Kenneth W. Yates
In the Gospel of Luke, Luke tells us that when the centurion at the cross of Christ saw Jesus die, “he glorified God, saying, ‘Certainly this was a righteous man’” (Luke 23:47, NKJV). Both Matthew and Mark say that the centurion proclaimed that Jesus was “the Son of God” (Matt 27:54; Mark 15:39). While some maintain that Luke changed the centurion’s confession to make a theological point, there is no need to come to that conclusion. The centurion said both things about Christ. The centurion spent hours at the cross, and without a doubt he said many things, many of which are not even recorded in the Scriptures.
This article will address the centurion’s confession as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. What did the centurion mean by claiming that Christ was “righteous”? How did this confession relate to the purpose of Luke’s Gospel? It is important to recognize that the centurion was a military man. Another military man plays a significant role in telling the reader the purpose of Luke’s Gospel.
II. THE MILITARY AND JESUS’ FIRST SERMON
When talking about the purpose of the Gospel of Luke, we must remember that Luke also wrote the Book of Acts and that the two books go together. Many students and scholars have proposed different purposes for Luke’s two-volume work.1
There is general agreement, however, that one of the purposes of Luke is to show that the gospel goes out to Gentiles. The books are dedicated to a Gentile. After the birth of Jesus, Simeon makes an explicit reference to Gentiles (Luke 2:32). At the beginning and end of both books, Gentiles are included in God’s “salvation” (Luke 2:30-32; 24:47; Acts 1:8; 28:28). These inclusios bracket Luke’s purpose in writing.2
In Luke’s writings, not only are Gentiles included in the plan of God, but often these Gentiles will be open to what God is doing in Christ while some Jews are not. This comes out in Jesus’ first sermon in the Gospel of Luke. It occurs in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). A Gentile military man is used by the Lord to make this point.
III. NAAMAN AND JESUS’ SERMON AT NAZARETH
Bovon says that the first sermon by the Lord in Luke not only occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it also makes a programmatic statement. Nazareth, which represents all of Israel, rejects the message of Jesus from the start.3
This, however, goes too far. In Luke 2:34, Simeon predicted the falling away of Israel. But this falling away is only partial. Simeon also makes it clear that there will be some in the nation who believe. Jesus says that He has come to fulfill Isa 61:1–2 (Luke 4:18-19), and the Isaiah passage indicates success among the Jews (Isa 61:3).4 In the examples of Naaman and the widow, however, Luke does indicate that God’s plan includes an outreach to Gentiles. The ministries of Elijah and Elisha did not mean that they turned their backs on Israel. It meant that they ministered to outsiders. Their ministries also provided an OT justification for the mission to the Gentiles that Luke will record in detail in Acts.5
If Luke’s theology does indeed have as its major emphasis such a mission, it is significant that he chooses Naaman. Luke is the only Gospel writer to mention him. He is not only a Gentile, he is also a military man. In Acts, the impetus for the mission to Gentiles will be the conversion of a Gentile centurion, a military man named Cornelius.
With the example of Naaman, we see that God has reached out to Gentiles in the past. He has revealed Himself to them. This has always been God’s plan.6 Some of these Gentiles have responded to that revelation. This does not mean that Naaman became a believer in the coming Messiah. The OT does not deal with that issue. It does, however, tell us that Naaman responded to the revelation God gave him. Simply put, Naaman was open to what the prophet of God, Elijah, said to him.7
It will be maintained in this article that Naaman foreshadows the centurion at the cross.8 The Gentile military man at the cross is also open to what God reveals to him.
IV. THE CENTURION AT THE CROSS (LUKE 23:47)
Not only does Luke differ from Matthew and Mark when recording the words of the centurion at the cross, there are other differences among the Synoptics as well. These differences include the mention of other military personnel, as well as what the centurion sees and hears. As with the case of different statements by the centurion, these differences do not indicate errors or contradictions in the Bible, but they indicate different emphases by the Gospel writers.
A. Military Personnel at the Cross
One difference among the Synoptic accounts is that Matthew includes other soldiers in the reaction of the centurion when Jesus died. This is the most natural understanding of the phrase “those who were watching Jesus with him (i.e., the centurion; hoi met’ autou tērountes ton Iēsoun, Matt 27:54). Both Mark and Luke single out the centurion as the only one that makes a statement related to Jesus’ death. Whereas Matthew does not make a distinction between the centurion and the common soldier, Mark and Luke do. The most likely reason for this is that Mark and Luke use the centurion as an example of theological points they want to make.
In the case of Mark, the centurion acts as a foil to the twelve disciples. The disciples are blind to the requirements of discipleship, and Mark paints a negative picture of them. Mark uses minor characters such as blind Bartimaeus and the centurion to demonstrate the blindness of the disciples in these areas. The centurion understands that Jesus is the Son of God, even though He is dying on the cross. The disciples were blind to the requirements of suffering in discipleship and had abandoned Jesus. The centurion unknowingly states discipleship truths that the disciples do not understand, although he is an unbeliever. He is thus an outstanding foil for them.9
Like Mark, Luke singles out the centurion. It will be argued that he also uses the centurion as an individual who makes a theological point.
B. Events at the Cross
The confession of the centurion comes at the end of a number of events. All three Synoptics mention that the veil of the Temple was torn in two at the death of Jesus. The centurion does not see this event. However, there are other events he does observe.
The most dramatic event is that even though it was the middle of the day, it turned dark for three hours (Luke 23:44). Bock states that this darkness reflects an eschatological motif related to the judgment associated with the Day of the Lord in Joel 2, as well as a contrast to the light Christ brought into the world.10 It is extremely unlikely, however, that the centurion understood the possible OT allusions of the darkness.
Grández points out that the exegete can understand the darkness as a physical reality or a symbolic one, but in any event, there is a theological content.11 He lists eight possible views. An unbelieving pagan who believes in divine power could understand three of them because they are not associated with the Biblical record. These three are that the darkness represents the mourning of nature before the death of a great man, the intervention of God, and the anger of God.12 The centurion is an example of such a pagan.
The event that immediately precedes the confession by the centurion is Jesus’ prayer (Luke 23:46). The centurion hears Jesus quote this prayer from Ps 31:5. The Psalm records the anguish of a righteous sufferer who trusts in God. God will deliver such a person (Ps 31:1-4). The centurion hears Jesus submit to death on the cross while leaving vindication to God.13
Brown points out that in both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, the last words of Jesus speak of abandonment by God (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34). In Luke, Jesus’ last words express trust and confidence in God.14
Marshall makes the point that the prayer of Jesus is a picture of peacefulness in the midst of the ominous signs that accompany his death. In addition, the loud cry of Jesus at His death (23:46) was unusual for a man who dies from crucifixion.15 This centurion, who probably previously supervised numerous crucifixions, had never seen these things. The loud cry showed that He did not die of exhaustion, as one would expect. The prayer showed that He was in control when He died.16 Such a prayer also showed that this man had a supreme dedication to His god.17 He dies willingly and under composure.
After the crucifixion began, Jesus prayed for forgiveness for those who crucified Him. He bases this forgiveness on the fact that those who did it were ignorant of what their actions involved (Luke 23:34). There is a textual problem involving its inclusion. Many early manuscripts omit the prayer. However, there is ample external evidence for its inclusion.18
If the prayer is original, the centurion saw a part of Jesus’ character. He prayed for those who crucified him. He was merciful. This was the case whether he prayed for the Jews or the Roman soldiers who crucified him.
C. The Meaning of Ta Genomena (“What Happened”)
Luke tells the reader that when the centurion saw what happened, he made his confession. Mark does not have the participle in his account (Mark 15:39); Matthew has the plural form of the participle (ta genomena) and adds that the centurion also saw the earthquake (Matt 27:54). Since Luke makes the participle singular, it raises the question as to whether he had one thing in mind that the centurion saw, resulting in his confession. The fact that in Luke 23:48 he says the crowd saw the things that happened and uses the plural participle also suggests that maybe Luke had one thing in mind in reference to the centurion.
Crump argues that the centurion only saw one thing. This one thing is the prayer of 23:46. It is intimately tied in the same verse with the death of Jesus. There is a connection between the repentant criminal and the centurion. The criminal hears a prayer by Jesus about forgiveness (Luke 23:34). Both the criminal and the centurion respond positively to a prayer by Jesus on the cross.19
The criminal, by all indications, was a Jew. The other criminal asks if Jesus is the Christ (23:39). The repentant criminal mentions God and the “kingdom” (23:40, 42). He appears to have an understanding of the coming Messiah, while the centurion did not. It is entirely possible in Luke’s account that both were impressed with Jesus and that one experienced spiritual salvation and the other did not. Even if the centurion did not believe in Jesus as the Christ, he could nonetheless make the confession he did.
Of the three Synoptics, Matthew clearly states that it was a number of things the centurion saw which caused him to make his confession. These things included the miraculous events that surrounded the crucifixion.
Nolland and Fitzmyer say the centurion in Luke’s account saw a plurality of things, but they do not discuss the singular participle. These things include the steadfastness of Jesus, the words of the penitent criminal, the prayer of Jesus, and the darkness that covered the land.20
The differences between the accounts of Mark and Luke give some indication that Luke at least did not mean the way in which Christ died when he used the singular participle. Mark says that Jesus cried out with a loud voice. When the centurion saw the manner in which He died (Mark 15:39), he proclaimed that He was the Son of God. In other words, in Mark, the centurion seems impressed by the way in which Christ died. He was not exhausted but at full strength. Luke includes the prayer in Jesus’ loud cry but does not mention the way in which Christ died. Since Luke refers to the thing(s) that happened, this might argue that Luke had other things in mind.
It does seem that, based upon the singular participle, to argue that the centurion only saw one thing when he made his confession is too subtle. The participle is acting as a noun, and a singular noun can refer to a plurality of things.21 The article would then be functioning in an anaphoric way, referring to all the things the centurion saw in a collective sense.22
The centurion certainly saw the darkness, how Jesus suffered, and heard His last prayer. It is not surprising that these things made an impression on this pagan military leader. He saw a man die bravely, under composure, and willingly. These are attributes that such a military man could admire.
In addition, since military men often adopted local religious practices and gods, this centurion could very well interpret the darkness as a display of the displeasure of the Jewish god.23 After all, Jesus died in the vicinity of this god’s temple and in the holy city.
By placing this participle of seeing at the beginning of the sentence, both Mark and Luke emphasize that the centurion “saw” what happened on Golgotha. As mentioned earlier, both Mark and Luke present the centurion as an example. Karris says that in Luke, the centurion saw both the darkness and the actions of Jesus. The participle indicates that he is open to revelation.24
V. THE CHARACTER AND BACKGROUND OF THE CENTURION
In Luke 23:40, the repentant thief asks the other thief, who is reviling Jesus, if he does not fear God. Since the latter is mocking Jesus, this indicates that he does not.25 The implication is that the repentant thief does fear God. He feels that he and his fellow criminal suffer “justly” (or righteously, 23:41; dikaiōs).26 Jesus, on the other hand, does not suffer justly in that He does not deserve what is happening to Him.27
Luke has the centurion make the same statement. Jesus is righteous (dikaios). The implication is that the centurion is like the repentant criminal. He, too, is one that fears God.
Even though it is not likely that the centurion understood about the darkness at the cross as a demonstration of the judgment of God on the Day of the Lord, there was the belief in the ancient world that darkness was a sign of the death of a great person. This is the way astrological signs were understood by many in that day.28
It is perhaps significant that only Luke mentions the sun in reference to this darkness. The Critical Text uses a participle (eklipontos; Luke 23:45). The participle might indicate a solar eclipse. Perhaps, for Luke, the centurion saw this as a solar eclipse and believed, with many in the ancient world, that such an event was a divine statement.29 The darkness certainly contributed to the centurion’s assessment of Jesus.
Burriss suggests that the military background of this centurion may have contributed to how he interpreted the darkness. Army generals would use things like an eclipse or a storm to indicate the actions of the gods.30
Matera holds that the centurion’s confession should not be understood as a historical one. He is a literary character, making a theological point by Luke.31 However, there is no need to hold that the centurion could not make such a confession based upon what he thought “righteousness,” or perhaps justice, meant. From Acts 10:22 we see that a pagan soldier could have a concept of righteous living. A military leader could have a concept of virtue. The centurion’s words could simply be a declaration based upon that understanding.
Sterling suggests that the Greco-Roman world was very familiar with great men dying in humility. Philosophers, who were exemplary people, died in this manner. They used Socrates as an example of such a death. He faces death in the same way Jesus does. He is not afraid to die and places his death in the hands of the gods and believed in some type of existence after death (Plato, Phaed. 63-64a, 67e, 69, 91, 95). In fact, Sterling says that Luke is influenced by such writings in his account of the death of Jesus.32 Facing death in this way could impress even a pagan military man.
In his account of the crucifixion, Luke certainly pictures Jesus in these ways. The differences in Mark highlight these things. Even though it does not necessarily follow that Luke was influenced by these contemporary views, it does shed light on the background of the centurion. Sterling points out that any educated person would have been familiar with the life of Socrates. In spite of how Socrates died, he was considered a righteous person and, even though he was a condemned criminal, was executed unjustly.33 The centurion was perhaps an educated man. If he could hold positive views of a man like Socrates, he could have similar views about Jesus. This would even be more likely if he saw Jesus as a devotee of the local Jewish god.
For a Roman centurion, no doubt humility was seen as a negative characteristic in certain circumstances. However, under honorable conditions it could be seen as a positive trait, as in the case of Socrates. For the centurion at the cross, the latter was the case with Jesus.
Whatever the background and understanding of the centurion, Luke indicates that he is able to understand what God is doing in Jesus. Both Mark and Luke, who use the centurion as an individual example for their theological purposes, comment that the centurion “saw” what was going on before him.
VI. THOSE AT THE CROSS WHO SEE AND THOSE WHO DO NOT
Crump states that in Luke there are three instances of people who see God at work in Jesus at the cross and three instances of people who do not. Those who see are the repentant criminal, the people, and the centurion. Those that do not see are the Jewish leaders, the soldiers, and the unrepentant criminal.34
The three blind groups are connected by the fact that they all mock Jesus. They also call for him to “save” Himself (23:35, 37, 39). The three positive groups counterbalance the groups that neither fear God nor believe. The centurion is a part of the positive group. It is significant that Matthew loosely places the centurion in the group with the mocking soldiers, even though in Matthew, the centurion himself does not mock Jesus. In Luke, the centurion comes across more clearly as a God fearing Gentile who properly interprets events at the cross.
In the darkness that surrounds the cross, the people, the repentant thief, and centurion are able to “see.”35 The centurion sees what happens (v 47). The people see the sight (v 48). For those who are willing to see, God reveals what he is doing in Jesus. This is true even for a Gentile.
This unites the centurion with the repentant criminal in another way. The criminal had incredible insight into what God was doing in Jesus. Even though the criminal was Jewish, he believed Jesus was the Messiah in spite of the fact that Jesus was a condemned man. As a condemned criminal himself, he was a religious and social outsider as far as Judaism was concerned. These things were true of the centurion as well. Even though he also was a religious and social outsider, he had tremendous insight into what is happening in Jesus.36
VII. THE CONFESSION OF THE CENTURION
A. Jesus Was a Righteous Man
Luke differs from both Matthew and Mark in the confession of the centurion. The centurion in Matthew and Mark proclaims that Jesus was the “Son of God.” In Luke, he says that Christ was righteous.37 What is the meaning of the word righteous?
Some maintain that it means “innocent.”38 Bock says this is the primary meaning because of the context of Luke 23 where Jesus is shown to be innocent through a number of legal proceedings.39 Pilate, Herod, the repentant thief, the centurion, and Joseph all proclaim that He is innocent.
Others maintain it means “righteous.” Why would the centurion glorify God if an innocent man was executed?40 Brown falls into this camp and takes this position because of the use of Psalm 31 in Jesus’ prayer and the practice of the early church in calling Jesus the Righteous One.41 Tiede agrees and says the word must mean that Jesus is a “worthy” man because the adverbial form of the word is used by the thief on the cross to say that Jesus is not worthy to die, but that he and the other crucified man deserve what they are getting.42
While the word in the mind of the criminal could mean “innocent,” his emphasis is on what they and Jesus have done. Luke describes the criminal as an “evildoer.” He and the other criminal “have done” (epraxamen) things worthy of death, while Jesus “has done nothing morally wrong” (ouden atopon epraxen; Luke 23:39-41). The word describing what Christ has not done (atopon) is a rare one. Luke only uses it two other times. In one case it clearly means morally evil things. In the other it refers to harmful things happening to a person.43
This is the meaning of the word dikaios in the context as well. In 23:50, Joseph is called a “good and righteous” man. There the phrase clearly refers to a virtuous man. In Acts, Luke uses the word righteous (dikaios) as a title for Christ as the “Righteous One” (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14). In Acts 10:22, it describes the virtuous character of the centurion Cornelius.
If there is a connection between the centurions in Luke’s writings, the use of the word righteous in Acts 10:22 suggests that the word means righteous in a moral sense. The soldier and two traveling companions proclaim that their master Cornelius is dikaios. In addition, he is one that fears God. Both of these concepts are found in the events at the cross. If a soldier proclaims that his superior is a righteous man, it is not surprising that another military man would see the same thing in Jesus at the cross.44
Cornelius is not the only person whom Luke calls “righteous.” He uses the same adjective to describe Simeon, Zacharias, and Elizabeth (Luke 1:6; 2:25). In the case of Zacharias and Elizabeth, Luke says they lived blamelessly in regard to the commandments of God.
Perhaps a stronger reason for the meaning “righteous” is the overall Lucan usage. He uses the word seventeen times and it never means innocent, unless it means so on the lips of the centurion at the cross. Even if “innocent” makes sense in the context, so does the usual meaning by Luke.
The confession by the centurion is a testament to Christ’s character, which the centurion recognizes.45 He is not interested in His legal status, but His character. It is His character that is on display in His actions and words. The centurion is open to God’s working in Jesus. He also is aware of the heavenly signs that surround the events at the cross.46
Why shouldn’t the centurion come to the conclusion that Jesus was a righteous man? He heard His words, saw His actions and faith in His God, as well as the darkness that accompanied His death. If the thief on the cross recognized the character of Jesus, why couldn’t a military officer? Even though he is a pagan, he is connected with the God fearing criminal and recognizes that Jesus is righteous.
Matera suggests that the declaration by the centurion comes about because the centurion sees that Jesus is in a right relationship with God. He trusts in His God until the very end, even in the midst of suffering. Unlike in Mark, where the confession is one of Jesus’ identity, in Luke it is a statement about how He acts.47 With all that the centurion sees, it is clear to him that Jesus, and not the religious leaders, stands in a right relationship with their God.48 It is likely that with his syncretistic religious view, he would see things this way.
The absence of the article with the word righteous strongly suggests it is not a Messianic title on the lips of the centurion. While a noun can be definite without the article, this example does not fit any of the constructions where an anarthrous noun is definite.49 Luke uses the word with the article as a Messianic title in Acts 3:14 and 7:52. The Christian reader understands more about the Righteous One than the centurion did.
It appears that the character of Jesus, as seen in Luke 23:47, foreshadows the use of the phrase “Righteous One” as a Messianic title. In light of these things, Green says that Luke uses the confession of the centurion to summarize the entire ministry of Jesus.50
Beck makes the interesting suggestion that Luke uses the adverb “truly” in 23:47 to say that Christ is the “truly” righteous one. In Luke’s Gospel, others, especially the religious leaders, have thought of themselves as righteous (16:15; 18:9; 20:20). Jesus rebuked these pretensions.51 At the cross, the centurion states the truth. He can see a person who is truly righteous even though the Jewish religious leaders cannot.
If, as argued here, the term dikaios on the lips of the centurion means “righteous,” there is a connection back to Naaman and the Sermon at Nazareth. In Jesus’ sermon, He refers to His ministry in light of the Righteous Servant of Isaiah (4:18-19; Isa 61:1-2). In Acts 3:14, when Luke refers to Jesus as the Righteous One, he probably also has the Servant of Isaiah in mind.52 Without understanding the full significance of his confession, the centurion proclaims that Jesus is the righteous Servant of Isaiah. When Jesus preaches His first sermon in Luke, He mentions the same context and uses a Gentile enemy officer to show that such men are open to the message He will proclaim, even though many Jews will be not. The centurion at the cross continues the same themes.
B. Jesus Was the Son of God
The phrase “Son of God” in both Matthew and Mark can have more than one meaning. From a Christian perspective, it can have an ontological meaning. From a Jewish perspective, it can have a royal meaning. Luke’s use of righteous can also have more than one meaning. One reason Luke uses it may be to show that Jesus was not only righteous but also innocent and was therefore who He claimed to be.53
In all the Synoptics, the confession of the centurion has a deeper meaning. In Matthew and Mark, the centurion did not mean the title Son of God in an ontological sense. In Luke, he certainly did not mean “righteous” in the sense the early church did in the Book of Acts in reference to the risen Jesus. However, Luke uses the centurion to state a truth that the centurion did not understand. He saw the character of the man on the cross before him.
The confession of the centurion, then, states more than the centurion knows. This is not surprising. In the context, the enemies of Jesus have stated more than they realize. In 23:35, the religious leaders say that He has saved others; let Him save Himself. The leaders meant the word in the sense of physical healings, as well as deliverance from death. While Luke uses the verb in these senses in his writings, he also uses it in numerous occasions to refer to spiritual salvation (Luke 8:12; 9:24; 18:26; 19:10; Acts 2:21, 47; 4:12; 14:9; 16:30). Jesus’ death on the cross would provide the spiritual salvation of those who believe. When His enemies said that He saved others, it was an extreme understatement.
The confession of the centurion in Mark is also an understatement. The construction Mark uses is one in which an anarthrous predicate nominative (“Son”) precedes the copulative verb. Harner argues that the usual practice of Mark is that such a construction stresses the qualitative nature of the predicate nominative and not the definiteness or indefiniteness of the noun. If Mark had meant for the centurion to say that Jesus is “a Son of God,” he would have placed the verb before the noun. If he wanted to emphasize that Jesus was “the” Son of God, he could have placed the verb before an articular noun “God.” The qualitative nature of the noun stresses the nature or character of Christ. Christ’s sonship with God involves suffering and death. That is the type of sonship He has, and it can only be understood in light of His suffering. The translation “God’s son” is the best translation to express the qualitative nature of the predicate nominative.54
Other findings support Harner’s conclusion. The phrase “Son of God,” one with an anarthrous nominative followed by an anarthrous genitive, is an example of a construction in which Apollonius’ Corollary applies. In such constructions, both nouns usually have the same semantic force. The most common is that both are definite. Somewhat less common is that both are qualitative. The least likely is that they are indefinite or that one is definite and the other is indefinite.55 It is unlikely, then, that the centurion said “a” son of God. As a rule, 80% of the time anarthrous predicate nominatives, as in this case, are qualitative.56
If the centurion in Mark proclaimed that Jesus was “a” son of God, he would be deifying Christ as a great leader or honoring Him as a Greco-Roman hero. This would have been a Roman understanding of “a son of God.” This would have been a Hellenistic confession.57
If the centurion had said that Jesus was “the” Son of God, this would have been a Christian confession. Because the word “son” is qualitative, the centurion need not be saying something he did not know. However, he is making a step towards proclaiming Jesus’ true nature. He recognizes that in Jesus is One with superhuman status and authoritative power. In Him, the centurion sees one who displays God’s activity. Those who see and hear Jesus see and hear what God is doing. The centurion is the first human being in Mark’s Gospel to make this confession about Jesus.58
No doubt, Mark himself understood the phrase “Son of God” as definite/definite. The centurion understood it as qualitative/qualitative. In the confession of the centurion in his Gospel, Luke does a similar thing.
The centurion proclaims that Jesus is righteous. As a military man, perhaps he is impressed with certain virtues in Jesus, such as courage, integrity, and devotion to His beliefs. He sees what many others around the cross do not see, even though they are Jews.
His confession, however, is not a Christian one. Luke knows there is more to this confession. Jesus is truly the “righteous one” (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14). For Luke, this is a Messianic title. Through Him, one finds the forgiveness of sins and is made “righteous” apart from the Law of Moses. This righteousness is available to all who believe in “this One” (Acts 13:38-39). The centurion does not understand all these things. However, when he sees Jesus and says that “this” man was “righteous,” he is unknowingly moving in that direction.
Hamm also sees a double meaning in the confession of the centurion, but in another way. The confession occurs at the ninth hour when the afternoon sacrifice occurred at the Temple (Luke 23:44). The death of Jesus provides the true significance of that sacrifice.59 If so, in another way the centurion states a theological truth of which he is not aware.
C. Jesus Glorified God
Of the three Synoptics, only Luke mentions that the centurion glorifies God upon the death of Jesus. The phrase “glorify God” is significant in the Gospel of Luke in that it always refers to an event in which God has revealed Himself and His power, almost always in the form of a miracle of healing. This power of God is always directed towards the “poor” and needy.60 In each case people respond by “glorifying God.” In all but one case, the people glorify God because of what they see God doing in Jesus. This is the best understanding of the phrase in relation to the centurion as well. If so, it suggests that the centurion is also one of the poor and needy.
A particularly significant example of “glorifying” God in the Gospel of Luke is the account of the cleansing of the ten lepers in 17:12-19. Luke tells us that of the ten lepers, only one gave glory to God. This was the Samaritan whom Luke calls a foreigner. Of the ten, only he is told by Jesus that his faith has saved him. With this leper and the centurion at the cross, Luke tells us that these kinds of people can see things that many religious Jews do not see. They can give glory to God. They are also capable of exercising faith in Jesus even though they are “foreigners.”
In the Gospel of Luke, the concept of glorifying God is also sometimes specifically associated with fearing God. In 7:16, after Jesus raises the widow’s son from the dead, the people glorify God. They also experience a godly fear (phobos) because God has visited His people in Christ. With the healing of the paralytic in Luke 5:25-26, the same theme is present. The people glorify God and are filled with fear because of what they see in Jesus. Since the centurion is associated with the God fearing repentant criminal, the implication is that the centurion not only glorifies God, but has a godly fear as well.
The usage by Luke of this phrase in Luke and Acts leads Fitzmyer to conclude that the centurion glorifies God through Jesus in the way a Christian or Jew would.61 If so, once again it is a confession that states more than he understands.
In the case of the centurion, he glorifies God by the confession that Jesus is righteous. Even though the centurion says more than he understands, it is his confession that is the final statement at the cross. It is the final word about Jesus’ death. It is particularly significant because a Gentile makes the confession.
Doble sees a connection between this confession and Luke 4:16-30, the sermon at Nazareth. Jesus said he would proclaim good news to Gentiles. He would go to them. They, too, are part of the poor. When the centurion praises God at the cross, the sermon at Nazareth is being fulfilled.62
In Acts, there are two instances of the phrase “glorifying God” which suggest the same thing. After the salvation of the Gentile Cornelius, the believing Jews praise God because he has given Gentiles life. In Pisidian Antioch, Gentiles glorify God because eternal life is made available to them (Acts 11:18; 13:48).
In Luke’s account, the centurion at the cross continues themes the reader has seen already in Naaman in the Lord’s sermon at Nazareth. The centurion’s actions and words are a rebuke to the unbelief of some Jews. Gentiles are able to respond to the revelation of God. He is associated with those who fear God, and he is one of the “poor” outsiders.
God reaches out to all different kinds of people. He reaches out to them where they are. They can respond to the revelation God gives them. Unbelievers are not so spiritually depraved that such a response is impossible.
In addition, this centurion can recognize righteousness and be impressed by it. His words and actions are also completely understandable within his pagan background.
However, his confession states Christian and theological truths that he does not understand. There is a double meaning. In Mark’s account the confession is important for Mark’s theological emphasis. The changes that Luke makes in the confession also reflect his theology. The sermon at Nazareth is coming true. God is reaching out to Gentiles.
1 Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 435; Robert Maddox, The Purpose of Luke–Acts (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982), 20-22; James D. G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles, Epworth Commentaries (Peterborough: Epworth Press, 1996), xi; Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, vol. 1, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 14. These writers suggest at least eleven purposes.
2 Kenneth W. Yates, “Centurions in Luke/Acts” (PhD diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 2014), 88-89; Robert F. O’Toole, The Unity of Luke’s Theology: An Analysis of Luke–Acts (Wilmington, DE: M Glazier, 1984), 100.
3 François Bovon, Luke: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, Hermeneia, ed. Helmut Koester (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002), 152.
4 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke (I–IX): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 1, Anchor Bible, vol. 28 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), 529, 537.
5 Emmanuel O. Nwaoru, “The Story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-19): Implications for Missions Today,” Svensk Missions Tidskrift 96 (2008): 30.
6 Jeffrey S. Siker, “‘First to the Gentiles’: A Literary Analysis of Luke:4:16-30,” Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992): 85.
7 Yates, “Centurions,” 152-57.
8 In fact, he foreshadows all the centurions in Luke’s writings: the centurion at Capernaum (Luke 7:1ff); the centurion at the cross; Cornelius (Acts 10); and Julius (Acts 27). All were Gentile military men.
9 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 425; J. F. Williams, Other Followers of Jesus: Minor Characters as Major Figures in Mark’s Gospel, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 102, ed. Stanley E. Porter (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994), 129; J. F. Williams, “Discipleship and Minor Characters in Mark’s Gospel,” Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (1996): 336; Christopher D. Marshall, Faith as a Theme in Mark’s Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1989), 142; Francis J. Moloney, Mark: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 150-51.
10 Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 1858.
11 Rufino M. Grández, “Las tinieblas en la muerte de Jesus,” Estudios Bíblicos 47 (1989): 216.
12 Ibid., 217. He commends Moo for his conclusions on the topic. See Douglas J. Moo, The Old Testament in the Gospel Passion Narratives (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1983), 342-43.
13 Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, 1862.
14 Raymond E. Brown, “The Passion According to Luke,” Worship 60 (1986): 8.
15 I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 874-76.
16 Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Luke, ICC (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 538.
17 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke (X–XXIV): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 2, Anchor Bible, vol. 28A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985), 1519.
18 Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 3rd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), 108. Metzger points out an argument from internal evidence as well. There are also those who argue that a scribe was more likely to omit the verse because after AD 70 it seemed that Jesus’ prayer was not answered. Metzger, however, puts little weight on the argument.
19 David Michael Crump, Jesus the Intercessor: Prayer and Christology in Luke-Acts, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, vol. 49 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992), 87-89.
20 Fitzmyer, Luke (X–XXIV), 1521; John Nolland, Luke 18:35–24:53, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 35c (Dallas, TX: Word, 1993), 1159.
21 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1934), 409.
22 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 217. The singular verb ginomai certainly is appropriately used in a collective sense. For example, the singular is used in Rev 8:7 to refer to a plurality of things.
23 Yates, “Centurions,” 68-80.
24 Robert J. Karris, “Luke 23:47 and the Lucan View of Jesus’ Death,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (1986): 66.
25 Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, 872.
26 BDAG, 198. The word often carries with it the idea of righteousness.
27 Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, 1855-56.
28 See, for example: Plutarch, Rom. 27.6-7; Cicero, Rep. 6.22; Plutarch, Caes. 69.4-6; Pliny the Elder, Nat. 2.26-30; and Josephus, Ant. 17.6.1-4. Tacitus also confirms that astrological phenomena could be interpreted as divine portents. He writes that a comet was seen as a sign of an imminent change of political power (Ann. 14.58-59).
29 BDAG, 242. Godet points out that during the full moon of the Passover, a solar eclipse is impossible. However, Luke could be describing the event in terms his readers and he understood. See Frédéric L. Godet, Commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1881), 494. It is of significance that the Majority Text simply says that the sun was darkened.
30 Eli E. Burriss, “The Roman and His Religion,” Classical Journal 24, no. 8 (1929): 596.
31 Frank Matera, “The Death of Jesus according to Luke: A Question of Sources,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985): 483.
32 Greg Sterling, “Mors Philosophi: The Death of Jesus in Luke,” Harvard Theological Review 94, no. 4 (2001): 386-97.
33 Ibid., 398-99.
34 Crump, Jesus the Intercessor, 78, 90. The fact that the people “turned” from the cross and beat their breasts indicate they understood that Jesus’ execution was a terrible act of injustice (Luke 23:48).
35 Ibid., 95.
36 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 822-27.
37 The only difference in Matthew and Mark is the order of the first two words.
38 Arthur A. Just, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Concordia Commentary (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1996), 945; Martin Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, trans. Bertram Lee Woolf (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1971), 201; John T. Carroll, “Luke’s Crucifixion Scene,” in Reimaging the Death of the Lukan Jesus, ed. Dennis D. Sylva (Frankfurt: Anton Hain, 1990), 116-17; Vincent Taylor, The Passion Narrative of St. Luke: A Critical and Historical Investigation, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, vol. 19 (Cambridge: University Press, 1972), 97. Carroll says Luke uses the word to indicate innocence because the early church had to explain the scandal of a crucified Messiah.
39 Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, 1863; Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, 876.
40 Nolland, Luke 18:35–24:53, 41-42; Beck, “‘Imitation Christi’ and the Lucan Passion Narrative,” 43; Karris, “Luke 23:47 and the Lucan View of Jesus’ Death,” 66. In another work, Bock says that even though the context indicates innocence as the meaning, it probably means “righteous.” See Darrell L. Bock, “A Theology of Luke-Acts,” in A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994), 127.
41 Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, from Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, vol. 2, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1994), 1163-67.
42 Tiede, Luke, 420.
43 BDAG, 120. Acts 25:5; 28:6.
44 Liddell and Scott indicate that the word has numerous shades of meaning in secular writings. These include living a civilized or well-ordered life, being a good citizen, being loyal, observing one’s duties to the gods and men, and being righteous in both actions and words. See Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 429.
45 Joseph B. Tyson, “Jews and Judaism in Luke-Acts,” New Testament Studies 41, no. 1 (1995): 24-25.
46 Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, 1864; Bock, “A Theology of Luke-Acts,” 127.
47 Matera, “The Death of Jesus according to Luke: A Question of Sources,” 481-84.
48 Nolland, Luke 18:35–24:53, 1160.
49 Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, 245-54.
50 Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus and the Rending of the Tempel Veil (Luke 23:44-49),” in Society of Biblical Literature 1991 Seminar Papers, ed. Eugene H. Lovering (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1991), 548; Beck, “‘Imitation Christi’ and the Lucan Passion Narrative,” 43.
51 Beck, “‘Imitation Christi’ and the Lucan Passion Narrative,” 46.
52 Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus, God’s Servant,” in Reimaging the Death of the Lukan Jesus, ed. Dennis D. Sylva (Frankfurt: Anton Hain, 1990), 19-24.
53 Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, 1865.
54 Philip B. Harner, “Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1,” Journal of Biblical Literature 92 (1973): 79-81.
55 Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, 250-51.
56 Harner, “Qualitative,” 86-87; Wallace, Greek Grammar, 262.
57 Dennis J. Kavanaugh, “The Ambiguity of Mark’s Use of Hyios theou in Mark 15:39” (PhD diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 2011), 264.
58 Ibid., “The Ambiguity of Mark,” 264, 272-73.
59 Dennis Hamm, “The Tamid Service in Luke-Acts: The Cultic Background behind Luke’s Theology of Worship (Luke 1:5-25; 18:9-14; 24:50-53; Acts 3:1; 10:3, 30),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2003): 225-26.
60 These include the shepherds to whom the angels announce the birth of Christ, the healing of a paralytic, the raising of the widow’s son, the healing of the stooped over woman, the cleansing of a leper, and the healing of a blind man (Luke 2:20; 5:25-26; 7:16; 13:13; 17:15; 18:43).
61 Fitzmyer, Luke (X–XXIV), 1520.
62 Peter Doble, “Luke 23.47: The Problem of Dikaios,” The Bible Translator 44 (1993): 323.