THE HEALING OF THE CENTURIONíS SERVANT
There existed between the Jew and the Gentile the greatest possible gulf. A Jew would not enter the home of a Gentile or sit at a table with him. A Gentile was considered to be unclean. He was dirty. If there had been buses in ancient Palestine, then the Jews would have made the Gentiles sit in the back of the bus.
The story of Jonah depicts the depth of this gulf. The prophet is sent to minister to the Gentile city of Nineveh. In rebellion, he boards a boat going in the other direction. After a short detour in Godís divinely appointed submarine, he arrives in Nineveh.
He begins by announcing that God is going to judge the city in 40 days. When he has spent 39 days repeating the proclamation, he moves out of the city to a nearby hill to watch the fireworks display. Meanwhile the king of Nineveh has declared a fast and is leading his people in repentance and prayer. The 40th day comes and goes and no fire falls from heaven. Jonah is furious. How dare God have mercy on these repentant Gentiles!
As Jonah is sulking outside the city, God comes with an object lesson. He allows a leafy vine to grow up and to provide shade for Jonah as he waits in his lonely vigil. But then He sends a worm to destroy the vine. Jonah is saddened and mourns over the loss of his vine. God presents him with a penetrating question ó should not the God of the universe mourn over the loss of people whom He has created, even if they are Gentiles?
We are not told whether Jonah learned his lesson. But we do know that the anti-Gentile feeling continued to run deep in Jewish thinking. Even the Apostle Peter would think twice before accepting an invitation to go to the house of Cornelius.
And yet, there was a time when a Jewish carpenter-turned-rabbi was ready to go to the home of a Gentile, and a Roman soldier at that, in order to bring help in time of need.
A RESIDENTIAL RETURN
When He had completed all His discourses in the hearing of the people, He went to Capernaum (Luke 7:1).
Jesus had just completed His Sermon on the Mount/Level Place. Now He comes down to
Capernaum, the fishing village by the sea that has served as His base of operations. With Him are His newly appointed apostles .
The news quickly spreads through town. Jesus is coming back! A royal official and his healthy young, son take a day off to greet the returning Rabbi. Peterís family breaks out the guest room for the return of the Lord and His disciples. A man and his four friends recount the story of how his paralysis was removed at the touch of the Masterís hand. A new tax-collector wonders what could have persuaded his predecessor to leave his wealth and to follow an itinerant preacher. Meanwhile in another part of town, a worried soldier prepares a message.
A REPRESENTED REQUEST
And a certain centurionís slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die.
And when he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave.
And when they had come to Jesus, they earnestly entreated Him, saying, "He is worthy for You to grant this to him;5 for he loves out nation, and it was he who built for us our synagogue." (Luke 7:2-5).
We are now introduced to a new character. We do not know his name. He know very little about him. We only know his occupation. He is a centurion.
A centurion was a commander of a centuria ó a company of 100 men. If he were living today, we would call him a Master Sergeant, since he was a non-commissioned officer. This man was a centurion under the service of Herod Antipas. Roman legions were not assigned to Galilee, but Antipas had organized his own military force along the same lines as that of the Roman army. Most of the troops in his army had been recruited from Samaritans and Gentiles. This man was probably of the latter category.
Slavery was a common institution in the ancient world. What was not so common was that a master should be so concerned about his slave. A slave was normally thought of as a mere commodity, though an expensive one. He could be bought or sold and had no personal rights.
But this manís concern seems to be more than just the concern that a man might have over a piece of property. This centurion was genuinely concerned about the welfare of his slave.
Capernaum was serving as the base for the ministry of Jesus. It was here that He had come after turning the water into wine. It was here that He first called His disciples. It was at the synagogue in Capernaum that he cast a demon from a man. It was here that He healed the mother-in-law of Peter. It was here that He healed the paralytic. The news of these activities would have spread throughout the town and had eventually come to this centurion.
We are going to see in a few verses that this centurion recognized the authority of Jesus. But this is not why he came. He came because he had a need. His need drove him to Jesus.
This is always the case. Jesus came for those in need. He said, "Those who are whole do not need a physician." Do you have a need? Perhaps the Lord is speaking to you in the midst of that need. Perhaps He is doing the same thing that He did to this Centurion. Perhaps He is drawing you to Jesus.
Matthewís account does not mention that the Centurion used an intermediary to come to Jesus. We often do the same thing when we describe a conversation that we had with someone but neglect to mention that it was done over the telephone. Likewise, when we read that Pilate scourged Jesus, we do not imagine that he took the whip in hand and did the task himself. It is not a case of inaccuracy; it is merely that Lukeís account gives us a little more detail.
The Centurion resolves to seek the help of Jesus. But instead of going himself, He decides to go through the intermediary of the elders of the Jewish synagogue. His reasoning was twofold.
There is something appropriate in this. We have all approached the Lord through the mediatorial ministry of the Jews. All of the Bible was written, either directly by Jews, or else by those who were themselves trained by Jews. Each of the apostles were Jewish. A Christian can never afford to be anti-Semitic because he will find that he is biting himself. Christianity is Jewish.
Although the Centurion had not himself proselyted to Judaism, he had come to love the Jewish people. He had even financed the building of the synagogue in Capernaum. You can go to Capernaum today and walk through the ruins of the synagogue there. It is not the original structure. The one there today was built in the 4th century. But it was built on the same place as the original synagogue with more or less the same design.
Notice the basis of this request. The Jews feel that "He is worthy." They had decided that this Centurion was worthy of the help of Jesus because of the good works that he had done.
This tells me something about these Jews. They operated under a WORKS concept. They thought that the more works you do, the more worthy you are. As a result, they spent their lives trying to do enough good works to be considered worthy.
There was only one problem with this. It is that no one can be good enough or do enough good works or stop sinning enough to be worthy of Godís grace. God only gives His grace to unworthy people.
A story is told of Frederick the Great visiting one of the prisons of his realm. Each prisoner he encountered would loudly protest his own innocence, explaining that he had been falsely accused and unfairly judged. Frederick finally came to a man who, when asked about his crime, replied, "Yes, I really did commit that offense and received the punishment that I deserved." At this, Frederick called for the guards and issued an order. "Quick! Release this man at once! We cannot allow him to remain here corrupting all of these innocent men!"
The truth is that there are no innocent men or women. We have all gone out of the way. We have all gone our own way. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
A RECOGNIZED AUTHORITY
Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof;7 for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ĎGo!í and he goes; and to another, ĎCome!í and he comes; and to my slave, ĎDo this!í and he does it." (Luke 7:6-8).
Jesus agrees to the request of these elders and begins to make His way to the Centurionís house. The man may have lived on the outskirts of the town on the road from Capernaum to Tiberius. As Jesus and the crowd approach the house, some men come out to meet him. They have a message from the Centurion. It is a message that is in contrast to that which was delivered by the Jewish elders.
This Centurion had come to two conclusions. They are two conclusion to which everyone must come who is to be a true Christian.
1. He concluded that he was Unworthy.
Jesus had just finished a sermon in which He announced, "Blessed are the poor." This Centurion recognized his own spiritual bankruptcy. He realized that he was unclean and undeserving. He understood that there was a wall of separation between Himself and the Lord. Even though the Jews had deemed him worthy, he deemed himself to be unworthy of the grace of God.
When you went to the Temple in Jerusalem and walked through the Court of the Gentiles, you would come to a low stone wall surrounding the Temple structure. There were small gates in this wall with signs that Gentiles were not permitted to enter upon pain of death. This was a man who was removed from the place of worship.
Jesus came to break down the middle wall of partition. He came to open the way for all men to come to the Father.
2. He concluded that Jesus had Authority from God.
This was a man who lived a life of discipline. It was a life of authority. He was under the authority of his commanding officer. And he had authority over his centuria - the 100 men under his command. He would give an order and those 100 men would jump to obey. Because he was used to authority, he understood real authority when he saw it.
Notice the faith in his statement. He does not say, "Heal him if you are able." Instead he says, "Just say the word and my servant will be healed." The question in this centurionís mind was not whether Jesus COULD heal, but whether He would CHOOSE to heal.
AN AMAZED REACTION
Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that was following Him, "I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith." (Luke 7:9).
There are two things over which the New Testament says Jesus marveled: Faith and unbelief. Jesus marveled when He saw great faith and He marveled when He saw spiritual blindness.
This is one of the few times that we ever read in Scripture that Jesus marveled. It took a lot to surprise Jesus. He was not surprised by sin. But this show of faith amazed Him. And what equally amazed Him was that it should come from a Gentile. Not from a leader in the synagogue. Not from a priest in the temple. Not from a scribe who worked with the Holy Scriptures, but from a heathen soldier.
Matthewís parallel account tells us the rest of what Jesus said. It tells us of a prophecy He made.
"And I say to you, that many shall come from the east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven;
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob represent the people of the covenant of faith. They represent the people whom God has chosen to be His people.
The Jews prided themselves on being the seed of Abraham. It was on this basis that they expected to be a part of Godís kingdom. They also expected that kingdom to exclude anyone who was not of the seed of Abraham, except for those who had proselyted to Judaism and who had partaken of the physical rite of circumcision.
"To recline at the table with Abraham" was a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah which described the coming of the kingdom in terms of a party.
And the Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine.
And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations.
He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth: for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8).
The Jews taught that, just as the weekly Sabbath was marked by a feast, so also the world would have a final Sabbath that would be marked by a great feast. Tony Campollo captured this same thought when he wrote a book entitled, "The Kingdom of God is a Party."
The Jews thought that they would sit down at this grand feast with the Lord while all of the Gentiles would sit on the outside. This would be the fulfillment of the prayer of David:
Thou dost prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies... (Psalm 23:5).
The kingdom would be a time when the Jews sat down with the Lord while the Gentiles had to go stand in the corner. But Jesus said that many who are not Jews shall come and sit down in the kingdom. People like this centurion will have a place in the kingdom.
The Jews didnít like this. They believed that when the kingdom came all of the Gentiles would be destroyed. They never thought that Gentiles would be permitted to sit at a table with Jews in the kingdom. After all, such a table would no longer be kosher.
Jesus says that just the opposite is true. It will be many of these "sons of the kingdom" - a reference to the Jewish people - who will find themselves on the outside of the kingdom.
The reference to "outer darkness" is obvious. It is a reference to the judgment of God upon those who are not His people.
The question with which we are faced is what distinguishes between these two? What determines whether you enter the kingdom? What allows one to the party of God? It is not how religious you are. The sons of the kingdom were a lot more religious than this Gentile centurion. They studied the Scriptures and they tithed their money and they worshiped in the Temple. They were lacking in one thing. They had no faith. And this made all of the difference.
It is not that faith is so worthy of merit. There is nothing about faith that makes us righteous before God. Faith is simply the empty hands accepting Godís gift. It is the realization that we can do nothing of our own merit to win Godís approval. It is the acceptance of our own spiritual bankruptcy. It is only then that God can begin to work in us.
A RESPONSIVE RECUPERATION
And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. (Luke 7:10).
The friends who had delivered the message to Jesus now retraced their steps back to the home of the centurion. Here they were met with some wonderful news. The health of the sick slave had returned.
The healing of the slave is almost anti-climactic. There is a reason for this. There were two healings that day. The slave was not the only one healed. The centurion was also healed. The soldier became a soldier in another army. He who realized his own unworthiness became a true son of the kingdom.
There is an interesting contrast to be drawn between this centurion and the royal official who came to Jesus in John 4:46-54.
He was Jewish
He was a Gentile
His son was sick
His slave was sick
He came himself to Cana where Jesus was
He sent synagogue elders to ask Jesus to come
He asked Jesus to come back to Capernaum to heal his son
He sent friends to Jesus saying that He need not come into his house to heal his slave
He seems to have concluded that Jesus had to come personally in order to heal
He believed that Jesus could heal at a distance.
Had the faith of the Centurion grown because he had already heard the story of the Royal Official? Perhaps. Both men DID live in the same town. And both healings took place without Jesus being physically present.
There is an important lesson here for us. It is that the Lord is not limited by distance. That is important for you to know because Jesus is not physically here today. He is sitting at the right hand of the Father. He is not physically present. But that makes no difference because distance is no barrier to Him. He has overcome every barrier at the cross. And you can come to Him today.