Meditations on the Cross, 5
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of the centurion in charge of Jesus' crucifixion, and of his reaction to Jesus' death and the accompanying earthquake; John simply speaks of "the soldiers."
Mark tells us, "When the centurion who was standing right in front of Him (Jesus) saw how He breathed His last, he said, 'Truly this Man was God's Son!'" (15:39)
Matthew tells us, that not only the centurion, but also " ... those guarding Jesus with him ..." made these remarks and that they "became extremely afraid." (27:54)
Luke tells us that the centurion " ... glorified God, saying 'certainly this was a righteous (or innocent) man!'" (23:47)
We aren't told how many soldiers were there at Jesus' crucifixion. Probably not a large number, although adequate enough to handle the three executions mentioned in all four Gospels. The centurion was the NCO in charge of this contingent.
What caused these men to say these things about Jesus?
The soldiers were apparently those assigned to the service of Pontius Pilate, the Roman official then governing the province of Judea. The centurion would probably have been a spectator at Jesus' trials before Pilate and had heard the dialogue between the two, as Jesus almost seemed to turn the tables and put Pilate on trial. The other soldiers may have been there as well.
They may have heard the accusations made against Jesus, that He claimed to be the Jewish Messiah and King. They would undoubtedly have seen the irony in such an accusation being made against a haggard looking peasant who already showed bruises from his previous "trials" and accompanying mistreatment at the hands of His own religious leaders.
They may have heard His replies to Pilate's questions, and the fact that He did not deny the accusations, but claimed that His kingdom was "not of this world." They may have heard the frustration in Pilate's voice. They may have heard Pilate's thrice repeated verdict of innocence.
And yet having heard all these things, they simply followed orders and scourged Jesus. These were not soft men; they were undoubtedly calloused by the cruelties they had inflicted on other men many times in the past. They could make a game out of it, mocking Jesus' claims to royalty with a scarlet robe and a crown woven from thorns. Was the robe dyed scarlet by the blood of countless other men now dead?
They would have heard screams and curses from those they tortured. But this One was different. We're told that " ... when He was reviled, He did not revile in return, when He suffered He did not threaten ... " (1 Peter 2:23)
What went through their minds as they saw Pilate wash his hands of the blood of Jesus? When they saw the notice they had to nail to the cross, written in three languages "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews"?
We're told that they took Him to a place called Skull and crucified Him along with two others. And that they gambled for His clothing while these men hung there dying. All in a day's work!
They would have heard Jesus saying, "Father forgive them, they don't know what they're doing!" Would they have understood these words as applying to them? Perhaps they would not have thought of themselves as needing forgiveness. Weren't they just following orders?
But then we have their confession at Jesus' death. We might speculate that the centurion and some of the others had already had some knowledge of who Jesus was. The gospels do mention some contacts of soldiers with Jesus. So at this point it finally all comes together. This Man is who He claimed to be! He is innocent! He really is the Son of God!
The soldiers then went about their business. They broke the legs of the other two to hasten their death, but they did not do so to Jesus. One soldier stabbed a spear in Jesus' side to make sure He was dead. The centurion made his report to Pilate.
We're not told what happened to these soldiers after these things. They were probably not the same as those later assigned to guard the tomb. We may speculate, that the centurion himself was the source for much of this information. After all, of the original twelve, only John was there at the cross. But the Scriptures are silent. Of course, Hollywood has attempted to fill in the details.
But the fact that this confession was recorded at all hints that we may see some of these men again.