Andrew McFarland Campbell  

Roman Centurions

These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.

This morning I want to draw your attention to something that is perhaps slightly subtle in the New Testament. It’s a subtle connection between a handful of people we meet, who all have the same job. They are all Roman Centurions.

The Romans were not noted for being particularly compassionate. We are all familiar with the crucifixion of Christ. Crucifixion was actually a fairly common form of execution from the Romans, and they had other appalling forms of punishment as well. Generally when you were conquered by the Romans you stayed conquered for a long time, and there was no doubt that you had lost. The Romans didn’t come in, defeat the rulers and set up an interim government. They cam in and they suppressed you.

The backbone of Roman power was the Roman army, and it was the Roman centurions – officers who were in charge of groups of 100 men – that were responsible for making sure that power was executed as Rome wanted it to be. The Jews particularly hated being occupied by Rome. They were somewhat rebellious, and difficult to govern. On a day to day basis, this would have caused the centurions stationed in Israel a lot of trouble. The centurions would have had to cope with all the little problems the Jews caused, as well as making sure that the orders from higher up in the command line were carried out.

Imagine you are a first century Jew living in conquered Israel. You may not have seen the governor, you may not have seen the top brass of the Roman army, but you would almost certainly have seen a centurion or two. You must have hated the centurions. And lets be fair. The centurions probably hate you.

Stop thinking of yourselves as first century Jews, and once again think of yourselves as twenty first century Christadelphians. There are four Roman centurions that we read about in the New Testament. There are actually a couple more than that, but there are really only four that we learn anything about. All of them we find to be compassionate, open to the teachings of Christ and sometimes even faithful. There isn’t one who is a brutal anti-Jewish individual. Wouldn’t that be a shock to you if you were still thinking as a first century Jew? The bad centurions are ignored in the New testament, and the only time we learn anything about Centurions in the Bible they are, as individuals, good men.

Lets have a look at the four centurions in more detail then. The first one is the centurion at Capernaum whose servant is ill. Then there is the centurion at the foot of the Cross. The other two are in Acts – Cornelius, and the unnamed centurion who escorted Paul to Rome.

We read about the first centurion in Matthew 8 verses 5 to 13:

And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.

The more you look at this story the more remarkable the centurion’s behaviour becomes. His servant was sick. And he knew Christ could help. And he was prepared to ask Christ for help. And he knew that Christ was in a position of power, and he didn’t even have to be near the servant to help. The centurion wasn’t someone who went to get a doctor, or an itinerant herbalist. He went seeking a miracle, and that is what his faith got him.

This centurion had faith, greater faith than Christ had ever found. Yet who was he? He wasn’t a scribe or Hebrew scholar. He wasn’t a member of the local synagogue. He was a member of the hated, oppressing, occupying army. Hold onto that thought as we look at the next centurion, the centurion at the foot of the cross.

Mark 15, verses 37 to 39:

And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom. And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.

We know that Christ comforted his mother as he died on the cross. We know that he comforted John. We know that he spoke to the thieves on either side of him. He preached the things concerning the Kingdom of God right up until the last minute he was able to.

I wonder what the roman soldiers thought of that? Here’s a man being crucified. Does he protest his innocence? Does he scream obscenities at those around him? Does he curse and insult the men that nailed him to the cross? No. He comforts those around him. He is raised up as an example of what happens to you when you argue with the Roman state, and he uses that awful elevated position as a platform to preach his doctrine of love.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” The centurion would surely have heard these words. Christ’s life touched the centurion at Capernaum, and his death, his humble death, touched the life of the centurion at Golgotha. Once again, we have a member of the hated, oppressing, occupying army responding to the word of Christ and the Jews apparently failing to respond. Once again, hold onto that thought.

Our third example is Cornelius, in Acts chapter 10.

There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway. He saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius. And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter: He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do.

Cornelius was a faithful man. He, and all his family, believed in God, prayed to God, and helped the poor and unfortunate. Once again, we have someone from the Roman army having faith that is remarkable when compared to the faith the majority of the Jews displayed. We learn a bit more about Cornelius than we did about the other two, and we also learn an important lesson that the previous two stories taught us implicitly, but it is explicit in the case of Cornelius.

Acts 10 verse 28:

And Peter said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.

That is one of the important messages in the story of Cornelius, and it is the common thread shared by the two previous stories. Not only can a Roman centurion be as faithful, or even more faithful, than any Jew, but if you have a faithful Roman centurion, then the important word is ‘faithful’, not ‘Roman’ or ‘centurion’.

Verse 34:

Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.

We all know that. The vast majority of the followers of Christ today have no Jewish blood in their veins. This isn’t just about nationality though. God is no respecter of persons. We mustn’t ever get into the trap of looking at another individual and judging them according to the labels the world puts onto them. In every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with him.

Onto the forth example – the centurion who escorted Paul to Rome. This centurion is called Julius. From we first meet him in Acts 27 Julius trusts Paul.

Acts 27 verse 3:

And the next day we touched at Sidon. And Julius courteously entreated Paul, and gave him liberty to go unto his friends to refresh himself.

Julius was the centurion, Paul was the prisoner. You might expect that Julius would treat Paul harshly. He doesn’t. He lets Paul go to visit his friends in Sidon. That is decidedly odd. You are a prisoner being taken to Rome, not a tourist on a Mediterranean cruise. One might think activities would include sitting around in chains all day. Being allowed excursions to visit friends not going to be all that common for Roman prisoners.

As the journey went on, Paul’s captivity became even more superficial. Particularly during and just after the storm he becomes the de facto commander of the mission, and he lead everyone on the ship to safety. Julius allowed him to do this. I covered other aspects of the journey in an exhortation in November. I think it is clear that Julius was another faithful Roman centurion. He must have looked at Paul and seen an upright man, and he must have been curious about what made him upright – or he may already have known.

So, in summary, we have the centurion at Capernaum, a man who had greater faith than all Israel, despite the fact that he was a Roman. We have the centurion at the cross, who responded to the preaching of Christ, despite the fact he was a Roman. We have Cornelius, a righteous man, despite the fact that he was a Roman. Then finally we have Julius, another faithful centurion, who recognised Paul as his brother.

All of these stories teach us that God is no respecter of persons. Despite the fact that the Romans were hated oppressors of the Jews, individual Romans were faithful, something that surprised even Peter.

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