Jesus and the Military

by Dr. Rick Flanderssoldier.small

“And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.  And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.”


The divinely-inspired records of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ include a remarkably interesting and significant story of a contact He had with a centurion, an army captain of the Roman occupation forces (found in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10).  Centurions and soldiers play significant roles in the New Testament narrative, and are usually presented in a favorable light.  Members of the military had a special relationship with Christianity from the beginning, and there is a reason why even now, they can have special insight into the mind and will of Jesus.

The captain came to Jesus requesting help for a servant of his that was home desperately sick.  Jewish elders recommended that the Master grant this request “for he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5).  The Lord agreed, and said, “I will come and heal him.”  But then the centurion insisted that He not come to his home because, he said, “I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof.”  Then he expressed confidence that Jesus had but to “speak the word” right then and there, “and my servant shall be healed.”

The reasoning the captain gave for his conclusion was military thinking.  It involved the concert of authority.

“I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me, and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.”

The soldier thought he understood Jesus because he understood authority.  Everybody in the military understands authority.  It’s what they teach you in “basic training.”  The principle of authority is simply that the one in authority has the right to expect those under his authority to obey his voice commands!  The centurion was both “under authority” and also had “soldiers under me.”  Those under his authority would obey his voice commands.  When he said, “Go,” they would go.  When he said, “Come,” they would come.  When he told his servant to do something, the servant would do it.  The soldier’s world is a world of duly constituted and respected authority.  When he observed Jesus, he saw in Him a Man Who exercised authority.  “He taught,” the people noticed, “as one having authority” (Matthew 7:28-29).  He acted this way, too.  He could exercise authority over diseases, like leprosy (Matthew 8:1-4) and fever (Matthew 8:14-16), and cured many “with his word.”  He “rebuked” the weather, and it obeyed Him (Matthew 8:23-27).  He commanded “devils” to leave the possessed, and they immediately departed (Matthew 8:28-34).  A soldier could see that the secret behind the power in the life and work of Jesus was His authority, over men and devils, over nature and sickness.  So then He could “speak the word only” (issue a verbal order) and the tormented servant would be healed (read again Matthew 8:5-9).

Jesus responded by confirming the centurion’s theory.  He said, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”  The Roman soldier evidenced more faith than Jesus had seen in God’s chosen people, His fellow-Jews!  Then He healed the servant “in the selfsame hour” by a simple verbal command (read Matthew 8:10-13).

God has built the principle of authority into the framework of His fallen creation.  See this in Genesis 3:16 and in New Testament scriptures like Romans 13:1-7 and First Peter 2:11-25.  People who understand and appreciate authority, such as the men and women in the military, tend to understand more than most people about how God works in the world.

When I was a pastor of a church, I saw how those with a military background or career appreciated the follow-the-leader concept more than almost anyone.  They made good deacons, teachers, ushers, and generally good church members.  They also got what I meant about some of the most important things I taught from the Bible.  Unfortunately, some service people never get so they know how to apply military authority principles to other areas of life end up ruining their lives.  But if they did learn that divinely-ordained authority is the framework of a successful life, and that God Himself is at the top of the authority chain, they often made good Christians.

Soldiers who were converted to God in the Bible were not required to quit the army.  When they asked John the Baptist, “What shall we do?” (now that they had repented of their sins), he told them, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages” (see Luke 3:1-14).  The verb translated “do violence” in this verse does not refer to fighting in battle.  It is a special word in Greek that means to intimidate someone.  The Roman army was the police force in Palestine in those days, and converted soldiers were not to intimidate people unnecessarily nor charge them falsely.  They were also to be content with their pay.  They were not told to give up military service. In reality and in contrast to what some Christians say, the Bible is not a pacifist book!

Although God and His servants are “for peace” (Psalm 120:7), He does not condemn the service of a soldier who must risk life and limb, and perhaps take life, in the defense of his country.  It is in Exodus 20 that we find the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13, which Jesus quoted as, “do no murder,” in Matthew 19:18), but in the next chapter the Lord authorizes and actually commands the taking of life in capital punishment (Exodus 21:12).  In the next chapter, the Bible justifies the taking of life in defense of one’s own life and property (Exodus 22:1-2).  In chapter 23, war is justified (see verses 27-30).  Killing in war is not murder, and the individual soldier who must use his weapon is not responsible for the death he inflicts in war.

When the king of Israel was killed in battle by enemy archers, the next king “bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow” (Second Samuel 1:18).  Going to war is a weighty decision that is made by rulers, but patriotic citizens who answer their country’s call are not personally responsible for the harm they must inflict on the enemy.  The anti-military bias evident in many places is not based on or backed by the Bible, nor was it taught by Jesus Christ.

In the Providence of God, soldiers were placed in and around the scene at Calvary.  They were ordered to put Jesus to death, but comparing the accounts in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19, makes it clear that the prayer He was heard to offer when being nailed to the cross was primarily for the soldiers who were doing it.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

(Luke 23:34)

Soldiers mocked Him, and soldiers gambled for His clothing.  But it was a centurion that put the whole scene together to draw this great conclusion:

“Truly this was the Son of God.”

The history of the followers of Jesus in the years that followed His resurrection from the dead and ascension back to heaven includes several more insightful soldiers.  There was Cornelius a centurion who became a Christian (Acts 10).  There were the soldiers who protected Paul from the mob in Jerusalem, and saw that he was fairly treated, as far as they could (Acts 22 and 23).  There was “Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band” who “courteously entreated Paul, and gave him liberty to go unto his friends to refresh himself,” and learned much about the Lord through his experiences with the apostle on their way to Rome for trial (Acts 27 and 28).  There were soldiers that guarded Paul and treated him kindly (Acts 28).  Paul used soldiering as an example of serving Christ (Second Timothy 2:3-4).  Soldiers are in an honorable profession, and are associated with the early progress of the Gospel in many positive ways.

Men and women of the military have good reason to take an interest in Christianity, and to bow to the authority of Jesus Christ today.  He possesses all authority in heaven and earth.  He ought to be acknowledged and obeyed.  He has the authority to cancel our sins because He died for us as a friend will give his life for his buddies on the battlefield (see John 15:13-14).  He won the victory over sin and death and hell when He rose from the dead.  He has promised to save the soul that will trust in Him (John 3:36).  He will make the trusting soldier His own, and will go with him wherever he goes.  Jesus loves the brave people in the military and in many ways they understand Him.  May everyone who wears the uniform come to know Him as the “captain of their salvation” (Hebrews 2:10) and do their duty to follow Him all their days!

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