3 The Centurion

16 March: The Centurion

Listen to the full talk, recorded, with thanks, by Spalding Baptist

Ricki Kendall kindly delivered his contribution (to an empty church, due to Coronavirus precautions). Our speaker chose to take a slightly different approach to looking at the cross and the characters surrounding it; when we think about Easter and the cross, 21st century, western minds look at things from certain perspectives. We think of Christ, what he did, what it meant for us. We may think about the disciples and how they reacted. What the events of the cross meant for them as they scurried away and hid in the rooms. We think about Jesus’ mother and what it meant to her to see her son on the cross, dying. We think about Mary Magdalene – people Jesus had shown compassion to; how did they feel? We think about it from a Christian perspective, the epicentre of our faith – the cross and the resurrection and what it means.

We think about it from a Jewish perspective; what did they think? Did they know that this was the Messiah?

We think about it in terms of history, theology, culture – but there’s another group I’d like to concentrate on: the Romans.

The Romans were an influential part of first century life in the Middle East. They were the occupying force, the people who the Jewish Leadership certainly thought the Messiah was going to come and get rid of. Their influence stretched in the first century from northern Europe to Portugal and Turkey and on into North Africa. They were an occupying force in Judea, the first century home of Jesus. Being a soldier in the Roman army and being posted to Judea wasn’t a particularly choice position, about as far away as you could get from Rome and still be a part of the Roman empire. It was hot, completely different to anything that you would have been used to back home. It was a completely alien environment to the Roman soldier. Back home in Rome they would have been used to the Pantheons, the places of all the gods Jupiter, Hermes, Venus, Mars – and now you’re in a completely different environment that isn’t polytheism, it’s monotheistic. The people there worship one God, Yahweh. They have no idea of the pantheon of gods, they don’t think of gods in the same way – they think of God as their god and they are the chosen people. They’re a messianic people, they’re looking forward to this person who is coming to save them from slavery, to release them from the bondage of the oppressor.

Many people thought that the Romans were the oppressors – but Jesus had a much bigger enemy in mind – the oppressor of sin. You have to get your mind around that if you’re going to try and understand the Jewish mindset and the culture.

Back home you understand military victories but you don’t understand spiritual victories. Back in Rome they knew how to do parades because they knew how to celebrate victories that their armies win. The envy of the known world, very much unconquerable for centuries. If you’d been a Roman soldier at the Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem you might have wondered what on earth was going on. A man on a donkey with a few followers leaves and fronds on the grass on the floor paving the way, nothing like the military victories back home. What is this place, what is going on? What’s happening here? As a Roman soldier in charge of keeping control, you’d be looking out for rebellions, for people who have seditious intents, those people who wanted to get rid of the invading occupiers. You’d have to be constantly alert for these groups. There were many of them, Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, the ordinary people – so many different groups you had to try and get your head round. It wasn’t an easy place for a Roman soldier to be posted.

But one thing the Romans did know apart from war and victory was the law. They had a code of laws to make judgments. They took it very seriously. So crime was taken very seriously by the Romans which is why they invented this particularly nasty method of execution called crucifixion brought across from Rome – perfected to make a horrific way of dying which could last for days. They were masters of punishment. And so for them a crucifixion on Good Friday wouldn’t mean anything; it would be a normal day for them, a day in the office for a centurion because he’d seen it happen time and time again. Supervising crucifixions was part of their job; as an experienced campaigner, you didn’t get to be a centurion unless you put in the hours. You have to go through military training, you have to be in a certain amount of battles, you have to have proved yourself to get to the rank of the centurion.

The centurion is only mentioned in three verses in the gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. We’re going to look at how the different gospel writers think about this centurion – a foreigner, an alien who really wouldn’t understand what was going on and that makes his remarks as recorded by the gospel writers as all the more remarkable.

Mark 15.39 records the centurion in this way: ‘Surely this man was the son of God?’ Mark emphasises that the manner of Jesus’ death was impressive. Remember that this was a man who had seen crucifixions, who had seen people die. And yet there was something about Jesus’ death where he conducts himself has a lasting impact on this man, on this centurion, on this hard-bitten, cynical soldier, on this military man. When he saw and he heard how Jesus died, he proclaimed surely this was the son of God; he heard his cry. What did Jesus cry out, what did he do that impressed this man so much? Mark doesn’t actually tell us.

Mark records the death of Jesus v33 with simple details: at the sixth hour darkness came over the land until the ninth hour; Jesus cried out in a loud voice ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani’ – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some standing near heard this, they said ‘Listen, he is calling Elijah’. One ran and filled a sponge with wine vinegar and offered it to Jesus on a stick to drink. ‘Now leave him alone and see if Elijah comes to take him down’. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Luke records something of what Jesus cried out.) There was something in the way that Jesus held himself, conducted himself even in the midst of the most painful execution the Romans could think of impressed this man so much that he said ‘Surely this was the son of God’.

There is debate – what the centurion mean by ‘Son of God’? Did he mean what the Jews meant – the Messiah? Probably not.

The Romans had their own currency, their own coins. On these coins the emperor’s head was on both sides – his name, the year of his ascension on one of the sides and many of them would have had written in Latin ‘son of god’. The Roman emperors would have been thought of somehow a semi-divine, appointed by the gods. Son of the god was how Justice would have been referred to on his coins. The emperor Tiberius who was there at the time of Jesus’ death would have followed the same way so somewhere in this centurion’s possession he would have had coins that would have said on there something like ‘son of god’ or ‘son of a god’, perhaps that was what he was referring to. Perhaps he thought Jesus was on a level with the emperors - this carpenter from Nazareth, a nobody as far as he was concerned, this trouble causer – perhaps he was on a par with the great Roman emperors.

The account in Matthew 27.54 records the centurion in a slightly different way to Mark. Rather than emphasise the conduct of Jesus, Matthew implies that it was a cry of terror: when the centurion and those with him guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified and exclaimed ‘Surely he was the Son of God?’. They could only attribute it to the divine, they had no other way of explaining these supernatural natural phenomena, these things of the natural world – the earth shook, rocks split, a darkness across the land, all of these things natural but unnatural at this time. Unnatural for it to be dark in the middle of the day.

Matthew tells us there was more than one person there; Jesus was guarded by a centurion and others because he was thought of as important, at risk of a rescue attempt with someone trying to take Jesus down from the cross as he was regarded as the Messiah. The Romans may not have understood what Messiah meant, but they may have known that the Jews attached some importance to it. They were worried that someone might come and take down the body from the cross without permission. It gives us more evidence for the resurrection later on. Guarding him made Jesus really was dead, that he really did die, not just swoon on the cross. They made sure he physically died. So when the resurrection appearances come, there was no way the Romans could say, ‘Well, actually, he wasn’t really dead at all.’ They had a guard on him, an experienced centurion watching him. The fact that he dies and rises again gives evidence to the Christian faith.

Matthew is very keen to emphasise the way the natural world responds to Jesus’ death. Not only is there an earthquake at the very moment that Jesus cries out in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom and the rocks split, the tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. Matthew is emphasising the wonder of what happens at Jesus’ death and crucifixion.

And it’s no wonder that the centurion and all those who were with him were terrified when they see these things happening, when this earthquake comes from nowhere, when rocks split and people rise from the dead, this man must have been divine they say in some respects otherwise how could this have happened? Why is this going on? Either way, Mark and Matthew both have this proclamation ‘He is the Son of God’, whatever that means. Whatever it meant to them, they attribute divinity in some respects.

Luke 23.47 has a slightly different take on it, a different account of what is going on. ‘The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said surely this man was a righteous man. The word means innocent, just. Luke wants to emphasise the fact that the centurion here can’t quite get his head around what they’ve done, how the law has been broken. This man was an innocent man, he says, no criminal. The reason why Luke does this is down to who he’s writing his gospel to – Theophilus, a Roman citizen, so he would have been familiar with Roman law and Roman custom. For a centurion to call out ‘This was an innocent man’ would have impacted upon Theophilus.

If a centurion could doubt the wisdom of his rulers, that they’d got it wrong, that they’d condemned an innocent man to death, if he was willing to stand up in front of everyone and say ‘This man is innocent’, something drastic must have occurred. Luke was emphatic that the centurion praised God – not a god, or one of his gods, but God. He doesn’t use the words Yahweh or Christos but he definitely does use the word God. He’s not taking about the Roman Pantheons, he’s talking about the monotheistic God.

Something about the heart of Jesus touched this man, something about the crucifixion reaches across divides, cultures, nations, languages. When Jesus on the cross cries out in Aramaic ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ it’s highly unlikely that the Centurion would have understood it. He may have had a little understanding of Hebrew, depending how long he had been in the country. He certainly would have spoken Latin. It’s highly unlikely that he would have understood Aramaic and he certainly wouldn’t have understood it in terms of Messianic prophesies. The beginning of Psalm 22 would have been lost upon him. And yet, still, what happened on that cross makes such a deep impact on that centurion that he was praising God; he was willing to stand and say that Jesus was an innocent man, he was righteous. He was willing to say that he was a Son of God, at least on the level of an emperor.

What was it that Jesus said on that cross? Luke gives us the final clue, showing how the centurion comes to that conclusion: in addition to the darkness, the curtain of the temple, Luke adds Jesus saying ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’, omitted by Matthew and Mark while John in his gospel notes that Jesus cries ‘It is finished.’ When he had said this, Jesus breathed his last. The words resonate with Mark and Matthew; it was Jesus saying ‘Father’ that spoke to the centurion. Father and Son existing together – this was a Son of God.

And so the centurion, this hard-bitten man shows us that the death of Jesus, the crucifixion of Christ, the death of God upon the cross reaches beyond simply the small, localised event in Judea, on a hill in Calvary just outside Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Those who come into contact whether Jew or Gentile, those who encounter Jesus whether pagan or believer, Jesus stretches across all of these things. The language barriers don’t matter, the cultural barriers don’t matter, beliefs don’t matter anymore, the monotheism, atheism doesn’t matter. The encounter Jesus seemed to be deeply affected by them no matter where they come from. They cannot but be amazed when they stand in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene.

The one who came seemingly from nothing, born simply in a stable who grew up in a backwater town as a carpenter who embarked upon his ministry at the age of 30. We’re told by Isaiah there was nothing in him physically to draw us to him. There was nothing unusually about him in that. He was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. And yet for those who look, who will open their eyes, Jesus conquers all of the barriers, takes away all of these things, the language, the culture, the background, everything he swipes away because something about that man, then and now, reaches across the divide, reaches across all nations, reaches wherever we come from, wherever we look, whatever our backgrounds, Christ, on the cross died for all. Surely we can say along with this centurion this was a righteous man, the man who was righteous, the man who makes righteous, the man who was indeed the Son of God.