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In the Gospels it is rare that someone receives a clear commendation from Jesus. When it happens, it is an occasion for reflection. The powerful and poignant testimony of the centurion provides such an opportunity, showing us that people in very surprising places and with very different backgrounds have heard Jesus' message and appreciate it. The emphasis in this account makes this miracle different from earlier miracle accounts in Luke. Here the miracle itself is not the focus, since it is mentioned only very briefly in verse 10. Rather, the stress is on the attitude of the one seeking the healing. Luke subtly shifts attention from Jesus' miraculous work to his person and the response to it. Jesus is more than a teacher or a healer. What is Jesus commending in the understanding of the centurion?
The account opens by noting that after the sermon Jesus came into Capernaum. A centurion there has a slave who is near death. A centurion was a soldier in Herod Antipas's army who commanded about one hundred men. As a mercenary, he might serve as a tax soldier or a policeman. Only Luke notes that he is a Gentile; but he is not a Roman, since the Romans did not enter such military roles until A.D. 44. Is he from the surrounding region, or has he been sent into service here from one of the countries Rome had conquered? We are not told. Some wonder if the man is a proselyte, given his support for the synagogue. That is possible, though not certain, since if he were directly related to the nation, that point would likely have been made clearly. What is clear is that he is supportive of the Jewish nation and he may be a potential proselyte (v. 5). He is probably what Luke calls elsewhere a "God-fearer," a Gentile who does not yet fully identify with Israel but does respect the God of Judaism (Acts 10:2; Tyson 1992:35-39; McKnight 1991:78-117; Cohen 1989:13-33).
The centurion has heard about Jesus and his miracle-working power. So he sends Jewish elders on his behalf. The action is culturally sensitive: not knowing Jesus personally and recognizing that he is of Jewish heritage, the soldier sends representatives of Jesus' own ethnic background to plead his case. There is no demand made of Jesus, only a request. The reference to elders probably indicates that civic leaders are involved (Schurmann 1969:391 n. 16; Marshall 1978:280; Bornkamm 1968:660-61). This man had won respect across ethnic lines. The cultural sensitivity of his actions may well suggest why.
This event allows Luke to show that Jews and Gentiles can get along—a message of ethnic cooperation that would be revolutionary in ancient times, just as it is today. We can only imagine the impact if the whole church were able to visibly show how Christ leads us to respect ethnic diversity and to work together across ethnic lines.
In addition, Luke's description of the others in this story as the Jews may suggest that his own ethnic origin is not Jewish. The narration reflects the perspective of a non-Jew. These interracial elements enhance the passage's emotional tension. Ultimately, are there ethnic distinctions in Jesus' work? The passage answers that question with an emphatic no. Although Jesus initially preached to the lost sheep of Israel, his ministry eventually extended to all after his postresurrection commission to the apostles (24:43-49; Eph 2:14-17). As for Paul, so for Jesus: there is no Jew or Gentile in Christ (Gal 3:28). In our day, we might say, there is no Caucasian or African-American, no Hispanic or Asian, no Latino, African, European, Jew or Palestinian in Christ. All are in need of his redemption; all become part of the same community when they come to him.
With the elders' request comes a character endorsement. They assert that the centurion is worthy to receive the benefits of Jesus' work. This is the one time in the New Testament that the term "worthy" (axios) is used to describe a person positively, rather than a group (NIV renders this term in the phrase deserves to have you do this). This soldier supports the nation and has built a synagogue. Here is a man of means and generosity. Roman support for synagogues is well known, since they believed it promoted order and morality in the community (Josephus Antiquities 16.6.2 162-65; 19.6.3 299-311).
So Jesus reaches across racial and social boundaries and begins to travel with these elders; but then a second wave of representatives appears. They end up commending Jesus by explaining that the soldier does not feel worthy to have Jesus enter his home. The teacher need not trouble himself with a journey to the soldier's home. Here Luke reveals the depth of the centurion's humility, despite the elders' estimation of the man as worthy. The remark also recalls Peter's humble attitude in 5:8. Others recognize the centurion's character; he does not carry his own banner. Even so, before Jesus, who is worthy? This text, like Jesus' earlier exchange with Peter, shows that God honors such humility.
The centurion also understands authority, so he adds that Jesus can exercise his authority anywhere. The centurion knows what it is to be under authority and to issue commands like "Go," "Come" and "Do this." If such authority works for a soldier, surely it works for Jesus. He knows that Jesus' authority is all that is needed to produce healing.
Jesus reacts emotionally (this is one of the few places where Luke records Jesus' emotion): he is amazed. Jesus is said to be amazed only here, in Matthew's parallel account (Mt 8:10) and in Mark 6:6, where he is astonished at unbelief. Jesus turns and issues his commendation: "I have not found such great faith even in Israel!" The statement is like a neon light. Here is faith that should be emulated. Here is trust, confidence, rest in the authority of God and awareness of his plan. The Jewish nation, and all others, can learn from this outsider. Aware of Jesus' authority, the centurion has committed the well-being of his beloved slave into Jesus' hands. Jesus commends the centurion's humility and his understanding of Jesus' authority: such faith is exemplary.
Returning home, the messengers find the slave healthy. The request has been granted, the slave restored. Jesus' commendation must resonate even more powerfully as they contemplate the miracle. Surely if such faith is possible outside of Israel, it can happen anywhere. Furthermore, it is clear that Jesus possesses a unique authority: he does not need to be physically present to bring about what he wills.