What Can We Learn from the Roman Centurions in the Bible?
- Mike Leake Borrowed Light
- 2021 24 Aug
The Bible is filled with words that can be confusing to a 21st-century audience. One of these words is centurion.
From some of the context in which the word appears, the reader may be able to discern that a centurion has something to do with the military. The word, centurion, “occurs 4 times in Matthew, 3 times in Luke, 13 times in Acts, and nowhere else in the New Testament; a synonym is found 3 times in Mark.”
But what was a centurion and what can we learn from the Roman centurions in the Bible?
F. D. Gealy says, “the centurions were the actual working officers, the backbone of the army. The discipline and efficiency of the legion as a fighting unit depended on them.” Most centurions were men who had been in the military for 15-20 years and had earned this position of leading troops on the front line of battle.
A centurion, as the name indicates, was in charge of a regiment of at least 100 men. It is almost certain, then, that each of the centurions we meet in the battle would have engaged in several instances of hand-to-hand combat. One did not become a centurion without having your mettle tested in the throes of battle.
Yet, centurions were also among those of whom Jesus is in the business of redeeming. For a first-century reader, particularly those with a Jewish background, the redemption of a Roman centurion would have been shocking.
But the gospel writers, Mark especially, place the centurions in key positions within their narrative as wonderful examples of faith. Even today we have lessons to learn from these Roman centurions.
Lessons from the Roman Centurion Who Sought Jesus' Help (Matthew 8:5-13)
Roman centurions certainly would have been at home in the ways of power and authority. They were under the supreme authority of the emperor—to disobey his orders would have certainly led to an execution. But they too were men of authority, commanding several others with the authority of the emperor.
For an inferior to disobey a centurion was just as if they were disobeying the emperor.
In Matthew 8 this centurion understands that Jesus is a man of great power and authority. He has faith that Jesus is able to speak a word and his servant will be healed.
This is rather astonishing because up to this point in the narrative Jesus has not healed anyone from a distance. But this centurion seemed to know and believe that Jesus could accomplish whatever he desired.
It is also interesting to note that the centurion approaches Jesus as one who is under Jesus’ authority than the other way around. It is this posture, driven by the centurion’s faith, that leads to the healing of his servant. The healing happens not because he is worthy, due to his position, but the healing happens because of the goodness of Jesus.
The servant is healed because Jesus is working to overcome evil. In fact, Luke will highlight this point by pairing this centurion with a poor widow woman. The centurion is cast as one who “deserves” redemption because of his having built them a synagogue.
But the poor widow woman has nothing to offer. Both receive help and healing, because it is not our worthiness that puts us in a position to receive God’s grace. Our desperation and humble trust is what puts us in a position to receive God’s grace.
Lessons from the Roman Centurion at Jesus' Crucifixion (Mark 15:39)
If you’ve read through the gospel of Mark you’ve likely scratched your head at the many times where Jesus tells people to keep silent about his role as Messiah or his identity as the Son of God. Throughout the narrative demons will confess Jesus as the Son of God but that confession is not found on human lips until it is given by a Roman centurion at the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:39).
Why does Mark wait that long? Of all those who would have confessed Jesus as the Son of God (including his disciples), why only record it on the lips of a Roman centurion?
For the story that Mark was telling he didn’t want humans to confess Jesus as the Son of God apart from his passion (his suffering and death on the cross). For Luke the centurion will respond to the signs and wonders and extraordinary phenomena and say, “truly this man was the Son of God”. But Mark highlights the cross. James Edwards says it well:
In Mark, however, the confession is evoked not by miraculous signs, but by Jesus’ very death, when the centurion “heard his cry and saw how he died.” The confession “the Son of God” is causally linked to the death of Jesus on the cross (John 8:28). This centurion had doubtlessly seen other men die by crucifixion. But something in this crucifixion—in the very weakness and suffering of Jesus’ death—becomes revelatory.
This Roman centurion teaches us the centrality of the cross. It’s not all the other signs and wonders which evoke faith. No, Jesus’ identity is confirmed by His suffering not by extraordinary displays.
It is this simple faith that Mark has been exhibiting for his readers through the entire narrative. And it’s found on the lips of this unexpected Gentile military commander. May we have his faith.
Lessons from the Roman Centurion Cornelius (Acts 10)
In Acts 10 the centurion is named. Cornelius is a god-fearing man but has a misunderstanding of the gospel.
As Cornelius prays the Lord hears his prayer and directs Simon Peter to meet with Cornelius. This would have been a difficult ask for both Cornelius and Peter. For Peter, it was unclean for him to go into the house of a Gentile—much less one who is a tanner of dead animal skins.
For Cornelius it would have taken a great deal of humility for him, as a high-ranking Roman official, to be taught by a mostly unlearned fisherman turned disciple. Yet, what happens in Acts 10 is incredibly important for the spread of the gospel. Cornelius became the first recorded Gentile baptism.
In Acts 15, as the church is debating the implications of Gentile inclusion, Cornelius is given as a test case. God specifically called Peter to go to Cornelius, he helped him see that the gospel caused that which was unclean to become clean, and that the Spirit was given indiscriminately to all those who had faith in Jesus.
Paul would argue similarly in the book of Galatians. If you are a Gentile believer in Christ, it’s not too big of a stretch to say that the Roman centurion Cornelius paved the way for your social acceptance into the people of God. We learn from this centurion that there is “neither Jew, nor Greek”. Christ saves men of all nationalities and as they come into union with Christ they too are given the Holy Spirit.
Lessons from the Roman Centurion Who Saved Paul (Acts 27:43)
In Acts 27, God (through an angel) revealed to Paul that he would survive his travel and speak before Caesar. This promise looks perilous upon a shipwreck. But it’s even more perilous when the group of Roman soldiers, who are escorting Paul and his companions, decide to execute them. They had decided to do this as a means of self-preservation, because arriving before Caesar without all the prisoners would have meant their own death.
But thankfully a centurion, named Julius, stepped in to defend Paul and his companions. He was the means that God used to keep his promise of deliverance. We learn from his story that God will always keep His Word, and he often uses unexpected means (a Romans centurion) to accomplish His purposes.
Centurions played a big role in the Roman world. They are only minor characters in the Bible, but when they do appear they make an immediate impact. Many of the centurions are shown to be men of faith.
They are, at times, juxtaposed with religious leaders of whom you would expect to be the men of faith. The role they play in the Bible is to show that Christ is saving all types of men and women.
Some of the most powerful people in the Roman Empire were these military commanders. We do not see them approaching Jesus (or his disciples) with their power but with their curiosity, and on occasion with an astonishing amount of faith.
Had they approached him with their power—as if they were owed a position within God’s kingdom—they would have likely found themselves outside the kingdom. Yet, they approached in humility.
The religious leaders of the day did not seem to approach God with the same level of humility or curiosity, and likely found themselves outside the kingdom. We can learn much even today from these Roman centurions.
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