Characters Around the Crucifixion - Part 9: A Soldier Who Observed Him
Ian Rees, Bath, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Only two of the characters we have observed thus far in connection with our Lord’s crucifixion have been Gentiles – Pilate and Herod. The Roman centurion is the third. The other two were involved in His condemnation and saw nothing of His death; the centurion brought on His execution and saw our Lord die. Whether or not Herod and Pilate were moved by what they saw or heard of our Lord we cannot tell; the centurion certainly was moved.
Many of us were taught in Sunday School that a centurion was in charge of a hundred soldiers. Some authorities, however, tell us the ‘century’ was a cohort, a unit of men, which could have been made up of between eighty to two hundred, some even suggesting up to a thousand men.1 Whichever way we look at it, a centurion was a commanding officer in the Roman army, holding authority and respect. He was probably a hardened man of war, used to killing in battle and killing by way of execution. It is doubtful whether this centurion actually drove the nails into our Lord’s hands and feet, but he was probably in charge of those who did.
What he heard
There can be little doubt that the crucifixion of our Lord at Calvary was unlike any other this centurion had carried out. At most public executions or crucifixions there would have been a large crowd to observe the sufferings of the victims, some to support and some to taunt, but the Gospels certainly record an enormous level of engagement by the crowd that gathered around Jesus of Nazareth in his public humiliation. While there was a small group who were there to support Him, we are told that many who gathered rejoiced at His execution and taunted Him publicly. Matthew records the chief priests with the scribes and elders ‘mocking him’, as they said, ‘He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him’, Matt. 27. 41, 42. Notice the sly, ‘If he will have him', v. 43, for they certainly did not want Him. Mark records their mocking words as, ‘Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe’, 15. 32; Luke that they derided Him. Matthew includes the reviling (taunting RV) of the passers-by, who wagged their heads at Him, saying ‘Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross’, 27. 39, 40. Mark adds that even the soldiers joined in the mockery, doubtless seeing the inscription above the cross, ‘This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’, and offering him vinegar, and saying, ‘If thou be the King of the Jews, save thyself’, Luke 23. 37. Even the two thieves, crucified with him, ‘cast the same in his teeth’, Matt. 27. 44, and ‘reviled him’, Mark 15. 32. What incredible hostility and animosity was shown to this Jesus of Nazareth! Some suggest that Psalm 22 describes the groups around the cross as they laughed him to scorn. The ‘strong bulls of Bashan’ that compassed him around could refer to the wealthy, self-sufficient rulers of the Jews; the ‘dogs’ could be the Gentile soldiers; the ‘unicorns’ or ‘wild oxen’ from whose horns He was to be delivered could be the powerful and cruel chief priests; the ‘lion’s mouth’ could even refer to the presence of Satan himself.
Yet in the midst of all this cacophony of mockery, hate, reviling, scoffing and cursing there was something else this centurion heard. Where he had expected hate and viciousness in response, he heard someone who, ‘when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not’, 1 Pet. 2. 23. Instead of the oaths, cursings and threats the thieves would have expressed to those who crucified them, he heard this Jesus of Nazareth utter a cry of intercession, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. Where he expected to see self-interest and self-pity, he heard our Lord express a cry of compassion as he said to His grieving mother, ‘Woman, behold thy son’. Despite the mockery that one of the thieves had hurled at this Jesus, he heard Him give, in response to the man’s repentance and faith, a cry of consolation, ‘Today thou shalt be with me in paradise’. Surely this was a man like no other he had ever known, who met anger and hatred with grace and goodness! Even in death, it could be said of our Lord, ‘Never man spake like this man’.
What he felt
There was another uniqueness to this crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture records that ‘at the sixth hour (twelve-noon) there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened’, Luke 23. 44, 45. This darkening of the sun could not have been as a result of a solar eclipse,2 because the feast of Passover, which was being celebrated over the days when our Lord was tried and crucified, took place on the fourteenth day of a new month, Lev. 23. 5. Fourteen days after the new month, the moon would have become a full moon, or very near to one. Solar eclipses can only occur when the moon is a new moon, and this was fourteen days before the crucifixion. Had it been a lunar eclipse, the eclipse would only have been observed at night, not during the day. The suggestion is, therefore, that this darkness, this ‘darkening of the sun’, which lasted for three hours (an eclipse lasts only for a minute or two) was a supernatural one, a picture either of God judging His people, the nation, or God hiding from human eyes the suffering of His Son when it was at its most severe upon the cross, or the very creation itself rebelling at the suffering and impending death of its Creator. Bear in mind that, following the darkness, as our Lord yielded up His spirit and went into death, there was an earthquake, rocks were rent, graves disturbed (all natural phenomena, creation tearing itself apart?) and, of spiritual significance to us all, a tearing in two of the veil in the temple, done by no human hand for it was torn from top to bottom, Luke 23. 45. God may very well have darkened the sun, but He most certainly tore the veil in two. There was celestial, geographical and spiritual disturbance at the death of Christ. Now the centurion would not have witnessed the tearing of the veil in the temple. Yet he would have felt the supernatural darkness at the brightest and hottest part of the day, and, no doubt, with the hushed and frightened crowds, he would have felt a deep sense of unease. ‘When the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake and those things that were done, they feared greatly’, Matt. 27. 54. Luke tells us they all ‘smote their breasts’, Luke 23. 48. Thus this crucifixion brought unease and awe to all who were there to witness it. Our centurion felt deeply disturbed by it all.
What he said
So much so, that what he said was then recorded. As the supernatural darkness was lifted, the centurion heard a cry of desolation from Jesus of Nazareth, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ NKJV. This was followed by a cry of devotion to scripture, though the centurion would not have known it as such, for our Lord cried, ‘that the scripture might be fulfilled . . . I thirst’, John 19. 28. There then followed a cry of jubilation from the man on the central cross, ‘Finished!’ And then this centurion saw what he had never ever seen before – a man in total control over His own life and death. He had seen many a man die before, many, on the one hand, longing and straining for a death that was too slow in coming, many, on the other hand, struggling to prevent a death that was too soon in coming. But now, as he gazed at this Jesus of Nazareth, he saw a man rest his head back on the cross3 and, gazing into heaven, with a cry of resignation, resigning His spirit into the care of His Father with the words, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’, Luke 23. 46. And then, magnificently, commandingly and powerfully, our Lord dismissed His spirit in an act of sovereign might. The result, for the centurion, was a conviction that led him to glorify God, Luke 23. 47. According to Luke he cried out, ‘Certainly this was a righteous man’, v. 47. This would seem to indicate that he was convinced Jesus of Nazareth had died an innocent man, unworthy of the death He had been given. Mark tells us he testified, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’, Mark 15. 39; cp. Matt. 27. 54. Marginal readings tell us he could have meant, ‘Surely this was a son of the gods’, seeing as the Romans had a pantheon of many gods. That may well have been so, but whether he said, ‘a son of the gods’ or ‘the Son of God’, the centurion was certainly convinced that this Jesus of Nazareth was no ordinary man. He was divine, with divine powers and divine dignity, even in death. We are not to think our Lord died in weakness. He gave a loud shout and ‘laid down his life’, committing it into the care of the One who would not leave His soul in hell, nor suffer His Holy One to see corruption.
We can have little doubt that what the centurion heard at the cross, what he saw and what he felt, moved him to declare his conviction that the One he had just crucified was unique. Whether this led him to faith in this Jesus Christ we do not know. But we need to be careful that we, who have become so familiar with the sufferings of Christ, are no longer moved by them; that we, who do not meditate on them as often as we should, forget the awesome moment when the giver of life gave His life with such power that the skies closed their eyes, the earth revolted, the world shuddered and a heathen soldier was moved to see divinity in all its magnificence.
O wonder to myself I am,
Thou suffering, bleeding, dying Lamb,
That I can view Thy sorrows o’er,
And not be moved to love Thee more.
1 Definition of a centurion in Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org.
2 Crucifixion darkness’ in Wikipedia.
3 ‘Bowed’ His head, John 19. 30. Klino, defined by Strong as ‘incline (bend forward) or recline (bend back)'. Definition by W. E. Vine, ‘not the helpless dropping of the head after death, but the deliberate putting of His head into a position of rest, John 19. 30. The verb is deeply significant here. The Lord reversed the natural order. The same verb is used in His statement in Matt. 8. 20 and Luke 9. 58, “the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head”’. Expository Dictionary.
AUTHOR PROFILE: IAN REES saw an assembly planted in Francistown, Botswana, having served the Lord there for 13 years. Now based in the UK, he was in fellowship in Manvers Hall, Bath, one of his commending assemblies. He has now moved to establish a new assembly in Tenby, West Wales. He is married and has seven children.