Bystanders Day 9: Roman Centurion

By Jaime Sherman

  • Matthew 27:33-56
  • Mark 15:22-41
  • Luke 23:32-49
  • John 19:17-37
  • Psalm 22:18

It was a dark day for the four Roman centurions assigned to the crucifixion the morning following the Jewish Passover. They and their legionnaires led three men — Jesus of Nazareth and two robbers — to a hill outside Jerusalem, the one known as Golgotha, or Place of a Skull.

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They nailed the men to cross beams and affixed them to upright posts. The centurions divided Jesus’ clothing between them, and unbeknownst to them fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy by casting lots for his woven tunic. They hung a crudely fashioned sign above him that read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” and then they waited for the slow, agonizing death of the three men. 

These hardened Roman soldiers were accustomed to meting out this gruesome death by suffocation, loss of bodily fluids, and organ failure, but something was different about this day, especially for the centurion who stood facing Jesus.

As they bored metal nails into His hands and feet, Jesus hadn’t shouted ugly words like the robbers on His left and right. Instead He simply said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus didn’t engage with those taunting Him, those suggesting that He was powerless to save Himself. One of the criminals cried out, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” In response, the other robber interjected, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”

In the final hours of his life, this defender of Jesus spoke words of faith, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus replied.

Then, the sun that had come up as usual at daybreak suddenly disappeared, bringing an eerie, midday darkness. A hush fell over the watching and weeping bystanders, and the centurion at attention in front of Jesus, heard his prisoner in his moment of extreme suffering speak words of comfort and instruction, entrusting the care of His mother to a young man in the crowd.

In the third hour of unexplained darkness, Jesus knew His time had come. He cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And with the words, “It is finished,” on His lips, Jesus bowed His head. 

Just as the centurion saw him take His last breath, the earth shook and rocks were split into pieces. And his heart was shaken, too. With fear and a newfound faith, the wide-eyed soldier said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

This unnamed centurion, a powerful man in a position of authority in the Roman army who could easily be considered one of the bad guys in the Easter story, humbled himself at the cross of Jesus and proclaimed his faith in Him. One of the prisoners hanging next to Jesus did the same, providing a beautiful picture that Jesus loves each of us unconditionally and offers every man, woman, and child salvation when we believe He is the Son of God. The centurion proclaimed his faith in one simple sentence. Take time to write out your one-sentence declaration of your faith in Jesus.

For additional narratives in our Bystanders series, click here.