You know how the story goes. A cohort of roman soldiers gathered beneath the crosses. The messiest part of their work done they are now on their knees gambling, drawing lots for the soon-to-be dead man’s clothing. The leader of these men, a centurion, stands apart, watching the condemned man’s final moments of agony. He is silent as he observes the manner in which this innocent convict meets his fate. You know the words that centurion spoke as the man who hung from that cross gasped his last breath. Well, I was that centurion, the man who executed the orders that killed the Son of God.
I also was there when they condemned this man, and sentenced him to death though they could not prove he had committed any crime. His one offense that so outraged the Jewish leaders and compelled them to demand his life of Pilate? He claimed to be King of the Jews and Son of God. A bit crazy, perhaps, but a capitol crime? Surely not. And when faced with these accusations, did he become defensive or angry? No, he stood in silence and accepted the charges.
When Pilate asked if it was true that he was King of the Jews, a simple, respectful reply was all he gave: “it is as you say.” So Pilate had us beat the man, hoping to appease the wrath of the Jewish leaders and avoid a riot.
Yes, we laughed at him then. Mocked him, dressed him in rags, with a crow of thorns and a wooden scepter. “Hail, King of the Jews,” we jeered. A bit of harmless fun, we thought it. We were not killing anyone, and his scars would heal in time, and maybe He would have some sense beaten into him and learn his proper place.
But this was not enough for the leaders. They pushed and pushed until there was no choice. In order to keep the peace, we must kill this harmless madman.
As the crowds gathered around to toss insults at him while he hung in agony, did he lash out or hurl words of hate back at his mockers? As nails ripped through the flesh of his hands and feet, did he cry out for mercy? Did he seek escape from his anguish by accepting painkillers offered to him? No mere man could have refused such temptations!
Instead, he said, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Speaking forgiveness of sin as only a God could give, and asking it of God himself, calling him Father?
But there was more than just his attitude that was different. When the thief that hung on his right asked forgiveness, He assured the man he would be in paradise with him that very day. Only a God could make a promise like that.
And stranger still, at midday the sky grew dark, as if Creation itself was mourning his passing. Only then did he call out, speaking to God with a familiarity that no man would dare. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And finally, as he died, were his last words those of hate, anger, despair or loss? No, none of these; not even the acceptance of a beaten man, but something like victory rang out as he said, “It is finished! Into your hands I commit my spirit,” and he died.
Suddenly the ground beneath our feet began to tremble, as if rocked by great heaving convulsions of grief.
Surely this man was the Son of God.
But why? As he himself said, why had God forsaken him? What was the cause? I didn’t understand then, but I know now. This was no mere political execution. No mere appeasement of the masses. Certainly not the death of a madman or criminal. No, this was a sacrifice. This man, this Jesus, called the Christ, died in our place. You, like I, caused his death. This sacrifice was a payment of the penalty due for your sins and mine. Truly, this man was the Son of God, and his gift, by his death, was life for us, a life in which we might also become sons and daughters of God.