Luke 7:1-17 When He had completed all His discourse in the hearing of the people, He went to Capernaum. 2 And a certain centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. 3 And when he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. 4 And when they had come to Jesus, they earnestly entreated Him, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this to him; 5 for he loves our nation, and it was he who built us our synagogue.” 6 Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; 7 for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 “For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” 9 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
11 And it came about soon afterwards, that He went to a city called Nain; and His disciples were going along with Him, accompanied by a large multitude. 12 Now as He approached the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizable crowd from the city was with her. 13 And when the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” 15 And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. 16 And fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” 17 And this report concerning Him went out all over Judea, and in all the surrounding district.
Matthew 8:5-13 And when He had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, entreating Him, 6 and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering great pain.” 7 And He said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 “For I, too, am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” 10 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled, and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. 11 “And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; 12 but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; let it be done to you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very hour.
The story of the healing of the centurion’s servant can best be understood in the light of the Old Testament account of the healing of Naaman, as recorded in 2 Kings 5. Naaman was a military man, too, like the centurion. Naaman was the captain of the army of the king of Syria, Israel’s enemy. We know that because of Israel’s sin and rebellion against God Syria was given dominance over God’s people. The Syrian army, under the command of Naaman, would wage periodic attacks, plundering cities, taking the crops, and even taking slaves. It was one such slave girl who happened to become the servant of Naaman’s wife. She told her master’s wife that if Naaman were in Israel there was a prophet of God who could heal him of his leprosy. Naaman decided that it was worth the effort to make the trip to Israel to seek such a healing.
Naaman took the expected course of action. He worked from “the top down.” Naaman received a letter from his king, the king of Syria, to the king of Israel. In effect, this letter ordered the king of Israel to see to it that Naaman was healed of his leprosy. In addition to the persuasive power of the letter from the king of Syria, Naaman came laden down with money and expensive gifts. This would “sweeten the pot” and provide more incentive for benevolence, surely securing his healing if it was possible in any way.
The king of Israel was greatly distressed at the arrival of Naaman and on reading the letter he presented from the king of Syria. He viewed this as a political ploy, giving the Syrians a pretext for another attack on Israel. After all, how was the king of Israel to heal of pagan leper? When Elisha, the prophet of God to Israel, heard of these matters, he sent word to the king of Israel to send Naaman to him, so that he would know that there was a prophet in Israel.
Naaman arrived at the door of Elisha’s house. It must have been an awesome sight, seeing all those “Rolls Royce chariots” arriving at the house, something like the arrival of the black limousines at the White House, when dignitaries and heads of state visit our president. Obviously, Naaman had expected the “red carpet” treatment from the Israelites. His nation’s political supremacy, His commissioning letter from the king of Syria, his gifts and money in hand assured him of being treated very well, he thought.
It was quite a disappointment to have been greeted by a mere servant, rather than the prophet. So, too, it was humiliating to be instructed by the prophet through the servant that he must dip himself seven times in the Jordan river if he would be cleansed. In fact, Naaman was downright furious. He expected to be greeted by the prophet, and to have been healed personally by the prophet, using some dramatic words and gestures. He expected to pay well for his healing, of course, but in the process to be treated as his position deserved.
A wise aid to Naaman suggested that he had little to lose but his pride, and much to gain. Had the prophet asked for a great sacrifice on his part, he would have gladly paid, so why not do what he said? Naaman obeyed and was cleansed.
The reason why the healing of Naaman is pertinent to us is that Naaman and the centurion are very similar in many ways, except in their approach to God for healing. Naaman came on the basis of human power and authority. He came as the captain of the Syrian army and by means of the power of Syria. He expected that his influence and power, not to mention his money, would assure him of healing. The centurion, on the other hand, totally set aside all of his position and power, humbly appealing to Jesus as one who was unworthy of His gifts, indeed, even of His presence.
The story of the centurion’s faith is both significant and relevant to us. Our Lord made a point of commending his faith. This man was a Gentile, not a Jew, and yet he put the Jews to shame in this matter of faith. Few things are more needed in our individual lives and in the life of the church than a vital, growing faith. The centurion’s faith serves both as a stimulus and as a model for Christians of all ages.
In this message we will study two incidents in the life of our Lord. The first incident is that of the healing of the centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10); the second is that of the raising the dead son of the Jewish widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17). These two incidents have certain elements in common and other distinct areas of contrast.136 These incidents share in common these fact that both are miracles performed by our Lord. Also, both of these incidents have been recorded by Luke as samples of the kind of miracles Jesus had been performing, the reports of which went to John the Baptist, and resulted in his question to Jesus, as asked by means of two of his disciples (Luke 7:18ff.). These two incidents serve as incentives and models for faith in our lives. Finally, these miracles serve to confirm and testify to the identity of Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah.
We will begin by studying the healing of the centurion’s servant, and then move on to the raising of the widow’s son. Then we will return to consider the characteristics of faith which we can discern from both incidents. Let us listen well to these words which can stimulate and strengthen our faith.
The story of the healing of the centurion’s son is a remarkable one, but let us focus on some of the critical features which Luke and Matthew include in their accounts of this event.
First, note with me that there are some very perplexing differences between Luke’s account and that of Matthew. It is not difficult to conclude that the accounts in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 are a record of the same incident. What is difficult to grasp is why Luke’s gospel makes a point of telling us that the centurion never personally spoke with Jesus, while Matthew’s account clearly gives us this impression. Matthew’s account seems to describe a face-to-face conversation between the centurion and Jesus, while in Luke’s account two delegations are sent by the centurion to Jesus in the man’s behalf. He even explains why he did not come personally to petition Jesus to heal his servant (Luke 7:7). The issue which faces any conservative student of the Bible is the explanation for the apparent discrepancy between the two gospel accounts. Since we believe that the Bible is free from error, we must also hold that there are no unexplainable discrepancies in parallel gospel accounts of the same incident. How, then, can we explain the apparent contradictions in these two accounts?
My first answer is that we should not feel obliged to give a full explanation where one does not exist. We are not to close our eyes to problems in the text, but faith allows us to live with apparent inconsistencies, knowing that God’s word is inerrant and infallible, and that our understanding of His word is neither of the above. Faith is not opposed to the facts, but it is not troubled when all the facts are not made known. Let us remember that the gospel writers were aware of the writings of others (cf. Luke 1:1-2), and yet they felt free to have differences in their accounts—not differences which made another biblical author in error, but perhaps differences which remind us that we have only partial accounts of any incident in the life of Christ.
For example, in Luke’s account of the healing of the paralytic (Luke 5:17-26), he informs us that he was let down through the roof. In Matthew’s account, this is never mentioned (Matt. 9:2-8). From reading only Matthew’s account, we would never have guessed that the man who was healed had a most unusual “entrance.” Neither account is in error, and both can be harmonized. We must suppose that in some cases, if all the facts were reported, apparent discrepancies would be explained, but the purpose of the accounts was not so much to convince critics as it was to proclaim the gospel, from different points of view. Apparent discrepancies should not be avoided, but neither should they make us feel compelled to answer every problem when only limited information is given.
I have a friend who is an attorney. He once had a client who was involved in a traffic accident. His client had been struck by another car in an intersection. The light was green for his client. He had two police officers who saw that the light was green. The other party insisted that his light was green, and he had two deputy sheriffs to testify to this, who were standing on the opposite corner. The bottom line was that the traffic light was malfunctioning. Knowing the malfunction of the light cleared up all of the discrepancies in the two accounts.
Having said this, there are various ways of explaining the differences between these two gospel accounts. The first is to view the centurion as not coming initially, but personally appealing to Jesus later on, perhaps as the servant became more critically ill and his pain intensified. I find this a little hard to accept. Another explanation is simply that Matthew’s account is the more abbreviated, and that he meant us to understand that the centurion appeared before Jesus and appealed to Him by means of his representatives. We know that this was Matthew’s meaning in a text which is somewhat parallel in this regard:
Then he [Pilate] released Barabbas for them; but Jesus he scourged and delivered over to be crucified (Matt. 27:26).
Pilate did not personally scourge Jesus or hand Him over to be crucified; he did so through his agents. So, too, we could say that Matthew intended us to understand his account of the petition of the centurion’s representatives.
Second, note that the centurion is never named, even though Luke is a man of great detail. I believe that this is for several reasons. Luke was more interested in describing the man’s character than giving us his name. He was also intent upon focusing on the man’s position and power as a centurion. Luke wanted us to think of this man as a Gentile, which he most certainly must have been. Finally, Luke wanted us to see this man in terms of his position of power. This centurion was a military officer, attached to the occupation forces in Israel. His power with respect to the nationals was almost unlimited. He, like Naaman, could have attempted to secure healing for his servant by using his political connections, but he laid all these things aside. Rather than appealing to Jesus as a man of great position and power, he approached Him as an unworthy Gentile. He demanded nothing, but pled for grace.
Third, note that the centurion asked nothing for himself, but was seeking physical healing for his servant, a young lad who was very likely a Jew.
Fourth, the only motivation to which the centurion appealed was the mercy of our Lord. In Matthew’s account especially the condition of the servant is described as being very painful. The basis upon which Jesus was approached was that of human need, not of human power or worthiness or merit. So, too, the centurion offered nothing in return for the healing of the servant.
How interesting to contrast the humility of the centurion with the hypocrisy of the Jewish elders, who pled his case before Jesus. Only Luke provides us with the details on this matter, including the petition of the Jewish elders to Jesus on the behalf of the centurion:
“This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue’ (Luke 7:4b-5).
The centurion saw himself as unworthy of the grace of God. He did not feel worthy to have Jesus come under his roof (v. 6), nor even to personally come to appear before the Master (v. 7).
The Jewish elders, however, saw the centurion as very worthy. The basis of his worthiness was his favorable attitude and actions toward the Jews. Far from disdaining the natives who were under the authority of Rome, this man loved the nation of Israel. He greatly valued them as a nation, and thus, I believe, had a considerable respect for their religion. This love for the nation was expressed by his role in building (or helping to build) their synagogue. At the bottom line, the Jewish elders were much like some institutional Christians today, they believed that big donors were to receive “special handling” by religious leaders. Perhaps they had another fund-raiser planned and were hoping to hit this man up for another donation. Frankly, the whole thing stinks. The true attitude of the Jews toward Gentiles of a lessor “value” can be seen from Luke 4:22-30 and Acts 22:21-23). Man surely does discriminate, and on the basis of outward appearances.
Jesus went with the Jewish elders, toward the house of the centurion, but for very different reasons than they had suggested. Jesus acted apart from selfish interest, and out of a heart filled with mercy. They acted out of self-interest, for very selfish reasons. Rich and generous Gentiles were worthy of Jewish ministry, but the unworthy were worthy of rejection, disdain, and even eternal damnation, at least in the minds of many Jews.
Fifth, the centurion made his request, based upon what he had heard of Jesus. So far as we know, these two never met. So far as the centurion was concerned, there was no need. Being from or near Capernaum, the headquarters of Jesus, there must have been a great deal to hear about Jesus (such as the healing of the paralytic, lowered the roof, whose sins were forgiven—Luke 5:18-26), and this man had a listening ear.
Sixth, the centurion must have had a fair understanding and appreciation for the Jew’s religious beliefs. Notice that the centurion did not wish to have Jesus put in the position to have to come into his house. This was not because the official was unwilling to have Jesus, but, due to his contact with the Jews, he understood the Jewish reticence to have any intimate contact with a Gentile. Furthermore, the centurion built their synagogue, so he had to have known a good deal about their religious beliefs and practices. He was not offended by these views, nor did he in any way challenge them. Indeed, he accommodated them. This was a very humble thing for a military superior to do for a captive people.
Seventh, the centurion had a grasp of the meaning of authority. The centurion was a man of authority himself, but he was quick to recognize that his authority did not extend to the healing of dying men. Jesus’ authority did. Jesus’ authority was greater than the centurion’s. Thus, the centurion does not mention his own authority, except to illustrate why Jesus need not be personally present to heal his servant. A man of authority need only speak the word. Jesus, the centurion had concluded from the reports he had heard, was a man of greatest authority. He even had authority over nature. Thus, He could order sickness to depart and it would do so, whether or not He was present. He also recognized that Jesus’ authority, like his own, was the result of a higher authority (“I myself am a man under authority,” v. 7). A man of authority, like the centurion, could quickly recognize and appreciate the superior authority of Jesus.
Eighth, each of the accounts of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew and Luke have a unique emphasis. Luke’s account, addressed primarily to a Gentile audience, provides great encouragement for Gentile readers because here the faith of a Gentile is praised by our Lord as superior to that of Israelites. There is hope for Gentiles. Also, though, there is conveyed the great respect which the centurion had for Judaism and for the Jews, which caused him to send a delegation of Jewish elders to petition Jesus for the healing of his servant. Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, written with a Jewish audience in mind, tends to humble the reader by including Jesus’ words that not only commended this Gentile’s faith, but which also spoke of the fact that in the kingdom many Jews would be absent, while many Gentiles would be present (Matt. 8:10-12).137
Shortly after the healing of the centurion’s slave Jesus was traveling toward Nain, accompanied by a large crowd. Heading out of town, in the opposite direction, was another crowd, but of a very different disposition. The crowd with Jesus (except for the “sad sack” Pharisees) was joyful, jubilant, expectant. Everything here was upbeat. The other crowd was the opposite. They were mourning the death of a widow’s only son. There was no joy, no hope, no expectancy.
The two crowds met head-on, outside the city of Nain. This put Jesus face to face with the widow, whose grief was evident. She did seem to know who Jesus was, or is she did it did not matter. She did not ask for nor expect anything, except perhaps that Jesus and His followers stand aside. All of the initiative was taken by our Lord, and not in response to faith, but only in response to grief and human need.
Having great compassion on her, Jesus told the widow not to cry. Many have said this to a mourner, but only Jesus could be right in doing so. We tell others not to cry because it makes us uncomfortable. Jesus told her not to cry because it was unnecessary and inappropriate. She was not to cry because her son was not to remain dead. Rejoicing was the appropriate response. Jesus then touched the coffin, bringing the procession to a halt. This must have caught the poll-bearers off guard because this would have normally defiled Jesus. With no ceremony, Jesus simply instructed the boy to arise, which was immediately evident by his sitting up and speaking. The more labored and time-consuming raisings performed by Elijah and Elisha were greatly overshadowed by this instantaneous raising of Jesus.
Both crowds seemed to explode with joy and praise. They feared God and acknowledged Jesus to be a great prophet, at least. This did not exclude Him from being Messiah, though neither did it acknowledge Him as such. From the response of the people to John it would seem that they thought a prophet might be Messiah. At least Messiah would be a prophet. “God had visited His people,” they said, and so He had. The reports of Jesus’ greatness spread throughout the region.
This story, like that of the healing of the centurion’s son, also brings to mind the healings of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Jesus’ raising of the dead son reminds us of a similar incident in Elijah’s ministry (1 Ki. 17:17-24) and in that of Elisha as well (2 Ki. 4:18-37). In the case of Elijah especially, there are parallels to the raising of the son of the woman who lived at Nain. Both boys were the only son of a widow. Both boys were raised from the dead by a “prophet of God.” Both Elijah and Jesus presented the boys to their mother. Both raisings proved that a true prophet of God was present.
I believe that these two miracles, the healing of the centurion’s son and the raising of the widow’s son, serve several purposes in the developing message of Luke’s gospel. First, these miracles testify to the fact that Jesus is who He claimed to be—Israel’s Messiah. No prophet had ever surpassed these miracles. Second, these miracles are the backdrop for the questions of John the Baptist, which are to be introduced in the following section. Third, these miracles were the basis for the faith of men and women. Finally, these miracles are samples of the kind of faith which we should have today. Let us look back over these two miracles to discover the characteristics of faith which these to incidents teach us.
(1) Faith honors and pleases God. If anything is clear in the story of the centurion, it is that the faith of this man both pleased and honored God. God delights in men’s faith. God is honored by faith when He is the object of that faith. What greater compliment to the character of God than to have men demonstrate that they have confidence in Him. Men find God trustworthy because He is worthy of men’s trust. Faith honors God. Faith pleases God. Faith is commended by God.
(2) Faith focuses on God as its proper object. The centurion did not trust in his (great) authority, but in Christ’s. The centurion believed that Christ was Lord of nature, that He had authority to command sickness to depart. His faith was focused on the right object.
Too often, we focus our attention on our faith, rather than on God, who is the object of our faith. The centurion was not guilty of such self-consciousness. In fact, he did not mention his faith at all. It was Jesus who pointed out the great faith of this man. The centurion had fixed his attention of Jesus, on His compassion, His mercy, His power. The centurion was preoccupied with the person of our Lord, not his possession of faith.
To press this point a little further, some Christians lose the focus of their faith by concentrating on the promises of God, rather than the person of God. Promises are only as good as the person. Promises alone are worthless. A healthy faith is a faith in the person, which then enables us to believe the promises. And if our faith in the person of God is sufficient, we hardly need promises, for we know that God is greater than those promises He has given. The difference here is subtle, but important. It is the difference between God as the gift and God as the giver. The centurion’s faith was focused on God.
(3) Faith anticipates and asks for great things from a great God. The centurion not only asked our Lord for a miraculous healing—the boy was about to die—but also for a healing that was out of the ordinary. The centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant “long distance.” His God was so great that He need not be present to heal, and thus he asked for Jesus merely to speak the word. Faith in a great God is evidenced by requests that are out of the ordinary.
How often my prayers and those of others I hear are merely requests for the humanly possible. It is not that God cares little about colds, sniffles, the flu, minor aches and pains, but lets face it folks, a little aspirin, bed rest, and time usually solves these problems. The things which should require faith are those things which are not humanly possible. Let us once again read through the New Testament, looking at those things for which our Lord and His apostles prayed. Let our prayer be a reflection of the greatness of our God.
(4) Faith is always found in the vicinity of grace and mercy. The centurion’s petition was a request for grace, and thus he totally rejected any worthiness on his own part (although the Jewish elders thought he was worthy). The faith of the centurion was not only faith in the power of our Lord, but in His character, specifically His mercy. He knew that Jesus was not only able to heal from afar, but willing, because of the great suffering of his servant. Faith cannot be divorced from mercy and grace. God’s gifts to men are not the result of man’s worthiness, and not even the result of man’s faith, but of God’s goodness and mercy. In the case of the raising of the widow’s son, no faith was demonstrated, no request was made, but Jesus saw the need and met it.
BY GRACE YOU HAVE BEEN SAVED THROUGH FAITH (Eph. 2:8)
(5) Faith does not require sight or visible evidence. So far as we know, the centurion never saw Jesus. The centurion did not request Jesus’ presence, nor did he feel it necessary for his servant to be healed. Faith is trusting in the person of God, based upon the testimony of those who have seen him. So it was for the centurion and so it is for us. Our faith is to be grounded in the testimony of the apostles. Faith does not require sight. The centurion’s faith did not require Christ’s presence, nor rites, rituals and magical formulas, only the spoken word of the Lord.
(6) The faith which our Lord commends in the centurion is for the blessing of God on others, rather than on one’s self. Notice the unselfish nature of the centurion’s faith. He trusted God and asked our Lord for the healing of his servant, not the blessing of his bank account, and so on. The “name it and claim it” folks always seem to dwell on the selfish dimensions of faith. Have faith and God will heal you. Have faith and God will make you rich and famous. Have faith and God will bless you. The faith of the centurion is vastly superior. It is focused upon God and its application is toward others. May our faith be out-going, rather than ingrown. Faith is a gift, like the other gifts, not to be used in a self-indulgent sort of way, but to meet the needs of others.
(7) Faith grows. Our Lord commends the faith of the centurion, but it would be wrong to think that his faith was somehow instant faith. I believe that the faith of the centurion was a faith that was nurtured, that grew over time. His faith was evidenced in the way he dealt with the Jews, and especially in his generosity toward the building of their synagogue. The centurion seemed to trust God to bless Gentiles through the Jews. He invested his worldly goods in blessing Abraham’s seed. The faith which we see commended by our Lord here is not the “first-fruits” of his faith, so to speak, but the evidence of a growing, healthy faith.
I believe that faith must be exercised, if it is to grow. May God stretch and increase our faith. May our Lord in the day to come be able to commend our faith, as he did the faith of the centurion. And may our faith be a blessing to others.
Centurion: (a) he was rich; (b) he was a Gentile; (c) he was a man; (d) Jesus healed his slave; (e) the slave was dying and in pain; (f) he pled for healing; (g) he exercised faith; (h) Jesus wasn’t physically present; (i) No public response mentioned.
Widow: (a) she was apparently not rich; (b) she was a Jew; (c) she was a woman; (d) Jesus healed her son; (e) the son was dead; (f) no request was made for healing; (g) The widow exercised grief; (h) Jesus was present and touched the body; (i) great response described.
“Thus, in St. Matthew the history is throughout sketched as personal and direct dealing with the heathen Centurion on the part of Christ, while in the Gentile narrative of St. Luke the dealing with the heathen is throughout indirect, by the intervention of Jews, and on the ground of the Centurion’s spiritual sympathy with Israel. Again, St. Matthew quotes the saying of the Lord which holds out to the faith of Gentiles a blessed equality with Israel in the great hope of the future, while it puts aside the mere claim of Israel after the flesh, and dooms Israel to certain judgment. On the other hand, St. Luke omits all this. A strange inversion it might seem, that the Judaean Gospel should contain what the Gentile account omits, except for this, that St. Matthew argues with his countrymen the real standing of the Gentiles, while St. Luke pleads with the Gentiles for sympathy and love with Jewish modes of thinking.”
Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. [reprint], 1965), I, p. 544.