And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God (Mark 15:39)
Roman centurions are portrayed in an exceptionally good light throughout the New Testament.
It is amazing that they should be depicted in a positive manner considering who they represented; an army of occupying forces who had stolen the liberties of Israel. These portrayals of the centurions speak highly of the honesty of the New Testament, untainted by the nationalistic and political philosophies which dominated Judaism.
These portrayals also speak highly of the men themselves; open-minded, gracious and generous while at the same time firm, brave and loyal. Historians record that the centurion was the backbone of the Roman military machine, the very reason why the empire expanded and survived for long. They were fighting men, yet at the same time men of integrity who saw the value of winning the respect of the indigenous populations whom their soldiers had subjugated.
A centurion based in Capernaum is a case in point, of whom Jesus said that He had not found a faith so great in all of Israel. This centurion was a compassionate man who cared greatly for a sick servant, a man who was described by the elders in Capernaum as one who loved Israel because he paid for the building of a new synagogue.
The humanity and spirituality of this carefully chosen group of men is also exemplified by Cornelius of Caesarea who has the distinction of being the first Gentile convert to Christianity. He was a devoutly religious man who was seeking after God and to whom the Holy Spirit directed the Apostle Peter. Cornelius gathered his household which included family and servants to hear God’s servant and a Christian fellowship was established in his home.
Other examples of this noble race are the centurions with whom Paul was acquainted during his rescue from the Jerusalem mob and his subsequent journey as a prisoner to Rome. The dignity and respect that Paul received speaks highly of his guards.
Today, on Good Friday the centurion who captures our imagination is the one responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. All of the commendable characteristics which were instilled into this group of men are manifested by the one who looked on the form of one who died as no man man had ever died and said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
Being one of army officers stationed in Jerusalem during Passover was a delicate business. He was a man of tact and diplomacy who was well acquainted with the customs and traditions of the people he was working among. At the same time his position required a certain ruthlessness capable of controlled and disciplined brutality. This strange mixture of terror and humanity would stand him in good stead as he commanded one hundred troops in a city with a population of close to a million of devout, zealous and at times fanatical pilgrims.
On the morning before the Passover Sabbath he received his orders which had come directly from Pontius Pilate, the Governor – three men to be crucified; two thieves and a man called Jesus who claimed to be the Messiah. His was not to question, he was not the judge – obeying orders he set about his grim and gory task.
But these were orders he would never forget. In a distinguished military career this was his stand out moment. Whatever battles he fought, whatever honours he received he would never forget the day he crucified Jesus Christ.
No man looked into the eyes of the crucified Jesus so closely as the centurion. He oversaw the flogging in the torture chamber, his soldiers platted the crown of thorns, beat it into the skull of Jesus, draping the purple mocking robe upon his shoulders. He stood beside Jesus as Pilate pleaded for his innocence. That in itself must have provoked great thought in the mind of an intelligent man – a judge in the hands of a mob pleading for the acquittal of a condemned man. This ran contrary to his concept of Roman justice. It was the knowledge that he by following orders was performing an injustice must have struck a raw nerve in the centurion’s conscience.
Therefore, he maintained a close watch upon this rather unusual prisoner. Was his seizing of Simon from the crowd to bear the cross an act of kindness, where normally he would have forced the weakest of men to carry their burden? How amazed was he at the dignity and grace of Jesus when experiencing the pain that his soldiers inflicted upon him? There were eyes of love and kindness looking through him despite the hammer blows. He could feel that love. Where others hated and cursed this man was different.
Underneath the shadow of the cross the centurion was the foremost eyewitness of the unfolding events.
He heard every word spoken by the crucified Jesus.
Words of forgiveness for His tormentors.
Words of compassion for His mother.
Words of hope for one of the thieves with talk of a kingdom and paradise.
He permitted one to give Jesus the gall filled with vinegar, to numb the pain a little as Jesus cried “I thirst”, underneath the rising sun as the burning dehydration began to take effect. Another act of mercy from this thoughtful man.
The three hours of darkness hushed the crowd that assembled on Calvary’s hill. Even the soldiers were subdued and silent; there was a strange chill in the air. As the light returned the cry of agony from the middle cross would not forgotten; “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me”.
As death came the words of Jesus became triumphant as he declared His work was finished and as He commended His soul into His Father’s hands.
Where the legs of the other men were broken to hasten death that afternoon, Jesus was already dead. Crucifixion often meant long lingering painful deaths; yet this man surrendered His spirit.
As Jesus died the earth trembled and the rocks were dislodged from their hillside refuges tumbling to the ground below. But another earthquake was causing the centurion to tremble in spirit as he pondered the enormity of what had taken place.
With a mixture of amazement, wonder and faith this eyewitness of Christ’s death humbly confessed:
Truly this man was the Son of God
The Gospel record grants us a view of the cross through the eyes of this centurion. We observe the most amazing death in the history of humanity; the sacrifice of one who died for our sins.
The centurion encourages us to look with faith and love and to stand forgiven at the cross because
Truly this man was the Son of God