Question: "What is the significance of the centurion's saying, "Truly this was the Son of God" (Matthew 27:54)?"
Answer: Matthew 27 records many events surrounding the betrayal, trials, crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus, and it includes the mention of a centurion’s saying that “truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54, ESV). This centurion would probably have presided over the deaths of numerous criminals, and none of those individual’s deaths were marked by the things that accompanied the death of Jesus.
Jesus was not accused of a typical crime; rather, He stood trial before Pilate for being King of the Jews (Matthew 27:11). Even after hearing the accusations and asking Jesus about them, Pilate determined that Jesus hadn’t done any evil (Matthew 27:23). But the clamor for Jesus to be crucified was so great that Pilate handed Jesus over for crucifixion (Matthew 27:26). From there the soldiers took Jesus and oversaw His being beaten, stripped, tortured with a crown of thorns, and mocked (Matthew 27:27–31). It is probable that this group of soldiers included the centurion who later said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” At first, all were participating in the mockery of Jesus, but as the events played out, some—including this centurion—recognized that Jesus was not a criminal and was, in fact, the Son of God.
In all this, Jesus continued to show meekness and did not speak in His own defense or argue. When Jesus was crucified, the charge written above His head was that He was the King of the Jews (Matthew 27:37). The mockeries continued as the onlookers recalled that He had referenced tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days—prophesying that He would die and be resurrected (Matthew 27:40a). They recalled that He had claimed to be the Son of God (Matthew 27:40b), and yet they mocked Him as if His claims were not true. The chief priests, scribes, and elders mocked Him, saying that, if He simply would come down from the cross, they would believe in Him (Matthew 27:42). Even the robbers crucified next to Him were insulting Him (Matthew 27:44). It was remarkable how many celebrated Jesus’ crucifixion, and surely the centurion took note of that. The centurion could see that this was no ordinary crucifixion and the man being crucified was no ordinary man. Soon the centurion would recognize that “truly this was the Son of God.”
At midday (the sixth hour of the day or noon), darkness came over the whole land for three hours (Matthew 27:45). At the ninth hour (3:00 in the afternoon), Jesus cried out to the Father, quoting Psalm 22:1, which was a further affirmation of Jesus’ identity (Matthew 27:46). He cried out again and gave up His spirit (Matthew 27:50). The centurion at the foot of the cross was no stranger to death. When he had observed crucifixions in the past, he had witnessed no great events or cataclysms. Jesus was different. The moment Jesus died, there was a great earthquake—so great that rocks were splitting and tombs were opening up (Matthew 27:51–53). When the centurion saw these things, he—along with others who were there—were filled with fear and recognized that “truly this was the Son of God.”
The eyewitnesses recognized that this was no ordinary death and this was no ordinary man. The things Jesus said were true, and He was who He claimed to be. It is remarkable that the centurion recognized Jesus’ true identity and that he did so when Jesus died. Some refused to recognize Jesus was the Son of God even after He was raised from the dead. This centurion and those who were working with him recognized because of what Jesus said and what they saw that “truly this was the Son of God.”