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Even Jesus Was Surprised (Jesus and the Centurion)

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Even Jesus Was Surprised

Matthew 8:5-13

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.  “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralysed and in terrible suffering.”

Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.  But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For 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.”

When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.  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.”

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.


o one who meets Jesus is unchanged.  Some are softened and transformed into one of His disciples.  Others are hardened in their opposition to Him.  What is true today was true when He walked among men.  In the Gospels, nobody who ever met Jesus was unchanged by that encounter.  People changed in different ways in that day as well.  Then, some were hardened while others were softened.  Illnesses were healed.  Lives were redirected.  Moreover, it all happened as the result of meeting God.  The series of messages for Sunday mornings through the coming months will focus on the fourth dimension, that which results from personal involvement with the living God.

Judea was occupied territory.  The Jewish peoples had long ago ceased being masters of their national destiny.  First the Greeks and then the Romans had occupied the land despite repeated and determined resistance by the Jewish peoples.  Like all peoples in all times, not all the occupying troops were thoughtless or cruel.  Certainly there was a marked air of superiority which characterised many of the Roman soldiers and civilian administrators appointed by Rome, but there were also those individuals who were shown to be sensitive to the plight of the peoples over whom they ruled.

In fact, in the pages of the New Testament we meet individuals who were drawn to worship the True and Living God because of what they witnessed as they lived among the Jewish people.  Cornelius, the Roman centurion who received the message of life from Peter and who was the first Gentile to openly identify as a believer in the risen Christ was one such pious Gentile [cf. Acts 10:1-48].  Apparently there were also Roman soldiers who listened intently to John and responded to his message pointing to the coming Messiah [cf. Luke 3:14], and Paul saw some within the praetorian guard converted to Christ [Philippians 1:13].  There was also this unnamed centurion who caused Jesus such astonishment.  His story is related in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels.  Though we do not know his name, we know that he was a man of faith in the Son of God … such great faith that Jesus was amazed and the people of Israel were challenged.  Together, let’s learn from this man through exploring the account Matthew has provided.

The Centurion’s Request – “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralysed and in terrible suffering.”  Luke’s Gospel provides the parallel passage for this incident [Luke 7:2-10].  In that account we have additional details provided concerning the approach with which this man presented his request to the Lord.  In Luke’s account we discover that he did not even deign himself worthy to come to Jesus, but instead he dispatched some from within the Jewish community.  Nor did he treat these Jewish emissaries as mere servants, but he appealed to them on the basis of his pious deeds on behalf of their religion.  You see, he had built a synagogue with his own funds and had demonstrated his love for the Jewish people through various acts.  Thus the Jewish elders appealed to Jesus because they felt assured that he was a worthy man on the basis of his actions toward their people.  Of course, no one merits God’s grace on the basis of mere actions.

 However, as Jesus drew near this Gentile home, the centurion sent a second group of his friends to entreat Jesus not to come since he was unworthy of having him in his home.  Whether these friends were also Jewish elders or drawn from his soldier band, we do not know.  What is apparent is that he genuinely considered himself unworthy of coming into Jesus’ presence.  The two accounts provide depth for our understanding.  It is likely that Matthew’s account is essentially a summary of the incident, containing the gist of the messages which were sent to Jesus.

We know that this centurion esteemed his servant according to Luke’s account [Luke 7:2].  It is well known that many slaves in that ancient day were well educated and often came from cultured families.  Through the misfortune of war or the vagaries of natal land, men and women were frequently enslaved, though highly valued for their culture and education.  Though enslaved they became virtual members of the family to which they were bound by their slavery.  Matthew says that it was his boy (pai'") which was paralysed, using a term which became current throughout many lands where slavery has been practised.  Luke states that it was his slave (dou'lo") who was on the verge of death [Luke 7:3].  What is apparent is that the slave was a youth, and his youth made the paralysis the more difficult to endure and the less likely to be cured.  The hope for his recovery was so remote as to cause despair.  The diseases which were referred to Christ were generally of the most obstinate and hopeless kind, and this is but a representative of those situations in which the people had surrendered all hope save divine intervention.

The request is significant for another reason; the centurion reveals concern for another and not for himself.  His motive was compassion for another, demonstrating that his heart was tender.  The Lord could not help but notice such compassion.  Luke’s Gospel adds the information that this centurion was respected by the Jewish elders for his generosity toward their Faith.  This man deserves to have you do this, they pleaded, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue [Luke 7:4].  Of course, no one deserves grace.  There is nothing anyone of us can do to merit God’s grace.  Yet the acts of this man revealed that he had endeavoured to honour God.  He demonstrated compassion toward the people of God and had erected a house of worship to the glory of God.

I hesitate to mention this fact since some may conclude that we do good deeds in order to merit grace.  It is impossible, however, to merit divine grace.  It is grace precisely because it is extended freely to all who will receive it.  Those who have accepted that grace will demonstrate its effective work in their lives by their actions.  This man though a foreigner to Israel and a pagan by birth demonstrated that the call of God was effectively working in his heart and the Lord took note of this fact.

The Centurion’s Response –Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.  But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.  For 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.”  All believers shall be applauded in the life to come, but some believers are in this world confessed and acknowledged by Christ before men.  I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith, was the Master’s affirmation of this Roman soldier.  Perhaps you wonder at such a rich commendation; what could have elicited such astonishment from the Master?

The centurion’s response revealed his humility before the Lord.  This man weighed his own importance in light of the authority which the Father had vested in Jesus, and he knew he came up short.  He saw submission to the Master as his supreme duty and dared not rely on his own rank as a means by which to appeal to the Lord.  Think with me for a brief moment.  The centurion was part of an occupying force.  He could easily have concluded that the might at his disposal was far superior to the weakness of these despised Jews.  The Roman’s considered themselves to be the master culture, superseding the Greeks as world masters and destined to conquer all the lesser races of the world.  Roman military, architectural and civic achievements were the envy of the world.  Yet this man was humble before the Lord.

Did you ever notice the attitude displayed by the various Romans who interacted with Paul after he was imprisoned?  The commander of the Jerusalem garrison, Claudius Lysias, was prepared to have him flogged, never giving the matter a second thought, until he learned that Paul was a Roman citizen [Acts 22:23-29].  When the Jews hatched a plot to murder Paul, that same commander’s letter did not hesitate to assign himself a central heroic role instead of conceding ground to the Jews who had intervened [Acts 23:26-30].  Though Pilate equivocates and Felix trembles and Festus and Agrippa are shaken, none dare admit to being bested by a member of the conquered race of the Jews.

This soldier did not deem himself worthy of receiving the Master.  Instead, he dispatched Jewish elders whom he considered better than himself because they possessed a superior knowledge of the Living God.  This is not mere words, for even our Apostle has written of Israel: Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.  Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!  Amen [Romans 9:4,5].  Amen indeed!  It requires humility to confess that the understanding another has of the Lord God is superior to your own, but that is precisely what this man did.

The centurion did not request that Jesus should visit the young man, but he asked instead that Jesus might heal him.  The inhabitants of this world frequently reveal that they are focused on the presence of the man of God to effect the desired outcome.  As is so frequently voiced by the radio prophets, people seek a point of contact or an intermediary.  You may recall Naaman, the leprous Commander of the Army of Aram who was sent to Israel that he might be healed.  When he came to the King of Israel he did not request healing, he demanded healing.  Even after he was sent to Elisha he thought that the man of God would come out to meet him and perform some action over him.  He was focused on his perception of what God would need to do to accommodate him instead of being focused on his need.  In fact, he was incensed when Elisha did not even bother to come out of his house but merely instructed him to go baptise himself seven times in the Jordan River and he would then be cured.

You will no doubt recall that the account recorded in 2 Kings 5:1-18 recounts his smouldering anger and how it was only through the subtle and persistent intervention of his servants that he at last consented to dip himself in the Jordan according to the instructions of the man of God.  It was only desperation that brought him to the point of humility.  Through this means the prophet of God was directing the sight of this man toward the God who gives good gifts to mankind instead of looking for the gifts.  The man of God was instructing him in how vital it was that this august man look to God for mercy instead of demand accommodation to his position in this earth.  The centurion in our text did not require even this gentle redirection of faith; he was looking for the Giver and not for the gift.  He loved his servant with a pure love, and with compassion for the suffering which his young servant was experiencing he sought the Giver to reveal Himself as very God that He might be glorified.

The reason I am able to state this fact so firmly is that when Jesus offered to come to heal the young man, the centurion responded in a manner which revealed his great faith.  He considered himself unworthy of the presence of the Lord entering his home.  He exalted the Master in his own eyes and thus saw himself as insignificant in His sight.  Christ the Lord was great, and he, the centurion, was of no great account before the Son of God.  There is a lesson for each of us in this response.  The greater our estimate of Christ the Lord the less we think of our position, our abilities … ourselves.

I am reminded of a story which concerns the Duke of Wellington’s faith revealed on an occasion as he attended a Eucharist service.  As the communicants came to the altar to receive the elements from the Anglican priest, an older man approached and knelt beside the nobleman.  That older man was dressed somewhat poorly and was obviously a man of humble means.  When he realised that he had knelt next to the royal personage he was alarmed and struggled to rise that he might quickly remove himself.  The Duke gently laid his hand on the old man’s arm and said, “Stay.  We are all equal here.”  There are no great people in the kingdom when compared to the Master.

The centurion’s response revealed his faith in Christ as Master over His creation.  This centurion demonstrated that he understood the authority resident in Jesus.  He was himself a man acquainted with authority in a defined and limited realm.  He saw in Jesus a greater authority still.  Since he believed Jesus was the One who had called all things into being, he believed that he held power over the physical realm.  In this he was correct.  Lord, don’t trouble yourself … but just say the word.

Have you ever felt that way?  Lord, just say the word and all will be well.  Because of his military training this centurion understood the principle of authority.  Those who have received authority do not give suggestions, but they give orders which they expect to be obeyed.  When I was in the Marines, my sergeants gave orders and not suggestions.  Any of you who spent time in the military understand that your superiors expect obedience.  There is no room for discussion of the commands which are issued in time of war.

Likewise, He who is Lord of all has authority over all that He created.  Should we be surprised that He who gave the storm its voice can command it so that it lies at His feet as a chastened puppy?  Should we be astonished that He who created the eye can restore sight to a blind man?  Or that He who made the ear should be able to give the ability to hear to the deaf.  If this is so, can He not give health and wholeness to whom He wills?  Though this young servant lay in pain and discouragement, the Master of all could surely speak and it would be as He commanded!

This Roman officer realised that Jesus held authority by virtue of who He was.  There is implicit in that knowledge an aspect which some among the saints do not always appreciate.  If He is Lord He has the right to do with us as He wills.  If He is Lord He can deny my request, for it is a request and not a demand.  I remind you that this soldier demonstrated a nearly perfect mix of humility and faith; and faith in the God of Glory will instil deepest humility in all who come to know Him.  We do well to remember that each of these two elements must be present if we will fully grasp the significance of this centurion’s response to the Master’s willingness to accede to his request.

I tread a fine line for every one among us who has experienced extended illness or physical injury, and any among us who has suffered together with a loved one, has no doubt sought the Master’s gracious intervention.  I would encourage you and not turn you from looking to our Lord in your time of dark trial.  A beloved pastor within our denomination even now has received the sentence of death.  Within six months, barring divine intervention, he will likely be called to set aside this tent we call the body.  His response to that dark sentence, printed in our bulletin but a week ago, speaks of certainty that God will spare him death.  We certainly pray to that end, but we confess that we are uncertain as to what the will of God may be in his case.  Just so, we say to the Master, Lord, just say the word and Your servant will be healed.  Nevertheless, we believe that because He is Master, He knows what is best and we are willing to submit to His will.

The Christ’s Reply – When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.  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…  Go!  It will be done just as you believed it would.”  The servant boy was healed, but the centurion received affirmation and approbation of his faith.

Jesus was astonished that a pagan would demonstrate such faith.  This centurion could not have known too much about Jesus.  Though as a pious Gentile, a proselyte to the Jewish Faith, he had perhaps heard the Name of Jesus bruited about he could not have known much of Jesus.  He may have been acquainted with the Scriptures, but his understanding would have of necessity been limited by his lack of religious background.  Jesus apparently considered Capernaum as His home and used it as a centre for ministry [see Mark 2:1]; but this incident occurred in the early days of His ministry, which would mean that this pagan made up his mind concerning Jesus’ person and ministry with but little information, and none was likely to have been firsthand.

I am always encouraged to discover those people who were steeped in pagan darkness who quickly and decisively embraced the Faith of the Living God when they were confronted with the challenge to believe.  The list is long and the names are a source of rich encouragement.  I have already mentioned Naaman, and to his name can be added such names as that of Rahab whose decisive actions spared her entire family from death and ensured her a place in the lineage of the Messiah.  Ruth the Moabitess, likewise, can be added to those who quickly came to faith in the Lord God of Israel.  David surrounded himself with men who chose to come into the fellowship of Israel, and there were a sufficient number to have a separate division of Kerethites and Pelethites.  Abraham himself was a foreigner to grace when God called him.

In the New Testament we read of Cornelius and Doctor Luke, each of whom were Gentiles who came into the Faith.  Titus and Epaphroditus were attracted to the Faith.  Romans the sixteenth chapter is a virtual hall of fame for those who acted decisively for Christ and for the Faith.  This centurion was but one of a great host of those from pagan origins who were drawn to Christ.  Do not look at this centurion and imagine that his expression of faith was an event which occurred once and shall not occur again.

When He was preparing His disciples for His departure, Jesus spoke of His Good Spirit who was to be sent to the disciples.  You will no doubt recall one great promise recorded in John 14:12.  I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.  He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.  Those greater deeds included the witness to divine grace which would result in many people turned to righteousness.  That faith which was witnessed in the Roman centurion was not meant to be an exception for all time, but it was presented as a model for which the saints aspire.

Jesus was astonished that such faith was absent in Israel.  This is another side to our Lord’s amazement as is made clear from the admonition which follows.  One with so few opportunities revealed great faith, while multiplied numbers with great opportunity were unwilling to receive Jesus as the promised Messiah.  Because they had rejected God’s gracious provision for sin, there was nothing left for them except exclusion from the kingdom.  They had positioned themselves by their resistance to God’s presentation of Jesus as the Lamb given to take away sin, and there was no possibility of another sacrifice.  It is an axiom of the Faith that the greater the light, the greater the responsibility imposed upon those who have received that light.  How great was the condemnation of those in Israel who knew of Jesus and yet refused to believe Him!

May I speak pointedly for a moment to all who share this service today?  We of the English speaking world have such rich privilege.  Our heritage for over four hundred years is that of a people who have received blessing upon blessing.  The Word of God has been provided in the English language in the form of literally hundreds of translations.  More preachers declare the truths of God in the English tongue than in all other languages combined.  Four percent of the world’s population has ninety-five percent of the preachers.  The Gospel is proclaimed through print and across the airwaves until one must consciously decide to avoid hearing the message of life.  Yet the vast majority of Canadians … of Americans and of citizens of the British Empire … have no living faith.

The overwhelming majority of North Americans are at best nominal Christians, voicing an allegiance which their lives deny.  For the most of our fellow citizens Jesus has been reduced to a talisman which may conveniently be brought out if the situation should become so serious that the psychologist or the scientists or the social worker can no longer sort it out or give us hope.  Jesus is either Lord or all, or He is not Lord at all.  If you are so foolish as to believe that you can relegate Him to a position of personal convenience, you have never known Him and have succeeded only in deluding yourself.

If, as I contend, the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens are ignorant of God, except as a distant rumour, it is only with the tacit permission of the church that such a condition has become reality.  We received a charge as the Lord departed this world, a charge to witness to His grace calling all mankind to faith [cf. Matthew 28:19,20].  The time is short, for He has promised to return.  If you have not spoken to another to win that one to faith, why not?  If you have been silent though another faces certain exclusion from the Kingdom of God, what excuse have you to offer to the Lord of life?

If Jesus was astonished at the absence of faith in ancient Israel, what would He say of modern Canada?  If Jesus was astonished at the refusal of the professed people of the Book to receive Him in that ancient day, what would He say of our tacit efforts to marginalise Him in this day?  Would Jesus be pleased at our efforts to live by sight and not by faith?  I think not.  If worship is optional in your life, your faith is better described as inviting divine censure than it is deserving of commendation.  If work, or family, or recreation, or possessions, or any other aspect of living in this moment called today is proved to be more important to you than is service to the King of Glory, your faith is more like that of those who were censured by the Master than that of the centurion.

Applications of this Message for Our Lives – I am compelled to make pointed applications that none of us should miss the import of this story in Matthew’s Gospel.  The first application is that faith secures the approval of Christ.  The centurion approached Jesus with an attitude of humility.  He thought so highly of Jesus that he saw himself as unworthy of being in His divine presence – even in his home.  Though he no doubt lived in a fine home in keeping with his social station in life, he dared not think that home worthy of the Master’s presence.  He believed, but he was humble before the Lord.

We who are children of the King know that it is precisely His presence with which is most desired.  We perhaps chuckle at the response of this centurion, but he did show a humility which is becoming in those who believe.  His humility only served to make his faith more attractive still, and we do well to adopt such a humble attitude toward the Living Son of God.  What is more important still to our understanding is that all that we do which will honour our Lord will be accomplished by faith.

We live by faith, not by sight [2 Corinthians 5:7].  The righteous will live by faith [Romans 1:17].  Certainly we are saved by faith, but we need to be reminded that we are to live by faith.  If we live in such a manner as to please Christ the Lord, our lives will be marked by faith.  Nor should we imagine that the faith which will mark our lives would be a faith which demands and manipulates, but it will be a faith which accepts that which a gracious Father sends to His children.  We will live knowing that our God is such that He will not needlessly injure His children, for He is too wise to ever make a mistake and too good to ever permit anything to come into our life which is not for our good.

I can neither say what has come into your life nor what shall come into your life in days to come.  I do say that whatever comes into the life of a Christian is that which his Father has permitted.  If we have died with Christ we will accept everything that He sends.  We do well to recall and apply the words of the Apostle as germane to this issue.  I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me [Galatians 2:20].  Since I died with Christ, do I really have a claim on what remains?  If He lives, have I the right to demand of Him anything?  Underscore in your mind that we begin living by faith and we continue with Him by faith.

The absence of faith insures the censure of Christ.  The Lord seized the opportunity afforded by this demonstration of faith to instruct all in the principles of the Kingdom.  The centurion exhibited the faith sought and undiscovered in Israel.  Thus there is a dark side to the account of this godly man.  The dark side of the story is that where such faith does not reside, people, though religious, have deceived themselves.

I challenge each of you listening to the message today to determine whether your faith would merit the commendation of the Master, or whether it would bring His censure.  If you have found any excuse to resist serving Him, how shall you answer when He returns and demands an accounting of your life?  In honesty, has your faith reduced the Son of God to a matter of convenience?  Or has He assumed first place in your life?  Does He live in you as the powerful Creator who is capable of accomplishing great and mighty feats?  Or is He simply a god who is kept boxed up until needed, only to be brought out to perform at your whim and then put away again?

Herod thought Jesus was an entertainer who might perform a miracle on demand [Luke 23:8,9].  He was disappointed when Jesus did not even answer his questions.  It always works that way, doesn’t it?  If we think we can induce Him to perform for us on demand, we see nothing at all.  It is only as we humble ourselves before Him to worship Him as Lord of all that we discover His mighty power at work in us.  The greater tragedy of our attitude of thinking we can control God is that we deceive ourselves only to discover at last that we have excluded ourselves from the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps today you have been wounded by these words, and you realise that your faith is degenerated because you have taken your eyes off Christ as Lord of life.  Though thus wounded, you need not continue in the miasma of anaemic faith.  Even as you wait before the Lord you can seek His restoration, asking that He renew your faith and make your faith like that which brings approval.  Some today need to ask the Lord to restore them to a life which is pleasing to Him.  Such a request may lead you to renounce some secret pleasure, some good aspect of life which has begun to assume a position as an idol, or some person who is interfering with your spiritual growth.  Though you may think the change painful, the result of ignoring the call of the Spirit of God is more painful still.

Others today perhaps have need to begin this life of faith.  You cannot live by faith if you have never begun by faith.  To you who are not yet Christians I would point you to the Risen Son of God as the only source of that faith, and the only One worthy to receive such faith.  Listen to the Word of God on this issue.  If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.  As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”  For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” [Romans 10:9-13].  Won’t you consider the plea presented in these brief words?  Won’t you become a Christian?  Amen.

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