Easter sermon: What Difference Did the Cross Make?

These sermons will help your church family look at the cross from the perspective of the Roman Centurion, Joseph of Arimathea, and Barabbas.

A three-sermon series on the cross

These sermons will help your church family look at the cross from the perspective of the Roman Centurion, Joseph of Arimathea, and Barabbas. The sermon on the Roman Centurion is a dramatic monologue. The Joseph of Arimathea sermon uses a "before and after the cross" format. The Barabbas sermon includes expository background as well as dramatic monologue elements.

  • What Difference Did the Cross Make to the Roman Centurion?
  • What Difference Did the Cross Make to Joseph of Arimathea?
  • What Difference Did the Cross Make for Barabbas?

What Difference Did the Cross Make to the Roman Centurion?

The assignment

It would be a routine day of work for me and my men. Jerusalem was "easy duty." Our job was to keep the peace and preserve law and order. Now and then we had to crucify somebody. We were used to it. Driving nails through a person's palms to fix them to a cross was no problem. We could do it without hesitation. We were trained to kill, and we didn't much care for Jews anyway.

The trial

That particular day we were wondering whom we would execute. The matter wasn't settled until the early morning hours after I'd gone to bed. Two were for sure - two everyday kinds of criminals, a couple of thieves. But a political game was being played between our chief of state, a weakling whom we soldiers did not respect much named Pontius Pilate, and the chief of the Jewish priests.

Pilate really wanted to execute a political prisoner named Barabbas. Our sources considered him a dangerous revolutionary. He had been arrested because he worked for an insurrection among the Jews to overthrow us. Laughable. But the Jewish chief priest wanted a Jesus from Nazareth crucified. We had heard of Jesus, had worried some about His popularity, but upon investigation He didn't seem to pose much of a political threat to us. (How do you fear someone who taught, "Love your enemies"?) But He had stirred up quite a religious fuss, and they wanted His head. So there was a tug-of-war between our chief of state and their chief of priests‚ and we knew that Pilate was just a spineless bureaucrat.

We also knew that their chief priest was much more determined. In time, our guess proved correct - our job would be to crucify the religious zealot.

It would be easy. Death was routine in my job. It's the way I made my living.

On the way

The day began as any other day. I had my normal breakfast. As I walked through the streets on my way to the palace prison, I sensed that emotions were running high.

Jerusalem was crowded as thousands of Jews arrived for the observance of their Passover (one of their religious holidays - to me, religion was for women and Jews, weak people), and almost all of them had an opinion about Jesus. Some were quite fond of Him. Many spoke of His kindness toward them, such as when their children had been ill.

Others spoke of how their hearts were warmed and how they sensed divine truth when H taught. On the other hand, many spoke viciously of Him, saying things like: "Who does He think He is ... God?" Others said something about it being good that "one die for the nation" (that was part of their religious babble). The streets were abuzz; no one seemed neutral about the day's activities. I realized that I might have to be more alert than usual - perhaps some of His supporters might try to interfere or an overzealous enemy who might want to kill Him.

My first sight of Him caught me off guard. He was being led to the road to make His way to the garbage dump where we executed the criminals, looking weak and fatigued. The lashing of the 39 stripes obviously had taken its toll. A crown of thorns had been driven into His head, and streaks of dried blood lined His face. The three prisoners were instructed to pick up their crosses, and we headed toward the garbage dump. But after He walked awhile He fell to His knees and dropped the cross. This irritated me. I quickly had my men enlist a stranger from the crowd to carry the heavy beam. I thought:

Let's get on with it. On the way out to the hill I noticed the crowds getting larger and larger. Many cursed Him, others cried for Him. I scanned the throng, trying to catch a whiff of who His followers might be in case they planned some kind of trouble. By the time we got out to the garbage heap there was a much larger crowd than normal.

At Calvary

We did our work. My men drove the steel spikes through the flesh of their palms and raised the beams up and dropped them in a hole. We waited. I watched.

The man in the middle was getting all of the crowd's attention. Some were mean and vindictive in what they said and how they acted. Once one started to give Jesus a sponge with vinegar, but others stopped him, saying tauntingly: "Leave Him alone. He's called for Elijah. Let Elijah help Him."

In the eyes of others I could see hurt, disappointment, despair. Obviously they were His followers. I thought I would have to watch them closely to make sure they didn't try to rescue Him, but in some unexplainable way I felt that they didn't seem to have it in them. I thought about some of His other followers who had deserted Him. I was disappointed in their weakness. They should have stood up for Him when He was arrested. Then, perhaps, I wouldn't have to be killing Him. I watched the criminals. The two criminals on the outside were bitter and angry, cursing their fate, their trial, the gathering crowds, my men. I'd seen all this before.

I watched Him. Now, don't make too much of this because it wasn't bothering me all that much, but I would prefer not to crucify innocent persons. Not that I was squeamish, not that I cared much if Jews were innocent or not, but it did bother me a little to suspect that we were killing an innocent person. And this time, we soldiers knew that this Man was being thrown to the wolves not because of what He had done but as a political sacrifice to keep Pilate in the good graces of the Jewish religious leaders. But then it wasn't our job to be judge and jury. I had a duty to do. I couldn't allow myself the luxury of pity. I had an increasingly growing sense of uneasiness or perhaps even conviction that He was innocent and that what was being done to Him was unjust. I saw that He was the victim of religious bigotry and petty politics.

I noticed His bravery. He didn't shrink back, He didn't seem to be trying to get out of it. I could not escape His serenity. Up there on that cross, in tremendous pain, stripped, humiliated, exposed to elements and insects, He seemed so calm, sure of Himself, at peace with it all. Composure. As the witness of many executions, I had never seen one face it like He did.

He really caught my attention in one of His prayers. As the crowds continued at Him unmercifully, uncivilly, He prayed (I've never been one for prayer myself): "Father, forgive them." My respect was growing. At one point He engaged in a conversation with one of the two thieves, and while I couldn't make out what was said over the crowd noise, I could discern that He was comforting the man on His right. There was a tender moment when He entrusted His mother's care to one of His friends. Was this man one of His followers? It no longer worried me.

Let me tell you, I'm a good judge of character - you have to be in my line of work and we have many of occasions to determine one's character  - and this was not normal behavior for a man in His situation. I'll be honest with you: I grew to respect Him. I thought, I wouldn't mind having Him on my side whenever the chips are down.

It began to bother me more and more. His innocence. His actions. The crowds. All of it. It haunted me that I had allowed my men to leave that crown made of thorns on His head. It wasn't necessary. Why was everybody so uptight about the man? Fear?

I began to sense that some divine work was going on. Respect began turning to reverence - to awe. And then darkness. The sun went out. My normal first reaction would be to scan the crowd, to get my men ready. Darkness would provide the ultimate cover for an escape plan. But, for some reason, I didn't worry about that. I somehow sensed that this man had no plans to escape, that He was right where He wanted to be.

It was dark for three hours, then He cried out in His native tongue. I couldn't make out what He said exactly, but I knew that He had cried out to God as His Father, and even more, after watching the way He died I knew that He was God's Son and I heard myself declaring to all around: "Surely this Man was the Son of God!"

That's the difference the cross made for me.

Invitation: Perhaps today the cross could make this kind of difference in your life.


What Difference Did the Cross Make to Joseph of Arimathea?

Scriptures: Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-42

Before the crucifixion

Joseph, who was from the tiny town of the hill country near Jerusalem called Arimathea, was one of the members of the council which had planned the crucifixion of Jesus. John introduced Joseph of Arimathea with this commentary: "Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews."

Joseph was a man of prominence. He was a respected member of the Jewish religious council (the Sanhedrin, which functioned as the supreme court of Israel) and we notice that he had direct access to the Roman governor. Joseph was a mover and a shaker in Jerusalem.

Luke described Joseph as "a good and upright man." Luke also mentioned that Joseph had not consented to the political plotting and maneuvering which had led Jesus to Golgotha, the place of the skull. When the Sanhedrin stooped to a deed of shame by bribing one of Jesus' disciples to betray his Master, Joseph did not consent. When the Sanhedrin sent armed troops to arrest Jesus as if He were a desperate and deadly criminal, Joseph did not consent. When the Sanhedrin left Jesus to the mercy of the high priest's thugs while they tried to find false witnesses, Joseph did not consent.

When the Sanhedrin conducted that illegal trial, Joseph did not consent. When the Sanhedrin played upon the emotions and passions of the crowd in inciting them to demand Jesus' execution when Pilate had already found Him innocent, Joseph did not consent. When Jesus was led to the place of the skull to be nailed to a Roman cross, Joseph did not consent. When Jesus was stripped and hung up in front of everybody to public humiliation and certain death, Joseph did not consent.

During all of this he had not consented; but please note, he had not contested the actions either. No mention is made that Joseph ever spoke one word.

The turmoil must have been boiling in Joseph's heart and head. He believed in Jesus. He regarded himself as Jesus' follower. And now in a setting where Joseph had some say and power, he retreated to silence and anonymity. Many words would have been appropriate. He could have challenged the whole nuance of the proceedings. He could have cross examined those false, lying witnesses to impeach their credibility. He could have challenged the legality and propriety of the irregular proceedings. He could have asked for evidence to support the charges. He could have pointed out that Jesus' response to the high priest's questioning which brought the charge of blasphemy was indeed not regarded as blasphemy. (Jews did not regard it as blasphemous to claim to be the messiah, but all wanted one to do just that.) He could have counseled caution like the Pharisee Gamaliel offered in Acts: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do...In the present case I advise you: ‘Let (this Man) go ... If (His) purpose is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop (Him); you will only find yourselves fighting against God'" (Acts 5:35-39). Joseph even had opportunity to say a personal word of encouragement to Jesus.

"What a difference it would have made to Jesus, if among those condemning, hectoring voices, one voice had been raised in His support. What a difference it would have made to see loyalty on one face amidst that sea of envenomed faces. But Joseph was afraid" (William Barclay, John vol. 2, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, p. 263). Or to be touched lovingly rather than with hatred. Or to hear words of love rather than words of hatred.

He said nothing - not one indication that he spoke even one word, public or private. What happened was not pretty, certainly not heroic. He either:

  1. absented himself to avoid the problem
  2. abstained from voting (probably reasoning that one vote for Jesus against the Council wasn't going to do Jesus any good); or
  3. for whatever reason, and though he did not consent to the proceedings or the verdict or the sentence, he nevertheless was silent.

As Jesus was ushered out to the garbage dump for execution, as the Roman soldiers nailed Jesus to those beams, as the crowds taunted, as the sun turned to darkness, as he heard Jesus cry out, "I thirst," and plead with God, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" (My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"); as he watched Jesus breathe His last and heard Him declare, "It is finished" and as he overheard Jesus say, "Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit," Joseph knew that he had said nothing. The cock crowed for Joseph of Arimathea as well as for Peter, a denial by silence.

After the crucifixion

But after the crucifixion Joseph did an incredibly heroic act: he boldly went to the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate to request permission to give Jesus' Body a decent, even honorable, burial.

It was an act of bravery. It put Joseph at risk. The Council members who wanted Jesus dead would not regard giving Jesus a tomb and anointing His Body for burial as an act done by "one of us." Thus, Joseph's action would alienate him from those with whom he shared such a prominent position. The Roman authorities might look suspiciously upon one who cared that much for the executed Criminal. The crowds had turned against Jesus -  "Hosanna!" had become "Crucify!"  - and they might turn against one who stood up for Jesus. But notice when Joseph went to Pilate to request Jesus' body, no notice is taken that it is negative. Usually our fears are unjustified. I cannot ever recall being put down for my faith.

It was an act of sacrifice. Most noticeably, it would cost Joseph a great deal of money. He provided the tomb and also accepted other costs of the burial. But even more, Joseph was sacrificing being able to celebrate the Passover. Anytime a person touched a dead body, he became religiously unclean - which meant that he could not participate in the community's worship ceremonies for a week. When Joseph tenderly took that lifeless, limp corpse of the Nazarene from the tree, he was forfeiting the chance to be a part of the most important religious festival for a Jew (and he was a leader).

It was an act of love. Jewish law forbade executed criminals from being buried in family plots. In fact, most often their bodies were not buried at all but simply left for wild dogs and vultures to pick the skin off their bones. (This is one reason why some scholars think the place of execution was called Golgotha, the place of the skull, because of the skulls and skeletons which would be lying around after the wild dogs and vultures had picked the skin off the bones of the dead persons.) An agonizing, humiliating death would be followed by that further degradation. Joseph did not want that undeserved and ignoble fate to fall upon his beloved Jesus.

It was an act of worship. Jesus was laid in Joseph's unused tome., which was the tomb appropriate for divinity or royalty. Myrrh and aloes, brought by another secret disciple (Nicodemus, who had visited Jesus once under the cover of darkness) were embalming spices designated for royalty. The spices were of such expense and quantity (75 pounds) as to be fit for a king. Jesus may have died like a criminal, but He would be buried like a King.

It was a public act. The cowardly, secretive aspect of discipleship was over. Jesus' death had brought Joseph out of the closet. He declared himself as a Christian so that all could see. Private faith became full Christian faith.

That was the difference the cross made! While Jesus was alive, Joseph was a disciple "secretly because he feared the Jews." But after Jesus' death as "the lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world," Joseph boldly declared himself in a manner any could see.

Application

There is no such thing as "secret discipleship: either the secrecy will destroy the discipleship or the discipleship will destroy the secrecy. Picture a young man down on one knee, giving the marriage proposal as eloquently as he can, and the lady answers:

"Yes, I'd like to marry you. I know that we could have a good life together. I know that you will be good to me. Yes, but one condition: let's not tell anybody, I don't want anybody to know that I had to settle for you."

Don't you think that would take some of the joy and exhilaration out of the moment?

And if we are grabbed by Jesus' death we too will become public disciples. We will witness at school, at work, with our friends. We won't be "secret disciples," but we will live out the courage of our convictions. How much it would have ministered to Jesus if Joseph had come out of the closet at the trial, and now, we have the chance to minister to Jesus as we publicly confess Him in both our words and our deeds.

When I moved to Excelsior Springs I saw an ad in the paper about the "Liberty Open Tennis Tournament." I knew I didn't have a chance but I thought, "Oh, good, I can meet some persons to play tennis with." I signed up, and upon arrival quickly discerned that I was in over my head. Those guys had like 6 identical racquets. I overheard questions like: "Did you play in St. Joseph last week." "No, I played in St. Louis." When I saw my opponent I felt fortunate--he looked like a dork. What I did not know was that he was the 4 time defending champion. He played in Europe during the clay court season. He had beaten Chris Evert 6-0, 6-1. He was the best playing pro in Kansas City. I lost.

As Diane, my wife, arrived back home in separate cars, and as the garage door went back down, she came over and hugged me and said: "I'm proud to be your wife." Then she added, with a laugh: "I just didn't want anyone to know it out there!" Jesus wants us to be proud of Him, in here and out there.

Conclusion

Joseph was a person "for whom the cross did what not even the life of Jesus could do. When he had seen Jesus alive, he had felt His attraction but had gone no further. But when he saw Jesus die ... his heart was broken in love. First the centurion, then Joseph - it is an amazing thing how soon Jesus' words came true that ‘when I am lifted up I will draw all men unto Myself'" (John 12:32) (William Barclay, Mark, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, 367).

That's the difference the cross makes: public disciples. Are you ready for the cross of Jesus to make a difference in your life? A public difference?


What Difference Did the Cross Make for Barabbas?

Scriptures: Matthew 27:15-26

Background: Pilate

The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, was in a couple of jams.

The first jam: Pilate had alienated the Jewish people, whom he despised and detested. Upon arrival in Judea he had created a lot of trouble for himself. He was contemptuous of Jewish practices, customs, preferences, even of the Jews themselves.

He often arrogantly ignored their concerns and feelings. For example, the Roman "flag" was a pole with the image of the reigning emperor on the top. Most Roman authorities, in deference to the Jewish principle of no graven images, had removed the poles with their images when they entered Jerusalem. Not Pilate. Another example: Pilate built a much needed water supply facility, but he alienate the Jews by confiscating the temple treasury to pay the bills.

With these kinds of acts Pilate had made the Jews his bitter enemies. But that produced a problem: in the Roman procedure the occupied peoples had the privilege and the right to appeal to the Roman emperor when they received what they perceived to be unfair or unwarranted harsh behavior. The emperor would hear the case and decide the matter. Thus Pilate, who deplored the Jews and had alienated them, needed them. He had to give fair consideration to their demands. They had Pontius in a vice.

Now the second jam: the religious leaders have brought Jesus to Pilate to have Jesus crucified, but Pilate sees Jesus' innocence. Even the cowardly Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent and posed no threat to the security of Rome. (How do you fear someone who teaches "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" and to "love your enemies"?) He rightly perceived that Jesus had been brought to him by the religious leaders because they were jealous of Jesus' great popularity with the people. It did not surprise him that the religious leaders wanted Jesus dealt with quickly, decisively, and fatally. And so Pilate planned to use the custom of releasing one prisoner during the time of the Passover. He would put the question to the people: "Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas or Jesus?"

The people would choose their beloved Jesus. Then he would be out of the problem. He had to please the religious leaders, he could not look disloyal to Rome, but if the crowds asked for Jesus, then the religious leaders could not appeal to Rome. And if they did they wouldn't have a leg to stand on. Pilate could simply respond: "I gave the crowds a choice. The religious leaders are not in touch with their own people." While Pilate had correctly read that the religious leaders had brought Jesus to him out of jealousy, he had greatly underestimated the Sanhedrin's ability to get it's way.

(At this point, the Pilate piece "Let Him Be Crucified," Crucifixion Medley, from The Promise was done with Pilate in costume).

(If singing is not possible, the narration would continue with:)

When Pilate asked: "Whom do you want me to release?" with unanimity of voice the crowds responded: "Barabbas!" Pilate stunned, then asked: "What shall I do, then, with Jesus, Who is called the Christ?" With an exclamation point, they all answered: "Crucify Him!" "Crucify your king?" "We have no king but Caesar!" And they shouted all the louder: "Crucify Him!" Pilate feared a riot. He had run out of options. And then, after trying to wash his hands of something we can never wash our hands of - responsibility  - Pilate acceded to their demand even thought the evidence did not even support a guilty verdict, much less a death sentence. Pilate's role in the story miserably concludes: "He had Jesus flogged and handed Him over to be crucified, and he released Barabbas." (If "Let Him Be Crucified" is used, Narrator then reads) "He had Jesus flogged and handed Him over to be crucified, and he released Barabbas."

(Barabbas enters for his monologue.)

When they took me from my cell I asked them who the other prisoner was. They told me he was a rabbi, a king, a madman, a fool. They told me to shut my mouth.

Then they led us to the front steps of the Governor's palace and stood us up before a crowd from the city. I knew who they were; I'd stolen from many of them, lied to most of them, robbed a few. All my victims. They looked like justice. Justice without mercy, wanting blood.

And Him? I'd seen Him before, heard Him speak! He was Jesus the Rabbi. He'd said: "Love your enemies" and "The meek shall inherit the earth." This lot had welcomed Him into town like a king! He was their favorite, their prophet. They had called Him Messiah.

Then the governor asked the crowd: "Whom shall I release: Jesus or Barabbas?" Him or me. There wasn't a soul out there I hadn't robbed or cheated or lied to. I knew who they wanted. All this was just another cruel trick. "Whom shall I release?"

"Barabbas!"

They yelled for Barabbas!

Barabbas! Me!

"Crucify Jesus," they cried, "Give us Barabbas!" So they led Him away as the Governor washed his hands. Then they set me free. They left me here, alone. All alone, to ask myself, Why? Why this man?

This morning they took Him to the hill. They nailed Him to a cross and He died. Just like I should have. Why?

The answer to Barabbas' question: "Why?"

Barabbas was literally the first person who lived because Jesus died! The reason for Jesus' death leaps at us. The difference the cross makes is this: Jesus died that we might live.

I wonder: "What was Barabbas' reaction? What did he do? What did he think?" He would be living because Jesus died. If Pilate had had his way Barabbas would have been nailed to that Roman cross by the centurion with those two thieves. How did Barabbas respond? The New Testament does not tell us, but I have some possibilities.

Maybe Barabbas was indifferent about Jesus. Maybe he simply focused on his own release and never gave Jesus a second thought. Back to "business as usual." Perhaps Jesus' death meant nothing to him. "What is that to me?

I would suspect a sigh of relief. Barabbas would have to think: "That was close." Perhaps he went out to the garbage dump to see the other prisoners crucified. It seems reasonable that Barabbas might have thought: "That could have been me."

Perhaps, hopefully, it had a profound impact on Barabbas. Hopefully, it affected him greatly. Might he have been moved by his close brush with his own cross to contemplate the meaning of Jesus' cross. "It could have been me" might have become "It should have been me." Maybe what happened dawned upon Barabbas. Pilate had given the people a choice: release Jesus or Barabbas. Do you think that Barabbas might have come to grips with the incredible truth that had Jesus been given the same choice, He would have chosen to release Barabbas also?

Jesus had said that He had come to "give His life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Barabbas was first.

The difference the cross makes: You and me

Jesus was executed for the crime for which Barabbas was actually guilty. And think about this: Jesus was executed for the crimes for which we are actually guilty. Our sins nailed Jesus to the cross. The words of the great prophet Isaiah: Surely He took up OUR infirmities and carried OUR sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him and afflicted. He was pierced for OUR transgressions, He was crushed for OUR iniquities; the punishment that brought US peace was upon Him, and by His wounds WE are healed. The words of the great apostle Peter: "He bore OUR sins in His body on the cross, ... and by His wounds WE have been healed."

The difference the cross makes for Barabbas and the difference the cross makes for you and me: He died that we might live!

What response will you make?

Indifference? Do you live your life without regard to His sacrifice for you? Is your life "business as usual," not much thought for Jesus? "What is that to me?"

Or, has Jesus' death as a ransom for you made a difference? Has it produced a consciousness that "It should have been me?"