Summary: The story of this Centurion is listed in 3 of the Gospels because God wants us to see what he saw. What did the centurion see that day, and why did he cry out "Surely this was the Son of God"?
In the days of Jesus the most feared soldiers on the face of the earth were those of the Legions Of Rome. These men were practically invincible. It seemed to no nation of the day could stand against them. And one of the reasons they were so powerful and so feared was because their armies were led by men called “centurions.”
These Centurions were seasoned veterans and were commanders of units of approximately 100 men. In today’s armies they would be roughly equivalent to a Major.
In Israel, 2 or 3 of these centurions would have been based in a fortress inside Jerusalem, but most of them were stationed in a seaport called Caesarea. When you folks sent me to Israel a couple years ago, I got to visit the ruins of that city, and this is what the ruins look like today. (We showed an overview of the ruins from https://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarea_Maritima#/media/File:Caesarea.JPG). You can just make one of the theatres and the hippodrome (a race track for chariots) as well as a faint outline of the harbor itself.
BUT in the days of Jesus - it probably looked more like this (we used a picture like the one found at http://beautifulcity2015.weebly.com/caesarea-maritima.html). Because of how the nature of the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Israel had no natural deep water seaports for ships. But Herod the Great built this one - an engineering masterpiece of the day – and it became so important to sea trade that Rome took it over and made it THEIR capital in Israel.
The city became a jewel on the Mediterranean with a theatre, amphitheater and hippodrome as just a few of its attractions. And it was where the majority of Rome’s forces in the area were bivouacked. This city was also (being the capital) the place where Pilate lived.
ILLUS: Now, it may shock you to learn that there are many people in this world who hate Christianity and hate our God and hate our Bible. And many of these are scholars – scholars who challenge every aspect of Scripture. And for decades Pilate was like a gift for these critics. There was no record of Pontius Pilate ever being Jerusalem and the skeptics taught that Pilate was nothing more than a figment of the imagination of the Gospel writers…
BUT THEN someone found this huge stone at Caesarea with his Pilate’s NAME on it. (http://www.ancientcoinage.org/coins-of-the-herodians--roman-procurators.html) It reads: “Tiberium, Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea”
In this picture – you can see the Palace where Pilate would have lived while stationed at Caesarea (http://cannundrum.blogspot.com/2015/08/caesarea-maritima-israel.html - the white structure toward the bottom of the picture). It was an elegant home originally decorated by Herod the Great as one of his palatial homes by the sea.
Now, why is Caesarea important to our story this morning? Well, because it’s possible that the centurion at the cross came from Caesarea. You see, Pilate didn’t live in Jerusalem and he probably didn’t want to live in Jerusalem. He was quite content 70 miles away in the comforts and entertainments of Caesarea. The only reason he would have needed to travel to Jerusalem would have been during the festivals (such as Passover and Pentecost) when large numbers of Israelites would’ve gathered together. The Jews hated the Romans… and Rome soon learned that any time that many Jews got together in one place it was a recipe for disaster – unrest, riots and possibly even the potential for a major revolt.
Pilate probably didn’t like the Jews any more than they liked him, but his job was to keep the peace and that required him to display a show force on occasion. So at these times when Jews gathered together, he would lead extra soldiers to Jerusalem. More soldiers required more centurions, and one of those centurions (that came with Pilate) could have been the one that was standing guard at the base of the cross of Christ.
Now, who was this guy? Who was this centurion? Well, he was part of a very exclusive club. There were only 20 or 25 centurions in Israel at the time. Several of the commentaries I studied said that it was intriguing that - despite the fact that the Jews hated the Romans - the New Testament writers treated the centurions with respect.
• When Jesus was ministering in Capernaum, a Centurion approached Him asking for help: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”
And (Jesus) said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”