This story follows Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (sometimes referred to as the Sermon on the Plain, because Luke 6:17 says that Jesus came down from the mountain after choosing his disciples and taught the multitude on a level place).
In his Sermon on the Plain, Jesus called his disciples to love their enemies—and to bless those who mistreated them—and to turn the other cheek (6:27-36). He also called them not to judge or condemn (6:37). In our story of the Roman centurion, Jesus takes the opportunity to put his teachings into practice. Although our story specifies that this Roman centurion is a friend of the Jews rather than an enemy, many Jews would consider every Roman soldier an enemy. Jesus, however, demonstrates goodwill and respect for this Roman centurion and his servant.
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There are several stories in the scriptures similar to this account of the centurion and Jesus. We will find it helpful to be aware of them:
In Matthew’s version (Matthew 8:5-13), the centurion does not send delegations to Jesus but speaks with him directly. Also, Matthew includes two verses in his account of the centurion (Matthew 8:11-12) that Luke places elsewhere (13:28-29).
Jesus mentioned the story of Elisha and Naaman at the synagogue in Nazareth (4:27), and there are significant parallels between the Naaman story and the centurion story (Green, 284):
• Naaman, like the centurion, was a respected Gentile officer.
• A Jewish girl interceded for Naaman, and a Jewish delegation intercedes for the centurion.
• When Naaman came to see Elisha, the prophet did not talk with him directly, but sent a messenger to tell Naaman what to do. In Luke’s account, the centurion never talks directly to Jesus.
• Both healings (Naaman and the servant) take place at a distance.
John 4:46-54 relates a similar story involving a royal official whose son was dying in Capernaum. This official did not take the initiative to suggest that Jesus need not come to his house, but nevertheless “believed the word that Jesus spoke” when Jesus said, “Go your way. Your son lives.”
In Acts 10:1-33, Luke will relate the story of another centurion, Cornelius, “a devout man, and one who feared God with all his house, who gave gifts for the needy generously to the people, and always prayed to God” (Acts 10:2). An angel will instruct Cornelius to send a delegation to Peter, and the delegation will describe Cornelius as “a centurion, a righteous man and one who fears God, and well spoken of by all the nation of the Jews” (Acts 10:22).
The centurion who supervises Jesus’ crucifixion will be the first Gentile to acknowledge Jesus’ deity—”Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:54)—although Luke reports him as saying only “Certainly this man was innocent” (Luke 23:47).
LUKE 7:1-3. A CENTURION’S SERVANT
1After he had finished speaking in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum. 2A certain centurion’s servant (Greek: doulos), who was dear to him, was sick and at the point of death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and save his servant.
“After he had finished speaking in the hearing of the people” (v. 1). These are his teachings in the Sermon on the Plain (6:17-49), a collection of his teachings similar to those found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
“he entered into Capernaum” (v. 1). Jesus grew up in Nazareth, but now makes Capernaum his home (Matthew 4:13). When Jesus visited Nazareth, the people said, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum” (4:23), but Jesus responded, “Most certainly I tell you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown” (4:24). Luke juxtaposes the story of unbelief in Nazareth (4:16-30) alongside the story of belief in Capernaum (4:31-37).
“A certain centurion’s servant, (doulos) who was dear to him, was sick and at the point of death”(v. 2). A centurion commands a century — similar to a company in a modern army — a unit of one hundred soldiers. This centurion was probably responsible for maintaining order and enforcing tax collection.
The New Testament mentions centurions on a number of occasions (Matthew 8:5-13; 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47; Acts 10:1-22; 21:32; 22:25-26; 23:17, 23; 24:23; 27:1, 43)—always favorably.
This doulos (servant or slave) is not a free man. His service would not be voluntary, so he is fortunate to have a master like this centurion—a genuinely good man who cares about his servant’s well being.
This centurion values his slave highly. While that could mean that he is concerned only about the economic worth of the slave, Luke’s favorable description suggests that he regards his slave highly as a person. It is not unusual for people in high places to develop a genuine affection for subordinates with whom they work closely, and that seems to be the case here. The slave is ill—probably dying.
“When he heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and save his servant” (v. 3). In Matthew’s account, the centurion visits Jesus and speaks with him personally, but in Luke’s account he sends a delegation composed of Jewish elders—the town fathers—leaders—local men of good reputation who are held in high esteem.
LUKE 7:4-5. HE IS WORTHY
4When they came to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy for you to do this for him, 5for he loves our nation, and he built our synagogue for us.”
“He is worthy for you to do this for him, for he loves our nation” (vv. 4-5a). The centurion asked the Jewish elders to intercede for him, assuming that Jesus would respond more favorably to their entreaties than to those of a Roman. These elders make it clear to Jesus that they have not come under duress, but are genuinely fond of this centurion, “who loves our nation.” He could be a God-fearer—a Gentile who highly regards Jewish faith and practice.
They know that they could be cursed with a centurion who despises them, and are delighted to be blessed with a centurion who loves them.
“and he built our synagogue for us” (v. 5b). We are surprised to learn that this Gentile built a synagogue—and that the Jewish people permitted him to do so. The centurion may have simply contributed to the building fund, but he and his men may have had a direct role in the synagogue’s construction. It is even possible that he used Roman funds for the construction as a way of enhancing relationships with local people. Whatever his role in the construction, his behavior overall has convinced these elders that he has a genuine affection for the Jewish people—and they are almost certainly right. The centurion lives among them, and cannot hide his true feelings and character. The people are fortunate. They know it, and they want Jesus to know it.
LUKE 7:6-8. FOR I ALSO AM A MAN PLACED UNDER AUTHORITY
6Jesus went with them. When he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord (Greek: kurie—Lord or sir), don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. 7Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you; but say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8For I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
“Jesus went with them. When he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him” (v. 6). Luke doesn’t say whether these friends are Jews or Gentiles, but they may be Gentiles. If so, the centurion has sent both Jews and Gentiles to speak with Jesus.
“Lord (kurie), don’t trouble yourself” (v. 6). Kurie (from kurios) could mean either Lord or sir, but here it almost certainly speaks of Jesus’ lordship.
In the story of Jairus, there is similar language, “Don’t trouble the Teacher” (8:49), but it is not Jairus who says that but a delegation that has come to tell Jairus that his daughter is dead.
The centurion says (by way of this second delegation), “I am not worthy for you to come under my roof” (v. 6). But the Jewish elders have already announced, “He is worthy” (v. 4). This centurion enjoys both power and a prominent place in the community, but lives humbly—approaches Jesus humbly.
“Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you” (v. 7a). The centurion pronounces himself unworthy, even though the Jewish elders have pronounced him worthy (v. 4). He has not sent a delegation because he is too proud to make his plea to Jesus personally, but rather because he feels unworthy to have Jesus come under his roof. He would understand that a Jew coming into a Gentile home would defile himself, and this might be a part of his concern.
This centurion enjoys a good deal of power, and people would tend to accord him a good deal of respect. He would be accustomed to people asking for favors—and could expect to receive a good deal of gratitude for favors granted. His uniform would open doors—and insure him a bit of extra elbow-room in a crowded marketplace. He has authority, and people in his position would tend to assert their authority lest they get the reputation for being “soft.” This centurion, however, exhibits a great deal of humility when dealing with Jesus.
“but say the word, and my servant will be healed” (v. 7b). It takes faith to believe that Jesus’ touch has healing power, but it takes even greater faith to believe that his word has healing power—that he can heal at a distance. The centurion believes in the power of Jesus’ word.
Most of us, even if we believed that Jesus could heal from a distance, would not have prevented Jesus from coming to do the job personally. His coming in person would eliminate the possibility of something going wrong without having the healer close at hand.
“For I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (v. 8). Note the word, “also,” which draws attention to Jesus’ authority. The centurion is speaking about his own authority, but only to explain why he understands Jesus authority.
The centurion understands authority, because he functions under the authority of the emperor. His authority is an extension of the emperor’s authority. By virtue of the authority invested in him by the emperor, he has authority to give people orders and to expect them to obey.
The centurion is not bragging about his power, but is instead explaining why he is confident that Jesus can “speak the word” (v. 7) and heal his servant. As a man familiar with authority, the centurion recognizes Jesus as a man of authority—Godly authority—authority even over illness—authority even long distance.
This Gospel (as well as the other Synoptic Gospels) emphasizes Jesus’ authority:
• He speaks with authority (4:32).
• The people remark with amazement about his authority over unclean spirits (4:36).
• He has authority to forgive sins (5:24).
• He gives the twelve “power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases” (9:1).
• He gives the disciples “authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy” and promises, “Nothing will in any way hurt you” (10:19).
• His enemies will ask, “Tell us, by what authority do you do these things? Or who is giving you this authority?” (20:2), but Jesus will refuse to tell them (20:8).
LUKE 7:9-10. I HAVE NOT FOUND SUCH FAITH IN ISRAEL
9When Jesus heard these things, he marveled (Greek: ethaumasen—from thaumazo) at him, and turned and said to the multitude who followed him, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.” 10Those who were sent, returning to the house, found that the servant who had been sick was well.
“When Jesus heard these things, he marveled (thaumazo) at him” (v. 9a). This Greek word thaumazo is found in only two places in the Gospel of Mark. Here Jesus marvels at this centurion’s belief. In Mark 6:6, Jesus marveled at the unbelief that he experienced in Nazareth.
“and turned and said to the multitude who followed him, ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel'” (v. 9b). It is natural to expect Jesus to find faith in Israel, because Israel is the people of God—and, in fact Jesus does find faith in Israel. Disciples follow him (5:1-11, 27-32)—lepers believe in his power (5:12)—those who witness his miracles glorify God (5:26)—and crowds press around in an attempt to touch him and to experience his healing power (6:19). Not everyone believes, however. Scribes and Pharisees, seeing him heal on the Sabbath, are “filled with rage” (6:11).
It is less natural, however, to expect Jesus to find great faith outside Israel. Gentiles have not had centuries of interaction with Yahweh to prepare them for Jesus’ advent. But this Gentile centurion expresses the greatest faith found so far in this Gospel. The affirmation by Jesus of the centurion’s faith, rather than the healing miracle itself, is the point of this story (Culpepper, 146).
“Those who were sent, returning to the house, found that the servant who had been sick was well” (v. 10). Note that neither Luke nor Matthew record a healing word from Jesus. In Matthew’s account, Jesus tells the centurion, “Go your way. Let it be done for you as you have believed” (Matthew 8:13)—but Luke doesn’t even give us that. Jesus attests to the centurion’s remarkable faith—and then the delegation returns to the centurion’s house to find the servant healed.
This account of the healing seems almost a footnote. While Jesus’ authority to command healing is important to the story, it almost takes second place to the amazing faith of the centurion.
The centurion had no face-to-face contact with Jesus in this transaction, but worked through two sets of intermediaries, both Gentile and Jewish.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press,(1990)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1995)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Holwerda, David E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Morris, Leon, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988)
Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1—9:20, Vol. 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
Vinson, Richard B., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Luke (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2008)
Copyright 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013, Richard Niell Donovan