Foreign soldiers performing garrison duty in a conquered territory that hated them knew to be on their guard at all times. They also quickly became skilled in applied cruelty to break the spirit of resistance and enforce their will in the occupied territory in which they would always be outnumbered.
The Roman soldiers on crucifixion duty that received Pilate’s order on Good Friday morning were undoubtedly a tough lot. They had dealt death to others and seen their buddies killed. They carried out the punishment of crucifixion in order to terrorize the local population into submission, usually posting the charges above the unfortunate victim as a disincentive to any others who might contemplate similar crimes.
The routine execution of three Jews started off normally enough. The soldiers were hardened to the screams of two of the condemned. But it soon became apparent to these soldiers and their junior officer that something very unusual was happening. The calm and loving demeanor of the one in the middle stunned them.
The darkness that came upon the entire land, as well as the earthquakes that began to rock the surrounding area as the middle one’s death approached, totally changed their thinking and their world: “When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54).
Their Lenten sermon was correct. He was. And is.