When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God.”
The Passion Week began with the people of Jerusalem laying palm branches at the feet of Jesus. They were celebrating His entry into the city; praising Him with loud hosannas. For a moment they believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-expected Messiah who was going to reestablish Jerusalem as the great world power it had once been under King David. Within the week the very same crowd was shouting, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” What happened that made the people want to put to death the One whom they declared had come in the name of the Lord?
We know the facts. A man by the name of Jesus was judged to be a criminal. He was taken to the outskirts of the city and nailed to a cross. After hanging there for several hours, he died. That, in a nutshell, is what happened. But there is so much more to it than that, isn’t there?
What really happened? What went on behind the scenes to cause this death to take place? Who was involved? How were lives affected by this event? With all the crucifixions that took place, why does this particular one linger on in the minds of so many people even today? When we try to answer some of these questions we find out that there was much more going on that just that which meets the eye.
Take for example, the words spoken by the Roman centurion. He was a military officer in charge of one hundred men, and therefore a man of significant rank. This particular centurion was given the responsibility to supervise three crucifixions. It is likely that he and the soldiers with him had been in the praetorium when Jesus was first brought before Pilate by the Jewish leaders. In fact, they may have been the very soldiers who accompanied the chief priest and elders to the garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus.
Either way, the soldiers knew the charges that had been brought against Jesus: He had claimed to be the King of the Jews. They also knew the outcome of the trial: not guilty. Because Pilate had declared this man innocent, they knew he was no threat to the Roman Empire. Still, the governor had consented to have this man crucified, and it was their task to carry it out.
To the soldiers, Jesus of Nazareth was little more than a bizarre figure who apparently had made a harmless but very foolish claim that He was some sort of religious king. Because of that claim He was sentenced to die.
In their eyes, he looked anything but dangerous. He neither looked nor talked like any of the other insurrectionists that the soldiers had seen and helped execute. He had no band of men who came to His defense. His followers had all run away when He was arrested. He had offered no defense while He was on trial, nor had he expressed hatred while being nailed to the cross.
The hatred the Jewish leaders had toward Him, however, was obvious, even if the soldiers could not understand it. His supposed claim to be the Son of God seemed just as ludicrous and harmless to them as did His claim to some kind of king.
As the sixth hour came upon them, several things happened—things that changed the attitude of this centurion toward the man on the middle cross, things that frightened even this leader among the soldiers.
The first thing to unnerve him was the darkness. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the dark, but when that darkness comes in the middle of the day it is unsettling. You have to take notice. Then came the earthquake.
All those around the cross, including the centurion, were terrified. They were frightened by much more than just the darkness and the earthquake. The centurion sensed that these natural phenomena had a supernatural origin. This was not just a coincidence. No. A divine power had caused them to take place.
Suddenly the centurion realized that Jesus was not some deranged or deluded man. He was the very thing that the Jews had accused Him of being. The innocent One, as he no doubt had heard Pilate declare, was, in fact, the king, even as the scribes had reported. And if that was true, then so was the other charge that had been made against Him. The centurion knew that he was standing in the presence of One who was somehow related to the Deity, and he cried out, “Surely He was the Son of God!”
The Bible tells us that what happened to Jesus on Calvary’s cross was that One who was both divine and human died. The opening verses of the Gospel According to John tell us that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of the living God. As we think about what happened when Jesus was on the cross, we must consider the fact that when Jesus died, something happened to God.
To say that something happened to God is a very mysterious statement. Mysterious, first of all, because God is almighty. Absolute power belongs to Him. Second, God is the great Creator of all things visible and invisible. Third, God is the controller of all events within human history. And finally, God is exalted and holy.
A Being who has those four qualities about Him is not the kind of Being that has things happen to Him. Such a Supreme Being is one who makes things happen, and He makes them happen to others.
God is not some aloof, far-away Being who is detached from His creation. Many people think that after God created all things He now looks on His creation with only a passing interest. They believe He wrings His hands because of all the horrible things that He sees going on in this world. But, they claim, He would never get involved in His creation in any way.
That certainly is not what the Bible teaches. Christianity reveals that the almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, was willing to enter our world in the Person of His only begotten Son. The second person of the Holy Trinity became one of us so that He could take upon Himself our sin and face the penalty of that sin: death.
So great is the love of God that the Son of God left the awe and majesty of heaven, where He was adored and worshipped by the angels, to become a bondservant in the likeness of man. He came to suffer, to be rejected, to be beaten, and to die. He left the glory of heaven to be forsaken of the Father so that those who believe in Him would never have to be forsaken of the Father.
When the centurion cried out, “Truly this was the Son of God,” he was speaking a glorious truth. When Christ was crucified, something happened to God Himself. At Calvary the love of God endured the wrath of God (the wrath that was upon us because of our sin). That wrath was turned away from us as it was poured out on the propitiatory sacrifice of God’s own Son on Calvary’s cross. Salvation was made possible for sinners like you and me!
to the Devil
In addition to something happening to God, something also happened to the Devil. His work in us was destroyed at the cross. John writes in his first epistle, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8).
The work of the Devil began already in the garden of Eden, where he succeeded in winning the confidence of Adam and Eve. The man and woman were, at first, without sin and without shame. They lived in perfect righteousness before God.
Satan, however, came to them and convinced them that God was a liar. That work ruined the human race. All of nature was ruined because the man chose to listen to Satan rather than to God. Death, suffering, famine, earthquakes, disease, darkness, and war all started right there in the garden. Satan had one goal in mind when he entered the garden to tempt Adam and Eve, and that was to destroy God’s beautiful creation. His goal remains the same today: to ruin God’s creation and spiritually kill each human being.
When the Son of God concluded His ordeal on the cross, He cried out, “It is finished!” Finished at last was the great battle between God and Satan. The battle that began in the courts of heaven, that was brought into God’s beautiful creation, and that finally culminated on the cross, was finished. On the cross Jesus met with Satan in that final battle and won the victory for all who look to Him for salvation. Satan’s head was crushed. His grip on the world and on the human race was broken.
When Christ died, what He did was not something that concerned Him alone, or something that affected Satan alone. Something happened at Calvary that concerns you directly. When Jesus died, He died for His people. He died so that sinful people could be set free from the curse of sin. Paul wrote in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death. That means that anyone who sins has to pay thepenalty set by God already in the garden of Eden. That penalty is death.
That verse that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write, however, does not end without hope. True, the wages of sin is death, but Paul went on to write, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Through the crucifixion, God the Son received the penalty of death in our place. At Calvary He took upon Himself our penalty. He died.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.