"The Faith That Amazed the Lord"
(Delivered Sunday, July 17, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
We've been studying the miracles our Lord performed after He preached the Sermon on The Mount. These miracles are important, because they show us the authority and character of the One who preached that great sermon. The miracle we studied last week was the one that He performed for a poor, needy leper. And this morning's passage tells us of our wonderful Savior's encounter with someone who was on the other extreme end of the spectrum from a leper. He was a Roman centurion.
What a wonderful Savior Jesus is! He loves and ministers to all classes of people!
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A centurion was a military leader in the Roman army. His title, as it's expressed in the original Greek (ekatonarchos), means "commander of a hundred"; but a centurion may not have been a commander of a literal hundred soldiers. He may have been responsible for more than a hundred! At any rate, he was clearly a Roman commander of great significance.
And by the way; did you know that every centurion that is mentioned in the Bible is mentioned favorably? And what's more, they are often involved in important events in the Bible's story. For example, it was a centurion who stood by the cross as Jesus died (Matthew 27:54). And it was a centurion who reported the Savior's death to Pilate (Mark 15:44-45). One of the first Gentile converts during the ministry of the apostles was Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Regiment (Acts 10:1). And centurions were often involved in key events in the ministry of the apostle Paul. It was soldiers - centurions being among them - who rescued Paul from being killed by a mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:32); and it was a a centurion who prevented Paul from being scourged in order to get information from him (22:25). Centurions often protected Paul from being murdered, or provided him with military escort when he traveled (Acts 23:17, 23). And when he was under imperial detention, it was often the centurions who ensured that he was well cared for, and that his friends were able to visit him (Acts 24:23; 28:16). One centurion prevented a large group of prisoners from being executed during a ship-wreck, because he wanted to keep Paul alive (Acts 27:43).
There was a centurion at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry (as in our passage this morning), and there was a centurion at the end of Jesus' public ministry (standing by the cross). The centurion at the beginning of His ministry was used by God to identify Jesus as the Son of God; and the centurion at the end of Jesus' ministry exclaimed, "Truly this was the Son of God!" And all the centurions of the Bible are presented as men of remarkable character, wisdom and authority. We should never minimize the crucial part they play in the Bible.
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The centurion in this morning's story lived in Galilee, in a town along the Sea of Galilee called Capernaum - not far from where Jesus had preached the Sermon on The Mount. I have tried to imagine what his story might have been, as it led up to the events in this morning's passage. Please forgive me if I do just a little speculating about him.
If he was like most Roman soldiers and officials, he didn't necessarily like being assigned a post among the Jewish people. The Roman's didn't necessarily like the Jews. And the Jewish people didn't really like the Roman's all that much either. The Jews looked upon the Romans as foreign occupiers; and the Romans looked upon the Jewish people as a people group who were unpredictable and very difficult to manage. This particular centurion was clearly a fine soldier who understood his responsibilities and fulfilled them faithfully and unquestioningly. But my guess is that, when he found out that he would be assigned to the Roman province of Palestine, he was - at first - less than thrilled.
My guess is that this centurion would have, at first, been especially grieved because he as assigned to serve in Galilee - which, in those days, was considered to be a despised region of mixed people groups. The Galilean region had been populated by many heathen immigrants several centuries prior; and so, pure-blooded Jewish people looked down upon it. People could tell you came from Galilee just by listening to you, because you would talk a little funny (Matthew 26:69, 73). And in fact, if you wanted to insult someone's intelligence, you would say, "Are you also from Galilee?" (John 7:52). And yet, this despised place was the arena of much of our Lord's earthly ministry.
Now, as a centurion. this particular man was an outstanding Roman leader. A centurion made it his business to know what was going on around him. And over time - again, I'm speculating a little here - this particular centurion had made it his business to study the Jewish people. He came to understand quite a bit about their history, their customs, their Scriptures, and - most importantly - their God. And in it all, I believe that the Holy Spirit was at work in him, convicting him that the God of Israel was not at all like the gods he had been raised to believe in from within the Roman culture. The false gods they worshiped were often depicted as worse than the people themselves - fickle, unreliable, and unholy. But YHWY, the God of Israel, was not at all like them. The centurion saw that this was a God who was holy and righteous; and who gave a good and righteous law to His people. He saw that this was a God who judged sin; but who also had great mercy on sinners. He saw that this was a God who had punished His disobedient people, and had sent them away into exile; but who also had mercy on them, kept all of His promises to them, and brought them back to their own land.
I believe that the Holy Spirit worked in the heart of this centurion - assigned as he was in the midst of the chosen people of God - until he himself came to love and worship the God of Israel. We're told in Luke's Gospel that, even though he was a Roman centurion - a commander in an occupying army - the Jewish people had come to love him. We're told that they considered him a worthy person who loved the Jewish nation; and that he had even built a synagogue for the Jewish people in his region (Luke 7:4-5).
And what's more - and again, I'm only speculating - I believe this centurion even sought to know this God better, and began to read bits and pieces of the Old Testament Scriptures. I suspect that he had read from the prophet Isaiah; just like the Ethiopian treasurer - another famous foreigner - did (Acts 8:32-33). And as he did so, perhaps he too - like that Ethiopian leader - began to ask questions about the Messiah that it spoke of. Perhaps the centurion read such passages as Isaiah 35:4-6;
Say to those who are fearful-hearted, "Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing" (Isaiah 35:4-6).
Or, perhaps he read Isaiah 61:1-2;
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD . . . (Isaiah 61:1-2a)
And then, being - as he was - a man who had his finger on what was going on in his assigned region, he began to hear the reports about this Teacher named Jesus and of how He was fulfilling those very prophecies. Perhaps he heard what was told to us in Matthew 4:23-25;
And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of diseases among the people. Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them. Great multitudes followed Him - from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan (Matthew 4:23-25).
Multitudes of people were following this 'Miracle-Worker' who seemed to be doing the very things that were predicted of the Jewish Messiah in the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps he even heard that multitudes of people had followed Him up the mountain; and that he naturally dispatched some of his soldiers to find out what was going on. Perhaps they reported the amazing things Jesus taught in that sermon; and perhaps they even reported to him the thing that happened afterwards - that a poor, miserable, wretched leper fell down before Jesus; and that Jesus completely healed him on the spot! (Matthew 8:1-4).
These things were all happening right there in the centurion's district. I can't help but believe he heard all about it. And I also believe that the Holy Spirit was working it into his heart that this miracle-working Teacher was - indeed - the Jewish Messiah! All of this is, as I said, speculation on my part; but I don't believe it's unreasonable speculation at all. I believe that God had already been working on this centurion some time before the events of this morning's passage occurred.
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Now; it was at about this time that something very tragic happened to the centurion. A very important and precious servant of his became very sick. When the Gospel writer Luke tells us this story, he refers to the young man as a "servant" (doulos). But the word that Matthew uses to describe this servant (pais) is one that basically means "child" or "boy". And perhaps that word has special significance. He was a servant that the centurion had come to love like a son. Luke tells us that it was a servant "who was dear to him" (Luke 7:2).
The servant had become paralyzed; and it was apparently a particularly desperate situation; because, as Matthew's account tells us, he was "dreadfully tormented" (Matthew 8:6). And as Luke - who was a doctor - tells us, the boy was "ready to die" (Luke 7:2). And this is, perhaps, just another indication of how God had been transforming the heart of this centurion. Ordinarily, a hardened Roman leader wouldn't be so personally affected when a servant became sick. But this centurion clearly loved and cared deeply for this "boy" who was his "servant". He was willing to go out of his way to save his beloved servant's life.
By the way; this is a good time to stop and just say that it's a mark of Christ-like character when we, who are in positions of leadership, show loving concern and care for those who are under us. That's how our Master Jesus treats us. Do those who are under you, or who work for you, know that they are loved by you? Do you love them so much that you bring them to Jesus?
Well; in the providence of God, Jesus had just come into his city. And this centurion did the most loving thing that he could have done for his sick servant. He sought to bring his condition before Jesus. And this is where the centurion appears in the story. We read:
Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented." And Jesus said to him, "I will come and heal him." The centurion answered and said, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this 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 it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you." And his servant was healed that same hour (Matthew 8:5-13).
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Before we go any further, I have to point out to you that there are some surprising differences between Matthew's account of this story, and Luke's telling of it. In Matthew, it appears as if the centurion spoke directly to the Lord; and as if the Lord spoke directly to him. But in Luke's account, the centurion never appeared to Jesus at all. Rather, it was the Jewish elders who came on his behalf to Jesus and pleaded that He heal the servant. And when Jesus was on His way, Luke tells us that friends of the centurion stopped Him and suggested that He not even come under the roof of the centurion's home. In fact, the centurion, according to Luke, says that he didn't even personally feel worthy to come to Jesus (Luke 7:7).
I don't believe that there's any real conflict here, though. In fact, I believe that it's very much in keeping with the thrust of this story that the centurion would do his business through those whom he delegated as his representatives, who then worked in his name and on his behalf. He was a man who was very accustomed to being in charge of others. What he did through representatives was as good as done by himself; and what Jesus said to his representatives was the same as if it had been said to him directly. The differences between the two accounts might be because Luke wrote primarily to Gentiles, and he wanted to emphasize the respect the Jews had for this Gentile centurion who believed; and because Matthew wrote to Jewish people, and wanted to show that even a Gentile would be honored if He had faith in the Messiah.
In the end, the differences are not that important. I just wanted to point them out, because an accurate presentation of the word of God demands that I do so. But this morning, I'm going to stick mostly to the story as Matthew told it. Matthew, I believe, is seeking to help us appreciate the faith of this Roman centurion - this "Gentile", of all thing! - and to help us see that he had a distinguished faith that caught our Lord's attention. His faith stands out because it is one that was placed confidently and completely in Jesus' authority as the Son of God. Matthew, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, encourages us to have the same sort of faith as the centurion.
And the first thing that I would like you to notice about this outstanding faith in Jesus is that it is . . .
1. A FAITH THAT RECOGNIZED HIS AUTHORITY (vv. 5-7).
You can see this in several ways. First, you can see it in the fact that the centurion sought Jesus out and came to Him. On a strictly human level, it would be perfectly within the rights of the centurion to issue the order that Jesus be found, and be commanded to come to him. Jesus was, after all, a citizen of Roman-occupied territory. But the Roman commander doesn't find Jesus and order that He be brought to him. I don't think he would dare to do that! Instead, the centurion seeks Jesus out in order to come to Him - apparently through his sent representatives. I believe he did this because he recognized Jesus' superior authority.
Second, you can see this in what he calls Jesus. He calls him "Lord". In fact, he calls Him this twice in this passage. I hope you can appreciate what a remarkable thing that is for a Roman centurion to say to a Jew! The Greek word is kurios, or "Master"; and it's a remarkable thing all on its own that a Roman centurion would have called a Jew "Master". But keep in mind what it is that He is hoping Jesus will do. He's hoping that Jesus will heal the poor paralyzed servant - and that's something that no one would ask of a mere man who was nothing more than an earthly "master". Clearly, this centurion recognized Jesus' authority as the Son of God - who had the power to heal paralytics (Matthew 4:24).
Third, you can see this in the fact that the centurion was "pleading" with Jesus, or "imploring" Him (as it is in the NASB), or "asking" for "help" (as it is in the NIV). The Greek word that is used (parakale§), in this case, means to "call upon" in such a way as to urgently request or entreat or beg. What a word to use to describe the centurion's approach to Jesus! He doesn't "order" or "command" anything of Him. Rather, he entreats Him. Clearly, he recognized Jesus' authority over him.
I see a fourth way that the centurion recognized Jesus' authority; and it's a subtile thing that someone might not immediately notice. It was in the way that he presented the need. He simply said, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented." He didn't even ask that Jesus do anything about it. He simply presented the situation to the Lord and left it at that. Perhaps he had a hard time daring to think that the Jewish Messiah would give the time of day to a Roman commander; and he could only hope that, if he presented the need to Jesus, our Lord might condescend to do something for the servant.
In all of these things, we see that the centurion recognized the superior authority of this Teacher who could heal his servant. And what a marvel of Jesus' grace that He said, "I will come and heal him." In the original language, Jesus speaks emphatically; "I - even I, coming, will heal him." It was as if he sought to assure the centurion that He Himself will come and do what is needed.
And before we go any further, let me ask: Do you recognize Jesus' authority? When you pray, do you really stop to think of who it is that you are praying to? When you place your requests before the Lord, do you truly recognize Him as "Lord"? Do you dare to try to tell Him what you want Him to do in a careless and disrespectful way? Or do you make your plea before Him as One to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given?
Your recognition of the supreme authority of Jesus is demonstrated in the manner with which you approach Him. We should never forget that He is our greatest Friend; but we should also never forget that our greatest Friend is also the King of heaven - before whom the angels of heaven bow! May God help us to recognize our Savior's authority as we should! To do so is a part of what it means to come to Him in the kind of faith that catches His attention!
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A second thing we should notice about the centurion's outstanding faith in the Lord Jesus is that it was . . .
2. A FAITH THAT WAS HUMBLE BEFORE HIS PERSON (v. 7-8a).
Jesus had already condescended to go to the centurion's house - and in fact, Luke tells us that He was even already not far from the house (Luke 7:6) - when we're that the centurion sought to stop Him. "Lord", he said; "I am not worthy that You should come under my roof . . ."
Now, this might seem like a minor point, but it isn't! The centurion had already expressed a clear recognition of the Savior's superior authority; and we can see this just in the way he approached Him. He came; not called. He addressed Him as "Lord". He pleaded, not demanded. And he simply stated the facts, and left it to the Lord to choose what to do.
That's how he confessed Jesus' superiority over himself. But here is the other side of the coin. The centurion now recognizes his own inferiority before Jesus! Luke tells us that he says, "Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You" (Luke 7:6-7).
There was a tradition in Judaism - not something that could be supported in Old Testament law, but that was nevertheless expressed in rabbinical teaching - that a Jew would be ceremonially defiled if he were to enter the home of a Gentile. You see this tradition hinted at during Jesus' trial. The Jews led Jesus into the Roman Praetorium to stand before the Roman governor Pilate; but they themselves wouldn't go in, "lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover" (John 18:28). Or it was also hinted at in the way that Peter was hesitant to go to the home of the centurion Cornelius; saying, "You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation" (Acts 10:28; see also 11:3). Or remember how the Samaritan woman was surprised that Jesus would ask a drink of water from her (John 4:9)?
Now, it might be that the centurion - who was very familiar with Jewish culture and beliefs - was thinking of that tradition. He may have simply wished to avoid placing Jesus in a difficult situation culturally or ceremonially; and so he told Him that he was not worthy to have Him come under his roof. Some scholars have suggested that as his motive. But my suspicion is that there's much more involved than just that. I believe that, as this centurion was coming to terms with who Jesus really was, he truly recognized himself to be an "unworthy" sinner who did not deserve to be in the presence of the Son of God.
When I think of the centurion's words, I think of the time that Peter came to realize who Jesus truly was. Jesus had commanded Peter to launch his fishing boat into the deep waters and let his net down for a catch. Peter did; and as a result, he brought in a great catch of fish. He came to realize that this Teacher he had been following was the Son of God; and that He even had authority over fish! Peter fell down at Jesus' knees and said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" (Luke 5:8). I believe that this centurion felt unworthy of Jesus in the same way. After all, that was why he sent others to speak to Jesus on his behalf; because, as he said, ". . . I did not even think myself worthy to come to You" (Luke 7:7).
And is that a characteristic of your faith toward Jesus? Do you see yourself as an unworthy sinner in His presence? It's wonderful to be loved by Him and to enjoy His fellowship; but we are not at all worthy of either His love or His fellowship. Our relationship with Him is strictly an act of grace on His part.
Do you consider yourself unworthy of Him? Is your approach of faith to Him one that is characterized by true humility?
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These are important parts of a faith that is distinguished in the sight of the Lord. But there's one more aspect of it that, I believe, caught the Lord's attention the most. In fact, the Bible tells us that Jesus "marveled" at the man's faith. We see this in the fact that the man's faith in Jesus was . . .
3. A FAITH THAT TRUSTED IN HIS MERE WORD (vv. 8b-13).
The centurion felt unworthy of having Jesus come to his house to heal the servant. But he had such a faith in the authority of Jesus that he didn't see that as a problem. He said to Him, "But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, 'Go', and he goes; and to another, 'Come', and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."
This centurion is a Roman officer. He knows how authority works. He says that he himself is a man under authority; and he himself is an authority over others. He himself, apparently, didn't even come to Jesus, but delegated the "coming" to others; and those others did exactly what he said. As one in command, he simply spoke a word, and what he said was done.
As a soldier, he knew that all military authority ultimately rested in the emperor; and that the centurion's own authority was derived from the emperor's authority. When he gave a command, people obeyed him; because to not do so would be the same as refusing to obey the emperor! But he also dared to recognized that Jesus is One who possessed an authority greater than even the emperor! Here was a Man who clearly had authority over diseases, and illnesses, and leprosy, and even over demons. Here was a man who was vested with supreme power and authority over all things. Jesus even would later testify to the truth of this: "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:18). He said that "all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him" (John 5:23).
And so, this centurion recognized that as a subordinate authority, his own mere command got results; and how much more, then, would this be true of Jesus - who possessed ultimate authority! If all the centurion had to do was simply speak the word and it was done; how much more can Jesus simply speak a word and heal his servant! This was, in the end, an expression of the centurion's deep conviction that Jesus possessed all authority as the Son of God!
I wonder; when you or I pray and ask something of Jesus, do we really trust that all He has to do is say the word and it is done?
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This was enough to cause the Son of God to marvel! Did you know that the Bible records two times for us that Jesus "marveled"? One was at the remarkable faith of this centurion - a foreigner! And the other was at the remarkable lack of faith of His own townspeople - the Nazarenes! Mark 6:5-6 tells us, "Now He could do no mighty works there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled because of their unbelief."
When Jesus heard this expression of the faith that the centurion had in Him - a faith so great that he trusted Jesus to simply say the word, and his servant would be healed from a distance - The Lord turned to those who followed and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!" The faith that this centurion had in Him was greater than any faith He had ever seen even from among His own people!
Now; here's where Matthew includes something that Luke leaves out. I believe it's because Matthew is writing, primarily, to Jewish readers. Jesus says, "And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." In saying this, Jesus is speaking of a multitude of Gentiles - those who would come from "east" or "west" of Israel - and they will have the privilege of feasting in heavenly glory in His kingdom. They will sit with the patriarch, to whom the promises of Israel were given. This is a picture of unworthy Gentiles being welcomed into heavenly glory!
And of course, isn't this a description of what God has done for us through faith in Christ? Paul wrote; "Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh - who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands - that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (Eph. 2:11-13). What a grace it is that God has shown toward us poor Gentiles who have believed on the Savior!
But Jesus then goes on to say, "But the sons of the kingdom" (and here, I think that Jesus means "Those who would ordinarily think themselves "sons who are destined to inherit the kingdom just by virtue of their being children of Abraham"; and perhaps if Jesus were speaking in our day, He would have made little "quote marks" with His fingers when He said, "sons of the kingdom".) - "But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
This is a horrible picture of the judgment of hell - cast out into outer darkness; forever to know that the opportunity for life was yours, but that you chose to reject it. And the expression Jesus uses to describe that destiny - one that He uses often in the Bible (see also Matthew 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:20; Luke 13:28) - is truly a ghastly one: "There", that is, in that place, "will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." And you need to know that He uses the definite article, in order to describe the unusually intense nature of eternal suffering: "THE weeping, and THE gnashing of teeth." It will be a weeping and gnashing of teeth like no other!
Jesus is here saying that many Gentiles - those who would be ordinarily considered outside the kingdom - would be welcomed in to eternal glory because they had the kind of faith in Him that this centurion had. It was a faith that He hadn't even seen yet among His own people. And He was also warning that many who would have ordinarily thought themselves to be a 'sure thing' for the kingdom of heaven would discover themselves cast out into outer darkness - forever experiencing the anguish of having rejected their opportunity of salvation. And this would be because they would not have faith in Him as the centurion did.
Those are harsh words; but Jesus speaks them to us because He loves us. True love is willing to say harsh things to us, so that we can be warned in advance, and not suffer eternal loss.
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Jesus told the centurion - through those who represented him - "Go your way; and as you have believed" - that is as if to say, ". . . as you have believed Me to have the authority from My Father over all things; and as you have trusted that I can simply speak the word, and your servant will be healed - "so let it be done for you." And we're told, "And his servant was healed that same hour."
Here, at the very beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry, a Roman centurion teaches us how to believe on the authority of Jesus. He teaches to have a faith Him that recognizes His authority, that is humble before His person, and that trusts even in His mere word. This centurion's faith points Jesus out to us as the Son of God. May God help us to have the faith in Jesus of this believing centurion!
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