We suggest that you begin reading the Centurion series from the beginning.
John 19:1-16; Luke 23:32-46; Matthew 27:45-54
Early Friday morning – in the middle of a particularly pleasant dream – one of my men shook me awake, and told me we were needed at the Governor’s palace. I quickly threw on my armor, and headed over. What was this about?
I could hear the raised voices before I got there. People yelling angrily – not something I was used to hearing at the governor’s palace, especially this early in the day. As I turned the corner, I ran into a small mob of people outside. I’d arrived in the middle of an argument – and I was amazed to see Pilate himself standing at the top of the steps, arguing with some of the temple leaders. There were several of his personal guard with him – I supposed we were back-up, just in case. And then two soldiers brought someone out. He looked vaguely familiar, but his face was pretty badly beaten, and he was dressed in a purple robe, with what looked like a wreath made out of thorns on his head.
Pilate gestured towards him and said, “Behold, the man.” And at that moment, I realized who it was. The guy on the donkey. Jesus. What on earth had he done to get himself in this fix? When they saw him, the chief priests started yelling out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Now, that was quite a shock, let me tell you. A bunch of Judaeans yelling for one of their own to be crucified. I figured they’d set this poor guy up somehow. I looked at Pilate, and I could see the distaste on his face – something was up here for sure. He turned to the crowd and told them he was going to release Jesus. They yelled back, “If you release this man, you’re no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.” Another shock – the religious leaders quoting Roman law to the Governor they hate.
I saw a flash of anger cross Pilate’s face, and he sat down on the judgment seat – he was about to announce whatever decision he had made. Everything got quiet. And with a look of contempt, he said, “Behold your king.” Well that just set them off again. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate yelled over them all, “Shall I crucify your king?” And if I hadn’t heard it myself, I would never have believed it. The chief priests yelled back, “We have no king but Caesar.” And then it got real quiet. Everyone looking at them in disbelief – Pilate included. But they just crossed their arms and stood their ground, like they hadn’t just said something that had never crossed the lips of a Judaean since we first conquered them.
Pilate caught my eye and beckoned me up. He told me to take Jesus and crucify him with the others slated for death that day. Then he turned to the crowd, and with one last contemptuous look at the religious leaders, washed his hands of the whole affair, and went inside. And so I marched Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, out to the city dump, and did what I’ve done so many times before – nailed his wrists and ankles to the cross and hoisted him up to die.
I strung up a couple of ‘freedom fighters’ next to him – at least that’s what they call themselves. We call them terrorists. Normally that would be that. We’d come back a month later and take down their carcasses. But there was an unusually large crowd for this crucifixion, so I ordered my men to stand guard – I did not want any more trouble. And I took time to look at this man, this Jesus, this so-called “King of the Jews.” Pilate had issued one more order to me – I had to write those words on a board and hang it over his head. His last dig at the temple elite and the Herodians. I watched him die, like I have hundreds of others. But none like him. No screaming, no pleading, no cursing. One of the terrorists said, ‘if you are the messiah – save yourself…and us.” The other one told him to shut up, then looked at Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What in hades did that mean? He was going to die on that cross – what kingdom was he possibly going to have? Jesus looked at him, smiled – actually smiled – and said, “I promise you, today, you will be with me in paradise.” What kind of self-delusion was that?! Later on, the other terrorist cursed me. I never bother wasting breath replying. I looked up at Jesus instead, and he looked back at me, and said this, “Father, forgive them…they don’t know what they’re doing.” Another first for me – I had definitely never heard that from anyone I was crucifying before. I found from that point on I could hardly take my eyes off this man.
The sky began to get dark, as storm clouds rolled in. People began to leave, to take shelter. The wind picked up, and big, fat raindrops began to fall. I pulled my cloak tighter around me – I suppose I could have taken shelter too, but something kept me at the foot of the center cross. As the lightning flashed I looked into Jesus’ face one more time, and heard him say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And then he died. No doubt about it. He chose that moment to die. And then the earth quaked under my feet, and I grabbed the cross to keep my balance. And I looked up into the beaten and bloodied face of this man, and the words just fell out of me, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”
Maybe he is a King. Maybe even this messiah they believe in. But why did the title of the Emperor come out of my mouth? Perhaps because in the moment of his death I saw power in him beyond any power I’d ever known. And I saw it in a man dying on a cross.
What kind of foolishness is that?
This is part of an ongoing historical fiction series leading up to Easter. It features the story of Jesus’ path to the cross from the perspective of a Roman Centurion. It was written by Sean Gladding, the author of The Story of God, The Story of Us. This series will be posted as a daily devotional. We hope this narrative stirs deeper reflection on the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final days.