The Centurion’s Faith; Luke 7: 1-10
A Centurion’s servant was seriously ill. Matthew’s gospel says that he was paralysed. Whatever the nature of the illness, he was about to die. The centurion sent some Jewish elders to see Jesus and ask him to heal him. When Jesus approached the home of the centurion some friends came with a message that the centurion considered himself unworthy to have Jesus enter his house. But the centurion was a man who was under authority and exercised authority. He understood the authority that Jesus had and that it came from God. If Jesus spoke the word then the servant would be healed. And that is what happened.
Jesus declared that he had not yet seen such faith, even in Israel. A simple story, but with a few strange elements to it. Let’s deal with a few apparent anomalies first. These events were also described by Matthew in chapter 8 of his Gospel. But there a couple of differences. In Matthew’s gospel we read that the centurion spoke to Jesus personally. But this isn’t really a problem. Matthew and Luke had different emphases in their stories. And even today when an emissary is sent on behalf of someone, the most common occurrence is when an ambassador speaks on behalf of a government, whether it is the emissary or the person who sent him, who speaks is immaterial.
In this case it doesn’t matter that Matthew says it was the centurion who spoke, because the Jewish elders in Luke’s account are not speaking their own words, but supposedly those of the centurion. The second strange thing about this story is this. In verse 3 we read that the elders asked Jesus to come and heal the servant. But before Jesus could get to the house some friends of the centurion came with another message suggesting that Jesus not enter the house, in verse 6.
There are two possible explanations. Perhaps the Jewish elders did not give the original message as they had been asked. If the centurion had told the elders to ask Jesus to heal the servant they could easily have interpreted his request as come and heal, and that is what they passed on to Jesus. Alternatively, the centurion could have had a change of heart. And this seems, to me, to be more likely. He had heard about Jesus, and he must have heard that Jesus had come to Capernaum. So he asked some Jewish elders to take his request to Jesus. But upon reflection he decided that Jesus should not enter his house.
And for a number of reasons he would suggest that Jesus not enter his house. The first reason is that Jesus was a Jew and the centurion was a gentile. A Jew entering a gentile’s house would become unclean under Jewish law. And the centurion was both aware of, and to some extent sympathetic to, the Jewish law; in verse 5 we read that he had built a synagogue. The second reason is the one that is presented here. The centurion considered himself unworthy to have Jesus in his house, and because of the authority which Jesus had, it was not necessary for him to be there. And this is what this passage is really all about.
Let’s take a closer look at the centurion. The word centurion literally means one in charge of a hundred men but it roughly conforms to a current army company. A centurion is much like a modern day captain or major, a senior field officer, one who commands soldiers on the battle ground. The New Testament always speaks well of centurions. This itself is surprising because the Romans were not well received by the Jews, as is the case of any occupying force. And we see this today, almost everyday, on our television news programs when we see of new outbreaks of violence often aimed at the occupying forces in Iraq. And it stands to reason, no one likes invaders taking over their land. But this centurion appeared to be well liked, or at least respected. The elders in verse 4 pleaded earnestly. “This man deserves to have you do this because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”
So the question arises, did Jesus heal the centurion’s servant because the centurion deserved it, as the elders attested? Verse 6 may imply this with the word so. But this may mean that Jesus went, not as a result of the centurion’s deserving the healing, but as a result of the request of the elders. But in Matthew’s account we read in Matt 8: 13, Jesus said “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” So it seems that it isn’t the worthiness of the centurion that matters. What was important was that the centurion asked and Jesus, for whatever reason, answered his request. And we cannot assume that it was because of the centurion’s deservedness, nor even because of his faith, although that is the crux of the story and we will get to it in a moment.
But look down at the next section of this chapter, from verses 11 to 17. Here the only son of a widow had died and was being carried out of the town. The mother was obviously distressed and she was weeping, as you would expect. There is no mention here of her faith, or of her asking anything of Jesus. But verse 13 says “When the Lord saw her , his heart went out to her.” He then approached the dead man and told him to get up. And immediately the dead man came back to life and sat up and began to speak.
In this case Jesus gave the man back his life because he chose to. It was an act of pure grace without any human intervention. And this is the nature of the power of God. He exercises his saving power, or his healing power when and where he chooses. Sometimes, as in the case of the centurion, as an answer to prayer, sometimes, as we also see with the centurion, it appears to be as a result of faith. In the case of the widow’s son we can find no reason at all, except that Jesus wanted to. Whether we think there is a reason or not, the ultimate reason is that God has chosen to pour out his grace upon us. So Jesus decided that he would go to the centurion and heal his servant. But on the way friends of the centurion intercept with the message found in verses 6 to 8.
This is an extraordinary message for a number of reasons. First, the centurion declares that he does not deserve to have Jesus come under his roof. He says that he is not worthy. He was not even worthy to speak to Jesus in person. We would expect it to be the other way round, that the centurion would consider that Jesus, a small town rabbi in a troublesome far off part of the Roman Empire, would not be worthy to enter the centurion’s house. Secondly, this gentile pagan has a profound understanding of the power and authority of Jesus. Remember, this is early in Jesus ministry. No one had seen Jesus perform miracles at a distance before.
In chapter 4 we see the beginning of Jesus’ healing ministry. He went to the home of Peter’s mother in law and healed her. In verse 40 we read “When the sun was setting the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying hands on each one, he healed them.” And even later, in chapter 8 Jesus heals a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. She came and touched his cloak and was healed. In verse 46 Jesus says “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”
All the indications were that Jesus needed to be with the person to heal them. Now today, with all the scriptures available to us, and a multitude of scholars behind us, we know that that is not the case. But prior to the centurion, no one had suggested that Jesus could heal from a distance. How did he know? He knew because of the third extraordinary statement that he made in verse 8. He declares that he is a man under authority but then goes on to explain how he is a man in authority. “I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
The centurion could exercise authority because he was under authority. His men would not go or come or do this just on his say so. They did it because his authority over them was based upon him being under the authority of the emperor. So when he gave an order, it was the same as the emperor giving the order. The centurion understood that Jesus’ authority came from God. So when he spoke it was the same as God speaking. And if he tells a disease to go, it goes.
There is a verse in the Bible that everyone knows, but few of us really believe. It is Genesis 1: 3: And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. This verse set the pattern for all that was to come in scripture. When God speaks things happen. If God can speak everything to come into existence out of nothing, then why do we not believe that he has authority over everything else? But the centurion did believe this. He knew that Jesus spoke with the authority of God. He didn’t know all the doctrine associated with the Trinity or the incarnation, or Jesus’ relationship with his Father. He didn’t need to. He did know that Jesus spoke for God, and that God had power over disease. So if Jesus speaks the word
then his servant would be healed. What could be simpler?
But things are even better for us. After Jesus died on the cross and rose again he told his disciples in Matthew 28: 18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”Finally Jesus said in verse 9: “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” The Jews knew that all power and authority vested in God. But that authority has now been given to Jesus. The centurion recognised that as did Paul when he wrote to the Philippians: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
[This is the text of a sermon, Richard gave in February 2007. In it, Richard gives a really good outline of God’s grace in action and also covers the important point that God’s authority has been given to Jesus. I think it’s an excellent semon on this topic – one of the best I’ve seen.]