Although I will never have a chance to meet him in person, I hold the centurion that Jesus encountered in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 in very high regard. What's not to like about this man? When I picture him in my mind I see a stern, grizzled man who earned his way up the ranks through merit. I imagine a man who has little need for the fineries of war when he is coated with protective greaves, fragmented torso armor, bruised shield, a hacked sword and a dented helmet. If heavy armor did not weigh him down, he carried the burden of command, often among hawkish eyes in a foreign country. He commanded a "century", a cohort of up to 80 soldiers or more. Of the centurion, Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote:
"The centurion in the infantry is chosen for his size, strength and dexterity in throwing his missile weapons and for his skill in the use of his sword and shield; in short for his expertness in all the exercises. He is to be vigilant, temperate, tireless and readier to execute the orders he receives than to talk. He is to be strict in exercising and keeping up proper discipline among his soldiers, in obliging them to appear clean and well-dressed and to have their arms constantly rubbed and bright."
These qualities are mighty for any individual to maintain, even through the toiling years of a 1st century soldier's life. And while I have come to appreciate the skill required to become a centurion, I am struck by two features that are found in him that often do not meet in such graceful harmony. That is, he won the high opinion of others, and yet had a low estimation of himself. Or more simply stated, this man's deep humility of soul is something to take notice of.
What does it mean to have a deep sense of humility? Surely I am not talking here of the man who remains unobserved at the heels of his superiors stating, "Whatever you would have me do, sir" "Yes, sir" "No, sir" all in the same bated breath. Nor am I talking about those who would fool us by professing to be humble. As an example Spurgeon writes:
"They will use the words of humility, appear very contrite, and perhaps even at prayer meetings you would think them the meekest and most broken-hearted of men—but if you were to take them at their word, straightway they would tell you they use the language as some ecclesiastical persons do, in a non-natural sense—they do not quite mean what they were supposed to mean, but something very different. That is not humility—it is a kind of mock-modesty which hankers after applause, and holds out specious words as bait for the trap of approbation!"
Although there are no direct words for a deep sense of humility in these passages we find it in the centurion's interaction with Jesus Christ in Galilee. There the centurion pleads for Christ to save his sick servant. As testament to his outward merit before the eyes of men, the Jewish elders gauge the centurion worthy as they plead with Jesus his behalf. And yet, as we see, Christ looks beyond the superficial metallic muscle of this centurion and marvels at what he discovers:
"Lord, I am Not Worthy" - This phrase uttered by the centurion is what interested me the most in this passage. As a former Catholic churchgoer, I remember the tradition of whispering the words, "Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed" in response to receiving the Lord's Supper. Although I never fully grasped what I was saying, I also believed there was a profound truth waiting to be unraveled.
You see, as Christ is sent to heal the servant and journeyed closer to the presence of the centurion, there are far deeper events working behind the scenes that are often scarcely discerned. The centurion reacts in a certain manner that causes him to send friends to intercept Christ. There they speak on behalf of the centurion saying, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof." A striking contrast for a man of such great merit.
I imagine when the centurion heard that Jesus Christ was heading toward him his conscience experienced a sense of unworthiness that we all find hidden beneath the surface of our own lives. And here we find a great soldier, bold as a lion before men, but meek as a lamb before the Son of God. He could close the gap, pressed upon his shield, and smelling the panting breath of the most pugnacious men, but before the throne of the Most High he recognizes his sense of subordination to God in Christ. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6).
This is where I think an important aspect of faith first begins. Before God we immediately recognize who we are. Simultaneously we cannot recognize who we are until we have a firm biblical understanding of who God is. This gives us the proper perspective on God and us. When we see who God is and who we are then we are properly humbled before him and submit to his authority.