“Surely This Was…”
You know those times when you read a familiar Scripture passage and something new jumps out at you? During Lent this year, that “something” for me was the centurion at the crucifixion. What might he have witnessed?
- How Jesus didn’t fight back, instead bearing the insults and abuse of the soldiers and the crowd. (Mt. 27:27-44; Mk. 16:15-32; Lk. 23:26-43; Jn. 19:17-27)
- The darkness that covered the land. (Mt. 27:45; Mk. 15:33; Lk. 23:44)
- Jesus’ ability to cry out at the end (some crucifixion victims suffocated and would not have been able to draw enough breath). (Mt. 27:50; Mk. 15:37; Lk. 23:46)
- Jesus death on the cross was not as protracted as the average sufferer on a cross. (Jn. 19:31-33)
- The earthquake that shook the land. (Mt. 27:50)
- The temple curtain torn in two. (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:30; Lk. 23:45)
- Tombs broken open and bodies raised to life. (Mt. 27:52-53)
It is quite possible that the centurion did not see the last two events, though it is likely he was around for the others. Matthew, Mark, and Luke record his presence at the scene, drawing out, as they do in their Gospels in general, different takes on the situation:
Matthew 27:54: “When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (emphasis on the physical upheaval)
Mark 15:39: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” (emphasis on Jesus’ suffering)
Luke 23:47: “The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” (note on praising God)
The consistent account in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s writings is of the centurion’s awe and wonder; Matthew mentions terror. Luke’s depiction is what caught my attention in the first place–following this supreme tragedy, the centurion’s initial reaction was praise! How odd it seems that remorse, or a sense of “What have we done?!” is not mentioned–what this man saw led him first to praise God.
This snapshot of the crucifixion story seems to me to be another example of God’s using an unlikely character in His story. The centurion was a Roman soldier in charge of 100 troops currently assigned to execution detail; this was probably not their first execution. The man plays a part in both sides of the story: he carried out the death sentence, then was the first one to speak truth after the deed was done (“Surely this was the Son of God”). His observation offers some small-scale redemption to the immediate situation.
God has done His large-scale work of redeeming mankind, indeed all of creation, and will bring it to ultimate completion. In the process, we can find redemption in the everyday. Some examples that come to mind:
- Combating feelings of embarrassment, guilt, or shame by looking for how God has worked redemption into the situation.
- Approaching conflict as an opportunity to move towards God and each other in restoration of relationship.
- Even simply giving a smile to a store clerk who has just dealt with a difficult customer.
The rest of the verse that Jesus quotes in his last words in Luke 23:46: “Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth” (Psalm 31:5). God’s truth redeems–on a small scale as well as large scale.