Far and away my favorite centurion was the one described when Jesus approached Capernaum. The story depicts one of the most appealing, attractive characters in all of the New Testament.
In the occasional doubts we must all feel as Christians in an occupation of arms, the New Testament centurions are, in a way, worthy role models. Centurions were, after all, not common soldiers; they were a cross between a commander and a sergeant major. In a Roman legion there were 6000 men, divided into what they referred to as sixty “centuries” containing 100 men each. In command of each of these was a centurion.
Centurions were responsible for the discipline of the century, and they were the cement that held the Army together. In battle the legions maneuvered, struck, and held their lines against assault because the centurions directed it, enforced it, practically willed it to be. When the fighting stopped it was the centurions who brought stability, order and administration to the occupied region.
The renowned Scottish theologian, Dr. William Barclay, noted that every centurion mentioned in the New Testament was mentioned with honor. It was a centurion who stood at the foot of the Cross and declared, “Surely, He was the Son of God.”
It was a centurion, Cornelius, who is attributed to be the first Gentile convert to the Christian Church. It was a centurion who, upon recognizing the Apostle Paul as a Roman citizen, rescued him from the fury of a rioting mob, and a centurion who foiled plans to murder the apostle on his way from Jerusalem to Caesarea. Felix ordered a centurion to look after Paul, and it was a centurion who, when accompanying Paul on his last trip to Rome, afforded him every courtesy, and accepted him as leader when the storm struck their ship.
But far and away my favorite centurion was the one described when Jesus approached Capernaum. The story depicts one of the most appealing, attractive characters in all of the New Testament.
“As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’ But the centurion answered him, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come.” And he comes, and to my slave, “Do this,” and he does it.’
“When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; be it done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed once” (Matt. 8:5-13 RSV).
In this story there are three remarkable traits that we can identify in the centurion:
- Compassion, in his concern over the well being of his servant,
- Humility, perhaps born of that compassion, and
- Faith—absolute, uncompromising faith.