Oct 7, 2012

The Centurion's Servant

Luke 7:1–10

Such is the power of Jesus’ divine authority, that by a mere word He raises the dead to life and makes the broken whole. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke to tell the remarkable story of Christ’s healing a centurion’s servant.


This morning, we’re going to start on chapter 7 of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I’ll be reading Luke 7:1–10:

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.

This is a remarkable incident during the earthly ministry of Jesus, and Luke’s record of it comes to us under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, carrying the full weight of God’s authority and truth. I urge you to receive it as such. Let us pray.

Our Father and our God, again we come to Your Holy Word this morning. We who hear it are not holy, save for that consecration You have made of us by Your Spirit. We ask that the full power of this Word may dwell in us richly in this hour. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Worthy Centurion

I really like this centurion who sent his servants to Christ, pleading that Jesus would come and heal his servant, who was sick to the very point of death. The centurion was a man of some status in the nation of Rome, being a commander of one hundred or more troops. He was loved by the Jews because he had been very generous. He was obviously a man of wealth and had spent his money to build a synagogue for the Jewish people in Capernaum. So, the Jews came to Jesus and said, “Help this man, because he is worthy.”

There are a couple of things I want us to look at this morning. The first is the remarkable concern and care that this powerful and wealthy man had for a slave, a servant who had no social standing in the community. This man was so exercised about the well-being of his slave that he sent a message to Jesus pleading and begging for Jesus to come and heal his servant.

Back in the days when I ministered in Western Pennsylvania, I was involved in an organization called “Value of the Person” that ministered in the arena of labor and management relationships. One of the matters we were concerned with was how people in large organizations were treated by their bosses and management.

One of the problems that the management of any organization faces, inevitably, is a necessity from time to time to terminate employees. This is never a happy occasion. Sometimes, employees must be terminated because of immorality or illegal activities. Sometimes, they must be terminated simply because they are not able to meet their responsibilities in a competent manner. Many times, terminations come because of economic downturns that require organizations to trim their staff, so people are laid off not for any fault of their own.

There is one type of termination that is often missed and yet very important, one that I learned working closely with people in the arena of labor and management: in every organization, inevitably there are managers who are kind, considerate, and upright to their bosses, but cruel and uncaring to their subordinates. I’m sure this is familiar to many. I have tried to urge management in various organizations to make sure that if you have managers tyrannizing their subordinates, they must be removed. When the wolf comes into the sheepfold, it is the duty of the shepherd to protect the sheep.

The centurion was not a wolf of an employer. This man cared deeply about those who were under his command, all the way down to the slave working for him in his house. To demonstrate and manifest that concern, he sent a message to Jesus, begging for Jesus’ help.

Not Because of Worthiness

We read the story that Jesus went with the centurion’s messengers and, when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him saying, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” This is the second thing I love about this centurion.

Everybody else was telling Jesus: “You’ve got to go and help this man. You’ve got to heal his servant because this is a man who deserves your help. This is a man who is eminently worthy. He has been kind to us Jews. In fact, he’s even built us a synagogue, and we don’t expect that from Roman centurions. Jesus, however busy You may be, whatever else is on Your agenda, You must make an exception and come help this man.” The centurion himself, however, sent a completely different message.

As much as the centurion wanted Jesus’ help, he said to Him through the messengers: “You don’t have to come to my house. I’m not worthy that You would come under my roof. Maybe these excited Jewish friends of mine have exaggerated my worth to You, but I’m not asking You to come to me because I deserve it. I’m not asking You to come to me because I’m worthy.”

The centurion understood grace. He understood it in a way that few people in Israel understood it. He understood grace in a manner that few people understand, even in the church today. Listen to what he said: “You don’t have to come. Just say the word.” That is remarkable.

The Authority of Jesus

As we read at the end of the story, the centurion’s servant was healed, and all Jesus had to do to heal him was say the word. How is it possible for Jesus to heal somebody simply by a word?

When we talk about Jesus, we are talking about the One who is God incarnate. He has authority over heaven and earth, and the centurion recognized that. He said: “I understand authority. I’m a man who is under authority. I’m a man who has authority over others. I say ‘Go,’ and they go, ‘Come,’ and they come, ‘Do this,’ and they do it. I understand, Christ, that You have authority. You have authority over life. You have authority over death. You don’t have to be in the room. Just say the word.”

Do you see the difference between the centurion’s attitude and the attitude of Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus died? When Jesus came four days too late to keep him from dying, they were distressed and said, “Lord, had you been here, our brother would not have died.” They didn’t understand. Jesus didn’t have to be there to save Lazarus. He could have done it from a distance.

When Jesus did come, how did He raise Lazarus from the dead? He stood before the tomb, opened His mouth, and uttered a command, saying, “Lazarus, come out.” The one who had been dead for four days began to breathe, his heart began to beat, brain waves rushed through his head, and he emerged from his tomb alive and well by the power of the word of Christ.

The Voice of God Almighty

When I was in college, I started out as a history major and then changed to a Bible major. During my sophomore year, I was required to take a social science, and I elected to take a course in philosophy. I soon regretted that decision immensely.

The professor was dry as dust. He lectured on David Hume the first day. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then he moved on to Immanuel Kant and a number of other philosophers. I was so bored that I sat in the back row of the classroom with my notebook open, concealing the printed sermons of Billy Graham that I was reading instead of listening to these dry lectures in philosophy.

Shortly into the term, the professor gave a lecture on St. Augustine and his concept of the creation of the universe, and I started to listen. I put down my notebook. I heard him tell how Augustine said that the Lord God Almighty created the whole universe ex nihilo, out of nothing. He didn’t just shape and form some preexistent matter. Out of nothing, God created the entire universe.

The professor said that God created the universe through what he called the “divine fiat.” I thought a Fiat was a little Italian car. Instead, it was the imperative form of the verb “to be.” He said God called the universe into being by the power of His voice, giving a divine imperative, saying, “Let there be light,” and the lights came on.

I couldn’t believe it. It was like I had a second conversion, a conversion to God the Father and His transcendent majesty and power. I left the classroom that day, went downstairs to the registrar’s office, and changed my major to philosophy, which some people profoundly regret, but I don’t. My eyes were opened to the power of God, who could create the whole world by the sound of His voice. That’s all it took for Jesus, who was God incarnate, to heal this centurion’s servant. He didn’t have to be there. He just had to say the word, and by His word, the man was healed.

The Ubiquitous Divine Nature

When we look at Christ and the mystery of the incarnation, we see the perfect union of the divine and the human. In the mystery of the incarnation, we understand that when God took upon Himself a human nature and united Himself with the human Jesus, the divine nature didn’t stop being divine, nor did the human nature stop being human. There was not a composite being that was a deified humanity or a humanized deity. Rather, there were two distinct natures, divine and human.

Notice that when the messengers went to Jesus, they said, “Please, come here.” Throughout the New Testament, we see Jesus moving from place to place. We read here at the beginning of the text that after He finished His Sermon on the Mount, He went to Capernaum. The Bible discusses Jesus in His human nature because the divine nature was already in Capernaum. When Jesus went from Capernaum to Jerusalem, the human nature had to make the trip. He had to travel the distance between those two points. But when Jesus, touching His humanity, was leaving Capernaum on the way to Jerusalem, the divine nature was already there.

How do we know the divine nature was in Capernaum? In the incarnation, the divine nature retained its divine attributes, one of which was omnipresence, or what we call the attribute of ubiquity. That word comes from the Latin ubi, which means “where,” and aequa, which means “equal.” So, “equal where-ness.”

Where is God? He is equally here, equally there, equally everywhere. When we understand the incarnation, when the divine nature united with the human nature, the divine nature was not contained within the human nature. We have a grand theological principle explaining this—finitum non capax infiniti: “The finite cannot contain the infinite.”

The Finite Cannot Contain the Infinite

A glass has a finite volume, and I can fill it to the top, but if I keep filling it and keep pouring, the excess is just going to go over the side and onto the floor, spoiling everything around it. When God indwelt the human nature of Jesus Christ, it wasn’t that He poured His divine nature into this human and now the divine nature was contained within the human dimensions of Jesus. The divine nature was still omnipresent, but the human nature wasn’t. The human nature can only be in one place at a time. He couldn’t be in Capernaum and Jerusalem at the same time. But touching the divine nature, He could be everywhere.

That’s why we say in our confessions and creeds, “Touching His human nature, Jesus is no longer with us.” As He told His disciples, He was going away, and He would come again. Touching His human nature, He’s in heaven at the right hand of God. Yet touching His divine nature, He’s never absent from us. Wherever the divine nature is, He, the person is.

Though the human nature be here, the human nature is united with the divine nature that can be everywhere. Why is that important? Because He’s here, not in His human nature, but we commune with the human nature, even when the human nature isn’t here. The human nature is in heaven. However, the human nature is still united to the divine nature, and when Christ is present here with us, He is really and truly present in His personhood.

When I commune with Him, I don’t just commune with the divine nature, I commune with the whole Christ. In a sense, He lifts our souls to heaven, not because His body is in Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York at the same time, but His person is really and truly present.

The One who healed the centurion’s servant by His word heals us through the power of His Word and His sacraments. Today, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is ours to commune with Him, who is here to meet us and to heal us.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.