Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.” And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:5-9)
Certain men stand out in the Bible narrative, deserving notable observation for their place in the divine story of revelation. Great men like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David are obvious choices for telling the storyline of God’s plan to redeem man. One group of men not so likely to be visible on the pages of holy writ are soldiers of the Roman army. Rome came to power before Jesus was born and ruled the world with an iron fist for nearly one thousand years. God described the Roman Empire as an empire of iron. The Roman army was the premier fighting force of its age, brutally and totally subjecting nations to its power. No one could stand before the army. Throughout the story of Jesus and the early church, centurions become a visible story of God’s redeeming grace and mercy. A centurion was a Roman officer in charge of one hundred men with sixty centurions in a legion. Their role was vital to the success of the Roman army.
When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him to heal a servant that was very dear to him. The servant was sick and on his deathbed. Symptoms of the servant’s sickness were paralysis and terrible pain. This grieved the Roman officer, who came to Jesus believing the man from Nazareth could heal him. The centurion’s faith was remarkable because he believed Jesus could heal the servant without coming to his home. Jesus only had to speak the word, and the centurion knew his servant could be healed. The faith of the Gentile moved Jesus to say He had not seen such faith among His own people. There was a deep faith in the heart of the Roman army officer to accept – unlike many among the Jewish leadership – that Jesus of Nazareth was a man of divine power. Because of the centurion’s faith, the servant was healed that very hour.
The story of Jesus ends at Golgotha, where the Roman government has carried out the execution of three criminals. Roman soldiers were specialists in the art of crucifixion. Jesus and the two thieves were put under guard by the Roman army to carry out the scourging of the victims, including the mocking and torment of the accused and the long process of crucifixion. A centurion was placed in charge of carrying out the will of Pilate. Jesus was scourged under the watchful eye of the centurion. The cross was placed on the back of Jesus, and He carried His cross to the place of execution with the centurion leading the procession as the authority of the Roman Empire. When Jesus was brought to Golgotha, the centurion carefully examined the process of nailing Jesus to the cross as his soldiers had done many times before. After Jesus and the two thieves were secured to their crosses, they were lifted up between heaven and earth to die a miserable and horrible death. As the men slowly died, the centurion watched over the proceedings as the four soldiers divided up the final earthly remains of the man from Nazareth.
Most men cursed and pleaded for mercy as the torture of the cross killed them. This was not the case with Jesus. The man from Nazareth was in agony and unbearable pain but showed a calm and deliberate spirit of compassion and forgiveness. As Jesus died, He etched on the heart of the seasoned Roman soldier a message of hope and love. When Jesus died, and the earthquake moved the earth, the centurion said, “Truly this was the Son of God.” The centurion knew the man in the middle was a righteous man. Joseph and Nicodemus would late come and ask the centurion for the body of Jesus, and he would grant their request. What thoughts went through the mind of the centurion as his soldiers took the body off the cross and he watched the two nobles carry away the dead body of Jesus? The scriptures do not tell what became of the centurion but hope lives he saw the light on that dark day.
Nearly seven years have passed since the death of Jesus, and another centurion comes to the story of God’s redemption for the world. The early church thrived under persecution, with thousands obeying the gospel. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the church began with three thousand devout Jews being added to the church. For the next few years, the focus of evangelism was only to the Jews, but the day of the Gentile was coming. It began in Joppa when the apostle Peter received a vision that would change his life and the world. In the vision, the Lord showed Peter that the kingdom’s keys would be offered to men considered unclean. A centurion in Caesarea had sent servants and a soldier to bring Peter to his home to teach them the words whereby they could be saved. Peter comes to the house of Cornelius and, by the grace of God, opens up the door of the kingdom to the Gentile world. Cornelius was a Roman officer attached to the Italian Regiment. He was a good and just man and well respected, but Cornelius was a lost man. God’s grace brought salvation to his household. The world was an open field to teach the gospel, and it all began with a Roman centurion.
A centurion was charged with the scourging of Paul to determine the cause of a riot in Jerusalem, but when Paul told the centurion of his Roman citizenship, Paul was released. When a plot was discovered that some of the Jews were going to kill Paul, he informed a centurion of the plot, and Paul was taken to Caesarea under heavy guard. Later, Paul appealed to Caesar to hear his case and was put under the guard of a centurion of the Augustan Regiment named Julius. The trip to Rome was quite eventful, and Julius succeeded in bringing Paul to Rome. Centurions played a large part in the story of Jesus and the early church. Unlikely participants but important to the story.