The Centurion and Belief
How is it that this Roman centurion when he stood at the foot of the cross, went from an executioner of Christ to proclaiming, “Truly, this man was the Son of God”? Do you understand how radical this conversion is?
Centurions were company commanders in the Roman army. They were men of status, commanding smaller companies of one-hundred soldiers. That’s where the title came from. Think “century” which is one-hundred, hence, centurion.
Pilate handed Jesus over to the soldiers. It says, “The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace and called together the whole company of soldiers.” All the soldiers came together to abuse Jesus. They were the ones who stripped him, crowned him with thorns, humiliated him, and spit on him. It was the job of the centurion to make sure the bodies were tied to the wood, and the nails went into the wrists and feet of those crucified. They were skilled in torture and execution.
I don’t know if I have whatever it takes to pound nails into someone else. I don’t know that I could brutalize another person. What kind of person can do this, and do it as a job again and again?
Centurions were well-acquainted with brutality and killing. But the gospel story is that even Roman soldiers – rough, harsh, unchurched – can come to faith.
People mocked Jesus for claiming to be the Son of God. “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” they yelled. “’He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
But after seeing the day get progressively darker, and hearing Jesus cry out to God, something moved in that centurion. It says it was seeing how Jesus died – how we breathed his last – that moved him. He came to believe and verbally said that this man, who people had been mocking and insulting was, truly, really, the Son of God.
The centurion did not come to faith because Jesus saves himself. He comes to belief in Jesus as the Son of God through his death. It is the cross that moves this centurion. It is the cross that is the center and essential heart of the gospel and Christian faith. Every Christian has to confront the cross in some way before believing.
What moved you to belief? Maybe you were nurtured in a Christian home and belief came as you grew up. Maybe it was the example of someone who life impacted you. For some people it is something hard and painful in their life that brings them to faith in the Lord. The hard and painful things are experiences of the cross.
In Jesus’ day no one would have imagined people would worship a crucified man. Think about it: the central event of our gospel is an act of government-sponsored torture and public execution. The Romans executed Jesus. We are so used to seeing the cross as a decoration that we forget that it was originally an object of shame and scandal.
The cross was in no way a religious symbol. It was the farthest thing from religious. It was the most irreligious object to ever be associated with faith. As one of my former seminary professors called the cross, “this most nonreligious and horrendous feature of the Gospel.”
Only the worst criminals were executed. We see the cross in light of the resurrection so it looks different to us. But when Jesus was staked on that wood it was a statement that he was a loser.
No one would have projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man. The world in which Christ lived saw crucifixion as an embarrassment. It was the most degrading kind of punishment there was.
But it was at the cross that this centurion said for others to hear, “Surely he was the Son of God.”
Such is the power of the cross.
Martin Luther said, “…the blood of Christ not only wakens dead bodies but also sinner’s souls.”
Jesus could have perhaps escaped the cross and continued to live and teach and heal. He had attracted people and probably would have continued to do so. People know and love Jesus for his healings and miracles. They think well of him because he loved and reached out to people no one else thought could be loved or touched. But what about the way he died? What about the cross?
It is the cross that speaks straight to people’s hearts. It is his death on the cross that was God’s plan for transformation and bringing people to him.
Take the cross from the center of the Christian message and the Jesus story becomes one more story about a charismatic spiritual figure. But it is the crucifixion that marks Christianity as wildly different than any other religion. “It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed.” We see a God who will stop at nothing to draw people to him. And a God who can awake souls to himself.
Bashir Mohammad spent four years fighting in the Syrian civil war for the Nusra Front, an off shoot of Al Qaeda. According to a report in 2015 from the group Human Rights Watch the Nusra Front was "responsible for systematic and widespread violations including targeting civilians, kidnappings, and executions.” The report said that the Nusra Front is no different from ISIS, discriminating against women and girls, and recruiting children to be soldiers. The Nusra Front is known for horrific violence.
Mr. Mohammad is a former jihadi and participated in the brutal ways of jihadi groups. But now he is a Christian, hosting bible studies in his home, wearing a cross, and sharing Christ with others. He says that if someone had suggested he would be a follower of Jesus four years ago, he would have literally slaughtered them.
How is it that people come to belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, especially when they have been hardened, cruel people?
Mohammad grew up in a Muslim family in northern Syria, and was introduced to extremism when his cousin took him to hear a jihadist preacher. Mohammad became traumatized by all the death he saw, but it also strangely attracted him all the more to extremism and the violent interpretation of religion he was hearing.
He admits that he was an angry man and was feared by his family for his explosive temper. He killed and he saw others kill. When he saw Syrians killing people in savage ways, he realized there was no difference between the Syrian army and the Nusra Front. Both killed. Muslims killed Muslims.
He fled the Nusra Front and returned to his home in Kurdish territory. Mohammad practiced his Muslim religion with great fervor. He and his wife ended up as Syrian exiles in Turkey.
Mohammad’s wife became deathly ill. He was describing the situation to the same cousin who had led him to become a jihadi, and who was now living in Canada. To Mohammad’s shock, the cousin had become a Christian.
The cousin asked that Mohammad put the phone next to his wife’s ear so that his church group could pray and sing for her. Mohammad was horrified at the thought of doing this, having been taught that Christianity was terrible. But he was so desperate and his wife so sick that he did it.
Mohammad’s wife began to get better over a period of days. He became intrigued with Christianity and asked his cousin to put him in touch with any Christian preachers he might know in Istanbul, where he and his wife were living. The cousin pointed him to an evangelist and missionary. Mohammad made contact with him, and converted to become a follower of Jesus Christ. He did this even though he knew the danger it would put him in as a former Muslim.
He said reading the Bible made him calmer than reading the Quran. He said he felt more welcome in churches than in mosques. Mohammad felt that Christian prayers were more generous than Muslim prayers. The couple sensed God coming into their lives, and felt loved.
Mohammad and his wife host a prayer group and bible study for 22 Christian refugees in the basement of their apartment in Istanbul. He says, “There’s a big gap between the god I used to worship and the one I worship now. We used to worship in fear. Now everything has changed.”
Mohammad has changed. People say his temperament is completely different. There has been a transformation.
He didn’t come to faith in the Lord because it is easier. Mohammad knows his conversion comes with a high price, and that someday former allies might catch up with him and he could be killed for his rejection of Islam.
The gospel of Jesus Christ has power to change hearts.
Perhaps you have heard how Angola Prison in Louisiana, home to some of the most hardened and vicious criminals in our country, and previously reputed to be the worst prison in the U.S., is being transformed. When the warden invited New Orleans Baptist Seminary to come and do a Bible college for prisoners, lives began to be changed. Angola is being lauded as a model for prison reform and for life reform. And no one, whether they are secular or religious, makes a secret that the thousands of lives that have turned to Christ is the difference.
We sometimes speak of coming to belief as conversion. To convert means to turn around. It is moving from one place to another.
T he word “conversion” never appears in the Bible, but the experience of conversion is everywhere. Here are some of the ways the New Testament speaks of coming to faith in Christ:
· Going from darkness to light. (I Peter 2:9)
· Born again or born from above. (John 3:3)
· Redeemed. (Titus 2:14)
· Going from death to life. (John 5:24)
· Turning from Satan to God. (Acts 26:18)
· Justified by faith (Romans and Galatians)
· Becoming a new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
· Getting rid of the old life and putting on the new. (Colossians 3:9)
· Dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ. (Romans 6:2-8)
We see Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, men and women, rich and poor, Jews and Greeks. We read about Paul, Matthew, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, Zaccheus, and others are converted and now this centurion coming to belief in Christ.
Not all conversions to Christ are sudden. Your coming to belief may have been a more nurturing, gradual experience. I think conversions don’t really ever end as we are always growing and being conformed into the image of God’s Son. Even times of failure, dryness and wandering can be part of our conversion. There are still parts of me that are being converted.
And just saying, “Truly, this man was the Son of God” does not necessarily make this centurion a believer and disciple. We don’t know where the centurion went from here. We would like to believe that he became a worshipper of Christ. But we aren’t told. More than words are required, but words are also important. We certainly aren’t believers if we can’t say Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God, and the one and only Son of God who is our Lord.
But I think this centurion makes it into the gospel stories because he was changed and his story was well known. It’s like the Gospel writers are saying, “And can you believe the centurion who led the crucifying of Jesus said that and is now a follower?!”
If a hardened centurion can come to belief in Christ I think there is hope for anyone.
It is the power and wisdom of God that this is how people come to faith.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians,
“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
We might think that people would only come to believe in Jesus if he is portrayed as successful and powerful and glamorous. Not by being sacrificed. But the cross shows that Christ can come even through the worst. That is why we keep hope even in the ugly moments of life. God will speak to people there, too. It is not our responsibility to get anyone to believe. Only God can change the hearts and minds of centurions, or anyone else. But we are to speak and show Christ.
The centurion has an encounter with Jesus. He has an encounter with him at the cross – at the very place that the sin of the world and the love of God intersect. This centurion encounters Jesus in his humiliating, ugly, wretched death and he confesses that this man, indeed, was the Son of God.
How the power of God to transform lives comes through a tool of Roman execution is beyond explanation. It is out of reach of our sociological studies. The human heart is deep. Deeper than even our sophisticated research and modern-day psychological theories know.
Who knows the many, many ways a life can come to confess Jesus as Lord. But it is an awesome thing when a life comes to belief in Christ.
Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Even jihadis. Even a centurion. Even you and me.
Prayer: Blessed be you, our Father, for making this the way of our reconciliation and peace with you. Thanks to you Jesus, the Lamb of God, for opening this way. Cut through all our delusions, all our self-justifications, all our hardness so that every person can stand and say that you truly are the Son of God.
 Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus, p.1, 3 and 44  Quoted in Rutledge, p.75  ibid  Rutledge, p.77  Quoted by Dale Bruner, Matthew, vol. 2.  William Barclay, Commentary on Mark, p.365  Rutledge, p.44  http://time.com/4428696/nusra-front-syria-terror-al-qaeda/ Patrick Kingsley, “The Jihadis Who Turned To Jesus,” The New York Times, March 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/24/world/middleeast/the-jihadi-who-turned-to-jesus.html?_r=0  1 Cor. 1:22-25  Dale Bruner, p.1063  John 12:32