Could wider extremes be found, or more dissimilar characters be met, than the Roman centurion who had been “detailed” to see that the execution of the malefactors, as also of Him who was crucified in their midst, was carried into full effect, and either of those malefactors himself? Impossible! They differed in rank, position, circumstances, and character from him. The one was an officer of the law, the other a criminal who was condemned by it. The one stood there in necessary probity, the other hung on the cross in acknowledged guilt. The one was held in esteem, and carried a Roman commission; the other was universally execrated, and paid the penalty of the laws he had violated.
Such were the two men; and yet in one most essential matter they coincided. We read in Mark 15:39, “And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.”
Again we read, in Luke 23:42, “And he” (the “dying thief”) “said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.”
In this did these two men concur—they both acknowledged the deity of Jesus!
The centurion confessed Him Son of God, the poor malefactor owned Him Lord and King.
Now, it may be said that the dying criminal was under extreme pressure, that he was tortured in every limb, and agonized in mind on account of his proven sins, that he was about to meet God and to render account to Him. He trembled in soul at the prospect, and therefore owned the Messiahship of Jesus.
Granting all that to him, how can the unforced confession of the centurion be accounted for? He was a freeman. He stood in life and liberty, and yet, in his confession, he went even further than the thief. What is the secret?
He noticed two things peculiar to the death of Jesus; first, that He “so cried out”; that is, there was no abatement of physical strength; and secondly, that He “gave up the ghost”; that is, He voluntarily dismissed His spirit. These two supernatural acts brought the conviction to this soldier—that the central figure on Calvary was more than man—He was the Son of God.
But mark, it was so deep a conviction that he gave utterance to it. May we not conclude that his heart had been divinely opened to a just appreciation of the personal glory of the meek and blessed Sufferer?
If so, what lessons were taught and learned on Calvary! Two trophies, so widely dissimilar, were thus won by the Lord at the moment of His deepest sorrow.
Both were sinners, though, perhaps, of different degrees of guilt; the one appears before us in all the pride of military dignity, the other as on the brink of a felon’s grave.
We read that whilst the soldiers “mocked,” the malefactors “reviled” the crucified Lord, and it may be that our centurion was one of the mockers. At any rate he did not prevent those under his command from mocking, he therefore shared in their conduct.
But, whether a mocking soldier or a reviling malefactor, there was that in the death of Jesus that reached the hearts of both. Oh, wondrous power, and infinite grace! And the two gems gathered on Calvary are among the brightest in the Saviour’s crown. The confessions too of these widely different men in such diverse circumstances are worthy of notice to latest ages.
“The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He that believes on the Son has everlasting life” (John 3:35-36).