The Centurion

A dynamic young leader has burst on to the national stage. The time is right for him to set out his vision for life under his leadership. It is a sweeping manifesto for radical change. There are hard choices to made, but the prospects are glorious. Many in the crowd are astonished by the power of this vision, and are delightedly caught up in it. But not all. Some think that underlying all the fine words is subversion, threat, and danger. They bear no allegiance to this young upstart. They are already planning for his downfall. Others applaud the vision, but have grave doubts about this visionary's ability to deliver it. And there is another question in their minds: What will become of the popular acclaim when the time for hard decisions arrives? Any resemblance between this and modern political life is entirely accidental! I am, of course, describing the situation at the beginning of Matthew 8. I would like you to turn to Matthew 8.1-13, which you can find on p972 in the Bibles in the pews. The centre of these two incidents is Jesus, and I want to begin and end by considering what this passage shows us about him. So my first heading is THE AUTHORITY OF JESUSand my third heading is THE KINDNESS AND STERNESS OF JESUS. Jesus himself draws attention to THE FAITH OF THE CENTURION, so that is the second of my three headings. First, then: THE AUTHORITY OF JESUS In chapters 8 and 9 Matthew records a series of miracles that Jesus performed. They follow hard on the heels of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus sets out what life under his rule is like. But Jesus' powerful address leaves three questions hanging in the air. Can he deliver? Will people accept his rule? And can he deal with those who oppose him? Underlying all these is the fundamental question: What authority does Jesus have? His teaching had astonished the crowds that heard it. 7.28-29:

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

He did not endlessly cite other authorities, like their religious leadership. He did not even speak like a prophet, saying: "This is what the Lord says". His authority is not merely delegated nor is it a matter of religious expertise. It is inherent. He does not interpret the law, he makes the law. What is more people's eternal destiny depends upon their relationship to him. He holds the key to everlasting and abundant life, and he is the judge. To hear and to obey his word is the way to life. The people are amazed at the authority with which he speaks. They are astonished at the sweeping power that he claims for himself. But the questions remain: Can he deliver? Is he just talk? The miracles are an eloquent answer. Both of the healings here demonstrate the authority of Jesus over disease and even death which is the fruit of disease. The healing of the leper drips with significance beyond the basic facts. Leprosy was regarded then with even more horror than it is today. An incident much earlier in Israel's history exemplifies the feelings that it aroused. The King of Israel was asked by the King of Aram to cure the leprosy of his top general, Naaman. The King of Israel was appalled:

he tore his robes and said, "Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy?" (2 Kings 5.7)

Curing someone of leprosy was tantamount to bringing them back from the dead. This required an authority way beyond that of a mere king. Only God has that kind of authority. Matthew 8.3:

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the [leper]... "Be clean!" Immediately he was cured of his leprosy.

What only God can do, Jesus does with a word. All the authority of God himself is vested in Jesus. Even the Law of God becomes a witness to who Jesus is. Jesus says to the healed leper:

" go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."

A testimony to what? A testimony to the divine power and authority of Jesus who has cured this leper. What the priests are powerless to do, Jesus does with a word. There is no religious authority that can hold a candle to Jesus. And when Jesus heals the servant of the centurion, there is another comparison being made: what the awesome power of the Roman Empire cannot do, that too Jesus does with a word. There is no secular authority that comes within a million miles of the authority of Jesus. And take note of something that we have already seen. How does Jesus exercise this incomparable divine authority? Through his word. Just as when God spoke, the world was created, so when Jesus his Son speaks, it is done. "Be clean" (v3). And he was cured. "But just say the word, and my servant will be healed", says the centurion (v8). "'Go!' Jesus said to him, 'It will be done just as you believed it would.' And his servant was healed at that very hour" (v13). So what do these incidents demonstrate? The authority of Jesus far outstrips that of religious or secular authorities, however elevated. He reigns supreme over the physical world of disease and even death. His authority is that of God. Can he deliver what is on promise in the Sermon on the Mount? No question about it. Will people accept his rightful rule in their lives? That is the next issue. We have before us the example of one man's encounter with Christ. So, secondly, let's take a look at Secondly, THE FAITH OF THE CENTURION Jesus once visited his home town of Nazareth. These people had grown used to him being around. But they had no idea who had been living among them. Mark 6.6 records: "[Jesus] was amazed at their lack of faith." The reaction of Jesus to this Roman soldier is equally strong, but for the opposite reason. Verse 10:

When Jesus heard [the centurion], he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith."

Jesus holds up this man's action as an example. So what is it that the centurion does? Let's take it step by step. He begins with an awareness of his need and his helplessness. His servant, for whom he evidently cares a great deal, is bedridden, paralysed, and in terrible suffering. If he could have done anything about it he would have, but he cannot. He has reached the end of his own resources. He must have heard about Jesus. And he recognises in Jesus the one who can meet his need. So what does he do? He comes to him. Verse 5: "When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 'Lord', he said, 'my servant lies at home paralysed and in terrible suffering.'" There is no arrogance in his approach. Here is the representative of the occupying power approaching a carpenter turned preacher, a Jew, a man who outwardly at least has no social standing, no religious status, and no secular authority. Indeed, he is either ignored or despised by those who do. And yet the centurion understands enough to know his own unworthiness to receive the attention of Jesus.. Verse 8: "Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof." But he also understands the authority of Jesus. He is crystal clear about that. After all, he is a military man, part of the backbone of the command structure of the Roman Empire. He knows all about the functioning of authority, and the power of command. He knows who he can order, and he knows from whom he must take orders, on pain of death. Verse 9:

For 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.

And he knows something more. His authority is that of Rome. The authority of Jesus is that of God. So the hierarchy is clear. Everyone, Roman centurion or not, submits to the authority of Jesus of Nazareth. He implicitly places not just the paralysis of his servant but his own life under the command of Jesus - a higher command even that of the Emperor. Once Rome understood what was going on, with thousands of others doing the same thing, this submission to the Lordship of Christ would be regarded as treasonable. And Rome had a point. There is a radical shift in the allegiance of the centurion. "Lord" on the lips of the centurion becomes more than a respectful form of address. It becomes unqualified submission to Jesus as the rightful ruler of his life, as well as the one who can meet his deepest needs. And the needy centurion asks for grace. Verse 8 again: "just say the word, and my servant will be healed." He knows that the only issue is the will of Jesus. That Jesus can heal his servant if he so decides goes without question. The leper understood this as well. Verse 2: "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." Both the leper and the centurion recognise the divine authority of Jesus. But they do not cower in fear. Because as well as power, they see something else in him. Mercy. They dare to ask him for what they need and want. Not because they are worthy. "I do not deserve to have you come under my roof", the centurion says. He has no rights, no grounds for any kind of demand. But he dares to appeal to the grace and mercy of Jesus. And the result? He is accepted. Why? Precisely because of his faith. Because in his need he has recognised who Jesus is, come to him for help, acknowledged his unworthiness, submitted to his authority and sought grace. That is faith. It is not some abstract quality of religiosity, but faith in Christ. It is submission to, and dependence on, Jesus. The one who comes to Jesus in faith is accepted. And from then on submission to the rule of Christ is not just theoretical. It is a matter of practical obedience. When we come under the rule of Christ, we can expect that Christ will immediately begin to command us. The centurion had said "I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes." So now Jesus says to the centurion: "Go!". And then with the next word he gives the grace that the centurion needs: "It will be done just as you believed it would." How does Christ respond to those who come to him with faith like that of the centurion? He accepts them. He assumes command of their lives. And in grace and mercy he meets their deepest needs. That is what Jesus is like. Which brings me to my final heading: Thirdly, THE KINDNESS AND STERNNESS OF JESUS The kindness and compassion of Jesus runs right through these incidents. Verse 3: "Jesus reached out his hand and touched the [leper]." Lepers were unclean and those who touched them were defiled. How had the leper managed to get near to Jesus? There were large crowds following him (v1). Perhaps the crowd parted like the Red Sea as the leper came near, out of fear of coming into contact with him. How long had it been since that man had been touched by anyone? We do not know. But he had never been touched like this. When Jesus touches, all the rules are stood on their head. He does not get defiled. Instead, the unclean are cleansed. Jesus was "filled with compassion" says Mark's account of the same occasion. That kindness is shown not only in the touch of Jesus, but also in his willingness to heal. "I am willing" says Jesus to the leper. "It will be done" he says to the centurion. If you want to hear more about Jesus the Healer, come next Sunday morning to the Medical Service when David will be speaking about verses 14-17 of this chapter. For now, let me just say that these physical healings of Jesus are a visual aid to show us the way that he meets a much greater need than temporary physical health: the need for forgiveness and eternal life; the need for victory over death, the destruction of evil, and a place with him in heaven. The kindness and compassion of Jesus are shown supremely in the way that he gives these things freely to anyone and everyone who comes to him in faith. Whoever we are, whatever we have done, whatever we are like, wherever we are from, if we come to Jesus in faith, we will be received with kindness and compassion; with grace and mercy. And Jesus knows that we will turn to him and come for help before we have even thought of it. Verse 11:

I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.

But there is a warning here too. There is a fearful sternness in the teaching of Jesus that makes his kindness all the more wonderful and precious. So he goes on (v12):

But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Who does he mean here by "the subjects of the kingdom"? He means those who count themselves as belonging to God's people, but who in fact have never come to him in faith. They have not acknowledged their unworthiness to be anywhere near him. They have not wanted Jesus to assume command of their lives, for all their religious lifestyles. They have not come to him for grace and mercy. In fact, they do not really accept they need Jesus at all. They get on fine without him. Those (quotes) "subjects of the kingdom" says Jesus, with stern starkness, "will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Exclusion, darkness, misery, pain. This is the warning that Jesus gives us. The apostle Paul urges us in Romans 11.22:

Consider the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.

Consider the kindness and sternness of Jesus. Neither religious heritage nor religious practice will save us from hell. Neither being a Jew, nor belonging to the Church of England, will save us. Being a citizen of "Christian" Western Europe rather than "pagan" Africa will not save us. Jesus will save us. He has the power and he is willing, if we come to him with faith, as that centurion came - aware of our need and unworthiness, submitting our lives to his divine authority, and asking for grace.

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