We're going to read the Scripture together, Mark's gospel chapter 15 is where our reading is found. Matthew, Mark, then Luke and John. If you don't have a Bible, don't worry, just listen as we read the Scriptures together.
Mark chapter 15, and we're beginning to read at verse 22: "And they bring him unto the place Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, The place of a skull. And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not. And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take. And it was the third hour, and they crucified him. And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS. And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors. And they that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, Save thyself, and come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save. Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him reviled him. And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? And some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold, he calleth Elias. And one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink, saying, Let alone; let us see whether Elias will come to take him down. And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom. And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God".
I want to preach to you under the title 'The Moment Of Discovery' - for one man, a man who was below the cross on Golgotha's hill. We read in Mark 15:39: "And when the centurion, which stood over against him", the Lord Jesus, "saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God". That was his moment of discovery.
Now I don't know whether you know anything about centurions in the Roman army, but they were the backbone of the Roman military establishment. A Roman legion was made up of 6000 soldiers, and one legion was divided into 60 centuries. Now keep with me, you don't have a calculator I know, but a centurion commanded each of those 60 centuries, 60 groups of 100 soldiers, in that legion. A centurion was, if you like, a long service, a career soldier. He wasn't in it serving his time for a couple of year's experience and discipline, normally he was in it for his life. Indeed, it was the highest office within reach of an ordinary soldier - any soldier could reach the heights of the office of a centurion. It was also a well-paid position, so there was incentive to get there.
A centurion was responsible for discipline in the regiment, and some have said that centurions were the cement which held the Roman army together. The Roman army wouldn't have become what it did without the centurion as the linchpin of those centuries of soldiers. Each individual centurion had great authority and power extensively. There were times when he had to not only oversee wars and battles, but individual executions like the one we've read of, of the Lord Jesus in this passage. Those who were guilty of capital offences, they were able to oversee. Not only in war, but in peace the morale of the Roman army depended on the centurion.
Let me give you a glimpse of the character and personality of the type of man a centurion would have been. Polybius writes like this, I quote: 'They must not be so much venturesome seekers after danger as men who can command, steady in action, and reliable; they ought not to be over-anxious to rush into the fight, but when hard pressed, they must be ready to hold their ground, and even to die at their posts'. Now if you know the Bible, you will know that there are a number of centurions mentioned within the Scriptures. Always they are seen in an admirable light. In Matthew chapter 8 we read of a humble centurion who came to the Lord Jesus seeking the healing of his servant boy. Jesus says: 'I'll come right away to your house, heal the young lad', and the centurion said: 'No, I'm not worthy that you should even come under my roof, if you only speak the word it will be done. I am a man under authority, and I have men under my authority, and I know when I speak a word one goes and does what I say. I know that if you speak a word, you have the power over disease and death, Jesus, just speak the word'. That centurion had discovered that the Lord Jesus has all power in heaven and on earth, and all things must obey His voice whenever He speaks.
Then we read of another centurion called Cornelius in Caesarea in Acts chapter 10, and the Bible says that even before he was converted to Christ he was a devout man and one that feared God with all his house. He gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always - that can't be said of many people before they are Christians, and some even after it! He was the first Gentile believer, and in the Acts of the Apostles as a whole, three times we read of three different centurions on three different occasions who prevented the apostle Paul being harmed physically, and even being put to death. So we see the type of individual a Roman centurion was: he was an impartial, a courageous, and yet loyal person. He was an upstanding member of society, even high Roman society. He was a person that displayed great morality, and even at times, when it was called for, great human tenderness and compassion.
One thing is for sure: in any society you could never have considered a centurion to be a sinner. You see, that word 'sinner' has always been reserved for the dregs of society, the riff-raff, the centurion was not one of those people. Now I wonder could this sketch of the personality and characteristics of a centurion be a biographical sketch for you? I wonder are you here tonight, and you are an upstanding member of the community? You are in a position, perhaps, of authority, or even hold high office of some kind. You're maybe well-paid - there don't look to be too many paupers here this evening - maybe you have good career prospects, and as far as you're concerned, and others looking at you, you have it made for the rest of your life. Maybe you wield a certain power and influence in the circle you're in - and that doesn't have to be legal, it could be illegal, and we know all about that in East Belfast. Maybe you're a person who, like a centurion, has tremendous responsibility - maybe you have the welfare of others in your care, or maybe financially you have a great amount of money at your disposal and stewardship. Maybe, like some who work in hospitals, you make life and death decisions every day of your existence. When some of us are debating what colour of socks or tie to wear, you're making life changing decisions for people who are ill or on their deathbed. Whether it's from the medical field to the military field, many people in our society have great responsibility and great authority weighing continually on their shoulders.
Maybe you're not as exciting is that, but nevertheless you work in an office or you're engaged in labour in a business, maybe you own a business - and you're used to being a steady rock, that when others sway and buckle beneath the weight of pressure, you're always the dependable stalwart, the one who has to be there and take every punch that rolls your way. Perhaps, like even Cornelius the centurion, you could add to that great CV that I just mentioned: you're also religious. Maybe you're just moral, but you could be religious like Cornelius, a man who was devout and fearing God, and praying and giving to charity on a regular basis. Now if that's the case, and you fit this portrait, I wonder is it true of you what would have been true, I believe, in the Roman times: that you cannot conceive of yourself as a sinner.
I think the hardest people, sometimes, to see themselves in need and in a position of needing dependence on another is one who is like this, one who has authority, one who wields great power, one who has a lot going for them in many respects. If you're one of those who have everything going for you, maybe you think to yourself: 'Why spoil it and get all religious? Why would you ever think that you were a sinner?'. Yet I want to point your attention to the fact that there are several centurions in the Bible who were able to get off their high horse down to the feet of the Lord Jesus. This centurion that we read about in Mark 15 verse 39 was one of those.
Let me share a number of things about him with you tonight. Here's the first thing that you might think very shocking: he was among those who crucified Jesus. This centurion was among those who crucified Jesus. Now let me give you a background to this passage of Scripture, and those who were guilty of bringing Christ to this point in history, to Golgotha's hill and nailed to a cross. First of all there were the Jews, and the Jews, if you like, were active in the crucifixion of Christ. They were the ones who cried out in verses 13 and 14: 'Crucify Him! Crucify Him!'. They were aggressively opposed to the Lord Jesus, all that He said and all that He stood for. Now often those who are in high position, or think they're in high position morally or socially, are like that: they are actively opposed to the Gospel - why? I don't know why entirely, but I imagine that it's a threat to them, just as Christ and those who followed Him were a threat to the Pharisees, the Scribes, the High Priests, and the Sanhedrin. Often people who are high in society, in whatever capacity, feel that the Gospel, religion, Christianity is a threat to their well-being.
Is that you this evening? Well, the Jews were active in His crucifixion, but Pilate was also there behind the scenes, instrumental - but he was more passive in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. We read in Matthew 27: 'When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing', wanting to set free the Saviour, 'but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it'. Now I believe with all my heart that he knew Christ was innocent, he said it: 'I find no fault in Him' - but he was a typical politician: 'See you to it'. He was sympathetic with Christ, yet he wanted to remain neutral for political reasons - but you see, a disclaimer where Christ is concerned is not possible. I want you to hear this this evening. I don't care if you're in a high position or not, like Pilate, and I know that there's a lot of politics in our land - the fact of the matter is: you must be with Christ or against Christ. You can't be passive. The hymn put it:
'Jesus is standing in Pilate's hall,
Friendless, forsaken, betrayed by all;
Hearken! what meaneth the sudden call?
What will you do with Jesus?
What will you do with Jesus?
Neutral you cannot be;
Some day your heart will be asking,
'What will he do with me?''.
But you cannot be neutral! Pilate thought he could, often people in high places think: 'I can take it or leave it. When I'm talking to these Christian folk, I can talk like a Christian, I know the language, I maybe even look like a Christian. I can go to my church and behave like a Christian, maybe I'm even an elder in a Christian establishment' - but you're not for Christ.
Then thirdly, among those who crucified the Lord Jesus were the Roman soldiers, or you could say the centurion. They were necessarily active or passive, but more specifically I've defined them as being cooperative and compliant with the death of the Lord Jesus. In verses 14 to 20 we see that - they took Him, they scourged Him, they mocked Him, they put a crown of thorns on Him, they put a purple robe on Him, they bowed down before Him and said: 'Hail, King of the Jews'. They took a reed and smote Him on the head, they buffeted Him, they spat upon Him, they cursed Him, they mocked Him, they blasphemed Him. Now of course, they weren't the ringleaders, they didn't have governing power like Pilate did to condemn the Lord Jesus, but they carried out the wishes of the crowd. They went with the flow, their peers in society and the hierarchy, they weren't willing to oppose them - they went the whole way. Often you find that those who are high in society, there's a certain etiquette, there's a code, you don't get religious, you don't take on Christianity as the evangelicals define it.
Well, I don't know which you belong to this evening, but I know this: the Jews who were active, Pilate who was passive, and the Romans who were compliant are a cross-section of all people's response to Jesus Christ in our world this very evening. The bottom line is simply this, don't miss it: all these are Christ-rejection, all of them. Whether you're active and opposed; whether you're passive, you can take it or leave it; whether you just go with the crowd, the status quo - all are expressions of Christ-rejection, because not one of them is saying: 'I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back'.
Now you might say: 'Well, you're speaking about this centurion aren't you? There he was at the cross, but you don't know that he laid a finger even on the Lord Jesus Christ'. Well, I don't know, and indeed I believe he probably didn't - but the fact of the matter is, and this is intrinsic to what I have to say to you tonight, he didn't need to lay a finger on the Saviour. Yes, he was a Roman soldier; yes, he was there at Calvary, but the prime reason why I have defined him as being among those who crucified Jesus is not the fact that he's a soldier, or he's historically placed in the context - but he's a sinner! Maybe you're sitting there thinking to yourself: 'I know what's coming next, he's going to tell us we're all sinners'. Well, would you believe me if I did tell you that? A lot of people like this centurion find it very hard to take that in their teeth, but Romans 3:23 does say that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, that there's no difference. You think, perhaps, that there's a difference between you and other folk that could be classed as sinners - do you believe that you're a sinner? People like the centurion usually just dismiss it: 'That's nonsense!'.
You see, the problem is that people like the centurion usually never get near enough to the cross to realise that they're a sinner, that we all had a hand in the crucifixion of Jesus. Do you believe that? My friend, do you realise that you have a personal responsibility for the death of God's precious only begotten Son? Do you know that it was personally for you that He hung there between heaven and earth? I want you to look at Him tonight, I want you to see Him where He is - what do you see? 'Oh, I see spittle running down His face, I see blood, I see scars, I see tears, I see Him hanging there with dislocated bones, I see nails, I see thorns, I see spears' - my friend, if that's all you see, you're not seeing Calvary! You need to see that your sin is there, and your sin put Him there, and your sin, invisibly, was taken upon Him. You can't see this, there was even a darkness came over the cross so that we wouldn't see it, but though we didn't see it, it's real because God said it happened. He was punished for your sins.
'What sins?', you say. Maybe you're still sitting there thinking: 'What sins are you talking about?'. Have you kept all the commandments? Have you ever put anything before God? Have you ever made an idol of anything? Have you ever committed adultery, even if you didn't do it physically have you done it in your mind and in your heart? Have you ever murdered anybody? Never? Have you ever hated anybody, that's the same Jesus said! Have you ever coveted something that was another's? Oh, I could go on and on - have you ever stolen? Have you ever taken the name of the Lord in vain? Have you ever swore, and taken the precious name of Jesus on your lips as a curse? You know what I'm talking about - you could check every box there, couldn't you? I could, I'm telling you that now. There's nothing special about me, but maybe you're here and you're high and mighty, and you're saying to yourself: 'But I have never committed the big sins, I'm moral'. Where did you get this thing about there being big sins and little sins? It's like black lies and white lies, it's a myth, it's a fairytale - a lie is a lie, truth or lie, there's only one or the other!
Maybe your problem is the tongue, maybe you've a slanderous mouth, maybe you have a scandalous reputation for talk. Maybe it's just envy or bitterness, or anxiety or fear in your breast - it could be anything, all these things the Bible says are sin. But I'm telling you tonight on the authority of God's word, and you cannot contradict that - you could contradict me all you like - but God's word says that we're all under sin. If you're the perfect man or woman, I want to meet you. What you need to see tonight is not only that you have sin, and you have sinned, but it was your sin, my friend - can you get your eyes to Calvary, and see that that was why Jesus was dying? It wasn't a miscarriage of justice alone, it wasn't in the volition of the Jews, or Pilate, or the centurion - God led Him there, and He led Himself there to die for your sins!
I never cease to be amazed, and I've told it many times, at the story of a man who put his head to the pillow one night and he began to dream that he was on Golgotha's hill. He was seeing all the crucifixion as they laid the Lord Jesus' body out on that cross, and then they nailed the nails in with the hammer, and finally they lifted it up and then they dropped it into its socket, and His bones went out of joint. There he was on Calvary's hill, but at that point when he saw the Roman soldier nailing the nails into the hands of the Lord Jesus, he was just standing there behind him - and with each blow of the hammer as it fell low, he felt as if it was in his heart, and he couldn't take any more. In his dream he ran towards that soldier, yelling: 'Stop! Stop! This is wrong!', and he put a hand on his shoulder and he turned him round, only to look into his own face. He was that soldier.
Oh, we can be very hard on the centurion and all the rest of the Romans and the Jews and Pilate - there's a big debate, the Jews are talking about how we can be anti-Semitic talking about the Jews crucifying Christ, and how it was as much the Romans, it was as much the Governor, and all the rest. My friend, that's all irrelevant, because we all had our hand in it - you did too. We all are that soldier, for our sin nailed Him to the tree. Isaiah says: 'He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the punishment of our peace was upon Him; and with those stripes down His back that carried the cross, we are healed'. But my friend, I want you to see that you are among those who crucified Him! Ray Boltz has a song that puts it well. He imagines that he was that centurion, and it goes like this:
'I was in the crowd
The day that Jesus died,
And as He hung upon the cross
His mother cried.
I saw the crown of thorns He wore
The stripes upon His back,
The water and the blood ran out
And then the sky turned black.
My mind was filled with anger,
My heart was filled with shame,
This man brought only healing
Who could bring Him pain?
Why does it seem the strong
Always victimize the weak?
And suddenly I found myself
Standing to my feet.
And I cried,
Who nailed Him there?
This child of peace and mercy
Who nailed Him there?
Come and face me like a man
Who nailed Him there?
And the crowd began to mock me
I cried, Oh my God,
I do not understand
Then I turned and saw the hammer
In my hand!'.
The second verse goes on:
'I am just a Roman soldier,
An ordinary man.
I love my wife and children,
I do the best I can.
How could I have killed Him?
It must be someone else!
There's got to be an answer
I just can't blame myself!
I nailed Him there,
The Child of peace and mercy.
I nailed Him there,
I am the guilty man!
I nailed Him there
With my sins and my transgressions!
I cried, Oh my God,
Now I understand
When I turned and saw the hammer...
In my hand!'
Do you see that tonight my friend? You put Him there, it was your hammer, those were your nails, those were your thorns, for those were your sins. Just as he bowed his head, you need to bow your head and admit that you, by your sin, put the Saviour to Calvary.
Very briefly, two more things: not only was he among those who crucified Jesus, but he witnessed the greatest event of history. Do you see this? 'What's great about this?', they say. Our opponents talk about 'a slaughterhouse religion', how can you call a bloody, brutal scene like this 'great'? Look at what they're doing to Him, this is the basis of your religion? Well, this centurion had seen many people die in battle, he had been given authority over many executions and crucifixions just like this - but he had never seen a man die like Jesus died. My friend, you can tell me all the stories of Jesus, and they're wonderful. You can show me His miracles, and you can tell me about His life, but there's no doubt about it - the cross has a special impact on people's hearts! The hymn writer put it:
'It has our wondrous attraction for me,
For 'twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died'
Well, the greatness of it is seen in verse 34, where we read that the Lord Jesus shouted with a loud voice: 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'. He was taking your sin, so God forsook Him! I don't understand that, I was talking to someone about it this morning - I don't understand it, but it had to happen for me to be saved! Then in verse 37 He cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost, that means He died, and then the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom, that veil that stopped people getting to God was now torn in two - that's the greatness of it! The greatest demonstration of love is Calvary. 'Greater love hath no man than this', Jesus said, 'but that a man lays down his life for his friends'. My friend, He was laying down His life for you. Romans 5:8 says: 'God demonstrated His love, commends His love towards us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us'. The hymn writer asked the question: 'Lord, was it the nails that held Thee to the tree?', and the answer comes back, 'No, twas My everlasting love, My love for thee, for thee'.
Do you understand it? Are you taking it in? He came to the poor, He came to heal the brokenhearted - are you brokenhearted tonight, with an ache and a pain and a tragedy that I could never enter into, but God knows? He came through the cross to bring deliverance to the captives - are you bound this evening by some hurt, by some sin and transgression that you can't get free of? He came to give sight to the blind - maybe you're just not able to see things or understand eternal matters, and you're questioning them, you're sceptic? My friend, He can give you light tonight! He came to give liberty to the downtrodden - do you feel downtrodden? Maybe you're not one of these high and mighty folk, but you feel that you're in the dirt and everybody's walking over you?
I don't care how high and mighty you might be, everybody at some point in their life feels brokenhearted, feels captive, feels blind, feels downtrodden - and sometimes all this high and mighty stuff is just a mask for the way you're really feeling. The greatest demonstration of love is Calvary, the greatest display of anger was at Calvary, for God forsook Him. Isaiah says the punishment of our peace was upon Him, he also says that the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all, for our transgressions was He stricken, it pleased the Lord to bruise Him, the Lord made His soul an offering for sin. My friend, get beyond the Passion movie - it may be all true what you see when Christ is hanging there, but more went on than that, for His soul was judged for your sin! He bore your hell.
The greatest display of anger was Calvary, but hallelujah, the greatest declaration of forgiveness came from Calvary. He said: 'Father, forgive them!'. God has pronounced that because of Calvary, though our sins and iniquities have separated between us and God, He is our peace, Jesus Christ, and He has broken down the wall of separation. God was in Christ at Calvary, reconciling the world unto Himself so that - to put it bluntly - your sins could be forgiven. That's why the veil was ripped in two, to bring you to God - what a declaration of forgiveness!
Well, you see Him tonight high and lifted up, He's crucified among us here this evening. He's on the cross, I'm asking you: is it nothing to you? Behold, do you see Him, the greatest demonstration of love, the greatest display of anger, the greatest declaration of forgiveness - see if there be any sorrow like His sorrow! All ye that pass by, to Jesus draw nigh, to you is it nothing that Jesus should die? Praise God, not only was he among those who crucified Jesus and witnessed the greatest event of history, but he confessed the truth about Christ: 'Surely', having seen all of it, 'this man is the Son of God!'.
You have seen your sin, I hope, this evening - but do you see this? Can you come to confess the truth about Christ? You know you're a sinner, but do you know this? You know it, but have you confessed as Romans 10:8, 9 and 10 tell us: 'That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved'? Remember the apostle Peter, when Jesus said to him: 'Whom, do men say that I am?', speaking to the disciples. It was Peter that answered and said truly: 'Thou art Christ, the Son of the Living God'. Jesus said: 'Peter, Simon bar Jona, flesh and blood has not revealed this unto you, but my Father who is in heaven'. Do you know what that's saying? God needs to reveal to you who Jesus is - has He done it? Do you know who He is tonight? He is the Son of God, the Christ, God the Son.
First Corinthians tells us that no man can call Jesus 'Lord', except by the Spirit, do you know He's Lord tonight? It's alright saying He is the Christ, He's the Messiah, and He's the Son of God, and God the Son, and He's the Saviour - but is He your Saviour? Is He your Lord? He is risen from the dead, three days later after Calvary He rose, and He's Lord now, and He's coming back as Judge of this world. If you don't bow the knee to Him tonight, voluntarily, there's one day that you'll be forced to do it. Can you say: 'Truly this Man was the Son of God, and He bore my sins in His body on the tree. I'm a sinner and I need Him as my Saviour, and I want Him now, and I'm taking Him by faith'? Are you guilty of the blood of Jesus Christ? Oh my friend, are you prepared to meet your God with Christ's death on your conscience? You've become a witness tonight through the preaching of the Gospel to the greatest event, just like that centurion, and I'm asking you: will you confess the truth about yourself and about God's Son, and be saved from hell, from judgment, and be taken to heaven when you die?
Let us bow our heads: Our Father, I can't do an awful lot, in fact without You I can do nothing - but I have, I hope, with the Spirit's help lifted high the Lord Jesus. He has said: 'If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me'. Lord, draw people now, we pray.
My friend, if you hear God's voice, all you have to do by faith from your heart is say: 'Lord, I know I'm a sinner and I repent of it, I turn from my sin'. If you don't feel you're able to do that, that's OK, because God will give you the power if you're willing to be made willing to turn. 'Lord, I know that Jesus died for my sin. Lord, I want you to save me because of the Lord Jesus. I want Him to be my Saviour, I want Him to be my Lord. Save me now and make me Your child, and come into my life'. My friend, what He will do with you will be determined by what you do with Him tonight, for He is before you. What will you do?
Father, help souls tonight, and draw them we pray. We have been to Calvary, oh, and we don't want to leave - but our prayer is that those who are without Christ, they will stay at Calvary and know what it is to be washed in the crimson tide that flows for sin and uncleanness. Let them plunge beneath it this evening, our Father, and know all their sins washed away. Amen.
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This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the recording, titled "The Moment Of Discovery" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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