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Centurions in the New Testament

Sevral centurions are mentioned in the New Testament. The account of the more prominent ones reveal teh degree which Christ’s message and influence were crossing social, ethnic, and political lines and barriers.

The Centurion of Capernaum – Matthew 8:5-13

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” 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. 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.” 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.  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. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 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.

In its first century context, this scene is remakrbale. First, a Roman centurion calling a Jewish rabbi “Lord,” shows submission to a Jewish teacher. Seciond, Jesus’ action, going into a Gentile’s home, would have immediately rendered Him ceremonally unclean making it impossible for him to participate in Temple worship (maybe this is why the centurion wouldnt let Jesus come to his house). This interaction shows great love and deference by each man toward the otehr.

This man came to Jesus on behalf of his servent. He exhibited great submission (calling Jesus “Lord”) and great faith in declaring that he beleive dthat Christ need only say the word and his servent would be made whole. As if this werent remarkable enough, this tough warrior showing deep concern for a mere slave by seeking out the rabbi of Nazareth is truely amazing. This encounter makes it clear that neighter ethinic background nor vocation determine one’s fitness for kingdom citizenship.

The Centurion of Caesarea – Acts 10:1-2; 22; 44-48

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly…The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”…While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said,  “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

Cornelius, a prominent Gentile convert, was a centurion who had dealt kindly with and was appreciated by the Jewish people. Through his exposure to Judiams, his heart had been prepared for the seed of the gospel, and when Peter came to him with the message of the cross, he believed.

The word translated regiment is the Greek word onepa. It refers to a Roman military unit of about six hundred soldiers (Louw-Nida). This means that Cornelius was one of six centurions giving leadership to the Italian regiment.

The Centurion of the Shipwreck – Acts 27:1, 11, 42-44; 28:16

When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment…But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship….The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely….When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.

Julius, the centurion responsible for delivering Paul to Rome for trial, was reluctant to accept the apostles councel at first. During the shipwreck experience, however, he was exposed to the vitality of Paul’s faith and saw the power of God in the miraculous and saved Paul’s life when it was threatened.

The concern of the soldires that the prisoners might escape is understandable. Roman law held the guards personally responsible for excaped prisoners. Rome enforced capital punishment on guards from whom prisoners escaped.

Centurions were not the ancient equivalent of “the boy next door.” They were part of an occupation force–professional soldiers exerting the iron heel of Rom and its subjugation and bondage. The hated Roman conquerors were brutal and swift in their approach to any and all problems. Yet, according to Easton’s Bible Dictionary: “The centurions mentioned in the New Testament are uniformly spoke of in terms of praise, whether in the Gospels or in the Acts.”

Ancient Roman historian Polybius noted that centurions were chosen by merit and were remarkable not so much for their daring courage and valor (although those qualities were important) as for their deliberation, constancy, and strength of mind. Regarding these centurions, he wrote, “They must not be so much venturesome seekers after danger as men who can command, steady in action and reliable; they ought not to be overanxious to rush into the fight, but when hard-pressed they must be ready to hold their ground and die at their posts.”

In fact, Bible scolar William Barclay concluded, “The centurions were the finest men in the Roman army.”

This historical background sets the stage for teh appearance of the centurion at the cross and for the weight and the credibility of his words.

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