The Seventh Sunday After Epiphany February 23, 2003
1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43
536, 388, 415(1-4,7), 396
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Now when He concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, “for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.” Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having 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.” When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick.
In Christ Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, dear fellow-redeemed:
Is it WISE, or even SAFE to rank faith? On the one hand, “NO.” God doesn’t give any qualifications for a certain “faith-rank” that is necessary for salvation. He simply says that believing in Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of sins saves: “…whoever BELIEVES IN HIM shall not perish…” (John 3:16). “He that BELIEVES and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Someone is either a believer or an unbeliever, either he trusts in Jesus as his Savior from sin or he does not. There is no “in-between.” There are no levels, it is simply belief vs. unbelief.
On the other hand, YES, we can speak of greater and lesser faith. We can observe differences in how trust in Christ shows itself in a believer’s life. So we see Peter making a bold confident confession to Jesus, “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God…”(Matthew 16:16); and then the same Peter cursing and swearing as he denied even knowing Jesus (cf: Mark 14:71). Likewise, Jesus more than once rebuked His disciples and other followers saying, “O you, of little faith” (cf: Matthew 6:30, etc.)
“Saving faith”—a faith that brings salvation from sins—is either present or it is not; BUT the greater, the deeper, the stronger, the more mature that faith is, the more resilient it will be in life. The stronger that faith is, the more defensive it will be against Satan’s attacks. The greater that faith is, the better able it will be to be a beacon, witnessing the Savior to others. So we can also talk about the quality of faith.
Jesus frequently spoke about faith, but not often did He speak of it in terms of being “GREAT.” However, at least twice, Jesus does refer to someone’s faith as being GREAT. One of these times was when the Canaanite woman, a Gentile whose daughter was demon-possessed, came to Jesus for help. At first, Jesus seemed to ignore her. She persisted. Then Jesus tested the woman by suggesting that He was sent only for the Jews. She persisted. As this woman clung to the Words of Jesus and pled for His mercy, Jesus answered saying, “O woman GREAT is your faith…” (Matthew 15:28) and He healed her daughter.
The other occasion of Jesus calling someone’s faith “great” is with the Roman centurion and the account we have just read. Not only did Jesus call the centurion’s faith “great” but He marveled at the greatness of it. This morning we are going to consider this “great faith” but before we do, we observe two cautions:
The first caution concerns “FAITH.” We want to be careful how we use the word itself because it is so easily used in religious discussions, but not always so easily described or explained. Faith can be easily claimed, but not always so easily demonstrated. By looking at the Centurion’s faith we pray that we’ll gain a better understanding of what faith is and how it is active in our lives.
The second caution concerns “GREAT.” When we consider “greatness” in faith it should never be with a sense of jealousy—“Oh! I wish I had a faith like hers”; nor should it be with a sense of burden upon oneself to increase the strength of faith—“I just have to believe more!” nor do we speak of “great” faith with a goal toward competition—seeing whose faith is strongest and who can obtain a stronger faith more quickly.
God recorded the story of the centurion and Jesus’ words so that we can look at the centurion and his faith, not with envy or hopeless dreaming, but to better understand what faith is, what makes it genuine, what makes it strong, the way to pursue a greater faith in our own lives, and why any of this matters. This morning, with the Spirit’s guidance, we consider: GREAT FAITH I. It is invisible but evident II. It is humble but confident III. It is blind but seeing.
We can’t see faith with our eyes because it is a condition of the heart. We can’t judge the true nature of someone’s heart so we have to go on the basis of what the people tell us and what we see in their lives. As Paul told the Romans, “With the heart one believes unto righteousness…” This is the faith which we cannot observe because it is in the heart; but Paul continues, “…and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation…” A person’s confession by mouth and also by deeds is observable.
Where there is faith in a heart there will also be visible evidence—the fruit of faith making itself known. As faith matures and deepens, the fruits of faith will also mature and increase. We are saved through faith alone but saving-faith is never alone. We heard James say in our Epistle reading, “…faith by itself if it does not have works is dead!” (James 2:17). Earlier in the letter he wrote, “be DOERS of the Word and not hearers only…” (James 1:22). Faith is itself invisible, but what it produces is not. So, we are able to see quite easily what the Centurion’s faith produced.
Luke begins, “Now when [Jesus] had concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people…” The ‘sayings’ of Jesus to which Luke refers are in the previous chapter. Luke’s Gospel account is not strictly chronological. He passes over some of the events that happened (Matthew, for example, records an additional healing of a leper) so that he is able to connect these sayings of Jesus to an illustration. The illustration of those sayings is the story of the centurion.
Before the centurion sent his message, Jesus was teaching the people and said, “A good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its fruit…” (Luke 6:43-44). A little later Jesus continues, “Whoever comes to me and hears my sayings and DOES them…” is like a man building his house on the rock and when the storms come the house stands. “But he who heard and did nothing is like a man who builds a house on the earth without a foundation…” and when the storms came it fell with a great fall (cf: Luke 6:46ff).
These words of Jesus help us understand and evaluate the centurion’s faith. A tree is known by its fruit and a wise builder is one who is building his life and hopes upon Jesus and His Word. As we hear the centurion’s story unfold, we soon conclude that the centurion is a “good tree” bearing good fruit and that he is also a “wise builder.”
“A certain centurion’s servant., who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die…” Matthew adds that the servant was “paralyzed and dreadfully tormented” (8:6). “…So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, ‘for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.’ ” [vv.2-5].
There are a number of things that make this centurion unique and which become evidence of his faith:
He was a Roman soldier and a commander. He had a certain amount of wealth and he sent word to a JEWISH TEACHER asking Him for help. A Roman Centurion seeking help from a JEWISH teacher? It just didn’t happen.
The centurion had an obviously good relationship with the leaders in the local synagogue. Normally, the Jews hated the Romans, especially the Roman soldiers who were in charge of carrying out the Roman decrees and who often did so with violence. At the same time the Romans would usually have little time for the Jews or their religion. However, in this case, not only did this ROMAN soldier get along with the JEWISH religious leaders, but they became his willing messengers and spoke well of him!
The testimony of the Jewish leaders is most telling of all. This Roman Centurion had built the local synagogue (which certainly involved a fair expense) and he “loved” the nation of Israel. Through the words of the Jewish elders, it becomes clear that the centurion’s motives were not merely political (as we would expect from someone like Pontius Pilate, for example) but came out of a genuine love for the true God and His people, Israel.
At some point in the past, this Gentile centurion in the Roman army had been brought to faith in the true God. We can’t see his faith, but it is evident in his life and by the things he did. The centurion’s love for Israel came out of a love for the true God which had grown in him as faith grew and matured in his heart.
The centurion had been brought to faith and together with the people of Israel he looked forward to the coming of God’s promised Savior—the Messiah. When the centurion heard about Jesus he was led to believe that He was the One. Again we can’t see the centurion’s faith in Jesus as His Savior, but we see the evidence because he turned to Jesus in time of need and trusted that Jesus could answer that need. The centurion’s faith was invisible, but very evident in a variety of ways!
In the early days of the New Testament church, there were at times visible signs of people coming to faith. Some were suddenly able to “speak in tongues” when they were brought to faith (cf: Acts 10:44ff, etc.), but more times than not, even in the early New Testament, the Holy Spirit and the faith He created came without visible notice. However, the evidence of the faith showed itself very quickly in how the people reacted, lived, and conducted themselves with one another (cf: Acts 2:40-47, etc).
An outwardly pleasing life is not a guarantee of faith. Hypocrites can produce what LOOK like fruits of faith but are not really fruits. Unbelievers can be upright citizens and do some wonderful things, but these wonderful outward deeds are done for reasons other than a love for Christ, perhaps even out of love for a false god! Our evaluation of fruits is limited. Therefore, the final analysis will be God’s alone, but what we can rightfully conclude is that where there is faith it will be evident by the fruit it produces—sometimes it is plentiful fruit, sometimes not, but by God’s grace it is bearing fruit.
Fruits of faith are not limited to “actions” and “things produced,” but also include characteristics, attitudes, and frame-of-mind. The centurion’s TRUST that Jesus could help him is itself a fruit and evidence of his faith. The centurion’s confident trust in Jesus was mixed with a God-pleasing humility. Great faith is humble, but at the same time confident.
The centurion’s humility is striking and once again, it is the opposite of what we might typically expect in a man of his position. As a Gentile, there were certain social and religious distinctions between the centurion and the people of Israel. The centurion didn’t rebel against these, but humbly respected them.
When the centurion wanted to make his request to Jesus who was a Jew and the “Teacher”—the Messiah he didn’t suppose himself (a Gentile) worthy enough to go to Jesus. Rather, he sent the Elders of the Jews. Then when Jesus came toward his house, the centurion sent out a delegation of friends giving Jesus the message, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof.” [v.6] The elders who first came to Jesus had called the centurion “deserving” [v.4] but the centurion’s own evaluation was that he was “unworthy.”
The centurion’s humble evaluation of himself went beyond the distinctions between Jew and Gentile. The centurion had no grand illusions about himself or his worthiness in approaching Jesus in any regard. He understood his frailties and Jesus’ power. He understood his sinfulness and Jesus’ righteousness. In every way, the centurion looked upon himself as a weak, undeserving sinner. However, the centurion’s humble “self-evaluation” didn’t stop him from coming to Jesus with a bold request because in that request he wasn’t trusting himself, he was trusting JESUS!
The centurion’s prayer to Jesus came with greatest humility and confidence at the same time. The centurion made his request being confident that Jesus would answer it in the best possible way.
The centurion made his request COMPLETELY CONFIDENT that Jesus had the ability to heal his servant, if it was in His will to do so. The centurion said, “For I also am a man placed under authority, having 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.” [v.8] The centurion recognized that he was only a man, but even as a weak sinful human being he had authority and by the authority of only his word he could accomplish things. Now if he, the centurion, had that kind of authority, then Jesus, the Son of God, can surely by the simple power of His Word do far greater things, such as healing a servant! In humility, the centurion was not presuming anything about himself, but he approached Jesus with confidence because of what he KNEW about his Savior.
“When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, ‘I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!’ And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick.” [vv.9-10].
The humble confidence of the centurion’s “great faith” is also applicable to us. We look at ourselves and, like the centurion, find every reason to view ourselves humbly. For we look at ourselves and see our sin and weakness. The hymnwriter said, “Just as I am WITHOUT ONE PLEA … EXCEPT JESUS’ BLOOD was shed for ME.” [TLH #388, st.1] Like the centurion we look upon ourselves with repentant humility, but that need not shake our CONFIDENCE because our confidence is built upon Christ, not ourselves!
We know this to be true and yet how often don’t we forget it when it comes to our lives. Knowing something and applying it in life are two different things. Sometimes we forget the HUMILITY and say, “This isn’t so tough, I can do this one on my own” forgetting our sinfulness, forgetting our weakness, forgetting our vulnerability to temptation and sin’s entrapment. Pride can well up inside of us and say, “Hey! I live a good life, so what’s the problem!?” At other times we forget our CONFIDENCE and go to our Savior for help almost as a last resort. We might think that a situation is impossible so why bother even praying about it. Thinking this way means we are forgetting the kind of trust that believes that with God all things are possible! (cf: Matthew 19:26 et.al.).
God’s Word has POWER and when we put our trust in that Word we can be completely confident! We can be completely confident that our sins are forgiven because God’s Word assures us that this is true. It assures us that through Jesus’ life and death on our behalf, ALL of our sins are washed away FOREVER. We can be completely confident when we pray, KNOWING without doubt that our God who loves us deeply will hear those prayers and answer them by His power, out of His grace, and with His wisdom in a way that is most advantageous for salvation.
Despite being a Gentile, the centurion was brought to faith—another testimony to the grace of God and the power of His Word! There would have been no doubt for the centurion Who it was that had brought him to faith. It was God alone through His Word! It was (and still is) God’s desire that people from every corner of the earth should hear the Word of God and be saved. Matthew tells us that after Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, He went on to say, “…many will come from the east and the West, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven….” (Matthew 8:6).
The centurion’s faith and God’s desire that people from all the world should be brought to faith demonstrates still further that all glory belongs to God and none to us. This also leads us to be humbly confident as we live our lives on earth. HUMBLE because we haven’t brought ourselves to faith. CONFIDENT because it is our loving God Who has brought us to faith, keeps us in the faith, and by the power of His Word will help us in every need.
The centurion’s great faith was blind but able to see perfectly. As far as we know, the centurion didn’t see Jesus in person. He didn’t need to see Jesus, he trusted Him. The centurion couldn’t foresee in what way Jesus would answer his prayer, but through his trust in Jesus he “saw” a happy conclusion in whatever way Jesus would answer his plea.
Blind faith in Jesus sees perfectly because it trusts Jesus. If you are in unfamiliar territory and totally blindfolded and can see nothing, but someone takes you by the hand and leads you, you can walk confidently as long as you trust your leader. If, however, you don’t trust the one who is leading you by your hand, your steps will come slowly and with hesitation.
Jesus is leading you and me. We walk “blindly” but seeing because we are trusting Him to lead us. Paul says, “We walk by faith not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). A hymnwriter puts it this way: “Savior I follow on guided by Thee, seeing not yet the hand that leadeth me…hushed be my heart and still, fear I no further ill…” [TLH #422, st.1]
The writer to the Hebrews describes how we walk by faith blindly, but still seeing when he writes, “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to have a type of “tunnel vision” that keeps Christ our Savior before our eyes at all times so that we really become blinded to everything else. We will still be aware of the things going on around us but everything will be viewed by looking through Christ. When we come upon trouble and are “blind” toward any understanding of how this could possibly work out for our benefit, we are able to “see” by looking through Christ and trusting His promise that He WILL bless us through it. When we are sorrowing and blinded to comfort and joy, we are able to “see” and find them in the knowledge of our salvation through Jesus. When we are lonely we can look through Christ and “see” His ever present help and assurance and know that He is by our side even if all the world departs.
Great Faith is evident by fruits of faith in our lives. Great Faith humbly acknowledges our place, but confidently looks to the Savior and then closes its eyes and says, “Lead me Lord.” “Lord grant me such a faith as this and then whatever may come, I’ll taste even now the hallowed bliss of an eternal home.” [TLH #396 st. 6] AMEN!
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.