With rumors about the Nazarene named Jesus floating in the air, King Herod had asked for a stronger Roman military presence during the Passover feast. When the Jewish Ruling Council had sent Jesus to Pilate and screamed for his execution, Pilate had sent the Centurion along with his men to keep the peace and oversee the execution. His job was to keep the peace and confirm to Pilate that the Nazarene was dead.
Watching over the death detail was beneath his station. The Centurion was a professional soldier, not an executioner and prison house lackey. When ordered to carry out Pilate's sentence on the Nazarene, he had expected the worst. Reality proved him right.
Ranting and raving, insults and cruel jokes, with three men dying the slow death of crucifixion were expected. Earthquakes, darkness at midday, and the eerie sense of something much bigger happening had set the Centurion on edge. The look in the Nazarene's eye, however, was what tugged at his heart. Jesus had said, "Father forgive them, they don't know what they are doing." Then the Nazarene had looked right at him.
As the death detail cast lots for his clothes, as the religious powerbrokers hurled their insults, as the other two criminals cursed and screamed at the crowd, the Nazarene had prayed for their forgiveness — his forgiveness! Then this dying Jesus had looked at one of his friends and told him to take care of his mother. He then looked to the heavens, and seemed to give his spirit up to some unseen deity — this God whom he called Father. In that moment, this battle-hardened, best of Rome's fighting machine heroes, surprised himself. "Surely this was the Son of God," he heard himself say.
Now that Jesus' death was confirmed, Pilate was sending him back to Golgotha. He in his silver burnished armor, a rich man named Joseph in his fancy clothes, along with a man in all of the religious garb he had seen earlier. Only these two men were allowed to take down the body of the Nazarene from the cross and bury it. The Centurion and his men were to accompany them. This was "to ensure that nothing happened with the body," Pilate and the High Priest had emphasized.
So here he was again, the Centurion at the foot of a fowl smelling, blood-stained, instrument of torture to take down a mutilated body. Somehow, he still felt drawn to this Nazarene. In a weird way, he even felt connected to the rich guy and the religious man even though their lives were worlds apart.
Could it get any stranger — this death detail that must now oversee the burial of an executed Nazarene to be placed in a borrowed tomb? Somehow, the Centurion knew this story wasn't over. Even when his men rolled the stone across the door to the tomb and sealed it shut, he knew he hadn't heard the end of the Nazarene.
Little did the Centurion know that the strange pull of faith on his heart would be challenged and enlivened with what was about to happen over the next few days. "Surely this Jesus is the Son of God," he heard his heart say it again. In the coming weeks, many would come to agree with him.
Is that exactly how the story happened? I'm not sure. That's how I put it together in my imagination after looking at the different accounts of Jesus' crucifixion focusing on the role of the Roman Centurion — see the account from the Gospel of Mark at the bottom of this article. But for me, there is a bigger issue for you and me.
On this Memorial Day Weekend, let's remember that soldiers in Jesus' day recognized something powerful and commanding about Him — like the Roman Centurion who confesses Jesus as the Son of God. In fact, in the early years of the Jesus movement, we meet three Centurions who all demonstrate some level of faith in Jesus:
- The Centurion with the sick servant who recognizes Jesus' authority (Luke 7:1-10).
- The Centurion at the Cross who confesses Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 15:37-47).
- The Centurion named Cornelius who becomes the first Gentile disciple recognized by the church leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 10:1-48; Acts 11:1-18).
On this Memorial Day Weekend as folks remember the sacrifices of those who paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to USA and it's ideals, let's remember Jesus. Let's recognize what those Centurions saw in Jesus in their day:
- That we can receive the Lord's help with appreciation and confidence knowing He has the ultimate authority to bless our lives (Luke 7:5-10).
- That we can trust that Jesus is the Son of God who has died on the Cross to share God's life with us (Mark 15:37-39).
- That no matter how good our life may appear (Acts 10:22-23), Jesus calls each of us to receive the Holy Spirit and be baptized based on our faith (Acts 10:34-48; Acts 11:15-18).
LIFE Group & HomeGathering Questions:
Which of the three things do you need most to do with Jesus?
- ... receive the Lord's help with appreciation and confidence?
- ... believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died for you?
- ... respond to Jesus' offer of grace by believing in Him, receiving His Spirit, and being baptized?
- Why do you think Jesus has been portrayed as a wimpy and weak man for the most part in art and in movies?
- How do we know this is not a true portrayal of who Jesus was?
- What events in the life of Jesus help you best picture Jesus as a strong, powerful person with the personal authority to make to make things happen?
- Women were also powerfully touched by Jesus and even supported Jesus, yet Jesus was not accused of being sexually immoral with women or "under the thumb" of women. How do you think he avoided these accusations?
Which of the three stories of the Centurions in the New Testament is your favorite story and why?
Mark's account of the Roman Centurion at the Cross:
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"
Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.
It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid (Mark 15:37-47 TNIV).
Image used above is from sculpture by José Antonio Hernández Navarro.