The centurion recognized a fellow warrior when he saw one.
He was a good old boy. He loved his beer and he loved to fight. He was good at it, too. You had to be, if you were going to be in charge of 100 Roman soldiers. He had seen plenty of action, both defending Rome and with the temple prostitutes. He tried his best to appease his many gods and stay loyal to Caesar, whom he had to address as, “The Son of God.” How pretentious. Today was just like any other day, as he was given oversight of the executions. He was a professional executer, you might say. He had performed hundreds and hundreds of them. Once, they lined up six thousand crucified men along the road; death stretched for miles.
He knew exactly how to put a guy to death, had it down to a science. Depending on the occasion, like if there was a festival or some gladiatorial event at the coliseum, he could speed up the criminal’s death. You just had to break their legs or pierce their hands. By breaking the legs, the victim could not push off the cross in order to catch their breath. By piercing their hands, there was more blood-letting, hastening the process. The centurion could also prolong the victim’s death, too, if he wanted to inflict maximum torture. He would just place a seat beneath his naked buttocks, forcing the criminal to sit down, enabling him to breathe better. By increasing his oxygen just a little, his excruciating suffering would drag out, even longer.
Crucifixion was invented by the Persians centuries before. And by the first century A.D., Rome had it down to a science. They knew how to inflict maximum punishment. The whole point of crucifixion was to cause both humiliation and suffering. Crucified criminals would be displayed publicly, like along roads, so that everyone could see them. It was as if to say, “Don’t do what this guy did, or this will happen to you.” Birds would gorge on the criminal’s rotting flesh. People would hurl both insults and bodily fluid on them. They’d be hung at eye-level, so that everyone could look them in the face and offer ridicule. All the while, the victims slowly died by asphyxiation. This means that they did not get enough oxygen in their bloodstream, because they cannot breathe normally. So they’ll get extremely weak as all the blood is absorbed from the bloodstream. They’ll pass in and out of consciousness, until finally they never wake up.
It’s humiliating, too, since the victim will lose all control of bodily functions. Grown men will relieve themselves, weep like a baby, and throw up. They have absolutely no strength and no control. They are utterly weak.
The centurion had seen this hundreds and hundreds of times. Nobody died any differently. Until he met Jesus.
It had been a pretty routine procedure. Jesus was stripped, scourged, and nailed to a cross. The bloodletting happened early on, to hasten his death. He was beaten so badly by the cat-of-nine-tails by the Roman guard, that not even his own mother could recognize him. The scourge laid open his body from head to toe, breaking his ribs in the process. He was scarred and swollen, bloody and bruised. The nine-inch-spikes of the date palm were sunk into his skull, as the soldiers crowned him with this sardonic symbol. He was so weak and broken before the crucifixion took place that he couldn’t even carry his own crossbeam. The centurion knew it wouldn’t be long. Maybe he could go visit his cult prostitute later that night, enjoy some wine, and relax.
Yes, everything was going according to procedure. It wouldn’t be long now. His buddies were having some fun with the one in the middle, whose notice of charges above his head stated, “King of the Jews.” They grabbed the stick and sponge. This is what they used to clean themselves with, after going to the bathroom. They put some sour wine on it and shoved it in Jesus’ mouth. Yet even their wicked cruelty couldn’t provoke Jesus. He didn’t curse them; strangely, he said, “Father, forgive them.”
The hours went on. The three executions were coming to an end, the centurion knew it. They were all getting weaker and weaker. Barely any breath was coming out of any of them, especially the one in the middle, the “King.” He was haunting to watch; a slight feeling of shame crept over the centurion. This Jesus was not like the others, who acted just as horribly as every other man in the centurion’s life.
It looked like some invisible pillow was smothering Jesus. His blackouts were getting longer and longer. His body, though caked with dried blood, was getting pale. The dirt beneath the cross was saturated with blood, so that it was both sticky and sweet. It wouldn’t be long now.
The scene was getting quieter and quieter.
Just then, the unthinkable happened. Jesus’ eyes blazed with fire. The muscles in his neck bulged as they bled. He lifted up his head and screamed, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” The scream lasted for several moments.
“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mark 15:37). The centurion jolted out of his routine. He was both amazed and terrified at the same time. He couldn’t believe it. He had never seen or heard anything like this before. In hundreds of executions, this was a first. Unable to hold in his words, he said “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). “When the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last,” he knew that Jesus was no ordinary man.
In fact, unable to control himself, the centurion called Jesus what he was only supposed to call Caesar—son of God—the one to whom he had sworn allegiance.
What did the centurion see? What was so utterly radical about Jesus’ death? Jesus let out a loud shout. That was not supposed to happen. By definition, when one dies from crucifixion, he dies of weakness. You have no strength and no breath. You have no oxygen and no air with which to shout. You are overcome, you do not overcome.
The centurion had never heard anything like that before—wait, yes he had. He had heard a shout like that before, on the battlefield. Jesus made the sound of a battle cry. Only he did not make the sound of the defeated, but of the defeater. Jesus made the sound of a rushing army, overcoming the enemy and shouting out victory.
The centurion realized that Jesus went into death conquering. Jesus was not simply being overcome; Jesus was overcoming. Jesus was defeating the enemy, not being defeated. Jesus was not weak, but strong. When the centurion saw this, he couldn’t help but realize that he was face-to-face with someone greater than Caesar, greater than death itself.
The centurion recognized a fellow warrior when he saw one.
What did Jesus conquer? He conquered your sin. He conquered your slavery to the things you don’t want to do, but you just can’t help it. He conquered your punishment—this means that God will never punish you, if you’re relying on him. Jesus conquered your guilt and your shame, the stuff that you just can’t get rid of. Jesus conquered your judgment. Jesus conquered your separation from God. Nothing is keeping you from God anymore. Jesus conquered your death. One day, his victory will be your victory, and you can rise from the grave like him.
The centurion recognized a King when he saw one. Do you?
© Samuel Kee, 2012