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21. A Man with Authority (Luke 7:1-10)
James J. Tissot, 'Lord, I Am Not Worthy' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 10.25 x 5.7 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"1 When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, 'This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.' 6 So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: 'Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 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.' 9 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.' 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well." (Luke 7:1-10, NIV)
The story of the centurion and his terminally ill servant speaks to us on various levels. First, it is the story of an army officer who cares about a beloved servant. Deeper yet, it tells of a proud military leader who is so humble that he sends others to ask Jesus' aid. At still a deeper level, here is a foreigner, who understands better than the any of his day how far Jesus' authority extends and how it operates. I hope you'll find yourself deep within this the story, too.
Centurions in First Century Palestine (Luke 7:1-2)
While Rome had its own troops garrisoned in Jerusalem and Caesarea, each of the petty kings who governed under the Romans also had military forces modeled on the Roman pattern. Since there was no Roman military presence in Galilee before AD 44, the centurion headquartered in Capernaum in our story would have been attached to the army of Herod Antipas who ruled the area. From the text it is clear that he is a not a Jew (7:5); possibly he is a Roman centurion assigned to or seconded to Herod's army.194
Originally, a centurion was in charge of 100 men (hence our word "century"), but in time, the number varied. A centurion was a lower ranking officer, probably similar in the Roman hierarchy to the position of an army captain in our own. The ancient historian Polybius offers a list of qualifications looked for in centurions. They must be not so much "seekers after danger as men who can command, steady in action, and reliable; they ought not to be over anxious to rush into the fight; but when hard pressed they must be ready to hold their ground and die at their posts."195 A centurion must be a man among men.
The Centurion's Character (Luke 7:3-7a)
But the centurion posted to the Capernaum garrison is far more than just a military leader. The text reveals several remarkable things about his character.
1. The centurion is deeply moved by the sickness and imminent death of a beloved servant. "Servant" sounds good to western ears, but he was probably a "slave" (Greek doulos). Obviously, though, he was more than just a servant, but a trusted friend. By his actions, you can observe the centurion's longing to see his servant well. Matthew's Gospel indicates that the servant was paralyzed and in terrible suffering. He may have had a stroke, and is now just clinging to life.
2. The centurion is deeply respected by the religious community in Capernaum. Though he is not Jewish, he is certainly sympathetic to the Jewish faith. "He loves our nation," the community elders tell Jesus, "and has built our synagogue." Apparently, the centurion is a big donor to the synagogue building fund. For a non-Jew to get the leaders of the synagogue to "plead earnestly" with Jesus on his behalf says a lot about the esteem in which they held him. Respected Jews were often proud that they had no association with a non-Jew. This centurion was clearly an exception. He was obviously a seeker after the God of the Jews. They could see that and admired him for it.
3. The centurion is a deeply humble man. Centurions don't lead by being bashful or self-effacing. Yet this centurion never actually appears personally before Jesus to plead his cause. Instead, he sends others in his place, not as a tactical move in order to get Jesus to agree to his request. Clearly it is because of a sense of personal unworthiness. The centurion's friends are told to say, "Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof" (7:6b). No doubt the centurion knows the pious Jew's common refusal to enter a Gentile home. But I think there's something more. The centurion has a very clear sense of who Jesus is, and what his level of authority is. His humility is grounded in a profound respect for Jesus' position. In comparison, the centurion sees himself as unworthy to even invite Jesus to be a guest in his home. And since he sees himself as undeserving, he is all the more aware of the pure grace with which Jesus operates.
The Synoptic Problem
Let's pause for a moment to consider what is called "the Synoptic problem," that is, making sense of the differences between the accounts of the first three Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Obviously, they had some source in common, since many of the accounts of Jesus' life are verbally identical. We see the story of the healing of the centurion's servant in Matthew's Gospel, too (Matthew 8:5-13). But there, the centurion seems to be speaking to the Lord in person, asking Jesus directly. Which are we to believe?
Both are credible, and both are true. But each Gospel writer shapes his telling of Jesus' life to accomplish particular purposes with his particular audience. Luke's account is more complicated, with the centurion relaying his plea through intermediaries. Matthew simplifies, and tells the essence of the story without going into all the details. Many times the Bible credits leaders as doing what others have actually accomplished at their direction. 1 Kings 6:14 concludes, "So Solomon built the temple and completed it." Solomon never even smoothed a block of stone that went into the temple, but it was completed under his direction. A person's words were often transmitted through messengers, but considered their own (2 Kings 19:20-34).
Both Matthew's and Luke's accounts are true. In this case, Luke's seems to be the fuller account and Matthew's more abbreviated. Of course, sometimes we come to Synoptic problems that are much more difficult to harmonize. But this one is pretty easy. Now back to our story.
The Centurion's Great Insight (Luke 7:7b-10)
For most of Jesus' disciples, their faith grows gradually as they see Jesus exerting power of an ever widening circle -- blind, lepers, the dead, a powerful storm on the Sea of Galilee. After Jesus had calmed the waters they are stunned.
"'Where is your faith?' he asked his disciples.
In fear and amazement they asked one another, 'Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.'" (Luke 8:25)
They have walked with him for a year or so, and still haven't figured out the extent of Jesus' power. But the centurion has a profound understanding without even meeting Jesus in person. Let's consider the centurion's great insight.
"He was not far from the house when the
centurion sent friends to say to him: 'Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do
not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider
myself worthy to come to you. But 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 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 7:6-9)
The centurion understood clearly that a person in authority has the power to delegate authority to accomplish his purposes. He doesn't have to do it himself in person. Parents learn gradually to assign chores to their children to get the housework done. Office managers organize the staff to accomplish the work. An Army captain assigns a lieutenant a mission to accomplish under the captain's orders. And the lieutenant issues orders to the sergeant, who, in turn, issues orders to his own men. Each man in the chain of command is acting under orders from above. And with the responsibility to fulfill the order also comes the authority to accomplish it by whatever authorized means are necessary.
The centurion sees Jesus as a commander like himself. He knows Jesus doesn't have to come into his servant's chamber, and lean over him, lay hands on him, and personally raise him up. The centurion recognizes that Jesus has authority in the spirit world to heal. Period. By whatever means and by whatever agency. The centurion recognizes that all Jesus has to do is to speak the word and it will be accomplished by those forces under him. "But say the word, and my servant will be healed." (7:7)
Luke doesn't record Jesus even having to speak a word, though probably he did in order to satisfy the centurion's friends, who had come bearing this message full of faith. "Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well" (Luke 7:10). The servant is now up and fit and healthy. He is completely healed!
Applying the Centurion's Insight Today
My dear friends, this is a wonderful story about an extraordinarily insightful centurion nearly 2,000 years ago. But it is a story for you and me today. We must grasp its message if we are to grow in our own faith. Let me explain.
So often in our powerlessness we mumble something about, "If Jesus were here in the flesh and were to lay his hand on this person, then he would be instantly healed, but ..." This is good faith, but only a nursery school level of faith. It's like the woman with the hemorrhage who said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed." Her faith was focused in her personal ability to touch the hem of Jesus' garment. We're like that. If only so-and-so were here, he could accomplish this. If only Billy Graham or Benny Hinn or John Wesley or Mother Theresa or.... We look to the personal instrument of the healing, rather than to our Lord who can accomplish the task with just a word -- his own word. He is the Delegator of the power, not some great saint past or present. They are mere instruments.
The centurion's insight is that Jesus' delegated word of authority can span distance. He has power in the spirit world to speak a word and his word is accomplished.
Dear friends, he can and does delegate his orders and authority to you and to me. His mission is the same today as when he stood to read in the synagogue in Nazareth, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to...." (4:18). Now you and I are on the front lines. We are the ones who see the sick and downtrodden and oppressed. And our Lord, whose word of spiritual authority can span distances, wants you and me to take faith and do the impossible on his behalf.
This is the clear implication of the passage -- delegated spiritual authority to perform miracles. Jesus is the Delegator. And in your own corner of the world, you are the delegate. Nothing has changed. He is the captain, you are the private or corporal or sergeant, and you carry out his orders with his full authority and power backing you up, to accomplish the task by any authorized means.
As I begin to realize the implications of the centurion's insight this morning, I suddenly break into tears. Why am I crying? I ask myself. I'm not sad or depressed. But I guess I am weeping because of my own sense of powerlessness over the years that has been brought about by my own narrowness of faith. I've known Jesus could do anything -- in person. But I guess I really didn't believe he could delegate his power to me or through me. My own little faith saw his power limited largely to the thirty-three years of his life in first century Palestine.
How myopic! A couple of weeks ago I went to the optometrist who notched my reading glasses prescription up 1/4 diopter. I'm getting more myopic, I guess. But I am determined to get my vision corrected so I can see spiritual things 20/20!
The centurion's insight, his faith, is astounding to Jesus. "I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel" (Luke 7:9b). I don't think Peter or the other disciples grasped it at that time. I doubt that few in our own day grasp it either. But I want to, and I want you to grasp it also.
Jesus can speak his word across whatever distances and delegate his power to be exercised by you and me, here and now, by any authorized means. That is the message. That is the insight, if we can grasp it.
Dear Lord, I so much want for you to explode my faith from its rigid straight jacket so I can see your unbridled power and reign in the world that is around me. Please don't let my faith be limited to the first century Jesus, but help me see you with the same unbounded power now, in me, and through me. Please forgive me for the abiding lightness of my faith. Correct my vision, beginning today. I pray in your powerful name. Amen.
"Say the word, and my servant will be healed." (7:7)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- In your own words, state the insight that the centurion had of Jesus' power. How did this insight differ from that of Jesus' disciples at the time?
- What portion of Jesus' mission do you believe he has delegated to you?
- How is the power Jesus can delegate to you limited by the size of your faith.
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 I. Howard Marshall, "Military," in DJG, 548-49.
 Cited by Barclay, p. 84.
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