The Roman Army ran on iron discipline. It is the reason that they conquered much of the known world. From Great Britain to Germany down through Spain, the Middle East and Africa, the legions were so effective because there was a certainty that when a Roman commander gave an order the legions carried out that order or died trying.
Years of hard training and brutal punishment drilled obedience into each soldier. It ensured that if Julius Ceaser decided to attack a barbarian stronghold, it would attacked no matter the possible consequences. For the soldier, there was simply no alternative in the Roman system – generally they had to follow the order or be killed.
When we use the word “decimated” today, for example, it comes from an old Roman punishment inflicted by commanders on soldiers who refused to carry out orders. Every 10th soldier of the legion was selected, pulled out and killed by the 9 previous soldiers. It was a gruesome reminder of the importance of following their leader’s orders to the very last breath.
So right now you are thinking – what in the world, I thought this was a Jesus blog – hang in with me.
This system of army discipline and structure frames a fascinating discussion Jesus has with a Roman Centurion in Matthew 8:
Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, 6 saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.”
7 And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
8 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. 9 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.”
A centurion was a Roman officer who was in charge of somewhere between 200 to 1000 men. He would have likely been in the army for a long period of time before this encounter. You did not become a centurion overnight and the enlistment period was for 25 years or life depending upon the person. In that time, it is likely that the centurion had seen some bad, bad things. Just in Israel alone, the Romans were constantly violently putting down Jewish rebellions.
The Centurion was also a symbol of everything that the Jewish people despised. He was the up close and personal arm of the Empire that was oppressing them. For many of the disciples, he was a member of the army that their version of the Messiah had come to destroy in His God given role as King of Israel. To them, he was the enemy…but not to Jesus.
To Jesus the centurion was no more or less the enemy than Peter or John or the High Priest. They were all His lost sheep and He is the Good Shepherd on His mission to find them and bring them into the sheepfold. So rather than striking down the centurion as the Jewish people wanted Him to do, Jesus interacts with Him and uses Him to teach us a great lesson.
The centurion begins the conversation with Jesus in a great way. He calls Jesus Lord and means it. He has come to Jesus seeking healing for a servant of his and his whole attitude is one of submission to Jesus as Lord out of love for another person. An enemy of Israel coming to Jesus and providing an example of what truly following Jesus looked like had to be hard to digest for the fiercely proud disciples.
Seeing the humility of the centurion Jesus agrees to go to his house but is stopped because the centurion seems to understand much more about Jesus than most people who Jesus encounters in the Bible:
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. 9 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.”
A passage that seems to start off just about healing takes a turn and focuses on the nature of authority. The centurion understands that Jesus is Lord and that as Lord He has great power including the power to give orders. He knows that Jesus only has to give a direction and that direction will be carried out without question – even in the case of sickness.
Here is where understanding Roman discipline comes in. The centurion compares Jesus authority in giving a miraculous order to heal with his earthly authority over the life and death of the soldiers under him. When the centurion gave an order it was followed by the soldier or the full weight of the Roman Empire came crashing down on the unfortunate Legionnaire. It was obeyed because of the centurions position and the authority vested in that position and because the price for disobeying was enormous. The centurion did not even have to question whether it would be carried out – he was a centurion of Rome – that is just how it worked.
Because of this familiarity with absolute power and giving orders, the centurion understands that Jesus has an absolute authority vested in His Lordship that is worlds apart from the meager position that he holds. He is the Lord that orders the winds and waves to cease and they obey without question. In the Gospels the wind, waves, a donkey, death, life and sickness all obey the commands of Jesus. He is truly Lord, King of Kings with no need for physical proximity for His orders to be obeyed and the centurion seems to grasp this fact. This is why Jesus marvels at the centurion’s great faith later in the passage, the centurion understands Jesus has the absolute authority to give orders to anyone or anything and it would be obeyed. He is THE Lord, not just a Lord.
The question for us, though, it whether we understand this authority? We call Him Lord and King but do we obey His orders close to how the legionnaires followed their centurion’s? Look at the passage of Scripture that we call the Great Commission from Matthew 28:
18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore[c] and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.[d]
Commission is another name for order. The Great Commission is really the Great Order from our Lord to us. He begins it by getting rid of any confusion on His authority to give us an order – all authority belongs to Jesus. This authority includes the power to give us as His soldiers a direct order.
Jesus continues and begins the actual order in an interesting way. He uses the same word of command that the centurion uses in Matthew 8, go. Same Greek word in the same form as the centurion here:
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.”
Jesus then continues and adds make disciples, baptize and teach – all are direct orders from the one with authority to the ones under His authority. We literally have our marching orders from our commander preserved for us.
The comparison involved is pretty convicting, isn’t it? The centurion’s point was that their authority was similar in that it was expected to be obeyed without question, but because Jesus’ was so much greater than his – he was not even worthy to have Jesus come into his house. His authority is puny compared to that held by Jesus. Jesus’ orders are therefore not only more important but that much more clearly not discretionary. Absolute authority deserves absolute obedience to orders.
We don’t follow Jesus based on fear of death or past punishment that much is very clear. It is by grace we are saved and our fear of death should have died at the moment of salvation. However, Jesus still is one with great authority and we are still under His direct rule. Should the lack of horrible punishment to enforce His orders make complying easier or harder?
So we have the Great Commission before us, the Great Order from our commanding officer – the question is are we obeying it? Do we realize that Jesus expects us to follow orders without question?
Are we going, teaching and baptizing? Are we willing to listen to our commander even if it means charging an enemy stronghold like the Legions charging the Barbarians or certain danger?
Jesus is ordering us – Go, Teach, Baptize – are we serving our King?