Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.…
Many reasons have been given to account for that providence of God which determined that the Cross should be the kind of death that Christ should die; and that He should not end His life by sword or fire, by which the animal victims in the Old Testament which were types of Him were slain and offered. It is usual to explain the choice of this mode of death by showing its correspondence with various types and prophecies. Christ could not have been the antitype of the brazen serpent which was lifted up; neither could the prophecy — "they pierced My hands and My feet" have been fulfilled by Him, unless He died by crucifixion. This reply, however, only removes the inquiry another step off; to prove that our Lord's death is the accomplishment of type and prophecy may be useful as an argument whereby to identify Him as the Messiah, but it can cast no light upon the events themselves. The revealing beforehand of that which was to come to pass, was a merciful provision to aid our faith and lead our minds to Christ, but it did not determine the things which should happen; any form of death might have been equally revealed by prophet and lawgiver. Passing by without mention many mystical expositions, the extreme torture of this kind of death has been assigned as a cause for its selection. Some have considered it the most painful death which a human being could undergo. Moreover, the Cross added to actual pain another, and an extremely delicate kind of torment — shame and humiliation. We can conceive another reason why our Lord died by crucifixion, and one with which in the line of thought we are pursuing we are especially concerned; Christ willed to die by a death which was itself a spectacle. They "came together to that sight." The brazen serpent was lifted up for the express purpose of being looked upon. Christ ascribes power to the fact of His elevation upon the Cross — "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me." His death became an object of attraction, because it was an object of contemplation; the eye of sense, and the eye of a devout imagination could gaze upon His crucified form. The text describes the effects produced upon those persons who were standing before the Cross, when Christ died. Both the centurion and the people were deeply moved. They were representatives of different nations; and they illustrate the impressions which the Cross would make upon the mind and heart of man; there must be convictions in the mind concerning the person of the Sufferer before the heart can be touched with compunction. In the centurion we see the working of the Cross upon the human mind: in the people, upon the human heart. Together these represent the Cross as "the source of compunction."
I. THE CENTURION PASSED THROUGH A MENTAL REVOLUTION AS HE WATCHED JESUS. St. Mark says the centurion "stood over against Him" — that is — was in full view of the Cross; he was able then to see very distinctly the end. He was probably closer to Christ than any one else, for he was stationed there for the purpose of watching Him. The power of this sight may be estimated by considering the man who was impressed by it — his calling, race, and position. He was an unlikely person to be affected by such a sight. He was not present from any motive of curiosity, like many who were in that crowd. He was there on duty. Further, the centurion was not likely to be convinced through previous instruction; he did not come to the Cross with the religious training of the Jew. Another element in reckoning the power of the Cross upon the mind of the centurion is his position; he was the subject of an unprecedented impression. It was not a current of sensation with which he fell in, but which he seems to have led and inaugurated. He stands out as the first and prominent exponent of the thought and feeling which the Cross had stirred. Whilst, however, we are trying to form some estimate of the power of the Cross from the extreme unlikelihood of the person who was affected by it; we must on the other hand take notice of certain events which, accompanying Christ's death, aroused the mind of the centurion. His faith was an intelligent faith, and not the product of a passing excitement or heated imagination; it rested on evidences. We must look to these, or otherwise we shall be in danger of regarding his faith as a sort of unreasoning impulse; and besides this, the inquiry will lead to some very solemn thoughts concerning our Lord's death. The loud cry which Christ uttered when He died, astonished the centurion. When he "saw that He so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God." Faith is the gift of God, but God gives also sensible helps to create dispositions for receiving His gifts. External grace appeals through the senses, whilst internal grace acts on the mind and will. The man was by this cry aroused either from indifference or hostility or contempt, and brought into a condition of receptiveness of Divine truth. There was another ground of faith connected with this cry, which also had its share in convincing the centurion. In the text St. Luke says when he "saw what was done, he glorified God." St. Matthew is more explicit, and mentions the earthquake as causing fear. Christ was like Samson, He manifested His strength more in His death than in His life.
II. BUT BESIDES THE EFFECT UPON THE CENTURION, THE CROSS MANIFESTED ITS POWER UPON THE CROWD OF PERSONS WHO HAD GATHERED TOGETHER TO WITNESS THE CRUCIFIXION. They had cried, "Crucify Him, crucify Him!" when Pilate had brought Him forth, His raiment dripping with the precious blood; but death produced a reaction, which pity could not excite. When the murderer sees death written upon the face of his victim, the passion which had prompted the deed melts into fear and remorse. The people felt that they had a share in that passion, had been instrumental in causing it; and the result was a new sorrow — new, as an experience, yet long ago predicted. Their sorrow was the fulfilment of the prophecy — "They shall look on Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him"; it was an epoch in the history of moral convictions. Their compunction was a result of grace, and not the mere cooling of vindictive passion. Those people had assembled out of curiosity and malice; they had come hither without any dispositions for receiving grace, but the Cross overcame them. The Spirit of God used that Cross as the instrument of a deep conviction of sin; and they became the first-fruits, the earnest of that which should afterwards be the normal effect of the Passion. Mourning for sin would henceforth be excited by the thought — "Jesus, my love, is crucified." Compunction was a great grace. At the moment when the sin of man had culminated, for God to unlock His treasures and begin to bestow them is an astounding evidence of His quenchless love! That those very persons who had rejected Him should thus be visited inwardly with a subduing and softening unction from the Holy One is a marvel of Divine forbearance. CONCLUSION: There are three thoughts, which are of practical importance in enabling us now to experience the power of the Cross as a source of compunction.
1. Our sins caused the Passion. We did not drive the nails into His hands or pierce His side, but — "He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows... He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities... the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all." He "bare our sins in His own body on the tree." As the crowd who smote their breasts returned, they each one felt "I had a part in that." What the outward share in that Passion was to the actual offender, that our sins are in relation to the Cross as a mystery.
2. Again, the Cross was not endured for mankind as for a multitude in discriminately, but for each individually. Every human being might truly say, "He loved me, and gave Himself for me."
3. Once more — as the constant recurrence to the thought of Christ's omniscience seems to bring the Cross close to us; so to regard His remembrance of all that happened on Calvary, now that He is in glory, is another help to meditation on the Passion. The memory of Christ, uninfluenced by the passage of time, can look back on every detail of the Passion. He is not capable of forgetfulness, who is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; each event, each sorrow, each pang is treasured up in His memory with a recollection more vivid than the creature can possess. Though in His glory, He is the same Jesus who suffered; and the marks of suffering abide — the sacred wounds, which are the perpetual memorials of His Passion. As with the eye of the soul we now behold Him and hold communion with Him, the remembrance of Calvary will pass from Him to us, and the spirit of compunction cause the heart to mourn over sin. Such thoughts may help us to gaze upon the Cross with a true sorrow. Whether it be the conversion of a whole life we need, or the renewal of some part of it, or victory over some habit of sin, we must place ourselves with the crowd before the Cross and pray for the manifestation of its power on our own minds and hearts. If there is the sense of lack of dispositions, the Cross can create them; only let us continue to contemplate it. Fire melts ice; the sun unfolds the flowers; the Cross can melt the hardened heart, and draw out from it new graces.
(W. H. Hutchings, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.