Faces Around the Cross – #5 – the Roman Soldiers

Please read Luke 23:44-49

 I remember reading an article several years ago in Guideposts where Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine recounted his most memorable movie scene. I want to share a bit of it this to introduce you to the face at the cross on which we will be focusing.

“Back in 1975 I was offered a part in the film Jesus of Nazareth. I played the part of the centurion who was present at the crucifixion.

“When it came time for my scene during the crucifixion, the weather was chill and gray. The camera was to be focused on me at the foot of the cross, and so it was not necessary for Robert Powell, the actor who portrayed Jesus, to be there. Instead, Zeffirelli put a chalk mark on a piece of scenery beside the cameraman. ‘I want you to look up at that mark,’ he told me, ‘as if you were looking at Jesus.’

“’Okay,’ I said, moving into position and looking up at the mark as instructed.


“I hesitated. Somehow I wasn’t ready. I was uneasy. “Do you think it would be possible for somebody to read from the Bible the words Jesus said as He hung on the cross?” I asked.

“I will do it myself,” Zeffirelli said. He found a Bible, opened it to the book of Luke and signaled for the camera to start rolling. As Zeffirelli began reading Christ’s words, I stared up at that chalk mark, thinking what might have gone through the centurion’s mind.

“That poor Man up there, I thought. I met Him when He healed my servant, who is like a son to me. Jesus says He is the Son of God, an unfortunate claim during these perilous times. But I know He is innocent of any crime.

“Then it happened. As I stared upward, instead of the chalk mark, I suddenly saw the face of Jesus Christ, lifelike and clear. It was not the features of Robert Powell I was used to seeing, but the most beautiful, gentle visage I have ever known. Pain-seared, sweat-stained, with blood flowing down from thorns pressed deep, His face was still filled with compassion. He looked down at me through tragic, sorrowful eyes with an expression of love beyond description. Then His cry rose against the desert wind. Not the voice of Zeffirelli, reading from the Bible, but the voice of Jesus Himself: ‘Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.’

“In awe I watched Jesus’ head slump to one side. I knew He was dead. A terrible grief welled within me, and completely oblivious to the camera, I started sobbing uncontrollably.

“’Cut!’ yelled Zeffirelli. Olivia Hussey and Anne Bancroft were crying too. I wiped my eyes and looked up again to where I had seen Jesus—He was gone.

“Whether I saw a vision of Jesus that windswept day or whether it was only something in my mind, I do not know. It doesn’t matter. For I do know that it was a profound spiritual experience and that I have not been quite the same person since. As that centurion learned 2,000 years ago, I too have found that you simply cannot come close to Jesus without being changed.”

That is EXACTLY what we are trying to accomplish with this Lenten series. We’re standing near the cross so we can be changed.

(Retrieved from http://mytnnews.com/blog/2012/07/18/ernest-borgnine-and-the-centurion/ on 4/4/14.)


Who were these men?

It’s possible that they were Gentiles from Judea, recruited to be soldiers in their own land. But it is more likely that they were legionnaires from Italy, soldiers who were probably unhappy to be posted to such a remote and inhospitable place. Perhaps they took their unhappiness out on Jesus.


How did they treat Jesus?

Luke does not report this incident, but we find it in Mark 15:15-20. <Read it.> Between His sentencing but before His crucifixion, Pilate gave Jesus to the soldiers.

We read in v. 15 that Pilate ordered them to flog Jesus. This was a despicably cruel procedure that often resulted in the death of the person being beaten. Ironically, this may have been Pilate’s way of trying to save Jesus’ life. (See also JHN 19:5 where Pilate presented the bloodied Jesus to the crowd and declared, “Behold the man!”) Perhaps he was hoping that the crowd’s deadly appetite would be satisfied by some bloodletting. If so, it didn’t work; nothing less than crucifixion would suit them.

What happened next was not the result of Pilate’s orders, but at the evil initiative of the soldiers. As a condemned prisoner had no rights, they were free to do with Jesus as they wished. And they gave full vent to their cruelty. THEY CALLED TOGETHER THE FULL COMPANY OF SOLDIERS. As many as 600 men were stationed in Herod’s old palace (PRAETORIUM).

They clothed Him in a purple robe and a crown of thorns, calling Him the KING OF THE JEWS and otherwise mocked Him. They pretended to worship Him. All of this was a savage jest at Jesus’ expense. We’ve all see how a mob will do horrible things that a small group of people will not. The PURPLE ROBE may’ve been an old cloak that was originally dyed scarlet but had faded to purple. A rag that had a royal color. Prickly plants are common to the region, so making the crown of thorns would’ve been easy enough. The scalp has more veins than any other section of skin, so Jesus probably bled profusely.

They repeatedly struck Him on the head with a staff and spit on him. If the “crown” didn’t make Jesus’ head bleed on its own, being driven into His scalp by repeated blows would’ve accomplished it. Spitting is, of course, a sign of contempt.

Even though not all of it had been ordered by Pilate, this awful treatment of jesus and other prisoners was allowed as it served a political purpose; to inspire fear among the conquered people so they wouldn’t oppose Roman rule.

I believe it also shows the full wrath of Satan who, being unable to tempt Jesus to sin, tried to beat Him into submission. The Romans inflicted the pain, but the devil drove them to unusual lengths of cruelty.

Now we turn our attention back to Luke 23. In verse 34 it is written, THEY DIVIDED UP HIS CLOTHING BY CASTING LOTS. It is John who explains the importance of this act, citing Psalm 22:18 as a prediction of this action (John 19:24).

In vs. 36-37, they mocked him, saying, “IF YOU ARE THE KING OF THE JEWS, SAVE YOURSELF.” As we learned previously about the Jewish clergy, the Romans believed that Jesus was helpless on the cross and that His helplessness exposed Him as false. They also offered him a drink of WINE VINEGAR. We can’t be certain whether this is more taunting or an exceptional act of compassion in the midst of gross cruelty.

What kind of faith did the centurion declare?

A “centurion” was a military officer who had charge of 100 soldiers. On this occasion, he was more likely leading a kustodia of 16 men.

The Gospel writers record the centurion’s remark slightly differently. The differences are indicated by underlining, as follows. Matthew 27:54 says that the centurion and all the soldiers under his command said, “SURELY HE WAS THE SON OF GOD!” In Mark 15:39, it is the centurion alone who makes this statement. The word “centurion” does not appear in the Gospel of John. At all.

As we read in Luke, he said “SURELY THIS WAS A RIGHTEOUS MAN.” RIGHTEOUS can also be understood as “innocent.” The innocence of Jesus is an important point for Luke throughout his Gospel and especially in the Passion section. BUT – and this is the key – the centurion’s declaration of faith is preceded by the words PRAISED GOD. This leaves no doubt about the centurion’s faith or what he meant to say about Jesus.

While it adds a dramatic twist to the account, there is no reason to think that the centurion whose servant was healed (LKE 7) is the same one here at the cross. There were lots of centurions.

We come to faith in reaction to what we have seen and heard. To what was the centurion reacting? According to Matthew, to ALL THAT HAD HAPPENED. In Mark’s Gospel, to what Jesus said & how He died.

In Luke it was visual: SEEING WHAT HAD HAPPENED. What happened?

Three hours of darkness. This was not an eclipse. That is astronomically impossible during a full moon phase like t Passover. In the Bible, “darkness” most often – but not always – precedes God’s judgment. If this is what it signifies, we assume it is judgment against those crucifying Jesus.

The curtain in the temple tore. This would be the curtain that separated the Holy part of the temple from the Most Holy part. It concealed the Ark of the Covenant. Only the High Priest was allowed to go behind the curtain and only once a year. It was the most sacred spot in the world. As explained by Paul in Hebrews 9:11-12 and 10:19-22, we understand this supernatural event to mean that access to God was no longer limited to the priests, but was opened by Jesus Christ for all people. Of course, the tearing of the curtain would not be visible from the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. But word of what had happened would spread quickly.

Hearing Jesus committing His Spirit to the Father and in that instant, dying. I’m sure all the things Jesus was not the kind of thing the centurion was not used to hearing out of the mouths of condemned prisoners. That, and the fact that Jesus died immediately after saying it, would understandably make an impression on even the most hardened man. Jesus’ words in Luke 23:45 are from Psalm 31:5 and were used by the Jews as an evening prayer.

It was commonly believed that miraculous signs accompanied the death of great people. For example, it was said that an eclipse accompanied the death of Caesar, as well as a statue bleeding. So the centurion may have been saying, “This was a great man!”

It is impossible to reconstruct with certainty what the centurion meant when he blurted out these words. However, it is no stretch to say that he declared some kind of faith in Jesus. He realized that this was someone much more than an ordinary criminal.


In his books, Six Hours One Friday and No Wonder They Call Him The Savior, Max Lucado describes what it was like for this centurion:

“If is true that a picture paints a thousand words, then there was a Roman centurion who got a dictionary full. All he did was see Jesus suffer. He never heard him preach or saw him heal or followed him through the crowds. He never witnessed him still the wind; he only witnessed the way he died. But that was all it took to cause this weather-worn soldier to take a giant step in faith. That says a lot, doesn’t it? “But this Galilean was like none the Centurion had ever seen. Stripped naked, whipped, bleeding, with a crown of thorns gouging His skull, the Galilean didn’t fight as the others. Nor did He beg or curse. Soldiers tried to steal His dignity but couldn’t. Even after they had cast lots for His cloak and had coated his dry tongue with vinegar, the Galilean wasn’t condemning and He never pleaded for mercy.
“In fact, this Galilean called Christ did something that tore at the Centurion’s stone-cold heart. He forgave. In all the Centurion’s years of watching people die on crosses, Jesus was the only One who ever offered mercy to him. Jesus forgave him. Even though he stood for everything that put Christ on that splintered Roman cross Jesus forgave him . . .
“The the Galilean cried out, ’Father, into your hands I commit My Spirit’ (Luke 23:46). And it was over. He no longer labored. His Spirit’s moment of release led to chaos as the earth began to quake and tombs burst open.” (Recovered on April 4, 2014 from


I have no trouble believing that this centurion was a man hardened by his countless experiences of violence. There are just a few ways a person can deal with these traumatic kinds of experiences.

– Become hard-hearted

– Build walls and hide your heart

– Seek refuge in the bottle and procrastinate dealing with your heart.

– Let your heart be broken; deal with it redemptively.

How will you respond to Jesus? Like the centurion, the choice is yours.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s