The Roman Empire was one of the greatest and most influential civilisations in history. It ruled the then know world from 168BC to 476 AD. This vast empire was founded on the Roman Army, the most advanced fighting force of its time.
The Roman army was an efficient killing machine and the backbone of this army were the centurions. They were veteran soldiers who commanded 100 men. They were known for their dedication and courage and were clearly noticed because they wore a helmet with a special crest, a tansverse crest, that went from ear to ear so that their soldiers could see them in the heat of battle.
They also carried a short vinewood staff, called a victus, as a symbol of rank. Like other soldiers they wore breastplates or chain mail armour, called a hamata. Over the chain armour he wore a harness to which was attached a pilfrerie, like our modern war medals or family medallions and sometimes torques which were taken in battle or awarded for victories.
On his legs he wore shin protectors called greaves. On his left hand side he carried a gladius, a sword about 50 cms long. It was double edged and specially designed for thrusting and stabbing because such wounds were more deadly than cuts. On his right hand side he carried a pugio, a double edged dagger. His back was covered by a cape that hung down to his thighs.
In battle, centurions stood on the front line, leading their men. They were expected to be courageous, rallying the troops during the tough fighting.
During the reign of Caesar Augustus there were 28 legions and about 2,000 centurions dedicated to defending and expanding the empire. Augustus was the Roman Caesar during the time of Christ. Jesus met 2 of his centurions.
One came to Jesus for help when his servant was paralysed and in pain. That man’s faith in Christ was so strong that Jesus healed the servant from a great distance. You can read about it in Matthew 8:5-13.
The second, also unnamed, was in charge of the execution detail that was ordered by the governor Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus. He no doubt he had attended the trial, he’d heard the accusations against Jesus. One of the main accusations was Jesus’ claim that He was the son of God. Here is what is says in John 19:7.
The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” John 19:7
So, this Roman centurion knew that the accusation that Jesus was condemned for, was His claim to be the son of God. This must have seemed a very strange claim to this centurion Once they arrived at Golgotha, the place of execution, he gave the order to drive the nails through Jesus’ hands and feet and raise the cross.
That was his job – to oversee the crucifixion of criminals. Really, this was just another day at the office. He’d seen many crucifixions. This was just another criminal to execute.
But sometime during the execution, something happened that changed his mind – Jesus stopped looking like just an ordinary criminal to him and he became impressed with Jesus. What changed his mind? Perhaps it could have been the dignified way that Jesus held up under the pain and suffering of the cross. He never cursed or begged for mercy.
Or, it could have been the way that Jesus lovingly made allowance for his mother’s care. Or, perhaps it could have been how Jesus prayed specifically for his, the Centurion’s forgiveness. He had almost certainly never heard such a prayer from a cross.
Or, perhaps it was the amazing events in nature that took place during the crucifixion. There was a massive earthquake and the rocks split and pitch darkness covered the land. Maybe, it was all these things that changed his mind. We don’t know.
What we do know is that Jesus death on the cross made an impression, and had an impact, and changed the Centurion’s mind. So, now, instead of seeing just another ordinary criminal being crucified, he’s overwhelmed by it all and calls out, “Truly, this is the Son of God.”
The Centurion began as a Roman officer overseeing a crucifixion, but ended the day acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God. The cross of Jesus has the power to change people. The Bible says:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…”. (1 Cor18:23,24)
The Cross of Jesus changed the Roman Centurion, and it can change us too. Because, you see, through Jesus’ death, our lives have purpose and meaning. We’re forgiven and loved by a Saviour who died for us.