In the days when Jesus walked the earth, the Roman army ruled the land where he walked. Rome’s fighting forces were generally organized into legions, or the equivalent of about 6,000 soldiers. Within each legion, the troops were again organized into 60 groups (“cohorts”) of 100 soldiers each, and each cohort was commanded by a centurion.
Historians tell us that centurions were always promoted from within the ranks of a legion, typically leading the men who had also seen the centurions prove themselves in battle. Centurions were also known, comically, for having large calf muscles and wearing hobnail boots. In today’s world, an army company’s sergeant-major would be a comparable rank to the centurion.
The Greek historian of Rome, Polybius, described centurions as “men who can command, steady in action, and reliable…ready to hold their ground and die at their posts.” Centurions were well-regarded and likely influential, high-ranking members of any local community.
This was the type of soldier who approached Jesus in Capernaum to beg a miracle for his servant (Matthew 8:5-13). He was one of only two centurions mentioned in the gospel accounts of the life of Christ, the other being the centurion who presided over Jesus’ execution.
It’s significant that this gentile, Roman, military commander would humble himself before Christ the way that he did. Given his position, he could have demanded a miracle of Jesus (much the way King Herod later attempted to do, see Luke 23:8-12), but he didn’t. Perhaps that’s why Jesus complimented him by saying, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
And perhaps we today have something to learn about prayer from this unnamed centurion who humbled himself before God.
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