The next similarity between the passage in Timothy and the life of a soldier is that a soldier learns very quickly the concept of authority. In Luke 7 there is a story of an encounter between a soldier, a centurion, and Jesus.
And a certain centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. And when he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. And when they had come to Jesus, they earnestly entreated Him, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue.”
Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”
Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health (Luke 7:2-10).
A centurion is hard to equate with anything in our system. We don’t know whether he was a senior non-commissioned officer or something up to the rank of captain. He reminds me somewhat of the Regimental Sergeant Major in the Royal Marines who outranked everybody I ever ran into. He’d been around a long time and knew more than most of the officers. He was tough as nails and made us all feel like schoolboys. I was a major over there and I never crossed him because I don’t think I had enough gear to handle the repercussions!
But the centurion was a guy in charge of a hundred people. He had a very sick servant, and had heard about this Jesus, a man of God who could heal. So the centurion dispatched several Jewish elders to find Jesus to ask Him to come and heal this beloved servant.
As the elders arrived to speak with Jesus, they began to tell him about the centurion, saying, He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue (Luke 7:5).
Now this centurion was part of an occupation army. Most of these troops were not popular guys! They’re not the kind of out-of-towners that people run around trying to get to know more personally. But he had helped the locals build a synagogue, and he was well thought of by them. So we can see he must have been a pretty decent sort. And Jesus had compassion on him and responded.
As he was on his way to the centurion’s house, another party was dispatched to him, and they brought a message from their master. The centurion had said,
Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, “Go!” and he goes; and to another, “Come!” and he comes; and to my slave, “Do this!” and he does it (Luke 7:7-8).
This man understood authority. Let me emphasize how we can tell he understood authority. If the Scriptures had recorded that he said, “Well, I am a man with authority,” we might be seeing him in a different light. But he doesn’t say that. He says, “I am a man under authority.” And that tells us he knows what that’s all about.
The truth of the Christian life, or for any system that operates with authority, is that you only have authority when you’re under authority. The moment you step out from under authority, you no longer have authority.
Today I see young people in our society who are struggling and working so hard to get out from under authority. We have kids all the time that come through the Marine Corps, and from time to time I used to ask them, “How did you get in the Marine Corps?”
More than once I’ve had a kid look at me with a straight face and say, “Well, sir, I got sick and tired of people telling me what to do at home, so I joined the Marines.” Now that’s a novel approach.
In our Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) we have it spelled out in depth for us. And we ought to be grateful that we have a system that in some ways, believe it or not, mirrors godly and biblical principles.
Under the UCMJ, what do you get in trouble for if you don’t do what you’re told? “Disobedience to a lawful order” is the charge brought against you. Do we hear that world “lawful”? In the investigation process, one of the elements of proof is that the order you disobeyed must be a lawful order. If the man who gave it to you was out from underneath authority and exceeded what the law allowed him to do, then there are no grounds for a charge against you. He can only order you to do what he’s authorized by those above him.
We need to be grateful for the way the system works. It’s a good illustration of a worldly system of law within the military that parallels the godly principle: you only have authority when you’re under authority.
When I went through basic training years ago, I had a drill instructor, a guy from Biloxi, Mississippi. His name was Staff Sergeant Wright. He wasn’t the friendliest man I’ve even known, He certainly was a good man, but “friendly” would not be the word I’d use to describe him. I learned a lot about the meaning of authority one hot summer day as we were training out in the field.
There were about fifteen of us in the group, and we’d been joined by the usual inhabitants of that area: sand fleas, gnats, ants, and the like. At that point we’d been on our feet for about five or six hours, and SSgt. Wright said in his slow southern drawl, “When I blow this whistle, I want you to simulate that you’re supposed to hit the ground and don’t move!”
Well, I was so tired, that was music to my ears. I was so ready to get off of my feet and relax a little, so hitting the ground sounded wonderful. I could hardly wait for that signal.
About ten minutes later we were out there tromping along, and I heard the whistle blow. We hit the deck, and hallelujah! For six hours we’d been moving and hiking, and now we’d finally stopped. The order was “Don’t move!” and I was so ready not to move. This was a welcome relief for a while. But as the afternoon wore on, I developed a problem. There happened to be a small sand flea that was attempting to tunnel from my right ear into the left, through the vacuum in the center of my head. He was buzzing and biting, tunneling and boring, and buzzing some more. It began to sound and feel like a jackhammer right there inside my ear, not to mention the growing itch he was causing.
It wasn’t long before being still on the ground ceased to seem like such a grand idea. As the buzzing continued, I could barely keep my hand from reaching up and ending this excavation process. But the order was, “Don’t move!”
So I’m lying there on the ground remembering those orders, and I think to myself, “If I move slowly, imperceptibly, I can eventually get to this thing and end the misery without being noticed.” Boy did it itch! Slowly, I relaxed the grip on my rifle and began my invisible mission–I was sure even time-lapse photography couldn’t have caught me I was taking so long. Ever so slowly over a period of about twenty minutes I moved my hand up to my ear and at last put that little devil out of his misery. Aha! What a great feeling of victory. I had won. What relief !!!!
Or so I thought. But all this time, what I didn’t realize was that SSgt Wright was standing right behind me, watching every micro-move. And the instant my finger made contact with the varmint, SSgt. Wright commenced to do what could only be described as the Mexican hat dance all over me, jumping up and down, and saying a series of very unkind things about my lineage, parentage, morals, and ancestors for several centuries back. I thought to myself, “This is really not a nice man. This is not the kind of guy I’d like to take home to meet my mother.”
At his command, I jumped up and snapped to attention, and from there I got more of the up close and personal touch from him. Screaming into my ear at about three times above the threshold of pain, he continued to berate me and everything about me. When he finally finished his tirade, my conclusion was that although I knew he meant what he said, and although he was in charge of my training, his behavior was beyond reasonable. He had overreacted, and was clearly over the line–so I thought. I was more than a little annoyed.
Well, fast forward about ten years. There I was lying on the jungle trail about twenty miles deep into enemy territory. We were the long-range reconnaissance unit for the South Vietnamese Marines, and LT Roi, six other guys and I, had crept along a narrow trail and halted to listen. It was about one or two in the morning, and there was an assortment of creepy crawlers, winged insects, and enough slithery things to keep a biologist happy for six or seven weeks.
As I lay there, I concentrated on our mission. “Our job here is to capture a prisoner.” We were back in enemy territory, and our job was to snatch a prisoner to find out who was operating up there. So we lay there. Every one of us was trying to stay awake and every one of us was trying to be invisible.
Pretty soon, a couple of guys appeared, walking down the trail. They were relaxed, wearing khaki uniforms and carrying AK47s over their shoulders. I slowly turned my head and looked at Lieutenant Roi, who was technically the commander of the unit.
He looked back at me and in a very subtle motion moved his head side to side, like, “No, don’t get these guys.” And I thought, “Okay, we’ll get the next group.” So they went on by. I couldn’t figured out why we didn’t stop them, but I figure LT Roi had a reason.
A few minutes later, six or seven more men came walking by. And then more. Suddenly I realized why we hadn’t jumped those first two. They were the point men for about seven or eight hundred troops. There was a North Vietnamese regiment moving from our area, and they were all around us. We could hear them behind us. We’d hear them in front of us. They were all over the place.
As I lay there almost afraid to breathe, do you know what I was thinking? Foremost in my mind at that moment was the thought, “Man, I hope these guys I’m with had a drill instructor like SSgt Wright. I hope their idea of authority and don’t move is Don’t Move!”
Have you ever been afraid to blink, because you’re afraid your eyelids will squeak and somebody will hear them? I’m not kidding. These men–hundreds of them–were literally within ten feet of us as they passed on either side. And so we didn’t move!
As we lay there, the bugs and gnats and mosquitoes bit. The leeches tanked up and dropped off. Strange things crawled over us, up our sleeves, and down our necks. Oh, they had a field day! And we were so scared we hardly noticed them. Fortunately out of our eight guys, nobody wiggled, and nobody moved. If any one of us had, we would all have died right there that night.
Hours passed before we felt it was safe to shift a muscle, but when the dawn broke, and we slowly dragged our exhausted bodies to the standing position, I thought of SSgt Wright. At that point, if he’d been anywhere near me, I would have, without hesitation, thrown my arms around him and kissed him! His “excessive” lessons on authority had literally saved my life. And I was grateful beyond words.
What is God’s standard for authority? Yes is yes. No is no. Period. There’s nothing in the middle. We live in a gray world where everybody’s saying things are relatively this and relatively that. Well, God is not relatively impressed at all. The answer is either no or yes.
In chapter 15 of First Samuel we find a guy named Saul who’s the king. Now Saul had been given orders from the Lord to go smite the Amalekites–all of them. He was told, “Don’t bring anything back.”
A few verses later we find Saul walking down the road, and Samuel, a prophet, approaches him and asks, “Saul, what have you been up to?”
And what does Saul say? Note his words: I have performed the commandment of the Lord (1 Sam. 15:13).
But Samuel said, What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear? Why am I hearing cows lowing and sheep baaaing? Because, Saul, it wasn’t part of God’s instructions to bring anything back with you.
Note that up to that point Saul had claimed that he was out “performing the commandment of the Lord.” Now he replies, The people (not I, Saul, of course, but “the people”) brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed (1 Sam. 15:15).
Does King Saul understand authority? He doesn’t live under it, and he doesn’t have it.
Saul has replaced the authority of the Lord with his own opinions and authority. Over that one simple issue, even though Saul repents of his sin, God removes him as king. The Lord, through Samuel, says to Saul, I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel (1 Sam. 15:26).
From that point on, God withdrew His spirit from Saul, Saul lost his mind, and in the end, he died without God’s presence. Once he stepped out from under the authority above him, he lost the privilege of having authority over others. Is obedience important? Is our understanding of authority important?
I hear all kinds of buzzwords in evangelical Christianity. And one of the words I’ve heard over and over the last few years is “discipleship.” You know what bothers me? I don’t hear anything about discipline. Disciple. Discipline. Do we think they might be related?
If we don’t have discipline, there is no discipleship. And if we’re going to talk about being a disciple, if we’re going to live under the authority of God, we’re going to have to learn to be disciplined. Now discipline is not punishment. Unfortunately, we’ve confused the two in our society.
When I went to The Citadel, a fine military college in South Carolina, we were made to memorize all sorts of things in our plebe year. Most of the innocuous things were totally useless, but there were a few things in there that were valuable. One of them was the definition of discipline. When called upon, we had to quote:
Discipline is a trait of character, which makes punishment unnecessary.
Punishment is the result of not being disciplined. And if we’re going to understand the authority of God, we have got to understand the concept of living under God’s authority. That means when He says, “Yes,” He means yes. When He says, “No,” He means no. We may agree. We may disagree. It doesn’t matter what we think. Our job is to obey, to be under the authority of the living God.
The last thing I want to address is humility. Some people might say, “I’ve got to see this. A Marine, talking about humility?” Well, we often get the wrong picture of what humility really is.
We see guys out on parade in the military, and the parades are impressive and exciting to watch. I’ve been in enough of them to last a couple of lifetimes. But when you watch those guys out there in a parade, what do you see? All the buttons are shined, and all the brass is gleaming. They have white webbing, and some of them even wear hats with feathers sticking up three feet taller than they are. The thing to remember is that these guys are on parade. In a sense, they’re military men at play, not military men at work.
Have you ever seen the same guy in a firefight? What happened to all that brass? Painted it black–that’s what he did, or got rid of it. Their striking uniforms have been traded for camouflage suits. What happened to the high hat with the plumes? That guy’s traded it in for a form-fitted helmet, and there are times he tries to get his entire body inside that helmet when the bullets are flying. If you really hustle, you can get a couple of hundred pounds up inside one of those things, in the right conditions.
All of the fancy garb we saw him wearing out there on parade was fine for a parade, but when the enemy is after him, he does all he can to look like a tree or a bush. You certainly don’t find him marching and strutting when the enemy is breathing down his neck.
In the military a lot of what appears to be pride, pomp, and circumstance is really the soldier at play. When you see that same guy doing his job in battle, he is as inconspicuous as a human being can get–or he isn’t there for very long. You don’t do foolish things in those circumstances, and you certainly don’t draw attention to yourself.
I’ve heard Marines stand up at the bar at the club and talk about how they’re going to do this or how they’re going to do that and how tough they were. I’ve heard guys shout back and forth–Marines yakking with the Rangers or yelling at the Airborne and vice versa. But in combat I’ve never seen that. The banter and bragging go away. People tend not to run their mouths when the bullets are flying.
In Viet Nam we had to maneuver through the wet and mud of endless rice paddies. We’d slog for days, making little progress, and we felt as vulnerable as you can feel when there are no trees or bushes for cover. The water could be three, four, or five feet deep, depending on where you were, and it was absolutely filthy. In some of the places they even fertilized with human waste. Leeches grabbed onto any part of your flesh they could find and snakes slithered by on a daily basis. But when the war is all around you and you’re doing your job, you don’t think twice about whether or not you’re going to get down in that muck. Funny thing, I never met a man who was pompous and pumped up with pride when he was up to his navel in a rice paddy. And so as we think about humility, we can see that a soldier has a tremendous insight into humility. He knows his limitations.
What is humility? It isn’t what we so often think of within the Christian church. Some teachings cause us to look within ourselves and say, “Oh, I’m so awful,” and “I can’t do anything,” and “I always make these mistakes,” and “I’m unworthy.” I’m this and I’m that. This isn’t humility. Any sentence that starts with “I am” is not humility. Where’s the focus? It’s on me. That should be a clue.
As Christians, we’ve often been conditioned to look at ourselves and say how rotten we are. Sure, we’re rotten enough, but we don’t need to focus on that. The rest of the world will figure it out, and from time to time they’ll remind us of those things. Real humility comes not from looking at what a bum I am, but from focusing on God. As my focus goes up and looks to God, and I recognize how high and lifted up and praiseworthy He is, and how powerful He is, the gap between me and the Lord grows. It doesn’t come from pushing me down, but by understanding where He lives, by looking up. Humility is the natural result of my focusing on a powerful, wonderful God, not by focusing on myself and my inadequacies.
A soldier has a tremendous advantage over other people when it comes to understanding humility because he realizes that there is no way he can control his life. I know a lot of businessmen who think they’re in control of their lives today. I know of very few Marines who’ve been caught in an ambush who would tell you they’re in control of their lives. In those moments, most of them would be happy to be in control of their bowels. And I’m not joking.
As a Christian I want to learn the goodness of humility, but I’ve got to do that by focusing on the greatness of God and not on me and my problems. The soldier whose life is on the line, who’s told to go do things that are often frightening and dangerous, doesn’t even get the luxury of deciding whether he’s going to do it. He’s told, “Do it,” and he goes off and does it.
I never met a guy out there dodging bullets or sweating in the middle of a mortar attack who thought he was in control of his life. Later he might talk about it. Earlier he might think it. But at the time, there’s no doubt in his mind it’s absolutely out of his hands.
We’ve taken a look at simplicity, authority, and humility. Those traits of a good soldier are instantly transferable to becoming a good follower of Jesus Christ. The military training a person goes through gives him an opportunity to serve both his God and his country. It is a sacred trust indeed. Much of what he learns in training is very helpful in terms of learning to live the Christian life and to be an example to others.
Talk to those who’ve gone before you in the military. Ask them about principles of being a good soldier and begin to look at what other traits and characteristics of good soldiers can help us follow as disciples of Christ. To those in the military, be grateful for the high calling God has given you. It is, in fact, the calling to be a good soldier that Paul used as an example to Timothy. And it still applies today.