Every believer carries a measure of the guilt for Jesus’ death. Was it not for our willful disobedience to God’s perfect Law, we would have no need of a Savior. We acknowledge in song that it was our hands that drove the spikes into His and sometimes speak about driving the nails into Jesus’ hands every time we sin. We speak figuratively, of course, knowing that although we were not present at the time of His death, we bear the guilt of creating the need for His death. Had we not sinned, Christ would not have died.
In the Bible we are given a brief glimpse of a man who was present while Jesus was nailed to the tree. He is mentioned in three of the four gospel accounts. But he is mentioned not for his cruelty, ruthlessness or ability as a soldier. He is mentioned for something far more important, for a marvelous transformation. This man was a Roman centurion, a commander over 100 soldiers of the Roman army. We know little about the man except that he was probably a hardened solider who commanded a detachment of Syrian-born soldiers. He had, in all likelihood, presided over the crucifixion of hundreds or even thousands of men and must have become hardened to the agony these men endured. Day after day he would watch men endure unspeakable agony.
It is likely that this man was present from the time Jesus was brought before Pilate right until the Lord’s body was lowered from the cross and given to Joseph of Arimathea. He may even have been present with the detachment of soldiers that aided in Jesus’ arrest the night before His crucifixion. This man would have accompanied Jesus from the time the Jewish leaders brought him to the Praetorium. He would have ordered his men to beat Him, caring little for who He was, knowing Him only to be another in a long line of people he was commanded to execute. He would have been nearby when his men dressed Jesus in a robe, pressed a crown of thorns onto His head and walked Him to Golgotha. He would have given the order to proceed with the crucifixion. He was there through it all, undoubtedly viewing Jesus as just one more man in an endless succession.
Having seen so many crucifixions, the centurion knew what to expect from prisoners. Most people who were sentenced to be crucified were criminals, brigands, thieves and murderers. He had heard countless men scream in agony while being whipped and plead for their lives before Pilate. He had heard them shout curses to men below and blasphemies to God above. The behavior of the thieves on either side of Jesus was all too common, as they mocked and ridiculed Jesus while he hung between them. What more could you expect from the kind of man who was hung on a cross?
Perhaps it was during this time that the centurion began to notice that there was something different about Jesus. Where most men cursed and swore, Jesus, as His hands were nailed to the wood, cried out for God to forgive those who were causing His suffering. Or maybe He noticed the tender mercy in Jesus’ voice when He spoke to the penitent thief beside Him, promising that the same day he would be with Jesus in paradise. Perhaps he was amazed that during such suffering Jesus could look down at His mother and ensure that her future was secure by telling John to take care of her. Certainly the three hours of darkness that accompanied Jesus’ suffering would have marked this as an execution unlike any other.
We can only guess when the centurion began to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. What we do know is exactly when He knew with full certainty.
Just before He died, Jesus cried out “It is finished!” and then said “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” At that very moment Jesus died. At that same moment a violent earthquake shook the land with such ferocity that rocks were split. Matthew tells us “when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Luke expands on this saying “when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, “Certainly this was a righteous Man!”
And just like that, the man who presided over Jesus’ execution, the man who ordered the nails to be driven into His hands and feet, became the first person to become a believer after Jesus’ death.
What an awesome, exciting testament this is to God’s divine grace! God was willing and eager to save one of those primarily responsible for the murder of His Son. A man who watched Jesus be scourged, who watched his soldiers mock and abuse Him and who probably enjoyed every minute of it, suddenly cries out in terror, realizing that He has killed an innocent man. But his cry of terror is also an expression of faith as he confesses his new-found knowledge that Jesus was and is the Son of God.
I am certain that this story served as a great encouragement to many people in the early church. Though many of them carried the guilt for having killed the Lord, the realization that God could save even those who held the nails, would have proven that He is a God of love and forgiveness. It would have reassured them that, like this centurion, they could gain God’s favor through Jesus’ sacrifice.
This centurion’s miraculous conversion continues to serve as an encouragement today. Just as we share the centurion’s guilt for driving the nails into Jesus, so we can share the victory He won that day. As with this soldier who lived and died almost 2000 years ago, we need only have faith to believe that “truly this was the Son of God” and we, too, can be forgiven for the part we played in this terrible, unjust execution.