Sermon: The Miraculous Faith of the Roman Soldiers
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have been turning our attention this Lenten Season to the miracles of the Passion.
• the darkness from 12 noon to 3 o’clock on that first Good Friday,
• the tearing of the temple curtain,
• the earthquake,
• the splitting rocks,
• the raising of many of the saints from death.
There is one more miracle of the Passion. It is recorded in these words in Matthew 27:
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!”
Who were these Roman soldiers? What were they like? Their officer in charge was the centurion. A centurion would normally lead and oversee a company of one hundred soldiers, but for the task of crucifying Jesus and the two thieves, he probably used no more than twelve soldiers. Religiously, the soldiers were Roman pagans; probably very coarse, very seasoned, very callous; probably very detached, unemotional, very uninvolved. To be a soldier is what they did—and what they did, they did well.
The soldiers probably had been assigned to watch Jesus when He first appeared before Pilate. They, or at least the centurion, had some understanding of the issues. They had heard the charges of the Jewish leaders against Jesus and probably had some personal contact with both Jesus and Pilate. They knew that Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God as well as a king. There was a possibility that the soldiers had even heard about Jesus before His arrest. They were stationed in Caesarea, a port town 60 miles from Jerusalem.
I’m sure, though, that Jesus didn’t look anything like a king. Scripture tells us that the soldiers mocked Him, put a purple robe on Him, put a crown of thorns on His head, and said, “Hail, King of the Jews.” After they were through having their fun, they took Him out to Calvary to crucify Him.
The soldiers had been witnesses to several of the miracles of the Passion. They had experienced the three hours of darkness. They had heard the words that Jesus had spoken from the cross. Probably the words that stood out in their minds were, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). I’m sure that they had never heard words like those before.
Then Jesus died. The soldiers probably were not aware of the tearing of the temple curtain. But I’m sure that they were very much aware of the earthquake, the splitting of the rocks, and the opening of the graves.
We are told that these soldiers were filled with “awe,” a word that means reverential fear, wonder, or dread. Perhaps this awe drove home to them the idea that they had been on the wrong side: that what Jesus had been charged with was true; that He was no ordinary person but was indeed the Son of God, a term that implied deity.
Some believe that all of this drove home some understanding that the soldiers had personally done wrong: that they had sinned, something they probably had not been concerned about before—and with the conviction of sin came the feeling of guilt.
Jesus had expressed the Gospel shortly after He had been crucified. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” After what the soldiers had witnessed and experienced, they said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Was this faith? In the simplest form, we trust that it was.
We trust that the Holy Spirit had been at work, through the words spoken by the Savior from the cross. But who knows—there may have been other words involved. The soldiers may have heard Jesus preach or teach. The Holy Spirit may even have taken the negative words of the Jewish leaders about Jesus and turned them around in such a way that the soldiers perceived them as positives.
We must keep in mind that saving faith is not something that we do. It is rather what the Holy Spirit does through the Word to convert or change the sinful, unbelieving heart of a person. Conversion is a miracle in any case. We more often think of the miracle of conversion that changed Saul from a persecutor of the Church into an apostle proclaiming the Good News of Jesus. Certainly, the words of these soldiers indicate that some change had taken place. Can we not say that the Holy Spirit changed the hardened, callous, heartless Roman soldiers to have even a small faith placed in Jesus as Savior?
Some, or perhaps many, view faith as their work. We need, as I have already stated, to remember that faith is not our work but God’s work. St. Paul wrote:
You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11)
We . . . were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3–5)
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3–7)
As Lutherans, as baptized members of the family of God, we would certainly see the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as a part of the “washing” of which St. Paul spoke. Perhaps the soldiers were eventually baptized. We hope so, but they were not baptized at this time. Here, the Holy Spirit used the Word as the means for bringing about a change in the hearts of these Roman soldiers.
Dr. Luther gave witness to the Word in his Explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism. He wrote:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
We can’t bring another person to faith in Jesus Christ. We can’t even bring ourselves to faith in Jesus Christ. We are totally unable to do that. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.
To the soldiers, the Holy Spirit both convicted them of their sins and brought them to faith through the Gospel, part of which was conveyed by the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Saving faith is a miracle. It was in their life as it is in ours. Amen.