Hated by those around them and hating the surroundings in which they lived, the lot of Roman soldiers was loathsome.
The common soldier was poorly paid with the only hopes for a decent living found in advancement in the ranks or the spoils of war. Both unlikely in Palestine. With precious few Jewish conscripts or enlistees, Palestine offered little in the way of friendly environs for most of the soldiers. Temples to the gods were banished by the Jewish worship of one God that the Jews claimed could not be seen, for whom no images existed and who, the soldiers were told, loved the Hebrew people above all others. There were no brothels nor any of the normal entertainments found in other parts of the Empire like Rome or Athens or Alexandria. Not only that, the favored legions were stationed closer to Rome so that being assigned duty like this was an indication that even in Rome’s eyes, these soldiers were held in low esteem. But it was a living, pathetic as it might be.
Rebellion could break out at any moment. That usually meant ambushes in the city and countryside and the niggling problem of not being able to tell who was a friend or an enemy among the populace.
The Jews had risen against their captors several times in their history with mixed results. The soldiers knew that even if no open revolt occurred, there were random murders and the open scorn they faced every day.
Passover was always dangerous with the hundreds of thousands who crowded into Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. One spark could light it all up and there was no way the Roman garrison could control everything. The Jewish leaders knew that as well. The threat of this country preacher from Galilee seemed to be undermine attempts to keep the peace, leading to the leaders working to get rid of Him. Strangely, they had to force Pilate’s hand. One would think he could have seen the threat. A mob that might have turned against Rome instead vented its anger and frustration against Him. He was rumored to have performed miracles and supposedly had a following. What good did that do?
At the crucifixion they managed to get rid of Him and two other criminals. But even this did not go smoothly. The Roman guards who conducted the execution returned to the barracks telling of an earthquake, darkness and a strange sense of something being terribly wrong. One soldier seemed particularly troubled by it all, muttering on and on about how wrong all this had been and that the Jewish preacher was “a son of the gods.”
It would seem that the execution should have taken care of everything, but apparently the Preacher claimed that if He was killed He would raise from the dead in three days. So, the leaders asked Pilate to set a guard at the tomb to make sure some of His followers didn’t sneak in and steal the body. Unlikely, since the Jews had a thing about touching dead bodies and Passover was their holiest time of the year. But soldiers do what they’re told.
The first couple of nights were quiet. Quiet as a tomb, in fact. In this detestable place could there have been more horrendous duty? Cold and boring. And not a soul anywhere around.
What happened next was impossible to describe. No scene on the worst battlefield, no terror on the sea, no torture as a captive in an enemy’s hands could describe the full horror and wonder of that moment. It was not from an attacking force but… but… but from inside the tomb. Falling away, then frozen on the ground in sheer terror, the soldiers witnessed death being put to death, of God reversing the curse of the ages, of Jesus Christ rising from the grave! When later they tried to find words they were left stammering. The scene kept playing over and over in their minds in an endless loop, always going back to the stone vibrating, then rolling back and then Him! Expecting to die they were physically unharmed. But mentally, emotionally, no, spiritually there was this. What was this?
When finally the moment of panic was over and He had gone, where to they knew not, they ran like little children spooked in a dark forest. Instinctively they showed up at the High Priest’s home and blurted out as best they could what had happened. Yes, that is what happened. We saw it. We’re telling you that the grave opened up from the inside! He was standing there and then, and then… He was gone.
The High Priest gathered his cronies, telling the soldiers to wait. The plan was hastily conceived and implausible in the extreme. “We’ll pay you to say that the disciples stole the body. We’ll vouch for you. Just don’t tell anyone what you told us.” The soldiers must have smirked when the plan was shared with them. Those laughable losers a match for Roman soldiers! No one is going to believe that. But money is money and besides, they faced execution for abandoning their post. Better to go this way than the alternative.
No scene on the worst battlefield,
no terror on the sea,
no torture as a captive in an enemy’s hands
could describe the full horror
and wonder of that moment.
But word quickly spread that Jesus had risen from the grave. Beginning that weekend the might of Rome was employed to prevent this very thing and in the next three centuries that followed, Rome would try repeatedly to crush the Christians and the story of their risen Savior. Ironically, the Roman Empire would dissolve and Christianity would spread far beyond anything the Romans imagined.
Oddly, the first believers were not Jesus’ followers. Rather, the first believers in the Resurrection were soldiers unfamiliar with belief in the one true God. The secondto believe were the religious leaders who bribed the soldiers to falsify their story because, hearing what they said, they were convinced they were telling the truth.
Now it is for you to believe. Barbarian soldiers believed. Enemies of Christ believed. The disciples of Christ soon followed in faith. If you believe what might He do in your life? Like the Resurrection, the results could be beyond description.
— Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee, Editor-in-Chief and National Literary Secretary