The Faith of the Centurion, Part 2
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Luke 7:6–7:10
The Faith of the Centurion, Part 2
January 14, 2018
I want to welcome you back to part 2 of what we began last week. So you will want to grab your Bibles and turn over to Luke 7. Let’s finish the story of the faith of the centurion. We’re going to start here, as we do, by reading the account, followed by a short review, and then we’ll pick up the story in verse 6. But first, let’s read it together. Luke 7:1 through 10 is the text.
After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” And Jesus went with them. When he 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. 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.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
As we said last time, the main focus of this narrative and the object of our attention is the faith of the centurion. That’s very clear from verse 9 where Luke just told us that “Jesus marveled.” It’s one of only two places in the New Testament that says, “Jesus marveled.” It’s the word thaumazo in the Greek. That’s a verb that usually describes other people’s reaction to Jesus in his ministry, whether seeing displays of his power or his authority, his miracles, his teaching. But here it describes Jesus. It portrays him as the one who is astonished, marveling at the amazing faith of this Gentile centurion.
We saw last time that Luke opens the narrative drawing our attention to the plight of a sick and suffering, dying slave. This really is meant to introduce us to the remarkable character of this centurion who is a kind man. He’s loving. He’s tender. You will see more of that character on display today. But what Luke wants us to really see after introducing us to the character of the centurion through the plight of the slave—what he wants us to see and what stops Jesus in his tracks, what astonishes him—is the centurion’s faith. It’s his faith. It’s a divinely generated faith that explains this centurion. It’s not some inherent goodness on his part. It’s not that he’s just a great guy. He is someone in whom God by his Spirit has been working in his life. What makes the centurion truly remarkable is not the centurion himself; it’s the grace of God manifest in this kind of faith toward Christ.
Now I want to point out before we get into the flow of the text that we have just encountered a profound mystery here in the text, one that really does call us to stop and ponder, and it has to do with the mystery and the wonder of the incarnation. Here’s what I mean by that. We know that Jesus Christ is both truly God and also truly man. He is also the Son of the living God, according to Luke 1:35. He is the Son of man, according to Luke 5:24, Luke 6:5, 22 and so on. But he is the Son of God from eternity past at the Father’s side; he is sent from the Father’s side, John 1:1 and 2, John 1:18. He was there from eternity past at the Father’s side, and he was sent by God; and when he took on flesh, he didn’t descend from the clouds in some glorious, magnificent way like some alien invading from outer space or some freak hero god or something like that coming down in some impressive fashion. The Son of God—when he came to earth, when he incarnated, he took on humanity in the most normal way—by means of natural childbirth. Supernatural conception; natural childbirth. By the miraculous conception within the virgin’s womb, he was born of a woman, born of Mary—Luke 1:30 to 35. In that sense there is truly no one like him.
So when we read about the one and only Son of God, this monogenes from the Father, who possesses all of the attributes of deity—when we realize that, but then also see him hungering, thirsting, getting tired, and yes, even marveling, it’s yet another mark of his very real humanity. Marveling indicates surprise. Marveling portrays that Jesus is facing something that he didn’t expect and that tells us that Jesus, in his humanity, knew what it was at times to discover things. He had the very human experience, one that we have all the time of encountering something new.
Now, that may make us feel slightly uncomfortable—those of us who are used to protecting and defending the full, true deity of Jesus Christ. But we really do need to embrace Jesus Christ for who he actually is as Scripture presents him to be. Because the true deity and the true humanity of Christ are both vital to our salvation and our sanctification. Both of those truths guarantee our eternal salvation and secure our joy and our full assurance in the truth of the Gospel. There’s an instinct that we have to defend the true deity of Christ. That is a very good, healthy instinct because many today still want to un-deify Jesus Christ. They want to reshape him, recast him as just a mere man, an enlightened man liberals will grant and heretics will grant, but they will deny against all biblical testimony that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh. We’re right to insist on the apostolic testimony of Christ, like what we find in John 1:1 through 3, like we find in Colossian 1:15 to 17—we covered that text on Christmas Eve. Titus 2:13, Hebrews 1:1 to 3. We could go on and on, but we are right to believe the testimony of the apostles, who said he is truly God. We are right to believe the testimony of the Father, who said from heaven, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” But we must not neglect his true humanity. We must not neglect or set aside or diminish in any way that he is fully human in every way, yet without sin.
Since he is both true divinity and true humanity, divine nature and human nature, perfectly united in this one unique person, we must insist upon his true experience of humanity, as well. This is one of the most profound mysteries in Scripture, one that theologians call the hypostatic union—how the divine nature of the incarnated Son of God, which is union and perfect harmony with the human nature of Jesus—how those two natures interact with one another, how they interrelate. That is a mystery I really think we’ll never fully comprehend because we can’t. This is completely outside of our understanding and experience, but we can wonder about it, can’t we? It’s revealed. The things revealed to us are for us who are children forever so we can wonder. We can ponder. We can marvel at what we read—and we should. He calls us to worship him as the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
So, as we read throughout the Gospel accounts, we read about Jesus becoming hungry and thirsty. We read about him becoming tired, needing to sleep, feeling both profound sorrow and intense pain. Then as we read in this passage, Jesus also marveled in the new things that he experienced as a man, as the Christ. So how do we understand this? Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, you may remember, we read about the child Jesus, who grew up, who got older, who matured. It says in Luke 2:40, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom.” After that verse, Luke tells us immediately how that boy Jesus— probably around 12 years old at the time—how he got lost on one of the trips to the temple. He was sitting at the feet of Jerusalem rabbis, listening to them and asking them questions. Jesus studied Scripture, just as he commends and commands us to do. He studied Scripture. He gleaned from the expositions of the teachers and he learned. So Luke summarizes that account, telling us in Luke 2:52 that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” How can the truly divine Son of God learn anything? Isn’t it true— Colossians 2:9 and 10—that “in him all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge are found”? Isn’t full deity in him? Absolutely it is, but at the same time in his humanity, he learned. He increased in wisdom.
As we follow his life and ministry, as we watch Jesus walking through the Gospel narratives, every now and again we encounter something new, discover something like in this story. We find Jesus marveling over the faith of the centurion. And when we see something like this, we need to stop and recognize that we are standing on holy ground. We have stepped into the territory of profound mystery described in Philippians 2:6 and 7: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God [as] a thing to be grasped.” Or you could say, “A thing to be held onto, clutched onto.” “But he emptied himself”—that doesn’t mean he divested himself of those attributed—no, they were there. He took “the form of a servant,” though, “being born in the likeness of men.” So those attributes are veiled by humanity. And they only break out when God, by his Spirit, tells him to let them break forth. So, in the likeness of men, some things are veiled from his understanding, like the timing of his second coming. He says, “No one knows the day or the hour […], not even the Son of man, but the Father [in heaven knows].”
So, in the likeness of men, verse 9, he stopped dead in his tracks to marvel, to turn to the crowd following him and to point out something that they needed to observe very carefully. So that is what we’re doing today. We are the crowd of disciples. We’re following after Jesus. We want to understand here what arrested Jesus’ attention. We want to learn this morning what is it that made him marvel. As we learn, we pray that God will grant us his grace as well to cause our faith to grow after the pattern and in the character, in the likeness of the amazing faith of this centurion. We started last time with the first point in our outline: A Surprising Situation. Jesus had entered Capernaum after completing his teaching—the Sermon the Mount. He was summoned to the home of a certain centurion because the centurion, verse 2, “had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him,” or as we mentioned last time, the slave was very dear to the centurion. The centurion is known as one who loves people, even this lowly slave. But the centurion didn’t think of this sick and dying man in merely utilitarian terms as a slave, a useful tool, like Aristotle did—just a living animate tool, a useful means for increasing productivity. The centurion spoke of his slave as his child, which is what the original conveys in verse 7. The slave is very likely the centurion’s personal attendant, and under similar circumstances throughout the entire Roman Empire, which had millions of slaves like this and thousands of personal attendants, a sick and dying slave would have simply been replaced by a healthier one. This centurion isn’t like that. He cares for his slave. He sees him as a human being. He sees him as created in the image of God and worth saving. Not just worth saving from death, but worth relieving of his suffering and his pain, preserving his life. It’s a mark of the centurion’s love and compassion.
So the centurion sends a delegation to Jesus, entreating the Lord for mercy—that’s verse 3 and the second point in our outline. It should all be written in your bulletin, by the way. The second point is: The Bold Question. It says in verse 3, “When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant.” Last time we talked about how the centurion had been hearing about Jesus, very likely since the days of John the Baptist. Soldiers who were in the service of Herod Antipas, as this centurion probably was as well, were probably stationed at the palace in Tiberius and attended John’s baptisms not far away. He had heard about repentance. He had heard about a coming Messiah, one who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. The centurion also probably had heard about the nobleman—the royal official in John 4:46 to 53—how Jesus had healed that man’s son with just a word. Jesus wasn’t even physically present to touch that boy’s body—that power is a power that transcends space. So this centurion has been around. He’s familiar with the kind of power that exists in this material world, and the he knew this is not human power. This is divine. This is something completely different. Not only that, but the centurion sees that this is power used very differently than he’d ever seen. He was very familiar with power of men. He was actually at the pointy end of the spear in the Roman army. He is there to destroy, to use power to subdue, to use power to make people line up to submit to the will and the might of Rome. The power that Jesus possessed is being used for kindness, for mercy, for the good of people. It’s an extension of compassion, and it’s given freely. It’s given without charge. It expects nothing in return.
So having heard of this Jesus, of this power, and that Jesus had just returned to Capernaum, the centurion pounces on the opportunity. He sends the Jewish elders to make his appeal. It’s very surprising, by the way, that these Jewish elders act as the centurion’s emissaries. They are not acting here at all under compulsion. They’re not conscripted into service. They’re not pressed into this. They go willingly. They go eagerly, and that’s what we see in verses 4 to 5—point number three is: The Persuasive Petition. “When they came to Jesus, they pleaded”—the verb tense there is imperfect—they kept on pleading with him “earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.’” Now, as we talked about last time, if we can set aside for a moment that give-to-get ethic of the part of the Jewish elders—they had a works-oriented, merit-based mindset.
We saw last time that the Jewish elders weren’t wrong here to emphasize and commend the centurion’s character. I mean, here is a soldier, a Roman soldier in the service of Herod Antipas. He’s representing the hated, the despised Roman occupation. He’s actually the leader of everything they hate. He’s the leader of the Gergesenes stationed at Capernaum. He’s there to uphold law and order—yes. He’s there to keep the peace—yes. But it’s all for the greater purpose of securing Herod’s tax revenues, which are Rome’s tax revenues. All the money syphoned out of Galilee eventually lands in Rome’s pockets, and that just funds the very occupation, the very thing they hate. So these Jewish elders—this landed nobility and as Galilean elders very likely belonging to the Pharisee party—they’re fastidious about Jewish national identity, holding fast to the traditions of their fathers. They’re not only willing to set that aside for this case, but they do so eagerly. They’re persistently advocating the centurion’s cause. Why would they do that? It all comes back to the powerful, irrefutable testimony of love. That’s what Jesus commanded on the Sermon on the Mount.
The centurion loved people. It was a true love, a sacrificial love, a generous love, a love that can’t be denied, a love that is not found on earth, but only comes from heaven. He loved the nation as whole. He loved these people in particular. The testimony of the elders is that this synagogue—“he himself has built for us.” That’s their testimony, not his. That is, using his own personal funds, paying for the whole project. The centurion and the centurion alone was responsible for the building of the synagogue that they all attended where their families were raised and instructed in the word of God, where their community met, where they rejoiced in Jewish tradition, in the tradition of their fathers, where they perpetuated Jewish religion, Jewish culture and the Scriptures. And the centurion made it all happen. The centurion’s patronage is generous and sacrificial and kind. Where did that kind of love come from? It had to be through exposure to the Scriptures, which is why building a synagogue in particular is important. It’s just not building a roadway. It’s not building a public bathhouse. It’s not building something as good as a house of prayer. It’s a synagogue. This man wanted to know the God of Israel. He had become a God-fearing Gentile. Since the synagogue is where the Torah was read and the prophets were expounded, he funded it. He wanted to see it built for the good of the whole town.
Where did that interest in Scripture come from? Did he generate it all on his own? No. How did this appetite for God’s Word develop? Where was the seed planted? How was the Bible being illuminated to him? Well, by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. As J. C. Ryle put it, “There’s only one way to account for the centurion’s character. The character was what he was by the grace of God. The Spirit had opened the eyes of his understanding and put a new heart within him.” That’s exactly right, and that’s exactly what’s happened to all of us. That’s why we have an interest in God’s work. That’s why we love it. That’s why we want to hear it taught and expounded and explained to us. That’s why we love it and want to obey it. That’s why we want to put it into practice in our lives. That’s why we want to get everything else in our life out of the way so we can understand and know this, that we might obey it, that we might be pleasing to him because his wisdom is precious to us. All that comes by the regenerating power of the Spirit.
And so it says at the beginning or verse 6, “Jesus went with them.” He went with him. Why wouldn’t he? I’d imagine he was intrigued. He did give priority to his Messianic mission to the Jewish nation, and yet there was no racial prejudice in Jesus. Here you see that clearly portrayed. He’s eager to grant the centurion his request. Not only for his own sake—for the centurion’s sake—but out of concern for this sick and dying slave—such kindness on behalf of the Lord! Here’s where we come to a rather curious turn, though, in the narrative. I want to draw your attention to it. It’s the fourth point in your outline: The Believing Supplication. It says in verses 6 and 7:
When he 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.”
Interesting. The Jews said, “He is worthy,” but he says of himself, “I am not worthy.” Quite the contrast in perspective, wouldn’t you say? And now we begin to see, in addition to his remarkable kindness, in addition to remarkable love, we start to see a remarkable humility. Humility.
Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you.
Look—that’s how—right there—that’s how believers pray. This is how believers come before God. This is how Christians entreat God, right? They enter into God’s presence in humility. They recognize who they are in light of who God is. We’ll come back to that thought in a moment.
But first, let’s talk about this delegation—the second delegation. Why would the centurion send a delegation in verse 3 asking Jesus to come and heal his servant, and then when Jesus comes and has almost arrived at his house, he sends a second delegation of his friends saying, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, don’t come.” How does that make sense? The word for “trouble” there means to harass or to weary someone, to bother him, annoy him. Literally, the word meant to flay, as to skin something. We have a figurative expression—“to get under someone’s skin.” That’s this—a similar idea. Now, if anything is annoying, it is to invite somebody to come, wait until he gets almost there, and then just before he arrives at your house, suddenly retract the invitation. That is annoying.
So why the change of mind? What explains what seems so apparently to be double-mindedness on the part of the centurion? To put it simply, the fact that Jesus came to him and apparently didn’t intend just to stand outside his gate but to come right into his house, under his roof, through his doorstep—this possibility created a pretty significant tension for this pious centurion, a man who is remarkably sensitive to Jewish sensibilities. The whole thing speaks volumes about this man’s humility, about his true self-estimation. The centurion sent the first delegation of Jewish elders because, as it says in verse 7, he felt himself unworthy to visit Jesus. “I did not presume to come to you.” As a Gentile, he knew where he stood. He believed he had no right on his own to come to Jesus. He had no expectation of access. There is a dividing wall, a huge one, between Jews and Gentiles. In fact, there is a sign for all Gentiles who had come near the temple in Jerusalem that says, “Let any Gentile know he comes through here at the pain of death.” There’s a wall separating Jew and Gentile so he knows where he stands. He doesn’t expect to get access to Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. So he sends a delegation to convey that original request, and although what may have appeared at first glance to be aloofness or rudeness, perhaps even pride or arrogance to send Jewish elders to do his bidding, the centurion wants Jesus to understand, “Look, I didn’t come personally because I didn’t count myself worthy to come to you. I didn’t think you would come.” Jesus is willing to come. He’s willing.
Look, just pause for a moment and think about that. Many of us aren’t as noble as a Roman centurion. Do we have any more of an expectation that the living God should draw near to us on our own merits because of something inherently good in us? Isn’t this a comfort to you that this amazing God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ, would be willing to come to us, unworthy sinners that we are? Here Jesus completely ignores Jewish sensibilities, Jewish tradition, cultural taboos, everything that forbade Jews to enter into the home of a Gentile. After all, those Gentiles did awful things like eat pork, have barbecues that are not kosher. They probably didn’t even rub down the meat with salt like they did to kosher everything. Who knows? And especially a centurion who probably comes into contact with dead bodies all the time. He’s unclean. You can’t enter in there. Stay the distance. Jesus doesn’t mind. Do you remember when he touched an unclean leper? For any other person who touched a leper it would make him unclean. Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. Why? Because the power of Jesus’ holiness is more powerful than the uncleanness of the leper, more powerful than the uncleanness of you and me, too.
So Jesus is not only willing to cross the threshold, he’s willing to cross the city and come to the centurion’s house, and now the centurion has a real problem on his hands. He’s not concerned about Jesus’ ritual or ceremonial impurity; he’s concerned about his own unworthiness. The Jewish delegation tried to persuade Jesus, “He’s is worthy.” That is not what he thinks, verse 6: “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” The centurion came from a pagan background, raised in all the filth of a pagan society. We understand that. He’s served many, many years as a soldier. No doubt he has said and done things he was ashamed of. His thought life has been polluted. He is haunted by things that he can still remember. So this Holy One approaching his door created a contrast for him, a stark contrast that he sensed between the holiness of Jesus and his own unholiness, his own unworthiness. No wonder he sent a second delegation of friends. Of course he would. This man had to feel like Isaiah in the presence of God: “Woe is me! For I am undone; I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” And the centurion adds, “Not just my lips, but my hands and my feet and my eyes and my mind, everything about me is unworthy.” The centurion is mortified to think that Jesus himself—the one he’s rightly identified here as Lord—would cross his threshold and come underneath his roof. He himself is so unworthy, and it just causes him to tremble.
So he sent the second delegation lest Jesus, the Lord, come into the presence of this unworthy sinner. Again, just pause there for a moment to reflect. Do you think of yourself that way—as unworthy? As we read earlier in Psalm 130:3, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” There’s a healthy sense of humility in that attitude, which causes us to feel meek, not entitled, not deserving, not empowered to make demands. When we sense our unworthiness, we bow in humble gratitude. It’s not groveling, it’s not licking the dust. It’s just a healthy sense of the fear of the Lord, which recognizes what we can easily lose sight of—that we have been rescued by Christ from divine judgment. We’ve been delivered from condemnation, which we thoroughly deserve. What is seen and known by others on the outside—oh, that isn’t even the half of it. What is known by us in our minds—oh, that isn’t even the half of it. It goes deep, the gravity goes deep. We’re rightly condemned. We’re rightly deserving of divine judgment, and yet we’ve escaped wrath. We’ve escaped the eternal punishment due for our own sins.
That’s the attitude of the centurion—humility, another mark of believing. The supplication modeled by this centurion is that in spite of our unworthiness, we still seek Jesus anyway. As Peter had once voiced to the rest of the apostles, John 6.68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” The end of verse 7 says, “But”—a strong contrast there. You might read it this way: “In spite of my unworthiness, say the word, let my servant be healed.” It doesn’t come across as much in the English translations, but now that we’ve explained the apparent reversal of the invitation, the centurion returns to his original request, and he says, “But say the word and let my servant be healed.” In the original, it’s clear. It sounds like military language almost. “Just give the order, sir, and it will happen; my child will be healed.” As if to say, “No doubt in my mind—you just say the word, it’s going to be done.” So he’s rightly humbled, and yet at the same time—what seems like a contrast, but really isn’t for any believer—he’s also very enthusiastic. He truly believes, and the reason for his confidence is there in verse 8. That verse shows the depth of his understanding—instructed by faith—of who Jesus really is, of how Jesus can truly accomplish this work of healing and—get this—without being present, without being physically there! Verse 8:
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.
The centurion here is arguing from the lesser to the greater, from himself to Christ. He operates every day on the premise that he himself has been assigned a certain rank. He possesses a certain degree of authority. He’s placed there by people greater than he in a chain of command. So if he—just a lowly centurion in the cosmic chain of command—if he can issue commands and expect them to be obeyed and know that they are obeyed, how much more can Jesus? He who has power over disease, over demons, over life and death itself—he has the authority and the prerogative to command them all. He can issue commands for those who come to him in faith if he wants to. He can command from near or far because his authority obviously transcends distances. It crosses all boundaries. It overcomes all obstacles, and the question is: “Is it his will to grant my request? It is his will?” Jesus had done it before. He had healed the nobleman’s son. Jesus said, “Go, your son still lives.” And that boy was healed at that very moment. All it took was a word. Done. So, if happened then, why not now? That’s his reasoning.
And that is the reasoning of all Christians who come to God in prayer. We come to a sovereign God, one who has authority and command of all things, one who does his will and accomplishes all his good pleasure. And that is why we can come to him and pray. Because if you don’t believe God is absolutely sovereign, why pray to him? Why ask him for anything if he’s not absolutely sovereign. If he can’t command disease and death, if he can’t command demons, if he can’t take care of things like petty things like finances, things we all struggle with, right? Things we’re anxious over. If God isn’t absolutely sovereign, if he doesn’t have the power over your checkbook, doesn’t have the power over your bank account, doesn’t have the power of your health, doesn’t have the power over your relationships, why pray? We believe he’s sovereign. We believe he is all powerful. We believe his heart has always been toward good. We believe he is all-wise. And so when we pray, we don’t pray, “my will be done,”—no, we pray,“Thy will be done because your will is best. And if you choose to withhold this thing I ask for, it’s because you’re wise. You know better than I do. What am I, but a child, an unworthy child? I can’t see all your goodwill. I can’t see all your eternal decree. I trust you.” That’s how Christians who come to God in prayer think.
So the believing supplication got Jesus’ attention. He’s willing. He comes. He wants to do. He wants to heal. And it becomes for him a providentially timed teaching opportunity. So that is point five in your outline: The Perfect Illustration. Teachers are always looking for good illustrations. Here’s one. Jesus notes it, spots it in verse 9, “When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said…” It’s funny; he’s not in a hurry. He’s not like—“Oh! The servant’s dying? Oh, let me get there post-haste! I need to run.” No, he turns like he’s got all the time in the world. Why? Because he created time and he does. So “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.’” Again, this word “marvel”—thaumazo—is used 53 times in the New Testament and only twice to show Jesus marveling. And in both instances when Jesus marvels, they involve this divinely generated virtue of faith. He marvels here at the presence of extraordinary faith, and he marvels in Mark 6:6 at the lack of faith in his hometown of Nazareth—even just the smallest smidgeon of faith he doesn’t find where you might expect it most. Jesus does find faith in Israel here and there, but not this kind of faith.
Even among his own disciples he didn’t find this kind of faith. There are a number of times he had to correct his disciples because they lacked faith. He calmed the storm. I mean he commanded the wind and the waves, and they obeyed him, and the howling wind, the rising waves became flat as glass in Matthew 8:26. “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Peter walked on the water, and he started to sink beneath the waves. He took his eyes off Christ, who commanded him to come walk on the waves. In Matthew 14:31, when Peter was sinking, Jesus took hold of Peter’s hand and said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” It’s gentle, but it is a correction. It’s kind and tender, but it is a rebuke. The disciples asked Jesus why they couldn’t cast a demon out of a little child. In Matthew 17:20, he said, “Because of your little faith.” He’s not saying, “Oh, there, there, that’s okay.” He’s saying, “No. You who have been with me—why do you doubt? You who know me—why do you doubt?” This post-modern tendency to say, “Oh, let’s celebrate the doubt. Let’s celebrate the ambiguity of God. He changes all the time. We don’t know…”—that is not worthy of commendation.
But that’s not what he sees in this centurion. It’s not what he would later see in the Syrophoenician woman. Remember Matthew 15 when that woman comes to him? Her daughter is being tormented, and he ignores her first. He keeps walking. She keeps on calling out, keeps on crying out. His disciples come and intercede for her, saying, “Please, please attend to this woman.” And he turns to the woman and he says—he’s just talking about Messianic priority—and he’s drawing out of her something that the disciples need to see. He says, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread”—that is, the food, the meat that is meant for Israel, “and to throw it do the dogs.” He’s not being insulting. He’s describing little dogs, lapdogs, you know, like cute, cuddly—I’ve got one of these little white fluffy ones at my house. It barks too much, but it is cute and cuddly. But it’s that kind of a dog—one you would have for a pet. “It’s not right for you to take the children’s meal that is just prepared off of the stove and not give it to the children, but to throw it down to the house dogs.” So “She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” She accepts that she is separate. She accepts that she is running around the house like a little house dog. That’s okay for her. She gets to feed at the master’s table because even scraps are better than anything that the world has to offer.
So Jesus found that faith. And when he found that faith—and he especially found it among the Gentiles—he’s astonished. In verse 9, he spins around on his heels and takes advantage of this divinely appointed, providentially timed teaching moment. And he says to the crowd, “I tell you”—he’s demanding their full and undivided attention—“I tell you not even in Israel have I found such faith.” So this man was a man of love. He’s marked by kindness and generosity. The centurion loved his suffering slave, a man he counted as dear to him, whom he considered close and called “my child.” And the centurion also loved the Jewish nation, not because he loved their food and their culture and all of their traditions, but because he loved their God. It actually reminds me of what Ruth told Naomi: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” He loved the Jewish people in that way. He built them a synagogue at his own expense—remarkable love.
The second point is that he was a man of truth marked by an interest in Scripture and in Christ, the Lord of truth. And you should see a connection between those two points—from a man of love to a man of truth because there is a direct link between them. Where you find true—true truth, rightly received, deeply believed—you also find true love and vice versa. There is no true love without deep understanding of the truth of God’s word. If you’re shallow in your understanding of Scripture, you’ll be shallow in your love. If you’re deep in the understanding of Scripture, you’ll be deep and wise in your love. The centurion’s love for the Jews is manifest in his investment. What would be best and most likely to bring them to the truth? So he gave the Jewish nation a synagogue, and then because he loved his suffering servant, he sought the truth in Christ. He sought him. He viewed Jesus as Lord—that’s not merely a title of respect, by the way. Some commentators say this title “Lord” was a Gentile version of “Rabbi,” like with the Syrophoenician woman. That’s not true. She identified him as “Lord,” “Messiah,” “Son of David.” There was a theological instruction to her use of the term “Lord,” and I believe it is the same thing with this centurion—he understands who he is talking to. He isn’t just some teacher.
The third point is that this man was a man of humility marked by meekness. In contrast to the praise heaped upon him by the Jewish elders—the affirmation of his worthiness—the centurion saw himself as inherently unworthy, deserving nothing but condemnation from God. He didn’t say, “Look, I’ve got some great talents that could be useful to your nation.” Do you ever see people who serve in church like that? Like you’re so blessed to have them—you know, serving wherever—music, Sunday School, scrubbing bathrooms. “You’re blessed to have…you’re privileged to have so-and-so here.” The centurion had a lot of gifts and a lot of talents and a lot of experience. He counts none of them as worthy. As for his standing, his self-estimation, his position as a Roman centurion, his Roman citizenship, his authoritative position in the region—he just regards himself as one placed under authority. He’s just ranked in a pecking order. He’s just doing his job. As for his spiritual standing, he regarded himself as having no legitimate claim on God’s grace, no right to favor from Christ. That humility caused him to approach Jesus in meekness, demanded nothing, hoping for everything.
And that leads us to a fourth quality: He’s a man of faith marked by believing initiative. He’s a Gentile. He’s outside the covenants. He’s a stranger to the promises and though unworthy, recognizing his sinfulness before the unparalleled holiness of Jesus, he is compelled to come to him anyway, asking in faith. Faith comes. He knows the love of Israel’s God. He knows the amazing, abundant mercy of God. He learned it in Scripture describing the formative years of Israel’s national identity. They are plucked from Egypt by a God who makes distinctions, and he separated them out, not because of any goodness in them—they’re just like Egyptians. But he plucked them out, set them apart, gave them his law, gave them his instruction, gave them the proclamation about himself, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). He knows him. So, in faith, believing that, he comes. He knows the compassion of Christ, the one who had healed before, the one whose heart is turned and moved by those in suffering. He knows it is in the heart of Christ to heal. He simply comes seeking whether or not it is his will to heal at that moment.
You know something interesting? There is no indication in the text or anywhere that I could find that the centurion met Jesus. He never shook his hand, never saw him in the flesh. It may have happened later on, but the text doesn’t tell us. It would be pure speculation. I’m not averse to speculation, but I don’t see it here. I think that is supposed to tell us something because the centurion—like us, at least initially here—the centurion had to trust Christ without seeing him. That’s just like us, right? He didn’t need to be there. He didn’t need to see with his own eyes. He didn’t to hear with his own ears as Jesus issued a healing command. The centurion is content to work through intercessory prayer or intercessory requests—two delegations. He’s willing to trust in Christ. He knows he can work through unseen means to accomplish his own will according to his own good pleasure. That, by the way, is remarkably different from the unbelieving people of Israel because they were always demanding signs. John 2:18, “What sign do you show us that you do these things?” Again in John 6:30, “What sign do you do that we may see and believe in you?” “What work do you perform?” By contrast, the centurion, as J.C. Ryle put it, doesn’t ask to see any sign or wonder. He just declares his confidence that Jesus is the Almighty Lord. He’s the Master and King, and things like diseases—ah! they’re just obedient servants willing at once to depart at Jesus’ command.
Can I add a fifth quality to the centurion? The Centurion is a man of love, truth, humility, faith and fifthly, he’s a man of authority and submission marked by leadership and obedience. He gets the principle of authority and submission because he acts in leadership on the one hand and obedience on the other hand. In verse 8, he testifies of himself, “For I too am a man set under authority.” So being placed in a position of authority, he received commands from his superiors and obeyed them. And then being in a position of authority, he issued commands to his inferiors and expected to be obeyed. As a man in authority, he obeyed by leading, commanding obedience. As a man under authority, he trusted and he obeyed. It’s that principle of authority and submission. It’s that practice of leadership and obedience. These are what helped him to understand the position of authority in the person of Christ. Think about your own submission and obedience to Christ. Does it reflect the faith of the centurion? When he says, “Go,” do you go? When he says, “Come,” do you come? When he commands you, his slave, “Do this,” do you do what he says?
Just quickly a final point. This is point number six—the larger point—in our outline. We need to see how these things end. We already know, but look at point number six in your outline: The Immediate Resolution. Verse 10, “When those who had been sent returned to the house”—ho’s that? That’s the friends. When they “returned to the house, they found the servant well.” In Matthew 8:13 we read that the servant was healed at that very moment—an immediate resolution. It’s not simply that the servant here is delivered from the troubling and paralyzing affliction itself. Instead, Luke, the physician, notes that they found the servant not just healed from the malady, but in good health. When Jesus heals, he heals fully. There’s a little play on words in verses 9 and 10, using that word “found.” Jesus had found an amazing faith in the centurion, and the servants and the friends returned and “found” the servant in good health. They found what the centurion had requested because they delivered the request, and then they looked for an answer. And they found what they had looked for.
Are you praying that way? In faith? Or are you simply shooting doubting prayers up into the sky, like arrows you know are never going to hit the mark? Are you looking carefully into the promises of God’s word and then letting them instruct the way you pray, and then taking aim in your prayers and looking for the answers in your life, as if God actually intends to answer when you ask to be found when you seek, to open when you knock?
It wasn’t just the friends, though, who were looking that day. Jesus was also looking, and he found what he was looking for. The word “found” tells us he was looking for great faith, wasn’t he? In fact, Jesus is eager to find that kind of faith in each one of us. He likes to marvel at great faith. Why? Because he delights in us. Yes, he delights to see us grow in understanding. But do you know what he delights in the most? God. And true, amazing faith like this faith is a work of God in heaven. It’s a work of his grace. And he loves seeing God work. Is that what rejoices your heart? Let me ask you: Do you have a faith that amazes? Are you like that centurion, demonstrating the true marks of saving faith, sanctifying faith? Or is your faith marked by profession only, just skin deep? Do you say you trust God, but then you motor through life on your own power all the time, wearing yourself out, exhausting yourself, doing it your own way? Is your faith skin deep? Do you have faith at all? Does any of what we have been talking about mark your life?
For those of you who know you have faith, but you’re like that man who said, “Oh, yes, Lord, I do believe, just come help my unbelief.” Do you say, “Ashamedly, sadly, I am one of those with little faith, but I want to grow”? So I ask, are you a person of love marked by kindness and generosity? Because a person who has growing faith is marked by love and kindness and generosity. Are you a person of truth marked by an interest in and a love of Scripture? Are you devoted to Christ himself? Are you a person of humility? Or are you a person of great pride because you know what you’ve done, what you’ve accomplished, and you look back at all your past achievements and walk around with your chest puffed up? Can you bear with an offense from somebody else? Or do you rehearse offenses because after all, don’t they know who you are? Don’t they know what you’ve done? The truth is that any offense that can come from other people is so much smaller than we actually deserve, right? We know. God knows. Are you a person of humility? Are you marked by meekness in dealing with other people? Are you a person of faith? Are you a person of great faith—of remarkable, Christ-marveling faith, marked by believing prayer, believing action, believing initiative? Look, we want to be all of that, don’t we? We want to be all of that. We know we’re not, so it would be fitting if we close the service just by asking. Do you want to join me in prayer?
Father, we so often are like that man who did pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” You are a God who is infinite, and so you are infinitely capable of paying attention to every single one of our finite needs. You are near to every single one of us if we just call upon you. The word isn’t far from us—it’s very near, it’s in your mouth and in your heart that if we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, we will be saved. If we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ we will be sanctified for your glory. And so we pray that you would increase our faith, that we would be a people—that this church would be a people of great faith, of amazing faith, which would mean we would be a people of love and of truth and of humility and meekness, that we would be a people of giving but expecting nothing in return, that we would be a people who want to serve and love others and to know each other and to know you. So please work in us, we pray, not just for our own sakes, not just for the sakes of those for whom we pray, but for the sake of your name, Father, for the sake of Christ and his glory, for the sake of his saving Gospel. Amen.