Two amazing miracles. Two demonstrations of Jesus’ sovereignty over creation. Two signs of His divinity. Two victories in His continuing war against a fallen world. Two demonstrations of compassion and one amazing example of faith. Luke begins this chapter with two scenes from Jesus’ life that show we serve an omnipotent and merciful Redeemer who is not limited in this world and to whom we can come with any obstacle and in complete faith.
In Matthew’s version of this story (Matt 8:5-13), the centurion speaks directly to Jesus and doesn’t use intermediaries. The difference in accounts is likely because Matthew simply condenses the story – the Jewish elders aren’t important enough to include. Luke – someone interested in detail and also very interested in any story that highlights Jesus’ interactions with Gentiles – includes them.
Centurions are the meat and potatoes officers of the Roman army. As the name suggests, they are commanders of “centuries” or groups of approximately 100 men (the groups can range from 60 to 100). Centurions, like all Roman soldiers, are not permitted to marry during their twenty-year enlistment. While soldiers often have illegal families with concubines (and it’s typically overlooked), centurions move frequently and probably don’t have opportunities for that kind of arrangement. The centurion can, however, afford servants (unlike enlisted men). With no children of his own, then, it makes sense that his servants become his de facto family.
That informs the story Luke tells here. The centurion has a slave that’s very important to him (and it speaks to the character of the centurion that he treats at least this slave so well) and is dying. The centurion hears Jesus is in Capernaum and decides to approach Him in the hope of having the slave healed. He sends Jewish elders to Jesus – instead of approaching Jesus himself – likely for two reasons: one – in his humility he may not want to presume on Jesus or look like he’s issuing an order as a member of the ruling military; and two – as a gentile he may assume that it’s not appropriate to approach an esteemed rabbi directly.
The elders tell Jesus that the centurion is worthy (more on this later) of His time because the centurion loves Israel and built the synagogue in Capernaum (which would have been a large financial investment). These two facts show the centurion to be a unique Roman.
Interestingly, the elders seem to have no problem with Jesus going to the house of a gentile (something we know from Peter’s testimony in Acts 10:28 is illegal under the laws of the day). They actually plead with Jesus earnestly to go.
Jesus – who unsurprisingly has no problem going to see a gentile – heads toward the centurion’s house with the elders. As they get close, however, friends of the centurion (he again doesn’t want to approach Jesus directly) meet them and tell them to stop. Apparently, the centurion has had second thoughts about Jesus coming. The message he sends is, “I am not worthy for You to come under my roof.” He originally wanted Jesus to come to the house, but now realizes it’s not appropriate. He’s not worthy to host someone like Jesus.
That’s not all of the centurion’s message. He also says he doesn’t think he’s worthy to approach Jesus directly and that he knows Jesus can heal the slave from where He stands. No need to come to the house, Jesus can heal the servant with a word. The centurion says he knows this because he understands authority. He’s a man under authority who also wields authority. What he speaks occurs. He tells a soldier or a slave to do something and they do it because he speaks with the authority of the empire. And – this is implied by his mention of being under authority – if he’s given an order he follows it for the same reason. It is in this context that he understands Jesus’ authority. He knows that Jesus speaks with the authority of God. Jesus is under His Father’s authority but also exercises His Father’s authority on earth. Since that’s the case, Jesus can simply speak, and the sickness will leave the slave because of Jesus’ authority over it. The centurion’s words show that he, as a Gentile, recognizes the full ramifications of Jesus’ divinity.
There’s no reason to believe that to this point Jesus has healed anyone this way. The centurion doesn’t have an example that informs his belief. He simply makes assumptions based on his understanding of who Jesus is.
Jesus marvels at the faith of the centurion. He turns to those with Him and tells them that He’s not found this kind of faith anywhere in Israel (and since these are the elders of the city, it could be that this comment offends them a bit). The word translated marveled is only used one other time in the New Testament. It’s used in Mark 6:6 where Jesus marvels at the Jews’ unbelief. Jesus truly wants His listeners to realize just how rare this man’s faith is.
Luke doesn’t record it, but Jesus does in fact utter the word. When the friends of the centurion return to his house, the slave is healed. The centurion’s faith is proven accurate and is rewarded with the health of the valued slave.
It’s important to understand what kind of faith the centurion expresses that causes Jesus to marvel. What is it about the centurion that makes his faith so unique?
- The centurion approaches Jesus in humility. Though he’s an officer in the ranks of an occupying force talking to a member of a conquered people, his earthly status means NOTHING to him.
- He’s poor in spirit – he knows his condition and knows he’s not worthy of Jesus’ presence in his house. It’s interesting that the Jewish elders describe him as worthy of Jesus’ time but the centurion himself openly confesses he’s not worthy at all. The elders think he’s earned Jesus’ attention; he seems to know that no one earns Jesus’ attention. He has a more advanced understanding of grace than do the elders.
- He seems to understand Jesus’ divine power. Unlike the Jews, he ‘gets’ it – he fully accepts Jesus and understands the ramifications of His divinity.
- He completely trusts in Jesus’ power – he has no doubt that Jesus can heal his servant.
- His faith is simple – he just assumes that since he can command via the spoken word within his century, Jesus can command via the spoken word within His creation.
- He knows he’s unworthy and yet also knows Jesus can overcome his unworthiness. He also assumes Jesus will have mercy on his sick slave.
- He understands Jesus is his only answer – he knows he’s completely dependent on God’s mercy and strength.
There’s much to learn from the centurion, isn’t there? Every aspect of his faith is a mirror to hold up to our own.
One final note on this story. Don’t miss that Luke (a gentile) includes it very intentionally because it shows Jesus interacting with and marveling at a gentile. Jesus’ message that this kind of faith isn’t found in Israel emphasizes that He comes for all people – not just the Jews. If the centurion can have faith that’s rarer than anything in Israel, then all people have the opportunity to respond in faith to the gospel.
The scene shifts from Capernaum to a small city called Nain (location is not definite but could be just south of Nazareth). As Jesus and His followers (a large multitude) approach the city, they see a funeral procession coming out through the city gate. Leading the procession (as per custom) is a woman who’s a widow and the funeral is for her only son.
Jesus sees the woman (He sees her first since she’s at the front) and has compassion on her. The reason for His compassion is that as a widow she now has nothing. She has no husband and no other children. Not only does she grieve her son, but she now has no means of support. Her ability to live is now in doubt and her husband’s name will not live on.
It is a mark of who our Savior is that His main response to people throughout the gospels is compassion. It routinely informs how He treats people and it’s what drives His actions here on behalf of this widow. Because He is who He is, He knows her full situation and compassionately addresses it.
He tells the woman not to weep (what has to strike her as a strange admonition under the circumstances) and then approaches the bier – likely a stretcher carried by men with the body on it – and touches it (which, under the law, makes Him unclean) and stops the procession (which may speak to the air of authority He has – this behavior has to be odd to everyone involved so it’s interesting that they stop what they’re doing as soon as He essentially motions for them to). He then says to the dead man (an action that has to leave everyone wondering even before anything else happens), “Young man, I say to you, arise!” The dead man sits up and starts talking, proving that he’s very much alive (and thus making the bier no longer unclean for Jesus to touch). Jesus then gives the young man back to his mother. [This story is very similar to the story of Elijah raising the widow’s son in I Kings 17:17-24 – in both cases, the mother is the focus of the story and in both cases the healer gives the resurrected son back to the mother.]
This is an AMAZING scene. Verse 12 says there’s a sizeable crowd in the procession. For Jesus to wander by, speak to the grieving mother, stop the bier, speak to the dead man, and then RAISE HIM FROM THE DEAD, is way outside anything anyone can even imagine. This is something no one will ever forget; least of all the resurrected man (who may or may not be happy about coming back) and his mother.
Before going on, it’s worth noting what this means in light of Jesus’ overall mission. Raising people from the dead is at the heart of why He’s on earth. What He does for this man is ultimately what He does for the world when He dies and then rises again. He came to bring life to the dead. This man’s resurrection shows Jesus’ mission in miniature.
The people respond in three ways. First, they fear. What they witnessed makes them realize just who it is that stands among them. This man has the power of God and it’s frightening to be in the presence of the Almighty. Second, they glorify God. Jesus obviously has the power of God at His disposal and the fact that God works through Him right here right now is worth erupting in praise. Third, they tell others. Jesus’ notoriety spreads as a result of this act. And it’s not hard to imagine that they talk about this day for a long time and tell everyone who will listen what happened (probably more than once).
The people’s threefold response should be an example to us. What they respond to is essentially the gospel. Jesus came to their town and raised a man from the dead. Jesus comes into our lives and raises US from the dead after dying in our place. Since that’s the case, we should respond as they do. We should fear God and be sobered that we’re in the presence of the Almighty. We should praise God for loving us enough to do such a work and bring life where there was only death. And we should tell others about such an amazing work that only a sovereign and loving God can do. We should be as amazed as the people of Nain at the wonder of the gospel that saves us.
There are two sets of people in these stories we should emulate: the centurion with his faith and the people of Nain with their awe and praise and desire to spread the news of an almighty Savior. And there are two facets of our Savior we should celebrate: His amazing compassion that He practices toward us, and His amazing power over all aspects of a fallen world, including death. There is nothing we can take to our Redeemer that will overwhelm Him and there is never a time where He responds to us without mercy and compassion.