************ Sermon on Mark 15:39 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on April 22, 2011
I The Centurion's Story
It was a week I will never forget. It started Sunday already. All of our troops – our entire legion of five thousand men – were put on high alert because a man named Jesus came into Jerusalem on a donkey. You should have seen the Jewish people: yelling, screaming, waving palm branches, hailing Jesus as their King. Let me ask: What kind of king rides on a donkey? You never know what the people of Jerusalem are going to do during one of their festivals so all leave was canceled and every soldier and officer was on duty.
And then five days later my company had guard duty at Pilate's palace – Pilate is the governor, you know. Some kind of trial was going on. The Jewish leaders dragged one of their own before Pilate. It was Jesus – the same man the crowds had welcomed as King just five days before. Pilate gave the crowd a choice between freedom for Jesus or Barabbas; Barabbas is a low life who is guilty of murder. Can you believe that the crowd chose Barabbas and yelled for Jesus' blood? After a quick trial Pilate ordered me and my men to crucify Jesus and two others. What a strange turn of events.
In the part of the trial that I overheard, this Jesus did claim to be King. How bizarre. How delusional. But, then, He also told Pilate His Kingdom was not of this world.
When Pilate handed Jesus over to us, I called together the hundred men in my company. We decided to have some fun first. We pretended Jesus really was King of the Jews. So, my men put a purple robe on this Jesus. His back was an open mass of bleeding flesh – Pilate had ordered us to flog Him; I knew it would hurt when we took the robe off. The men twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on His head; they were none to gentle – they kind of hammered it on His head. They fell on their knees and pretended to pay homage to Him saying, "Hail, king of the Jews." They struck Him on the head with a staff and spit on Him.
Usually the condemned men cry and scream and beg for mercy; or, they curse and yell at me and my men; or, they say something awful about me and my mother; and, of course, they all claim to be innocent. But this prisoner suffered it all in silence; not once did a sound come from His mouth. That was no fun. So after a while we got tired of this and I ordered the men to get ready for the crucifixion.
Two of the men went into the dungeons and grabbed the other two prisoners. I mounted my horse. I ordered the soldiers to surround the prisoners before we left Pilate's palace and stepped into the busy streets of Jerusalem. One can never take chances with the pilgrim crowd during the festival so I made sure we were ready for anything.
I started the group at a swift march. But Jesus could not carry His cross and keep up. So at the city gate I ordered a passer-by to help Jesus.
On the way to the crucifixion Jesus told some women not to cry for Him but for themselves. Strange.
We got to the place of crucifixion at nine in the morning. In Jerusalem it is called Golgotha – a hideous place in the shape of a skull. We stayed there for six hours.
Usually we give the condemned men some wine and vinegar to numb the pain, but not Jesus – He refused. So I ordered the men to nail them down and lift them up. Still no sound from the One named Jesus.
A crowd of people had followed us. Jesus was one of their own yet they were screaming and yelling insults at Him – something about destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days.
And, then – can you believe this? – this Jesus asked His Father to forgive us! As if we were doing something wrong. All we were doing was following the governor's orders. Then He said something to one of the two criminals who were crucified with Him – some promise about being in paradise today. What a strange thing for one condemned man to say to another. He told one of His friends standing there to look after His mother who was also standing there – she must be a widow or something. For some reason I had a hard time looking her in the eye.
I left the strangest part for last. While we were eating lunch it became completely dark! Not storm-dark but completely dark, black, like at night when there is no moon or stars. It became dark. At midday. We couldn't see a thing. My men formed a circle around the crosses so the prisoners could not be freed under the cover of darkness. After three hours of this Jesus finally let out a scream: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Suddenly, just like that, the lights came back on and it was daylight again.
Towards the end, Jesus asked for water. He shouted "It is finished!" as if He won some kind of victory. And finally, right before He died, He said something about His spirit in the Father's hands.
Just then, when Jesus died, there was an earthquake. A low rumbling earthquake with lots of shaking. Live bodies of people buried a long time ago came tumbling out of graves. One of my friends – another centurion whose company remained in the city – later told me the big curtain in the Temple tore in half. From top to bottom. At the same time as the earthquake. At the same time as Jesus died.
What a strange week.
II The Son of God
A Now, with the account of the centurion in mind, listen again to the words of our text:
(Mk 15:39) And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"We learn five things.
First, the centurion made a dangerous confession. The Romans believed Caesar to be a son of God. Yet, the centurion confesses that Jesus was "the Son of God." In other words, he claimed that Jesus was higher than Caesar. He made a claim that wasn't very wise as a career move. He made a confession that for sure made him enemies among the Jewish leaders. He made a confession that could have cost him his job and landed him in a Roman jail.
B Second, the centurion confessed Jesus as "Son of God" based upon what he saw and heard. Scripture tells us the centurion made his confession when he heard Jesus' cry and saw how Jesus died.
"Surely this man was the Son of God!" (Mk 15:39). You would think that what the centurion saw and heard would lead him to the opposite conclusion. After what he saw and heard, you would think the centurion would say, "Surely he was the son of man!" Because don't we see a frail Jesus, a mortal Jesus, a weak Jesus, a fleshly Jesus? Look at His bleeding back. Look at Him stumbling on the way to the cross. Didn't his wrists and ankles bleed when the nails were pounded in? Listen to His cry for water. I repeat, don't we see Jesus as just another human, a son of man?
C Third, this is not the first time we hear this confession in the Gospel of Mark. Do you remember how Mark begins his Gospel?
(Mk 1:1) The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.Do you remember Christ's baptism:
(Mk 1:11) And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."Even evil spirits acknowledged Jesus is the Son of God:
(Mk 3:11) Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, "You are the Son of God." (Cf Mk 5:7)Remember Peter's confession:
(Mk 8:29) "But what about you?" [Jesus] asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ."Remember the transfiguration:
According to the other Gospels, this means Peter believes Jesus to be "the Christ of God" or "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Lk 9:20; Mt 16:16).
(Mk 9:7) Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"Finally, keep in mind what the high priest asked Jesus:
(Mk 14:61-62) "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" (62) "I am," said Jesus."
'Surely this man was the Son of God" (Mk 15:39). Take note of all who confessed this. This is the confession of Mark. This is the confession of God. This is the confession of the evil spirits. This is the confession of Peter. This is the confession of Jesus. And, now this is also the confession of the centurion. When we look at Matthew's Gospel, we see this is also the confession of the men under the centurion's command (Mt 27:54). Mark mentions only the centurion because his position among the Romans was prestigious and high-paying.
D Fourth, of all the people standing before the cross, why do only some and not all confess Jesus is the Son of God? Why not the crowd of onlookers? Why not the Jewish leaders? Why does the centurion make the confession that Israel failed to make?
Remember, the centurion made the confession Jesus is the "Son of God" because of what he saw and heard. So, what did he see and hear that almost everyone else missed?
We know everyone was affected by all that happened at the cross. Everyone, not just the centurion, was surrounded by the darkness and unable to see. Everyone, not just the centurion, was shaken by the earthquake. Everyone, not just the centurion, saw the crucifixion and heard the words of Jesus. So why the difference in response?
The centurion, of course, had the Spirit of God within him. And, because of the Spirit he noticed and heard and believed things that everyone else missed:
-He noticed that Jesus was innocent, holy, sinless, not guilty.
-He noticed that Jesus did not complain, curse, fight, or lash out.
-He noticed that the darkness and the earthquake was God's judgment upon Jesus for his sins and the sins of the world.
-He noticed that Jesus was in control from beginning to end. Jesus' life was not taken from Him; rather, He gave it up.
-Above all, he noticed not guilt but relief, freedom, and forgiveness when Jesus died. That is, he noticed the mercy and grace of God in his life.
The centurion noticed all this – and probably more – and realized that none of this made sense unless Jesus was the Son of God.
Keep in mind what is said by the Heidelberg Catechism. Our Mediator must be truly human and truly righteous because "God's justice demands that human nature, which has sinned, must pay for its sins; but a sinner can never pay for others" (A 16). Also, our Mediator must be true God so that "by the power of His divinity, He might bear the weight of God's anger in His humanity and earn for us and restore to us righteousness and life" (A 17). Somehow, by the Spirit, the centurion knew and believed these truths of the Gospel.
E Fifth, do you realize that in our passage there are three levels of witnesses to Jesus as the Son of God? First, there was the witness of God. We see this witness when the finger of God tore the Temple curtain in two from top to bottom. Second there was the witness of earth. We see this witness with the darkness and the earthquake. Third, there was the witness of man: Simon before the cross (we looked at him), the thief on the cross (we looked at him), and now the centurion after the cross.
"Surely this man was the Son of God." Is this your confession? Do you confess that He Who suffered and died on Good Friday is the "Son of God"? The Gospel writer Mark wants you to make this confession. After all, this is why he wrote his gospel – so that his readers will also believe.
"Surely this man was the Son of God." If this is your confession, let me remind you that this can be a dangerous confession. Remember what could have happened to the centurion? We don't know if the centurion was hounded by the Jewish leaders for what he said. We don't know if the centurion was sent into exile by the Romans or stripped of his command for making his confession. But note this: he was willing to make the confession in spite of the risks. When you confess that the Jesus of Good Friday is the "Son of God" the world may mock and scorn you the same way it mocked and scorned Jesus.
"Surely this man was the Son of God." Again I ask, is this also your confession? If you truly believe that the Jesus of Good Friday is the "Son of God" then you will give Him your obedience, your worship, your honor, and your praise. Then you will live for Him Who died for you. Then you will let others know there is a Redeemer from sin.
"Surely this man was the Son of God." Is this your confession? It needs to be for only the Son of God can save you from your sins.
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