing  the cross; Jesus, bruised and bleeding, staggering up the rough slope to the place of crucifixion; two thieves, cursing their captors; Jewish leaders, gloating over their victory; a few women, weeping bitterly; and a motley blood-thirsty crowd.

Though I have crucified a number of men, what I experienced on that hill was different from any thing I had ever known. Crucifying the two thieves  was the usual violent, cursing, screaming horror. But not so with Jesus.

After the cross bar was fastened to the upright, a soldier stripped Jesus of his garments and left his bloody body naked. Blood still oozed from his thorn-crowned head. His face was mutilated where portions of his beard had been torn away. The lash had ripped the flesh from some of his ribs, both in front and back. Some of the muscles in his limp arms hung as fleshy strips. Matted blood oozed and dripped from the wounds of the lash. When I laid him on the upright and stretched his arms on the cross bar, he gave no resistance. Our eyes met and all I could see in his look was pity for me. Though I had never wept since childhood, my heart was breaking. When I took the spikes to drive through his hands and feet and sought a spot that would break no bone, I bowed my head to hide the tears that dimmed my vision.

 You may not believe this but when I drove the spike, his groan seemed to say, "I forgive." But I can tell you with absolute certainty that as they lifted that upright with its human burden and dropped it in the hole we had dug, Jesus said, "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do." Somehow Jesus' words struck my heart like the arrows of God. I stumbled to a nearby rock, turned, and watched him as he gasped for breath.

He is forgiving me though I am crucifying him-the thought burned in my inmost being.  What manner of man can this be?

Fascinated, I watched and listened with such intensity that it was as if I were dying with him. Even as a strange darkness blotted out the sun, even as the earth trembled, I watched and listened. When he cried, "It is finished" it seemed that a burden I had carried as long as I could remember lifted from me. When He died, I heard myself say aloud, "Surely this man is the Son of God." I stood there transfixed  but with a feeling of peace and cleanness I had never known before.

Though I did not notice, the crowd had drifted away. A courier stood before me, saluted and handed me an order from Pilate: "Break their legs. Give Jesus' body to Joseph of Arimethea."

"Break their legs," I ordered and added, "Not His. He is dead."

Taking the heavy spear, the soldier  broke the legs of each thief, then stood still before the cross of Jesus. Before I could stop him, he turned his spear and thrust the blade into Jesus' side. Blood and water poured out of the wound as he withdrew the blade.

Then Joseph came with the permit from Pilate. I helped them as they tenderly carried Jesus' corpse to a nearby tomb. I dismissed the soldiers and was left alone before the empty cross.

How long I stood there, I will never know but as the last ray of the sun broke through the cloud, it fell upon the sign nailed to the cross. I read: JESUS, KING OF THE JEWS.

Suddenly, the scene changed! I stood not before a cross but before a royal throne on which Jesus sat in majesty. Though I had never knelt before any but the emperor, I knelt, struck my clenched fist to my chest and cried aloud, "Jesus, king of the Jews, and my King and my God!"

"The Centurion's Confession" was written by Robert G. Witty. Dr. Witty founded the Luther Rice Seminary and served as its president for twenty years. In addition to a radio and Internet ministry, he is presently a semi-retired Bible teacher, church consultant, and writer. (The Bible: Fact or Fiction? was published in 2001 by CLC Publications, Fort Washington, PA 19034.)

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