Luke 7:1-10 “When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 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.’ 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. 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.’ Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.”

Though our age has witnessed excellent progress in diagnosing and healing sicknesses we know that we must always live in a groaning world in which mortality reigns. We meet family members showing grief, courage and perplexity as they nurse their loved ones who are suffering constant pain with no hope of recovery, and our words of sympathy and encouragement seem feeble and inadequate. In the passage before us we are introduced to one such man deeply exercised at a friend’s sickness. How can his attitude and experience help us?

After Jesus preached his extraordinary message he went back to Capernaum on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the New Testament it is called ‘his city’ (Matt. 9:1); it was his base, and it may have had a Roman military post. Almost a hundred years earlier Rome had annexed the land of Palestine and so there wasn’t a single person in the nation who’d experienced Jewish freedom and independence. They were part of the Roman Empire and everyone was familiar with the sight of a squad of Roman soldiers, and being constrained legally to carry a legionnaire’s kit-bag for one mile. Rome had built the main roads across Israel; they minted the currency, took the taxes and kept the peace. Though there were grumbles about the Romans and longings for freedom they knew that the Jews had been torn apart by civil war when Rome had stepped in under Pompey and taken over the nation.

There was a soldier in charge of the garrison in Capernaum who had a specially close relationship with his servant. One hundred men were commanded by him. He was the centurion who represented Caesar in that town, a non-Jewish Gentile, a sort of intermediary between the local population and the demands of the Empire. For example, if Caesar determined that a census would be taken then he would have to implement it practically in Capernaum and in the surrounding district. Every one of the centurions in the New Testament is pictured in a favourable light. They had been taken away from idolatrous Rome and freed from warfare in the general peace of Israel. So they had time to consider the message of the Old Testament Scripture that had created the social and religious life of Palestine. The Old Testament had long been translated into the lingua franca (which was Greek) and copies were freely purchasable. Here was this great message of a God who was infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. He alone was in the beginning; there was no mob of feuding gods on a mythical Mount Olympus, greater gods and lesser, good and bad, warring with one another. There was Jehovah alone, and he made the heavens and the earth. The suffering and evil in the world came about when our first parents defied God, challenging his will and bringing sin and death into the world. However, God in his mercy promised a Messiah who would be the Saviour. He would bring redemption to all who trusted and loved him. To these people God continually spoke through his servants the prophets, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, Elijah and the writing prophets. To them he disclosed his heart and nature; through what they said and wrote men could know who God is, what was his character, his wonderful grace and pity, his awesome power and righteousness.

After everything that this centurion had observed of the defiling and despairing influence of the temples of Rome with their fearful idols, dark rituals and the activities of the so-called priestesses then to come to Capernaum, and breathe its pure air, the wind blowing off the Lake, to read the book of psalms, the ten commandments, the story of creation and the preaching of the prophets it is little wonder that he and other centurions were drawn to Old Testament Christianity. He identified his faith with the faith of the people of his adopted town. He loved them and did what he could to help. The old synagogue in the town needed to be extended and rebuilt and it was he a Gentile who provided a large sum of money to that end, so that the Jewish elders freely acknowledged, “He loves our nation and has built our synagogue” (v.5). So here was a man of authority who was also a man of faith in the true and living God.

The centurion was also a man of friendship, someone to whom other people mattered. He wasn’t just interested in religion and fine religious buildings and going along to meetings on the Sabbath. He was concerned about people. One of his servants became very ill, and Luke tells us that he valued him highly (v.2). I don’t think that that is a very good translation. It sounds like a slave-owner talking about a good strong slave. No, not that. The servant “was dear to him,” says the King James Version. He had been his servant for some time; they had been through tough times together; they were together when surrounded by enemies in the heat of battle and their lives were in danger. Had he saved his master’s life? Did he have wise opinions about military matters? He had bound up his master’s wounds, and washed his clothes, and prepared his bed and his meals. They had been two young men who had talked in the evenings of the time the campaigning would be over and they would return home to their families and what they wanted out of life. Now this dear friend “was sick and about to die” (v.2). The official Roman army doctor had been able to do nothing to help him; the Jewish doctors in Capernaum hadn’t succeeded in achieving any improvement in the man’s condition. The centurion had asked for counsel from the local leaders and had brought in the best physicians from outside Capernaum, recommended men – money was no problem – but his servant grew steadily worse, and then, when he felt the man was going to die, he heard that Jesus of Nazareth had entered Capernaum. That is the background of this incident before us.

To whom do you turn in times of trouble? This man turned to Jesus of Nazareth. Mary and Martha were two sisters who saw their dear brother Lazarus grow ill and no one and nothing was able to help, and they sent a message to Jesus; “He whom you love is ill.” When the twelve year-old daughter of Jairus, a ruler in a synagogue, became seriously ill he went to Jesus and begged him to come with him to his daughter. When the disciples of John knew that their teacher, John the Baptist, had been murdered, they took up his body and buried it and walked to Jesus. It was all over. John was dead and buried but they went and told the Lord, and I am saying that you don’t need to let your bitterness over losses put its roots deep into your hearts. Tell it to the Lord. Talk it over with him, everything. I remember a woman who so concerned that she was losing her hair, and that is a grief to any woman, and I told her of a Saviour who numbers the hairs of our heads and that this pain at hair loss was not something she should bottle up inside her, but tell it to Jesus.

None of the people of the Bible in the midst of their grief sat down and said, “It is fate. Whatever will be will be.” The centurion didn’t even think that as the God of the Scriptures is sovereign and everything lives and moves and has its being in him then he was simply to accept bad things from the Lord. No, every one of those people touched by the Scriptures sent for the Lord’s help. They were poor men but they cried to Jehovah. In the Old Testament this centurion could read of widows whose children were dying sending to God’s prophet for help. The centurion sent messengers to Jesus. There is an old hymn, maybe even an old-fashioned hymn, that speaks some good advice;

“Are you weary, are you heavy hearted? Tell it to Jesus.
Are you grieving over joys departed? Tell it to Jesus alone.

“Do the tears flow down your cheeks unbidden? Tell it to Jesus.
Have you sins that to men’s eyes are hidden? Tell it to Jesus alone.

“Do you fear the gathering clouds of sorrow? Tell it to Jesus.
Are you anxious what shall be tomorrow? Tell it to Jesus alone.

“Are you troubled at the thought of dying? Tell it to Jesus.
For Christ’s coming kingdom are you sighing? Tell it to Jesus alone.”

Whether the Lord undertakes to heal us, or he permits the disease to have its way what a difference to pour out our hearts to the Lord.

So the soldier told the Lord Jesus about his dear servant, but notice the way he did it. He “sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant” (v.3).

i] He sent a mediator. You see how modest he was, not going himself, he a Gentile and Jesus a Jew; he a sinner and Jesus holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners; he a military man who had killed in battle and Jesus who would not even break a bruised reed. He thought of the gulf between himself and Christ, and so he didn’t think of approaching him personally. How modest he was. There are people who ignore Jesus for decades; they show no interest in the eternal God, and then illness comes into their homes. Those they love the most are seriously ill and these people are then crying to the Lord to come and heal them. They don’t hesitate. There’s no meekness or modesty at all; no shamefacedness about asking the one they have snubbed for years to come and do a mighty work before which doctors are helpless.

The centurion was a modest man, but he was also wrong. Every person who comes to Jesus comes as a sinner to the Holy Lord. There is a vast gulf between the holiest person who has ever lived and Jesus, the Son of God. I tell you that there is a gulf between the angels who have never sinned and our Lord. When the seraphim saw his glory in the temple they covered their eyes and feet and they cried to one another, “Holy . . . holy . . . holy is the Lord of hosts. Isn’t he holy? What light! What perfection! How dazzingly bright he is!” The angels who have never sinned feel that. So does the Christian hymnist when he says,

“Oh how can I, whose native sphere is dark whose mind is dim,

Before the ineffable appear and on my naked spirit bear

The uncreated beam?”

This Gentile soldier thought he was an unworthy man to ask the Lord for a favour, and that was right. There is not a single one who could appeal to God upon the ground of his own merit, effort, labour, tears, words, actions, and say that he deserved God’s blessing. So what did he do? He knew he needed a mediator and he looked for men he considered to be much finer men. The Lord might hear them even if he ignored him. He knew he needed someone holier to represent him, but in fact he sent other sinners, and maybe they were worse than he was; perhaps they didn’t have the faith that he had. A self-effacing man, he thought, “They are much better than me,” but this is all a matter of relative goodness isn’t it? The best of men are sinners, and so they too need a mediator. None is good. None is righteous, no not one. Why should God listen to any sinner? When he puts us in his balances he finds us all wanting. Some of you when death is getting near would go to a priest and ask him to say a prayer or perform a service for you, and then you would ask him to do that again and again. You think that if he dresses in the right way and goes through the correct ritual that that’s bound to get the right response which you yourself couldn’t get if you cast yourself on God. People all over the world this past week have spent hundreds of thousands if not millions in paying religious men to intercede on their behalf for those they love. In other words, sinners are asking fellow sinners to be their spokesmen and intermediaries before God. There is a better way . . .

Didn’t the centurion realise – don’t you realise – that these elders of the Jews who came asking Jesus for his mercy were also men who needed mercy? They really did. You really do. I really do. People will say to me sometimes, “Reverend, say a little prayer for me,” and I want to say that I will pray for them, but they must pray for themselves. Don’t rely on my prayers but cry to the Lord yourself. Be honest with God, and this is how you must begin, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Start there. That is the better way. There is no real praying unless your own need of mercy is felt. Have you seen this that you need mercy from a holy God? So he sent inadequate mediators.

ii] His mediators made the wrong plea. When the elders came to Jesus they pleaded earnestly with him. They didn’t deliver a peremptory message like a postman pushing something through the letterbox and moving on. We are told that they ‘pleaded’ with Jesus (and that is good), and that they were also very ‘earnest’ (and that is also good), but they made the classic error that every sinner makes who doesn’t know his own heart. Their whole argument with the Lord why he should hear the request of the soldier and give him what he wanted was that he deserved it. “He deserves to have you do this,” (v.4) these Jews said. In their eyes the centurion was a good man, an exemplary man, a generous man, someone who loved their nation, and indeed he was all those things. What a great guy he was, and so he deserved better than seeing his best friend die. Thank God that there are such men and women in our families, and in the community, but they went on from that to say, “That’s the reason you must hear our pleading and heal this man’s servant; it’s because he is a great guy.”

All that may be true, and it is true for many fine people, but we are judging on a purely earthly level; many do live thoughtfully, kindly and decently. They don’t fool around; they keep their marriage vows; they are good neighbours; they are honest and law-abiding men and women. We must make such a positive evaluation of our fellow men, and the Bible does the same. People are not as bad as they could be. We are all in debt to people like teachers and nurses and older members of our families. They never forgot our birthdays, and they sent us little gifts. They were so happy at such times in our lives when we were married and had children, and yet they weren’t people who went to church. Good people, yes, because of an earlier grace in the world, in the land or in their family.

Yet how different our judgments are when we place them in the light of the infinite Holy One who reigns in heaven. You know, as I have often told you, that there is nothing I’ve ever done that is absolutely free from sin in the Holy One’s sight. No action, no word, no thought, no imagination, no prayer, no sermon has ever been entirely free from sin. Pride and self and defensiveness are mixed with my best. “In me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” In fact, if you will bear this, my very righteousnesses are before God as unacceptable as a filthy rag. That is the judgment of the God who is light, in whom is no darkness at all. You have noticed how sheep seem white before the sparkling white lamb is born, but when the snow comes and covers the ground then even the lamb looks off white. You are grand in the sight of men, but placed within God’s searching sight how are you then? You’ve been good to your neighbour, yes, but have you loved him as you love yourself? The apostle says, “In me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” Those Jewish elders who came on behalf of the soldier, pleading with Jesus had no idea of their own sin or of the sin of the centurion, and they certainly had no idea of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. “In him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” He is our mediator with God. He alone can make an acceptable plea because he alone lived a perfect life well pleasing to God, so that nothing for which he asks will God refuse.

Here we are being confronted with the most fundamental problem of all, and that is the unworthiness of all men and women to be blessed by God, the fact that God is so holy and straight in contrast to us who’ve been born in sin and shapen in iniquity. Have you ever seen a child defy its parents? “Many times,” you say. Have you ever heard a child crying in frustration because it can’t get its own way? Have you had to listen to a child bawling in a shop, “I want . . . I want . . . I want,” stamping its feet? Have you ever seen a child being encouraged by its mother to say, “Please” or “Thank you”? You say, “Many times. I had to do that with my own children.” There is a bias in every one of us to turn our whole existence on ourselves. It is a fierce struggle to be pure and truthful and put other people first and be pleased at their success. We are sinners, all mankind, and we get more sophisticated as we get older and richer and smarter in masking our sins, but it is still there in our hearts. We can hide many of our sins from those we live with, but we can hide none of them from God.

I am saying that mankind was not always like this, as the evolutionist claims. The first human beings were made by God in his image and were powerful rulers, loving companions and joyfully obedient children of God, but they sinned. They jumped into defying God when they were under probation, and like a chain of dominoes all of us who came after them have been toppled by their fall. Mankind stood or fell together and we are fallen. We have given up our right to plead that we deserve anything from God because of the disobedience of our father Adam and our own lives.

Think of it like this, that my father passed on to me the fact that he was thin and over six feet tall with a prominent nose. Parents pass on to their children the colour of their skin and eyes. There are even some diseases that can be inherited. The tendency to do wrong is something like that. We’re born with it, and every day we see and suffer the symptoms of our human disease, lying, stealing, lusting, being impatient, unforgiving, ridiculing and putting down people. Those are the symptoms of an inner power of sin in every life. The Bible says that as by one man sin entered the world, and death by sin, so death has passed upon all men for all have sinned. That is why the centurion’s servant was dying, because he was a sinner. That is why all of us are dying men and women because we are sinners. The wages of sin is death.

“So Jesus went with them” (v.6). That is grace, grace that is greater than all our sins. Jesus made no mention of those truths which I’ve been reminding you of. He didn’t pause, wag his finger and give them a little lecture on man in his fallen state and that we have forfeited our right to ‘deserve’ blessings from the Lord. That is true, but there was nothing like that here. There was simply a devastating need and his great love. He says nothing and simply stops what he is doing, leaves the house and walks along with them. What are we seeing? The pity of God to sinners. In other words, we don’t have to get our petitions sinlessly correct before God hears us and does what we ask. If that were the case then we’d never have a single prayer answered. I’ve told you before the story of the little girl whose mother had popped out to the local shop and so the girl decided she would pick her some flowers from the garden as a welcome home gift. She fills her chubby hands with plants uprooted and torn inelegantly from the garden, and she pushes her way back into the kitchen. “What’s that?” says her father. “Flowers for Mommy,” she replies. Her father can see at least one slug, dandelions and dead stalks and wilting buttercups in the poor bunch. So he says to the girl, “Let me see them,” and then, distracting her attention, he removes all that is unattractive, and just gets them back to her before there’s the sound of the key in the door and Mommy returns. “Mommy!” cries the five year old and she runs to her with the bunch of flowers. Her mother is delighted and her father is relieved.

When we speak to the Lord we bring him our prayers and they have errors of theology and argument and there is an unacceptable mix of confidence, resentment and doubt in our own hearts. We are self-conscious about the things we say and there is a trace of smugness when we hit the right note of earnestness. Just like in my preaching we make big mistakes before God; I can put Moses in the lions’ den and Daniel in the ark in the bulrushes as I hurry on from one point to another, and you love me and chuckle and you know what I mean. When Christians pray to God we do so in the name of Jesus, through his merits, and he presents our prayers to God. Jesus is like that father in the story I have told you. He takes all that is sinful, the mistakes and the pride, out of our prayers and then presents them perfectly to God. They are de-sinned prayers, and God hears and answers them in Christ.

Here before us is a great example. “Jesus, let’s tell you about this man and why you should particularly come with us now and help him. He deserves to have you do this because of his good works.” That is their plea, not, “O Lord show mercy.” But the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the only one who can stand before God with the full blaze of God’s holiness shining on him and not frazzle or wilt. He, the Mediator, is worthy of getting from his Father all that he requests because he never defied God. He always did those things that were pleasing to God. Jesus didn’t have sins himself that needed to be forgiven. He always asks from God the best and most perfect petitions, and his Father can never refuse to give him anything. So we go to God, and this must be our attitude, “I don’t deserve anything from you because I am a sinner, I have erred and strayed from your ways like a lost sheep. I have done the things I should not have done and not done the things I should have done and there is no health in me, but your Son Jesus Christ deserves the whole universe. Please hear and answer me because I am asking in the name of Jesus. For his sake hear me; for his honour and glory give me these things. I deserve nothing, but he deserves everything.

“Because the sinless Saviour died my sinful soul is counted free,

For God the just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me.”
While the party was on its way to the house the news was brought to the centurion, “Jesus is on his way to see you,” but instead of that causing delight in the soldier it created consternation. He sent another message to Jesus, but this time much longer; “‘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.’” (vv.6-8). What do we see here?

What exalted views of our Lord this soldier had. Do we? What if we are ignoring him for years, never worshipping him, not even thinking a thought about him. Then illness comes; a beloved mother dies of cancer. We asked the Lord that she might be spared, but she died and then we bear a grudge against God – “what am I going to tell him when I see him? Just let him wait!” We will ignore him for the rest of our lives parading our scorn for our mighty holy Creator. What sinners we are. We imagine we are worthy of everything we ask God for. How different this centurion. “Don’t trouble yourself walking to my house!” He was in great trouble of heart, but he was more concerned that he had caused Jesus trouble. He hadn’t come personally to ask Jesus for help because he didn’t consider himself worthy of entering the presence of our Lord. How great was Jesus of Nazareth in his eyes, great as a teacher, great as a man of impeccable holiness, great in his power to heal the sick. He felt ignorant and defiled in Jesus’ presence and so had asked these Jewish elders to represent him.

Now he hears that Jesus plans to enter his house, come under his roof, and go to the bedroom where the servant was dying, and the centurion felt especially unworthy. There was such a gulf between himself, a rough soldier, and the famous holy rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. Gentiles also knew that Jews believed themselves to be defiled whenever they entered a Gentile’s house. They needed to ceremonially wash themselves immediately afterwards. “Please Lord don’t come into my house.”

Then he expresses his belief in the power of Jesus to change men without needing to be in their presence or to touch them or lay hands on them. “Just will it, that’s all. If you desire it then he will recover. He says, “Say the word, and my servant will be healed” (v.7). We say, “It only takes a flash of the will that can and the dead are raised.” “You don’t have to take another step in my direction. Your power will be no stronger than it is right now while you are half a mile away. Say, ‘Be healed!’ and he will be, as later Jesus was to say, ‘Lazarus, come forth,’ and Lazarus arose. One day you will be a layer of dust two yards under the soil, and then Jesus is going to will that you rise and you will rise in the twinkling of an eye.

Then the centurion gives to the great illustration giver – a parable. He tells Jesus a story saying, “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.” (v.8). “If I can do that,” he says, “and my words are effectual so that men jump when I speak, how much more whatever you address, winds and waves, demons, disease and death, won’t they obey you immediately? You are the irresistible one!” Speak the word!

What is your greatest problem at the moment? Is it marriage? Is it work? Is it money? Is it guidance? Is it guilt? Is it loneliness? Is it restlessness? Is it ignorance? Is it addiction? Is it resentment? Is it selfishness? Is it bitterness? Do you think that the Lord Jesus Christ cannot help you? Then that is your greatest problem today, that you have too much esteem for yourself and you have inadequate views of Jesus. You lack the humility this man had and you lack his awareness of the greatness of the Lord Jesus. You are too big and the Saviour is too small, and so you aren’t anxious to bring him alongside to help you and your needs. You are trying to cope without Jesus, to live without Jesus, to die without Jesus and to go into eternity without Jesus and that is the worst of lives, living without Jesus now and being without him for ever. See him, I urge you, as the great one, as did this soldier. Honour and respect him. Call upon him every day and in all kinds of trouble. That is life and that is heaven. Trust his word. “Let us rest on the word of Christ and fear nothing. Let us not doubt that every word that Christ has spoken shall be made good. The word of Christ is a sure foundation. He that leans upon it shall never be confounded” (J.C.Ryle).

When the Lord Jesus heard what the centurion had said he was amazed. We are told just twice in the Bible that the Lord Jesus was amazed, here, amazed at a man’s faith and in Mark chapter six and verse six where he was amazed at the lack of faith of the people of his hometown. Jesus is a real man, and there is no real man who has not been amazed as he’s looked around him. Maybe you’ve been amazed too. There was a man who said he loved you, but then he ill treated you and abused you the way he did. That sort of cruelty amazes me too, but the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Or maybe you’ve been amazed at the kindness and patience and love of some Christians for you, that they have seen you at your worst and yet they still love you. Their trust in you amazes you, and that grace amazes me too, but they are receiving from God’s fulness of grace to behave like that.

Jesus looked at his fellow Jews, and we are told that, “He came unto his own and his own received him not” (Jn. 1:11). Israel’s own chief priests condemned him to be crucified and mocked him as he was dying, and yet this Roman soldier stood in awe of Jesus. He saw what they refused to see. “I tell you, I have not seen such great faith even in Israel” (v.9). Israel had the prophets and the covenants and the lambs slain and the promises of the great Messiah to come and yet they did not have faith in this Christ. So where do you stand today? There is the rising generation of Chinese believers, the first generation to be embracing Jesus Christ as the Son of God in their millions, and there is Wales which has had the gospel for 1900 years with its faith in horoscopes, and aliens, and science, and séances, and evolution (though it has little understanding of what that teaches). The first are now last, and the last are first.

You see how this incident ends, that the men sent by the centurion telling Jesus not to come, returned back to the soldier’s home, and there they found greeting them the servant, on his feet utterly restored, his eyes bright and his heart anxious to help his dear master. It happened. It really happened. J.C.Ryle says, “A great miracle of healing than this is nowhere recorded in the Gospels. Without even seeing the sufferer, without touch of hand or look of eye, our Lord restores health to a dying man . . . we read of no prophet or apostle who wrought miracles in this manner. We see here the finger of God” (J.C.Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke Vol.1, p. 200).

If it were the only sign that the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount performed then I would hardly refer to it, if it were out of character with our Lord, if it were a freak one-off, but no, it is one of thousands of miracles that Christ did. The books of the world could not contain all his signs of deity. This healing is typical of Jesus’ divine power, and this has been recorded by Doctor Luke that you might believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, and believing you might have life in his name. I cannot understand anyone not wanting this Saviour as their own, and honouring and loving him in life and wanting to be with him for ever.

24th August 2008 GEOFF THOMAS