“Take strength from the grace of God which is ours in Christ Jesus.… A soldier on active service will not let himself be involved in civilian affairs; he must be wholly at his commanding officer’s disposal.… Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead …” (the Apostle Paul to Timothy, 2 Tim. 2:1 ff., NEB).
Here and there in the New Testament gospels and epistles soldiers and their commanding officers touch the life of Christ and now and again enter into the new life of the Gospel. It was soldiers who placed the crown of thorns upon his brow (John 19:2); soldiers who mocked him on the cross (Luke 23:36); soldiers who crucified Jesus, then divided his garments and tossed lots for his tunic (John 19:23). A soldier speared Jesus’ side with a lance (John 19:34); soldiers accepted the chief priests’ bribe to obscure the true facts about the empty tomb (Matt. 28:12 ff.). In the first days of the apostolic age it was sixteen soldiers who kept constant watch on the imprisoned Peter. Apprehended by King Herod (outspoken foe of the Christian movement), Peter was not only held fast by two chains, but even while he slept was secured against escape by a soldier on each side. Beyond his cell, sentries guarded the prison door and the iron gate. Peter’s angelic deliverance therefore not only was astonishing, but also excluded any fabrication that disciples had absconded with his body. The “consternation” that followed “among the soldiers” was abruptly cut off only by the embittered Herod’s execution of the military guard (Acts 12:18 f.).
On another occasion fanatical Judaists sought to take the Apostle Paul’s life just outside the temple. Together with a considerable number of troops the Roman commandant stopped the mob violence, put Paul under arrest, and escorted him to the military barracks. There, by invoking his Roman citizenship and appealing for a proper hearing, Paul frustrated the order for examination by flogging.
If soldiers appear in the Bible in the service of injustice, they appear, too, in search of grace, and since they are servants of the state their cause is ideally set in the context of justice (Rom. 13). When forty Jews vowed to starve unless they murdered the Apostle Paul, and waited in ambush for him, the commandant ordered two centurions to take Paul to the governor under an escort of two hundred infantrymen, seventy cavalrymen, and two hundred lightly armed troops (Acts 23:23). When the sailors decided to abandon the storm-tossed ship, Paul exposed their deception to the centurion and to the soldiers (Acts 27:30 ff., 42 f.). During the Acts journeys Paul was closely bound to Luke the physician; in Rome he was lodged in the custody of a soldier (Acts 28:16).
It was a centurion in Capernaum who pleaded with Jesus to heal his paralyzed son: “You need only say the word and the boy will be cured. I know, for I am myself under orders, with soldiers under me” (Matt. 8:9, NEB). Nowhere, not even in Israel, had Jesus found a comparable faith (Luke 7:9). While Pilate’s soldiers mocked Jesus, crucified him, and took a bribe to discount the empty tomb, on that same watch a centurion and his men were impelled by the awesome events to exclaim: “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matt. 27:54). And it was a centurion—Cornelius, of the Italian contingent—with whom God began the spiritual baptism of the Gentiles (Acts 10:1, 22). Thus it was a soldier’s confession of Christ that inaugurated the revelation of the universality of the Gospel of Christ, the recognition that membership in the Christian church was open to Gentiles who “feared God” and not only to Jews.
Endure hardness as a good soldier of Christ, Paul exhorted young Timothy. From personal experience the Apostle fully appreciated the physical and mental stamina of men in the military. He recognized, too, that a soldier’s life in the service of justice is not incompatible with the Christian’s life in the stream of redemptive grace. The man who puts his ultimate trust in God has at his disposal defensive and offensive spiritual weapons. The most frequently mentioned weapon in the Bible is the sword, which in both Old and New Testaments frequently symbolizes the Word of God (Ezek. 21:28; Eph. 6:17). It is the omnipotent God who stands above all earthly powers, to whom all men and nations are answerable. Even in the heavenlies is “the host of the Lord,” that spiritual army which even now does the bidding of the holy Lord of creation. Yet to come is that great and final conflict between good and evil: then shall appear the Risen Christ to lead the “armies of heaven” (Rev. 19:14) and to defeat utterly the armies of the beast and of the kings of this earth (Rev. 19:19).
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