Question: According to the Gospel of Matthew the centurion at the cross called Jesus “the son of God,” while Luke reports the centurion calling Jesus “a righteous man.” Why the difference?
Here are the two passages:
Matt. 27:54 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!”
Luke 23:47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”
There is no reason to doubt that the centurion used both terms of Jesus as he struggled to comprehend “all that had happened.”
Think of it—Jesus’ last words and last breath were accompanied by an earthquake so severe that the multi-layered, four-inch thick[i] “curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people” (Matt. 27:51-53).
When you combine these terrifying natural disasters and supernatural events with all the turmoil and commotion leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and death—the biting taunts of the other crucified men: “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:40), and of the Jewish leaders: “Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matt. 27:43)—it’s no wonder the Roman centurion concluded that Jesus was being vindicated by God as both righteous and divine.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the events surrounding Jesus’ death that directly and profoundly impacted this centurion who oversaw the crucifixion. Jesus’ last words would have come from eyewitnesses who were close enough to hear. Of the twelve disciples, only John stayed close to Jesus all the way to Golgatha and the crucifixion. The only others with him from Jesus’ core group of followers were four women: Jesus’ own mother, His aunt (Salome?),[ii] Mary of Magdala and another Mary, the wife of Clopas (Jn. 19:25).
Others at the scene may have become followers of Jesus after His death and resurrection, including the centurion, from whom Matthew, Mark and Luke would have learned certain details. For some standing near the cross it would have been the soldier’s declaration that he had presided over the execution of an innocent man that would have been the most memorable. As Peter would later write:
1Pet. 3:18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit…
For others near the cross, the soldier’s declaration that Jesus was indeed the Son of God would have been most unforgettable. In fact, Mark tells us the purpose of his Gospel account is to present Jesus as the “Son of God:”
Mark 1:1 The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
What greater testimony of Jesus’ divine nature than from a calloused executioner!