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The Centurion – Insights from a man of great faith
Imagine the scene: three characters in a bank manager’s office in the little town of Warmington-on-sea. The date is 14th May 1940 and Anthony Eden has just broadcast on the radio asking for men to sign up for the Local Defence Volunteers, later called the Home Guard, and even later Dad’s Army.
MAINWARING Now listen to me. Now we three are the invasion committee.
Wilson and Pike exchange looks. Mainwaring looks at the paper.
MAINWARING Now according to this, the next thing we’ve got to do is to appoint a properly appointed Commander.
WILSON A what, sir?
MAINWARING Appoint a properly appointed Commander. Now that’s me — all right?
There is no answer.
MAINWARING You, Wilson will be my second in command.
WILSON Thank you, sir.
MAINWARING (Looking at paper) What next — ah yes — means of conveying instructions and information to the public, an information officer will be appointed. Pike — that’s you.
PIKE Well, sir…
MAINWARING Now — (He reads) the information officer will be supplied with a megaphone. Now let me see — Wilson — hold this.
Mainwaring crosses to the fireplace, picks up the coal hod and empties it. Wilson hands him the tin opener. Mainwaring starts to open the bottom of the hod with the tin opener.
MAINWARING You will learn, Wilson, that in times like these improvisation is the keynote to success (Mainwaring kicks hod, hands it to Pike) That is your megaphone, lad. Now your first job will be to get on your bike and ride round the town with this message —
MAINWARING I’ll show you. (His voice booms out) All Local Defence Volunteers report to the church hall at six o’clock tonight.
He lowers the megaphone and he has a big black ring around his face.
MAINWARING How was that?
WILSON Excellent, sir, I don’t know how you do it.
MAINWARING History repeats itself, Wilson. Times of peril always bring great men to the fore – Wellington, Churchill –
PIKE Al Jolson.
We are going to be looking at three armies: the Roman Army of the 1st Century AD, the Allied forces of the Second World War and the Army of the Lord (see Joshua 5:14). We will focus on the role of a junior officer in each of these to see how we can ‘do our bit’ in the great conflict that has raged since the beginning of time.
I first began to think along these lines on 8th December 2010, whilst waiting for a train, I asked God for a sign of revival, I believe he said very clearly,
“My sign is this – Luke Chapter 7 verse 8”.
I immediately looked this up:
The centurion said, “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”. (Luke 7:8)
1 When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 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.” 9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well. (Luke 7:1-10)
This unexpected message in an unexpected place started me on a journey to discover what Jesus was saying now through this verse, and through the man that said these words.
Jesus was amazed at the centurion’s faith because he had real insight into Jesus’ authority and the way that Jesus exercised the power that he had been given. An officer in any army gets things done by speaking – he issues orders and expects them to be obeyed without question. The centurion could see, by analogy with his own situation, that Jesus was able to get things done by speaking orders to the creation (i.e. to the forces of nature, the physical universe, even to the spiritual world). He knew that Jesus could heal his servant just by saying a word, even if he was not physically present.
At first sight the fictional Captain Mainwaring was not much like the real centurion; he had many unfortunate character traits that made him funny, but the two of them do share some finer points. They were both fully committed to the purposes of their organisation and they were both willing to submit, without question, to each and every order they received from their superiors. This is what it means to be a ‘man under authority’. They were willing to put their faith in their supreme commanders, the Roman Emperor Tiberius and General Eisenhower (in the later stages of the Second World War), knowing that this was essential to achieve the purposes of their organisation.
Jesus is the prototype and exemplar of an officer in the Father’s army and the Father is the perfect Commander-in-Chief: totally wise, compassionate and trustworthy. At the end of the time that Jesus was stationed on earth, he was promoted to this role:
Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)
While he was on earth, Jesus was submitted to the Father; from the Resurrection onwards, our marching orders come from the Son.
Jesus told us to follow him, and that we would do even greater things than him (John 14:12). In Luke 7:8 we see how we are to do this; we are officers in his army, we are under his authority, we should be able to issue orders to the world that he made and expect them to be obeyed. The fact that we rarely, if ever, experience this, does not detract from our potential to live as Jesus did, operating in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our relative impotence does not come from the source of this power, but from our unwillingness to be true, obedientjunior officers in God’s army.
This way of working should not surprise us, most of the miracles in the Gospels and the Acts were initiated by Jesus or the Apostles giving orders. For example, in the next passage after Luke 7:1-10, Jesus spoke to a dead body:
Then Jesus went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” (Luke 7:14)
However, it is important to remember that, while Jesus exercised authority in submission to the Father by speaking a word of command many times during his life on earth, generally he lived his life much as we do, getting tired (John 4:6), hungry (Luke 4:2), etc. He refused the devil’s temptation to satisfy his own desires by issuing orders (Matthew 4:3-4), but relied on the Father’s provision:
“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34)
This principle of issuing commands to the created universe goes right back to the beginning:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)
But this does not just apply to God.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
The question is, how was mankind to exercise power in subduing the earth? The answer comes in the next chapter.
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19-20)
Adam was told to give all the animals (as individuals and not as species) names so that he could command them. There is a pale reflection of this in the way we give names to our domestic animals and train them to respond to spoken commands. It is clear that mankind was intended to have dominion over the creation simply by speaking to it; but everything went wrong at the Fall.
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
To use the military analogy, Adam and Eve were demoted from being officers that could get things done by giving orders, to enlisted soldiers who would have to do all the work themselves.
In the Old Testament, God showed the prophets the power of the prophetic word:
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life…” (Ezekiel 37:4-5)
Ezekiel spoke to the dry bones twice and a whole army came into being; he really was an officer in the Lord’s army! In the New Testament, we see how the Acts of the Apostles were accomplished:
Then Peter said to the crippled man, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. (Acts 3:6-7)
The centurion is one of the very few that we read about in the Gospels that Jesus commended (Nathaniel, Peter and Mary of Bethany are the only others I can recall) which is part of the reason that this verse is so significant. The words that he said to Jesus are about authority, about speaking and somehow relate to what he saw in Jesus.
I like this man, there was an honesty and an openness about him. He was not proud, even though he had a position in life; he was willing to humble himself before Jesus. The Jews who originally came to Jesus on his behalf testified of his love and kindness, as did his concern for his servant. However, it was none of these that amazed Jesus, it was his faith. The reason that he got so excited by the centurion’s faith was the words: “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.”. The centurion’s authority over the men under his command was conditional on his willingness to submit to his superiors in the chain of command that reached right up to the Roman Emperor. His men would follow him to the ends of the earth as long as they were convinced that he was following his orders to the letter. The centurion could see by direct analogy that Jesus was fully submitted to the Father, and therefore had authority over all that was in the Father’s domain, that is EVERYTHING!
I was born too late to be enlisted in National Service, as my father was, but I have worked with several military officers in my career in the computer industry. Some of these had a quiet, no-nonsense faith like the centurion. Officers are used to getting things done by giving orders, they know the extent of their authority, and are confident in the place to which they have been appointed. I am sure that is how Jesus wants everyone enrolled in his army to be. He needs people who are assured (but not self-assured) that they can speak in his name and expect things to happen. This is not about a show, this is all about substance, not the outward appearance; it is reality, not perception.
Like many other Christians, when confronted with a sickness or an injury I used to say to those afflicted, “I will pray for you”. This may be a good way of expressing our sympathy for their problems, but we know that we can be more effective if we pray for them there and then. My experience is that we see even more if we command healing into their bodies and ask them to check out if there is any improvement in their symptoms. This is much closer to what we see in the ministry of Jesus and the first Apostles – it requires us explicitly to exercise our faith. If I command healing in Jesus’ name and then wait to see the results, I am definitely stepping out in faith.
I remember being part of a ‘healing on the streets’ team. We spoke to a teenager who had an injured knee, from playing rugby. I commanded healing into his knee and just touched it with the tip of my finger. He jumped back, not in pain but with the realisation that he had been healed. He said “Wow”, rather than “Ow”! We heard him speaking to his friends as he walked away, “It works!”.
Just imagine if all Christians were willing to allow Jesus to work through them, if each of us was like the centurion realising that we are properly appointed commanders, commissioned to live and work as our Commander-in-Chief did, and in continual communion with him.
- The Bible helps us to see the world-wide church as the Body and the Bride of Christ as well as his army stationed here on earth. What other analogies (pictures) do you know of? What is helpful about seeing the church as an army? Where do we need to be cautious in applying this analogy?
- Do you have any experience in the armed forces or know any military personnel? What do you think we can learn from them for the Christian life?
- Do you feel like a civilian, an enlisted soldier or an officer in God’s army? If not an officer, what do you think you need to do to be promoted?