For many Christians, the celebration of Easter finishes when it is time to exit the church building on Sunday morning – off to family lunch, or back home, or on to errands. The weekend has already been an odd one – with church on a Friday and Sunday morning, and a day in between which no one is ever quite sure what to do with. By the time the Sunday morning service comes to a close some feel as if they’ve done their due Christian diligence, and they can now get on with their lives.
But Easter didn’t finish Sunday morning for those involved all those years ago. Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb was only the beginning of what was to come. It should behove us, then, to spend a little bit of time considering the aftermath of Easter ourselves.
Three of the four gospel accounts recount the story of the Roman Centurion, who likely stood at the foot of the cross, or as close by as was necessary, to ensure no trouble was had amongst the onlookers. A Roman Centurion, like the name suggests, was a Roman officer in charge of (at least) 100 soldiers – a century of soldiers. We can never know for sure, but it is not difficult to imagine that this soldier was in charge of the day’s event – the execution of three ‘criminals’ and keeping the peace.
When Jesus breaths his last, it is important to remember that Jesus retained control of His life right up until the very end. A crucifixion was intended to be a cruel and inhumane punishment, and was not something that happened quickly. In fact, death by crucifixion could sometimes take up to several days – unless it was hurried along. John gives credence to this when he explains that “Since it was preparation day, the Jews did not want the bodies to remain on the cross on the Sabbath” so they therefore “requested that Pilate have the men’s legs broken and that their bodies be taken away.” (John 19:31) Breaking a crucified man’s legs meant that he would no longer be able to hold himself up to breathe properly. But Jesus was already dead, an unusual enough event that we are told “Pilate was surprised that [Jesus] was already dead.” (Mark 15:44)
The Roman Centurion would likely have overseen many such crucifixions. The fact, therefore, that Jesus so obviously maintained control over his life before He “gave up His spirit” (John 19:30) would have been remarkable to witness. Jesus’ death, as we see in the other gospels, had also been accompanied by darkness (Matthew 27:45) and an earthquake (Matthew 27:51) and now this man, this supposed criminal – who Pilate had deemed King of the Jews, despite the protests to the contrary of the Jewish leaders (John 19:19-22) – with a proclamation of “It is finished!” (John 19:30), died of His own accord.
No wonder, then, that this Centurion (and those accompanying him) recognised someone truly different had just been crucified – an innocent at the hands of a Jewish mob. Why are the words of an unnamed Roman Centurion found in three of the gospels? And more importantly, how are they found in three of the gospels?
Each of the gospels state that “all who knew [Jesus], including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” (Luke 23:49) How, then, were the words of the Roman Centurion heard and recorded? Jesus was dead, His disciples and followers “stood at a distance”, and yet the words of a nameless Roman Centurion are recorded in three of the gospels.
How else could these words have been recorded – especially in the case of Luke’s gospel, written a number of decade’s following the events, based on records and speaking with those involved – unless the speaker of the words had been the one to recount them? The evidence we have suggests that the only person within hearing of the Centurion’s words was, in fact, the Centurion himself. It is not difficult to surmise, then, that the Centurion’s pronouncement that “This man really was God’s Son” was the beginning of a life of faith in Jesus Christ and His teaching – a life that, eventually, brought him into contact with the writers of the gospels.
It is also important to note that the words spoken by the Centurion do not need to be dismissed, just because – as some have pointed out, somewhat obviously – that this man was likely a Roman “pagan”. The words we have translated as “This man really was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39) do not necessarily speak to an immediate acknowledgement of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, nor as the Son of the only God, but they are nevertheless important. The events of the past few weeks would unlikely have gone unnoticed amongst the Roman soldiery, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city likely the talk of the town – especially considering that the same man was then brought before the region’s governor, with a mob of angry Jews calling for his crucifixion. The Roman soldiers in attendance at the cross would also have heard the Jews scoffing and mocking Jesus while he hung on the cross:
The people stood watching, and even the leaders kept scoffing: “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked Him. They came offering Him sour wine and said, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” – Luke 23:35-37
Another thing to note is that in Luke’s account, the Centurion is quoted as saying “This man really was righteous!” (Luke 23:47 – the ESV says “innocent” instead of righteous) However, as Liefeld and Pao explain in their commentary on the passage, the overall context of Luke’s gospel was in fact “Jesus’ innocence … and trust in God to the very end”. Further, “the term ‘Son of God’ might have been misunderstood by Luke’s largely Gentile readership, as it was not unusual for pagans to use such terminology with a different meaning.” In other words, the Centurion was likely not simply expressing a vague appellation for Jesus when he called him either Son of God or innocent. Rather, in that moment before the cross, the Centurion was aware of the divine nature of the innocent man hanging in front of him, and expressed his acknowledgement that the man who had died was both divine and innocent.
The death of Jesus has saved so many over the millennia, and we celebrate that over the Easter weekend. However, sometimes we forget that the very day Jesus died he saved people. We’ve all heard the story of the criminal who hung beside Jesus who believed – a man who, in his desperate last hours, saw the innocent divine hanging alongside him. But let’s not forget the Roman Centurion at the foot of the cross, who similarly witnessed the death of the innocent divine, and believed.
Image Credit: Ted Kim Art, via DeviantArt