Intro – A golfer came to a hole where he had to hit over water, so he teed up an old ball. Just then a voice sounded: “Use the new ball!” Frightened, he teed up a new ball. “Take a practice swing.” He stepped back, took a swing, and stepped up to hit when the voice sounded again, “Use the old ball.” Some of us have that voice in the back of our head all the way around the course! Tragically, many of us have a similar voice keeping us from a life of faith. Past failures lead us to expect nothing different. God is for Bible characters and super-stars. We consistently play the no-faith ball. But it’s a lie.
Twice in the life of Christ He was said to be amazed! In Mark 6:6 He marvels at the unbelief of His friends in Nazareth. They could not accept the local carpenter as Messiah. Secondly, He was amazed by the faith of an outsider – a Roman centurion. Luke 7:9, “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.” Jesus was amazed at this man’s faith. I imagine that if anything in my life amazed Jesus, it would be unbelief – but wouldn’t it be great to amaze Jesus by our faith? Wouldn’t that be something?
Now, the setting. V. 1, “After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.” Jesus has just finished His Sermon on the Plain -- mostly instruction to believers. Now, Luke gives a prime example of a true disciple – a man whose faith moved Jesus. So, here the King responds to a faithful subject who is not even Jewish. He’s the enemy, a Roman soldier. But he is also a man of faith, showing that amazing faith is not a matter of being a pastor or religious leader. This guy has a tough secular occupation. But he has extreme faith. And if he can, we can. We can learn to hear God saying, “Tee up the new ball – the Faith ball Play it every time. Trust me. Believe in me. Expect results.” See what this man saw.
I. He Saw That He Was Unworthy (despite having a great resume.)
A. He Was Loving
V. 2, “Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him.” A centurion had charge of around 100 soldiers. This man is probably a Roman soldier in the pay of Herod Antipas, who ruled the region with Roman approval. Romans did not rule directly until AD 44. He’s concerned for his servant – slave, actually (δουλος), who is near death – Matt 8:6 elaborates on the message from the man: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” The centurion loves his slave.
Centurions were not allowed to be married. They were often sent to the far corners of the empire on a moment’s notice – sometimes for as long as 20 years. Normal family life was impossible. As a result they sometimes developed close relationships with faithful slaves. This slave is said to be “highly valued by him.” The word translated “valued” is sometimes translated “precious”. This centurion showed extraordinary love for his slave. He refers to him as his boy in v. 7, “But say the word, and let my servant (παις – boy) be healed.” Luke calls him his slave. He calls him his boy. He loved the boy.
But his loving heart extended further. V. 3, “When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” This was truly extraordinary. Here is the captain of an occupying army asking the Jewish elders to seek Jesus’ help – and they are eager to comply! Extraordinary! They knew him as a man of fairness and generosity. This respect was almost unheard of at that time. A Gentile believer who loved his servant, the nation and the people.
B. He Was Generous
And he didn’t just love in the abstract. The messengers tell Jesus “and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” This guy was better than Santa Claus. Some of us have walked together the ancient streets of Capernaum. One city block north of Peter’s house, the remains of a 3rd century synagogue have been uncovered. It was built right on top of a previous building. The foundation of the previous building is visible through a hole dug in the floor. That’s the foundation of the building referred to here.
Now a centurion did better than an average soldier, but he wasn’t getting rich. How this man funded a synagogue is not clear. But he did because he loved the people and their God. Here was a man of amazing Christian virtues even before the faith he is about to demonstrate. He is a wonderful representation of kingdom principles depicted in Jesus’ sermon and he is not even a Jew.
C. He Was Unworthy
Now, when Jesus is presented with this man’s request, He does an amazing thing. V. 6, “And Jesus went with them.” Why amazing? Because Jesus is headed directly to the home of a Gentile where Jewish tradition (not Jewish law) says He will become ceremonially unclean. Yet He goes. But the man will not hear of it, tho he is outwardly very worthy. His friends say in v. 4, “He is worthy to have you do this for him”. To them he is a worthy recipient of Jesus’ attention. He is the embodiment of Jesus’ command to love your enemy, is he not? He is Jesus’ sermon in living color.
But he sees himself with laser precision. V. 6, “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. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you.” In Matt 8:5 shortens this by saying the centurion himself comes to Jesus. Luke clarifies he actually sent representatives. This Jewish contingent represent the centurion as though he were there himself. He is surprised to learn Jesus is coming personally! That startles him. He is no doubt aware of the ceremonial restriction, so he sends another delegation to stop Jesus: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you.” Now we know why he didn’t come in the first place. He considers himself unworthy to meet Jesus. This was the rarest of people – even among believers. This was a man who understood his own unworthiness.
His humility is startling. Friends deem him more than worthy. They did not understand who he truly was and they did not understand who Jesus was. But the centurion understood. He knew the value of his outward deeds. But he knew that it is what is inside that counts, and he knew himself to be a sinner. He saw himself as unworthy in the presence of Jesus. He was not willing to plead for help on the basis of his goodness.
What a lesson for all of us. As believers we know we’re saved by grace alone. But amazingly, having been saved by grace through faith, we often revert to merit to earn browny points that allow us to make claims on God. It’s so like us to think we’ve earned a response from God – that He owes us for our service. Not that centurion. He realized we have nothing to bargain with before God. Any goodness in our life is credit to the Father, not to us.
Before the 17th century, people judged water as clean if they could see through it. And externally, it was. Then came the Dutchman Leeuwenhoek in 1674 with his new-fangled microscope which allowed him to view a drop of that clean water from the inside out. What he saw was astonishing: “I now saw very plainly that there were little eels, or worms, lying all huddled up together and wriggling; just as if you saw, with the naked eye, a whole tubful of very little eels and water . . . and the whole water seemed to be alive with these multifarious animalcules.” That’s similar to the universe of sin revealed inside us by God’s Word. We can’t earn God’s favor as a believer any more than we could earn His salvation in the first place. The centurion knew his goodness put God under no obligation to him. But paradoxically, his declaration of unworthiness opened the door for grace! Great things.
This is critical. Most of us think that we earn God’s response in our life. Do good; bargain with God, and maybe He’ll come through. Meantime, call the pastor to pray about this (which I am always happy to do, BTW), because his prayers are more effective (which they are not, BTW). Progress in holiness is a response of love for God, not a means of gaining favor with God. It is not the degree of worthiness that unleashes God to act on our behalf. It is boldly asking in faith despite our unworthiness.
II. He Saw That Jesus Was Worthy
This centurion was amazing -- a man with exceptional spiritual vision. Tho hardly knowing Jesus, he got that it’s all about Him. This despite the fact that he held a position of authority. And he was morally commendable. He could easily have exaggerated himself – most of us would have. Instead he saw himself as small and Jesus as pre-eminent. Why? How did he see so clearly?
A. He Accepted the Facts of Jesus
How did he know about Jesus? V. 3: “When the centurion heard about Jesus.” This is the way of the gospel, is it not? It’s like Rom 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” He heard. And by faith he accepted what he heard. What did he hear? No doubt he had heard that Jesus had been a carpenter in Nazareth – a humble beginning that one in his position would normally have sneered at. But he had also heard about Jesus’ move to Capernaum and the amazing preaching and miracles. And rather than try to explain them away or demand more proof, he accepted what he heard.
Anyone who hears the facts of Jesus’ life is at a crossroads. There is clearly something majestic about His bearing, the authority with which He speaks, the ease with which He counters verbal attempts to ruin Him, and the stupendous power of His miracles. Furthermore, at every turn He claims divine authority. You can’t just write Him off as another great prophet because He claims to be more. Those claims leave no alternative but to write Him off as a lunatic or to accept His deity. The centurion knew Jesus was more than just a carpenter.
B. He Acknowledged the Authority of Jesus
He calls Jesus, “Lord” in v. 6. Sometimes the term Lord was used like we use the term “Sir” today. But in the Jewish community, this was the Greek equivalent for the OT name for God – Yahweh – Jehovah – a word so revered by the Jews that they would not speak it out loud. Jewish Christians quickly adapted this word to speak of the deity of Christ – hence the phrase the Lord Jesus Christ – Lord indicating deity, Jesus His human name meaning Savior, and Christ meaning Messiah. This soon got them into deep trouble because to the Romans, Caesar was Lord. True believers refused to ascribe this term to any man – and countless Christians gave their lives for that one reason. They would not call Caesar “Lord.” They died for the sake of one word!
This Roman centurion is not simply addressing Jesus as “Sir”. That would be incompatible with their respective positions in society. He saw the divine authority operating in Jesus. Here was a man who had sworn allegiance to Caesar as Lord. Now he applies that term to Jesus. That’s incredible faith! Look at mid v. 7, “But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 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.” Amazing! This man understood authority. He had a general above him and soldiers below him. In Jesus he sees not a carpenter, but authority in hugely exaggerated form. Jesus’ authority is not of this earth. Jesus’ authority was like none he had ever seen or ever would see. He saw himself clearly and He saw Jesus clearly. He had 20/20 spiritual vision. Few have. But now comes the most amazing part of all.
III. He Believed Despite His Unworthiness
Seeing his unworthiness, he might well have folded his tent and gone home. Instead, he does just the opposite. There is an amazing contrast starting mid v. 6, “for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. 7 Therefore I did not presume to come to you. (I’m unworthy, Lord – but I’ve still got a request) But say the word, and let my servant be healed.” What boldness, right? This guy got the holiness, the authority and the compassion of Jesus. “Just say the word. You don’t have to be present any more than I have to be present while my soldiers carry out my orders.” Here was a Gentile pagan who got it! He understood the power of the Word of God. Say the word! With very limited exposure, he got the big picture. No wonder Jesus marveled : “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Jesus was bowled over by his faith.
This pagan Gentile got it just right. Most people err in one direction or the other. We either see our unworthiness and leave off asking. Or we believe our goodness has built up a credit that obligates God. He owes us! Thus, we go down the drain fast when the crops don’t come in or a loved one is taken or a child forsakes the faith – we go down in flames asking how God could let this happen in light of our goodness. We’re King Louis XIV of France who hearing of the crushing defeat of his army by the British at Blenheim cried, “How could God do this to me after all I have done for him?” He thought God owed Him. But, Beloved, God owes no one – is under obligation to none.
Jesus healed this servant in response to a contrite heart – part of God’s program to validate the person and work of his Son. We live in an age where the person and work of Jesus are firmly established and miracles are far more rare. But extreme faith still understands that God can do anything. Extreme faith still comes boldly to His throne – trusting His anwer – whatever it is. Extreme faith is the faith of the 3 Jewish boys about to be thrown into a fiery furnace for failure to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. Remember? The king gave them a chance to recant. But they said, “No thanks, King. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Extreme faith always knows that God is able; but it submits to what He knows is best! How’s our faith this morning? Need a little work?
Conc – Well, God in His grace sometimes gives us opportunity to be rare people of extreme faith. When Tony Dungy was coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his quarterback, Trent Dilfer, also a believer, lost a 5-year old son. Trent’s faith amazed his coach thru that ordeal. Tony told him he could never handle such a death with such faith and courage. But Dilfer replied, “You could, Coach, if you had to. The Lord will give you strength at that time to go through it because you can’t do it alone.” A few years later, Tony lost his own 18-year-old son, Jamie – a tragedy compounded by the fact that Jamie took his own life. Dungy’s faith was rock solid – the event multiplying his influence among NFL people. He says, “I had always said that trusting in the Lord was the answer. Now, facing my own tragedy, I knew I needed to accept the truth that God’s love and power were sufficient. If I really believed it, I needed to use this personal and painful time to validate that belief.” Listen, Beloved, extreme faith doesn’t always get the result we want; but it always gets the result we need. It transcends life and reaches into eternity. That’s what extreme faith does. Bottom line – we can amaze Jesus by our unbelief – or by extreme faith. Let’s choose extreme faith. Let’s pray.