Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour.
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” that is, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” . . .
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.
And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
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!” (matt. 27:45-54).
“Truly this was the Son of God!” What a declaration! These were not quavering words from a frightened pup of a recruit or an easily manipulated conscript. This was the reasoned conclusion of a seasoned veteran who had been watching men die horrible deaths—and had been putting them to death—for years.
Some have speculated about what he meant. Was this a confession of faith, or was he just trying to define something outside the scope of his experience? I believe that the answer is in the context. Obviously the centurion was deeply moved by the events he had witnessed, and the declaration of deity is what followed his observation.
We need to consider two things in order to fully and carefully consider the magnitude of the centurion’s words: the evidence against this declaration and the evidence in support of this declaration.
The evidence against such a declaration was strong indeed. This centurion was well aware of the strong condemnation of the Jewish religious leaders that had put Jesus on the cross for making the claim to be the Son of God. His commander-in-chief, Pontius Pilate, had upheld the conviction for Jesus’ making that claim. But the centurion rejects the condemnation and affirms Jesus’ claim. Why? Because the arguments in favor of Christ’s claim were overwhelming.
Looking at the evidence in support of this declaration, we must remember that this man had no doubt supervised many crucifixions. Yet there was something extraordinarily different about this particular execution. What did he see? There are several scenes from the events of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus that combine into a compelling mosaic.
• The response of Jesus to the injustice that He had been forced to endure at the hands of His own countrymen through arrest and trials:
And while He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, with a great multitude with swords and clubs, came from the chief priests and elders of the people. Now His betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “Whomever I kiss, He is the One; seize Him.” But Jesus said to him, “. . . How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?” In that hour Jesus said to the multitudes, “Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs to take Me? I sat daily with you, teaching in the temple, and you did not seize Me. But all this was done that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled . . . . And the high priest arose and said to Him, “Do You answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You?” But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, “I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!” Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, “He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?” They answered and said, “He is deserving of death.” Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palms of their hands, saying, “Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?” (matt. 26:47-68, emphasis added).
• The response of Jesus to the torture that the centurion and his men had inflicted upon Him:
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole garrison around Him. And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then they spat on Him, and took the reed and struck Him on the head. And when they had mocked Him, they took the robe off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him away to be crucified. (27:27-31).
• The dignity with which Jesus responded to the lynch mob that demanded His blood—as a sheep, silent before the slaughter. Scripture records no response by Jesus to the mob’s cries:
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd, so that he should rather release Barabbas to them. Pilate answered and said to them again, “What then do you want me to do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?” So they cried out again, “Crucify Him!” Then Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they cried out all the more, “Crucify Him!” So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and he delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him, to be crucified (mark 15:11-15 cf. isa. 53:7).
• The mercy of Jesus toward the people who rejected Him and the soldiers that crucified Him, including this centurion. His response? “Father, forgive them!” (luke 23:34). Even as they sat down to gamble (matt. 27:35-36) for His meager possessions and to watch the gruesome spectacle, Jesus’ concern was for their forgiveness, not His own escape. That is powerful.
• Creation’s response to the Creator’s sin-bearing act. As Matthew records, witnesses “saw the earthquake and the things that were happening” (27:54). They saw the sun go dark, they felt the power of the earth quaking under their feet—and they saw these supernatural phenomena suddenly end when Jesus yielded up His spirit with a loud voice and died.
This centurion was understandably shocked by the significant events that accompanied the death of the Christ. In all of his up-close exposure to torture and death, he had never seen such things before, and the impact on him was inescapable.
There cannot be a reasonable doubt that this expression [“Truly this was the Son of God!”] was used in the Jewish sense, and that it points to the claim which Jesus made to be the Son of God, and on which His condemnation expressly turned. The meaning, then, clearly is that He must have been what He professed to be; in other words, that He was no impostor. There was no medium between those two (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Bible Commentary).
Bible scholar Dr. Herbert Lockyer writes, “What a remarkable testimony Christ received from this Gentile! How striking was the homage he paid to the crucified one at Golgotha!”
The centurion had seen, heard, and felt all of the events of the crucifixion and death of Christ. As a result, he and his troops “became very frightened.” The centurion and his group of battle-hardened soldiers had learned to cope with fear, but now they experienced sheer terror—not a true reverential fear, but, perhaps, as commentator John Gill wrote, the “fear of punishment: lest divine vengeance should light on them for their concern in this matter.”
They had reason to be fearful because there was absolutely nothing ordinary about the significant events they were experiencing. It was:
• No ordinary execution. The darkness, the earthquake, and the cry of abandonment from Christ convinced the soldiers that this was no ordinary execution. The events terrified them and probably led them to believe that these things testified to heaven’s wrath. What a realization! They had put to death God’s Son!
• No ordinary power. They did not come to this conclusion because of the announcement of some angelic messenger or prophet. Their conclusion came solely from the effects of the power of God on display at Calvary that dark day.
• No ordinary confession. The centurion’s confession tells us something eternally important: Jesus as the promised Messiah and Son of God is seen most clearly in His passion and death. How interesting that the Jewish religious establishment had mocked Him with the title (vv. 41-44) by which a Roman centurion now confessed Him.
Matthew Henry wrote: “The dreadful appearances of God in His providence sometimes work strangely for the conviction and awakening of sinners. This was expressed in the terror that fell upon the centurion and the Roman soldiers. Let us, with an eye of faith, behold Christ and Him crucified, and be affected with that great love wherewith He loved us. Never were the horrid nature and effects of sin so tremendously displayed as on that day when the beloved Son of the Father hung upon the Cross, suffering for sin, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God. Let us yield ourselves willingly to His service.”
Church tradition has given the name Petronius to this centurion. If he was won to faith in Christ, he came as a pagan and, like the thief on the cross who believed, was saved as Jesus hung upon the cross. How simple and basic! All who are saved are saved because of the death of Jesus on the cross. So the cross began to do its work immediately. And that work has continued for two millennia.
The preaching of the cross may be foolishness to the world, but to those who are saved it is the power of God. No wonder Charles Wesley declared in his anthem of praise for the death of Christ, “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me!”
It is that powerful cross and the love displayed there that moves hearts—even the hardened, battle-weary heart of a career soldier—from death to life. There is an old saying, “The ground is always level at the foot of the cross.” It was in the first century, and it still is today. The foot of the cross is where paupers and princes, religionists and pagans, well-knowns and unknowns, and—yes—generals and centurions find level ground to kneel and embrace the Christ who died for them—and for us.
The men and women who witnessed the trial, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ saw more than words can ever express. They heard things that we can only imagine. But what they saw in their lifetime, we have seen in the Scriptures, and the result is amazingly the same. Though we may not have seen Him physically, we have seen Him through the pages of Scripture and found solid ground for belief. The book of Romans explains the phenomenon this way: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (10:17).
“Truly this is the Son of God!” We have heard and we have believed. But it mustn’t end there. We must burn with the passion to know Him—the very passion of the apostle Paul, who wrote that his life’s goal was “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (phil. 3:10).
May that same desire burn in our hearts as well, that we might truly know the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.