44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things. – Luke 23:44-49 ESV
The cross is one of the most recognizable symbols in all of human history. And its image conjures up all kinds of emotions and associations. For some, it elicits a strong sense of reverence and veneration. Yet others are repulsed by the sight of it, seeing in its simple form a sinister reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. And there are those who view the cross as an archaic religious icon that no longer holds any relevance in the more complicated and scientifically sophisticated age of post-modernity.
Yet, over the centuries, the cross has left a lasting and indelible impact on the lives of countless millions and continues to do so to this day. Jesus had told His disciples, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 ESV). And John, the one who recorded those words, added the explanatory note: “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33 ESV). Jesus was clearly predicting that His death would have long-lasting and life-altering implications. And it began the very day He was crucified.
This beaten and bloodied Rabbi from Nazareth hung helplessly on the cross as a wooden placard placed above His head proclaimed His crime: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37 ESV). Jesus was being executed for being exactly who He had claimed to be: The Messiah, the anointed one of Israel. He was the long-awaited seed of Abraham and the son of David. He was the fulfillment of every Old Testament prophecy that had predicted the coming Messiah and He was the divine culmination of every promise God had made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. And yet, on that fateful day in the city of Jerusalem, the Son of God and Savior of the world hung between heaven and earth, nailed to a wooden cross. He had been beaten, spit upon, slapped, and mercilessly mocked. The skin on His back had been laid open by the sharp pieces of bone and metal attached to the flagellum or whip that was used to flog Him. He had endured the excruciating pain of having His wrists and feet pierced by the large iron spikes that were used to nail Him to the cross. And then for hours, He had been put on display and subjected to the ongoing mockery of the onlookers.
…those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” – Matthew 27:39-40 ESV
So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” – Mark 15:31-32 ESV
And as Jesus endured the pain of the cross and the unrelenting insults of His enemies, He could see below Him, the soldiers who callously gambled over His garments. Then suddenly, at Noon, “the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:45 ESV). Inexplicably and unexpectedly, the brightness of day was replaced by the darkness of night. This disconcerting cosmic display got everyone’s attention. But few would have understood the relevance of the moment, except John, the one disciple who had faithfully stayed by his Master’s side all throughout His painful ordeal. John records in his gospel account how Jesus had placed upon him the responsibility for caring for Mary, the mother of Jesus.
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. – John 19:26-27 ESV
And as John stood at the base of the cross and watched the light fade, he must have recalled the words that Jesus had spoken.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12 ESV
And years later, long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, he would open his gospel with the statement: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5 ESV). Yet, on the day that Jesus was crucified, he must have seen the sudden appearance of darkness as an ominous sign. The one who had declared Himself to be the light of the world was suddenly plunged into darkness and, from John’s perspective, all hope must have drained from His heart. The Light of the world was about to be extinguished – forever. Or so he must have thought. As John looked up at the cross, with tears streaming from his eyes, he heard what he believed to be the final words he would ever hear from his Master’s lips.
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” – Luke 23:46 ESV
And then, Jesus died. The Light went out.
Yet even in death, Jesus made an impression. There at the foot of the cross stood a Roman centurion. We are not told his name or whether he was on official duty that day. But for some reason, he was struck by the injustice of all that he had observed, and declared, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47 ESV). But even more surprisingly, this pagan military commander praised Yahweh, the God of Israel. What would have possessed him to do such a thing? Could it be that this was the same Centurion whom Jesus had encountered in the city of Capernaum sometime earlier? Luke recorded that scene in chapter seven of his gospel account and revealed how this pagan military leader had approached Jesus with a request. His servant was sick and in need of healing. When Jesus had agreed to come to the Centurion’s house, the man had responded, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor. I am not even worthy to come and meet you. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:6-7 NLT). And having heard this man’s humble statement, Jesus declared that his servant had been healed. Then He declared, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Luke 7:9 NLT).
Perhaps this Centurion had received orders to bring his troops to Jerusalem to help manage the large crowds arriving for the Passover. And while he was there he heard about the arrest of Jesus and Pilate’s order to have Jesus crucified. This man had once told Jesus, “Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it” (Luke 7:7-8 NLT). Now, he had just witnessed Jesus doing the will of His Heavenly Father. He had heard Jesus say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46 ESV). And putting two and two together, the Centurion realized that this man truly was the Son of God, who had come to do the will of His Father.
Whoever this Centurion was, his life was changed. We are not told what happened to him but it seems safe to assume that he walked away transformed by what he had seen. Even in the darkness of that moment, the Light still shone forth, illuminating the heart of a hardened Roman Centurion. And he praised God.
But not far from the very spot where the Centurion stood praising the God of Israel, the followers of Jesus looked on in sadness and hopelessness. Their Messiah was dead. Their dreams had been shattered. The darkness of the moment enveloped them like a flood, and they found themselves drowning in sorrow and self-pity as the stark reality of their circumstances began to sink in. From their perspective, the Light had gone out. But what they failed to understand was that the Light, while temporarily dimmed, had not been overcome.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.