Last Sunday I preached on Luke 7:1-17. In the course of that chapter we are introduced to a centurion whose faith astonished Jesus (7:9). This man had an astonishing faith because in asking for Jesus to heal his ill servant, it comes to light that his faith in Jesus is from what he heard—a testimony—not what he himself had experienced (7:3). Moreover, in asking to heal, he knows Jesus has such authority that he doesn’t even need to be in the presence of the servant to heal him (7:6-8). Finally, we learn that he loves the Israelite people and has even put up money for them to build a synagogue (7:5).
One of the “behind the scenes” elements of unpacking the passage is trying to think through how this centurion had come to love Israel and hear of Jesus. Some think this man worked with another Gentile official that was from the same town and whose son Jesus had previously healed without being present (cf John 4:46-54). Regardless, I love the reconstruction Pastor Geoff Thomas comes up as he thinks through how this battle-hardened Gentile may have come to faith in the Lord of Israel.
After Jesus preached his extraordinary message he went back to Capernaum on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the New Testament it is called ‘his city’ (Matt. 9:1); it was his base, and it may have had a Roman military post. Almost a hundred years earlier Rome had annexed the land of Palestine and so there wasn’t a single person in the nation who’d experienced Jewish freedom and independence. They were part of the Roman Empire and everyone was familiar with the sight of a squad of Roman soldiers, and being constrained legally to carry a legionnaire’s kit-bag for one mile. Rome had built the main roads across Israel; they minted the currency, took the taxes and kept the peace. Though there were grumbles about the Romans and longings for freedom they knew that the Jews had been torn apart by civil war when Rome had stepped in under Pompey and taken over the nation.
There was a soldier in charge of the garrison in Capernaum who had a specially close relationship with his servant. One hundred men were commanded by him. He was the centurion who represented Caesar in that town, a non-Jewish Gentile, a sort of intermediary between the local population and the demands of the Empire. For example, if Caesar determined that a census would be taken then he would have to implement it practically in Capernaum and in the surrounding district. Every one of the centurions in the New Testament is pictured in a favourable light. They had been taken away from idolatrous Rome and freed from warfare in the general peace of Israel. So they had time to consider the message of the Old Testament Scripture that had created the social and religious life of Palestine. The Old Testament had long been translated into the lingua franca (which was Greek) and copies were freely purchasable. Here was this great message of a God who was infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. He alone was in the beginning; there was no mob of feuding gods on a mythical Mount Olympus, greater gods and lesser, good and bad, warring with one another. There was Jehovah alone, and he made the heavens and the earth. The suffering and evil in the world came about when our first parents defied God, challenging his will and bringing sin and death into the world. However, God in his mercy promised a Messiah who would be the Saviour. He would bring redemption to all who trusted and loved him. To these people God continually spoke through his servants the prophets, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, Elijah and the writing prophets. To them he disclosed his heart and nature; through what they said and wrote men could know who God is, what was his character, his wonderful grace and pity, his awesome power and righteousness.
After everything that this centurion had observed of the defiling and despairing influence of the temples of Rome with their fearful idols, dark rituals and the activities of the so-called priestesses then to come to Capernaum, and breathe its pure air, the wind blowing off the Lake, to read the book of psalms, the ten commandments, the story of creation and the preaching of the prophets it is little wonder that he and other centurions were drawn to Old Testament Christianity. He identified his faith with the faith of the people of his adopted town. He loved them and did what he could to help. The old synagogue in the town needed to be extended and rebuilt and it was he a Gentile who provided a large sum of money to that end, so that the Jewish elders freely acknowledged, “He loves our nation and has built our synagogue” (v.5). So here was a man of authority who was also a man of faith in the true and living God.
Reading that, I wonder how often we, as Christians, take for granted the faith we have? I wonder if we fail to consider how refreshing the God of the Bible must be to those who have long worshiped the empty gods of this world?
I wonder if perhaps we should more often give thanks to the God of gods who called us from darkness to light, that we might take more joy in walking in the light?