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, Matthew xxvii. 54.
TRULY THIS WAS THE SON OF GOD. W E have here a testimony of the divine
character of our blessed Lord, which must be considered as in the highest degree impartial and incorrupt. It is the testimony not of friends, but of enemies ; not of those who were prepossessed in favour of Christ and his Religion, but of those who, by habit and education, were prejudiced, and strongly prejudiced against them. It is, in short, the voice of nature and of truth ; the honest unpremeditated confession of the heathen centurion, and the soldiers under him, whom the Roman governor had appointed as a guard over the crucifixion of our Lord. So forcibly struck were these persons with the behaviour of Jesus, and the astonishing circumstances attending his death, that they broke out involuntarily into the exclamation of the text, “ Truly this was the Son of God.”
Different opinions, it is well known, have been entertained by learned men concerning the precise sense in which the centurion understood Christ to be the Son of God. But without entering here into any critical niceties (which do not in the least affect the main object of this discourse) I shall only observe in general, that even after making every abatement which either grammatical accuracy, or parallel passages, may seem to require, the very lowest meaning we can affix to the text, in any degree consistent with the natural force of the language, and the magnitude of the occasion, is this: that the centurion, comparing together every thing he had seen, and rising in his expressions of admiration, as our Lord's increasing magnanimity grew more and more upon his observation, concluded him to be not only a person of most extraordinary virtue, and most transcendent righteousness, but of a nature more than human, and bearing evident marks of a divine original.
That his conclusion went at least so far as this, will appear highly probable from considering the two distinct grounds on which it was founded..
The first was, the attention with which the centurion appears to have marked the whole behaviour of our Lord during the dreadful scene he passed through, from the beginning to the end of his sufferings upon the cross: He placed himself, as St. Mark informs us, over against Jesus. From that station he kept his eye constantly fixed upon him, and observed, with anxious care, every thing he said or did. And when he saw the meekness, the patience, the resignation, the firmness, with which our Lord endured the most excruciating torments ; when he heard him at one time praying fervently for his murderers ; at another disposing, with dignity and authority, of a place in paradise, to one of his fellow-sufferers; and, at length, with that confidence which nothing but conscious virtue, and conscious divinity, could, at such a time, inspire, recommending his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father; from these circumstances, what other inference could the centurion draw than that Jesus was not merely a righteous but a heavenly-born person?
But there was another, and that a still. more powerful proof of our Lord's celestial
origin, which offered itself to the centurion's notice ; I mean, the astonishing events that took place when Jesus expired; the agitation into which all nature seemed to be thrown, the darkness, the earthquake, the rending of rocks, the opening of graves, miracles which the centurion conceived, and justly conceived, were not likely to be wrought on the death of a mere mortal. *
· And, indeed, it must be acknowledged, that the miracles recorded, and the prophecies accomplished, in the history of Christ, are the two great pillars on which our faith in him must principally rest. But as an enquiry into this sort of proof would lead us into an argument much too extensive and too complex for our present purpose, I shall content myself with enlarging a little on that other kind of evidence above mentioned, — the character and conduct of our Divine Master. Of this the centurion saw nothing more perhaps than the closing scene. And if this operated so forcibly, as it seems to have done, on his mind, how powerfully must ours be affected, by taking into the account the virtues which Jesus displayed through life, as well as those he manifested at his death? We may reasonably expect, that it will at once confirm the faith of those who believe, and produce conviction in those who do not.
* See Dr. Doddridge's note from Elsner,' in his exposition of this passage.
Were we only to say of our Saviour, what even Pilate said of him, that we can find no fault in him, that the whole temper of his soul, and the whole tenour of his life, were absolutely blameless throughout; that from the first moment of his birth, to his last agony on the cross, he never once fell into the smallest error of conduct, never once spake unadvisedly with his lips ; were we, I say, to confine ourselves solely to this negative kind of excellence, it is more than can be said of any other person that ever yet came into the world. But great and uncommon as even this sort of perfection is, it forms but a very small part of that which belonged to Jesus. He was not only exempt from every the slightest failing, but he possessed and practised every imaginable virtue that was consistent with his situation; and