The Roman Centurion at the Cross: Same Job, Different Day

A Roman centurion who saw the crucifixion at very close range was in prime position to be an eyewitness to Jesus’ final hours. So, there’s this: “Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54 NASB)

A Different Point of View

This is one of the most unsolicited and surprising eyewitness testimonies about Jesus. Take a look at the one who spoke. A typical Roman centurion 1) was not Jewish. He didn’t know about any of the ancient prophecies and certainly wasn’t looking for a deliverer from Rome. 2) He was probably accustomed to crucifixion as part of his job, so he should have been harder to impress by any run-of-the-mill Crucifixion. 3) Was a military commander based on merit, so they usually rose through the ranks and were experienced, competent men. 4) Had usually been on campaigns (and was probably here) far away from home. As a result, his level of worldly understanding was probably greater than the average villager’s.

This centurion had probably not personally seen Jesus’ miracles or heard him teach. (Why would he? He had been doing his job, occupying Judea, not following Rabbis around…) In all likelihood the only exposure he ever had to the Son of God was as a battered, humiliated criminal who was facing his last hours on earth.

Not the Same Old, Same Old…

He was not steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures or looking for a Messiah, and of all the people Jesus encountered he perhaps would have known the least about Jesus’ background, reputation, and wisdom. It just wasn’t in a Centurion’s job description to know. He never sat in the temple courts and listened to this Rabbi, and he never saw him turn water into wine or calm the wind and the waves…

It’s likely, though, that while doing his job he HAD seen other crucifixions: messy, drawn-out, boring events with the same inevitable outcome, where the soldiers were so bored with death that they whiled away the time gambling for the criminals’ meager possessions… Yet somehow THIS crucifixion was different. This crucifixion challenged the centurion’s view of the world, and made him look at Jesus differently as well. It may have been the earthquake and the upheaval surrounding Jesus’ death that changed his perspective, but I think it was more than that.

A New Beginning

Perhaps it was the dignity that Christ carried with him to the cross; perhaps it was the things Jesus said to the criminals who were being crucified alongside him. Or, maybe it was the fact that he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Perhaps it was merely the look in Jesus’ eyes that challenged and convicted third-party observers to see him as more than a convict getting his just reward…

Whatever it was, the Roman centurion watched Jesus die. He went from seeing Jesus as a common Jewish criminal to seeing him as the Son of God. Pause and reflect on those days in Jerusalem. Think about all the different observers of the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Consider all of the different players that participated in the crucifixion. There was no way to know it was an event that signaled the end of an empire, and the beginning of a kingdom.

Surely, as they reflected later on the punishment of this rabbi from Galilee, it was something they remembered the rest of their days. It was a sea change, a significant turning point. They looked back at the cross and remembered his composure and his countenance. When you look back at the crucifixion, what do you see?

The Centurion’s Job

The Roman soldier watched the prisoners die;
This was just a job he had to do.
He listened and he heard a prisoner cry,
“Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
He turned to look at Jesus as he died,
And saw forgiveness written on his face;
He knew he’d never be the same inside,
Since he encountered Jesus face to face…

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