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02. The Centurion's Faith

Centurion’s Faith

A synoptic sermon by Pastor Eric H. H. Chang. This message was delivered at Chinese Gospel Church in Montreal, Canada, on June 12, 1977

Matthew 8:5-13 (Luke 7:1-10 parallel passage)


This passage is very important for our understanding of what faith means and for our understanding of the person of the Lord Jesus. And we will come to see that these two, faith and the Lord Jesus, are one - they cannot be separated.

This narrative takes place in Israel at a place called Capernaum which is on the north side of the Lake of Galilee. Here we meet with a centurion - a Roman officer who was in command of 100 soldiers. The centurion was a very important man - he was the backbone of the Roman army. In the New Testament we meet a number of centurions and the interesting thing is that every one of them turns out to be quite a good man. The quality of the Roman army was largely based on the quality of its officers and the choice of the centurions was important and according to strict standards.

As we study this passage, we will see that the centurion we meet here is truly a man of outstanding character. But the reason he is important for us is because he is the only man (not the only woman) in the New Testament of whom the Lord says, “This kind of faith I have not found anywhere - not even in Israel.” So the question we need to ask is, What is it about his faith that made the Lord Jesus say these words? That he believed Jesus could heal his servant, and do so simply by speaking the word, certainly reveals a significant faith but he was not the only one we read about who believed Jesus could do so. Yet Jesus says, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Amongst God’s own people who had been taught the word of the Lord from generation to generation you’d expect such faith but it was not found. Yet in this Gentile, this foreigner, Jesus finds a faith that astonishes Him. So immediately it becomes important to analyze what kind of faith this person has and to see whether or not we have this faith. In doing so, we want to see three things:

1) What is the object of faith

2) What is the nature of faith, and

3) What are the consequences of having, or not having faith.

What’s so remarkable about his faith?

But first let us find out what is so remarkable about this centurion’s faith. To begin, we have already noted that he is a foreigner, a Gentile. Immediately, we notice something remarkable about him. Why is he so concerned about his slave? Slaves are nothing. They were treated like a piece of property. There was seldom any concern for a slave as a person. If they were good, you kept them; if not, you got rid of them. Sometimes they were even beaten to death. If one slave died it was no problem to get another one. But this centurion is different. He does not treat his slave in this manner. Instead he loves him as a person and is quite distressed by his illness. Is it not puzzling that a centurion should be so concerned for his slave? Truly, he is an exceptionally loving person.

The next thing we notice is his love for the Jews. This again is very unusual. You can hardly find in history any Roman who loved the Jews. The Jews always gave the Romans a lot of trouble, and on the whole they were hated and despised by the Romans who may have been diplomatic and polite simply because they had to tolerate them. Now I will concede to you that the Jews are not an easy people to love, if you have ever tried loving them. I studied for a time in Israel where I got to know the Jewish people first-hand in their own country. I often said to myself, “My, these people are hard to love.” They seem to be all full of complexes - either an inferiority complex or a superiority complex or a mixture of both. They are so argumentative and inconsiderate. From history, we know that at the time of the siege of Jerusalem, the Jews not only fought the Romans, they also fought each other. That is why Paul says that before we were transformed we were hating and hateful. So it is indeed unusual that this Roman officer should love the Jews. He did not just tolerate them. He loved them and went to the point of building a synagogue for them.

This is quite exceptional especially because the Gentiles often hated the Jews, all the more because they thought themselves to be so religiously and spiritually superior to other people. It was so much easier to love a non-religious Jew than a religious Jew. And I found this to be true when I lived in Israel. The non-religious Jew tended to be more liberal, more widely-educated and did not have religious narrow-mindedness. I almost think that today’s Christians are like the religious Jews. So often you find Christians to be narrow-minded, bigoted, selfish, arrogant and so hard to love. I say too, that if your religion makes you this way then you are not the kind of Christian that God wants. Many Christians are narrow and exclusive because they are defensive and insecure. They are afraid to mix with non-Christians because they are afraid that the non-Christians’ unbelief is stronger than their belief, than their faith. They are afraid they might lose the little faith they have got.

Have you felt threatened in this way? For example, your company or college has a party and somebody invites you along. The people are drinking and dancing and immediately you feel insecure, you feel scared. Many times I have observed this with Christians, that their faith is really insecure in the presence of non-Christians. Now this is exactly the mentality of the religious Jews - the insecurity that makes them arrogant and aggressive - a defense mechanism to protect their little faith from collapsing. Now unless your faith is so rooted in God that you can mix with non-Christians, and they can drink, they can dance, they can turn up their music and do nothing more than hurt your ears, then you have not yet come to the depth of faith of that centurion.

By the grace of God, I do not in any way feel threatened at a sherry party or a dance. I am there in the midst to shine as a light for God. It does not disturb me; they can dance all they like. It does not threaten my faith. Why should it? Many Christians become like chameleons in order to survive amongst non-Christians. When they are with Christians, they are very Christian, they know all the clichés. But with non-Christians, they change their color. They are not Christians anymore. If someone asks them whether they are Christian, they quickly assure them that they need not worry, they are not fanatic, then quickly change the subject.

Now if you have this fearful faith, the reason is that you have not yet seen the glory of Jesus as the centurion has. A few of the Jews believed in Jesus, but this foreigner, this centurion, was not afraid to confess his faith in Jesus in front of the Jews. He asks his Jewish friends, many of whom may not have believed in Jesus, if they would go on his behalf to Jesus and tell Him that his slave was sick because he believed Jesus had the power to heal him.

Where do we see such faith?

Why didn’t the centurion go himself, as Luke’s account tells us? Because, he says [paraphrased], “I am not worthy to come to You and I am not worthy for You to come to me.” What does he mean, “not worthy”? He is a high-ranking officer - and he was a Roman. But the centurion explains what he has seen in Jesus. He says, “I, too, am a man under authority, and I say to one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. And I say to another, ‘Go,’ and he goes.” He is an officer used to authority. He is used to commanding his soldiers on or off the battlefield, but he has seen in Jesus his superior. Just as he can give orders and his soldiers obey, he sees that Jesus can give orders and everything will obey. He understands that he himself commands soldiers, but Jesus commands the universe! Jesus commands disease. He commands death to step back, and death will step back! This centurion knows that Jesus has only to speak the word and it will be done. And he knows he is not even worthy to go to Jesus despite his own authority. Where did this man get such faith? Where in Israel did Jesus see such faith? But let me ask, Where in the Church does Jesus see such faith? Have you that kind of faith in Jesus?

The object of faith

So here we notice the object of faith. Jesus is the object of this centurion’s faith. But not just any kind of Jesus. So often people have their own ideas about Jesus and they believe in a Jesus of their own making. For example, they believe in a gentle Jesus, meek and mild - a Jesus good for children but not much good for grownups. ls the Jesus you believe in able to save you, or have you cut Him down to suit your tastes? There is a faith that approaches idolatry. The last words of the first letter of the Apostle John say, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” And he is speaking to Christians!

You see, we can create idols in our own minds. For example, the movie star who is idolized. The problem with the idol is it is not real! And the trouble with us is that we tend to over-estimate human beings - that is we idolize them. But the strange thing with our faith is that we under-estimate its object. That is, we always under-estimate Jesus. That is the strange thing about it. There is never any danger of over-estimating Jesus, and yet we constantly are under-estimating Him and therefore not experiencing His power.

Theoretical faith or concrete faith?

But let me ask again, where in the church do we see such faith? You may protest saying you do believe in Jesus’ power and authority. But I do not say Christians do not believe this with their brain. I am now talking about concrete faith which is very different from hypothetical faith. This centurion’s faith was concrete. Many people have only a theoretical, hypothetical faith. They can never serve the Lord. Theoretically yes, they believe Jesus has all power in heaven and on earth. Then, why don’t they serve the Lord? Well, they say, “I have a wife to look after and children to feed and educate and how could I survive?? I earn $20,000 a year now, but if I preach the Gospel I will have to manage on $7,000 a year. How can l serve the Lord?! So they are worried they have not enough; that they cannot maintain their standard of living, that their children’s education would be at stake.

Do you believe the Lord Jesus has the means to look after you and see your children through university? But you say, “Faith is a spiritual thing and has nothing to do with money.” Well if you are always hiding in spiritual phraseology and spiritual excuses, that is a sign that your faith is not concrete! If your faith cannot operate from Monday to Saturday, how is it going to operate on the day when your salvation is at stake? If you don’t believe that Jesus can save you physically, what evidence have you got that He can save you spiritually? Or, put another way, if Jesus cannot save you on earth, how is He going to save you in heaven?

Of tiger, rifles and faith

I will never forget my grandfather. He was a pastor and he had concrete faith in God. He preached in a part of China (FuJian) where there are many tigers in the mountains. Yet he went into the mountains alone and unarmed to preach in the villages. People used to warn him against it but he went happily into the mountains preaching, unafraid of the tigers. You might say, “That is foolhardy and dangerous and if I were to go I would take my rifle. I trust in God, but also in my rifle, and maybe a bit more in my rifle. God can save me in heaven but I must save myself on earth.” Little wonder that non-Christians look at Christians and say, “You ridiculous people! If God cannot save you on earth, how is He going to save you in heaven?”

But you might protest that this is tempting God; if you do not go with your rifle then you endanger yourself and this is tempting God. Let me ask you, What is the real reason you have this in your mind? Is it because you are afraid of tempting God? Or, is it because you really have not got the faith to believe that God can save you?! Many times my grandfather saw tigers and at very close range, but they never attacked him. If he was tempting God, why did God still save him? In fact, he was not tempting God. He did exactly what he ought to have done. Can you imagine him arriving to preach the gospel with a high-powered rifle on his back? What would the non-Christians think? He tells them, “My Jesus, whom I am preaching to you, is Lord of heaven and earth. Everything obeys Him... except the tigers.” What is the point of preaching the gospel?! Jesus can save you from sin, but He has no way of saving you from tigers! In other words, tigers are more dangerous than sin!

The nature of faith

I think that we Christians have gotten ourselves a definition of faith that I do not find in the Bible. In the Bible we find that when Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake, he simply threw it back in the fire. He did not even consult Luke the doctor, who was right beside him. I am not trying to say that we should never consult doctors, but rather that we should notice Paul’s mental attitude. The poisonous snake never worried him - no panic. He went right on with what he was doing. Now we can see the difference in concrete faith. This is the nature of faith in the Bible. Why are we emphasizing this? Because this is saving faith. We are not talking about some special form of faith. We are talking about the ordinary saving faith in the Bible - it is always a concrete faith.

I need to say, however, having this concrete faith does not mean that we can be careless, irresponsible or extravagant. We do not go about exposing ourselves to danger or disease simply for the fun of it, or because we know that Jesus can save us or heal us. Rather, we do this in the course of duty. Sundar Singh preached the Gospel in India and Tibet and had to travel through jungles well known to be infested with snakes, tigers and leopards, which had killed many people. And yet he slept in the forest, always unarmed, never harmed by any animals. He wasn’t tempting God, but rather knew that while he was serving God no wild animal would harm him.

The faith that speaks

Have you got this kind of concrete faith? Have you got the faith to believe that Jesus is in control of your financial needs? I have done this year after year. I am not talking theory to you. Let me tell you that only concrete faith will make an impression on the world. When the non-Christian sees it, he will say, “If you have that kind of faith, I know your God must be true.”

Brother and sisters, I could have preached till my mouth was dry and my mother would never have believed the Gospel. She was one who absolutely rejected the Gospel. The only thing that caused her to come to the Lord was that she watched year after year what God was doing in my life. I was in university; I had no money. I had no work permit and I could not work. How could a person who had no money study for six years? Many times she asked me, “How do you do it?” I answered, “My God. He looks after me like His son.” After I graduated she wrote me a letter. She said, “After observing all these years not what you have said but what God has been doing in your life - exactly as you said He would do - I can see that your God is real.” Slowly, slowly her heart changed until one day she knelt down with me and with tears running down her face she committed her life to Jesus. This was one of the most precious days of my life.

The result of having faith

Notice now the result of concrete faith. I said at the beginning that this centurion was a loving man. Let me tell you that this is exactly what concrete faith does to you. It transforms your character; you become a new person. Now I ask, Why are there so many Christians today who are no different from what they were as non-Christians? They have the label of “Christian” but their life before and after is just the same! Their so-called faith has no power. It does not do anything. But concrete faith changes you. Jesus comes into your life and makes a different person out of you. So, if you are a Christian today and you notice you are really no different than before, e.g. you quarreled before and you still quarrel now, how is it that you still call yourself a new creature in Christ? What kind of a joke is this? It is a very bad joke. But when you have concrete faith, you will find you are changing, really changing. I do not mean you become perfect overnight, but you know there is a real change. That is the effect of concrete faith.

What happens if you do not have concrete faith?

Finally, notice what happens if you do not have this transforming faith, this concrete faith. You may say, “Well, I am not a super-Christian, but I am content to be any sort of Christian, because at least that is better than not being a Christian at all.” You’re wrong! The Lord Jesus says that if you do not have this kind of concrete faith, you will be like the sons of the kingdom who will be thrown out into the outer darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth (Matt. 8:12). The sons will be thrown out! “Outer darkness” in the Bible is just another word for hell.

I do not care what kind of doctrine you hold; I am not here to hold doctrines. I am here to expound the Bible. And here, the words of the Lord Jesus are so absolutely plain. I ask you to decide for yourself, what He is saying. The sons - the people who should inherit the kingdom - they do not inherit it! Because the son has to prove worthy of being a son if he is going to stay a son. We are right now on probation for sonship and are not yet sons in a complete sense. In Romans 8, the Apostle Paul says the whole creation is waiting for us to be adopted as sons (Rom 8:23). This is another aspect of the Lord’s teaching which we will study further in due time.

Now Matt. 8:12 may make you feel very uncomfortable and insecure, but if you do not have concrete faith, you had better feel insecure! It is better to feel insecure than to be deceived.

Where do you stand?

In closing, I ask again, Have you got the object of your faith right? Is the Jesus you believe in the Lord of heaven and earth? Does your faith keep you trusting Jesus everyday of your life? Or, are you constantly worrying? Have you been changed in your character since you became a Christian? Only if you have got concrete faith will you be able to answer in the affirmative. And remember that even if you claim to be a son now, on that day when God finds you have not got concrete faith, it says in Matt. 8:12 that the sons will be cast into outer darkness.

Bear these things in mind because the Lord Jesus speaks the truth. But if you see that your faith is not concrete, then say, “Lord, give me this saving faith that I need! Change my superficial faith into the faith that is real!”

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church