The Centurions - A Meditation on Memorial Day

A centurion was a Roman military officer who commanded a unit of 100 soldiers, called a “century.”  (By the time of Christ, a full strength century was 80 soldiers but obviously, given its literal meaning, the name comes from a time when there were 100 soldiers in a century.)  There were six centuries in a cohort, and 10 cohorts in a legion, so a full legion would have contained 60 centurions.  These professional military men were the backbone of the Roman Army.

The New Testament mentions several centurions, all in a positive light.  There was a centurion in Capernaum whose highly valued servant was ill.  (Mat. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). Luke tells us that the Jewish elders recommended the centurion as deserving of Jesus’ help:  “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  That the Jews acknowledged this Roman officer as a friend and benefactor to a people Rome had conquered, and whose territory his legion was occupying, is quite remarkable.

But what was much more amazing was the man’s humility and faith in Jesus:  “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.”  Jesus was amazed, and said that there was nothing to match this Roman’s faith even in the chosen nation of Israel, which had the law and the prophets of God.  Needless to say, Jesus healed the man’s servant.

Ellen White comments that this Roman understood the principle of righteousness by faith better than the Pharisees:

“The Jewish elders who recommended the centurion to Christ had shown how far they were from possessing the spirit of the gospel. They did not recognize that our great need is our only claim on God's mercy. In their self-righteousness they commended the centurion because of the favor he had shown to ‘our nation.’ But the centurion said of himself, ‘I am not worthy.’ His heart had been touched by the grace of Christ. He saw his own unworthiness; yet he feared not to ask help. He trusted not to his own goodness; his argument was his great need. His faith took hold upon Christ in His true character. He did not believe in Him merely as a worker of miracles, but as the friend and Saviour of mankind.”

“It is thus that every sinner may come to Christ. ‘Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.’ Titus 3:5. When Satan tells you that you are a sinner, and cannot hope to receive blessing from God, tell him that Christ came into the world to save sinners. We have nothing to recommend us to God; but the plea that we may urge now and ever is our utterly helpless condition that makes His redeeming power a necessity.”  DA, pp. 316-17

The next mention of a centurion is the man who was supervising Jesus’ crucifixion.  Matthew tells that, upon witnessing the unnatural darkness and the earthquake that accompanied Jesus’ crucifixion, the centurion states, “surely, he was the son of God.”  (Mat. 27:54) According to Luke’s gospel, the centurion “glorified God” and said that Jesus was surely a righteous or just man.  (Luke 23:47)

A man named Cornelius who lived in Caesarea is mentioned as the first gentile convert to “the way” that would later be called Christianity.  (Acts 10:1-48) Cornelius was a centurion of the “band”—likely an imprecise reference to a cohort—called “Italicus,” the Italian cohort.  “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”  (Acts 10:1-2)

“Though Cornelius believed the prophecies and was looking for the Messiah to come, he had not a knowledge of the gospel as revealed in the life and death of Christ. He was not a member of the Jewish [synagogue] and would have been looked upon by the rabbis as a heathen and unclean. But the same Holy Watcher who said of Abraham, ‘I know him,’ knew Cornelius also, and sent a message direct from heaven to him.”  AA p. 133.

God used Peter to baptize him and his family; God used Cornelius to help rid Peter of his prejudice against Gentiles:  “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”  (Acts 10:34)

So two of the godliest men in the entire New Testament, Cornelius from Caesarea and the centurion from Capernaum, were Roman centurions. 

The only time Scripture describes a centurion as doing anything even slightly wrong is when Claudius Lysias, the commander of the Jerusalem cohort, in transferring Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea, wrote to Governor Felix that, “This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen.”  (Acts 23:27). That was a little white lie designed to cast Lysias in a better light.  In fact, he rescued Paul only because it was his duty to keep the peace, and he was doing his job.  (Acts 21:27-36) Lysias did not learn that Paul was a Roman citizen until, after the rescue, Paul pointed out that it was not lawful to flog a Roman citizen without trial. (Acts 22:22-29) Clearly, “I rescued a Roman citizen” would sound better to the governor than “I almost had a Roman citizen flogged.”

After preaching to Felix, Festus, Agrippa and Bernice at Caesarea, Paul was sent to Rome for a trial before Nero.  When their ship ran aground on Malta, the Roman soldiers planned to kill Paul and all the prisoners to prevent any possibility of escape, but the Centurion in command wanted to save Paul's life, and stopped the soldiers from killing anyone.  (Acts 27:42-44)  When they finally arrived in Rome the next year, "the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard; but Paul was permitted to dwell by himself with the soldier who guarded him."  (Acts 28:16)

The common Roman soldiers were not uniformly virtuous; they are shown torturing and mocking Jesus at his crucifixion (Mat. 27:27-31; Luke 23:35-37), and gambling over His personal belongings (Mat. 27:35; Luke 23:34), although this was in fulfilment of ancient prophecy (Psalm 22:7-8, 16-18). 

George Frederick Maclear, in his textbook of New Testament history, noted that, "The centurions mentioned in the New Testament are uniformly spoken of in terms of praise, whether in the Gospels or in the Acts. It is interesting to compare this with the statement of Polybius (vi. 24), that the centurions were chosen by merit, and so were men remarkable not so much for their daring courage as for their deliberation, constancy, and strength of mind." 

Probably every nation has sought to instill its highest values in its officer class.  The motto of West Point is “duty, honor, country.”  The honor code is strictly enforced. The core value of the Citidel is “A cadet does not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.”

But notwithstanding even the best screening, selection, and training, there are always a few bad apples in the barrel. Assuming a legion was stationed in First Century Palestine, there would have been about 60 centurions in Judea, Samaria and the surrounding area.  There must have been at least one bad centurion in that lot, probably several.  Thus, it appears to me that there was a decision not to mention any such bad apple in Scripture.  What are we to make of this?


Christianity is not a political movement

Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American who converted to Christianity as a teenager, then converted back to Islam as an adult, has written a best-selling book on Jesus, called “Zealot,” in which he argues that Jesus was just another Jewish freedom fighter who burned to eject the hated Romans from Israel.  Aslan reaches his conclusion by quoting texts such as “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mat. 10:34) and ignoring or explaining away texts such as, “If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.”  (Mat. 5:41, NLT).

If Jesus’ movement had been a political movement with the goal of driving out the Romans, surely his followers and chroniclers would have depicted the Roman officer class as the ruthless oppressors of the Jews and Christians.  But the opposite is true.  The centurions are uniformly depicted as righteous and just.  If Jesus and his followers opposed Rome, they really needed help in their propaganda department.

But in truth, Christianity was not, is not, and never will be a political movement.  Christianity is about cosmic truth and inner change.  It works on hearts, and changes people from the inside.  To be sure, a thoroughly converted Christian population will see its values reflected in its customs and eventually in its laws, but these are second-order effects that work through culture over time, not the primary emphasis of Christianity.


The profession of arms is honorable

This may seem a strange conclusion, given the Adventist Church’s long tradition of non-combatancy, which goes back to the American Civil War.  The SDA Church created a Medical Cadet Corps in the 1930s as an alternative to ROTC, to train Adventist young men to be medics.  Our greatest military hero is World War II Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Desmond T. Doss, who refused to carry a weapon, but who saved the lives of many wounded men during the savage fighting on Okinawa.  According to his official citation:

As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machine gun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands.

*  *  *

On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers' return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, this time suffering a compound fracture of one arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards [270 m] over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.

Doss is featured in Terry Benedict’s 2004 documentary, The Conscientious Objector, and is the subject of a Hollywood movie directed by Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge, to be released this November. 

The draft ended in the 1970s along with the Vietnam War, and when the draft ended, the Church ended the Medical Cadet Corps program.  We do not encourage Adventists to volunteer for the all-volunteer military, but there's not much official discouragement, either. 

Most Christians, however, have not viewed their religion as barring a military career, including some of the greatest American soldiers. 

George Washington was active in the Episcopal church as vestryman and warden. 

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was a very strong Presbyterian who once said, “my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed.”  One biographer wrote, “Jackson was fanatical in his Presbyterian faith, and it energized his military thought and character. Theology was the only subject he genuinely enjoyed discussing. His dispatches invariably credited an ever-kind Providence."  Jackson established a Sunday School class for blacks, both free and slave, at his church in Lexington, Virginia. 

Robert E. Lee, when told he was being prayed for, stated, “I sincerely thank you for that, and I can only say that I am a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone, and that I need all the prayers you can offer for me."  After the war, Lee became the president of Washington College, which was later renamed Washington and Lee University in his honor.  On the way to chapel one day, Lee stated to a religion teacher, “I shall be disappointed, sir, I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless the young men all become real Christians; and I wish you and others of your sacred profession to do all you can to accomplish this result."


Blue lives matter

The biblical Book of Acts shows that one of the duties of the Roman centurions was to keep the peace, much like a modern police force.  That’s why novelist Joseph Wambaugh entitled his novel about the Los Angeles police force “The New Centurions.”  It was made into a movie of the same name. 

The Christian attitude toward police authority is one of submission.  (Rom. 13:1-7).  Those who intentionally pick fights with the police, or who riot and destroy property, are manifesting a spirit entirely contrary to the spirit of Christianity. Legitimate complaints about police brutality can be pursued through lawful channels, including filing complaints with city authorities, and civil lawsuits. 

Some types of supposedly peaceful protest and demonstration also display a spirit of anti-Christ.  For example, one group of anti-police “activists” was recorded chanting, “pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon.”  This is so far beyond the boundary of acceptable conduct that one can either be involved with these people or one can be a Christian, but not both.

Summary and Conclusion

Scripture has only good to report regarding the Roman centurions.  They are depicted as men of justice and, in two instances, godliness and righteousness.  What are we to make of this?  First, it is clear beyond cavil that Christianity was never about driving out the Romans.  Contrary to some authors, Christianity was not born out of Jewish zealotry, and still is not a political movement.  Second, the profession of arms is honorable.  Although Seventh-day Adventists have promoted non-combatancy, and if conscripted, medical service, as our ideal form of national service, there is nothing inherently anti-Christian about a military career.  It all depends on how one conducts himself in the service.  Third, the police are usually (at least in most Western countries) genuinely trying to maintain public order and protect society from malefactors.  They deserve our respect, help, and cooperation, not our contempt and opposition.