Luke-Acts contains a number of references to armed men, both Roman soldiers and local constabulary forces. The Roman forces themselves consisted of regular forces (consisting of Roman citizens) and auxiliary forces (legions raised in various regions of the empire and a possible route to Roman citizenship). Overall, the soldiers in Luke’s writings get a mixed report card. They can be capable of misconduct, but they also can be capable of honorable deeds and great faith. God seems to like them since he chose one as his first Gentile convert to be baptized into the faith.
We meet soldiers early in Luke’s gospel. As John the Baptist calls people to repentance, the people ask him what they must do. He tells them all to share their food and clothing with those in need. He tells tax collectors not to cheat people, and he tells soldiers (presumably from the Jewish constabulary force), “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” That’s it. In essence, John tells them to be honorable soldiers. Don’t be a thug or a thief. Don’t abuse the power that you wield over people’s lives. Of course John isn’t Jesus, but Luke gives us not even a hint here that soldiering is wrong per se.
In Capernaum, a Roman (or Herodion) centurion asks some Jewish leaders to approach Jesus on his behalf. The officer has a servant (well, let’s be honest, a slave) who is deathly ill and he hopes that Jesus might heal him. The town leaders tell Jesus that the officer is a worthy man who is kind to the Jewish people and has built them a synagogue. Jesus comes to the officer’s home, but the officer follows proper Jewish custom by not asking Jesus to enter. To enter the Gentile’s home would have made Jesus ritually unclean. The centurion says, “Say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” In response, Jesus says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” and heals the servant.
This periscope paints the centurion as both a model believer and an honorable person. Again, there is no hint that the soldier’s occupation stained his character.
An honorable Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius lives in Caesarea. Luke explicitly tells us that Cornelius is a “god-fearer.” There were many such Gentiles in the Roman Empire. They believed in the God of Israel, attended the prayers and scripture readings in the synagogue and followed Jewish ethical principles. They did not undergo proselyte baptism or circumcision, however, and they did not keep the ritual law. So here we have a Roman officer as a regular, active participant in a Jewish synagogue. That itself is amazing.
Through a series of visions, God puts Cornelius together with Peter. Peter proclaims the gospel to Cornelius (and his family and friends) and the Holy Spirit falls on all who heard the message. Cornelius and his household appear to have experienced glossolalia. As a result, Peter baptizes Cornelius’ household into the name of Jesus.
Luke clearly sees this baptism of Cornelius as a milestone in the church’s mission. In Acts 8, Philip had baptized Samaritan converts and the eunuch from Ethiopia. The Samaritans were heterodox and the Ethiopian practiced some form of Judaism for he came to Jerusalem to worship. (There are modern Ethiopians who identify themselves as Jewish, but their relationship to ancient Judaism is a matter of some skepticism). The baptism of Cornelius, however, opened the way for an intentional mission to the Gentiles, especially among the god-fearers who attended the synagogues of the Jewish Diaspora. God chose a Roman army officer to play this role. There is absolutely no indication that Peter required Cornelius to abandon his military duties as a condition of becoming a Christian.
When Paul comes to Jerusalem, a riot breaks out. A contingent of Roman soldiers comes to the temple from the Antonia Fortress and takes Paul into custody on the mistaken belief that he a certain criminal terrorist. When Paul sets the Roman soldiers straight, they protect Paul and allow him to make a speech to the people. The speech further inflames the crowd and once again the Roman forces rescue him. The soldiers prepare to beat Paul to find out what he has done to make the people so angry, but when Paul identifies himself as a Roman citizen the officer in charge follows Roman law and rescinds the order. If we object to the soldier’s willingness to beat a non-Roman, it is to Roman law we should object and not to the soldiers’ actions. By modern standards, Roman law could be cruel; by ancient standards, it was relatively just. In any case, these soldiers were acting lawfully and honorably by the standards of the time.
Paul gets one more chance to explain himself – to a council this time, and not a crowd – but again a riot breaks out in the council chambers. One more time, the Roman soldiers come to Paul’s rescue. A group of 40 conspirators plan to assassinate Paul, but before they could carry out their plan Paul learned of the plot against him. He alerted the Roman officer of the plot, and the Roman tribune dedicated a force of two centuries of infantry, seventy mounted cavalry, and two centuries of spearmen to escort Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea and protect him from those who wanted to kill him. That’s quite a force dedicated to protect one man. While Luke doesn’t propose a theology of government or give principles for the use of force, he recognizes that even in a Roman uniform soldiers can serve the cause of earthly justice.
The preceding references are generally positive about soldiers’ potential for honorable behavior and genuine faith. Unfortunately, the story of soldiers in Luke’s gospel is not all sweetness and light. In the key episode of Jesus’ life, soldiers arrest Jesus like a common criminal. They torture Jesus and they put him to death.