It is one of the more curious facts of the Bible that centurions, those Roman soldiers who commanded 100 troops, are viewed in a uniformly positive way in light of the scriptures. This is especially remarkable when one considers the poisonous relationship between the Roman soldiers and the nationalistic elements of the local population in Judea and Galilee. Let us therefore examine the interactions between Jesus Christ and John the Baptist and the Roman soldiers of the period so that we may determine what the scriptures say about godly civil-military relations as well as the behavior of soldiers to the kingdom of God itself.
Wise Advice From John The Baptist
In light of the toxic relationship between the Roman army and the Jewish people of Palestine, who were a prickly and independent lot, resistant to authority of any kind, let us examine the wise advice that John the Baptist gave to the Roman soldiers who came to him to be baptized in Luke 3:14: “Likewise the woldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
This is sound advice to give to anyone in a position of authority dealing with a restive population. The advice given to the centurions would be fit to apply to other areas outside of civil-military relations but are especially valid there for any army serving as an “occupying force” in another nation that wishes to do so in a godly fashion. The three pieces of advice are very important in avoiding conflicts and offenses and in showing as mild approach as possible to the task of occupation. Not intimidating others means not using one’s “monopoly of force” to coerce others into bending to your will, but rather showing respect for others and for their positions and interests. Not accusing others falsely means not trying to abuse one’s power to solve disputes by bringing others under trial for false reasons in courts (like, say, military courts) where one would have the advantage in a “he-said, he-said” dispute because it was judged by one’s own fellow soldiers. Finally, being content with one’s wages means avoiding any sort of plunder or exploitation of people for selfish gain, the sorts of abuses that lead to great trouble with the people. An army (or even ministry) that follows these guidelines is going to show a great deal of respect to the common people and is not going to cause any sort of unnecessary offense.
When we reflect that this same John the Baptist called the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to visit him “the children of vipers” (Matthew 3:7) but gave very mild advice to the Roman soldiers that visited him, one can gather that John the Baptised discerned a different spirit working with them. The Roman soldiers honestly wanted peace, but the Pharisees and Sadducees were unwilling to accept the authority of either God or man, over them. He was therefore much harsher on false religious leaders than the “heathen” soldiers and tax collectors whose very presence was such an offense to many people but who often themselves showed a far better spirit of obedience in God than the religious leadership of the time did. This very same irony would exist with Jesus Christ as well in his relationship with the Roman soldiery of the time.
For I Too Am A Man Under Authority
In Matthew 8:3-13, and Luke 7:1-10, we see a very intriguing story of Jesus Christ healing the servant of a centurion in Capernaum. Let us examine both accounts, starting with Luke 7:1-10: “Now when He concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, “for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.” Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed, For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick.”
Now this is a very fascinating account of civil-military relations, worthy of comment, but first let us examine the parallel account in Matthew 8:3-13 to glean further details about what was said here: “Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.” And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way, and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour.”
Both of these accounts contain very fascinating and important points with regards to our examination of the subject of civil-military relations in the Bible. The account from Luke shows that the centurion of Capernaum had a very good relationship with the Jews of his town, and that the elders, who were over the synagogue that the centurion’s generosity had built, were at considerable pains to justify the worthiness of the centurion to Jesus Christ, as if he shared the normal ethnic bias of his countrymen. Unlike some of the more prejudiced members of his earthly nation, though, Jesus was not going to judge someone merely by their ethnicity, for with God it has always been about grace and not about race.
What we also learn from the account from Luke, which is not obvious in the account in Matthew, is that the Centurion spoke through intermediaries because he considered himself unworthy to speak face to face with Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the faith of the centurion is obvious in both accounts. What shines through in both accounts, though, is that the centurion recognized something that Jesus’ own countrymen did not, that Jesus Christ was a man of authority whose word was law. By recognizing the authority of Christ’s word and His power to heal, the centurion recognized more than he perhaps realized. That respect for the authority of Christ (and ultimately of God) is what gave him his well-earned praise for his faith, faith that was not found in Israel.
So, we see that this centurion was healed, and was implicitly recognized in Matthew as being among those “from east and west” who recognize God’s authority and will find entrance into the Kingdom of God while many native-born descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be cast out into outer darkness (!) for their unbelief. It is belief in God, as evidenced by obedience to Him, and not one’s pedigree or ancestry, that will lead one to enter into God’s kingdom. The care and concern that the centurion showed for the people of the town in helping with their synagogue was evidence of his own conversion and his own faith, and his own desire for the well-being of the town he helped protect. His love for his fellow man and his respect for authority brought him praise from both man and God, and he set an example that would be worthy of any soldier in physical or spiritual armies to emulate.
Truly This Was The Son of God
To cap off the interactions of Jesus Christ with centurions we have a very brief but telling account of the faith of a centurion in Jesus Christ at the moment of His death, an account striking enough to be told in Matthew 27:54 Mark 15:39, and Luke 23:47. Let us examine these accounts and see what is meant by that confession of faith.
In Matthew 27:54 we read: “So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” ” In Mark 15:39 we read: “So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!” And Luke 23:47 reads as follows: “So when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, “Certainly this was a righteous Man!” ”
What all of these accounts demonstrate is that the Roman centurion understood something about Jesus Christ from seeing the crucifixion, recognizing that he was blameless (in other words, not worthy of condemnation) and that the supernatural events regarding His death meant that He was who He said He was, namely the Son of God. The centurion was therefore able to weigh the evidence properly and come to the proper conclusion, glorifying God and afraid for his own role, minor as it was, in killing the Son of God, with a proper concern for judgment. In short, the Roman soldier was not immune to the evidence or to the claims of the righteous for justice, making his confession of faith, such as it was, a fitting and worthwhile epitaph.
We see from these three accounts of the Roman soldiers during the time of Christ that the Bible has a very positive view on the Roman centurions, and soldiers in general, showing them as concerned about justice, seeking to avoid exploiting or bullying the common people, and showing them as examples of faith and obedience to God, their respect as good soldiers for authority translating from the physical plane to their respect of the authority of God. Therefore these Roman soldiers have a lot to teach us, both in our proper use of authority so that we avoid oppressing others, as well as in our respect for the authority over us, recognizing that we must learn to respect earthly authorities in order to learn how to respect the authority of God in heaven. We learn about the spiritual from the physical, about the unseen from the seen, about eternal things from our temporal existence. As the Roman soldiers of the Renewed Covenant Scriptures were able, in their interactions with Jesus Christ and John the Baptist, to show faith and obedience to God learned from obedience towards men, their love for fellow man was in evidence in their acts of generosity, their concern for justice, and in their avoidance of exploiting their power for selfish gain. Their example remains valid today, whether one be a soldier in an earthly army or a heavenly one. We too, after all, are under authority. You’ve got to serve someone, after all.