Well this is a special day. And we would have wanted to do this a lot sooner, but we were all trapped in whatever’s been going on for the last two years. And we finally decided that we needed to show honor and love and respect to law enforcement here in our city, and it’s a joy and a delight for us to do that. And you’re probably wondering why I read Matthew chapter 27, and maybe you were wondering until I got to the final verse. Go back to the final verse that I read, which is Matthew 27:54. And it says there, “Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” If I had a title for the message today, it would be “The Policeman and the Son of God.” “The Policeman and the Son of God.”
Now there are a lot of dramatic characters around the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and we’re familiar with all of them; they’re well known to us. Just to remind you of some of the familiar characters that are part of the crucifixion of Christ: You could remember Peter, of course, who told the Lord he wasn’t going to allow Him to be arrested or crucified; but he was straightened out by the Lord Himself. And there was Judas, the despicable disciple who betrayed the Lord, pointed Him out in the night in the garden for the arresting forces to capture Him. There was Caiaphas and Annas, who were both high priests, who led the sham, mock trial of Christ on the religious side. There was Pilate, who led the mock trial on the Roman side, the secular side. And there was Herod the king, who came along, perhaps, to be able to bail out Pilate or Caiaphas and Annas, but proved to be useless in that.
There are the Jewish leaders, who screamed for the blood of Jesus. There is the crowd that did the same, saying, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” There is Simon of Cyrene, who was conscripted to pick up the cross. There is Barabbas, who was freed—a robber—rather than Christ. There are the two thieves on the cross, one of whom was brought to salvation while he was hanging there during the very execution. And all of these personalities are very familiar to us, and they’re part of the wonderful drama of the crucifixion of Christ and everything that led up to it.
But there’s one who gets easily forgotten, and it’s the centurion. And he’s a remarkable character in the story because he makes this amazing and astonishing and accurate confession when he says, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Your theology doesn’t get any better than that. And interestingly enough, this is not somebody whose heritage is in Judaism; this is a Roman, this is a pagan, this is one who by law had to confess that Caesar is lord.
He was an idolater, but he makes this astonishing confession. His confession is also recorded by Mark, the gospel of Mark, which says in chapter 15:39, “When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him”—he was right there in front of the cross because he was in charge of the execution of Jesus and the others. “When the centurion, who was standing right in front of [Jesus], saw the way He breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” It was something about the way He gave up His life that convinced him this was the Son of God.
Luke also tells us something about the centurion. Luke 23:47, “Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was righteous.’” This is a declaration of the true righteousness of one who was in his charge as a criminal to be executed. It’s a remarkable testimony of a man that we just don’t know a lot about, but it stands in such stark contrast to the attitudes of the Jewish leaders and the people toward Jesus.
Go back in chapter 27 to verse 15: “At the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the people any one prisoner whom they wanted. At that time they were holding a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the people gathered together, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’”
This was an act of kindness toward the population at the Passover, to release a prisoner—a goodwill gesture. He thought he could get them to take Jesus off his hands because he knew He was innocent, so he said, “Who do you want: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Christ?”—knowing that Barabbas was a criminal who was a danger to the people, whereas Jesus was not. “He knew that because of envy,” verse 18, “they had handed Him over.” He knew Jesus was guilty of nothing; it was pure envy.
“While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.’ But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death. But the governor said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ They all said, ‘Crucify Him!’ And he said, ‘Why, what evil has He done?’ But they kept shouting all the more, saying, ‘Crucify Him!’
“And when Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd,” a gesture by which he was “saying, ‘I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.’ And all the people said, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified.” Jewish people wanted Jesus dead. The Jewish people rejected His claim to be the Son of God, but a pagan Roman centurion confesses the great confession: that Jesus is the Son of God.
How are we to understand this astonishing confession? I mean, we already understand the rejection of the Jews; they had rejected Him from the outset. There was the fanfare when He came into the city on what we call Palm Sunday, but by the time the week was a few days in, they were rejecting Him; and eventually, the very same week that they had hailed Him as King, they screamed, “Crucify Him!” They were never going to believe in Him. The apostle John says, “He came unto His own; His own received Him not.”
But what’s going on with this centurion? Let me tell you a little bit about a centurion. As the name would imply, it seems obvious that he would be a leader over a hundred men; some say eighty to a hundred. This is a battalion. This is a battalion of legionnaires that this man would be in charge of. He would have a superior over him. The Roman legion, made up of about six thousand men; there would be six over a thousand, and they would be called chiliarch or commanders—we meet some of them in the book of Acts. But this is a man who has a battalion that he’s responsible for. And in this case, they were the battalion that were given the task of following Jesus through the trial with Pilate, through to His execution.
He not only was designed for war, as were all the Roman soldiers, Roman legionnaires, but once Rome had conquered a certain location, a certain province, they would then leave their military force there as a law-enforcement agency. They would actually have a station—a fortress called the Praetorium, in the case of Jerusalem—which would be like the police station headquarters. And these legionnaires, who perhaps had once been fighting wars with other countries, were now the occupying agents of law enforcement.
He would be an officer over, as I said, eighty to a hundred. His responsibility would be authority over them: training, discipline, order. He would be a role model for them to follow. They were very, very devout followers of Roman law, and they had literally created what is known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, at this time in human history, in the first century AD. There was peace throughout the entire Roman Empire. That’s hard to imagine; it’s hard to conceive when you’ve conquered so many different nations. But they were so good at law and order that they had brought about Roman peace. The effect of that Roman peace allowed them to build roads everywhere without being stopped or threatened. And so they were able to move through the entire empire and spread their language and their advancement.
Part of the success of the Roman Empire came down to those men who were assigned to be the local law enforcement in a given place. History tells us there were more of them in Israel than any other country because the Jews gave them the most trouble. So this would be the role of the centurion. And in particular, his job and his battalion’s job was to take care of this man that the Jews wanted to be executed. And finally Pilate, after scourging Him, turned Him over to them for an execution; and this man is in charge of the execution. He is a man of law and order. He is a man who acts as a military police officer. He is responsible for punishment. He is responsible for protection of those who are threatened. He is responsible for security. All those things that are part of police work.
They would be a part of what they called spectacles or public events. The one thing he wouldn’t tolerate is a riot; he would stop a riot. And you can see that that is what Pilate saw coming, back in verse 24, and so needed to intervene. These men were used to control the people. They were used sometimes as spies. They were clandestine; they were undercover. They did all kinds of things. They spent a lot of time in the Roman Empire chasing down runaway slaves and bringing them back to their masters. They chased bandits and crooks, the very kind that were crucified with Jesus.
They were detached, as I said, from their traveling legions, and they were left in a location. Usually a centurion would be 15 to 20 years in the Roman army before he would reach the rank of centurion. They came mostly from the common people, not the elite. They were called Vigiles Urbani, Latin for “watchers of the city.” They were the watchers of the city—that was their responsibility. They were also, by the way, the firefighters in that era of history.
They carried weapons: They carried a cudgel, which would be like a police baton. They carried daggers; they carried daggers for hand-to-hand combat. They carried a sword, where you could hit at a little bit different distance. And some of them even carried spears. They had high casualty rate, according to historians, because they wound up being engaged in the kind of combat that is hand-to-hand, man-to-man, or group-to-man; and so there was a very high casualty rate.
They were viewed as authoritative. They were viewed as somewhat violent because they could take a life. They were permitted to beat people, as well as to take their life under certain circumstances. They were tough; they were coarse by virtue of what they did. They were feared by many people.
They were pagan. They had no exposure, historically, to anything that was going on in the land of Israel. They worshiped Caesar. They had a restriction on marriage: While they were serving they couldn’t be married, which was a problem; and so there were even women provided for them, as almost like concubines. They were a rough bunch. Their world was conflict—lots of it.
But in spite of such an amazing profile for a centurion, there are several of them in the New Testament. And every single time you come to a centurion in the New Testament, the Bible treats them with high favor—very opposite the Jewish leaders, very opposite the Jewish leaders. In fact, let me introduce you to the first one who appears, in the eighth chapter of Matthew. This is the first time a centurion shows up. It’s in verse 5, Matthew 8.
Jesus enters Capernaum, which is a city up in Galilee on the north end of the Sea of Galilee, and “a centurion came to Him, imploring Him,” begging Him, “saying, ‘Lord—’” Whoa, wait a minute here. Saying what? “Lord”? What did this man know? Well look, he was in crowd control. I mean, he was aware of what was going on in the city of Capernaum; he knew it very well. It must be that he had heard Jesus speak, perhaps knew of His miracles.
But he says, “Lord,” and then he says, “I’m not worthy for You to come under my roof.” He is humble. This is not how they normally would have acted. He is acknowledging Jesus as Lord and admitting his own unworthiness. “I’m not worthy for You to come under my roof.” And of course there’s a reason for that, and that is because the Jews forbid other Jews to enter the house of a Gentile. To enter the house of a Gentile was to be unclean, and this man knew that.
But he said to Him, “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” He had a servant—back in verse 6—“‘lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.’ Jesus said to him, ‘I’ll come and heal him.’ But the centurion said, [‘No, no,] I’m not worthy [of that.] Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.’” So he had seen some miracles.
And then he said, “I also am a man under authority”—“As well as having authority, I’m under authority,” as anybody in a ranking system knows—“with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” “I know what authority is,” he said.
And “now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.’” What? I mean, we’re into the eighth chapter of Matthew, well into the Galilean ministry of Jesus. He hadn’t seen that kind of faith in Israel, ever. And it’s a Roman centurion who acknowledges Him as Lord, who knows He has miraculous power, who knows He has divine authority, who is humbled in His presence, and who has great faith in Him, great faith in Him as the divine Lord and miracle worker.
Obviously he’d been listening and listening without the bias of the Jewish crowds who rejected Jesus. And so Jesus’ comment in verse 11 is stunning: “I say to you that many will come from east and west”—what does that mean? Gentiles. People are going to come from all over the world, and they’re going to “recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Yeah, the kingdom of heaven is going to be populated by people from the east and west, like this Roman centurion. “But the sons of the kingdom”—namely, the people of Israel—“will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” What a bizarre paradox that is, that it will be Gentiles who will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven—and not the people of Israel; they will be in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“And Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed that very moment.” This is an incredible account of a centurion who had come to faith in Jesus by eavesdropping on what He had said, and watching from a distance.
Listen to what Luke says about this same incident, Luke 7: He came to Capernaum, verse 1, “and a centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. When they came to Jesus, they earnestly implored Him, saying, ‘He is worthy for You to grant this to him.’” This is the group of Jewish elders that are going to Jesus on behalf of this centurion. This adds more to the story.
And look what it says about him: “He is worthy.” We have read in Matthew, he said he’s not worthy. But they say, “He’s worthy for You to grant this to him.” Why? “For he loves our nation and it was he who built us our synagogue.” Amazing! How honorable a centurion is this? He loves the Jewish people; he has even built their synagogue.
“Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, ‘Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed.’” Then he goes through the same speech. And when he “returned to the house” in verse 10, “the slave [was] in good health.” He believed before the miracle; I promise you, he believed after the miracle.
He’s a Gentile; he’s part of an occupying pagan army. He’s part of an alien culture. And the Romans were hated by the Jews; the Jews hated the occupying Romans. But he is a humble, generous, magnanimous believer in the lordship of Christ, contrary to the nation of Israel.
We meet another centurion in the tenth chapter of Acts. The apostle Peter is basically told by God through a vision to go to Caesarea, named after Caesar—that was kind of the Roman capital in the land of Israel. And he’s to meet a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian battalion; he was part of some battalion that was from Italy itself. But notice verse 2, how it describes this centurion: “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually.” I mean, this is another pagan who is a proselyte to Judaism, who is a believer in the true and living God.
Again, he is a product of the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, as somebody’s who’s just listening in. I mean, even Jesus said, “It’s to the Jews first, and then to the Greeks,” when He talked about the crumbs that fall off the table. And Peter is said to go to—told to go to Cornelius.
The story—it’s just an amazing story. Go down to verse 22. Peter goes down, and they say to him—down to Caesarea, and they say to him, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews.” Again, it’s just amazing how much respect the Jews had for these benevolent, generous military police. He “was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message.” So God, by an angel, sets this meeting up with Peter and Cornelius. And you know the rest of the story; the story ends at the end of chapter 10 with Cornelius being baptized.
And if you go further into the book of Acts, you get to chapter 21, Paul arrives in Jerusalem and he goes to the temple. And you remember the story: They want to kill him—the Jews want to kill Paul. They falsely accuse him of bringing a Gentile into the forbidden area of the temple. So they want to kill him, and another riot starts; a mob gets together, and they want to kill Paul. And intervening is a centurion again, and even a commander—a chiliarch, one who was over a thousand, and even several centurions, and even hundreds of soldiers.
By the time you go from chapter 21 of Acts to 24, you’ve got an entire massive military entourage of horsemen and foot soldiers and people with weapons. And they’re all surrounding Paul to protect him, to protect him, because they can’t figure out any crime that he did. But the Jews, as they did with Jesus, are trying to kill him. And again, commanders, centurions, soldiers, protect Paul from those who would murder him—and it goes on for chapter after chapter. And Paul has to give a testimony to Felix and Festus and Agrippa; and he’s in custody for all this time, and they finally put him on a boat, in Acts 27, and they ship him to Rome. And it’s another centurion by the name of Julius who is from the Augustan battalion, which would be attached to Caesar, and he escorts Paul.
Paul is such a political hot potato that they put one of Augustus’s own centurions in charge of Paul to get him safely to Rome. Why? Because he was a citizen of Rome by birth. And the Roman soldiers stopped doing any harm to him once he declared his Roman citizenship; they knew they were bound by Roman law, to which they were committed. And they took him to Rome. And even on the way to Rome there was a shipwreck, and there were all kinds of disasters that happened. And again, it was the Roman centurion that saved his life.
Every time you run into one of these centurions, he’s heroic—heroic spiritually, in some way, as a believer in Christ or as a protector of the apostle Paul. And he wasn’t alone. Go back to Matthew chapter 27, if you’ve wandered from there. Matthew 27, there were a lot of others with him. We read about that back in verse 27: “The soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman battalion around Him.” So they’re in charge of the prisoner. They’re in charge of His incarceration until they can get Him to trial. He is scourged, as verse 26 says, then handed over to them to be crucified. So the centurion is in charge of the crucifixion detachment.
They play games with Him; it doesn’t say the centurion was part of it. But the soldiers mock Him, pretend that He’s a king, strip Him, put a scarlet robe on Him, crown of thorns. Put a reed in His hand as if it were a scepter; knelt down before Him, mocking—“Hail, King of the Jews!”—spitting on Him. And they “took the reed and began to beat Him on the head. After they mocked Him, they took the scarlet robe off Him and put His own garment back on Him, and let Him away to crucify Him.” So they were acting in way that we don’t see centurions act. When they came to the Crucifixion they were still in charge, which meant that they nailed Jesus to the cross lying on the ground, and then dropped it in the deep socket. That was their responsibility.
Now how does this centurion get to the place where he says, “Truly this was the Son of God”? Well first of all, a little bit of background. In 42 BC, Julius Caesar posthumously—after his murder—was deified, and they declared that Julius Caesar was a god. Consequently, his adopted son who ruled after him, by the name of Octavian, also called Augustus, took on the title “the son of god,” “the son of god.” It would have been understandable if a Roman centurion had called Octavian, or Augustus Caesar, the son of god. But to call this Jewish man, being offered up as a criminal, the Son of God, was essentially to say, “I renounce my entire worship of Caesar.” He was determined to be what they call divi filius, divine son, was Caesar and every subsequent Caesar. But to this man, Jesus was the Son of God.
How did this happen? Well let’s look at his confession. Let’s look at his confession: “Truly”—verse 54—“this was the Son of God!” Why does he say this? Is he just playing off the idea that Augustus was “the son of god”? Is he just shifting religions, or is there more to this?
Go back to chapter 26 and verse 63. When Jesus was on trial with the high priest, verse 64, “The high priest said to Him, ‘I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You’ve said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven’”—“one day it will be revealed I am the Son of God; but what you say is correct.”
“Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; what do you think?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death!’ Then they spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him, and said, ‘Prophesy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?’” What was the blasphemy? That He claimed to be the Son of God.
Over in chapter 27, down in verse 43—or verse 40 first of all: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Then verse 43, “He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” So it isn’t that he’s playing off the idea of Augustus Caesar being the son of god, he’s declaring, “This is the Son of God,” in Jewish terms because that’s what this whole trial has been about. The crime that Jesus committed was claiming to be the Son of God. That was the blasphemy for which they wanted Him executed.
The apostle John gives us insight into this. Listen to what he writes in John 19: “Pilate then took Jesus and scourged Him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns, put it on His head”—just as we read in Matthew—“put a purple robe on Him,” a scarlet robe; “began to come up to Him and say, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and to give Him slaps in the face. Pilate came out again and said to them, ‘Behold, I’m bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.’ Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold, the Man!’ So when the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out saying, ‘Crucify, crucify!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, I find no guilt in Him.’” Verse 7, “The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.’” Believe me, the centurion heard that. He’s not talking “son of god” in Roman terms, he’s talking “Son of God” in biblical terms.
There were people who knew He was the Son of God. John the Baptist knew it, chapter 1 of John. Nathanael knew it, also chapter 1 of John. Martha knew it; she declares it in John 11. Mark knew it; he begins his gospel declaring Jesus is the Son of God, chapter 1, verse 1. The disciples knew; they said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Satan knew; in his temptation, Satan says, “Since You are the Son of God, since You are the Son of God,” and then offered the temptation. The demons knew; the demons in terror cried out to Him as the Son of God, Mark 3, Mark 5, Matthew 8. Mary knew, because the angel had said at the birth, Luke 1, that He is the Son of the Most High God.
There were other believing Jews who knew, and there was this centurion who knew, too. He knew the truth, and he confesses it. And Mark says when he confessed it, he was standing right in front of Jesus, right in front of Him; and he began praising God and declaring that Jesus was righteous. This is so incredible. This is the man in charge of the execution, and he’s looking in the face of Jesus and saying, “This was the Son of God!”
What did he mean by that? What does it mean, “the Son of God”? And why were the Jews so upset about that? Well you go to John 5, and you find out. You could go a lot of places, but this one will do it. John 5:18, “For this reason”—this is verse 18, John 5—“for this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him”—why?—“because He not only was breaking the Sabbath”—it seemed rather minor—“He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.”
Now listen, we don’t have to take Jesus’ claim to be equal with God from the disciples. Somebody might say, “That’s not objective testimony,” right? “They follow Jesus, they love Jesus; of course, they’ll say the Son of God.” OK, let’s take the testimony of His enemies.
His enemies said, “He claims to be equal with God”—there was no question what He was claiming. “Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing’”—which is to say, “Yes, I’m equal to God; I only do what God does. I only do what God does. Whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. I act exactly the way the Father acts.” Verse 20, “The Father loves the Son, shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and the Father will show Him greater works than these, so that you will marvel.” The Father holds nothing back from the Son, the Father gives everything to the Son; the Son does everything the Father does the way the Father does it.
A couple of illustrations, verse 21: “As the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes”—has the same creative power to raise the dead and give life. Verse 23—or verse 22, rather, “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He’s given all judgment to the Son.” The Son has equal judgment to the Father, equal power of raising the dead—equal authority, equal in nature. So the sum of it, verse 23, “All will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who doesn’t honor the Son doesn’t honor the Father who sent Him.”
You cannot say you believe in the true God and not believe that Jesus is equal to God. Jesus is God. He is the Son of God, which is to say He possesses the same nature as God, eternally. The Jews knew exactly that Jesus was claiming this, and that is why they saw it as blasphemy. But the centurion didn’t see it as blasphemy; he believed it.
How so? What caused him to believe? How does he come to that conclusion? Go back to chapter 27 of Matthew. How does he come to that conclusion? Back in John 8:18 Jesus had said, “The Father who sent Me bears witness of Me.” How does God testify to the deity of Christ? Well here we’re going to see.
What was going on? Let’s go back to verse 54: “The centurion, and those who were with him”—the rest of the soldiers—“keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” They came to this conclusion because of what was going on at the cross.
And what was going on? Go back to verse 45, and let’s see just quickly: “Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour.” All of a sudden—from nine to noon, there had been light, but at noon, the whole world goes dark—high noon. He was crucified at 9:00 a.m., and there was three hours of light; and there were three things Jesus said in those three hours, and other than that, it was silence. Regarding the soldiers, He had said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Regarding the thief who believed, He said, “Today you’ll be with Me in paradise.” And regarding Mary His mother and John the apostle, He said, “Mary, look at your son; John, look at your mother,” and He was giving His mother to the care of John. So in the light, He was showing grace and compassion.
Three hours of light, He only said three things. It hits noon when the sun should be at its zenith, and all the land—the Greek word is gē, which means the earth. The earth goes black. And I think it’s the whole earth, because God literally blocks out the sun.
Roman historians, by the way, wrote of this. There is even a letter from Pilate to Tiberius, a document that talks about the darkness over the world. And the word used here is ekleipō, from which we get “eclipse.” This is why it’s so terrifying: It’s high noon. No natural explanation exists for this blackness. It’s, by the way, full moon at Passover, which means full sun—full moon reflecting the sun. But the sun went out, and so the moon goes out.
You say, “How can this happen?” Well it’s happened before. In Joshua chapter 10, the sun stood still. In 2 Kings chapter 20, the sundials went backwards. God can move miraculously any of the bodies that He created.
But why at this time? Why the darkness? Was God trying to hide His Son’s suffering? Was God trying to show a little sympathy to Him? Was this some kind of divine protest at what the Jews and the Romans were doing to Him? No. What you have to know about darkness is pretty clear. If you read the words of Isaiah—listen to this: “Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger . . . . The sun will be dark . . . and the moon will not shed its light. And I will punish the world for evil and the wicked for their iniquity.” When it goes dark, it’s a Day of the Lord event. And a Day of the Lord event—as we saw last week—is a divine judgment.
In Joel’s prophecy, chapter 2, “The day of the Lord is coming . . . a day of darkness and gloom . . . thick darkness. . . . The sun and moon grow dark.” The earthquakes will be “great and very awesome, and who can endure it?” Joel 3, “The day of the Lord is near . . . . Sun and moon grow dark . . . . The Lord roars . . . the heavens and earth tremble.” Amos 5, “The day of Lord [will] be darkness and not light, gloom and no brightness . . . for your transgressions are many and your sins are great.” You find the same thing in Zephaniah, of darkness and gloom because they have sinned against the Lord; it’s the day of divine wrath. The darkness symbolizes divine wrath. What do you mean, divine wrath? Divine wrath poured out on the Son of God in our place.
Darkness declares divine wrath to be released in a massive scale, a massive scale, affecting the whole planet—punishment for sin, transgression, and iniquity. It is a day of the Lord, and the Son of God is being punished for all the sins of all the people who will ever believe throughout all of human history. The One on the cross is receiving the divine wrath that we deserve. It’s punishment from God; that’s why the darkness.
In verse 46, the darkness ends in the ninth hour, and “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” This is another startling thing that must have fit into the centurion’s confession. This is a cry of innocence. This is a scream of innocence.
At the end of this massive, cosmic explosion of wrath on Christ, He screams, literally. He screams with a loud voice, full power, even though He’s just been punished for all the sins of all the people who would ever believe through all of human history; He’s absorbed that punishment in three hours. How possible? Because He’s an infinite person. And then with a loud voice He cries out of His innocence.
Now remember, the other gospel writers said that the centurion said, “This man is a righteous man.” Pilate said that again and again: “I find no fault in Him. This is a righteous man.” Why would a righteous man suffer? That’s what the cry of Jesus meant: “Why? Why? Why?” He’s feeling the separation from His Father for the first time in all eternity.
So the soldier is seeing the wrath of God poured out on an innocent man. And then he sees something even more stunning—inexplicable on a human level—verse 50, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.” This is stunning. The other writers said when He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
What is it about the way He died? The fact that He literally gave up His life. Do you remember He said, “Nobody takes My life from Me, I lay it down of Myself,” John 10:18. In full strength, full voice, He said, “It is finished!” John 19; “Into Your hands I commend My Spirit,” Luke 23; and willed His life to leave. Stunning. Absolutely amazing. The man had power over life and power over death.
The centurion and his soldiers are watching all this. And then something more stunning, verse 51, “And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.” Just take the veil from the Temple. What’s that, about thirty by thirty, four inches thick? The veil separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies inside the Holy of Holies; only a high priest could go once a year. That was the presence of God.
There was no access to the presence of God; only the high priest could go in there, because no sacrifice ever offered access—none of the animal sacrifices. And by the way, tens of thousands of them were going on at this very day at this very hour in the Temple, more sacrifices than any other time of the year. And in the middle of all of those sacrifices, all of a sudden the Temple is hit by the power of God; and from the top to the bottom, this curtain is ripped open, and the Holy of Holies is thrown open; and that symbolized the inner sanctum, the presence of God. And by virtue of the sacrifice of Christ, God is saying, “The way to Me is open.”
Imagine, this is three o’clock in the afternoon on Passover; tens of thousands of lambs being slain, which couldn’t open the way to God, it could only symbolize it. So these Roman soldiers are getting a profound lesson in divine testimony to who the Son of God is, and God doesn’t even say a word. The way to Him is open through the sacrifice of Christ.
And then, “The earth shook and the rocks were split.” That always went along with the Day of the Lord as well. “The earth shook and the rocks were split”—this is God shaking the world in a preview of final judgment.
The shaking is severe, and it’s the bringing down of the Old Covenant. It’s the crumbling and collapsing of the old priesthood, of the sacrificial system. It’s the beginning of the New Testament and the New Covenant in the blood of Christ. What a scene.
And that’s not all. In verses 52 and 53, “The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” What is this? This is a preview of what was accomplished by the death of Christ. What was accomplished by His death? Our resurrection.
In the next chapter, in chapter 28, He is raised from the dead. But here, this is a preview of our resurrection. What’s going on at the cross? This soldier is getting an amazing lesson in theology: the theology of the cross, the glory of the New Covenant. There is One dying in his place for sin. He confesses Him to be the Son of God.
He was frightened; they were all frightened, it says. You’d be frightened too: darkness in the middle of the day, earthquakes, Temple veil ripping, a man controlling His own death. But the conclusion was right: “Truly this was the Son of God!”
Now here’s the point: Is that important to say? Is it important to believe that? Listen to John. In probably the most familiar words that John ever wrote, the third chapter of his gospel, just listen—familiar: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten”—what?—“Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; [but] he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Salvation, forgiveness, eternal life comes by believing what that centurion believed: that Jesus is Lord.
And final words from John in his epistle 1 John. Listen to these words, 1 John 5, verse 5: “Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” Verse 10: “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.” If you don’t believe that God has declared Jesus to be His Son, if you reject that, you’re calling God a—what?—a liar.
“And the testimony is this”—1 John 5:11—“that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” That’s the most important confession you could ever make. Can you say with the centurion, “Truly this was the Son of God”? Let’s pray.
Our Father, we’re so grateful for the clarity with which this Scripture speaks to us. So deeply thankful that You have not left us in the dark, but You have given us a full revelation of the glory of Christ, so clear a revelation of His glory that even a pagan Roman soldier, the coarsest of men, had his heart opened wide, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God. That confession brings us forgiveness and eternal life.
Lord, I just pray that no one here will reject Christ. He that has the Son has life; he that has not the Son doesn’t have life—and we’re talking about eternal life in the glory and joy of Your presence. May many make that confession, even today, we pray. Amen.
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