Several centurions are mentioned in the New Testament. The accounts of the more prominent ones reveal the degree to which Christ’s message and influence were crossing social, ethnic, and political lines and barriers.
The Centurion of Capernaum (Matt. 8:5-13)
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.” When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour.
This man came to Jesus on behalf of his servant. He exhibited great submission (calling Jesus “Lord”) and great faith in declaring that he believed that Christ need only say the word and his servant would be made whole. As if this weren’t remarkable enough, this tough warrior showing deep concern for a mere slave by seeking out the rabbi of Nazareth is truly amazing.
The Centurion of Caesarea (Acts 10:1-2, 22, 44-48)
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. And they said [to Peter], “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.”. . . While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay 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 Judaism, 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 Centurion of the Shipwreck (Acts 27:1, 11, 42-44; 28:16)
And when it was decided that we should sail to Italy, they delivered Paul and some other prisoners to one named Julius, a centurion of the Augustan Regiment. Nevertheless the centurion was more persuaded by the helmsman and the owner of the ship than by the things spoken by Paul. And the soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any of them should swim away and escape. But the centurion, wanting to save Paul, kept them from their purpose, and commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard first and get to land, and the rest, some on boards and some on parts of the ship. And so it was that they all escaped safely to land. Now when we came to Rome, 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.
Julius, the centurion responsible for delivering Paul to Rome for trial, was reluctant to accept the apostle’s counsel 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.
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 Rome 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 spoken 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 scholar William Barclay concluded, “The centurions were the finest men in the Roman army.”
This historical background sets the stage for the appearance of the centurion at the cross and for the weight and the credibility of his words.