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THE CENTURION’S TESTIMONY

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Lord’s Day Evening, March 21, 2010

“And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom. 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” (Mark 15:37-39).


Jesus was nailed to the Cross at 9:00 AM. He died at 3:00 PM. It was unusual for someone to die from crucifixion in so short a time. Yet it should not surprise us. After all, unlike most of those who were crucified, Jesus had been nearly beaten to death earlier in the day. Before He was crucified, Pilate hoped to convince the crowd not to do it by giving Him a severe flogging instead. “In any case, flogging was no light punishment. The Romans first stripped the victim and tied his hands to a post above his head. The whip (flagellum) was made of several pieces of leather with pieces of bone and lead embedded near the ends. Two men, one on each side of the victim, usually did the flogging” (Frank E. Gaebelein, D.D., General Editor; The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Zondervan Publishing House, 1984, vol. 8, p. 775; note on Mark 15:15).

The following is an explanation and description of the physical effects of flogging – which was written by a medical doctor,

The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’ shoulders, back and legs. At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing at first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles…Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area [of the back] is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue (C. Truman Davis, M.D., “The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion from a Medical Point of View,” Arizona Medicine, 22, no. 3 [March 1965]: p. 185).

Dr. Gaebelein’s commentary said, “It is not surprising that victims of Roman floggings seldom survived” (Gaebelein, ibid.). The Centurion and his band of soldiers – who were in charge of the crucifixion – were not surprised by the fact that Jesus died a few hours after going through such torture. What surprised them was the way He died!

When Jesus died, several things happened. For three hours “there was darkness over all the land” (Matthew 27:45). A few moments after He died, there was a tremendous earthquake that tore the great veil in the temple “from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent” (Matthew 27:51). The earthquake and the darkness must have made a great impression on them, for Matthew says,

“Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God”
     (Matthew 27:54).

Liberal commentators tell us that the Roman Centurion was only saying that Jesus was like one of the gods in his pantheistic paganism. But they fail to mention that the Centurion had heard the High Priest and his cohorts, as well as the thieves, say,

“He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth”
       (Matthew 27:43-44).

So, the Centurion and his men had heard the chief priests and the Jewish thieves say repeatedly, “he said, I am the Son of God” (Matthew 27:43). The Centurion and his men had all day to think about that, and discuss what these Jews meant by “the Son of God.” In fact, being in Jerusalem the whole previous week, they had undoubtedly heard the term “Son of God” discussed repeatedly for at least several days. Dr. Lenski well said,

Rationalistic and modernistic exegesis does not regard the centurion’s confession as an admission of the deity of Jesus, for rationalism and modernism deny this deity. All [their arguments] will thus be dogmatic in the extreme… [The modernists say that the centurion’s] answer is then drawn from pagan mythology. Did the evangelists know of this officer’s confession and nevertheless record it when it really meant nothing for true believers?...Surely, the evangelists would not have tricked their readers (R. C. H. Lenski, D.D., The Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel, Augsburg Publishing House, 1946, pp. 726-727; note on Mark 15:39).

There was something else about the way Jesus died that convinced the Centurion that His enemies were wrong – and that He really was “the Son of God.” Listen very carefully to Mark 15:37 and 39,

“And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost”
     (Mark 15:37).

“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” (Mark 15:39).

Jesus “cried with a loud voice” right before He died. “And when the centurion…saw that he so cried out [with a loud cry] he said, Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). Why would Jesus’ “loud voice” cause the Centurion to say, “Truly this man was the Son of God”? Listen to Dr. Gaebelein’s commentary,

The loud cry of Jesus is unusual because victims of crucifixion usually have no strength left, especially when near death. But Jesus’ death was no ordinary one, nor was his shout the last gasp of a dying man. It was a shout of victory… (Gaebelein, ibid., p. 783; note on Mark 15:37).

The Centurion had seen it all. At the beginning of the crucifixion he was an unbeliever. But he heard Jesus pray for him,

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”
       (Luke 23:34).

He saw the darkness fall over the face of the earth. He saw the earthquake. He “feared greatly” (Matthew 27:54). And now he saw Jesus die as he had never seen any other crucified man die! All the others became so weak they couldn’t breathe – and died in silence. But Jesus “cried with a loud voice”! Where did He get the energy to do so? This Centurion had presided over many crucifixions. But no other man had died with “a shout of victory.” The Centurion was convinced. Christ’s enemies had been wrong! He himself had been wrong! Looking up at the dead body of Jesus on the Cross, he said,

“Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).

Was the Centurion converted? I think so, and here is why – he had been an unbeliever – but now he says, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). This is surely as good as Peter’s confession! Jesus asked Peter “Whom say ye that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Peter answered, “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus said,

“Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).

The Centurion surely had as much faith as Peter! If Peter’s testimony of Jesus as “the Son of the living God” came from the Father’s illumination, the Centurion’s testimony must have come from the same source!

“Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).

And the Centurion made a better confession of his faith in Jesus than Peter did! Peter forsook Him and fled. The Centurion stood in full view of Christ’s enemies – and fearlessly testified,

“Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).

But the Centurion said something else of equal importance. Luke tells us that he also said,

“Certainly this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47).

That may not sound as important, but it is. Dr. Lenski tells us that he said both: “This man was the Son of God; this man was righteous.” It is the same thing the dying thief had said, when he was converted on the cross next to Jesus,

“This man hath done nothing amiss” (Luke 23:41).

The Centurion heard the converted thief say that. He had not believed it before. He had mocked Christ earlier – just as the thief had! (Luke 23:36; Matthew 27:44). But now, in their conversions, the thief and the Centurion agree,

“This man hath done nothing amiss.”

“Certainly this was a righteous man.”

By divine illumination, both the thief and the Centurion saw that Christ was not guilty. More than that – they saw His blessed righteousness! Did they know more? Scripture is silent. But they knew enough to say that Jesus was sinless, guiltless of the so-called “crimes,” for which His enemies crucified Him. The thief knew enough to call Him “Lord.” The centurion knew enough to say,

“Truly this man was the Son of God.”

We believe that the thief was converted. It seems to me that we should also think of the Centurion in the same way.

I do not place much value in tradition, for it may be tainted with superstition. And yet I cannot end this sermon without telling you that a very ancient tradition says this man became a Christian. Dr. Lenski said,

This Gentile, called Longinus in tradition, comes to faith beneath the dead Saviour’s cross. His confession is strong because of its αληθως [alaythos], “truly.” This adverb is set over against the Jewish unbelief and mockery. Whatever [they] may say, the centurion sees the truth of the divine Sonship of Jesus (Lenski, ibid., note on Matthew 27:54).

Some may criticize me for pointing out a Catholic tradition. Yet it seems to be older than Catholicism. I do not know if the tradition is true or false. It seems likely to be rooted in the truth, for the Gospel writers make much of this Centurion and I doubt that they would unless they knew him as a Christian afterwards. I also know that the conversion of the Centurion was like that of a Protestant. There is no Catholicism in it at all – no baptism, no penance, no sacraments. Simply faith in Jesus! And that is the way Christ saves everyone who comes to Him! Whatever you may think of the tradition, this man had the same kind of conversion as a Protestant or Baptist! There was nothing Catholic about it!

Now, what do we learn from all this? I think the Scriptures make the lesson plain – two men, the believing thief and the confessing Centurion, began by mocking Christ on the Cross, as did the rest of the crowd. But, after watching Jesus die, these two men, the thief and the Centurion, believed in Jesus. But two other men, the High Priest and the unconverted thief, saw the same events and remained in unbelief. That, I think, is the lesson God wants us to learn from the Scriptures. The two thieves could see the same thing – but one was converted and the other was not. Two men could see the same thing, but the High Priest remained unconverted while the Centurion believed. Two people can hear the same Gospel – and one be converted while the other remains in unbelief.

How many times have you read in the Gospels? How many times have you heard the Gospel preached? Others have come to Jesus and been saved. How is it that you remain lost? How can it be that you will not come to Jesus and be saved? How much longer will you wait? Jesus says to you,

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Jesus died in your place, to pay the full penalty for your sins. He rose from the dead to give you life. Why do you not come to Jesus? Why do you wait? Why not come to the Son of God?

Jesus loved the thief enough to save him at the very door of death. Jesus loved the Centurion enough to give him faith, even though this man supervised and executed His crucifixion, and ordered His hands and feet to be nailed to the accursed wood! And, my dear friend, Jesus loves you enough to pardon you and save your soul tonight – whatever sins you have committed – however long you have kept away from Him. Come to Him who loves you, and He will wash your sins away in His precious Blood!

I saw one hanging on a tree
   In agony and blood;
He fixed His [pain filled] eyes on me
   As near His cross I stood.

A second look He gave, which said,
   “I freely all forgive:
This blood was for thy ransom paid;
   I die that thou mayest live.”
(“He Died For Me” by John Newton, 1725-1807;
   to the tune of “O Set Ye Open Unto Me”).

(END OF SERMON)
You can read Dr. Hymers' sermons each week on the Internet
at www.realconversion.com. Click on “Sermon Manuscripts.”

Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: Luke 23:39-47.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“He Died For Me” (by John Newton, 1725-1807).