What Made the Centurion Proclaim That Jesus was the Son of God?

At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. Then at three o’clock Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Some of the bystanders misunderstood and thought he was calling for the prophet Elijah. One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, holding it up to him on a reed stick so he could drink. “Wait!” he said. “Let’s see whether Elijah comes to take him down!” Then Jesus uttered another loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. When the Roman officer who stood facing him saw how he had died, he exclaimed, “This man truly was the Son of God!” (‭Mark‬ ‭15‬:‭33-39‬ NLT)

To give a synopsis of what is going on that led to these events, Jesus of Nazareth was leading a ministry of miracles and proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15; John 18:36; Luke 17:20-21; Matthew 25:34). Jesus also claimed to be the unique divine Son of God which entails that He is God (John 8:58-59; 10:30-33; 20:28; 9:38; Matthew 2:11; 14:33; 28:9, 17; Luke 24:52). Jesus essentially claimed to be the ultimate Emperor of all creation. That’s where the phrase “gospel” originated from; it was to announce good news that the emperor reigns which is the heart of Jesus’ ministry (Isaiah 52:7). Fundamentally, the idea of Jesus being King of kings and Lord of lords means that there is no higher authority. His reign over all things is absolute and inviolable. God raised Him from the dead and placed Him over all things. (Ephesians 1:21–23).

The claim to both the Jews and the Romans alike was offensive. The Jews for example, were vehement monotheists; we are talking about a culture that refused to even write the full name of God down. To think that anyone could claim to be God offended the Jews to such an extent that it was punishable by death (cf. Leviticus 24:16). Likewise, the Romans and the Greeks found the idea to be patently absurd. Much like our society, the Greco-Roman culture and religion embraced religious pluralism– the view that is there are many gods and goddesses. Moreover, the Romans believed that Caesar was the son of God and to say otherwise was treason. Inscribe on the Roman coin was the phrase “Tiberius Caesar, the divine son of the divine Augustus.” Jesus’ claims of being the Son of God was scandalous, treacherous, and offended every sensibility to both the Jew and the gentile. Because of this, Jesus was upsetting the cultural norm of the time. Jesus was a threat and he had to die.

What is so remarkable about this portion of Mark’s passion narrative is the centurion. As the centurion watched Jesus slowly die a humiliating and agonizing death on the cross, he proclaims, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). While everyone else around him–the disciples and the religious elites– all seem to not understand who Jesus was. But the centurion did. He was the very first man to proclaim the deity of Christ. Who was the centurion? A centurion was a Roman officer. He was a professional officer that commanded 80 to 100 men (hence the name centurion or century). They usually led from the front, occupying a position at the front right of the century formation. Centurions were particularly hard men, harsh, disciplinarians, fierce, merciless, and loyal to Rome. This centurion in Mark’s gospel was a hard man and was no stranger to death. We can imagine this man had seen death and inflicted it to an extent that you or I could hardly imagine.

Yet, there was something different about Jesus’ death than all the others that changes this hard man.  The only person a loyal Roman would ever call “Son of God” was Caesar–but this man gave the title to Jesus. It’s so unlikely that the centurion would proclaim Jesus as the Son of God especially having witnessed Jesus dying such a humiliating and gruesome death. After all, why should any of us believe in Jesus? The Gospel in itself flies in the face of human reason and  is so counter-intuitive to today’s culture . What makes anyone proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God?

That leads to the subject of this post– What about Jesus’ death penetrated this harden centurion to radically and boldly proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God? After meditating on this for some time, I have concluded what penetrated the centurion’s heart was the truth of the Gospel and witnessing the beauty of Jesus.  In essence, the way someone comes to a place of proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God is by seeing the truth of the Gospel and the beauty of Jesus.

1. The Truth of the Gospel

First and foremost, you not should believe in the Gospel not because it’s attractive, appealing to our emotional sensibilities, nor should we believe it because we were raised in a Christian home. Rather, we should believe in the Gospel because it is true. The centurion undoubtedly witnessed or at least heard about Jesus’ claims of being the unique Son of God, his ministry of miracles, and how he was fulfilling scripture. Like the centurion, how can we know that it is true? First, I would say that the truth of the Gospel is validated by one thing alone: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul makes this same point, “And If Christ has not been risen from the dead, then your faith is useless and you are still in your sins!” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The whole foundation is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If this falls, so does all of Christianity.  So does the Christian have good reason to believe in the resurrection?

Historians have reached something of a consensus that the historical Jesus came on the scene with an unprecedented sense of divine authority, the authority to stand and speak in God’s place. He claimed that in Himself the Kingdom of God had come, and as visible demonstrations of this fact He carried out a ministry of miracle working and exorcisms. But the ultimate confirmation of His claims was Jesus being raised from the dead. If the resurrection is true, then it would literally be a divine miracle and thus evidence for the existence of God.  There is in fact several facts about Jesus’ that are recognized by the majority of New Testament historians today. I believe that these are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus. For the sake of time, I will list only three briefly (a far more extensive look at the historicity of the resurrection click here).

First, on the Sunday after His crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by a group of His women followers. Women’s testimony was considered worthless in 1st century Palestine and therefore, if this story was legendary, why place women at the tomb? According to Jacob Kremer, an Austrian specialist, “By far most scholars hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb.” John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge University, states the honorable burial of Jesus is one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.”

Secondly, on separate occasions, different individuals in groups experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death. According to the prominent New Testament critic Gerd Lüdemann, “It may be taken as historically certain that the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” These appearances were witnessed not only by believers, but also by unbelievers, skeptics, and even enemies.

Third and finally, the original disciples suddenly came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus despite having every predisposition to the contrary. Jews had no belief in a dying, much less rising, Messiah. And Jewish beliefs about the afterlife prohibited anyone’s rising from the dead before the resurrection at the end of the world. Nevertheless, the original disciples came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus from the dead that they were willing to die for the truth of that belief. N.T. Wright, an eminent New Testament scholar, concludes, “That is why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.” C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge University concludes that, “we have here a belief which nothing in terms of prior historical influences can account for—apart from the resurrection itself.”

Attempts to explain away these three great facts—like the disciples stole the body or Jesus wasn’t really dead—have been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. The simple fact is that there just is no plausible, naturalistic explanation of these facts. And therefore it seems to me the Christian is amply justified in believing that Jesus rose from the dead and was who he claimed to be. But that entails that God exists.

2. The Beauty of Jesus


Despite what I think is overwhelming evidence and sound arguments for the resurrection, people hearts are still going to be darken and resistant to the Gospel.  After all, there are plenty examples of people knowing a lot about God but do they actually know God personally? The centurion witnessed these things first hand and yet it wasn’t until when Jesus died did he come to believe in Christ. Consequently, one could have a head knowledge of what Jesus has done and maybe believe it’s true, but nevertheless, this head knowledge does penetrate that individual’s darkness. What transforms someone from being spiritual dark into followers of Jesus? We find the answer in Mark’s passion story:

At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. Then at three o’clock Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”Some of the bystanders misunderstood and thought he was calling for the prophet Elijah.  One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, holding it up to him on a reed stick so he could drink. “Wait!” he said. “Let’s see whether Elijah comes to take him down!”Then Jesus uttered another loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. When the Roman officer who stood facing him saw how he had died, he exclaimed, “This man truly was the Son of God! (Mark 15:33-39).

The Gospel writers, including Mark, use imagery to contrast darkness and light. As stated in Mark, the events in which unfold take place in the dark. What was this darkness? Many ancient and contemporary writers try to explain away the darkness as a solar eclipse. Thallus, for example, who wrote 52 AD tries to explain away the darkness that happened during Jesus’ crucifixion as nothing more than a solar eclipse. But this is inconceivable considering that Jesus was crucified during Passover when there was a full moon. Moreover, Jesus death was in the afternoon (cf. Mark 15:25-33). A solar eclipse only lasts for a few minutes but this lasted for hours and there is no naturalistic explanation for this darkness that lasted the duration of Jesus’ death. What was this darkness? This was supernatural darkness. Darkness is a powerful image use in the Bible as a way to illustrate God acting in judgement (cf. Exodus 10:21-23).  But who was God judging? Mark continues:

Then at three o’clock Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

Jesus is being forsaken by God. The language he uses “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” is affectionate language like saying “My Jane, my Jane” or “My John, my John.” The pain Jesus endured was indescribable. It wasn’t so much the physical torture he endured, but he for the first time experienced separation from the eternal harmony He enjoyed with His heavenly Father. After all, the longer the love, the deeper the love, the deeper you experience loss and grief.  Why did Jesus have to die and be forsaken? The answer is he did it for you, and me, for us. Jesus was forsaken so that we would never be forsaken. Jesus literally plunged himself into the darkness so that we could be brought back into the light. He experienced the full wrath of God so that we could experience the peace of God. He was pierced the Crown of Thorns while we were given the Crown of Life. Jesus Christ not only died the death we should have died. He also lived the life we should have lived but can’t. His perfect obedience was traded in our place. It doesn’t matter who you are, the centurion, prostitute, pastor, or your average joe, the curtain separating the presence of God and the people was ripped from top to bottom. The barrier between you and God is gone.

The true irony of this narrative is the difference between the centurion and everyone else around the cross. The disciples, who had been taught by Jesus repeatedly, did not know who Jesus was. The religious leaders had looked at the very deepest wisdom of God and rejected it. Yet here was this centurion, this hardened and brutal man who became the first person to confess the deity of Jesus Christ. What ultimately penetrated his spiritual darkness? The centurion heard Jesus’s cry, and saw how Jesus died. The centurion had seen many people died and many of those were by his own hand Yet even for him this death was unique he saw something about Jesus’s death that was unlike any other. The tenderness of Jesus, despite the terror, must have pierced right through his hardness. He realized in that moment who Jesus was dying for; he was dying for the centurion and for all of creation.

That’s why the centurion proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. The centurion saw Jesus taking the cross, an instrument that was designed for psychological terror and physical torture, and how Christ transform it into an object of beauty, faith, hope and love. The beauty of Jesus in his death must have flooded his darkness with light. He looked upon Jesus crying out and saw that it was not only true, but that it was also beautiful.

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