MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 6, 2009 FROM LUKE 7:1-10
This week, we want
to again look into the gospels at an encounter between Jesus and an individual. Two weeks ago, we looked at his
interaction with the rich, young ruler. This man had everything a good Jew should have-seemingly the perfect profile
for a potential follower of Christ. He lacked only one thing. He loved this world and the things of it more than
Jesus. Last week, we saw Jesus and his encounter with a person who would, unlike the rich young ruler, be easily
overlooked in a crowd. This is a woman whose name Mark doesn't even record-a non-descript female with perhaps
only one thing of value to her name. But unlike the rich young ruler, she sets an extraordinary example for us
as a follower of Christ. She was willing to completely surrender all she had to Jesus. This week, we want to
place under a microscope another encounter with Jesus as seen in Luke's gospel and see what, by God's grace we
can learn from his example. That Jesus would seriously engage this man is very unusual because-in this ministry
encounter, Jesus-as he does only a very few times in the gospels--ministers to a non-Jew. The centurion highlighted
in the account we read a few minutes ago was a Gentile.
Both Luke and Matthew record this episode and both emphasize the paradoxical nature of this encounter. That is-the events recorded here are so unlikely-they runs so counter to what you would expect-it seems so full of contradictions--that even Jesus himself marvels at this. Therefore, a major lesson this account teaches is: The kingdom of God is often marked by paradox. In order to see just how unlikely the events are in this account, we need to know a bit about this centurion. Centurions were non-commissioned military officers in the Roman army. As their name suggests, they had authority over about 100 men and they were known for their sense of discipline-boots always shined, esprit de-corps-all that stuff. There was no active warfare in Palestine, so the centurions stationed there would have mostly been peace-keepers. They enforced Roman law and stepped in to control riots and things like that.
A centurion was in charge of the detail that crucified Jesus. Another one supervised his flogging. The centurions were non-Jews. We don't know the nationality of this centurion in Luke seven. The nearest Roman legion of troops was stationed in Syria, but we can't know whether this man in the story is Syrian or Lebanese or from somewhere else. We know he was a Gentile because nowhere in the account does Luke record that he been circumcised and that detail would have been too important to leave out. Centurions were paid reasonably well, but were not wealthy. No Roman soldier was permitted to marry. Centurions served about 25 years and were awarded citizenship after which time they generally retired from active duty.
So this man would have been a military-trained Gentile under the authority of Herod, single, reasonably well off, self-disciplined and proficient in disciplining the 100 soldiers under him as he enforced Roman law in and around Capernaum. That's his professional and personal resume. Now that we know that, let's read the first five verses of this account again as we investigate his paradoxical spiritual resume. Luke records, "1 After he [Jesus] had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue." The first attribute of this man we see is his compassion. The stereotype of the hardened cop doesn't hold with this man on many counts. Luke says his servant is of "great value" to him. That may refer to his monetary value, but the picture Luke paints of this man tends to make us think that he simply cared very much for this man on a personal level. We know very little about this servant. Luke tells us that he was "sick and at the point of death." In his account, Matthew adds that he was "lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly." Those details lend support to the notion that the centurion was motivated by his compassion for this ailing man who may have been a very close personal friend. That kind of relationship was not uncommon between servants and masters.
We see this in verse three when he hears of Jesus' miraculous healings. We don't know how the centurion heard of Jesus but verse three says, "When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant." The servant becomes ill-even to being near death. The centurion hears about Jesus-this miracle-working prophet of the Jews. We don't know what else he heard about him. All we know is that he heard enough about Jesus to cause him to believe that he could heal his servant, who would have very soon died without miraculous intervention. The centurion is wise enough to know that a visiting Jewish rabbi would almost certainly not come under his Gentile roof without a connection to the Jews. So, he sends Jews to Jesus and not just any Jews-these were "elders of the Jews." These were Jewish civic leaders in the community-men of influence who he had come to know.
Their report about this centurion tells us that he was distinguished by his well-deserved favor with God's people. These Jewish leaders deeply admired this centurion. They say to Jesus in verse four, "He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and is the one who built us our synagogue." The Jews clearly felt loved by this man. He had demonstrated his love for God's people by financing their synagogue-the place where Jews met to worship and hear the Torah. This is a significant detail because although a centurion's pay was comparatively high in the culture, the scholars tell us that to finance a synagogue would have been for him an extraordinarily sacrificial gift of money. This was a sacrificially generous Gentile and his generosity was funneled toward God's people. This man would have been known as a "God-fearer." God-fearers were devout Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel. These men had not officially converted through circumcision, but they feared the God of Israel and a great many of them converted to Christianity once the Holy Spirit began to fall on the Gentiles.
Luke emphasizes that these Jews thought very highly of this centurion. Verse four says, "They pleaded with him[Jesus] earnestly." That word translated "earnestly" is a very strong word indicating a great deal of sincerity-even zeal. They earnestly pressed Jesus to come to this man's servant. Jesus is obviously compelled by their appeal and agrees to come with them. At this point in the account, we see another attribute of this centurion-that is-his humility. Luke says, "When he [Jesus] was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you…"
Notice that once he knows Jesus has committed to come to his house, the centurion sends a second delegation to meet Jesus, but this one is not made up of Jewish elders, these are his friends. The reason is because he is not trying to compel Jesus to do anything, he is simply relaying a message. His friends can do that and he says through them, "I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you." It could be that this man did not feel worthy to have Jesus under his roof because he was a Gentile, but in light of the rest of the story, which highlights his humility, that's not the primary reason. It's not only Gentiles who have these feelings of unworthiness about Jesus. John the Baptist didn't feel worthy to baptize Jesus or even carry his sandals. Peter felt unworthy of Jesus two chapters earlier in Luke five. Jesus tells these seasoned fishermen disciples of his where to put down their nets. Peter has been out fishing all night with no luck, but to humor Jesus he puts his nets out and they fill to the breaking point with fish. Luke writes "…when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord."
That this Gentile military officer would feel unworthy to meet Jesus is even more astonishing. He had never met Jesus and certainly didn't have the messianic understanding of Jesus that John had, yet he too sees himself as unworthy before him. Unlike Peter, the centurion had never seen a miracle of Jesus, but he feels unworthy to have him come under his roof. He shows genuine reverence for him. It is paradoxical for this centurion to feel this way about Jesus. This man is an enigma. He is a centurion-a hard-core disciplinarian who helped keep the peace-but he has great compassion on his slave. He's a Gentile who loves the Jews when many Gentiles in Palestine could barely tolerate these stiff-necked people with their strange religious rituals. As a Gentile, he financed the building of a Jewish synagogue. He's never met Jesus-only recently heard of him in fact, but according to Luke he shows him reverence borne out of genuine humility.
Yet, the greatest paradox about this uncircumcised Gentile is his unique faith in Jesus. In verse seven he says, "…I did not presume to come to you. But 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." When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." This man has incredible faith by any measure. Even if he had seen Jesus heal many people, this would have been great faith because he expects Jesus to heal long-distance with no physical contact. He isn't trusting in any ritual performed by Jesus or the laying on of Jesus' hands. He's not bothered by the fact that Jesus probably doesn't even know with any specificity what is wrong with his servant-hasn't even seen him to see how really sick he is. This Gentile says in effect, "This is all that is necessary-just say the word. Sounds coming out of your mouth will heal him." And this Gentile truly believes that his paralyzed, suffering, near-death servant will be miraculously healed at just the word of this man he had never met-Jesus.
If that doesn't amaze us, then something is wrong because we know from verse nine that Jesus marveled. Only two times in the gospels that I know of does Jesus marvel. Here, at this man's tremendous faith, and in Mark six when he saw the unbelief of those who lived in his hometown of Nazareth. Mark says, "He marveled because of their unbelief…" The fact that Jesus marvels in surprise doesn't detract from the fact that he was fully God in the flesh. This is one of those times when the fact that Jesus was fully human kept him from knowing everything, which would have caused him to not be surprised by this. Jesus is showing the fullness of his humanity here-not any diminishing of his deity. In a fascinating statement, the centurion tells us that his faith was an expression of his understanding of authority. "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."
This military officer had come to understand (rightly so) that a whole lot of life can be processed through the grid of authority. He explains why he believes his servant will be healed at just the word of Jesus by saying, "For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me…" He is saying that he understands that if you have a problem-if there is someone or something over which you have no control, but you want to influence that person or situation in your favor-the answer is: find someone who has authority over that person or situation and get them to act on your behalf. The universe runs on authority-it's everywhere. Every believer is under authority in every sphere of their life-spiritual, political, legal, ecclesiastical. The question is not-am I under authority? The question is-am I submitting to the authorities in my life or am I living as a rebel against God because as Paul says, they all come from him?
He says in Romans 13:1 "1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment." That means that all authority is delegated from God-ultimately, it all comes from him. The centurion knew that when he commanded one of his soldiers, he was speaking with the authority of Caesar because it ultimately derived from Caesar. One scholar writes, "A foot-soldier who disobeyed would not be defying a mere centurion but the emperor, Rome itself, with all its imperial majesty and might." Very few people today in our anti-authority culture-even within evangelicalism get authority. This is why it's so important for us to know that we are not free to simply disregard the authorities in our lives when we happen to disagree with them-whether it's a tax code or a building code or an elected official or a policeman or a leader in the church.
Those authorities are not infallible, and when we disagree with them in a free society, we are free to do what we can to compel them to change their mind or the law. And if their rule over us calls us to disobey God in some way, we must ignore them. But Paul explicitly says what is implicit in the centurion's response. That is--when a command comes from an authority and you choose to blow it off-you are blowing off God-you are rebelling against God because that authority ultimately derives from him. This is why Peter tells church elders in First Peter five that they should lead in a way that is "not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock." Real authority derived from God can be easily abused but it should not be so in the church of Christ.
The centurion is faced with a problem over which he has no authority-his servant is sick and dying and God has not given Rome any authority to heal diseases. So, he goes to someone he in faith believes has authority over disease-Jesus. The centurion says in effect, "The kind of authority you have to heal disease is no different than the authority I have over my men. I don't need to be physically present to have them make an arrest or flog someone or restore order to a mob. I just say the word and when it reaches them--they do it. You Jesus have authority over diseases-so just say the word and that disease must submit to your authority." What' so amazing about this is-Jesus doesn't correct a syllable of this man's theology. He says in effect, "That's it-that's the way this works-I can't believe you know this and what's more that you believe that I have this authority over disease. You're a Gentile-you're not supposed to know this-what a paradox!" Even Jesus is blown away by this display of God's grace to this Gentile. Verse nine, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
Now, I need to clarify something on this issue of healing and authority. Some in the church have taken this truth and abused it by not balancing it with the rest of Scripture. These people are badly deceived and can do much damage in Christ's church. They take this truth on authority and say things like, "I have authority over diseases because I am in Christ and have his authority. Therefore-if you just believe-God will heal you through that authority, but if you fail to have the faith to believe for your healing, then God's authority over your illness will not be unleashed for your healing." That's bad theology on many counts but mostly because it completely neglects the indispensible role of the grace of God. Its true that faith plugs us into God's authority over sickness, but that faith is not something we can turn on and off like a faucet. This is God-given faith. It must come from him. Otherwise, the person being healed or the "faith healer" gets all the credit. Romans 12:3 says that God has assigned to people different measures of faith and all of that is determined by him. In First Corinthians 12:9 in Paul's teaching on spiritual gifts, it's no coincidence that the gift of healing immediately follows the gift of faith. If God in his grace wants to bring healing, he will sovereignly give the necessary faith so as to bring his authority to bear over diseases on the person being prayed for. Just as saving faith comes from God, so also does healing faith.
Let's give some application as we close. That is-we must see the paradoxes of the kingdom as expressions of the grace of God. Do we really believe that Jesus is ultimately impressed with a fallen sinner in this account? NO-he knows that no good things happens except from God-"what do you have that you have not received?" [1 cor.4:6-7] He is delighting in God here. This centurion is powerfully displaying the grace of God. Just as all authority comes from God, so does all wisdom and all spiritual insight-including what God gave to this centurion. The reason why the kingdom of God is marked by paradox is because the kingdom of God is marked by grace and grace is behind every paradox in the Bible. Think about the source of all these paradoxes in this account. How did this veteran military officer come to show such sacrificial compassion to his servant, when so many devout Jews didn't pursue heroic measures to heal their sick and dying loved ones? Why did he as a Gentile love God's people so much-and give so sacrificially to build a Jewish synagogue? How did he as a Gentile learn such incredible humility toward Christ who he had never met, when most of the theologically informed Jewish leaders were hateful and bitter toward Jesus? How did he as a Gentile come to understand God's cosmic authority structure when none of God's chosen people-perhaps not even Jesus' own disciples got this? And how on earth did he come to whole-heartedly believe that Jesus had authority over all diseases-including the one that had his servant lying paralyzed and near death--when he had only recently just heard about him? The answer to all those paradoxes is ….GRACE! This man is a walking wellspring of the grace of God and Jesus marvels at the grace of God seen in his faith.
You see, grace is paradoxical by its nature because it's given so that God will be glorified in the lives of people who are weak and needy and sinful and in this man's case-from a people who lived in spiritual darkness and did not think this way apart from grace. He wasn't a theologically educated Jew-so grace comes in and more than fills those gaps. God gives this paradoxical grace to weak, sick, spiritually challenged people so that when they do things they have no business doing, it's clear to all that-this is God's grace! God loves to blow up our boxes with his grace-fueled paradoxes like those we see in this centurion here. The incredibly average worshipper we saw last week is in the kingdom as is this Gentile centurion, but the rich young ruler is out-that's the paradox of grace. That's a great blessing to us, but it also implies a warning to those of us who grew up in the church--a warning Matthew uses to conclude his account of this same event. After marveling at the centurion's faith he says in 8:11, "11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
One of these paradoxes of grace is that God overlooked many of these Jews who were a natural "fit" for coming into the kingdom through Jesus. They had the law, the temple-all the things needed to be prepared for Jesus. But the New Testament records that as Jesus builds his church-most Jews rejected the gospel, while these theologically unprepared Gentiles came to faith in droves-that's the paradox of grace. We see this today when God saves and uses people who come from godless homes-who did not grow up in the church-and who hated God-while kids who grow up in Christian homes sometimes don't follow God-That shows the supremacy of God's grace. That doesn't mean it's a bad thing to grow up in a Christian home-it's a wonderful thing. But we must never forget that those who grow up in the church need just as much prayer and just as much grace to get saved and walk with God as the drug addict, prostitute and child-abuser. We need the same grace this centurion had. All sinners are dead to God irrespective of their upbringing and all need to be miraculously resurrected by God's grace.
We must see that though it was highly unlikely for a Gentile centurion to live a humble, faith-filled life-without many of the benefits of his Jewish counterparts-it is no less unlikely for God to have saved me. Paul writes in Romans chapter three, "9 both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." 13 "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips." 14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." 15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known." 18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes." That describes the natural, fallen state of everyone in this room. Only God through the life-giving gospel of Christ can bring spiritual life to dead hearts. We should marvel with Jesus at the grace of God in this centurion, but our greatest sense of surprise should be at the fact that he would save us. May God give us grace to be constantly amazed that he in his grace brought hell-bound sinners like us to know him and live for him in faith for his glory and our joy.
Page last modified on 9/6/2009
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