The healing of the Centurion’s servant
A Gentile centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant by sending two delegations. He is recommended for his great faith. He shows vulnerability and persistence.
A Gentile centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant by sending two delegations. He is recommended for his great faith. He shows vulnerability and persistence.
Hello and welcome to the beginning of Series 5 Episode 1, which recounts an amazing miracle: 'The Healing of the Centurion's Servant'. This is recorded in both Luke's and Matthew's Gospels but we can take the story mainly from Luke 7: 1 - 10. We'll also refer to Matthew 8: 5 - 13.
Introduction and Recap
I hope you have been with us on the journey so far. I've just completed the amazing teaching of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, in Series 4. We had 18 episodes when we looked at that powerful, profound and foundational discipleship teaching that Jesus gives for all his followers. As we look over all the series that we've done so far, we can see the pattern of the story emerging and developing. We're moving to another stage as we begin Series 5. In Series 1, we started with the birth of Jesus and his early years. In Series 2, the beginning of Jesus' ministry, based in Galilee. Then, in Series 3, Jesus' first tour of Galilee - where he travels around the whole area (Galilee is the northern province of Israel and the home province of Jesus) and then, at the end of Series 3, there was that very important moment when Jesus appointed twelve Apostles from amongst his disciples. These were going to be the founding leaders of the Early Church, his leading representatives, and those who shared his ministry and his authority. In Series 4, we had the Sermon on the Mount, which took place on a hill in Galilee, somewhere not too far from Capernaum.
Capernaum, as those of you who remember earlier episodes will know, was the base town of Jesus' ministry - it was actually the home of some of his disciples, including Peter. It was a fishing village on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee and Jesus based his operations in Capernaum, even though he came from another village slightly further to the south and west, called Nazareth. We're now coming back to Capernaum. If you compare Luke and Matthew's account, you'll find that Matthew compresses the narrative slightly, and he speaks of the centurion actually coming and personally talking to Jesus, asking him to come to his house; whereas Luke expands the narrative somewhat and you realise that it's the representatives of the centurion who come out - two groups who come to speak to him about the particular crisis that is taking place in his home. We're going to follow Luke's slightly extended narrative. Luke almost certainly wrote after Matthew and, if you remember the teaching I gave at the very beginning of Series 1, you'll know the reasons why I have for thinking that. Luke extended and explained the narrative more fully. At the end, Jesus gives a teaching and, at that point, Matthew gives a fuller account of the teaching that Jesus gives. This is the wonderful value of having different accounts of the same events and my method of teaching is to use the fullest account of the events (which in this case is Luke) and to supplement that with any information that comes from other Gospel accounts - and in this case Matthew is going to help us when he fills out some of the details of Jesus' teaching about faith - a very exciting way that we're going to end this episode.
Let's start in Luke 7: 1-10,
‘1When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. 2There (was) a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, (who) was sick and about to die. 3The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, ... said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.’Luke 7:1-10, NIV
This really is a remarkable story. I love sharing this story and speaking about it. Let's fill out the picture and get the context clear in our minds. Jesus has just come down from the mountain and the Sermon on the Mount which is recorded in Luke 6 and is the immediately preceding event - so Luke links these two things together. As Jesus comes into Capernaum, the crowd that's been with him on the mountain, no doubt, follows him down to Capernaum to what is his base town for his ministry. This town of Capernaum has been the scene of some remarkable miracles already. Jesus is well-known here: he's spoken in the synagogue; he's healed in the synagogue; he's healed the son of a royal official working for the ruler of that area; he's been to the home of Peter and his family and raised his mother-in-law up from a fever; crowds of sick people have come into the vicinity, into the area of Capernaum, from far distances and Jesus has healed them. The people in Capernaum are very familiar with what Jesus' ministry is about. In fact, they'd probably seen more of Jesus' ministry than anyone else in the whole country because it's his headquarters and he must have spent quite a lot of time there - although he travelled around to other places. We also need to remember that near Capernaum, 15 kilometres to the south on the western seaboard coast of the Sea of Galilee, is the big town of Tiberias which is the headquarters of the regional ruler - the local ruler who ruled on behalf of the Romans whose name is Herod Antipas (or sometimes called Herod the Tetrarch). Only 15 kilometres to the south of this small fishing village is the headquarters of the local king and ruler. This local ruler had his own army. This isn't, strictly speaking, the Roman army - the Romans ruled further south in Judea. They had their own soldiers in that area - but when they delegated authority to a regional king, or ruler, who was ruling on their behalf, they allowed him to recruit his own army. So Herod Antipas had his own soldiers stationed all the way around Galilee and that included the Capernaum area where we encounter this particular soldier who is called a centurion.
A centurion was a middle-ranking soldier - well-paid, well-respected - who had the responsibility for a hundred men under his leadership. We may assume, if he lives in Capernaum, that it's quite possible that those hundred soldiers are in the vicinity as well. Here is a well-paid man with lots of power, belonging to the army, being an officer in the army of the regional king and this is the person who is the subject of this story. He's not a Jew - we can tell that by the text - and we'll see a specific example of that when the elders of the Jews actually say that this man has been kind to the Jewish people as if he's from the outside of the Jewish people, and we know from history, that Herod Antipas' army would not consist primarily of Jews but of other Gentile peoples from different nations around.
Here is a non-Jew, living in the very heart of this Jewish community, who undoubtedly knew a lot about Jesus Christ because the village of Capernaum was not that big. Jesus' exploits would be known by everybody. There couldn't be anybody who hadn't heard of what Jesus had done because it was sensational news - talked of on the street regularly. The centurion, undoubtedly, would know about Jesus. He obviously liked the Jewish people and was respectful of them because he had given money to build the local synagogue. The synagogue that Jesus actually often preached and healed in was built, or possibly rebuilt, by the money donated by the centurion and perhaps other people as well. He was investing in the Jewish people; that indicates some respect for the Jewish God - but more of that in a moment.
Then we have his servant, who doesn't appear directly in the story. A servant, in those days, was very often a slave - someone who had been enslaved. The Roman's regime and Herod's regime and others, adopted slavery. This man, about whom we know nothing except that he was obviously valued by the centurion, was a slave and had become critically ill. Luke says he was ‘sick and about to die.’ Matthew 8: 6, said he was ‘paralysed, suffering terribly.’ This was a crisis for the centurion but it's interesting that he's willing to go and ask for help from this Jewish prophet. We know that his ruler, King Herod Antipas was very sceptical about Jesus. In fact, he had John the Baptist, Jesus' relative and the prophet to introduce Jesus to his role, put in prison and was going to execute him. Herod is not on the side of Jesus and we have no account of him meeting Jesus during this particular period. They did meet at the end of Jesus' life but not during this time, despite the fact that they operated very close to each other. The fact that the centurion was interested in Jesus is not a reflection of what his ruler thinks, what his master thinks, what his employer thinks; it's his own spiritual journey. He desperately didn't want his servant to die; he wanted to have him restored to life. It says, in verse 2, that the master valued him highly - he was faithful; he was a good servant in the household.
Luke then describes the fact that, as Jesus is passing through Capernaum, the centurion sends to him two separate delegations. He doesn't come himself; he sends representatives. The first group are described as ‘elders of the Jews.’ That may mean the rulers of the synagogue - the people who officiated and looked after the religious and social life of the synagogue. It may have meant the civic leaders in Capernaum but certainly very senior people. Obviously, he's friendly with these senior people and they're willing to collaborate with him and to help him. They have a reason for that and that is, they appreciate the centurion because he's made a definite contribution to the community. Verse 4, they say to Jesus,
‘“This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”’Luke 7:4-5, NIV
They came and asked for Jesus to heal this servant. This was quite a humbling thing for the elders of the Jews to do because not all of them believed in Jesus either. They were really keen to help their friend and, when things are desperate, people will push the boundaries in terms of asking people they wouldn't normally ask for help. So they come and they say, “Look Jesus, please help,” and Jesus agreed to go with them to the centurion's house. We may imagine the centurion's house to be on the edge of the town probably.
He's walking through Capernaum and getting closer to the house, a crowd is with him; the crowd is always with him. There's an anticipation - “He's going to the centurion's house!” - everybody knew the centurion in this small community no doubt. Then it says the centurion sent another delegation, this time his personal friends. This delegation was very interesting. They said,
‘“Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”’Luke 7:6, NIV
They represented the centurion. The centurion said “You don't even have to come to my house. All you need to do is speak the word and I know that my servant will be healed,” and, through his friends, he expressed the view that he understood the nature of authority because he had authority; whatever he said was done by the servants in his household, or by the soldiers in his regiment. He recognised authority and he'd already recognised that Jesus had authority. How had he recognised that? We don't actually know but my suspicion is that he'd actually witnessed some of Jesus' miracles and healings in and around Capernaum for the obvious reason that he lived there and he was in the community. Jesus is amazed when these sentiments are expressed by the friends - the humility of the man, the confidence and faith of the man, his understanding of authority - and Jesus says,
‘“I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”’Luke 7:9, NIV
This is one of the people who's shown the greatest faith so far in Jesus' ministry. When those friends went back to the house and they said to the centurion, “Yes, we've spoken to Jesus,” he immediately said, “He's healed! My servant's healed!” Miraculously it happened. We have no record that Jesus ever got to the house, maybe he came later, we don't know. Maybe a message came from the house to say, “Thank you, Jesus,” we don't know the answer to that question but it is dramatic! It's exciting!
It's another of those amazing events that we see throughout Jesus' ministry. There's so many of them and each of them are wonderful in different ways and they portray human suffering and need in different ways. That's very touching, if you think about it, and we identify with it because, actually, we feel that sometimes: we feel great compassion for people we know who are suffering, we feel in great need of God's intervention in our own lives sometimes as well. Luke's statement about Jesus in verse 9 simply says, ‘“I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel;”’ but Matthew expands that statement and shows what else Jesus said about this faith. We're now going to turn over to Matthew 8: 10 - 12:
‘10When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”’Matthew 8:10-12, NIV
Jesus is amazed at this faith, a faith that exceeds that of the faith of Jews who he has helped and whom he has healed. Why is the faith greater? Perhaps because the centurion was content not to have any personal contact with Jesus, not to greet him personally, not to see him lay his hands on his servant as Jesus did many other people. Perhaps this faith was greater because this man was a Gentile so he did not have direct access to the revelation of God through the Old Testament which came through the Hebrew Scriptures (which we call the Old Testament) and it's very unlikely that the centurion could read Hebrew or even, necessarily, understand the language which wasn't used in the streets. The common language in the street of Capernaum would be Aramaic and the second common language would be Greek - the language that the centurion probably used as his first language. Hebrew wasn't easily accessible to him. He has indirect access to the revelation of God that is given to the Jews but, even with the limited knowledge that he has, he is able to respond in faith to Jesus. It's possible that he came along to the synagogue to listen; it's possible that he had spiritual conversation with the elders of the Jews that are mentioned here in the text. We don't know the details. It's possible that he was what the Jews called a ‘God-fearer’ (one of the Gentile people who align themselves to the God of the Bible as the God they worship - Yahweh, Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament). We don't know the answer to the question but we do know that for him to express faith in Jesus was a bigger step than for the Jews who are familiar with the Old Testament, with all the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah and all the understanding of the Jewish Law and its purposes.
He had great faith and Jesus predicts that,
‘“many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”’Matthew 8:11, NIV
This is a prediction of many Gentiles, or non-Jews, who are going to come into God's salvation in the era of the Church, in the era of the New Covenant that Jesus is bringing in. It's going to open up the door for a massive influx of people of every nation into the Kingdom of God who are going to sit down, so to speak, with the Jewish patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) as equals in the Kingdom. They're going to inherit that same Kingdom which up to this point had been given, primarily, to the Jewish people. Jesus also goes on to say that,
‘“the subjects of the kingdom(that's the Jews)will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”’Matthew 8:12, NIV
The Jewish people, particularly of Jesus' era, who decide not to believe in the Messiah will be excluded from God's future Kingdom and from his eternal Kingdom altogether. Even though they have all the heritage, they didn't have the faith and many of the Gentiles, who didn't have the heritage, have got the faith - and it's the faith that counts, as we see in this miracle. The centurion had the faith which led to the miracle. He stepped out to Jesus, took a risk. He sent two delegations; he had the faith that counts.
That's very interesting. I wonder what your situation is? You may have no heritage of the Christian faith in your family, or in your culture, or even in your nation. You may be coming to this teaching as an enquirer - not knowing the background of the Old Testament, not knowing how God worked with the Jews, not knowing much about the New Testament or Jesus himself. The great news is, you don't have to know all those things. What you do have to do is to know and understand the person of Jesus. That's what the centurion focused on; he knew intuitively, deep down, that Jesus was a Messiah, a Saviour, a healer - someone who could change his life. He'd already started on that journey sometime before his servant became critically ill. I think this is a wonderful story and it's also a warning that having religious heritage does not bring salvation. What brings salvation is faith - that is living trust in Jesus Christ.
As we conclude, I want to share with you some reflections and observations on this passage, some things for us to think about . First of all, this is a story of vulnerability. A powerful man became very vulnerable and he was willing to be vulnerable. Usually in his life the centurion could get anything done that he needed: he had enough money; he had soldiers at his disposal; he had power; and he could do whatever he wanted but in the case of healing he couldn't. His valued servant was dying; he was suffering terribly; he was paralysed and he wasn't going to live much longer. The man suddenly became very vulnerable and it's in that point of vulnerability that his faith blossomed. That's so often true of humanity, of you and me, and I wonder whether you approach this particular story today, as you're listening to this episode, with great vulnerability? Well don't be discouraged: in your vulnerability you can exercise great faith, like the centurion did, and you can see God intervening miraculously in your life.
This is not only a story of vulnerability, it's a story of persistence. There were two delegations that went out. Matthew 7: 7, says: ‘“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”’ There's always benefit in persistence in the Christian life in asking God, as this man was willing to ask Jesus for the healing of his servant. Ultimately, it's faith in Jesus Christ that determines our eternal destiny and we saw that very vividly in the last episode (Series 4, Episode 18) where Jesus described mankind's situation as being faced with a choice between a narrow gate and a wide gate, a narrow road and a wide road, and I'm again coming back to that point of choice: the centurion, in his vulnerability, actively chose to trust in Jesus Christ and in doing so he found that he was entering into the people of God. Without the Jewish heritage, he had faith in the Jewish Messiah. You may have no heritage in the Christian faith, you may not know anything much about the Bible, you may not have had any connection with the living Church up until this point in your life but still you can inherit salvation by living faith in Jesus. So I encourage you to put your trust in him, to stay with us in our studies, to study the Bible yourself, find out as much as you can about the person of Jesus and put your trust in him.
Thanks for reading.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What do you understand by ‘faith’?
- The centurion was used to getting his way and doing everything in his strength. What things are you doing in your strength that you need God to do?
- What are you praying for ‘persistently’? How can you develop this in your prayer life?
- How does vulnerability develop faith in Jesus?