"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 said unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me, and I say unto this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel."--MATT. viii. 5-10.
We find in Holy Scripture, that of the seven heathens who were first drawn to our Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel, three were soldiers.
The first was the Centurion, of whom our Lord speaks in such high terms of commendation.
The next, the Centurion who stood by His cross, and said, "Truly this was the son of God." Old legends say that his name was Longinus, and tell graceful tales of his after-life, which one would fain believe, if there were any evidence of their truth.
The third, of course, was Cornelius, of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles.
Now these three Centurions--commanding each a hundred men--had probably risen from the ranks; they were not highly educated men; they had seen endless cruelty and immorality; they may have had, at times, to do ugly work themselves, in obedience to orders. They were doing, at the time when they are mentioned in Scripture, almost the worst work which a soldier can do. For they were not defending their own country against foreign enemies. They were keeping down a conquered nation, by a stern military despotism, in which the soldiery acted not merely as police, but as gaolers and executioners. And yet three men who had such work as this to do, are singled out in Scripture to become famous through all time, as the first-fruits of the heathen; and of one of them our Lord said, "I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel."
Why is this? Was there anything in these soldiers' profession, in these soldiers' training, which made them more ready than other men to acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ? And if so; what was it?
Let us take the case of this first Centurion, and see if it will tell us. We will not invent any reasons of our own for his great faith. We will let him give his own reasons. We will let him tell his own story. We may trust it; for our blessed Lord approved of it. Our Lord plainly thought that what the soldier had spoken, he had spoken well. And yet it is somewhat difficult to understand what was in his mind. He was plainly no talker; no orator. Like many a good English soldier, sailor, yeoman, man of business, he had very sound instincts in him, and drew very sound conclusions from them: but he could not put them into words. He knew that he was right, but he could not make a speech about it. Better that, than be--as too many are--ready to make glib speeches, which they only half believe themselves; ready to deceive themselves with subtle arguments and high-flown oratory, till they can give the most satisfactory reasons for doing the most unsatisfactory and unreasonable things. No, the good soldier was no orator: but he had sound sense under his clumsy words. Let us listen to them once more.
"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." Surely the thought which was in his mind is to be found in the very words which he used--Authority. Subordination. Discipline. Obedience. He was under authority, and must obey his superior officer. He had soldiers under him, and they must obey him. There must be not only no mutiny, but no neglect, no arguing, no asking why. If he said Go, a man must go; if he said Come, a man must come; and make no words about it. Otherwise the Emperor's service would go to ruin, through laziness, distrust, and mutinous talk. By subordination, by discipline, by mutual trust and strict obedience, that empire of Rome was conquering the old world; because every Roman knew his place, and every Roman did what he was told.
But what had that to do with our Lord's power, and with the healing of the child?
This. The honest soldier had, I think, in his mind, that subordination was one of the most necessary things in the world; that without it the world could not go on. Then he said to himself, "If there must be subordination on earth, must there not be subordination in heaven?" If he, a poor officer, could get his commands obeyed, by merely speaking the word; then how much more could God. If Jesus was--as He said--as His disciples said--the Lord, the God of the Jews: then He had no need to come and see a sick man; no need to lay His hands on him; to perform ceremonies or say prayers over him. The Laws of Nature, by which health and sickness come, would obey His word of command without rebellion and without delay. "Speak the word only, Lord, and my servant shall be healed."
But how did the Centurion know--seemingly at first sight, that Jesus was the Lord God? Ah, how indeed?
I think it was because he had learnt the soldier's lesson. He had seen many a valiant officer--Tribunes, Prefects, Consuls, Emperors, commanding men; and fit to command men. There was no lack of such men in the Roman empire then, as the poor, foolish, unruly Jews found out to their cost within the next forty years. And the good Centurion had been accustomed to look at such men; and to look up to them beside, and say not merely--It is a duty to obey these men, but--It is a delight to obey them. He had been accustomed--as it is good for every man to be accustomed--to meet men superior to himself; men able to guide and rule him. And he had learned--as every good soldier ought to learn--when he met such a man, not to envy him, not to backbite him, not to intrigue against him, not to try to pull him down: but to accept him for what he was--a man who was to be followed, if need be, to the death.
There was in that good Centurion none of the base spirit of envy, which dreads and therefore hates excellence, hates ability, hates authority; the mutinous spirit which ends, not--as it dreams--in freedom and equality, but in slavery and tyranny; because it transforms a whole army--a whole nation--from what it should be, a pack of staunch and faithful hounds, into a mob of quarrelsome and greedy curs. Not of that spirit was the good Centurion: but of the spirit of reverence and loyalty; the spirit which delights in, and looks up to, all that is brave and able, great and good; the spirit of true independence, true freedom, and the true self-respect which respects its fellow men; and therefore it was, that when the Centurion came into the divine presence of Christ, he knew at once, instinctively and by a glance, into what a presence he had come. Christ's mere countenance, Christ's mere bearing, I believe, told that good soldier who He was. He knew of old the look of great commanders: and now he saw a countenance, in spite of all its sweetness, more commanding than he had ever seen before. He knew of old the bearing of Consuls and of Emperors: and now, in spite of Christ's lowly disguise, he recognised the bearing of an Emperor of emperors, a King of kings. He had learnt of old to know a man when he met one; and now, he felt that he had met the Man of all men, the Son of Man; and that so God-like was His presence, that He must be likewise the Son of God.
And so had this good soldier his reward; his reward for the soldierly qualities which he had acquired; for subordination; for reverence; for admiration of great and able men. And what was his reward? Not merely that his favourite servant was healed at his request: but that he learnt to know the Lord Jesus Christ, whom truly to know is everlasting life; whom the selfish, the conceited, the envious, the slanderous, the insolent, the mutinous, know not, and never will know; for they are not of His Spirit, neither is He of theirs.
But more: What is the moral which old divines have drawn from this story? "If you wish to govern: learn first to obey." That is a moral lesson more valuable than even the use of arms. To learn--as the good Centurion learnt--that a free man can give up his independence without losing it. Losing it? Independence is never more called out than by subordination. A man never feels himself so much of a free man as when he is freely obeying those whom the laws of his country have set over him. A man never feels so able as when he is following the lead of an abler man than himself. Remember this. Make it a point of honour to do your duty earnestly, scrupulously, and to the uttermost; and you will find that the habits of self-restraint, discipline, and obedience, which you, as soldiers, have learned, will stand you in good stead for the rest of your lives, and make you each, in his place, fit to rule, just because you have learned to obey.
But now go on a step, as the good Centurion went on, and say--If there is no succeeding in earthly things, whether in soldiering or any other profession, without subordination; without obeying rules and orders strictly and without question: then perhaps there is no succeeding in spiritual and heavenly things. For has not God His moral Laws, His spiritual Laws, which must be obeyed, if you intend to prosper in this life, or in the life to come?
"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul, and thy neighbour as thyself. Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother. Thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery, slander, or covet." So it is written: not merely on those old tables of stone on Sinai; but in The Eternal Will of God, and in the very nature of this world, which God has made. There is no escaping those Laws. They fulfil themselves. God says to them, "Go," and they go; "Come," and they come; "Do justice on the offender," and they do it. If we are fools and disobey them, they will grind us to powder. If we are wise and obey them, they will reward us. For in wisdom's right hand is length of days, and in her left hand riches and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold of her, and blessed is every one that retaineth her; as God grant you all will do.
But you, too, in time may have soldiers under you. Think, I beseech you, earnestly of this, and for their sake, as well as for your own, try by God's help to live worthy of Christian English men. Let them see you going out and coming in, whether on duty or by your own firesides, as men who feel that they are "ever beneath their great taskmaster's eye;" who have a solemn duty to perform, namely, the duty of living like good men toward your superior officers, your families, your neighbours, your country, and your God--even towards that Saviour who so loved you that He died for you on the cross, to set you the example of what true men should be; the example of perfect duty, perfect obedience, perfect courage, perfect generosity--in one word--the example of a perfect Hero.
Live such lives, and then, will be fulfilled to you, and to your children after you, from generation to generation, the promises which God made, ages since, to the men of Judea of old; promises which are all true still, and will continue true, in every country of the world, till the world's end.
"Put thou thy trust in the Lord, and be doing good; dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed. The Lord knoweth the doings of the righteous; and their inheritance shall endure for ever. They shall not be confounded in the perilous time; and in the days of dearth they shall have enough. The Lord ordereth a good man's going; and maketh his way acceptable to himself. Though he fall, he shall not be cast down; for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand. I have been young, and now I am old; yet saw I never the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread. Flee from evil, and do the thing that is good; and dwell for evermore. For the Lord loveth the thing that is right; He forsaketh not his that are godly, but they are preserved for ever." Amen.