What could be one of the greatest spiritual conversions in the history of humankind probably took place right at the foot of the cross on which Jesus died.
One of the people most set against Jesus and all he taught and claimed, against his people and his religion; the man who almost certainly directed and oversaw his execution, and even mocked him as he hung dying, changed his mind about who and what Jesus was. An absolute turnaround, just like that, in a matter of minutes or even seconds.
Who? And why?
Accounts of Jesus’ death in the Bible mention a centurion, a Roman soldier in charge of 100 men. The land at that time was under Roman occupation, so the army would have been there in force, keeping control—so the soldiers, and their officers, would have been tough and obedient.
This centurion certainly had his orders from the occupying governor, Pontius Pilate: crucify this man, who claims to be the king of the Jews, and make sure he’s dead. Then divide his possessions among you, as you’re allowed to do.
So that’s what the centurion did. He stayed at the cross, with a handful of his men, and ensured that the crucifixion was done properly. He might even have been there at Jesus’ ‘trial’, and accompanied him on his agonising journey to the place where the cross was erected. He’d have seen Jesus weaken on the cross; might have thought about hastening his death, just to be sure. Here was a man accustomed to following orders to the letter.
But then everything changed: Jesus died. Just as he was meant to.
But instead of feeling the satisfaction of an order completed and a job well done, the centurion underwent a life-changing transformation. He must have been astonished, between noon and 3pm, to watch the sky go dark. And then, at the moment of Jesus’ death, the Bible tells us: “The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open… And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’ ”
We are told that the centurion "began praising God”. Here was a man who had regularly had to declare that the Roman emperor was god; a man who barely tolerated the Jews, who had executed the man who now hung above him on the cross. What a turn-around!
Perhaps it was the darkness and the earthquake; perhaps it was the humble way Jesus had died, and the way he had behaved throughout his trial and crucifixion. Perhaps it was a miraculous insight from God himself. Perhaps it was Jesus’ cry that the centurion, and the others involved in his execution, be forgiven, which gave him hope.
Whatever it was, this was an extraordinary change—a life-changing moment.
We don’t know what happened to this unnamed centurion next. All we really know about is his reaction to Jesus’ death. What’s your reaction?