A Memorial for All
The origins of Memorial Day go back to shortly after the Civil War. The day is intended to remember those who have died while serving in our nation’s armed forces.
For many people, the way they view this kind of celebration is linked to the way they view soldiers. In a nation where people have such diverse views on politics, war, and peace, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some hold a strong disdain for soldiers and the armed forces. Like police officers, soldiers can be met with a variety of responses from the public.
Negative Perceptions of Soldiers
Some people have a very negative view of soldiers, and this can be due to personal experience or the impressions on others. The same was true in the first century. The vast majority of Jews hated Roman soldiers. And there were some very compelling reasons.
First of all, many soldiers appeared to be more interested in making money than pursuing justice. For example, Roman soldiers stole Jesus’ clothes at the crucifixion (John 19:23-24), and they received a bribe to lie about what happened at the tomb (Matthew 28:11-15).
Secondly, soldiers were also known to abuse their authority. They could force a bystander to carry something. Jesus refers to this in Matthew 5:41, and we see an example of this when Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry Jesus’ cross (Luke 23:26).
Lastly, and perhaps the most compelling reason the Jews hated soldiers, was their harsh cruelty. Roman soldiers were not simply content to follow orders; they contrived ways to inflict pain and humiliation. The greatest example in the Bible would be the mocking of Jesus. Before leading him to the cross, an entire battalion of Roman soldiers took sinister pleasure in dressing up Jesus as a foolish king, weaving a crown of thorns, pretending to honor him, spitting on him, and striking him on the head (Matthew 27:27-31).
With this kind of reputation for soldiers, is it even possible to honor such a profession?
God’s word tells us that it is. Nowhere in the Bible are we ever told that choosing to be a soldier is a sin. Serving in the military is a profession. And like any other profession, it can be abused, or it can be used to serve the Lord. Consider the following ways the Bible places soldiers in a positive light.
Soldiers Respond to John the Baptist
Before Jesus’ ministry started, John the Baptist preached that people should repent of their sins. One day, a group of soldiers came to him. Embracing the message, and they asked John, “What should we do?” They may have thought that repentance meant giving up their life as a soldier. But here’s what John answered: “Don’t take money by force. Don’t accuse anyone falsely. And be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).
This teaches us that following God doesn’t mean a person must stop being a soldier; it means they should be a different kind of soldier. Being a soldier brings some unique temptations to abuse strength, to be harsh with others, and to grumble about circumstances. God’s command, however, is that all people, soldiers included, are to cultivate gentleness and contentment in their everyday life.
A Soldier Comes to Jesus
On another occasion, a Roman commander sent men to talk to Jesus, begging him to heal a beloved servant. When Jesus said he’d go and heal him, the centurion’s response was, “No. I’m not worthy for You to come into my home. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Then he added this: “For I also understand authority. I have soldiers under me who do what I tell them.” Jesus was amazed at the man’s great faith (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10).
This commander had a front-row seat to authority. And his understanding of authority led him to have a better understanding of the authority of Jesus Christ.
Jesus has an authority far beyond any military commander or political ruler. Jesus spoke, and the universe came into existence. He spoke, and armies were destroyed. He spoke, and demons fled in fear. He spoke, and diseases were healed. He spoke, and storms were quieted. He spoke, and men came back from the dead. He speaks, and men come to salvation. That’s the authority and the power of Jesus. Whether you are a soldier or not, meditate on the authority of Jesus, and you’ll become a person of great faith.
A Soldier Receives the Holy Spirit
Then there is the Roman centurion named Cornelius. He was a soldier, but had a good reputation for being holy, generous, and a man of prayer. God told him that his prayers and offerings had “ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4). Then God sent him to call Simon Peter. Cornelius gathered his family and friends to hear Peter’s message, eager to hear from God. While Peter was talking with them, the Holy Spirit fell upon everyone listening. They became the first Gentile believers to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And they were all baptized in the name of Jesus.
This story is yet another reminder that being a soldier isn’t a sinful thing. God commended the profession by letting the family of a soldier become the first Gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit. And Cornelius used his resources to be hospitable and bring many other people to faith.
Soldiers and the Apostle Paul
Paul’s ministry was affected by soldiers too. When he was arrested and taken to Rome, Paul was pretty much allowed to stay by himself, but he had a soldier guarding him (Acts 28:16). Paul may have had a heart for soldiers, since he ministered to them while under house arrest. We know this because later Paul wrote that his imprisonment for Christ became well-known throughout all the guards and Caesar’s household (Philippians 1:13; 4:22).
Soldiers for the Gospel
Paul’s closeness to soldiers may have been what prompted him to use the analogy of a soldier in his writings. In 1 Corinthians 9:7, Paul uses the analogy of a soldier to talk about a preacher. Soldiers are well-taken care of; the government pays their expenses. And Paul says the same is true for a pastor. He should be well-taken care of by his church since he is a soldier of the gospel.
Paul also compared the spiritual life with a military battle. He referred to Epaphroditus and Archippus as his fellow soldiers (Philippians 2:25; Philemon 1:2). He knew there was a war between sin and his soul (Romans 7:23; 1 Peter 2:11). He understood that that he was fighting for God’s truth (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). Paul even used the image of a soldier’s armor to describe a believer’s strength in the Lord and battle with sin and Satan (Ephesians 6:10-17).
Lastly, in the final letter before he died, Paul wrote to Timothy, telling him to “suffer hardship as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3-4). Paul’s point was that a soldier in active duty only had one focus. He couldn’t afford to get distracted and entangled with civilian life. He had to be willing to suffer in order to please his commanding officer and to accomplish the mission.
As Christians, we know that our commanding officer is Jesus Christ, and his mission is to proclaim the gospel to all nations to the glory of God (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 10:31).
A Memorial for All Christians
Whether you are a soldier or not, and whatever your perception of those who have served in the armed forces, you can still use Memorial Day as reminder that if you have repented of sin, and believed in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and surrendered your life to the Risen Lord, you are a soldier of Christ. A such, you have been called:
- to cultivate gentleness and contentment
- to meditate on and apply the authority of Jesus Christ
- to use your resources to bring people the message of Jesus
- to thank God for his provision
- to wage war against sin and Satan
- to put on the full armor of God, and
- to stay focused on pleasing our Lord Jesus Christ.
A life dedicated to these things will be truly memorable.