- Uniquely Matthew
- Uniquely Mark
- Uniquely Luke
- Uniquely John
Let’s turn our attention to the Roman soldier in the first instance.
Who was this Roman officer?
Luke tells us he was a [hekatontarches] which literally means “leader over a hundred”. To put it in more simple terms he was a centurion, the commander over a squad of a hundred soldiers. It is hard to tell just how many men were appointed to the crucifixion squad. It was highly unlikely to have been the entire squad of 100 men. More likely 8 – 10 men appointed to maintain the peace during Jesus’ crucifixion. It may have been there were more than usual given the controversy surrounding Jesus. There is much debate over how many soldiers there would have been. I would suggest between 10 and 12. If it were ten it would fit the notion of 10 deka units making up one hekta unit (100). On the other hand if it were 12 then likely there would have been four soldiers appointed for each “criminal” on the cross. This captain of the guard would have been an experienced officer who would have seen much combat and warfare. He would have been no stranger to violence, blood and torture. This may have even been a squad hand picked for crucifixion duty. But that is all conjecture. The bottom line is that this man was a seasoned soldier with lots of experience.
How long had this captain of the guard been observing?
Remember the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus in the garden were members of the temple guard. Jesus had been given over to a squad of soldiers after the Jewish trials. During the time of the Roman trials Jesus would have been under Roman guard appointed from the time of the trial. It is most likely He was under Roman guard when He was taken to Herod although Luke doesn’t tell us that. Herod’s soldiers guarded Him while He was under their jurisdiction and then likely as not He was handed back to the Roman guard and taken back to Pilate and the final court appearance. Of course we can’t know for sure, but it highly likely that the squad guarding Jesus from the Roman trial onwards was the same squad, right up to the point of the Crucifixion. This would mean that the Captain of the squad present at the cross would have seen all that happened from the trial onwards.
All Luke tells us is, “When the Roman officer overseeing the execution saw what had happened, he worshiped God and said, “Surely this man was innocent”.
Again there is much debate over what it was that Luke is referring to. When he saw what happened. What was it he saw? What are these words referring to? The crucifixion itself? He must have seen a number of those, what made this one any different? I would think he had seen and heard the nature of evidence presented in court and could have realised from that Jesus was innocent. He would have heard all Jesus’ responses to His accusers. He would have heard Jesus’ comments to the daughters of Jerusalem, but not likely have understood the depth of the comments. He was likely there when his own squad of soldiers mocked Jesus and gambled for His clothes. Did this Captain of the guard even join in?
The Bible is silent on these matters. He saw and heard the contrastive response of the two criminal with Jesus. He most definitely saw the darkness (if one can see darkness). He would not have seen the temple curtain being torn. They were a great distance away from observing the torn curtain. Luke records for us Jesus’ final comment before He breathed His last and it is this which contextually precedes Luke’s summation of what the centurion saw and his subsequent comment. But I don’t think the centurion’s comment is birthed from only what Luke has written before it. I think Luke’s statement is a summary statement. Notice that he also makes the same statement where the crowd were concerned too. They certainly would not have been privy to all that was happening immediately surround the cross. I think the Centurion’s comment has been birthed from everything he has observed and heard.
That being the case we now have to turn to the other gospels as well in order to piece together more of what the Captain of the Guard saw.
Matthew tells us:
At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart, and tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead. They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people. The Roman officer and the other soldiers at the crucifixion were terrified by the earthquake and all that had happened. They said, “This man truly was the Son of God!”
Mark tells us:
When the Roman officer who stood facing Him [heard His cry and] saw how He had died, he exclaimed, “This man truly was the Son of God!”
It has to be all of this action described by the gospel writers which cumulatively speaks volumes to the Captain of the Guard. Things far more than just the events surrounding the last moments. It has to be all that happened in the six hour time span not just the last three. Why would a Roman soldier, a man hardened to pain, suffering and death, after all he was the one inflicting it, suddenly turn and worship God? Note Mark’s comment that this Roman officer stood facing Jesus. He heard His cry (and all the other utterances) and he saw how He died. From Matthew we gain the knowledge of the turmoil that occurred in the city when Christ died. We know that the moment Christ died the veil in temple was torn in two. When that happened there was an earthquake and the rocks split apart and tombs opened. Many previously dead people were raised to life again and walked out of the cemetery. However it was not likely the Centurion knew or saw any of this action. Matthew tells us the walking-dead went out into the city of Jerusalem and appeared to many after the resurrection.
One further aspect of Christ’s death on the cross which was startling was that He died so quickly. When the soldiers went to break Jesus’ legs they found He was already dead. Thus when He cried out “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” it must have been a surprise. Jesus was totally in control of the moment He died. Quite unlike all other victims of crucifixion this Captain had seen. Crucifixion victims lasted a long time suffering in excruciating pain. See early comments I made about crucifixion in Gem 1269. The victim normally lasted 36 hours. This One died in 6 hours and furthermore “predicts” the moment of His death while He is still able to talk. There was something different about this Man.
If however Luke refers only to the events which happened at the moment of Jesus death there is still enough there there to convince the Captain of the Guard that this man was special. The short amount of time that it took for Jesus to die and the manner of Jesus control over His own death. The earthquake at the end of the strange period of darkness. Even just those happenings would have been enough to make him wonder what was going on and conclude this man was innocent or the Son of God. But I assume the triggers for this Roman soldier’s response were the combination of factors he had observed. He had likely been a part of the trial process and heard the allegations against Jesus. He has experienced the earthquake, the darkness at the timely moment of this Man’s death. He puts it all together and proclaims, “Surely this man is innocent”. What did he mean by that? And what about the contrast between Matthew and Mark’s “This man truly was the Son of God.” What did the man say? “Surely this man is innocent” or “This man truly was the Son of God” ? If we were back in the Roman court I could imagine there would have much interrogation of the witnesses to find out the truth. What was behind what the man said?
We will look at that in the next Gem. I have had two responses from people which prompt me to add a question to my list. We will also look at the significance of the saying “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” – My God My God, why have you forsaken me?” We could pause at this moment and investigate all of the sayings on the cross in great detail. I was taken by this a number of years ago and had thought I would preach a sermon series before Easter on the seven things Jesus cried out from the cross. But have never done that because I don’t have the chance the preach a sermon series anymore in one church. But here is a summary and I will leave you to do some study of your own. I won’t go on to cover these in the Gems – so don’t panic!
- “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
- “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
- “Dear woman, here is your son! Here is your mother!”
- “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
- “I am thirsty.”
- “It is finished!”
- “Father into your hands I commit my spirit.”
And now I will leave you. Like I tell Deeper Bible students, “There is always more.”
Doing nothing is very hard to do…you never know when you’re finished.Anon
To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail.Abraham Maslow
Learn in order to gain more tools for your toolbox.Ian Vail
Move out of judgement into gratitude.Anon
I don’t mind if you yell at Me, at least we are talking.God