Luke 23:47-49 “The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”
The death of Jesus of Nazareth really happened as this chapter describes it. Luke didn’t get it wrong. You can rely on what we’ve been reading here, that this is a true record of the last hours of Christ. Luke begins his gospel by telling Theophilus that he could trust these facts that he had carefully researched. What we read here of the three miracles – the darkness covering the land for three hours, the veil of the temple torn from the top to the bottom, and the transformation of the centurion who was supervising the execution – they all actually occurred on Golgotha. So let us consider the change in the soldier who was in charge of the executions.
1. IT WAS A CENTURION, A MAN UNDER AUTHORITY, WHO SPOKE THESE WORDS.
Both the references to centurions in all the three synoptic gospels are recorded with respectful admiration. There is no reference to a centurion in John’s gospel. There are just the two incidents, and maybe it is the same believing centurion who is written about in both instances, in other words I am suggesting that this centurion keeping law and order on Calvary is the same one that we meet in Luke 7 whose beloved personal servant was dying. You remember how he went to Jesus with this fear and the Saviour offered to accompany him to his home to heal the man. “No need for you to come,” he told Jesus, “just speak the word. You know that I speak when I give orders to my soldiers and they do what I say. I don’t have to go with them to see that they obey me. A word from me is enough. Certainly a word or even a thought from you and that’s enough.” So Jesus healed his servant without ever seeing him. But Christ also marveled at the faith of the centurion. He had not seen such trust in his power amongst all the teachers of the law and the priests of Israel.
I am now positing the possibility that this Gentile centurion on duty at the cross might well be the same soldier. Here he is called the centurion, not a centurion, and in Luke (as well as the two other gospels) there are just these two references to centurions, the one whose servant was so ill and the one on duty at the cross. No other centurion appears between chapter 7 and chapter 23. Could they be the same man? Certainly they are men from the same class, and background and training and authority, and that is undeniable.
When the centurion heard from his servants that Jesus of Nazareth had been arrested and tried and found guilty the previous night he was not on duty. He was not one of those who had come through the olive trees into the Garden to arrest Jesus. That was the watch of the night sergeant, a lesser ranked soldier during the hours of darkness when Jerusalem slept. In other words, the centurion had not been there during the time that the soldiers mocked and beat up Jesus. He was absent when they draped him with a purple robe and thrust a crown of thorns on his head, when they blindfolded him and punched him in the face. He was not on night duty; he was the day centurion, getting his orders for that day from Pilate the governor. “This is tricky and so I want you to be on duty. You know that it’s Passover morning. The lambs are being sacrificed. The people are thinking about liberty. They have asked that Barabbas the freedom fighter by freed. Take a good number of soldiers to an execution on Golgotha. Three criminals are to be crucified and one of them is the prophet Jesus of Nazareth. There may be a spot of trouble. A group of Jesus’ followers might try to get hold of him and release him. A band of outlaws could quite easily try to rescue the two other outlaws. You had better take a cohort of men there just in case. I’m trusting you to do your duty and watch out for trouble.”
Those were his orders. He was there to see that Roman justice was done. If he was the same centurion whose servant had been healed by Jesus then he would also be there reconsidering his early admiration for Jesus. Had he been deluded and tricked by a cunning religious rogue? Had Jesus of Nazareth after all been shown to be a crook? His Roman governor from whom he received his orders, Pontius Pilate, had interrogated him and his accusers, and he had passed the death sentence on him, and the centurion knew where his duty lay. His Lord Caesar came first in his life, but still he could never forget the experience of Jesus’ power that he’d had, and his servant was still alive and his best friend.
Jesus had said of him, “I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” What a remarkable statement. Jesus is saying that in this Gentile man of war, he had found a greater faith than he has seen anywhere else in all his earthly ministry! Doesn’t that stir us? How many of us would be overwhelmed to have the Lord say to us, “Great is your faith.” We want to know where great faith comes from, and how we can have it.
How is it that this Roman soldier, a stranger from the commonwealth of Israel, a man who’d had no access to the great theological teachings of the scripture, how had he got a faith that shamed the doctors of law, priests, Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day? The fact of the matter is that he probably knew little or nothing about faith. It wouldn’t be surprising if he were quite unable to give some definition of the word. He was not a rabbi; he was a centurion, but as a successful career soldier there was one great principle that he’d learned and understood, and that principle also fitted him well for great faith. What he understood was authority. He knew how authority worked. His life and actions were within a structure that demanded absolute obedience to the higher authority. He had seen its unfailing principles in operation. Particularly in battle you obeyed orders.
Now few of you are theologians; but you don’t have to be in order to gain great faith. A soldier can have great faith – like Stonewall Jackson. What we have to learn in order to get it is what this centurion knew about authority, and we must make that the principle and practice of our lives – just as it was of his. If you do that then your faith will know no bounds. Men and women, our problem is not primarily a faith problem: it is an authority problem. Have you learned about the great importance of living under authority? In other words I am asking you under whose authority are you living your life, and making your daily choices, great and small? Are you under the authority of the Lord Jesus or under your own authority? We all have to live within the simple principle laid out right at the very beginning in Genesis 2:16: “The Lord God commanded the man,” because he is the Creator and we are his creatures.
The centurion had been so bold when he spoke to the Lord as they started to walk together to his home; “Lord, you don’t have to come all this way with me. You don’t need to move from this spot, to go anywhere, or do anything. All you need do is to speak the word or even think the thought and my servant will be healed.” He didn’t try to impose his own faith on Jesus or advance his opinion by prefacing what he said with the words, “Now I believe . . . this or that.” He wasn’t speaking from any theory or conviction he held. He was speaking from what he knew to be true. He had watched Jesus in action and that was all. He made no allowances for things to be otherwise. Jesus was the mighty Lord and he was a mere servant. He knew that if Christ spoke then the spoken word would guarantee the finished work. The Lord spoke and it was done. He commanded and it stood fast.
How did the soldier know that so confidently? We’re told precisely how he knew. Because what he had seen in Jesus matched his own experience. “For I also am a man under authority, having under me soldiers.” The two key words to be noted here are ‘also’ and ‘under.’ ‘Also’ because he recognized that Christ was every whit as much subject to the Higher Authority as he was. Jesus always did the will of his Father. He acknowledged that he was ‘Under’ authority, for this reason, that the key to having authority is not bossing people around but rather it is getting right under someone wiser and more powerful than you are. Being under such a person, you then will be over others. You can’t orchestrate that; without being under someone great you’ll only become some pathetic martinet. You can only choose to get under and stay under someone worthy and glorious and grand and high and lifted up. Get under the best! Get under the greatest! Get under the holiest and the most loving of all. Be under his authority completely, and then, if you are under, you will to the same degree be over everything that this Mighty One – whom you are under – has placed you over.
The centurion knew it worked. “When I want a clean uniform I don’t have to go anywhere. I don’t have to take my dirty clothes to the river with some soap and wash them and lay them out on the warm pebbles to dry. I stay here, and when I’m here I don’t have to throw my weight around, spending a lot of energy and words, shouting, expostulating, threatening, intimidating, exasperating and cajoling just to get clean underwear. All I do is quietly tell someone to do it, and he does it. I say bring, and he brings it. I beckon, and he immediately he comes to me.” Now why did battle-hardened soldiers obey this centurion so readily? Was it because they feared him? Had he gained his position of authority by overcoming every one of them in arm-wrestling, or knocking them flat with his bare fists? Did he wield a better sword than they? Was he so much bigger and stronger that they feared him? None of those things. The centurion may well have been a small 140 pound educated officer, and a legionary who obeyed him so readily could have been a big 240 pound hulk. That legionary wasn’t submissive by the intrinsic authority which the centurion had. He wasn’t afraid of the centurion as a person. He was afraid of the Roman Empire. Caesar’s legions stood behind every word that this centurion spoke, as long as the centurion remained under his superior authority. “Go to Golgotha and supervise those executions,” he had been told, and gritting his teeth he did his duty.
So it came to pass that one day this centurion received some orders which he could well have hated getting. It was the worst work that he ever had to do, to be on duty for a whole day when they crucified three young men. He might have utterly disapproved of such a form of capital punishment so barbaric, and on top of it one of the men being crucified was the Lord Jesus Christ whom once he had so admired. What a dilemma! But if he refused then he’d be stripped of his rank and dismissed from his work and maybe put into prison.
2. ON HIS WATCH WHAT DID THE CENTURION DO?
We only know this man’s rank. We don’t know his name though one has been suggested, Longinus. We don’t know where in the Empire he came from, though some have suggested that he was a German, and others that he was a Roman, and still others a Syrian. We know so little of the man. We don’t know his age. We don’t know his thoughts. We don’t know the kind of education he’d had. We know that he was an officer in the military service of Rome and that he had at least a hundred men who did everything he commanded, but maybe he led a thousand legionaries, but this Passover morning he was in command of the execution squad and he had to see that three men were put to death.
So what did he do that day? He was a good officer. He didn’t gamble along with the men. He didn’t snooze. We are told that he watched everything; he saw what was happening. He heard the prayer of Jesus, “Father forgive them.” He heard the mob’s mockery as they chanted out their hatred. He heard him say to one of the other dying men, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” He saw his concern for Mary in her anguish and his calling across to John, “Care for her as your own mother.” He saw the sun stop shining for three hours. He saw the darkness end and then Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” and soon, “Father into they hands I commend my spirit,” and he saw his last breath. It is Mark who highlights that, that he watched how Jesus died. Again and again his eyes were drawn to Jesus and he couldn’t rid himself of a growing impression that Jesus had not lost his life but that he had surrendered it by his will.
This was the most important event that the cosmos had ever witnessed and he was there, at the heart of it all, detached from any group except the soldiers, surveying everything, not missing anything. He considered all that occurred before his very eyes. Matthew adds one fascinating piece of information, that he and all the soldiers who had had to endure that day were actually terrified by the end (Matt. 27:54). The oppressive darkness hour after hour, and the cry, “It is finished!” really got through to them. They had goose pimples; these tough fighting men who had driven nails through six hands and six feet at the beginning of the morning and then had broken four legs with the same sledgehammer I suppose, and finally thrust a spear into Jesus’ side in the middle of the afternoon these squaddies ended their horrific duties quaking with fear. All those details he witnessed, but Luke’s precise words are these, “He saw the thing that had been done.” The centurion was watching everything, but he didn’t lose sight of the wood for the trees. He saw the significant event, the central meaning of it all, the great thing that was done on Golgotha he saw.
3. WHEN JESUS DIED WHAT DID THE CENTURION SAY?
The centurion actually said a couple of things and the gospel writers have preserved them. Luke tells us that he said, “Surely this was a righteous man” (v.47), while Matthew and Mark inform us that the centurion also called Jesus ‘a son of a god.’ You must understand that this was not the same confession that Peter made in Caesarea Philippi (recorded in Matthew chapter 16) when he said to Jesus that he was the Christ the Son of the living God. The structure of those words is much stronger than the words of the centurion. There were two definite articles on Peter’s lips, “the Son of the God”, the only God that Peter the Jew knew, Jehovah the Creator and Redeemer, the God of the patriarchs and David and the prophets. Jesus was this God’s only begotten Son, affirmed Peter.
Here the centurion said something else; he said “a son of a god.” Of course it was an exalted title at that time. Whether it was Caesar, or Augustus, or Nero those very words were the title that men gave to the Roman Emperors, they were sons of a god. The centurion was exalting the crucified carpenter’s son with these words, putting him high up there amongst the pantheon of deities, lifting him up with the highest men in history, men on whose lives a spark of divinity had fallen. Jesus was a being whose origin was in another world. Jesus was a messenger from that world. This very man hanging, dying on the central cross, suffering all these horrors for hours, all observed keenly by this army officer, unlike any other man he had met, Jesus was a deity. If this centurion was the same centurion who earlier in his life had believed that Jesus had supernatural power then now his faith in Christ has been restored. Watching how he died on the cross, all he said and all he was, has confirmed in his heart that our Lord was unique. The centurion perceived the one significant thing that had been done that day on that green hill outside a city wall was that he and his men had crucified a son of a god, and the consequence was that he and all of them were terrified.
But the centurion said something more, “Surely this was a righteous man” (v.47). He was now sure that Jesus was not guilty in any way of blasphemy or rebellion. He really was innocent; he was in the right; he was a victim not a villain; he didn’t deserve any condemnation, let alone this death. So, very soon people all over the Mediterranean basin would hear about Jesus and they would be told of the sentence that Pilate the Roman governor (and thus the representative of the Emperor) had passed on him. Then they might think that if Roman justice had tried and had executed Jesus he must have been guilty of some great crime. Luke is recording here, “Let me tell you of the centurion in charge of the execution who was there that day.” Seeing what had happened his conclusion was that Jesus was not guilty, that there had been a miscarriage of justice. Here is a dependable senior Roman witness to that event. Later on in the book of Acts we will again meet other Roman centurions and officials who are meeting Peter and Paul and their conclusions are that these apostles had done nothing worthy of death, and, be warned that kings who slaughter Christian preachers meet a terrible end themselves. The Lord Jesus and his followers had done nothing worthy of punishment. Luke is urging us to see things through the eyes of men who had their feet firmly planted on the ground, people with no racial bias, men who heard and saw the events which we are to believe, whose truth we are to declare to the world. This man was one of those who had actually implemented the death sentence that Pilate had passed on Jesus. He had been one of those who organised the crucifixion, but this man changed his mind. He defied the sentence that his Roman superior had passed on Jesus, just as that governor’s wife had told her husband to do nothing with this righteous man. God enabled the centurion to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth was innocent, holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinner. He had done nothing worthy of such a death. This centurion who organised the crucifixion of the Son of God yet received illumination and courage from God to confess Jesus as righteous. Who is a pardoning God like him?
But the centurion did something else. “He praised God” (v.47). While Jesus’ body was still hanging broken and lifeless on the cross this centurion praised God. It is not that he asked God if he knew what was going on, that he had allowed him to nail his Son to that cross. How could God do this? There are those who use suffering as an excuse for saying, “I could never sing praises to a God who would permit this to happen.” This man didn’t! He did the very reverse. He worshipped the God who by his determinate counsel and foreknowledge had decreed this death – ‘this death’ I say – for his holy child Jesus. The chief priests and the Pharisees and the soldiers had all been mocking Christ, but this Gentile centurion gloried in the cross of Christ towering over the wreckage of old covenant priests and levites. He praised God for the cross. He praised God for the one who hung dead on it.
Do you see this miracle along with the darkness and the torn temple curtain, the change in this man, and his praise? The man who had allocated the duties to the legionaries, “You – hold the nails . . . and you – hammer them home . . . and you two – lift up this cross, and then that cross, and then that cross, and drop them into the sockets and secure them. Put the Nazarene in the centre . . .” That is how his morning started, but his afternoon ended with him praising God in the hearing of these men. “O blessed cross, better rather blessed be him who hung on it!” In fact this solder was the only person to praise God at the cross of Christ. When Luke begins his gospel he introduces us to Simeon and he tells the parents of the baby Jesus in the Temple that their little boy would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk.2:32). It was not long after that prophecy that the magi appeared, the wise men from Babylon, who came following a star assured that a king had been born, and they came with gifts to give him and they came to praise him. And then in the ministry of Jesus another Gentile, a Syro-Phoenician woman, came to him and cried for him to have mercy on her daughter, and then a little later more Gentiles, Greeks came saying to his apostles, “Sirs we would see Jesus.” And now that Jesus’ brief life is over immediately Simeon’s 30 year old prophecy enters a new dimension. This Gentile soldier, even while Christ’s dead body is still warm, confesses Jesus to be blameless and holy, a son of a god, and worthy of praise. I am saying to you that you must take your stand alongside this one man, even if there were no one else in the world saying these things. Dare to be a Daniel! Dare to stand alone. There is no one in your family, and no one in your school, and no one in the office, and no one in the street who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, yet you believe in your heart that he is the Christ. So confess him with your lips, like this man. Nail your colours up. Stand alongside him. How hard it was for the centurion to do this in front of his men and the chief priests. How much easier it is for you to do so today. Here are a hundred men and women around you at this moment who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. For the last two thousand years there have been millions who have testified with their lips that Jesus is their Lord and Saviour, and all over the world today there are millions more. And you? Is God moving in your heart? Do you have some faith, some mustard seed faith, to say, “Yes! I will confess him. I will praise him.”
We see the grandeur of his response when we compare it to how the others on Golgotha behaved. They had heard what the centurion heard, and they had seen what he had seen. But unlike him they did not see the “thing that had been done.” For them the cross of Jesus Christ was without purpose. It was mere savage justice, and another example of human depravity, and man’s inhumanity to man. We are told that “they beat their breasts and went away” (v.48). They were sickened by it all and they went away just as they’d come. The cross of Jesus had not saved them. They went away filled with grief; they went away perplexed; they went away with no more answers to who was God and who was Jesus of Nazareth and why do men treat men like this than before they had walked to Calvary. Imagine it, that you can go to Calvary and leave it in as much darkness as when you arrived. You can see Jesus die and be baffled and depressed. You can go away not saying, “He’s a righteous man; he’s the son of God; praise the Lord.” One man alone said that. The others went away, but where did they go? If you leave me where will you go? Who will preach more about Jesus Christ to you than you hear from me? No one. If there is someone in this area who preaches Christ more clearly and fully and lovingly than me then I will stop preaching him here and go and listen to him with you. I must have more and more of the Lord Jesus or I will die of longing to hear of him. If you do go away then go beating your breast in grief at human depravity, but better still, don’t go. Stay and cry mightily to God that he will help you to understand Calvary and why Jesus had to die that death, and how it relates to you. Pray this:
Oh make me understand it;
Help me to take it in,
What it meant to Thee the Holy one
To bear away my sin.
Even his most loving disciples were overcome with all they’d seen and they were mute: “the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things” (v.49). They were spectators of unspeakable horror, and that was all, watching the unwatchable.
They went to Calvary but they failed to see even God’s hatred of sin. They couldn’t account for the Saviour’s sufferings. They couldn’t spot the connection between what he went through and their own sin. But a Gentile soldier on Golgotha saw the thing that was done, that if the righteous, innocent Messiah has to suffer then it is because the sins of others have been imputed to him. Let me tell you of the gospel first going to Greenland with the Moravian missionaries. They had been there seventeen years and not a single Greenlander or Eskimo had become a Christian. Kajarnak was one of the local chiefs, a man notorious for his robberies and murders. He knew of the activities of the missionaries preaching to the people, and so one day, June 2nd 1738 he went to New Herrnhuth where John Beck was translating the gospel of John. Kajarnack was curious and he asked John Bolt to explain this ‘writing’. John told him how the marks he was making on paper were words, and how a book could speak. Kajarnak wished to hear what the marks said. So John Bolt read to him the narrative of Calvary and the chief listened with amazement, immediately asking him, “What had this Man done? Had he robbed anybody, had he murdered anybody?” “No,” replied John, “He robbed no one, murdered no one; lied to no one; took no one’s wife. He did nothing wrong whatsoever.” “Then why does he suffer? Why does he die like this?” “Listen,” said the brave young John Beck; “this man had done nothing wrong, but men like Kajarnak have indeed done wrong; this man had not robbed any one, but men like Kajarnak have robbed many; this man had murdered no one, but men like Kajarnak have murdered. I am told that Kajarnak murdered his wife, Kajarnak murdered his brother, Kajarnak murdered his child. This man on the cross suffered that men like Kajarnak might not suffer judgment; he was condemned that men like Kajarnak might not be condemned; he died that men like Kajarnak might not die in hell but might receive pardon from God.” “Tell it again,” said the chief, and the Christian did so often, and explained and answered the chief’s questions about this beautiful and loving and strong man named Jesus who chose to end his life in this way because he loved sinners like Kajarnak. So by repeating in different ways and explaining the necessity of the cross of Christ this ignorant and hard-hearted murderer was brought in contrition and tears to the foot of the Cross. Kajarnak was the first-fruits of many in Greenland who came to trust in Jesus Christ, because the preaching of the Cross is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe. The Bible tells us, “He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities; He bore our sins in his own body on the tree.”
The people on Calvary’s hill went away. They beat their breasts but they didn’t see the lessons that the cross preaches, God’s hatred of sin, yes, but also the way that’s been prepared by which we may be saved from the consequences of our guilt. He who became our sin-bearing substitute didn’t lay down his load till he had borne our sins far, far away. They will never come back to haunt us again. God has put our guilt and blame on the opposite side of the universe, billions of light years away, utterly unreachable to us.
Have you seen that? Then won’t you confess with your lips that righteous Jesus isn’t merely a son of a god, but the Christ the Son of the living God, and that you will praise God for him who has become your Lord, and all your days you will be a good solider of Jesus Christ, fighting a good fight in a holy way for the victory to be celebrated in the great day before us.
14th April 2013 GEOFF THOMAS