"Sitting down they watched Him there."
Matihew xxvii. 36.
Our thoughts are rightly so much absorbed by the central figure on the cross that we scarcely think of the groups round it; and yet much is to be learned from them. These Roman legionaries, four in number as we are told by John, had no doubt joined with their comrades in their coarse mockery before setting out for the place of execution, and there they had to do the rough work of fastening the sufferers to their crosses, lifting these from the ground and fixing them upright. That done, they divided the victims' poor clothing, and then sat stolidly down to take their ease, and idly to wait, watching that no rescue was attempted, till the criminals died. There they sat for hours, looking on at the greatest event in history with eyes that saw all and yet saw nothing.
How little any of us know the real significance of our actions! These soldiers were foreigners, who probably could not speak a word to the bystanders. They had had ample practice in crucifying Jews, and this was only one more piece of a very ordinary kind of work. They knew about as much as one might suppose a file of soldiers, turned out in India to hang a native charged with rebellion, would do; and, no doubt, when they were relieved, they marched back to quarters, unconcerned and ignorant. A similar ignorance, though in less extreme and tragic a way, belongs to us all in regard to the true significance and outcome of our acts. We sow seed in the dark, and cannot predict what the harvest will be. Therefore we should leave the attempt to forecast results alone, and look carefully into our motives. If they are right, God will take care of the issues, and the fruit will appear at last "unto praise and honour and glory," not only of Him that "gave the increase," but of them who went forth, though weeping, still bearing precious seed, the full preciousness of which they did not know.
Those who were associated in bringing about the Crucifixion had varying degrees of guilt, according to their measures of knowledge. The least guilty were the men who actually nailed Jesus to the cross, for they knew little more than did the nails that they hammered into His hands and feet, or than the mallet with which they drove them home. Where there is no light there is no shadow, and since the legionaries were all but entirely ignorant, they were all but entirely guiltless. "They know not what they do" was most fully true as to them, while it was in differing degree true as to all the actors in the Crudfixion. We think of it as the very climax of sin; but, if regard is had to the measure of light possessed by soldiers, or Pilate, or even the rulers and the High Priest himself, we may well doubt whether many a less apparently sinful deed, done by some of ourselves, has not had in it more of the essence of sin than what any of these did. At all events, we have to remember that God "is a God of knowledge, and by Him actions are weighed"—not counted, or estimated by their externals, but by their motives, and by the light possessed by their doers. So we are to be charitable in our judgments of others, and strict in our judgments of ourselves, knowing that we know enough of our Lord's will to make us worthy of many stripes if we do it not.
How possible it is to look at Christ's sufferings and to see nothing! For half a day these four sat idly there, and only saw three Jews dying. A touch of pity came into their hearts once or twice, alternating with mockery which was not savage because it was simply brutal. They looked at the most stupendous wonder in the world's history, and went away when it was over, without the faintest notion that they had been spectators of that which angels desired to look into, and to which the gratitude of uncounted millions would turn through all the ages. Whoever looks at the Cross, and sees no more there than a saintly martyr, or an example of perfect innocence and patient suffering, is nearly as blind as the legionaries were. Whoever looks with unmelted heart, and knows no thrill of all-mastering thankfulness, or whoever looks and is not moved to faith, has seen very little farther into the heart of the matter than they saw. Do we see? Does the sight touch our hearts? Is Christ to us the incarnation of the loving God? Is His death our only ground of confidence and peace? Do we carry the memory of His death photographed on the fleshy tables of our hearts, as a man, who has looked right into the sun for a moment, carries an impression of it on his eyeballs, after he has turned away his head? Is it true of us that, every day and all days, we behold our Saviour, and beholding Him are being changed into His likeness? Is it true of us that we bear about with us in the body "the dying of the Lord Jesus"? If we look to Him with faith and love, and make His Cross our own, and keep it ever in our memory, ever before us as an inspiration and a hope, and a joy, and a pattern, then we see. If not—"for judgment am I come into the world, that they which see not may see, and that they which see might be made blind." For no men are so blind to the infinite pathos and tenderness, power, mystery, and miracle of the Cross, as the men and women who for all their lives have heard a gospel which has been held up before their lack-lustre eyes, and have looked at it so long that they cannot see it any more. Let us pray that our eyes may be purged, that we may see, and seeing may copy, that dying love of the ever-loving Lord.