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Was Christ Really Resurrected? Ask Longinus, a Convert at the Crucifixion
By Dean Olson
This Easter millions of Christians around the world will celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. No other holiday is central to the Christian faith. The very foundation of Christianity stands or crumbles on the truthfulness of the assertion that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
I believe that as we near the end of the Age of Grace and anticipate our blessed hope in the pre-tribulation rapture (Titus 2:13), Satan has ramped up his attacks on the historical accuracy of Christ’s resurrection. True to form, some of his most effective lies are his most subtle. A reader of a Christian website recently related that her minister preached on Easter that Jesus just swooned on the cross and the disciples nurtured Him back to health.
Satan’s soul-stealing machinations depend on his ability to drive a wedge between believers and Christ. Denying the resurrection has always been a fundamental goal of Satan. If he can convince us that Jesus did not actually die, and was not resurrected, he can make God out to be a liar and cast doubt about eternal salvation based on faith in Christ.
It is easy for those operating under satanic influence to argue against the historicity of the Bible. Many of the details of things that happened over two thousand years ago are lost to time. However, because Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection are recorded in the Bible we are assured of its inerrancy. The Bible is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17), or theopneustos in the original Greek, meaning that holy men of God wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. Professor Nelson Glueck is widely believed to be one of the top five “greats” in biblical archaeology. He said that in his over 30 years of archaeological digging in and around the Holy Land he “held a Bible in one hand and a trowel in the other.” In his many fascinating discoveries that prove the accuracy of scripture he added, “I have never…found the Bible to be in error.” In other words, no archaeological find has ever contradicted the Bible.
There were three notable conversions that occurred at Christ’s crucifixion that underscore that Jesus is the Son of God who permanently defeated Satan by dying for our sins on the cross and gloriously rising from the dead three days later. The first was one of the criminals crucified with Christ. The second was Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and prominent member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court that condemned Jesus to death. He provided “the rich man’s tomb” for the crucified Christ as prophesied in Isaiah 53:9. The third conversion, and the subject of this commentary, is Longinus the Roman Centurion in charge of crucifying Christ.
Those present at the crucifixion were in a unique position to see for themselves if Christ was a phony or the Son of God as he proclaimed. By the time of Christ’s crucifixion the Romans had crucified approximately 30,000 men in Palestine. In spite of this common form of Roman execution, never had Roman soldiers encountered anyone like Jesus.
They had little or no information about His life and more than likely met Him for the first time outside the judgment hall of Pilate, Roman governor of Judea. As a result, most of what they would know about Him would revolve around one day – the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The words, actions and spirit of Jesus were so different than that of anyone else the soldiers had ever executed before that it caught their attention.
While the commanding officer over the crucifixion is never named in scripture, later traditions indicate that his name was Longinus. We know that because he was a centurion he had been promoted to a position of command over 100 of the best soldiers based on his loyalty and skill. He was also entrusted with particularly difficult assignments.
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ would have been one of his most volatile assignments yet. The surrounding mob was close to rioting as they lined the streets shouting insults and calling for the deaths of the three men. More than likely this centurion had never before seen the hatred and utter lack of compassion that he was seeing directed at Jesus.
Matthew’s gospel informs us that after seeing several things happen, the centurion and his soldiers came to the conviction that Jesus Christ was actually the Son of God. They even risked their own lives and reputations to declare this truth. In effect, these Roman soldiers became the first evangelists of the crucified Savior. They would declare not only His innocence and righteousness, but His deity.
One of the first events to capture their attention was the fact that Pilate declared Jesus Christ to be innocent. “I have found in Him no guilt…” (Luke 23:22). As Pilate handed Jesus over to the centurion, instead of hearing the crimes committed against the state that justify the death sentence, he and his soldiers watched as Pilate washed his hands in a ceremonial manner saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood…” (Matthew 27:24). As a soldier who had committed his life to protect and uphold the laws of the Roman Empire, he would have been struck by the fact that his leader just announced that this criminal had never broken the law.
Next, the soldiers witnessed an unusual exchange between Christ and a group of women. As they made their way through the streets of Jerusalem toward Calvary the centurion and his soldiers heard Christ make an unusual statement to the daughters of Jerusalem. Luke, in chapter 23, records that women from the city were following Jesus and weeping because of His imminent death. They were weeping not so much because of their faith in Him as because of their remorse over a Jewish man being executed in this manner by the Romans.
Instead of feeding off their kindness and their sympathy, the centurion heard Christ say to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me…weep for yourselves and for your own children” (Luke 23:28). Even in this hour the compassion of Christ caused Him to stop and tell these women that they and their nation were in grave danger.
Jesus knew that in the near future the Romans would destroy Jerusalem in an orgy of murderous violence. Led by the future Emperor Titus, Jerusalem was besieged and conquered in 70 AD. They sacked the city and destroyed the Second Temple. The historian Josephus claimed that over a million people were slaughtered. As predicted by Jesus in Mark 13:2, there was “…not…one stone upon another that (was) not…thrown down.”
Jesus, beaten beyond recognition, horribly scourged and weakened by blood loss, staggered under the weight of the patibulum, the heavy cross piece of the crucifixion cross that weighs more than a hundred pounds. He was on His way to die and yet He showed compassion for other people who he knows are also going to die.
This would certainly have seemed odd to soldiers hardened to the crying of the condemned for mercy. Had they ever seen a condemned man care about anyone else on his way to an excruciating death by crucifixion?
The next event that would have caught their attention was that Christ refused to drink the wine mixed with myrrh. Out of compassion to the condemned, the women in Jerusalem provided wine mixed with myrrh – a narcotic drink intended to ease the pain of the crucified victim. Mark’s gospel informs us that when Christ reached the Skull (Calvary or Golgotha), He was offered this drink but “…He did not take it” (Mark 15:23).
Christ refused this drink because He had work to do on the cross. He had things to say and would not be in a stupor. He would face death without an anesthetic so that every word could be trusted; so that every final act could be recorded and as one observer put it “freighted with divine meaning.” Christ had prophecies to fulfill and souls to save.
Already intrigued by the actions of this most unusual of condemned men, the soldiers must have been astounded when Christ offered them forgiveness as they nailed Him to the cross. Luke records the event in Chapter 23:33-34 “… there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying [that is, kept saying], “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Make no mistake, Christ was not offering this prayer for the religious leaders who had come to mock Him. They knew what they were doing. Jesus was praying for the soldiers. The Sanhedrin knew precisely what they were doing, but these soldiers did not – they were simply on duty that fateful day and following orders. Imagine the scene; our Savior’s body was wracked with pain with each blow of the hammer that drove nails through his wrists. It was then jolted as it was raised upon the saddle, followed by further hammering of nails through His crossed ankles, yet all the while He kept praying aloud, “Father, forgive them…forgive them…forgive them…they do not know what they are doing.”
I doubt that any criminal these soldiers had ever executed looked at them as they hammered him onto the cross and offered prayers of forgiveness. And don’t overlook the fact that Jesus kept praying to the “Father.” Even the Romans would have known enough to know that no Jew ever called God his “Father.”
Next the soldiers heard one of the criminals, his eyes having been opened by the grace of God to the truth of Christ, ask to be given entrance into Christ’s kingdom, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42). No doubt the centurion had already mulled over the meaning of the words on the placard behind Jesus’ head that declared Christ’s only crime, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” (Matthew 27:37).
He listened as one of the condemned cried out to Jesus in faith asking that Christ allow him to enter His kingdom. The centurion and his soldiers were more than likely shocked to hear Jesus’ reply, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43).
After these words nature, in the grip of Almighty God, lends its voice to this scene on Calvary. Total darkness swept in and enveloped the land. Luke tells us that darkness blanketed the earth at the sixth hour and that it lasted until the ninth hour (Luke 23:44). The sixth hour happens to be noon. With the sun at its zenith God suddenly shut off the lights. Matthew tells us, “…darkness fell upon all the land…” (Matthew 27:45).
Sources outside the Bible indicate that the darkness was global. One of these sources is a letter from Pilate to the Roman Emperor Tiberius in which he referred to the darkness he knew Tiberius had also experienced, even though Tiberius was not in Israel at the time. Pilate even mentioned that the darkness lasted from twelve to three o’clock in the afternoon.
There is no doubt that the soldiers quickly started a fire in order to keep watch and that torches were lit as this supernatural darkness blotted out any light from the sky for three hours. The rabbis had taught for centuries that the darkening of the sun was a judgment from God. I can imagine that there was no more mocking or jeering from the crowd, especially the Sanhedrin. Everyone sensed that God’s hand is somehow involved. No doubt the religious leaders slipped away out of fear. Luke’s gospel tells us that after Jesus died the crowd that remained on Golgotha returned to Jerusalem “weeping and in deep contrition” (Luke 23:48).
Jesus made more statements during the three hours of darkness. The next event occurred when the centurion heard the cry of agony and abandonment of Christ. Suddenly, out of the darkness Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mathew 27:46). The centurion would have noticed that Jesus was no longer referring to God as His Father. For the first time in scripture Jesus does not address God as His Father. Because he had taken on our sins our absolutely Holy God could no longer look upon His now sin-corrupted Son. There was no intimate communion at this point as Jesus took upon Himself all of our transgressions as prophesied in Isaiah 53:5.
As the darkness is about to lift the centurion hears Christ deliver a shout of completion as recorded in John 19:30. Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” The Greek word uttered is “tetelestai” which literally means “paid in full.” Luke then includes this final word as Jesus says, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” (Luke 23:46).
The centurion heard Jesus revert back to calling God “Father.” Why did Jesus do this? The Lamb of God had finished His redemption of mankind at the cross. In the darkness, in unimaginable agony on the cross, Christ had paid the eternal sacrifice for our sins. No longer abandoned, Christ offered up His spirit to the care of His Father.
One of the final events the centurion experienced that day was that he literally felt an earthquake that shook the earth. As Christ bowed His head in death Mathew records that the earth began to shudder and shake so violently that rocks split apart (Matthew 27:51).
The centurion had listened as Pilate declared this Man innocent. He had heard Christ warn a group of women that He was not in danger with God, but they were. He had watched Christ refuse to drink the narcotic. He then heard this Man offer forgiveness to his soldiers for what they were doing. He had witnessed the compassion, the dignity, the promise of a kingdom, the communication with God His Father, the darkness, and then an earthquake. It is no wonder that Longinus stood at the cross and marveled, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).
Longinus was the first Gentile convert after the death of Christ – one of three notable conversions at Calvary that day. Matthew described the moment of the centurion’s conversion to Christianity with enormous power, “So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54). The centurion placed his faith in Christ even though He had just died.
Soon after the events at Golgotha Longinus would play a major role in helping to establish the veracity of Christ’s resurrection. After the crucifixion and burial Longinus stood watch with his company at the tomb. These soldiers were present at the resurrection of Christ. The Jewish elders of the Sanhedrin who had ordered the death of Jesus bribed several soldiers to spread the false report that Christ’s disciples had stolen his body under cover of darkness and made off with it. Longinus ruined their plan by refusing to be bribed. He even went so far as to tell the world the true story of how Christ’s body had risen into the glory of the resurrection.
After learning that Longinus wanted no part of their conspiracy or their money, members of the Sanhedrin tried to assassinate the centurion. Learning of the plot, Longinus removed his military garb, was baptized with several of his fellow-soldiers and then hurried off to Cappadocia in what is modern day Turkey. Longinus and his two comrades preached about Jesus Christ the Son of God. The fiery words of those who had actually participated in the crucifixion and witnessed the resurrection swayed the hearts and minds of the Cappadocians. Christianity quickly spread throughout the city and the surrounding villages.
When they learned of this, members of the Sanhedrin approached Pilate to remind him that Longinus was a deserter and was a threat to the Empire by preaching “the cult of Christianity.” Pilate ordered his soldiers to find Longinus and behead him. Longinus anticipated a plot against his life. When he heard that strangers were approaching his village he hurried out to greet them as friends. Without letting them know who he was he invited them back to his home where he fed and entertained them.
When they fell asleep he prepared himself for his execution by praying throughout the night and then clothing himself in spotlessly white burial garb. As dawn approached he drew his loyal companions to his side and instructed them to bury him at the top of a nearby hill. He then approached the awaking soldiers the next morning and revealed his true identity; “I am Longinus, the man you seek!”
Amazed by their generous host’s honesty, the Romans were caught completely off guard. How could they behead such a man? But even as they protested against the execution, Longinus insisted that they should end his life so as not to endanger their own lives by refusing to carry out their orders. In the end Longinus, along with two fellow soldiers who had stood with him at the foot of the cross, were taken to Jerusalem and beheaded.
Witnessing Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection convinced Longinus and his fellow soldiers that Jesus was truly the Lamb of God. There is no way they would have been tricked by a fraud. The faith instilled by what they witnessed was unshakable. That unshakable faith led Longinus to martyrdom. He could have tricked the visitors sent to kill him by denying his identity or escaping as they slept. Instead, his willingness to sacrifice himself rather than deny his faith is an example of God’s grace shining through mans sin-corrupted mortal existence. It is a God-inspired act of strength that transcends human weakness that foreshadows our eternal salvation and our Creator’s ultimate justice.
In John 20:29 Jesus told the disciples, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all believers provides us with spiritual discernment to know with certainty that the story of the crucifixion and resurrection are true. As we celebrate Easter this year we are assured of God’s infinite love for mankind manifested in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”