O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch. Yet I know that the sacrifice you desire is a broken and contrite spirit. Humble me, I pray. Let the sacrifice I prepare for you be myself, presented before you according to your mercies. Receive me, Lord, as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to you. And I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. (Ps. 5:3, 7-8; Ps. 51:17; Rom. 12:1-2)
Read Mark 15:36-39. The words will be familiar to you, if you have been attending church for long. But it’s possible that there is something new in this familiar text for you today. Since it’s been a while since my last post, it might be helpful to skim what has happened earlier in the chapter. The read these verses several times through, slowly, meditatively. Invite the Holy Spirit to illuminate your imagination as you take in each word.
And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:36-39 ESV)
So the question I have been mulling over for some time now is this: What did the centurion at the foot of the cross see?
Presumably this man has been there the whole time. He has witnessed the betrayal and arrest of Jesus. He has watched Jesus before the council. He has seen Jesus be delivered to Pilate and heard his own acknowledgement of his identity as King of the Jews—”You have said so.” He was there as Jesus was handed over to the crowd to be crucified, and in fact, it is possible that this centurion himself took part in the flogging, beating, mocking, and nailing that ultimately put Jesus on a tree, hanging on for dear life as he labored for breath, his blood flowing from his hands, feet, head, and side.
We can assume that this centurion saw all of these things. Yet it was not until “the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last” that he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
What was it that he saw in that moment that turned him into a true believer?
“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” This seems to be the turning point for the centurion. After everything else, this seems to be the moment for him where everything changed.
The curtain was torn in two.
Up until this moment in history, there was a symbolic separation between God and humanity, which was signified by the temple curtain. The curtain separated people from the “holy of holies,” the place where the presence of God was believed to be strongest. Yet with Christ’s death, the separation between God and humankind was destroyed, and now, through Christ, all are welcome to approach God, even though God is holy and humanity is sinful. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…” (Heb 10:19-22)
As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve been wondering about the moment when I became a true believer.
For years, I had seen evidence of Christ. I had heard teaching, studied the Bible, and been exposed to theological discourse in church. Yet it was not until I had a personal experience with Christ that I became a true believer. It was not until the moment when I stepped behind the “curtain” and came face to face with the living God in Christ that I became a true believer.
I think that’s what happened here. The veil was torn, and suddenly this centurion had access to God through Christ in a very real, tangible way. His eyes, which had been blind to Christ’s lordship until that moment, were suddenly opened and he saw Jesus for who he was: the Son of God.
For weeks, as I’ve been thinking about this passage, I’ve envisioned various things the centurion saw leading up to this moment. I wondered if it was Jesus’s forgiveness, his faith in God, his love for those who killed him, or some other attribute of Christ that was displayed throughout his crucifixion that turned this centurion into a true believer.
But I don’t think it was any of those things. I think it was simply seeing Christ himself—really seeing Christ—that turned him from a killer into a worshiper.
I think that’s the case for all of us. Once we have seen Christ for who he is, we believe.
The writer of Hebrews presents some specific application points for us as we consider the significance of being given full access to God through Christ. “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19-25, ESV)
As we consider Christ and give thanks to God, let us also be intentional about how, today, we can stir one another up to love and good works, and how, today, we can encourage one another as we wait in hopeful expectation for Christ’s return.