Speaking of Jesus: A Roman Soldier

Read: Mark 15:39

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 RSV)

Think of that—perhaps the clearest, most powerful witness in all of Mark’s gospel to who Jesus is, and it comes from the lips of His chief executioner!

Who Was He?

We don’t know the man’s name, only that he was a Roman centurion, an officer in command of about a hundred soldiers. He was the one who superintended the crucifixion on Golgotha that day. He had carefully monitored all the actions of his soldiers. He had kept watch over that potentially troublesome crowd of onlookers. It was his responsibility to see that the execution was carried out efficiently and without interference.

Perhaps he had looked the other way when some of his men made fun of Jesus inside the palace, robing Him in purple, crowning Him with a circlet of thorns, offering Him mock worship, along with slaps and spittle. That was not part of the regular procedure, but this victim had made some outrageous claims, and soldiers with such grim duties, the centurion reasoned, needed some laughter and diversion. Whatever the reason, he did nothing to stop the cruel mockery.

It was probably by the centurion’s order that Simon the Cyrene was commandeered to carry Jesus’ cross up to the place of execution. It was he who arranged for his prisoner to be offered the wine mingled with myrrh, as a kind of sedative to dull the pain. Jesus would not take it. It was the centurion who gave instructions as to where the hole should be dug for the vertical beam, and who supervised the nailing of Jesus’ hands to the crossbar. This officer had perhaps the clearest, closest view of the condemned man’s dying agonies. He watched it all, with a peculiar mounting interest.

Why This Tribute?

Why, do you suppose, would a man like this, a veteran soldier, an engineer probably of many crucifixions, a man who must have become callous to human suffering, say at the moment Jesus died, “Truly this man was the Son of God”? What was there about this crucifixion that was for him so strikingly, movingly different?

Perhaps in part it was what he didn’t see and hear as he stood beneath Jesus’ cross. Crucifixion was an ingenious, horrible form of punishment, one of the most shockingly cruel tortures ever devised by human beings. Even in a Roman world accustomed to violence and gore, the very thought of this spectacle made people shudder. It was unrelieved agony for hours—and sometimes days—on end. We can only imagine how most condemned criminals subjected to this kind of torment must have acted.

There came piercing cries of rage and pain. Victims would sometimes curse their executioners, calling down maledictions also on those who watched them suffer. There was vileness, blasphemy, dire threats and fumings of hate. All a man’s pent-up anger, bitterness and hostility came pouring out. A wretched victim on a cross, already enduring the worst punishment imaginable, had nothing to lose after all, nothing to fear. He could, and did, sometimes shout unspeakable things.

But not Jesus. The men crucified on either side of Him railed against the crowd. They even joined in berating and taunting Him. But He, the man on the center cross, was different. Even when His enemies jeered at Him, laughed at His sufferings, shouted their contempt, dared Him to save Himself, He held His peace. No one could detect the slightest bitterness in His bearing. He took it all, without complaining or condemning. When He finally spoke, it was not to His tormentors but to God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was quoting the ancient Scriptures, calling God His God, and struggling to understand His forsakenness, but He never once showed toward His worst enemies anything but patient, suffering love.

The centurion must have wondered about that. All the brutal mockery of the soldiers, all the scorn and hatred of His enemies, all the shame and pain heaped upon Him, but this man never answered in kind. He never let their malice get inside of Him, never gave in to the urge to get even. Why?

It wasn’t that He was afraid, struck dumb with terror. Jesus could still speak, quite plainly. He was evidently conscious, strangely calm, clearly self-controlled. And He surely wasn’t immune to the pain. His cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” gave a poignant glimpse into the depths of this suffering. What was His secret?

It was what happened in the moment before Jesus’ death that appears to have convinced this watching centurion. Just before He breathed His last, Jesus, we read, “uttered a loud cry.” This was not the way it usually happened. Victims of crucifixion in most instances weakened gradually, drifted into unconsciousness, died a lingering death. Jesus died with a shout. He spoke with force, almost triumph. It was as though He had decided when it was time to die, committed Himself into God’s hands, and consciously breathed His life out, breathed it away. It was then that the awestruck soldier said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

What Did it Mean?

What do you suppose the Roman officer meant by that? What understanding did he have of God? What was he saying of Jesus when he called Him “the Son of God”?

No one can answer that, of course, with certainty. We don’t know how much the soldier knew, for example, about the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We don’t know what He may have heard of Jesus’ claim to be the unique Son of the Father.

Perhaps the centurion meant by “Son of God” a kind of divine man or a deified hero who was accepting humiliation and death as an act of obedience to some divine mandate. It’s clear that the centurion knew himself to be in the presence of something, someone, supernatural. He sensed that in Jesus, the Almighty had somehow come among men. He was expressing in this outcry admiration, wonder, almost worship.

Perhaps the more important question is, “What did this confession mean to Mark, the author of this Gospel?” Remember, he’s writing for people who live in Rome. He wants to bring to their attention the fact that the man who made this great confession, at the very moment in which Jesus gave up His life, was a citizen of Rome, a soldier in the imperial army. He was a representative, as it were, of the Gentile world, and he saw in the crucifixion of Jesus something wonderfully god-like.

Many of the witnesses to Jesus whom Mark introduces in this gospel didn’t realize fully what they were saying. They were all wondering like Jesus’ disciples after He calmed the storm, “Who then is this that even the winds and the waves obey him?” Herod thought Jesus must be John the Baptist come back from the dead. Peter called Him, you remember, the Christ, but only partly understood what that meant; he needed to be further instructed. The rich man addressed Him as “Good Teacher,” not grasping that only God is good. And Pilate unwittingly, almost perversely, testified again and again that Jesus was the “King of the Jews.” All of them, this centurion included, spoke better than they knew. The partial witness of each one points to the marvelous fullness which believers find in Jesus. Taken all together, they testify powerfully to Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Isn’t it marvelous and fitting that someone there at the cross saw the truth about Jesus and proclaimed it? We would think that there would be disciples there, followers of His who did that, but here was this man. There in all that darkness and gloom was one radiant beam of hope, one sign of victory. In His death Jesus won the Roman soldier who had presided over His judicial murder. It was a sign of the way in which He would yet topple the throne of the Caesars and bring the Roman Empire to the foot of His cross. It was a sign of wonderful things to come, of the great multitudes who would yet come to believe.

Fuller Light

I agree with everything about this centurion’s witness except the tense of the verb he used. He said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” The centurion thought it was all over for Jesus now. Full-orbed Christian faith proclaims it in the present tense: He is the Son of God. Jesus is Lord.

But we know something, obviously, that this shaken Roman there on Golgotha didn’t know. That incomparably moving spectacle on Good Friday wasn’t the end. On the third day Jesus was raised from death, came forth from the tomb, appeared to His followers. We see now that sin and death could not destroy Him, that the grave could not hold Him, that the One who died is forever alive. Whatever could be said about Jesus’ divine glory in the moment of His death can be said with new joy and new confidence now.

In fact, as the apostle Paul has expressed it, this victory over death is the most powerful of all testimonies to who Jesus is. The Resurrection is God’s mighty word about the Lord’s identity. As Paul writes, Jesus is “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). The same God who declared from heaven to Jesus at the outset of His ministry, “You are my beloved Son,” (remember how that was said at His baptism) heralded that same message to all the world at the end of it. God has raised Jesus from the dead, accepting all His work, endorsing all His claims, saying in the most powerful way imaginable, “This is my beloved Son.” God, in the miracle of Easter, has the last word about who Jesus is. And that last word confirms the witness of this nameless Roman who looked at the dying Jesus and said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

At this time of year we all stand in grateful memory where the centurion stood. We look with him toward that lonely sufferer on the Cross, marveling at His patient love. But, unlike the Roman soldier, we know that it was for us He died, that we might be forgiven and find true life. We know that His suffering and dying was for our sins. We know that He has conquered death and lives now, mighty to save all who trust in Him. We can say, at each fresh reminder of His death, with even greater depths of wonder, “Truly this is the Son of God. Jesus, You are my Lord. You are Lord of all.”

My prayer is that you will consider today carefully, thoughtfully, the crucified Jesus. See how terribly He suffered there. See how He bore hatred and scorn without reviling or threatening. See how He committed Himself to His father, having accomplished our salvation fully. And then join with Jewish disciples and Roman soldiers, with those from every land and nation, from every tribe and tongue, with a multitude no one can number, in calling Him for yourself, “Son of the living God”!

PRAYER: Father, help us all to survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died. May we know that He did this for us and may we gratefully worship Him as Son of God, our Savior. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

About the Author

Dr. William C. Brownson was the President Emeritus of Words of Hope. Dr. Brownson served Reformed churches in Lodi, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Preaching at Western Theological Seminary, a position he occupied for ten years before serving at Words of Hope. In addition to a widespread speaking ministry in churches, on university campuses and at conferences, Dr. Brownson wrote extensively for the Church Herald, other Christian periodicals, and authored many books. Dr. Brownson died April 1, 2022.