Jesus, the "founder and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2), once marveled at the faith he found in a man. And it's the only instance that the gospels record such a response from Jesus (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10). Who was this man? A rabbi? No. A disciple? Nope. A Roman soldier.
Jesus had walked down from the brow of the low mountain outside of Capernaum, his adopted home (Matthew 4:12-16). He had just delivered what would become the most famous sermon in history.
When he entered the town, he was met by a small delegation of Jewish elders. They had an urgent request. There was this Roman centurion whose servant was so sick that he was expected to die shortly. The centurion had asked these elders to go to Jesus on his behalf to see if Jesus might be willing to heal his servant.
Now, this was very unusual. Jewish leaders were not in the habit of being fond of Roman soldiers.
Feeling the obvious oddness of the request, one of the elders quickly added, "He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue."
This was also unusual. Roman soldiers were not in the habit of being fond of Jews.
Jesus discerned the Father's hand in this and so he set off with them to the centurion's home. He had also just preached a couple hours earlier on the importance of loving one's enemies. This was something to encourage.
As they neared the house another group of friends intercepted them. There was a brief huddled conference with the elders. There were hushed earnest voices. The elders seemed confused and concerned. Some observers thought the servant must have died.
Then a representative of the intercepting group stepped over to Jesus and said respectfully, "Teacher, I have a message for you from my Roman friend. He says,
Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. 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.'"
Jesus' expression turned thoughtful. He pondered the words, "I am not worthy to have you come under my roof" and "I too am a man under authority with soldiers under me." He nodded his head slightly and there was just a hint of a chuckle. This man was a Roman soldier, a representative of Israel's enemy. And yet he understood what even these Jewish elders didn't yet grasp. It was a marvel.
He looked back at the friend and then to the elders. Then he turned and scanned his eyes over his disciples and the small crowd of people who had followed him down the mountain. Then he said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith" (Luke 7:9).
Both Luke (Luke 7:9) and Matthew (Matthew 8:10) use the Greek word thaumazo (thou-mad'-zo) which we translate "marveled" or "amazed" to describe Jesus' response to the centurion's faith. The only time this word is used to describe Jesus' response to others' faith is in Mark 6:6, when he marvels at the lack of faith in the people of Nazareth, where he grew up.
The centurion was one the most unlikely persons to amaze Jesus. He was a Gentile. Doubtless he had a pagan upbringing. He was a Roman, stationed in Palestine to subject the Jews to the Emperor's rule. He was a man of war. He achieved the rank of centurion by distinguishing himself above others in the brutal Roman martial arts. Not exactly the résumé you'd expect for becoming one of the Bible's great heroes of faith.
So what in the world had happened to this man? We don't know. But there he is in Capernaum; a miracle of God's marvelous grace. And he's a firstfruit and a foreshadow of what Jesus had come to bring about. He was a living illustration that "many [would] come from the east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 8:11).
This centurion is also a reminder to us that "man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). I think we will be surprised someday when Jesus doles out rewards. Most of the great ones among us will probably have lived in obscurity. Jesus is not as impressed with titles, degrees, and achievements as we are. He is impressed with those who really do humbly believe him.
John Piper once quoted Billy Graham, saying, "God will not reward fruitfulness, he will reward faithfulness." The centurion was faith-full. I want to be like him when I grow up.
Seeking with you to be faith-full,
P.S. Our June featured resource is a sermon titled, The Gentiles Have Obtained Righteousness by Faith. John Piper unpacks Paul's explanation in Romans 9:30-33 for why the Gentiles are being saved and Israel is not.
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