The Centurion

If you’ve ever talked about Jesus with someone who was not a Christian, perhaps you did so with confidence, or maybe you were afraid. If confident, it was because you know the message is true and that truth has changed your life. If afraid, maybe it was because you feared your friend would reject you along with your words. 

Perhaps such fear is well founded. Even those who encountered Jesus himself in the flesh did not always believe in him. We’ve seen that in the stories we’ve remembered this week. 

The soldiers gambling for his clothes seemed unchanged by him; to them he was just another Jewish criminal. The chief priests and teachers saw his death as proof that their disdain for him was well founded. And at least one of the men executed beside him continued to curse Jesus until he died.  

But today’s story is different. Today we read of another soldier, but not just any soldier. This man, the centurion, was commander of all the soldiers who performed and presided over the crucifixion. And just after Jesus died, the centurion and some with him exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God.” 

Perhaps they said this because they saw the miracles that accompanied the death of Jesus. The tightly woven, impenetrable veil of the temple tore in two. (And now we know that symbolized the access to God all can have because of the death of Christ.) And, accompanied by an earthquake, “The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life” (v. 52). (Their empty graves remind us that Jesus promises new life to all who make him Lord; his own resurrection, not long after the events in this chapter, guarantees this.)  

This pagan Roman soldier couldn’t have grasped any of the meaning behind the miracles. But he knew supernatural events when he saw them. And that’s not all. Likely, the centurion had been watching Jesus throughout his ordeal at Calvary. He had seen him die with dignity, without curses, without pleas for rescue or help. Maybe he had even heard Jesus ask God to forgive his executioners, or cry out as he died, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:45).  

The centurion knew this was a different death of a special man. Were his words a statement of faith as we understand statements of faith? Maybe not. It’s doubtful this Roman knew enough to completely understand who Jesus was. But with his words he took a step like the one that leads many to faith today. He could not ignore or forget Jesus, and that was a good enough beginning. 

One commentator repeats a tradition that this centurion later became a Christian and even died a Christian martyr. It’s a beautiful story we hope is true.  

But meanwhile, as we consider again the awful death and the remarkable resurrection of Jesus, the centurion’s words remind us of what we celebrate at Easter and always.  

Jesus was more than a martyr; his death accomplished what no other death has done. “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28).  

Jesus is more than a hero, for no other hero has given his life only to take it up again. 

And so, something like the centurion, we are struck by the truth that turned Jerusalem upside down and changes our lives as well. And with joy we echo his words today: “Surely this Jesus is the Son of God.” 

Mark Taylor

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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