“God’s anonymous: a centurion”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
When war first broke out in Europe in July of 1914, most Americans didn’t want our country to get involved. In fact, in 1916, as President Woodrow Wilson was running for a second term, he did it under the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”
But three years later, in April of 1917, due to the fact that the Germans sunk the Lusitania, killing 1,200 people, including 128 Americans, and attacked a number of other American ships and interests, we had no choice but to enter the war. Within months, thousands of men were drafted into the military, and women, many of whom had never worked outside the home, went to work in factories. Even children began to sell war bonds and plant “victory gardens” to help support the effort.
Finally, in November of 1918, after more than three hundred thousand American soldiers were either killed or wounded, world leaders agreed to a ceasefire, what they called an “armistice.” And hoping to cement the memory of the end of “the war to end all wars,” they signed that treaty on November 11, 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. And ever since then, we’ve celebrated “Armistice Day” also known as “Remembrance Day” or “Veterans Day,” to remember and to give thanks for all who have served our country, with honor, both in war and in peace.
In the words of Canadian physician and Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row/That mark our place; and in the sky/The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below./We are the Dead. Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/Loved and were loved, and now we lie,/In Flanders fields./Take up our quarrel with the foe:/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high./If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”
The book of Matthew introduces us to another of God’s anonymous--a veteran, a soldier of the Roman army, a centurion.
Listen to the words of chapter 8: “When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to Him, appealing to Him, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.’ And He said to him, ‘I will come and heal him’” (Matthew 8:5-7).
By this time, Jesus had already chosen His twelve disciples and had begun to teach and to heal. And He had just preached what would be the most famous sermon anyone would ever give, the Sermon on the Mount, as He said: “Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted...blessed are you who are merciful, for you shall receive mercy and...blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
Then the Bible says that, just as soon as He finished that sermon, He went to a town called Capernaum, population 1,500, what would soon become His home away from home. It’s where He would cast out a demon on the Sabbath, and where He would heal Peter’s mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever, and a man with a withered hand. Now here in verse 5, we hear of a centurion whose servant was sick and about to die.
Let’s stop there for just a moment.
“A centurion,” the Bible said. So what’s a centurion?
To put it simply, he was a high-ranking officer, chosen for his ability to lead, part of the backbone of the Roman army, a commander of a hundred men.
And bear in mind that, in those days, soldiers didn’t hide behind some bunker, firing missiles at enemies miles away. They fought face-to-face and hand-to-hand. They were brave, courageous, loyal and strong. They were a man’s man and a soldier’s soldier. You couldn’t be a centurion unless you obeyed everything your commanding officer ordered you to do, and performed your duty without question.
And every time the New Testament speaks of a centurion, it does so with respect. And every time, we hear of their manhood and integrity.
Think of the one who once stood at the foot of Jesus’ cross. He saw the darkness. He felt the earth shake. He heard Him speak. He watched Him die. And he couldn’t help but say, “Surely, this Man was the Son of God.”
And of all things, this centurion came to Jesus to say, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly” (Matthew 8:6). Or as Luke adds, he “had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him” (Luke 7:2).
Now that’s strange--”a servant who was highly valued”? You see, back in the day, no one cared about slaves. A Roman writer on agriculture named Varro said farmers divided their tools into three classes--the articulate comprising the slaves, the inarticulate comprising cattle, and the mute comprising vehicles. In other words, the only difference between a slave and an ox and a cart, he said, was that a slave could talk. Another Roman named Cato wrote that, every year, farmers should examine their tools and throw out the ones that were old and broken, including slaves. And Aristotle wrote, “There can be no friendship, nor justice toward inanimate things, indeed, not even toward a horse or an ox or a slave.” And he said, “Master and slave have nothing in common.”
But that’s not how it was for this centurion. In fact, he cared so much that, when he heard about Jesus, he came to Him, he appealed to Him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”
And that too strikes us as a little strange. We are talking centurion here, a Roman soldier in occupied territory, a commander of a hundred men. Anyone could have told you that he had every right to command Jesus to appear before him in person, right here, right now. He could have threatened Him or arrested Him, or used any weapon in his arsenal without any fear of reprisal. After all, the Romans were the masters and everyone else was under their command.
But he didn’t do any of that. Instead, with all humility and respect, he came to Him and begged Him. He even called Him, “Kyrie.” It’s a word that meant, “Lord.”
And what did Jesus say? He said, “I will come and heal him” (Matthew 8:7).
Now if I could say, those six words are some of the most beautiful words in all of the Bible! It’s as if you called a locksmith to fix a lock, and he were to say, “Yes, I will come and fix it,” or if you called a plumber to stop a leak, and he were to say, “Yes, I will come and seal it.” For Jesus to say, “Yes, I will come and heal him,” is, what one author called, “a word for all emergencies.”
What’s it mean? It means that no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done, Christ can save them.
Then what happened? Verse 8: “But the centurion replied, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with 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’” (Matthew 8:8-9).
Then what? Verse 10: “When Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who followed Him, ‘Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.’”
It’s strange if you think about it. Men were always amazed at Jesus. When He stilled a storm on the sea, when He showed power over the wind and the waves, the Bible says the disciples were amazed. They said, “What kind of Man is this that even the wind and the waves obey Him?”
In Matthew chapter 9, Jesus confronted a man possessed by a demon. He was mute, unable to speak. And as Jesus cast it out, the people were amazed. They said, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” In Matthew chapter 15, people brought their lame, their blind, and their crippled and laid them at His feet. And He healed them. And as the blind saw and the lame walked, they were amazed and gave glory to God. And in the book of Luke, the Bible says, “Everyone spoke well of Him and were amazed at the gracious words falling from His lips. They said, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’”
Everyone was amazed at Jesus, absolutely everyone.
But this is the only time Jesus was amazed at someone else. As He said: “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10).
One author put it like this: “Christ did not marvel at the beauty of the Sea of Galilee, for what is such beauty compared with the beauty of the kingdom of heaven, neither did He ever marvel at human wisdom, wealth or strength, for all is nothing compared with the wisdom, wealth and might that are familiar to Him in the kingdom of God. Instead, the great faith of one man is to be marveled at. It is the great and most beautiful thing on earth, for by faith a slave becomes free, a hireling becomes a son of God, and a mortal man becomes immortal.”
And that’s why Jesus marveled. In the place where you might expect such faith--in Israel, in the place of the Ark of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments, the kings and the prophets--Jesus found in a Gentile, an occupying military officer, one of the greatest faiths of all.
You know what? I want to be just like that centurion--humble, respectful, trusting, and believing--because that’s how Jesus wants every one of us to be. Don’t ever settle for anything less.
One sunny day, Rebecca Pippert, author of Out of the Saltshaker and into the World, was stretched out on the lawn, when she happened to notice some ants that were busy building a mound. So out of fun, she began to redirect their steps with twigs and leaves. Not to be outdone, they simply bounced off and started a new mound. She thought, “This is like being God! I’m redirecting their steps, and they don’t even realize it!”
Then when two ants started to crawl onto her hands, she thought, “Wouldn't it be funny if one ant suddenly turned to the other and said, “Do you believe in Becky? Do you think she really exists?” Then imagine the other ant answering, “Don’t be ridiculous! Becky is a myth, a fairy tale!”
“How comical,” she thought. “The hubris of an ant declaring that I don’t exist, when I could just as easily blow it off my hand.” “But,” she thought, “what if the other ant said, ‘Oh, I believe that Becky exists!’ How would they resolve it? How could they know that I’m real?”
Which got her to thinking--”What would I have to do to reveal myself to them?”
And that’s when she realized that the only way to reveal who she was, in a way that they could truly understand, would be to become an ant herself, to identify totally with their sphere of reality.
“What an amazing thought!” she said to herself. “The scaling-down of the size of me to perfectly represent who I am in the form of an ant! And then I’d have to do things that no other ant could do!”
Then it hit her--she had just solved her problem of how finite creatures could discover who God is. He’d have to come from the outside and become Man.
And so He has in the person and the work of Jesus Christ. Born as an infant and laid in a manger, crucified, yet risen again, He is Lord and Savior of all.
Once, dear Jesus, the faith of a Roman centurion amazed You. Grant us the grace to have that same strong, unrelenting, amazing faith that we may rest, calmly and confidently, in You, for Your sake. Amen