When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54)
Of all the people gathered around the horrors of the cross, was anyone less likely to believe than him? As a Roman soldier, he hadn’t been raised to know the promises of a Redeemer. He may have never heard the Scriptures read. He was there, on the most important day in history, to do a job: to oversee soldiers punishing the worst criminals for their worst crimes.
His men were looking to him for courage and confidence beneath the shadow of these slow and brutal deaths. Crucifixions were as much about taming the masses as they were about punishing perpetrators, so appearances were everything. He knew that, and this wasn’t his first shift below those awful beams. He had watched men die here before, the blood streaming from their heads, their hands, their feet, their bodies straining for just one more breath, their eyes — that desperate, haunting look in their eyes. This was another Friday for him.
And yet it wasn’t. Something was different. Something was off. Behind the stiff face, even a veteran soldier like him was unnerved.
His Next and Last Breath
About the sixth hour, his uneasiness gave way to full-on fear. Darkness suddenly swallowed the familiar scene. He could hardly see the man standing next to him. The next voice he heard was a surprising one, from the man on the middle cross.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
He had heard plenty of last-ditch prayers fall from crosses; this prayer was different. This man prayed like God listened, like the two had talked many times before.
The centurion watched intently, nearly forgetting to breathe, wondering what would happen next. Would God answer his prayer? Would he lift this Jesus off of the cross? Would he send angels to wipe out everyone who had accused, tortured, and crucified him?
No, like so many times before, the centurion watched as the next breath became his last breath. After witnessing enough executions, you could almost see the life leave a body. He knew the man was dead.
The Earthquake Within Them
For centurions, most nights like this ended at the last breath. The crowds would begin to disperse. The bodies would eventually be removed. The cleanup would begin. That made the next moments all the more jarring.
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:51–53)
When Jesus died, the earth itself heaved in mourning. The centurion may have seen wars, but he had never seen a scene like this. He had never witnessed a death that seemed so alive.
As surprising as the earthquake was, what happened next may have been the surprising turn that day: “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54). While the ground gave way beneath them, their hearts gave way within them. While their world had gone dark, God shone the light of his glory so that they couldn’t help but see it.
He Bleeds Like Us
The centurion saw that Jesus was the Son of God at the very moment when he seemed least Godlike. When blood streamed down his face, staining his brow. When tears crawled down his cheeks and neck. When his body hung lifeless from the cross — his lungs collapsed, his eyes dark, his heart still. At that lowest, most human moment, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
We know that three days later God would raise and exalt the Son, but even on that darkest of all days, heaven and earth erupted in worship. And the soldiers couldn’t help but join them. Their strong and proud knees bent down beneath his battered and broken body. The agony that had been his indignity became his glory. Those men could never see death or life the same.
“He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). At the cross, we meet a God who takes on flesh, weeps like us, bleeds like us, and even dies like us, all that we might lay down our sin, believe, and live.