All of us who know Christ have loved ones and friends who desperately need to know Him too. We all would like to see God use us to help reach these and others with the gospel. There is perhaps nothing more thrilling than when God uses you to bring another person in touch with His saving power. Every Christian wants to become a more effective servant of Jesus Christ in reaching others with the gospel.
If I were considering a man for a staff position at the church and he presented a letter of commendation from a respected Christian leader, it would be a strong point in his favor. But if the Lord Jesus Himself commended the man, I would do well to take note. He will be an effective servant of Christ and I can learn much from his faith.
Only twice in the gospels does Christ commend a person for great faith—the Syrophoenician woman (Matt. 15:28), and this centurion we meet in our text. Both are Gentiles; one is a woman, the other a man. It is as if the Lord is saying, “The way of faith is open to people of all nationalities, male or female.” The faith that pleases God is not an exclusive thing reserved for the religious crowd. Any and all can lay hold of God by faith.
This centurion is a model of effective Christian service. Though he was a man in authority over 100 soldiers, he became a servant to his own servant by calling Jesus to heal him. As such, he is a picture of serving the Lord Jesus by reaching out to those in need, who may be lowly and despised by others. He was the channel through which Christ’s power flowed to this dying boy.
Although the centurion was in the military, which is not known as a seedbed for piety, he had great faith. It is interesting that every centurion mentioned in the New Testament is presented in a favorable light. This man shows us that we can serve Christ in any “secular” job. The centurion lived in Capernaum, which Jesus later castigated for its lack of faith (Luke 10:15), but he was not affected by their unbelief. This shows us that we can be godly people in the midst of an evil, unbelieving world. Wherever you are and whatever you do, this centurion shows you how to be an effective servant of Christ. He possesses three qualifications that every servant of Jesus Christ must seek to develop in his or her life:
An effective servant of Christ needs an exalted view of Jesus, a lowly view of himself, and a caring view of others.
*He is Lord—the One in Authority. Therefore, the effective servant will have faith in Christ’s sovereign authority.
The centurion had an exalted view of the Lord Jesus Christ and of His authority over this hopeless disease: “... just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (7:7). The centurion understood the principle of authority. He knew what it meant to speak and to have his words obeyed.
But he knew that his servant’s desperate condition was beyond the realm of his authority. He needed to go to the One in authority over all creation. He recognizes Jesus to be that One. He even knew that Jesus did not need to come and physically lay hands on his servant. The Lord of Creation, who spoke the universe into existence, simply had to speak the word and his servant would be healed. That is an exalted view of Jesus Christ!
Note that the Lord Jesus accepts and even praises this man’s exalted view of Himself. Alexander Maclaren wrote, “Christ takes as His due all the honour, love, and trust, which any man can give Him—either an exorbitant appetite for adulation, or the manifestation of conscious divinity” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], on Matt. 8:8, 9, p. 383).
The miracles are pictures of spiritual truth. Christ’s power in healing this dying servant is a picture of His power to save those who are perishing in their sin. The message is clear: the power of salvation lies with the Savior, not with the sinner. All too often, I fear, we think, “I wish the Lord would save this person, but, after all, it’s up to the person’s free will.” But if salvation were up to the sinner’s free will, no one would be saved, because the sinner is spiritually dead. But if, as the Bible teaches, salvation is of the Lord, then we can pray in faith, “Lord, speak the word and impart new life to this sinner,” and know that He can do it. The effective servant believes in an exalted Lord who is mighty to save those who cannot do anything to save themselves.
Where did the centurion get this faith? Scripture teaches that faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8, 9); but also, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word concerning Christ” (Rom. 10:17). God imparts faith through the hearing of the Word about who Jesus is. We read (Luke 7:3), the centurion “heard about Jesus.” It is only a speculation, but I think that this centurion may have heard about Christ from the nobleman in Capernaum whose son Jesus healed (John 4:46-54). Both men were in government service. Jesus healed the nobleman’s son at a distance, which would have encouraged the centurion to believe that Jesus could do the same with his servant. At any rate, he heard of Christ and he believed. If we want to be more effective servants of Christ, we need to ask God to show us through His Word a more exalted view of the Lord Jesus. And, we need to direct others into the Word and pray that God will open their eyes to the glory of the exalted Savior.
Note verse 9, “not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” The word “found” implies that the Lord is looking for faith. We tend to think that God will use a person with unusual gifts, but even more important than giftedness, the Lord will use a person who simply trusts in Him. He is looking for men and women of faith.
Faith caused the Lord to marvel. Only two times in the gospels is it said that Jesus marveled: Here, and in Mark 6:6, at the unbelief of the people of this same city, Capernaum. Nothing gladdens the Lord more than when a person has faith in Him and His authority. And nothing saddens the Lord more than unbelief.
Dr. Robert Dick Wilson was a professor of Hebrew at Princeton Seminary in the early part of this century. He knew almost 40 languages! But he was not only a scholar; he was a man of faith. Once Wilson went to the seminary chapel to listen to his former student, Donald Grey Barnhouse, who returned to preach. Afterwards, he said to Barnhouse, “If you come back again, I will not come to hear you preach. I only come once. I am glad that you are a big-godder. When my boys come back, I come to see if they are big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.”
Barnhouse asked him to explain. Wilson replied, “Well, some men have a little god and they are always in trouble with him. He can’t do any miracles. He can’t take care of the inspiration and transmission of the Scripture to us. He doesn’t intervene on behalf of His people. They have a little god and I call them little-godders. Then there are those who have a great God. He speaks and it is done. He commands and it stands fast. He knows how to show Himself strong on behalf of them that fear Him. You have a great God; and He will bless your ministry” (Barnhouse, Let Me Illustrate [Revell], pp. 132-133).
The Lord is looking for people like this centurion, “big-godders,” who know that Jesus Christ is Lord and who know how to come to Him in simple faith and say, “You say the word, Lord, and this will be done.” Charles Spurgeon said, “O preacher, if [you are] about to stand up to see what [you can] do, it will be [your] wisdom to sit down speedily; but if [you stand] up to prove what [your] almighty Lord and Master can do through [you], then infinite possibilities lie about [you]!” (The Soul Winner [Eerdmans], p. 165.)
Before we leave the subject of faith, and in light of Professor Wilson’s comment about big-godders believing that the Lord can take care of the inspiration and transmission of the Scripture, let me comment on the harmonistic problem between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of this story. Matthew 8:5-13 pictures the centurion going personally to Jesus, but Luke indicates that he did not even see Jesus, but appealed to Him through others. How do we reconcile these differences?
There are two opposing approaches. The rationalist assumes that either Matthew or Luke is in error. Probably Luke embellished the story. I contend that that is an arrogant approach that exalts human reason above the Bible and presumes that either God did not inspire Scripture or else that the God of truth inspired error.
The other approach does not abandon reason, but rather submits reason to the Word of God. Since “all Scripture is inspired by God,” and since God’s Word is truth (John 17:17), these accounts must be in harmony. We know that Matthew was an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, and that Luke composed his gospel after careful investigation of the facts (Luke 1:3). Thus it would be presumptuous for us, living almost 2,000 years later, to accuse either of these first century historians of error. The differences in their accounts show that they weren’t doctoring the story.
These accounts can be harmonized by recognizing that Matthew and Luke had different purposes in writing. Matthew wrote primarily for a Jewish audience, to explain why the Jews rejected the gospel and why it was open to the Gentiles. To make his point, as he often does, Matthew condenses the narrative. It would be extraneous to his purpose to go into the detail about the centurion approaching Jesus through messengers. Besides, it is true to say that what a man does through his agents, he does himself. We see this in the story itself: “he built our synagogue” (7:5). They do not mean that he personally did the work, but rather that he built it through workers. Thus Matthew eliminates unnecessary details to show that this Gentile centurion had faith in Jesus.
But Luke’s purpose was different. He was writing to a Gentile audience, most of whom had not seen Jesus. For him, the greater detail about this centurion who believed in Jesus, although he did not see Him, was quite to the point, so he included it. The two accounts do not contradict each other.
To return to our theme, an effective servant of Christ will have an exalted view of Christ—that He is Lord—and thus will have faith in His sovereign authority.
*I am unworthy: Humility. Therefore, the servant will have faith in God’s grace.
In verse 4, the Jewish delegation tells Jesus that this man is worthy, but in verses 6 and 7 the man says of himself that he is unworthy both for Christ to come under his roof and for him to come in person to Christ. Isn’t that the way it often is? The man whom the world views as worthy views himself as unworthy. He knows his own heart.
The man had reason for boasting. He was a man of great faith. He was a good man who loved the Jewish people. He was a generous man who had built the synagogue. He was a compassionate man toward his slave. He could have boasted in any of these things. He even could have boasted in his humility!
On one occasion the well-known preacher, Harry Ironside, felt that he was not humble enough. So he asked an older friend what he could do about it. The friend replied, “Make a sandwich board with the plan of salvation in Scripture on it and wear it as you walk through downtown Chicago for a day.”
Ironside followed his friend’s advice. It was a humiliating experience. As he returned home and took off the sandwich board, he caught himself thinking, “There’s not another person in Chicago who would be willing to do a thing like that!”
How do we grow in humility? True humility stems from seeing my insufficiency and Christ’s all-sufficiency. The centurion’s servant was about to die (7:2). He was helpless to deal with this irreversible illness and imminent death. What a picture of the human race, impotent to deal with the ravages of sin and its ultimate result, spiritual death! The centurion saw his own insufficiency to deal with the problem, but he also saw Christ’s all-sufficiency. So he said to Jesus, “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:7). False humility says, “I can do nothing” and stops there. True humility adds, “But I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13) and cries out to Him to work.
It’s a lesson we keep learning all our lives. I often experience it in preparing messages. I come to a point where I cannot get the flow of the passage. The message isn’t gelling. And I’m under time constraints! I don’t have time for it not to come together! Then I realize afresh that I can’t put sermons together. I can’t adequately communicate God’s truth. Only He can. And so I call to Him out of my weakness, and He answers.
One of my spiritual heroes is George Muller, who trusted God to support over 2,000 orphans in Bristol, England, in the last century. His biographer observes, “Nothing is more marked in George Muller, to the very day of his death, than this, that he so looked to God and leaned on God that he felt himself to be nothing, and God everything” (A. T. Pierson, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 112). That’s the proper focus of a servant of Christ.
That’s what grace is all about. I do not deserve God’s blessing. I am not worthy for Him to use me or to answer my prayers. But I don’t come to Him based on my worthiness. I come asking for His undeserved favor. This centurion didn’t approach the Lord based on his worthiness, even though others saw him as a worthy man. He saw himself as unworthy to come to Christ; but he also knew that Christ received sinners because of His grace. And so he approached the Lord on behalf of his slave.
To be effective servants of Christ, we need an exalted view of Jesus—He is Lord over all, powerful to save. We also need a lowly view of ourselves: “I am an unworthy servant. But God uses unworthy servants who trust in His grace. And so God can use me to bring His salvation to others.”
“*They are needy”: Compassion. Therefore the servant will have faith in Christ’s authority and grace towards others.
The centurion’s compassion is seen in his attitude toward this slave boy. Slaves in that day were commonly regarded as property to be used and discarded at the will of the owner. But the centurion “highly regarded” this slave. The Greek word means “precious”; it is used to refer to Christ as the cornerstone, precious in God’s sight (1 Pet. 2:4, 6). The centurion was a man of rank and power. He gave orders and they were obeyed. He easily could have said, “If this slave dies, we’ll have to get another one.” But the centurion’s position and power had not gone to his head. He had concern for this one whom society would normally have despised. And so he entreated Christ on behalf of his slave. And of course the Lord Jesus did not regard this slave as too unimportant to heal. Christ cares for every person, especially for the poor or despised in the eyes of the world.
My mother modeled this kind of compassion to me when I was a boy. She often exhorted me to be on the alert for kids at church or school who seemed to be excluded or on the fringe and to befriend them. She would say, “Think about how you would feel if you were them, and treat them as you would want to be treated.” I remember her coming in the house, with the car running outside, and telling us, “I’ll be home in a few minutes. I passed this woman walking down the road with a baby in her arms and three toddlers, carrying their groceries. I’m giving them a ride home.” Often she would go over to a state hospital near us and bring home a deranged old woman to eat Sunday dinner with us. She had whiskers growing on her chin, and she would drool and make strange noises while she ate. She would shake profuse amounts of salt and pepper on her food and then exclaim as she ate, “Peppy! Peppy!” But my mother showed her the kindness of Christ.
For years now my parents have shown the love of Christ to a mentally incompetent man who was living on the streets when they met him. They have spent hours helping him with personal and business affairs. They have fed him often at their table, even though he smells and he eats heaps of food. Their phone often rings with calls from other people whom you could rightly call strange or very different. I don’t know how many of these people will be in heaven someday, but any who are there will testify, “It was because the Cole’s cared for me when others rejected me.”
All too often, I tend to look at people from the human perspective and think, “This guy is hopeless. Why bother with him?” Or I look at somebody else and think, “This guy would make a great Christian!” But that’s not the Lord’s perspective. He can take the most unlikely people (from our point of view) and do great things with them to the glory of His grace.
As Paul reminded the Corinthians, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God” (1 Cor. 1:26-29).
Years ago, when I was involved with Campus Crusade as a college student, we tended to be overly concerned about the image of the people who were in leadership in the campus ministry. The guys had to look “cool” in the way they dressed. We were looking for guys like athletes or fraternity men who could attract others to the ministry.
But God “blessed” us with two guys who didn’t fit the image. One guy would wear clothes that I can only describe as “out-of-it.” He wore slacks with belt loops, but no belt. He would wear white socks with black dress shoes. And he couldn’t help it, but he wore clunky looking glasses and had pimples all over his face. He just didn’t fit the image. And he insisted on being the greeter at our outreach meetings, where we were trying to impress the cool fraternity and sorority crowd!
The other guy was what we called a greaser. He slicked down his hair with thick grease. He wore black Levi’s, dark shirts, and black boots and he rode a motorcycle. And this was at Long Beach State, where the California surfer look was the “in” thing!
But those two guys had the most fruitful small groups of anyone. The first guy went on to serve as a pastor and now is a seminary professor. I’ve lost track of the other one. But God taught me that He chooses and uses people whom I would reject. God often saves the despised of the world and uses them as trophies of His grace. Effective servants care about such people.
The Lord is looking for servants like this centurion:
*Who have an exalted view of Christ—He is the sovereign Lord of authority, and thus they trust Him for the impossible.
*Who have a lowly view of themselves—they are unworthy and insufficient, but they know Christ as gracious and all-sufficient.
*Who have a caring view of others—they are helpless, and thus need compassion. Christ’s authority and grace extend to those whom society may despise.
Hudson Taylor, the great pioneer missionary to China, used to say, “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them.” May that same powerful God do great things through us as we trust Him in our weakness!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation