A Roman Centurion

A Roman Centurion

Luke 7:1-10

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  (Matthew 19:26 NIV84)

This is a very practical statement concerning the right kind of faith.  If we look at the context of Jesus’ encouraging word, we note that it has nothing to do with anything worldly.  Jesus is not suggesting that any impossible thing we may face in life is conquerable if we just trust in the Lord.  Peter had asked a specific  question about salvation, specifically how can a person be saved?  A rich man cannot be saved by virtue of his wealth, and he cannot be denied salvation on account of it, so just how can a person be saved?  The answer:  all things are possible with God.  It is God who saves.  A rich man cannot trust in his wealth any more than poverty is a virtue.  God is the one who judges hearts and souls.  All things are possible with God – anybody may be saved, rich or poor – anybody.

In the Roman centurion, we see somebody as practical as Jesus.  He had a very matter-of-fact way of dealing with the Lord.  His servant was sick, so what did this centurion do?  Did he talk about it?  Did he worry and fret?  No, he sent at once for the Great Physician.  Did this Roman centurion love Israel?  Yes!  He built the synagogue.  He didn’t just talk about how much he loved Israel; he showed how much he loved the nation.  Does he have faith?  He doesn’t just talk about his faith, he demonstrates his faith; he shows that he has faith.

Yes, this man was practical and he was logical – his logic based what he knew to be true concerning this man, Jesus:

…say the word, and my servant will be healed.    (Luke 7:7 NIV84)

Like any soldier, this one recognized authority when he saw it, and he saw that spiritual authority that resided in Jesus.  Even Jesus’ own people didn’t see that!  In response to this Roman centurion’s simple, practical, and logical faith, Jesus responded in kind:

“I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”   (Luke 7:9 NIV84)

Jesus’ important sermon on the plain was over, but an important encounter is about to take place.  This is a pivotal point in the ministry of Jesus.  It is also recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 8:5-13), where Jesus says something that Luke omits:

“I 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.  But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  (Matthew 8:11-12 NIV84)

In other words, Jesus’ ministry and the Word of the Lord will move beyond the Jews.  This centurion was a Gentile, yet he received the Word of the Lord and his servant was healed!   It wasn’t Cornelius in Acts 10 who was the first Gentile to have faith!  It was this most impressive Roman – a Gentile – soldier.

1.  The servant’s need

(A)  He was completely helpless

There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die.  (Luke 7:2 NIV84)

Of this much-valued servant, Matthew observed:

“Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.”  (Matthew 8:6 NIV84)

The sick servant had NO hope; he had NO future.  He as not only sick, but he was suffering terribly; he was in constant pain.  The KJV says this sick servant was “grievously tormented.”  His employer, this Roman centurion, had the respect of those around him, but there was absolutely nothing he could do for his servant.  He had no favors owing him.

This sick servant is the classic picture of the sinner, who is so spiritually sick there is nothing any human being can do to save them.   An unrepentant sinner who knows of his sin and guilt is similarly “grievously tormented.”  It may feel bad at the time, but the conviction of the Holy Spirit is a very good thing for it can lead to repentance and salvation.

(B)  He was ready to die.

There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die.  (Luke 7:2 NIV84)

The servant’s time was almost up.  Perhaps he had been sick for a prolonged time and his body, now deteriorated, was on the verge of complete collapse.

Again we see the picture of the sinner, who needs Jesus; who needs salvation.  His life could end at any moment; his soul is in constant peril of eternal damnation!

2.  The centurion’s request

This Roman official was employed by Herod himself.  He was a man of good reputation.  Scripture actually has good things to say about Roman centurions.  It was a Roman centurion who, after Jesus died on the Cross, remarked:

Surely this was the Son of God.  (Matthew 27:54)

A centurion also told Pilate the truth about Jesus’ Body (that it was really dead) and the Cornelius of Acts was a Roman centurion.  But of all the centurions mentioned in Scripture, this one must surely be the most remarkable, given his request, which reveals the love he had for his servant.

The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.   (Luke 7:3 NIV84)

We learn in the following verses that it was out of humility that this centurion didn’t go personally to make the request of Jesus.  Of special note is what these elders said of the centurion:

When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”   (Luke 7:4-5 NIV84)

His heart was right, both in regard to his servant, but also in regard to himself.  He could have approached Jesus on his own merit; touting his accomplishments and speaking for himself.  Instead, he approached Jesus through another.  Mark this and think about it.  He felt unworthy to come to Jesus personally; his request came through others.  Nothing we can do makes us worthy to approach God.  Only through Jesus may any human being approach God.  This centurion with such a good, well deserved reputation did not think he had it in himself to ask Jesus for anything.  This humility, like the simple, uncomplicated faith of a child, is what the kingdom Heaven is all about.   Remember, it was when Saul was puny in his own sight the Lord exalted him.

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel.”  (1 Samuel 15:17 NIV84)

This centurion had some incredible faith!

That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.   (Luke 7:7 NIV84)

“Say the word.”  What a remarkable thing to say.  As far as this centurion was concerned, all Jesus had to do was “say the word,” and the servant would be healed.  No oil.  No laying on of hands.  Just “say the word.”  But this attitude proceeded from the centurion’s own experience.  When he, the centurion, needed something done, all he had to do was bark a command and his subordinates jumped to and the work got done.  He reasoned it worked the same way with Jesus!  His faith and his view of Jesus came from his life’s experience.   How good is God?  That He would go along with this man’s vision of how he thought it should be done?

It’s tempting to spend a lot of time on the faith and character of the centurion or the need of the servant, be we should never overlook God’s amazing grace and mercy in this story.  A stanza from Faber’s, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” says it best:

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

But this centurion was on to something very profound, even more so considering he didn’t have the New Testament.  He somehow knew the power of the Word.  Jesus said this:

“The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.”   (John 6:63  NIV84)

The centurion never heard Jesus say this, but somehow, he knew the truth.

3.  Jesus’ response

(A)  It was prompt

So Jesus went with them.  (Luke 7:6b NIV84)

The focal point of the story switches from the centurion’s need to the Savior’s response.   It was as prompt as the centurion’s faith was logical.  The servant may have been at death’s door, but Jesus was about arrive at the right time.  Jesus never comes to early or too late.  God always does things at precisely the best time for all concerned.  God sent His Son to save us at just the right time:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6 NIV84)

(B)  It was encouraging

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”   (Luke 7:9 NIV84)

Jesus gave credit where credit was due!  He knew faith when He saw it, and He wasn’t afraid comment on it.  This man had faith, and Jesus noticed it and acknowledged it.  He encouraged the faith of this centurion.  It wasn’t perfect faith.  It was mustard seed-sized faith, but it was enough to amaze the Lord.  The man was filled with “personal unworthiness,” but God saw his faith.

Returning to the centurion for a moment, he must have been a very thoughtful individual.  At beginning of the incident, the centurion sent word asking Jesus to come to his home (verse 3). But by the end of the story, when Jesus is almost there, he sends word saying the opposite, “don’t come.”  Why?  It’s pure speculation, of course, but it may well be that this Gentile had time to think about Jesus – His greatness, His power, His holiness, and His mercy – and in comparison, he saw himself as even more unworthy than he did before.  The greatest of us shrivels in comparison to the wonder of Jesus.  Other people, the elders, thought this centurion “worthy.”  But the centurion knew the truth about himself as surely as he knew the truth about Jesus.

That’s why Jesus was so astonished.  How refreshing this centurion must have been to Jesus.  He had no religious pride at all.  But Jesus saw beyond the humility to the faith, and He was pleased.

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.  (Hebrews 11:6 NIV84)

Long before this letter to the Hebrews was written, the centurion was practicing it!  He had faith in Jesus and Jesus was about to reward that faith!

(C)  It was effectual

Matthew’s account of the story at this point is a little more powerful:

Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.”  (Matthew 8:13 NIV84)

This reminds us of the psalmist’s words:

He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave.  (Psalms 107:20 NIV84)

This is a remarkable story on so many levels.  We see the utter helplessness of one who is dying.  We see the depth of faith in a man who had no relationship to the Law or to Judaism in any way.  We see the power that Jesus wields – able to speak healing from distance.  But we see something else:  we see how Jesus responds to those who respond properly to His Word:  He praises them.  Even though this centurion’s faith did not come from within himself – faith is a gift from God – Jesus exalted the centurion for responding the right way.

Jesus also said this:

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”   (Luke 7:9 NIV84)

Jesus was so amazed at the centurion’s faith, He “turned to the crowd” and told them how amazed he was.  But what was it that amazed Jesus so?  Was it that he knew Jesus could heal his servant from a distance?  Yes, but to stop there is to miss the true heart of this Gentile Roman centurion.  He also had great compassion for his servant, he had respect and generosity toward Israel, a conquered nation, and he had a deep-seated awareness of his own unworthiness.  So when you stop to think about it, great faith consists of merely possessing the right attitude:  toward Jesus; toward others – both believers and unbelievers; and toward yourself.

Great faith is probably as rare today as it was in Jesus’ day.


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