He was a centurion. That’s all we need to know: a Roman invader, part of the occupying force. He commanded 100 men. Is that where he found his identity: in his authority and nationality? He was also generous, perhaps as a political move to placate the local religious leaders or perhaps genuinely desiring to do good. His words and actions suggest the latter.
This powerful, generous person of authority is quite a contrast to the others we’ve studied in the Nameless series. That’s why I find him so interesting.
Stationed in Capernaum, this centurion funded the town synagogue’s construction. There are a few wealthy families in my city. Their names are all over philanthropic projects, sports fields, and scholarships. Somehow, I doubt this synagogue bore the centurion’s name.
It would have been hard not to hear about Jesus if you lived in Capernaum. So when our centurion’s servant, “whom his master valued highly” (Luke 7:2) became very sick, the centurion reached out to Jesus for help. We can assume he’d already exhausted the medical resources of that good-sized fishing village. Maybe he’d even sent down to the new city of Tiberias (about 10 miles away) for help.* He was generous toward his household as well as the community where he was stationed.
The Roman military operated under a strict hierarchy. We might think our centurion should have gone to Jesus himself, but his training probably influenced him to send an intermediary to someone so respected. Just like he wouldn’t approach the Roman emperor directly, he wouldn’t just walk up to Jesus. Later, he says, “I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you” (Luke 7:7).
So the centurion found some people he thought Jesus would respect: the local Jewish elders. He asked them to approach Jesus on his behalf. When Jesus first taught in the Capernaum synagogue (which our centurion built), these elders would have been sitting there, watching him drive out an evil spirit in the middle of Sabbath services. They might even have accompanied Him to Simon Peter’s house afterward, where he healed Simon’s sick mother-in-law so she could fix them some food (Mark 1:21-31, see also Fishers of Men: The Story Behind the Story). They knew Jesus.
Look what the elders said to Jesus:
These guys had the old-school mindset that some people deserve God’s attention and others don’t. They “owed him one” for building the synagogue, and getting Jesus to heal the centurion’s servant would have evened the score a bit. In other words, their protocol dictated that Jesus act because the centurion had been generous. I don’t think that’s where the centurion was coming from. He wasn’t leveraging his good works to get what he wanted. And that’s certainly not how Jesus operated (a point Luke proves in the next story, Luke 7:11-17, see also Juxtaposition).
Still, Jesus went with the Jewish elders toward the centurion’s home. Is there any record of Jesus not healing someone when asked? I don’t think so.
Humility and Authority
When they were within sight of the house, the centurion changed his mind. He knew Jews weren’t supposed to associate with Gentiles and that many Jews hated the brutal, pagan Roman Empire. He couldn’t ask Jesus to enter a Gentile’s house and risk making himself unclean. (Obviously, he didn’t actually know Jesus! In Matthew’s order of events, Jesus had just defiled himself by touching a man with leprosy, Matthew 8:1-13, see also Nameless: A Muddy Man with Leprosy.)
Even though he still didn’t face Jesus himself, this second encounter was more personal. The centurion sent his friends to intercept Jesus. These friends, probably Roman, would have known the centurion well and could speak as if from his heart. They didn’t have a hidden agenda.
The centurion’s humility sprung from his understanding of authority—something I think we often miss when we reflect on humility. This centurion understood what it meant to be commanded and obey without question. He also knew what it meant to give the commands.
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. –Luke 7:8
Every command he issued carried the full weight of the Roman military with it—all those above him in the hierarchy. But every command also carried consequences to whom it was directed. Knowing they would obey him without question, he thought carefully about what he told his 100 men to do, especially when they went into battle. He was responsible for their lives.
Story Break: Because we operate under the authority of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, we can speak and teach with authority, confidently relaying the truths of Scripture to others. Humility doesn’t mean we abase ourselves, but rather, we understand our place in the “chain of command,” bowing to those above us and taking responsibility for those below us. (I’ve written about this specifically: Confident Humility is not an Oxymoron.)
“Say the Word”
Jesus knew exactly what the centurion meant about authority. This guy understood the power Jesus demonstrated every time He healed one person and every time He fed a thousand or more. Jesus’ words carried the full weight of the Heavens, like the centurion’s carried the empire. It’s as if the centurion already knew what Jesus would tell His disciples just before His ascension, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
Jesus was amazed, which doesn’t happen often (Luke 7:9),** and praised the centurion’s faith. He also healed the sick servant from right there in the middle of the street (Luke 7:10), just because He could.
This centurion is a great example for us because of his early faith. Also, I think Jesus takes a backward pleasure in highlighting faith outside His religious community.
Turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” –Luke 7:9
But there’s something else for us to see here. People come to faith down paths they know. The centurion knew protocol and authority, and that’s how he began to understand who Jesus was. I knew creativity and longed for perfection, so that’s how I first understood God/Jesus. It’s the same salvation, the same faith, but we have to begin from where we are and what we know. By the same token, we can’t judge others because they start with a different perspective.
Understanding can come from the strangest places, including a nameless but generous centurion whom Jesus never actually met, but it leads to the same faith. For him, the starting point was #authority. #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. #nameless (click to tweet)Tweet
How did you begin the faith journey? What was it about your unique personality and experiences that connected with Jesus? How did you know Him first? Let’s make a collection of starting points in the comments below!
*I was in my Atlas of the Bible again, pg. 208-209.