The Words of the Roman Centurion When He Came Face-to-Face with the True Son of God Still Resonate
His retirement drew near. He’d been serving Rome faithfully for 23 years. Now 43, he was ready to hang up his helmet. His decision to enlist with the Roman military had been a practical one. As a poor man’s son, he knew he needed a stable source of food and shelter. He often wondered what life might have been like had he chosen a different profession.*
Had he been a farmer or fisherman, perhaps his closest friends would still be alive. Perhaps a mistake at work would not hold the potential for violent execution. Perhaps dread would not fester in his gut at all hours of the day.
The sound of horses trotting down the street set him on edge. The trill of a child’s playful scream sent shivers down his spine. The clank of the hammer in the blacksmith’s hand brought him back to battle.
Yes, retirement sounded good to him.
He woke up earlier than normal one Friday morning. He got dressed and made a mental note to pick up barley the next time he passed by the market. He then reported to the governor and began his shift.
A great crowd, led by Jewish officials, appeared to be making a spectacle over a Jewish man who they said had been causing all kinds of trouble by claiming to be the Son of God.
The centurion had heard rumors of this man. He knew this rabbi-carpenter had professed authority to forgive sin, to be one with God, to be the giver of life everlasting. He saw the effect this poor wanderer had on the Pharisees, and the centurion had often thought to himself, It’s as if he has a death wish.
The centurion had no use for the kingdom of God of which this carpenter spoke. The military man’s life was inundated with kingdoms as it was—between Tiberius Caesar and the Jewish law keepers breathing down his neck. And so it was again today that he found himself caught between Rome and Jerusalem, waiting for orders from Pontius Pilate.
The mob raged loudly enough to earn this Jesus the death penalty. He was handed over to the centurion’s soldiers, who had an affinity for mockery. The centurion wondered how many terrible dreams might result from this day on duty.
After the long trek up Calvary, the centurion stood guard at the foot of the cross for hours. How could I be so lucky? he sarcastically thought. He glanced up at the sun. His stomach began to growl . . .
Then darkness . . . utter darkness swept in, as the sun fled from the sky. Then shaking . . . violent shaking which would not relent. Then ripping . . . sudden ripping heard from the direction of the temple.
The dread buried deep within him seemed to change color and swell as he stood still in front of this carpenter whose eyes had closed forever, the centurion thought. It suddenly dawned on this man of war what he’d done at the hand of these kingdoms he served. In spite of himself, the centurion proclaimed,
“Surely this man was the Son of God!”
Who Was the Centurion?
The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion tell us little about the Roman centurion who made this proclamation recorded in Mark 15:39. So, I consulted various texts to gain a better understanding of this man and his situation. Here is some of what I learned. (See my sources at the end of the online article at ChristianStandard.com.)
Based on the fact that Jesus was crucified prior to the Judean War, it could be inferred the centurion was a native of Palestine who served in the Roman auxiliary forces. The centurion was a middle-ranking officer—in charge of somewhere between 80 and 100 soldiers. However, specific facts about this officer’s character and life trajectory remain a mystery.
The centurion at the cross likely started life as a poor man. Whether Jew or Gentile, he may have felt additional strain in keeping the peace with the religious leaders of Jerusalem. The centurion was caught between political loyalty to his employer (which claimed that good times had come at last under the rule of the self-acclaimed Son of God, Caesar Augustus) and appeasing the power of Jewish law (which claimed that a mighty king from the line of David would come and deliver the nation of Israel from the oppression of opposing nations).
Being caught in the middle of these systems could have left the centurion feeling quite distant from and unsure of who God truly was. After all, if Rome had reached the peak of glory under the rule of their “son of God,” then why did he and his men have to work so hard to defend it? If the Pharisees really longed for the peace their supposed king would bring to Israel, why were they themselves not acting in peace toward their fellow Jews?
But then, suddenly, every social structure the centurion had willingly or unwillingly entangled himself in disintegrated. Every barrier was torn down. The world stopped, the earth shook, and the centurion found himself face-to-face with the true Son of God.
An Emissary for Equity
The year was 1957, and things were looking up for John Perkins. He had a beautiful family and had been moving up the work ladder since leaving the Army in January 1953. Now in his late 20s, John was enjoying the stability of good food, good shelter, and good money. As a black man born in southern Mississippi, John had felt the rippling effects of oppression. He much preferred his current circumstances in California, where he’d moved shortly after his brother was killed at the hands of a white deputy marshal.
As a man who had seen apathy toward inequity from the churchgoers in his hometown, John had no great interest in what “their God” had to offer. He was convinced that change for the black community in the South would come about by political means and learned to make a religion out of the pursuit of economic success. Then his young son began attending a Bible school not far from their home, and, little by little, things changed for John.
It began to dawn on John that God desired nearness with him. He began to open his heart to the possibility that the kingdom of God Jesus spoke of held relevance not only for his spiritual condition but also hope for the societal inequities he saw around him. He writes in his book, Let Justice Roll Down, “I’d never heard about an in-living Christ. I’d never heard that being a Christian was Christ living in me, and me living out my life in Christ.”
In a moment, the wall John M. Perkins had put up against God disintegrated. Every barrier built by oppression was torn down. The world stopped, the earth shook, and he found himself face-to-face with the Son of God.
John eventually felt led to go back to his home state of Mississippi to be an emissary of God’s justice and equity for the black community. He, his wife, his children, and others within his faith community took steps to undo systems that upheld subjugation, often at the expense of their own safety—all as a result of John’s decision to say, “Surely this man is the Son of God!”
What Empire Holds You Back?
This Easter season, what empires are blocking you from seeing the kingdom of God unfold?
Maybe the empires of innovation and finance have advised you not to get involved with a God who might require time and resources. Perhaps the realm of conventional church culture has kept you from stepping out where the Spirit leads you. Maybe the very real oppressors of anxiety and trauma have snuck in and erected barricades of skepticism. Whatever the case, you should know this: The kingdom of God is near.
The kingdom ushered in by the death, burial, and resurrection of the true Son of God—where strength is to serve, where loss is to gain, where leaders stoop low, where the ones we hate are loved, where the abused are told, “You are safe here”—that kingdom is very near. His kingdom illuminates all other powers, exposing the upright and crooked alike, and inviting them to take heed of this poor carpenter.
“Surely this man was the Son of God!” The centurion’s words resound as the walls crumble to the ground and light radiates out from Christ’s kingdom—light which, both little by little and all at once, reveals the unceasing proximity of Creator God.
*While based on biblical events, some parts of this article employ creative storytelling that includes fictionalized dialogue and description.
William J. Hamblin, “The Roman Army in the First Century,” BYU Studies Quarterly: Vol. 36 : Issue 3, Article 24. Available at https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/byusq/vol36/iss3/24.
Robert D. Hunt, “Herod and Augustus: A Look at Patron-Client Relationships.” Studia Antiqua 2, No. 1 ; https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/studiaantiqua/vol2/iss1/5.
Munsing, Evan Munsing, “What Caesar Told His Centurions: Lessons of Classical Leadership and Discipline for a Post-Modern Military,” Small Wars Journal, Jan. 2 2013.
Dr. John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2012).
Walter Scheidel, “Marriage, Families, and Survival in the Roman Imperial Army: Demographic Aspects” Princeton, Stanford University, November 2005; www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/110509.pdf.
N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Version of Who He Was, What He Did, Why It Matters, (San Francisco: HarperOne, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2018).
Christopher Zeichman, “Military-Civilian Interactions in Early Roman Palestine and the Gospel of Mark,” University of St. Michael’s College, 2017, 53–100.