GOOD FRIDAY: The CENTURION (pt.3 of 4)
MARK 15:33-41pp (also Mt 27:45-56; Lk 23:44-49; Jn 19:29-30)
33 At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” 36 One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. 37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” 40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.
Imagine that you were that centurion, that Roman regiment commander who oversees 100 soldiers, that military leader who has orders to stand guard at the crucifixion of Jesus that day. Public executions like this took place often enough that likely it was not your first or your last crucifixion, so in a way it had gotten to be routine for you, but something about this one transfixed you in a deeply emotional way.
Though the Jews had clearly missed the Messianic expectation, here was an outsider, a Gentile Roman centurion, who became unexpectedly sparked towards making a faith proclamation about Jesus. So we will investigate by answering three questions: Who was this centurion, what did he say, and what can we learn?
1. Who was this centurion?
There seem to be two views regarding the identity of this soldier. The first view, held by Church tradition, was that this man was Longinus, from the 4th century apocryphal “Acts of Pilate”. Since then, he’s been regarded as a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition. Can this be proven? No, and the late date (4th century) which was hundreds of years after all eyewitnesses had been dead can be viewed as potentially suspect.
The second view is that we don’t know the exact identity of this centurion as he is not named in the narrative, and possibly this could be purposeful. There are other centurions mentioned elsewhere in the gospels (Mt. 8, Lk. 7 displays the faith of another centurion), and in Acts (Cornelius in Acts 10:22, another named Julius in Acts 27:1), but we don’t know anything else about our centurion standing guard here at the cross; whether he’s the same centurion named in other New Testament narratives, we just don’t know. Most likely, he is not.
This centurion is not named and that lack of information possibly tells us something. Current scholars like Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) have done extensive investigation into the gospel narratives (and their history/culture/etc) and they have something fascinating to say. Bauckham’s thesis, which he argues convincingly, is that the gospel narratives were written based on eyewitness accounts; they are 1st century biographies (different than modern/postmodern biographies; another topic altogether) and therefore when an eyewitness was known within the early church, their name was attached to their account. An example like this is that Cleopas was the only one of two disciples named in Luke 24 and therefore he would likely have been the “source” because others would have known his name, known of him, and could go and question (or even challenge) him about his testimony.
With that in mind, since this centurion in Mark 15 is not named, he was most likely either not alive, not around the vicinity anymore, or not known within the christian community; possibly because he had not become part of the growing group that were following Jesus. This would tell us something of the faith depth of his declaration about Jesus in verse 39.
2. What did this centurion say?
Having been stationed at the foot of the cross, this centurion clearly had seen and heard Jesus. Something about Jesus’ words, behavior, and demeanor were other-worldly. This was obviously a crucifixion unlike all the others so this centurion was deeply moved to the point of verbally proclaiming, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
Though it seems like there might be a conversion taking place, we must stay close to the text and not read anything into the text that’s not there. It would be easy to run with verse 39 and proclaim something to the effect that this centurion was the first Gentile converted after Jesus’ death, how exciting that is and so on, but that would be assuming too much. Instead, we must not presume anything beyond what we know, for we only know what we’re told plus what we can accurately determine from context along with other clues.
All we know is that this man standing guard, this Roman military centurion, a Gentile, made the public declaration that Jesus must have been a son or the son of God (or of the gods); the Greek article o (otou o) has some flexibility depending on context. We could make much more of a statement of faith than what’s really there, but that would be improper because the text doesn’t give us any more than that. Regardless, the centurion viewed the powerful death of Jesus as signifying a certain level of divinity and he bravely vocalized that in spite of his professional allegiance to Caesar as his Roman god and lord.
Now, if the centurion was indeed Longinus, then he did make a valid profession of faith, or at least the beginnings of a life of faith culminating in his sainthood. If the centurion was left purposefully unnamed in the gospels because he was not enfolded into the new and growing movement of Jesus, then maybe it was not a profession of faith, but rather simply a declaration of awe and intensity over the events and uniqueness of the dying Jesus.
3. What can we learn?
Regardless the centurion’s identity and the intended meaning of his public statement, we must grasp that this is a seminal moment that broadcasts an important topic: Jesus is an includer who brings people together from all national, socio-economic, geo-political, generational, and racial backgrounds of life into his glorious kingdom. This especially as the gospel of Mark was aimed towards a Roman audience.
As the great includer, Jesus’ kingdom, his merited redemption (earned via his perfect life and sacrificial death on the cross) is available to people from every corner of the earth, from every hue of skin color, cultural background, and generation. As we read in John’s Revelation 5:9 “…you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…”
This was (and continues to be) an enormous issue. Up until this point, the kingdom of God seemed (falsely) to be only for the Jews. There were some from other backgrounds who came into Judaism, but only if and when they jumped through judaistic religious hoops, and even then were not considered as full and equal to those who could trace their ancestry back to the original twelve tribes of Israel.
This was incorrect thinking on the part of the Jews because from the very beginning God did indeed make it clear that his kingdom should spread out across all nations. We get this in early seed form all the way back when the Covenant was instituted with Abraham. In Genesis 12:2-3, God initially calls Abram/Abraham and commits, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”. The Prophet Isaiah expands on this in Is.49:6 “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”. In the New Testament, as this theme became much more clearly understood (and, over time, more faithfully instituted), this is expanded upon by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:8 “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’” All nations! ALL!
Certainly this was one of the topics that infuriated the religious leaders of Jesus day and, after his death, in the new and growing “Way” as observed in the book of Acts as well as many of the epistles. The life and message of Stephen, Peter, James, John, and then Paul, Barnabas, and Silas were all about the Great Commission of preaching Christ Crucified beyond the religious and national borders out to Judea, Samaria, and beyond. Far beyond to all nations.
In this “Death of Jesus” account in Mark 15, we get a glimpse of this very first Gentile who was strongly compelled to publicly proclaim Jesus’ death on the cross to be significant in a divine way.
So how might all this be shocking and offensive to the 1st century culture to hear and read these reports? The answer to this question should be self-evident. The religious establishment from the very beginning has dragged their feet even to the point of violently opposing this idea of including outsiders into their inner circle.
The good news of God, however, is that Christ Crucified wasn’t only for the Jewish people (who rejected him), but for all nations.
Jesus: The great includer; to Jew and Gentile alike.