Articles, Current Series, Quiet Times

The Centurion At The Cross

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:45-54)

“Truly this was the Son of God!” What a declaration! These were not quavering words from a frightened pup of a recruit or an easily manipulated conscript. This was the reasoned conclusion of a seasoned veteran who had been watching men die horrible deaths–and had been putting them to death–for years.

Some have speculated about what he meant. Was this a confession of faith, or was he just trying to define something outside the scope of his experience? I believe that the answer is in the context. Obviously the centurion was deeply moved by the events he had witnessed, and the decration of deity is what followed his observation.

We need to consider two things in order to fully and carefully consider the magnitude of the centurion’s words: the evidence against this declaration and the evidence in supoort of this declaration.

The evidence against such a declaration was strong indeed. This centurion was well aware of the strong condemnation of the Jewish religious leaders that had put Jesus religious leaders that had put Jesus on the cross for making the claim to be the Son of God. His commander-in-chief, Pontius Pilate, had upheld the convnction for Jesus’s making that claim. But the centurion rejectes the condemnation and affirms Jesus’s claim. Why? Because the arguments in favor of Christ’s cialm were overwhelming.

Looking at the evidence in support of this declaration, we must remember that this man had no doubt supervised many crucifixions. Yet there was something extraordinarly different about this particular execution. What did he see? There were several scenes from the events of the arrest, trial, and crusificiction of Jesus that combine into a compleling mosaic.

The responce of Jesus to the injustince that He had been forced to endure at the hands of His own countryman through arrest and trials:

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.” Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled. But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome. The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?” (Matthew 26:47-68)

Scriputre indicates that John was the only member of the 12 who publicly identified with Jesus at His crusifiction.

The responce of Jesus to the torture that the centurion and his men had infliceted onpon him:

Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (Matthew 27:27-31)

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”  When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.

– John 19:12-16

The dignity with which Jesus responded to the lynch mob that demanded His blood–as a sheep, silent before the slaughter. Scripture records no responce by Jesus to the mob’s cries:

But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Matthew 15:11-15; Isaiah 53:7)

The mercy of Jesus toward the people who rejected Him and the soldiers that crusified Him, including this centurion. His responce? “Fatehr, forgive them!” (Luke 23:34). Even as they sat down to gamble (Matthew 27:35-36) for His meager possessions and to watch the gruesome spectacle, Jesus’s concern was for their forgiveness, not His own escape. Thta is powerful!

Creations responce to the Creator’s sin-bearing act. As Matthew records, witnesses “saw the earthquake adn teh things that were happening” (Matthew 27:54). They saw the sun go dark, they felt the power of the earth quaking under their feet–and they saw these supernatural phoenomea suddenly end when Jesus yieled up His spirit with a loud voice and died.

First-century Jews expected a Messiah who woudl overthrow their oppressive Roman occupiers. Jesus, however, had come to overthrow the power and opression of sin and death.

This centurion was understanablly shocked by the significant events that accompanied the death of the Christ. In all of his up-close exposure to torture adn death, he had never seen such things before, and the impact on him was inescapable.

There cannot be a reasonable doubt that this expression “Truely this was the Son of God!” was used in the Jewish sense, and that it points to the claim which Jesus made to be the Son of God, and on which His condemnation expressly turned. The meaning, then, clearly is that He must have been what He professed to be; in other words, that He was no imposter. There was no medium betwen those two. (Brown Bible Commentary)

Bible scholar Dr. Herbert Lockyer writes, “What a remarkable testimony Christ received from this Gentile! How striking was the homage he paid to the crucified one at Golgotha!”

The centurion had seen, heard, and felt all of the events of the cruifixion and death of Christ. As a result, he had his troops “became very frightened.” The centurion and his group of battle-hardened soldiers had learned to cope with fear, but now they experienced sheer terror–not a truereverential fear, but, perhaps, as commentator John Gill wrote, the “fear of punishment: lest divine vengance should light on them for their concern in this manner.”

They had reason to be fearful because there was absolutly nothing ordanary about the significant events they were experiencing.

It was:

No Ordinary Execution: The darkness, the earthquake, adn teh cry of abandomnent from Christ convicted the soldiers that this was no ordinary execution. The events terrified them adn probably led them to believe that these things testified to heaven’s wrath. What a realization! They ahd put to death God’s son!

No Ordinary Power: They did not come to this conclusion because of the announcemtn of some angelic messanger or prophet. Their conculion came solely from the effects of the power of God on display at Calvary that dark day.

No Or4dinary Confession: The centurions confession tells us something eternally important: Jesus as the promised Messian and Son of God is seen most clearly in His passion and death. How interesting that the Jewish religious establisment had mocked Him with the title (Matthew 26:41-44) by which a Roman centurion now confessed Him.

Mathew Henry wrote: “The dreadful apperances of God in His providence sometimes work strangely for the conviction and awakening of sinners. This was expressed in the terror that fell upon the centurion and rthe Roman soliders. Let us, with an eye of faith, behold Chrit and Him crucified, and be affected with that great love wherewith He loved us. Never were the horrid nature and effects of sin so tremendously displayed as on the day when the belived Son of the Father hung upon the Cross, suffering for sin, the Just for the Unjust, that He might bring us to God. Let us yeild ourselves willingly to His services.”

Church tradition has given the name Petronius to this centurion. If he was won to faith in Christ, he came as a pagan and, like the thief on the cross who believed, was saved as Jesus hung upon the cross. How simple adn basic! All who are saved are saved because of the death of jesus on teh cross. So the cross began to do its work immediately. And that work has continued for two millennia.

The preaching of the cross may be foolishness to the world, but to those who are saved it is the power of God. No wonder Charles Wesley declared in his anthem of praise for death of Christ, “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me!”

It is that powerful cross and the love displayed there that moves hearts–even the hardened, battle weary heart of a career soldier–from death to life. There is an old saying, “The ground is always level at the foot of the cross.” It was in the first century, adn it still is today. The foot of the cross is where paupers and princes, religionists and pagans, well-known and unknowns, and–yes–generals and centurions find level ground to kneel and embrace the Christ who died for them–and for us.

The men and women who witnissed the trial, crusifiction, death, and resurection of Christ saw more than words can ever express. They herd things that we can only imagine. But what they saw in their lifetime, we have seen in teh Scriptures, adn the resutl it amazingly the same. Thorugh we may not have seen hIm physically, we have seen Him though the pages of Scripture and found solid ground for belief. The book of Romans explains the phoenomenon this way: “So faith comes from hearing, adn hearing by teh word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17).

“Truely this is the son of God!” We have heard adn we have believed. But it musnt end there. We must burn with the passion to know him–the very passion of the apostle Paul, who wrote that this life’s goal was “that I may know him and the power of HIs resurection adn the fellowship of His suffernings, being conformed to His death.” (Philippians 3:10).

May that same desire burn in our hearts as well, that we might truely knwo the one who lived us and gave himself for us.

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