As you read the New Testament, it is rather amazing to see how many times centurions are talked about. The word appears on 25 occasions, whereas “emperor” appears only four times. And “Caesar” only gets a few more mentions in the biblical record.
We’re going to spend the first three days of this week talking about centurions and why they were featured in the Scriptures, while also making application as to who in our everyday spheres of influence might be a category of people like them.
But first, we need to recall to mind some of the passages and stories that involve centurions, while also defining this workhorse category of Roman military leadership and activity.
A centurion was a Roman military officer that command a “century” – averaging about 80 men, ranging in size from 60-100 soldiers. Five or six combined centuries of soldiers would make up a “cohort” with the most senior of the centurions in command. And 10 cohorts, or about 5,000 men, would comprise a Roman “legion.”
Centurions were the most called-upon Roman officers to make things happen and get things done. And we see them in a number of stories in the gospels and Acts. Around the time of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem, there are a number of mentions of centurions interacting with Paul – one being stopped from flogging him, and others involved with guarding him and transporting him to Caesarea.
But there are four particular stories about specific centurions that we should bring to mind and review.
- An unnamed centurion who had a sick servant whom he sought to have healed by Jesus.
This story is presented both in Luke 7 and Matthew 8. Here is the latter account …
Matthew 8:5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.
The emphasis of this story is upon the faith of the centurion that was greater than found by the people of Israel.
- The centurion at the cross of Jesus.
This same essential account is recorded in the all of the first three gospels …
Mark 15:37-39 — With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
This Roman soldier – who had likely seen a lot in his day (battles / executions / the political and religious climate in Israel) – could tell that this experience was very unique, even other-worldly.
- Cornelius – Acts 10
This is an extended account that is a part of our week four theme about the way the church grew ethnically and culturally. And here we see how God used a Roman centurion – who was a God-fearer – to push the gospel message beyond merely the Jewish community …
Acts 10:1 – At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
10:4 … Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
10:7 – When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
The next day after all of this is happening, Peter is praying and gets a repeated vision about being free to eat animals previously seen as unclean. God is revealing that He is doing a more expansive work of grace beyond the Jewish people. Just then, the servants of Cornelius arrive, and Peter goes with them to the home of Cornelius …
10:34 – Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.
Peter rehearses the content of the gospel and the work of Christ, with the result being …
10:44 – While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.
- Julius – Acts 27
This is the extended and detailed account of Paul’s travels under Roman guard from Judea to his final ventures in Rome. A centurion named Julius is in charge in the midst of all of the crazy events that happen … shipwreck, etc. Clearly this man saw Paul to be something more than an ordinary prisoner or criminal.
So again, we see that centurions are spoken of throughout these passages and presented in a rather positive light. We might not expect that. One would think that these Roman military men would be rugged individualists who would scoff at most any religion or faith. And we’ll make some additional observations about these men tomorrow.
But, you know, it’s not like this is the only time in Scripture where God takes unexpected people to use and work for his glory and as a part of his master plan. Was there really that much special about Noah, or Abram? And how about Jacob the deceiver? Moses was called out of the wilderness where he was hiding. David was a shepherd boy. Jonah had anger issues and a propensity to run in the wrong direction. Peter couldn’t keep his mouth shut and probably abused his Twitter account. Matthew was an evil tax collector. Paul was persecuting Christians actively.
And the reality is that God has done a transformation with most of us. For example, the pastor of TSF is the illegitimate child of a teenage mom. This is God’s business and way of working. As it says in 1 Corinthians 1:27 … But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. We sure can be thankful for that!