While the death of Jesus was unique, the dying of Jesus was not. Allow me to follow that rather jarring claim with an explanation of what I mean.

In today’s sermon text (Matt 27:27ff), we are going to read about the cruel mockery and painful sufferings of Jesus as He goes to Calvary. The calloused hands of the punching, spitting, whip-wielding soldiers, were soft in comparison to their calloused hearts. They beat, mock, and killed Jesus with a bloodthirsty delight and jaded brutality that is both merciless and seemingly mechanical.

In addition, the cruel instruments of torture – the “cat-of-nine-tails,” the thorn branches, the royal-colored robe – all seem to be ready, available, and conveniently placed at their disposal for just such an occasion. It is as if they were expecting Jesus and had everything ready to make fun of Him. But the soldiers would not have known that Jesus would be sentenced to die that day, any more than Pilate did. And even if they did, His clear claims of Divinity and royalty did not come out until He was in Pilate’s private chambers. But, in the gospel accounts, it appears that the soldiers were completely prepared for an all-too-specific mockery of royalty as they tortured and tormented Jesus. How is this possible?

The answer is quite simple. The barbaric and contemptuous treatment that Jesus received was a somewhat regular, macabre game that Roman soldiers played with many (if not all) death row inmates. In our day, every man going to the electric chair or gas chamber receives certain last privileges: a final meal, a final visit, and the opportunity to say any final words. The cruel, barracks-room bullying that the gospels record, was the ruthless, Roman version of a last “privilege,” call it a final jeering, if you will.  Other men, possibly even the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus, endured the same kind of grisly game of pummel the prisoner that our Lord did.

As scholar Michael Green points out, “At the spring festival, they (the Roman soldiers) would dress up a prisoner as a king, pay him mock allegiance, grant all his last wishes…– and then scourge and kill him.” Green goes on to call this cruel and unusual punishment, “the king’s game.” And numerous instances of such mistreatment, are recorded in the pages of Roman history.

Consider, for instance, this historical excerpt from the writings of a Roman consul and historian named Cassius Dio. He is describing what solders did to a dethroned emperor, named Vitellius. The events described below took place December 22, 69AD. (I’ve removed some extemporaneous details so that it reads more smoothly.)

“But the soldiers … seized Vitellius…bound his hands behind his back…And thus they led him down… along the Sacred Way….Some (of the soldiers) buffeted [punched] him, some plucked at his beard; all mocked him, all insulted him, making comments especially upon his riotous living, since he had a protuberant [fat] belly. (He) did not

die (from) the wounds, but was dragged to the prison,…while many jests and many opprobrious remarks were made about them…Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city.” (From Historia Romana, LXIV, 20:3-21:2)

Since the Romans prided themselves on this brand of vicious prisoner abuse, it is no wonder that, in time, other nations took note and began to treat Roman captives like they treated others. Plutarch, a Romans historian (AD 46-120), records how a boat-load of “pirates” treated a Roman prisoner of war.

“Whenever a captive cried out that he was a Roman (citizen) and gave his name, they would pretend to be frightened out of their senses, and would smite their thighs, and fall down before him entreating him to pardon them…Then some would put Roman boots on his feet, and others would throw a toga round him, in order, forsooth, that there might be no mistake about him again. And after thus mocking the man for a long time and getting their fill of amusement from him, at last they would let down a ladder in mid ocean…where they would push him overboard themselves and drown him.” (From Life of Pompey, 24:7-8)

Arguably, though, the most striking example of this prisoner exploitation, comes from the quill pen of Philo (20BC – AD50). Philo records how Romans soldiers treated a mentally disturbed man named Carabbas. The similarities between what they did to him and what was done to Jesus are incredible.

“He was driven as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, (they) flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem (crown), and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a sceptre they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him; and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state. (From Flaccus, 36-39)

Shocking and gratuitous movies like The Passion, while historically accurate, have seemingly convinced us that what made Jesus death special was the blood, violence, and pain. I think, however, that I can find many examples of me in history n who died deaths which were equally agonizing (or, even, more agonizing, because of

the duration) as Jesus’ death. However, while the dying of Jesus was not unique, the death of Jesus was unique.

As Peter said, “while being reviled, He did not revile in return, while suffering, He uttered no threats…and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.” (1 Peter 2:23-34) Don’t forget, two other men died a cruel death on an old rugged cross that Good Friday – but their died for their own sins. Jesus died for yours and mine. That is a unique death, unlike any other before.