April 19 – The Soldiers’ Saving Response

“Now the centurion, and those who were with him … became very frightened and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’ ”

Matthew 27:54


The testimony of the soldiers after Jesus’ crucifixion demonstrates the sufficiency of His death for all sinners.

Most of the time our daily activities are dictated by the routine responsibilities of our jobs. That’s how it was for the Roman soldiers who stood at the foot of the cross when Jesus gave up His life. They were there simply out of duty, to make sure the crucifixion was carried out properly and without interference.

The soldiers probably had little knowledge of Judaism and had not heard of Jesus before, unless it was by hearsay. Therefore, they really had no idea why the Jewish leaders and most of the crowd were so intent on killing Him. To these anonymous soldiers, Christ’s claims to be the Son of God and a king seemed equally ludicrous and harmless.

The darkness and the earthquake, however, radically changed their attitudes. Their emotional fear produced by those events quickly turned to reverential awe for who Jesus was. They sensed that the natural phenomena had a supernatural origin and suddenly realized that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.

Jesus’ gracious and profound words, spoken from the cross and before Pilate, and His humble, selfless demeanor worked on the soldiers’ hearts. But it was the ministry of the Holy Spirit that ultimately convinced them to confess Christ’s deity.

The declaration “Truly this was the Son of God!” proclaimed by the centurion (see also Mark 15:39) on behalf of himself and his men, was for the soldiers a profession of faith in Christ. Although that testimony was uttered by someone else after Jesus had died, it became in essence His final testimony from the cross. It also offers us compelling proof that His grace can extend to all sinners, even to those who helped put Him to death. In John 12:32 Jesus announced, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”


Suggestions for Prayer: Pray for someone today who needs salvation—perhaps someone whom you quit praying for because you thought it unlikely they would ever respond to the gospel.

For Further Study: Read Mark 10:17–27. The young man was outwardly a prime candidate for salvation, in contrast to the Roman soldiers. What kept him outside the kingdom? ✧ What do verses 26–27 teach about the nature of salvation?[1]

Saving Faith

Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (27:54)

As the title might suggest, a centurion (from the Latin word for 100) was a military officer in charge of 100 men and was therefore of significant rank. This particular officer had been given the responsibility of supervising the three crucifixions. It is likely that he and the other soldiers who were with him keeping guard over Jesus had been in the Praetorium when He was first brought there by the Jewish leaders. They may have been with the cohort of Roman soldiers who accompanied the chief priests and elders to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. They doubtlessly had heard the charges brought against Him by those leaders and had also heard Pilate’s repeated declaration of Jesus’ innocence of any crime against Rome. They may even have overheard the conversation between Pilate and Jesus about His being King of the Jews (John 18:33–37).

Those soldiers probably participated in Jesus’ scourging, in placing the crown of thorns on His head, in taunting Him, and in beating Him with the mock scepter. On Golgotha they had nailed Him to the cross, indifferently gambled for His garments, and jeered at Him while He hung there in agony.

If those men were religious at all, they were idolaters. And if they were from the garrison at Pilate’s headquarters in Caesarea they probably had little knowledge of Judaism and perhaps no previous knowledge at all about Jesus. If they knew anything of Jesus’ teachings or activities it was by hearsay They were at the cross simply because it was their duty to make certain the execution was carried out properly and without interference.

Because Pilate had pronounced Jesus innocent, they knew He was no threat to Rome. But because the governor finally consented to His crucifixion, they had no choice but to carry out the command. To those men Jesus was no more than a bizarre figure who apparently made a foolish and utterly harmless claim to be some sort of religious king. It was obvious when they first saw Jesus that He posed no military or political threat to Rome, and it must have seemed strange to them that the Jewish leaders took Him so seriously. When He was brought before Pilate, He had already been beaten and spit upon, and He looked anything but regal or dangerous. He neither looked nor talked like the many insurrectionists the soldiers had seen and probably helped execute. He not only had no band of fighting men to come to His defense but had no visible followers at all. And because He did not even offer any self-defense, the guards may have thought Him mentally deranged. When He eventually spoke to Pilate, He claimed to rule a kingdom that was not of this world, sounding to them like He was completely out of touch with reality.

The hatred of Jesus by the Jewish leaders and the multitude was obvious enough to the soldiers, but the reason for it was anything but obvious. They had heard the screams of “Crucify, crucify,” but could hardly have had any idea what was behind the intense bitterness. His supposed claim to be the Son of God seemed just as ludicrous and harmless as His claim to be a king.

But as the fourth hour of His crucifixion began, several things happened to change the soldiers’ attitude, and when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, the soldiers became very frightened.

The first thing to unnerve them would have been the sudden darkness. They would not have been aware of the tearing of the Temple veil and probably not the opening of the graves. But they could not escape noticing the earthquake with its violent splitting of rocks, and that was a terrifying experience even for hardened legionnaires. Phobeō (very frightened) is the term from which we get phobia and refers to sheer terror, the absolute panic that causes rapid heartbeat, profuse sweating, and extreme anxiety It is the verb form of the word used by Matthew to describe the disciples’ response to seeing Jesus walk on the water, thinking He was a ghost (14:26). It is also the word used to describe the reaction of Peter, James, and John when they glimpsed Jesus’ divine glory and heard the Father speak directly to them on the Mount of Transfiguration (17:6).

The context and circumstances of the passage clearly indicate, however, that the centurion and his men were frightened of much more than the darkness and earthquake. They sensed that those awesome natural phenomena had a supernatural origin, and their primary fear was not of those events themselves but of the divine power behind them. Their emotional fright soon turned to spiritual, reverential awe, as testified by the fact that they did not run for their lives or try to find a place of safety but rather declared, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Mark (15:39) tells us that it was the centurion who actually spoke the words, but Matthew makes clear that he spoke for his men as well. All of them suddenly realized that Jesus was not deluded or deranged but was indeed who the Jews had accused Him of claiming to be. As already noted, they had heard their own commander repeatedly affirm Jesus’ innocence, and they may have heard of the warning by Pilate’s wife, who declared Jesus not only to be innocent but righteous (Matt. 27:19). More than that the few words Jesus spoke during His appearances before Pilate and from the cross must have penetrated their pagan, hardened minds. They now knew they stood in the presence of One somehow related to deity.

The soldiers’ fear gives witness to their awareness of sin, and their reverential awe gives witness to their being confronted by God’s holiness and righteousness. And just as Isaiah in his Temple vision (Isa. 6), they suddenly realized they stood under God’s judgment and condemnation.

And I believe the soldiers’ confession of Jesus’ deity gives witness to the possibility of their salvation. Both their fear and their confession were spiritual responses to Christ. From Luke we learn that the centurion, and presumably the other soldiers as well, not only confessed Jesus’ divinity but “began praising God” (23:47).

The deep conviction of the men is seen in their introducing the confession with truly. They proclaimed without reservation or qualification that the Man at whose feet they now stood was indeed the Son of God.

Some scholars maintain that, because of the Greek construction of the text and because of the soldiers’ pagan background, their statement should be rendered, “Truly this was a son of God,” as seen in some modern versions. The linguistic argument is based on what is called an anarthrous construction, meaning the Greek noun does not have a definite article (“the”). Such is the case in the text of Matthew 27:54, where there is no Greek article (the) before Son. Ordinarily in such constructions the indefinite article (“a”) is understood. But it is clear from secular Greek literature, as well as from many other passages in the New Testament, that the anarthrous construction does not always demand the indefinite article.

When Caiaphas commanded Jesus, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matt. 26:63), he used the definite article (Greek ho) before “Son.” By saying, “I adjure You by the living God,” the high priest had already made obvious that he was talking about the true, biblical God of the Jews, and it goes without saying that their Messiah could only be that God’s Son, not the son of any other god. He was accusing Jesus of claiming to be the Son of Yahweh, the creator, covenant God of Israel revealed in the Old Testament.

The same accusation was made by the Jews before Pilate, except without the definite article. “We have a law,” they said, “and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God” (John 19:7). If Jesus had been claiming to be the Son of any but the true God, the Jews would have considered Him a heretic but not a blasphemer. Not only that, but the Jews believed their God had but one divine Son. It is completely untenable, therefore, to take the Greek phrase huion theou in John 19:7 to mean anything but “the Son of God,” despite the fact that it does not contain the definite article.

The same Greek phrase (without the definite article) was used by the angel who announced to Mary that the child born to her would “be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). And after Jesus walked on the water, a similar phrase (theou huios), also without the definite article, was used by the disciples when they confessed before Jesus, “You are certainly God’s Son” (Matt. 14:33). In both of those anarthrous constructions the idea of the Son, rather than a Son, is indisputable.

It was doubtlessly the very words that the Jewish leaders used to accuse Jesus before Pilate (“He made Himself out to be the Son of God”) that the centurion picked up and used himself. The great difference was that he and his fellow soldiers now believed those words to be true. The declaration “Truly this was the Son of God!” became for them a profession of faith in Christ. I firmly believe with the noted commentator R. C. H. Lenski that “this Gentile, called Longinusin tradition, came to faith beneath the dead Savior’s cross” (The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961], p. 1133).

The gracious and profound words of Jesus that they heard, His humble, self-giving demeanor, and His complete lack of anger or vindictiveness all worked in the hearts of the soldiers. But the only way they could have known with such certainty that Jesus was truly God’s Son was through the illumination and conviction of the Holy Spirit.

Even after Peter had spent several years under Jesus’ instruction and had witnessed hundreds and perhaps thousands of divinity-affirming miracles, Jesus made clear to him that it was God the Father, not Peter’s human wisdom and understanding, that inspired his confession that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God (Matt. 16:16–17). Paul assured the Corinthians that “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).

Only God’s Spirit could have inspired the confession of the centurion and his men, and only His Spirit could have inspired them to praise God (Luke 23:47). The gospel writers, not to mention the Holy Spirit who inspired them, would not have left the soldiers’ meaning open to question. Had the soldiers had in mind a son of some unnamed pagan deity, Matthew and the other writers would have made that clear. When Scripture speaks of God in the singular it always refers to the true God, unless the context specifically indicates otherwise. Luke did not speak of the soldiers’ praising their own god or gods, that is, some pagan deity, but rather “praising God,” which could mean only the: true God. However limited their theological understanding may have been at that time, those men truly confessed the true Son of the true God.

The faith of the soldiers is of great significance, and was especially so in the early church. Their testimony was, as it were, Jesus’ own final testimony from the cross. Although given after He had died, that testimony dramatically proclaimed that His grace extends to every sinner, even to those who put him to death. During the very process of His crucifixion, Jesus Christ became the object of the faith of His crucifiers!

His prayer “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34) did not go unanswered. First, one of the thieves who had been jeering Christ turned to faith in Him. Now, after He had breathed His last, the men who had beaten, taunted, and crucified Christ turned to Him and were forgiven and saved. Jesus had declared, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). The very men who in unbelief and derision had literally lifted Him from the earth had indeed been drawn to Him in repentance and faith.

A contrasting response to that of the soldiers is seen in that of the crowd of observers around the cross. “And all the multitudes who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return, beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48).

Like the soldiers, those people were alarmed about the darkness and the earthquake. And also like the soldiers, they realized that those terrifying phenomena were not caused naturally Many of them doubtlessly had heard Jesus preach and seen Him perform miracles. Perhaps some of them had themselves been healed by Him. These people knew much better than the soldiers what Jesus stood for and who He claimed to be. They knew how He had all but banished disease from Palestine and had even raised people from the dead. They remembered that, with the rest of the multitude a few days earlier, they had hailed Jesus as the Messiah. They had heard Jesus’ gracious words from the cross and could not have helped suspecting that God’s hand was in the awesome events they were now observing.

But as they “began to return, beating their breasts” in fear and remorse, they showed no sign of repentance. They were perhaps overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and foreboding about their participation in the execution of an innocent man. Like Judas, they may have wished sincerely that they could somehow undo the terrible wrong they had done. They probably realized that God was expressing disfavor through the darkness and earthquake and that they were the objects of that disfavor. But they made no confession, either of their sin or of Christ’s lordship. They felt sorry for Him, but they did not try to help Him. They knew they were under His judgment, but they did not seek His mercy They neither gave Christ help nor sought help from Him, and instead of turning to Him like the soldiers, they turned away.

It is probable that many people in this crowd eventually returned to Him in faith. A few weeks later, upon hearing Peter’s indictment that “God has made Him both Lord and Christ-this Jesus whom you crucified,” many of his hearers “were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ ” After he explained the way of salvation, many who had been in the crowd beneath the cross became numbered among the 3,000 souls converted at Pentecost (Acts 2:36–41).

But the convictions of most of those who turned away from Jesus at the cross remained shallow, and the seed of the gospel was never able to take root and grow into saving faith. Unlike those whom Paul commended in Corinth, most of those who beat their breasts at Golgotha did not have the sorrow “that is according to the will of God [and that] produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation.” They evidently had only “the sorrow’ of the world [that] produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10).[2]

27:54 The strange convulsions of nature convinced the Roman centurion and his men that Jesus was the Son of God (while there is no definite article in the Greek before Son of God, the word order does make it definite). What did the centurion mean? Was this a full confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, or an acknowledgment that Jesus was more than man? We cannot be sure. It does indicate a sense of awe, and a realization that the disturbances of nature were somehow connected with the death of Jesus, and not with the death of those who were crucified with Him.[3]

54 Despite the fact that “Son of God” is one of several major christological titles in Matthew, it also appears in Mark as the climax of the passion (Mk 15:38–39). What is not certain is exactly what the soldiers meant by “Son of God” (cf. Blair, Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, 60–68). They may have used the term in a Hellenistic sense, “a son of God” referring to a divine being in a pagan sense. But the governor’s soldiers were probably non-Jewish natives of the land (see comments at v. 27). If so, or even if they were Romans who had been assigned to Palestine for some time, they may well have understood “Son of God” in a messianic sense (see comments at 26:63). Certainly the anarthrous noun “Son” can mean “the Son” instead of “a Son” in this construction (cf. Moule, Idiom Book, 116). What the soldiers meant by the expression and what Matthew meant need not be exactly the same thing.

The darkness, the earthquake, and the cry of desolation convinced the soldiers that this was no ordinary execution. The portents terrified them and probably led them to believe that these things testified to heaven’s wrath at the perpetration of such a crime, in which the soldiers had participated. But this confession tells us something more: Jesus as the promised Messiah and unique Son of God is seen most clearly in his passion and death; but again the Jewish religious establishment, mistaking the nature of his messiahship, mocked him with the very title (vv. 41–44) by which the pagans now confessed him (see comments at 8:5–13; 15:21–28).[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 27:54). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1310). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 651–652). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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