From the time Jesus was presented to Pilate until his death there was probably one man in charge of the prisoner and may have witnessed everything which happened to him. This was the centurion, a man in charge of a hundred Roman soldiers. Jesus was too important a prisoner for anyone else to take charge. He was a Roman soldier ascending the ranks to his current position. He was not a Jew but more likely a pagan who may have cared nothing for any god. Probably superstitious to his core he was also hardened by the life of a Roman soldier. There was nothing in this man to suggest compassion or emotion other than the steel strength to do his duty no matter the suffering his duty visited upon anyone.
When Jesus was brought into the Praetorian a centurion took over from the temple guards who had charge. They, the temple guards were now in a Roman court. He was bruised and bleeding and probably haggard. I envision the Roman’s present laughing at the sight and making derisive comments. They hated the Jews as much as the Jews hated them. Pilate comes down and plays his part, posturing his way through the spectacle. Sending Jesus to Herod it was most like the centurion tasked with making sure Jesus did not escape or was abducted on the way and the way back. He probably stood by and watched as Herod questioned and abused the prisoner. Driving Jesus back to Pilate it was he who would then prepare Jesus for death by crucifixion. He led the guard in the scourging and abuse and he would then stop it to bring the man back for final judgment. He approved the crown of thorns and the mockery of the prisoner. He led the procession to Golgotha and he supervised the impaling of the prisoners with spikes through arms and feet. He was responsible for the prisoner and would not let him come down from the cross until he was dead.
But, he was also the one who heard the words of Jesus before Pilate, during his trial, on the way to the place of death and while he died on the cross. He heard Jesus speak with Pilate, never asking for his life, never begging to be let go, and never trying to prove his innocence. He heard the false accusations of the Jewish leaders and their request to release a known murderer instead of Jesus. He watched as Jesus was abused and witnessed the man’s demeanor. Jesus never tried to defend himself, never turned away from the torture inflicted. Nor did Jesus curse the men accusing him or abusing him. When Jesus was led up the hill the centurion heard him speak to the women, he watched the people who loved this man led away to die. When he crucified him and gambled for his cloths he heard every word Jesus gasped to those nearby, his compassion and love for them, his forgiveness. Jesus forgave the centurion for what he was doing.
Then darkness and he was there for he would not leave the men he had crucified. He was commanded to stay and guard them, not to protect them from the elements or the mobs walking by but to make sure they stayed on their crosses and finally died. He heard Jesus utter his last words and die. He felt the earthquake and heard the rocks move. He saw everything and heard everything. He had watched men die before having executed them himself. There was no fear in this man but at this moment he was afraid. Matthew says he and those with him “were filled with awe” [Matthew 27:54 ESV]. Their awe was fear. This is what the words mean. Great fear. His only frame of reference was superstition and seared emotions and hatred for the Jews. His words in Matthew and Luke are consistent and give a true impression of Jesus. “Truly this was the Son of God!” [Matthew 27:54 ESV] and “certainly this man was innocent!” [Luke 23:47 ESV]. There is no reason to suggest the centurion said “son of a god” as in one of the superstitious idols which filled his life. Both statements lend credence to Jesus’ innocence. Even Pilate and Herod determined Jesus was innocent of any crime deserving death. Now, the centurion who executed Jesus gives his firsthand opinion.
Jesus is dead, an innocent man executed by the religious leaders of the Jews who used the Romans as executioners.
It was not just the centurion who was affected but also his men and the crowds who had witnessed Jesus’ death. “All the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts” [Luke 23:48 ESV]. An innocent man was legally murdered by the authorities. Many knew Jesus and his life and words and actions. Only the hardest of the hardened would continue declaring Jesus guilty. It is hard to imagine any harder than the Roman soldiers who were there.