And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
(Matthew 27:51-56 ESV)
Over the past couple of days we’ve studied the miraculous events that took place immediately after Jesus’ death on the cross. This included the tearing of the curtain in the temple, an earthquake, and some dead people being raised back to life. These events were not lost on those who witnessed them.
When people were crucified the Roman government stationed guards at the scene to prevent people from taking the crucifixion victims down or in anyway helping them. Crucifixion was meant to be a long, painful, humiliating process that acted as a deterrent to future crime.
When the centurion and those who were with him keeping watch over Jesus saw the earthquake they were filled with awe. These men had undoubtedly witnessed dozens, if not hundreds, of crucifixions. As a result they likely had hearts that were hardened to human suffering. But they noticed that Jesus’ crucifixion was vastly different than any of the others. They could only come to one conclusion: Jesus truly was the Son of God.
Some may wonder how these men, who were Gentiles, would know enough about the Jewish scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) to call Jesus the Son of God. But remember, they were keeping watch over Jesus to make sure no one came to help Him. While they did so they heard all the people mocking Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.
It’s likely they were also the ones who scourged Jesus and even arrested Him. They probably heard all the accusations against Jesus at His trials and possibly also heard Pilate’s multiple declarations that He was innocent.
God taught these hardened Roman soldiers the gospel message while they did their job. In just a few hours they went from knowing nothing to believing in Jesus and having their eternity secured in heaven. The gospel is a powerful message. It is powerful enough to penetrate even the most hard-hearted people.
It’s interesting that the first ones to believe in Jesus after His death were Gentiles. Jesus was rejected by His own people, the Jews, while on this earth. As a result, God took the message of salvation through Jesus to the Gentile world, beginning with this centurion and his men who believed just minutes after Jesus died.
At the moment Jesus died the Old Testament expired and the New Testament went into effect. These tough Roman soldiers, who carried out death sentences against God’s people – the Jews – were the first New Testament believers.
Isn’t it amazing how God uses the most unlikely of events – including the brutal treatment of His own Son – for good? There is no situation that God can’t, or won’t, use to draw people to Himself [Romans 8:28].
The conversion of these soldiers show us that one does not need a lot of information to believe in Jesus. You don’t need to understand every word of the Bible. You don’t need to have a seminary degree. You only need to understand your own sinfulness and believe that Jesus was who He said He was – the one who came to pay the penalty for your sin.
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