“God’s anonymous: a Roman Centurion”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
Every religion and every ideology, it seems, has its symbol. For the Buddhist, it’s the lotus flower. Judaism has its Star of David and Islam has its crescent moon. Communists are known for their hammer and sickle and the Nazis for their swastika. In politics, Democrats have a donkey and Republicans have an elephant.
In the earliest days of Christianity, there was no recognized symbol. Instead, early Christians simply greeted one another with the words, “Jesus is Lord.” Then when the church was forced to hide underground in the catacombs of Rome, they drew pictures of Bible stories and fish with the anagram, “ixthus,” the letters for “Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Not until the second century, during the reign of Emperor Constantine, did Christians begin to make the sign of the cross. Only then did it become the universal symbol of our faith.
Now we can’t help but say that the cross is a rather strange symbol to represent our faith, for in the ancient world, crucifixion was a means of execution. In fact, it was the most brutal and humiliating form of execution ever known to man. Unlike modern methods of capital punishment that are designed to bring about a quick and relatively painless death, crucifixion was meant to guarantee a slow, agaonizing death, lasting not simply hours, but days.
As you can imagine, over the centuries, unbelievers have sneered at Christianity for worshiping a Man who died on a cross. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Christianity a religion for weaklings and mocked the idea of a God who could be crucified. And when a Muslim apologist once debated with Josh McDowell about the Christian faith, he ridiculed it by saying Christians are riding on the back of a crucified Man.
To the world, it’s a symbol of shame. But to us who believe, it’s our salvation. As the apostle Paul once wrote to the Corinthians: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:23-24).
What a sad, pitiful scene it must have been that day just outside of Jerusalem, when Jesus died to save our souls. It was a day when all of hell was unleashed against Him, when those who should have loved Him, who should have worshiped Him, put Him to death. It was a day when even His own disciples left Him to die in agony, alone. It was a day of horror and great tragedy.
But if truth be known, it was the greatest day since time began. For it was on that day, just beyond Jerusalem’s city wall, that our Savior died for us--the sinless for the sinful, the righteous for the unrighteous--that we might be redeemed.
Throughout this season of Lent, we’ve learned of many faces around the cross. Annas and Caiaphas, both high priests of Israel, mocked Him. Herod Antipas, a king, ridiculed Him. Pilate’s wife was so troubled by Him, she suffered much in a dream. Barabbas was saved because of Him. And Simon of Cyrene carried His cross. Now finally, at the end, there’s one more who played an important part in the suffering and death of our Lord--God’s anonymous, a centurion.
Some three hundred years after Christ, a Roman historian by the name of Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote, “The centurion in the infantry is chosen for his size, strength and dexterity in throwing his missile weapons and for his skill in the use of his sword and shield; in short, for his expertness in all the exercises. He is to be vigilant, temperate, tireless and readier to execute the orders he receives than he is to talk. He is to be strict in exercising and keeping up proper discipline among his soldiers, in obliging them to appear clean and well-dressed and to have their arms constantly rubbed and bright.”
Needless to say, as the leader of a Roman “century,” he was an officer held in high esteem. He had to be a man of good character, with a proven military record, who knew how to carry out orders promptly, quickly and efficiently. He wasn’t just any soldier. He was a proven leader of men.
For him, Good Friday began as usual, just another ordinary day. Normally, he was in command of a hundred men, but today, he was in charge of only seven--three men who would be crucified and four soldiers who would stand guard over them.
It was all very routine. He selected four of his soldiers for the grim detail and, since they’d be out all day at the site of crucifixion, he picked up their rations for the day. And just before they left, he checked out one more thing--a handful of long, hard iron spikes--two for their hands and one for their feet.
But that One Man seemed strange, different from any other Man he had ever known. For some strange reason, the Jews and their leaders seemed so agonized against Him, as if they had some sort of personal vendetta against Him. Obviously, they had gone out of their way to arrest Him under the cover of darkness, then drag Him before Annas and Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate. All this was pretty big news and he wondered what could possibly be the reason. Why did they so want Him not just out of the way, but dead?
And as this Jesus stood in trial before them, what did He say? Nothing! Every other prisoner fell down on his knees and begged for mercy, offered a bribe or shouted out some profanities at Rome--something. But this Man said absolutely nothing at all. It was as if He was a lamb being led to its slaughter!
But he was just a soldier and he knew better than to ask any questions. Judgment wasn’t his responsibility. He would simply do as he was told. So out they went, out to “Skull Hill,” the place of execution.
Sure it was cruel, even macabre--the purple robe, the scepter, the crown of thorns, even the sign above His head: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” And when his fellow soldiers knelt down before Him and shouted, “Hail, King of the Jews,” now that was a bit much.
And as they nailed Him down to the wood and lifted Him up for all the world to see, that’s when He really started to wonder. “Father, forgive them,” He cried, “for they know not what they do.” Father? What Father? And forgive? Forgive who? Who is this Man really and who does He think He is?
But at noon--now that’s what really got his attention. Suddenly, instantly, it became as dark as night. The sun failed when it should have been at its highest and brightest. Birds roosted in the gloom and the cold. It was as if nature itself had gone into convulsion.
Still they waited and watched. Even then, the chief priests still didn’t have enough of Him. There they stood at the foot of His cross and ridiculed Him even as He was dying. “He saved others,” they joked among themselves, “but He can’t save Himself. Come down now from the cross, Jesus, and then we’ll believe in You. That’s what You said, isn’t it? ‘I am the Son of God.’”
Then just before three o’clock in the afternoon, He cried out twice more. Once to say that all was finished, and then to His Father in heaven: “Into Thy hands I commit My spirit.”
And at that very moment, as He breathed His last breath, the earth began to shake, tombs burst open, and the sound of a thick, heavy curtain tearing in two came from somewhere over by the temple. Something very, very strange had just happened, something he had never seen before and knew he would never see again. In fact, he was so shaken, that he, a Roman soldier, wasn’t simply afraid. He was terrified!
He had seen the power and the glory of Rome. He had marched with thousands of soldiers past the viewing stand where the emperor stood in resplendent golden clothes, the sun shining so bright you could hardly look at him. He had stood within the walls of marble palaces, with hundreds of slaves eager to do their master’s bidding.
But this Man, bloodied, bruised and beaten had a power and a glory like nothing he had ever known.
Could it be? Had they crucified not just some ordinary Man, some deluded, deranged Man, but the innocent Son of God?
That’s why, as Matthew records: “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54).
It’s strange if you think about it. He had never seen Jesus raise the dead. He had never heard Him speak, nor did he watch as the wind and the waves obeyed Him. He had never seen Him give sight to the blind, cleanse a leper or cure a man of his sickness. He had never felt the warmth of His love, His sympathy or His kindness. He had never heard Him preach in the temple, nor was He with the five thousand as they ate their fill of fish and bread.
He didn’t see the way He lived. All he saw was the way He died. Yet that was enough to make Him believe.
And so in that moment, a Roman soldier who had engineered countless surrenders, surrendered himself. “Truly,” he said. “Truly, this Man was the Son of God!”
Studdert Kennedy was an English priest and poet who lived at the time of the first World War. His friends nicknamed him “Woodbine Willie,” because he was known to give Woodbine cigarettes to sick and dying soldiers.
And among the many poems for which he’s known even today is one that speaks of the soldiers around the cross.
This is what he said: “And sitting down they watched Him there, the soldiers did; There, while they played with dice, He made His sacrifice and died upon the cross to rid God’s world of sin. He was a gambler, too, my Christ; He took His life and threw it for a world redeemed, and ere His agony was done before the westering sun went down, crowning that day with crimson crown, He knew that He had won.”
Why did He know He had won? Because there, at His feet, were the very soldiers who took His life. And before the day was done, they believed.
That’s the power, the wonder and the glory of the cross.
Gracious God, heavenly Father, lead us to see that it was our sins that caused Christ’s agony on the cross and that He was forsaken, that we might not be forsaken by You. And grant that, by Your grace, we too may find mercy and healing at the foot of the cross, for Jesus’ sake. Amen