Sermon preached on Luke 7:1-17 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/07/2021 in Novato, CA.
Life is fragile. When sickness comes, we are confronted with that reality. When a loved one dies, we realize how we hate death and want its sting to be done away with. But we also realize how powerless we humans are to overcome death. But what is impossible with man is possible with God. Today’s passage shows us the power of God being manifested to overcome death in two people. These accounts are so marvelous because God does not normally manifest his power to overcome death in such ways. Yet, God’s power has at times been manifested in different ways in history. If today’s passage is reminiscent at all of the ministries Elijah and Elisha from the Old Testament, you are correct to notice such a connection. God manifested his power over sickness and death through those two during a rather spiritually bleak period of time in Israel’s history. And in today’s passage, we again see God choosing to manifest his power. The people rightly recognize this in verses 16 and 17. They correctly understand the significance of Jesus’ miracles, even in overcoming death. They reflect that God and his power has visited them through the agency of a great prophet. That great prophet, and more, is Jesus Christ. Let us then see the power of God through Jesus in these two miracles.
So then, our first half of today’s message will be to consider Jesus healing this centurion’s servant in verses 1-10. From a big picture, we should appreciate that this is a ministry to a Gentile. Jesus’s earthly ministry was primarily focused on the house of Israel. This was in the fulfillment of the promises given to the patriarchs of Israel, in which God had covenanted with that nation and promised to send a savior through their lineage. Yet, those promises had also spoken about how this would result in blessing to all the nations. In the Old Testament, there were occasional statements about God’s plans to bring salvation to all the nations. But those plans went out in greater clarity and full force after Jesus’ ascension when he sent his apostles out to the nations with the gospel. But even during Jesus’ early ministry there were hints that how God’s good tidings in Jesus would be extended to all the nations, to whomever would receive Jesus Christ by faith.
And yet, at that time, there was in general a lot of division between Israelites and Gentiles. Israel at that time tended to think themselves privileged before God and that the Gentiles were just unclean heathens. The Gentiles did, in fact, practice pagan religion, and had often been persecutors of Israel. It’s with that context that you might appreciate the dynamics in these opening verses. Here you have a centurion. This was a Gentile Roman military leader who was in command of a hundred soldiers. And he had a beloved sick servant who was at the point of death, verse 2. So then, in verse 3 we see that this Centurion had learned about Jesus. Word had gotten out about the miracles and wonders that Jesus was doing. This centurion has hope and faith that Jesus can heal his beloved servant.
So, he contacts the local Jewish elders to contact Jesus on his behalf. They gladly comply and make an earnest plea to Jesus for him to heal the centurion’s servant. In their approach to Jesus we are reminded of the Jewish-Gentile dynamics, because in verse 4 we see them explain to Jesus why they would advocate for a Gentile. They tell Jesus that he is worthy of his help. They explain that the centurion loves the Jewish nation and he even built them their synagogue there in Capernaum. Understand what they are saying. This acknowledges that normally there are ethnic divides between Jew and Gentile. But they are saying that this Gentile is a good guy, someone on their side. This centurion might have been in a class of people known as God-fearers. Those are Gentiles who had begun to put their faith in the one true God, the God of the Jews, but hadn’t become circumcised in order to officially convert and become a part of the Jewish people. Regardless, this centurion has clearly been supportive of the Jewish religion. With that background, the Jewish elders commend the centurion to Jesus for his help.
Now on the one hand, the spirit of sola gratia within me might be a little put off by the Jewish elders’ comments. They bear witness to the supposed worthiness of this centurion. But, Jesus’ healing of people by the power of God is a gift of his mercy and grace. It is not something that we should think about as something we earn if we live well enough. Yet, on the other hand, it is one thing for others to boast about you. It is a different thing if you yourself are boasting about yourself. And in fact, we find that this centurion does not boast about himself. Quite the opposite, he actually bears witness about his unworthiness, verse 6. When Jesus is on his way to visit him and heal his servant, the centurion sends servants ahead to Jesus. He has his servant tell Jesus that he is not worthy to have Jesus come to his home, explaining that is why he even sent servants instead of coming himself. This centurion exudes genuine humility. While the elders boast about him, he doesn’t boast about himself. That’s biblical wisdom to do so, as Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth.”
So then, we see the great faith of this centurion. He follows up his comments about his unworthiness by suggesting to Jesus that he need not actually come himself to see the centurion. This is related to his comments about his unworthiness, for the centurion says to Jesus that he the centurion is not worthy of troubling Jesus to actually come and see him and come under his roof. Instead, the centurion says to just “say the word.” I love that. Verse 7, “But say the word, and let my servant be healed.” One little word given by the Word will cure the centurion’s beloved servant. The centurion explains that he thinks about this by analogy to his own circumstances as someone in a position to order others. He thinks that if Jesus gives the order, then his servant will be healed.
This faith is bold, and it is right. That’s all Jesus needed to do. Jesus gives the word and the servant is in fact healed. But Jesus commends the centurion’s great faith here. Again, let another praise you, not your own mouth. Now, Jesus praises the man for his faith that was indeed well placed in Jesus. Jesus marvels at the man’s faith, and says that it is even greater than anything Jesus has found in Israel. He commends the exemplary faith of this Gentile outsider to the crowds which would have been full of Israelites.
At this point, I want you to make a connection here with how in the Old Testament the prophet Elisha healed the Syrian captain Naaman of his leprosy. While Naaman ultimately exercised faith and found healing from God through Elisha’s ministry, this centurion is nonetheless a foil to Naaman. What I mean is that this centurion’s response is more commendable than Naaman’s was. Both scenes have some similarities. They are both Gentiles who were in positions of military leadership. They both had servants under their charge. They both have others speak on their behalf requesting the needed healing. Yet, you might recall that when Naaman comes over to Elisha’s home, Elisha doesn’t even come out to see him. Elisha but sends a message through his servant with instructions for Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River in order to be healed. At first Naaman is offended. Naaman’s pride shows in his offense. Naaman said he expected the prophet to come out to personally see him and stand over him and call upon God and wave his hand over the leprosy in order to cure him. There, Naaman’s servants convince him to have faith in the prophetic word of Elisha, and he ultimately does and is healed. God uses the whole ordeal to grow Naaman spiritually and to become a worshipper of the one true God. But in contrast, we see that Naaman at first thought himself deserving of certain attention from the prophet Elisha with certain expectations of how a healing must take place with the prophet’s personal involvement. Yet, our centurion from today’s passage doesn’t find himself worthy of such attention by Jesus, nor does he think such is necessary for Jesus to heal his servant. All Jesus needs to do is to say the word.
I believe we are expected to make these connections because of the redemptive historical conclusions we are supposed to draw from them. First off, we are being presented with a prophet like Elijah and Elisha, and ultimately greater than this. Jesus but speaks the word and the man is healed. We do see Elijah and Elisha exercising prophetic authority, but at best theirs is but as servants of God, but Jesus’ authority is ultimately as the Son of God coming in his own authority. That notion of authority has been pointed out in Luke’s gospel already on several occasions with the Son of Man references, and the idea is continued here.
But we also can appreciate the redemptive historical advancement here regarding the dynamic of the Gentiles versus Israel. The accounts of Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament especially demonstrated God showing supernatural blessings to Gentiles. That was in fulfillment of the Song of Moses which prophesied of how God would bless Gentiles in order make wayward Israelites jealous and hopefully return to the Lord. That dynamic was very present in Elijah and Elisha’s ministry, such as Elisha healing the Syrian army commander Naaman – the Syrians were Israel’s main military enemy at the time and often afflicted Israel. So that dynamic of Gentile blessings to make Israel jealous was present back then with Elijah and Elisha. That dynamic is again at work here with Jesus and would come into yet a greater fruition. The gospel of Luke is often described in terms of its audience being especially directed toward Gentiles. It’s in Luke’s gospel where we already saw Jesus point out to his hometown Nazarites that their dismissal of him is reminiscent of Israel’s rejection of God during the days of Elijah and Elisha and so God then sent them to bless Gentiles over Israelites in their waywardness.
This dynamic is then found more developed here, where Jesus commends this Gentile centurion’s faith over all in Israel. If Israel thought themselves “worthy” of God’s saving works, this Gentile was more worthy than them. If Israel will not repent of their own lacking faith, and especially if they will ultimately not receive in faith Jesus as their Messiah and King, then God will give the kingdom to a nation more worthy, so to speak. Luke’s second volume in Acts will show this developed all the more. For example, in Acts 13:46, after the Israelites reject the gospel preaching of Paul and Barnabas, they say, “Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.” Later, Paul in Romans 11:11 would explain this dynamic by saying that “salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous,” that they might ultimately come to Jesus in faith and also be saved. So then, today’s passage presents this Gentile inclusion dynamic in seed form, which was initially present back in Elijah and Elisha’s day, and is all the more here today as the nations are evangelized with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let us now turn to our second half today and consider verses 11-17 and see Jesus’ raising this widow’s son. From a big picture, we can appreciate that this is a ministry to a widow, and we can note that it is a widow among Israel, in this Israelite town of Nain in Galilee. The man who died here is the only son of this widow. This shows the women’s great need as back then a widow was usually provided for by their sons. She is then left without anyone to help her, so to speak.
Jesus has great compassion on this poor widow whose son just died. That’s the motivation we see from Jesus in verse 13. He had compassion on her, and told her not to weep. So, we see Jesus consoling her in words. But then Jesus can console her in an even greater way, by his actions. For he touches the bier and speaks to the dead man and he raises him from the dead. Notice that she does not ask Jesus for help. He takes the initiative through and through with her. He raises this dead son to life again and gives him back to his mother. He consoles this poor widow by giving her dead son back to him, alive and well.
This was a great miracle. If you were the ones carrying the dead body, you would have thought Jesus strange to talk to a dead body like this – that is, until the dead body becomes alive in answer to the word of Jesus. Jesus again says the word, and this time an even greater miracle over death happens. The first passage just kept a man from dying. This time, he makes the dead one alive again! Unbelieving people sometimes like to take the Bible accounts of such miracles and try to come up with some natural explanation for how this might have happened. I hope you see how there is no way you can do justice to this text by trying to come up with a naturalistic explanation. This was not someone who just fell into a deep sleep and Jesus managed to wake him. No, the account is clear. This was a dead man. He was dead, dead, dead. But Jesus overcame death and raised him up again. As Jesus would later say when he rose Lazarus from the dead, that he is the resurrection and the life, whoever would believe on him will have everlasting life, that though he die, he will yet live forevermore. That is the power and promise of Jesus.
I draw your attention again to the redemptive historical development of this passage from what we find about Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament. Both of them had similar accounts of raising up a son from the dead. Realize, not too many people in the Bible are credited with God using them to raise someone from the dead. Before this passage here with Jesus, it had only been seen at the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah raised the dead son of the Gentile widow at Zarephath. Elisha raised the dead son of the Shunammite woman. And the details of this account with Jesus seem again to be getting us to think back to their ministry. For example, the language in verse 15 is reminiscent of how 1 Kings 17:23 says that Elijah gave the boy back to his mother. And this town of Nain is thought to have been nearby the town where the Shunammite woman lived for whom Elisha raised her son from death. So, we should naturally think of these resurrections that Elijah and Elisha performed. It’s why the people can exclaim in verse 16 that a great prophet has arisen among them. They realized how Jesus’ miracle here put him in the category of Elijah and Elisha, and even greater.
Just think of how Elijah and Elisha went about trying to raise the sons they rose. Elijah stretched himself out upon the dead boy three times and with much earnest prayer, finally received the answer from God to resurrect the boy. Elisha basically had a similar experience in seeking the Shunammite’s boy’s resurrection. But look at Jesus here. He doesn’t do any special actions. He doesn’t pray long and hard three times before God answers the prayer. He just says the word, speaking in his own authority to command the dead boy to get up. And he does. Indeed, as the people would say, God has visited them. God visited them in the person of Jesus – a great prophet, and more – even the Son of God.
Again, I believe we are expected to make these connections because of the redemptive historical conclusions we are supposed to draw from them. We’ve seen again here in this miracle in raising the widow’s son that Jesus is not just a great prophet like Elijah and Elisha, he is a greater prophet than them! But in this miracle, I think we should also see that God is bringing this mighty prophet to minister to Israel. This contrasts the first passage which was a ministry to a Gentile and made of think of all the ministry Elijah and Elisha did for Gentiles over Israelites. But here, now we have a miracle along the lines of Elijah and Elisha’s power, but to Israel. Notice that this is the emphasis given at the end of this miracle with the widow’s son. Verse 16, “God has visited his people.” That’s a reference to Israel, of course. Then in verse 17, it reports how this report of God visiting his people in this prophet Jesus in this miraculous resurrection, how it spreads throughout all Judea. In other words, word travels throughout the land of Israel about God finally sending again a great and mighty prophet the likes of whom they’ve not experienced for centuries.
Again, I point to the dynamic that the Song of Moses brought up and is seen in Elijah and Elisha’s ministry. God would minister to Elijah and Elisha to Gentiles to make wayward Israel jealous. And you see that dynamic beginning to take shape in Elijah and Elisha. While there was an emphasis on their miracles given to Gentiles, there was also growing ministry back to Israel that came from their ministry. That was even more so with Elisha who came after Elijah. God didn’t bless Gentiles so as to abandon his wayward Israel. He did it to awaken them so they could be restored and saved. This is the dynamic we see here in today’s two miracles. This miracle done to a Gentile and his faith praised over all the faith in Israel was meant to awaken Israel to their Lord. Then a miracle of an even greater sort to Israel and reported to all Israel, so that they knew indeed how much God loved them. And Jesus even took the initiative, he didn’t wait for the Israelite widow to ask him for help. He took pity on her and loved here and went and did this miracle for her an Israelite. Jesus’ ministry to Gentile and Israelite is to ultimately bring both into his kingdom – to all who would repent of their sins and put their faith in him as their Lord and Savior.
So then, now in 2021, the testimony of Jesus has gone throughout all Israel and throughout all the nations. Jesus, the prophet and apostle has shown his power over death. This is a power we each need to experience, because the reality is we are all at the relative brink of death from eternity’s standpoint. But God has highly valued you and provided a way of escape from death’s sting in Jesus. May we each be those who know his resurrection power firsthand through faith in his name. And may we each be those to send this report throughout our land. God has visited humanity in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the resurrection and the life. Believe in him and be saved!
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.