A centurion was an officer in command of a hundred men in the Roman army. Four centurions are especially notable in the New Testament, and their stories aptly serve as illustrations of the steps one must take to find salvation from sin in Christ. These soldiers of Rome, trained to kill, show sinners how to be saved.
Faith and the Centurion with the Sick Servant (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)
The character of this man is notable. He was benevolent, loving, good, and humble (Luke 7:2-7). However, it was his faith which caused Jesus to marvel (Luke 7:7-9).
Reports of Jesus’ miracles convinced him that Jesus could heal his servant. Being a man who both obeyed and exercised authority, he understood that one with authority merely had to order something in order to have it done. If Jesus wanted his slave healed, all He had to do was say the word. Unlike others (John 4:46-54; John 11:21,32), he knew that Jesus did not have to be in the presence of the one He healed in order to heal him. Because he told Jesus that all He had to do was to issue the command, Jesus marveled at his faith. Faith in Jesus’ divinity and authority is the kind of faith that saves.
Repentance and Julius (Acts 27)
Julius was a centurion in charge of transporting prisoners to Rome by ship. Among his charges was the apostle Paul, imprisoned for preaching the gospel. When their ship was struck by a terrific storm, Julius recognized that Paul spoke the truth and was responsible for saving their lives (Acts 27:9ff, 21ff). When the ship ran aground on Malta, the soldiers intended to kill the prisoners, including Paul, lest they escape in the swim for the shore (Acts 27:42-44). Since the penalty for allowing prisoners to escape was death (Acts 12:19; 16:27-28), guards preferred to kill prisoners rather than risk their escape.
Yet, having become convinced by this time that Paul was a man of God, Julius refused to allow the soldiers to kill Paul or any of the other prisoners. He could have saved only Paul, but he respected Paul’s prophecy (Acts 27:22). Julius risked his life because he believed Paul. If the prisoners had escaped, this centurion likely would have been executed. Yet, his respect for Paul was greater than his fear of death. Therefore, he abandoned an old and sensible practice. He repented as all must repent in coming to Christ. They must abandon their old, deadly past.
Confession and the Centurion Who Crucified Jesus (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:46-47)
This man was responsible for imposing the most ignominious and painful death on Jesus but six hours later pronounced Him the innocent Son of God. He had seen convincing evidence of this. Three hours of midday darkness occurred (Luke 23:44). A rock-splitting earthquake had struck (Matthew 27:50-54). Jesus did not die talking like a guilty man; He did not proclaim His innocence, nor curse His tormentors or ask to be avenged. He called God “Father” and gave Himself to Him (Luke 23:46). He was probably at His trial and knew of His claim as God’s Son (John 19:7).
In saying Jesus was not only innocent but God’s Son in the presence of witnesses, including the enemies of Jesus and the soldiers, this centurion risked his life. He implied that he had committed a terrible wrong in crucifying Jesus (cf. Acts 2:23) and was also implicating Pilate in a crime, if not sacrilege. What he said about Jesus could also have been regarded as treasonable, since no man, except the emperor, was to be regarded as divine. Unless a person is ready to stand without fear or shame and confess the crucified Jesus as the Son of God, he cannot be saved (Matthew 10:32; Mark 8:38).
Baptism and Cornelius (Acts 10:47-48)
When the centurion Cornelius was told that Peter would bring words of salvation, he eagerly heard him (Acts 10:33; 11:14). When Peter preached to Cornelius and his household and the Spirit fell on them, he asked if anyone could refuse water for them to be baptized (Acts 10:47). Instead of supposing that they were already saved, Peter asked this question, thus implying that they needed to be baptized in order to be saved (cf. Mark 16:16). If they were already saved, why did he urge that no one refuse to baptize them?
Yet, if baptism is essential to salvation, what Peter says is understandable. No one can keep a person from believing, repenting, and confessing, since these are mental or verbal acts. Only baptism can be refused to those who desire salvation; it is the only act for which they are dependent upon others. One can believe, repent, and confess without anyone’s consent, but he must ask another to baptize him (Acts 8:36). Considering the essentiality of baptism in God’s plan of salvation, then, it is not surprising that Peter “ordered them to baptized” (Acts 10:48).