When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54)
As I share every year at this time, the “feds,” “state” and “municipal” cops of Jesus’ day played central roles in Jesus’ arrest, trials, torture, death on the cross and – three days later — His Resurrection:
Jesus’ arrest at the hands of the Jewish Temple “police” (think “municipal” officers) in Matthew 26:47-56
Jesus is bound in chains (“handcuffs” and “leg irons”) and brought before the Jewish religious rulers for His first trial (an illegal one, mind you) in Matthew 26:57-67
Jesus is taken before the Roman “judge” (Gov. Pontius Pilate) and “Federal” military “police” in Luke 23:1-6 for a 1st century “probable cause hearing.” Pilate — looking at the evidence (the lack thereof) — rightly determined that he lacked jurisdiction and sends Jesus to Herod
Jesus is brought before Herod Antipas (a civil or “state” authority) and his notorious “secret police” (pretty much the 1st century version of the Gestapo) for his 2nd trial in Luke 23:6-12. Even the incredibly corrupt and wicked Herod could find no fault (no “PC” for an arrest) in Jesus (and let’s not forget that Herod executed John the Baptist for simply telling the truth and calling what God calls sin to be just that — sin) and sends Him back to Pilate who — in Jesus’ 3rd trial — finally has Him horrifically tortured and crucified by his brutal Roman “corrections officers” (despite not actually finding Him guilty of anything): see Mark 15
The centurion (again, a kind of “Fed” police Sergeant or NCO) in charge of Jesus execution, upon seeing the EVIDENCE of who Jesus really was (is), appears to repent and comes to a saving faith (likely the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity) — Mark 15:38-29
Finally, Pilate orders that a highly trusted, “police special ops” unit be sent to seal (likely using a Roman invention — cement — and the breaking of which was a death penalty offense) Jesus’ body in a tomb using a 2-ton stone (I’ve done whole studies on this interesting element), and then guard it — on pain of a horrible death should they fail, fall asleep or otherwise disobey orders — against anyone who might come to “steal” His body — Matthew 27-28
So now with this biblical foundation in place, take a few moments to read the following that I’ve adapted from Tim Challies’ outstanding, “Truly This Was the Son of God” (2004):
Every believer (genuine Christian) carries a measure of guilt for Jesus’ death. If it were not for our willful disobedience to God’s perfect Law (sin), we would have no need of a Savior. We acknowledge in song that it was our hands that drove the spikes into His. We speak figuratively, of course, knowing that although we were not present at the time of His death, we bear the guilt of providing the need for His death.
In the Bible, God gives us a glimpse of a man who was present while Jesus was nailed to the cross. This man was a Roman centurion, a commander of 100 or more Roman military soldiers and/or “peacekeepers” (generally brutal ones, mind you). We know little about the man except that he was probably a highly respected, hardened solider and commanded a detachment of what were most likely Syrian-born soldiers. He had, in all likelihood, presided over the crucifixion of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of “convicted” criminals and must have become hardened to the agony these men endured (not unlike the way we who serve in law enforcement can become hardened to what we see on the street).
It is also likely this centurion was present from the time Jesus was brought before Pilate right until the Lord’s body was lowered from the cross and given to Joseph of Arimathea. This man would likely have accompanied Jesus from the time the Jewish leaders brought him to the Praetorium and may very well have ordered his men to scourge (torture) Him, caring little for who He was, knowing Him only to be another in a long line of people he was commanded to execute. He would have been nearby when his men dressed Jesus in a robe, pressed a crown of thorns onto His head and walked Him to Golgotha. He would have given the order to proceed with the crucifixion.
The centurion is mentioned in three of the four gospel accounts. He is mentioned not for his cruelty, ruthlessness or ability as a soldier. He (and his men) is mentioned for something far more important, for a marvelous transformation (the life-saving/life-CHANGING kind) that occurred immediately after the death of one of his prisoners.
Having seen so many crucifixions, the centurion knew what to expect from the condemned. Most people who were sentenced to be crucified were hardened criminals, brigands, thieves, and murderers. He had heard countless men scream in agony while being whipped (see What is scourging?) and nailed to their crosses. And from those crosses he heard them shout curses to men below and blasphemies to God above. The behavior of the thieves on either side of Jesus was all too common, as they mocked and ridiculed Jesus as he hung between them.
Perhaps it was during this time that the centurion began to notice that there was something different about Jesus. Where most men cursed and swore, Jesus, as His hands (more likely wrists) were nailed to the wood, cried out for God to forgive those who were causing His suffering. Or maybe He noticed the tender mercy in Jesus’ voice when He spoke to the repentant thief beside Him, promising that the same day he would be with Jesus in paradise (saved by the only One who can save him – or us). Perhaps he was amazed that during such suffering Jesus could look down at His mother and ensure that her future was secure by telling John to take care of her. Certainly the three hours of darkness that accompanied Jesus’ suffering would have marked this as an execution unlike any other.
We can only guess when the centurion – when faced with the EVIDENCE before him – began to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. What we do know is exactly when He knew with full certainty.
Just before He died, Jesus cried out “It is finished.” Immediately after that He said “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” At that very moment Jesus died. At that same moment a violent earthquake shook the land with such ferocity that rocks were split. Matthew — writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us “when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
And just like that, the “cop” who presided over Jesus’ execution, the man who ordered the nails to be driven into His hands and feet, became the first non-Jewish (Gentile) person to become a born again believer after Jesus’ death.
What an awesome, exciting testament this is to God’s divine grace! God was willing and eager to save one of those primarily responsible for the murder of His Son. A man who watched Jesus be scourged, who watched his soldiers mock and abuse Him, suddenly cries out in the realization that he had killed an innocent man. His exhortation is also an expression of saving faith as he confesses his new-found knowledge that Jesus was the Son of God.
This story most certainly served as a great encouragement to many people in the early church. Though many of them carried the guilt for having killed the Lord, the realization that God could save even those who held the nails, would have proven that He is a God of love and forgiveness. It would have reassured them that, like this centurion, they too could gain God’s favor through Jesus’ sacrifice (to wit, by surrendering to Him in faith).
This centurion’s miraculous conversion continues to serve as an encouragement today (especially for those of us who serve in law enforcement). Just as we share the centurion’s guilt for driving the nails into Jesus, so too we can share the victory He won that day. This centurion’s miraculous conversion continues to serve as an encouragement today (especially for those of us who serve in law enforcement). Click To Tweet
So, what then is the application for us here today? You may in fact be saying, “I’m not like those brutal and corrupt officers…I’m a ‘good’ cop…a ‘good’ person” (take this test to see if that’s true). But do you not understand that, without embracing what our Lord (the ultimate “Peace Officer”) did for us on the cross that first Good Friday, we are just as wicked, lost and condemned as the officers who tortured and crucified Him?
God is crystal clear: any sin — even the smallest (in our eyes) — separates us from God’s love and saving grace (and forever locks us out of heaven). But when we turn from our sin and surrender to Christ as Lord and Savior, He washes us clean of our sin, saves us from hell (an otherwise sure and eternal fate), embraces us as members of His family and grants us an eternal place with Him in Heaven.
Friend, my hope and prayer for you this Easter is that you too, like that centurion and the officers with him at the foot of the cross, will respond as they did.