MATTHEW 27:54-56
Pp Mark 15:39-41, Luke 23:47, 49, John 19:25

The centurion
The women
   1. They followed Jesus
   2. They gave to Jesus
   3. They ministered to Jesus

The Gospel of Luke records one unique verse in the midst of the two observations about the centurion’s comments and the women who were present (which we’ll deal with below). In Luke 23:48, the writer observes that

‘...all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight [of the crucifixion], when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts’

where ‘what had taken place’ seems to be primarily concerned with the events concerning the cross (notably the darkness mentioned by the author in Luke 23:44-45 but also, perhaps, the earthquake which is solely recorded in Mtw 27:51) and the way in which Jesus conducted Himself while there - where many others might have responded to the taunts of the crowds and retaliated, He prayed, rather, for the soldiers’ forgiveness (Luke 23:34) and forgave a specific individual who realised the error of his first outburst (Mtw 27:44) and who turned to Him for forgiveness through his inclusion in the people of God (Luke 23:42).

All in all, it was an unusual crucifixion and it seems to have brought home to the crowds who were gathered there both the innocence of the One executed and their own apparent guilt in their rejection of an innocent man before Pilate. It would be going too far to say that they suddenly came to a revelation that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah and Luke nowhere gives so much as a hint to the reader that this is what happened - but there’s certainly a demonstration of anguish which he records when they beat their breasts as they returned home.

This attitude occurs only rarely in the Scriptures, Luke 23:48 being only one of four places that I could find. In Is 32:12-13, the women of Judah are told of the imminent failure of the harvest and are subsequently urged to

‘Beat upon your breasts for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine...’

denoting a feeling of anguish and sorrow. A similar emotion is not far from the statement in Nahum 2:6-7 concerning the judgment of Nineveh which observes that

‘The river gates are opened, the palace is in dismay; its mistress is stripped, she is carried off, her maidens lamenting, moaning like doves, and beating their breasts’

These records, however, are centuries before the demonstration of the emotion in Luke’s Gospel and it might be better to see the earlier reference to this action in the same Gospel as being the best pointer to define it. In Luke 18:13, when the tax collector and the Pharisee enter the Temple to pray, the latter expects to be justified before God because of what he does whereas the former

‘...standing far off would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven but beat his breast saying “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”’

The anguish of heart here is notably that which is associated with a recognition and acknowledgement of personal sin where the feeling of uncleanness before God is ‘felt’ rather than just believed with the mind. Lukmor parallels this feeling of inadequacy in the response of the crowds on the Day of Pentecost just over fifty days in the future (Acts chapter 2) when those who heard Peter speak (Acts 2:37) were

‘...cut to the heart...’

the commentator seeing the message more as a stimulating of the people’s memory and of how they felt after the crucifixion. But this doesn’t seem to be necessarily too correct an assumption for the crowds gathered who heard the disciples speaking in different, untaught languages were from the length and breadth of the civilised world of the first century (Acts 2:8-11) and it isn’t clear that they would have formed the majority of the crowds present at the crucifixion.

There may certainly be something in how the crowds viewed the death of Jesus that spread to the other Jews from the moment that Jesus breathed His last to the time of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and that it was used to pinpoint the guilt of the nation before God - but we’re going too far to see in their anguish of heart a sudden acceptance of Jesus as their Messiah.

It remains best to accept that, while they recognised Jesus’ innocence and the part which they’d played in that execution, they stopped short of seeing in Jesus the fulfilment of the promise concerning God’s anointed King.

The centurion
Mtw 27:54, Mark 15:39, Luke 23:47

We know from John 19:23 that four soldiers attended Jesus at the crucifixion and, from these three passages, that there was either included in that number or in addition to that number a commanding centurion. What we can’t be sure of is whether each of the three being executed were also attended by a different group of four soldiers for a total group of five Roman men seems a little light to protect those being executed from being taken down by their fellow Jews.

What it may indicate, however, is that the place of crucifixion was very near to one of the two places where troops were garrisoned so that, should there be trouble, a band of soldiers could very quickly exit out into the area outside the city and take charge of the situation.

The centurion is the one who’s recorded as responding in this verse to the evidence of the earthquake which occurred at the end of Jesus’ physical life on the cross but also to

‘...what took place...’

which seems only to be attributable to the events of the crucifixion and of how Jesus responded to being nailed there. Maybe the centurion had never seen anything quite like the way in which this Man had taken His execution at their hands so passively for He would have stood out from the crowd gathered as One who’d prayed for their own forgiveness (Luke 23:34) - it seems to have been expected that, having nothing to lose, the condemned felt at liberty to revile their tormentors and to curse them from the place where they hung.

Only Matthew records that all the soldiers there present were

‘...filled with awe...’

but it’s the centurion’s words which are of central importance to this observation by the Gospel writers, even though Luke’s record is best taken as an interpretation of the words which were spoken. Both Mtw 27:54 and Mark 15:39 (the translation of Mark adds ‘man’ after ‘this’) record his words as

‘Truly this was the Son of God’

which is somewhat misleading to the general reader seeing, firstly, a capital ‘s’ is added to the translation implying that the centurion believed Jesus to be divine (the RSV isn’t so careful as to capitalise words such as pronouns, however) and the definite article ‘the’ is used to precede it (there’s also no indication that it was spoken in a deep American accent by someone standing alone on a small hillock who resembled John Wayne).

There’s no definite article present in the Greek and the words would be better translated

‘Truly this [man] was a son of God’

even though it’s also noted that, from the Greek construction, it’s possible that the title as represented by the RSV is what’s meant. However, as Matfran observes

‘ is...questionable how much christian theological content should be read into the phrase from the point of view of those who uttered it’

The same problematical translation of a passage is seen in Dan 3:25, though this time the RSV renders king Nebuchadnezzar’s words concerning the fourth figure in the fiery furnace by the description that he’s

‘ a son of the gods’

The AV, however, betrays the translator’s belief that this was a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus when it records the words as meaning

‘ the Son of God’

The centurion, a Roman, is certainly not elevating Jesus up to the level of the emperor - if he were, a charge of treason would have hung over him - but he’s commenting, in the words of Luke 23:47, that

‘...this man was innocent’

or, perhaps better

‘...this man was righteous’

for the implication of the word used seems to infer that the Crucified is acceptable to God rather than simply that He had no moral stain or blemish. Although it’s going too far to think of the centurion as proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God as we understand them, we should definitely see in his words a pronouncement that Jesus was in a unique and special relationship with God in which He found acceptance. The signs that accompanied His death and the way in which Jesus conducted Himself on the cross are such that indicate this. And, by implication, the rejection of Jesus means the rejection of the purposes of God for an individual’s life.

The irony of the pronouncement is that, while the people of God, the Jews, had failed to acknowledge Jesus’ special relationship with God and had used the title ‘Son of God’ in mockery, it’s left to a pagan soldier of the Roman Empire to recognise that what’s just taken place proved that the Man who’d breathed His last was in a special relationship with God.

The conviction which consequently fell upon those Jews who’d been witnessing the events (Luke 23:48) confirms the feeling of guilt which is attributable to His executioners but it’s noteworthy that the Roman soldiers seem to be represented as justified before God through their confession while the Jews who used the title in mockery feel themselves as the condemned.

The women
Mtw 27:55-56, Mark 15:40-41, Luke 23:49, John 19:25

There are four references to the women who were present at the crucifixion in the Gospels which have led some commentators to propose some identifications of the women with others and so related them to Jesus by familial links.

Though these attempts at a harmonisation have a semblance of wisdom, they’re also based in supposition and are difficult to believe without grave reservations.

We certainly know that many women followed Him when in Galilee (Luke 8:3) and that the list of women mentioned as being at the cross is not meant to be exhaustive for Mtw 27:55-56 (see also Mark 15:41), notes the presence of ‘many women’ but adds the prefix ‘among whom were’ to the list which follows.

Beyond the statement that there were many women who made it to the cross, assertions which tie together different occurring names as being one and the same are best not made and the lists should be allowed to stand alone (I’ve dealt with these associations on a previous web page under the heading ‘The mother of the sons of Zebedee’ about halfway through the article). For what it’s worth, however, below is a table showing the different names which are listed in the Gospel accounts along with one reference to the women who followed Him in Galilee.

  Mtw 27:55-56 Mark 14:40-41 Luke 23:49 Luke 8:2-3 John 19:25
Where? The Cross The Cross The Cross In Galilee The Cross
All inclusive? 'among the women were...' 'among the women were...'   'and many others'  
Mary Magdalene Yes Yes   Yes Yes
Mary, the mother of James and Joseph Yes - with variations Yes with variations      
Others Mother of the sons of Zebedee Salome   Joanna, wife of Chuza, Herod's steward


Mary, His mother

Mary, the wife of Clopas, His mother's sister

Mtw 27:55 (Mark 15:40, Luke 23:49) specifically notes that there were many women

‘...looking on from afar...’

but John 19:25 speaks of the women present as

‘...standing by the cross of Jesus...’

This wouldn’t have been too difficult to reconcile had not John included the name of Mary Magdalene in his list for we might have supposed that the Synoptic writers were concerned to list those who were standing at some distance while John - being, himself, close to the place of execution - noted those who were standing round where he was and listed these.

But, as there’s only the one name which appears in both lists, we might do best to suppose that Mary Magdalene moved either closer to where she saw the mother of Jesus and her sister standing with John or that she moved back to be with those she recognised who stood a way off from the scene - in this way, she was both present close to the cross and at some distance.

This turn of phrase that they stood ‘afar off’ has caused some commentators to suppose that the cross was raised up on a high hill, but this needn’t have been the case for nowhere does it say that they were silhouetted against the sky - all that’s necessary to accept is that the Romans chose a place where many would be able to witness the execution.

Mtw 27:61 and 28:2 note that Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ were present watching the burial and that they were together at the tomb - and this second character is best understood to be Mary, the mother of James and Joseph who’s mentioned as being present also at the cross as the testimony of Mark 15:40 and 16:1 seems to confirm. Mark’s two verses also note the presence of Salome which Matthew has decided to omit (if he was aware, that is, of her presence). Luke 23:55 simply mentions the women as those

‘...who had come with Him from Galilee...’

as being witnesses of where Jesus had been entombed but that the same came to the tomb on the first day of the week in order to anoint the body (Luke 24:1). It’s in Luke 24:10, however, that the author notes that those who came and who returned to the disciples to tell them what they’d seen were (my italics)

‘...Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them...’

so that the crowd of women might have been fairly large. In John 20:1, all that the author relates is the approach of Mary Magdalene which would appear to be a clear case of mentioning only the one woman even though there were numerous who set out with her.

What these verses should show us, therefore, is that there was a crowd of women who were considered to be a part of the disciples’ band and that each of the writers could have opted for very many different names in their recollection of the events. Instead, they’ve chosen those names for whatever reason they had and listed them perhaps because they seemed particularly relevant to those believers to whom their work was originally compiled for.

It’s difficult to say much more than this without beginning to move into the realms of supposition, but the women were certainly an important part of the band and mustn’t be thought of as incidentals. Indeed, they seem to have been the ones who generally made it to the cross to watch the last hours of Jesus when all the disciples save John had fled for their lives.

They, therefore, epitomise loyalty and faithfulness and, judging by the sorts of things which might have been expected to have taken place at such an event, braveness and courage in the face of adversity. They’re even recorded in the Gospels as being the first to believe in the resurrection, unlike the eleven who doubted their testimony (Luke 24:10-11).

But, more than this, the Scriptures record that they had specific functions within the group of disciples. This is what we’ll now go on to look at very briefly under three specific headings.

1. They followed Jesus
Mtw 27:55, Mark 15:40-41, Luke 23:49

The three Scriptures tell us not only that the women now present at the cross were those who had followed Him from Galilee (Mtw 27:55, Luke 23:49) but that they had also followed Him while He was in Galilee and, presumably, as He moved about the area ministering to the needs of its inhabitants (Mark 15:41).

These women never appear to have received a direct ‘calling’ from Jesus like the men did (Mtw 9:9, Mark 1:17), neither are they recorded as ever having received any promise of God that he would use them for the advancement of the Kingdom (Mark 1:17, Luke 5:10, John 14:13) and neither were they sent out to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom or to heal the sick and cast out demons like the men were charged to do (Luke 10:1,9, Mtw 10:1,7-8).

And yet still they followed after Jesus.

To be called into a particular ministry to advance the Kingdom is irrelevant to the need to follow after the Christ. Martha learned that her service to Jesus wasn’t as necessary as Mary’s devotion to listen to Him and to learn from Him (Luke 10:38-42). Discipleship will definitely entail service (and we’ll go on below to see that the NT notes that the women rendered Jesus service) but it can only spring out of a commitment to follow Him, to learn from Him.

This contrast between service and devotion is further contrasted in one of the teachings which Jesus brought to the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount in Mtw 7:22-23. By observing that to do great and mighty works in His name wasn’t a qualification for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, He showed that service must come second and that a personal knowledge of Jesus - not knowledge about Jesus but knowledge gained by experience of being with Him - is what’s primary to His call.

In the Church, we tend to overemphasise the command of Jesus (Mtw 28:19) to

‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...’

in our conversations with new believers and forget that the call of Jesus upon His followers was not that at the outset but (Mtw 9:9, Mark 1:17)

‘Follow Me...’

Only in a devotion to Jesus - that the women exemplified through their commitment to follow Jesus until the moment He breathed His last - can true service be found.

2. They gave to Jesus
Luke 8:3

Luke 8:1-3 notes the journeying of Jesus and the band of disciples including women as moving throughout the cities and towns of Galilee in order to bring the Gospel message to all the region. Two women are specifically mentioned here as having evil spirits cast out of them or infirmities healed along with

‘...many others who provided for them out of their means’

If the Kingdom of Heaven, the rule of Jesus, is going to expand upon the earth, His followers must give what belongs to them for the Christ’s use. While Peter could state truthfully (Mtw 19:27) that

‘...we have left everything and followed You...’

it seems to have been more especially the women who could state with sincerity that their resources had gone towards the on-going ministry of the group of believers.

In the OT, the Tabernacle wasn’t built from materials that supernaturally appeared before the Israelites’ eyes but from the offering of the people who gave what belonged to them for the fulfilment of the purpose of God (Ex 35:21-29). And, in the NT, the poverty of the fellowships of other areas (II Cor 8:1-4,13-14) wasn’t an object of prayer along the lines of

‘O Lord, supply their need in Jesus’ name. Amen’

but they practically put their hand into their pocket and gave what they had - Macedonia gave beyond the resources they had and sacrificed what they needed for the welfare of others. In a slightly lesser sacrificial light, the early Church made sure that whatever they owned, surplus to requirements, was used to support the poorer brethren (Acts 4:34-35).

The women, therefore, epitomised what it meant to give in order that the expansion of the message of the Kingdom of Heaven might not be hindered. Jesus’ Kingdom will not expand by simply sitting around and talking about it and neither will it grow when disciples hold seminaries on the needs of the Third World Church but expansion will be seen when what the Church owns is given in the pursuit of further extending the rule and reign of Jesus throughout the world.

3. They ministered to Jesus
Mtw 27:55, Mark 15:40-41

We’ve already seen how ministry to and for Jesus should only come about from a correct devotion to a relationship with Him. From this commitment, the women ministered to Jesus, one of the ways being in their monetary giving (as we saw in the last section) - but it wouldn’t have been confined to such.

For example, who cooked the band’s meals when they ministered to the multitudes? Or who washed their clothes? Or who drew water from the wells and springs for Jesus to quench His thirst? In many, varied - and seemingly mundane - ways, these women would have ministered to Jesus.

Even Mary’s simple act of anointing Jesus (John 12:3) which was rebuked by the disciples (Mtw 26:8-9) was a prophetic proclamation of His imminent burial (Mtw 26:12)

In each and every way that Jesus is ministered to - even if it’s simply a cup of cold water given to a thirsty disciple (Mtw 10:42) - the believer promotes the extension of the Kingdom on earth. There may be front men in the Church - and there probably always will be - but theirs is never a solo ministry, for many others in greater or lesser degrees (and many who go unseen and unmentioned) are contributors to that person’s visible ministry.

So, even though the women appeared to play a minor part in their support of and ministry to Jesus, it was, nevertheless, an essential one (I Cor 12:22-25).