In the Gospel of Mark, the first person to confess that Jesus is the Son of God was the guard presiding over His torturous killing. A hardened centurion to whom death and crucifixion was not new. Maybe even routine. Yet, the death of Jesus caused a spark of realization in the stony heart of this man. On that brutal day, he would be the first person to recognize and proclaim the deity of Jesus.
At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, me God, why have you forsaken me?”… With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain was torn in two from top to bottom. 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!”
(Mark 15:33-34, 37-39)
In the book King’s Cross, author Timothy Keller unveils the scene and profession of the centurion:
At the moment Jesus Christ died, this massive curtain was ripped open… Now that Jesus has died, anybody who believes in him can see God, connect to God. The barrier is gone for good… And that’s only possible because Jesus has just paid the price for our sin. Anybody who believes can go in now.
To make sure we get the point, Mark immediately shows us the first person who went in: the centurion. His confession, “Surely this man was the Son of God,” is momentous. Why? Because the first line in the first chapter of Mark refers to “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Up to this point in Mark, no human being had figured that out. The disciples had called him the Christ, though in the prevailing culture the Christ was not considered to be divine. All along, Jesus’s teachings and acts of power – and even his testimony in front of the chief priests – had been pointing to the fact that he was divine. And people had been asking, “Who is this?” But the first person to get it was the centurion who presided over his death…
Centurions were not aristocrats who got military commissions; they were enlisted men who had risen through the ranks. So this man had seen death, and had inflicted it, to a degree that you and I can hardly imagine. Here was a hardened, brutal man. Yet something had penetrated his spiritual darkness. He became the first person to confess the deity of Jesus Christ.
There is a striking contrast between the centurion and everyone else around the cross. The disciples – who had been taught by Jesus repeatedly and at length that this day would come – were completely confused and stymied. The religious leaders had looked at the very deepest wisdom of God and rejected it… The centurion had seen many people die – and many of those by his own hand. Yet even for him this death was unique. He saw something about Jesus’s death that was unlike any other. The tenderness of Jesus, despite the terror, must have pierced right through his hardness. The beauty of Jesus in his death must have flooded his darkness with light (pp. 207-208).
Consider the impact upon the centurion. Consider the potential implications. If even the person who presided over the murderous death of the Savior of the world could confess Jesus as the Son of God, then there is hope for salvation for you, me, the most tenderhearted, and the most hardhearted person. Salvation is not based upon what we have or have not done. Salvation is based upon the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. He bore the punishment due to each of us, so “that whosoever believes in Him would not perish but would have eternal life” (John 3:16).