08.05.02 Lk. 7:1-9; Mt. 8:11-13; Lk. 7:10 Capernaum
CENTURION’S SLAVE HEALED
Lk. 1 When He had concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion’s slave, who was highly valued by him, was sick and about to die. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Him, requesting Him to come and save the life of his slave. 4 When they reached Jesus, they pleaded with Him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built us a synagogue.” 6 Jesus went with them, and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to tell Him, “Lord, don’t trouble Yourself, since I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. 7 That is why I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be cured. 8 For I too am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under my command. I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”
9 Jesus heard this and was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following Him, He said, “I tell you, I have not found so great a faith even in Israel!”
Mt. 11 I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus told the centurion, “Go. As you have believed, let it be done for you.” And his servant was cured that very moment.
Lk. 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Capernaum was an important garrison town. A Roman military unit was stationed there and the centurion and his foreign soldiers were under the command of Herod Antipas. Centurions were the back-bone of the Roman military – responsible for executing orders, crushing revolts, maintaining the peace. And while the Jews hated them, evidently, this particular centurion was well respected by those under him and he, in turn, financed the construction of their synagogue.
For their success in command they were well paid. Any mistakes would generally cost them their lives. The centurion in Capernaum was part of a larger unit stationed in Damascus, Syria. When considering the economic slavery the Romans placed upon the Jewish people, centurions are represented in a surprisingly positive manner in the New Testament. Nowhere in Scripture is there a reference of any centurion’s faith as being incompatible with his profession.
Historians have written various accounts on the Roman military. For example, one historian stated that the Roman military consisted of legions and auxiliary troops. Each legion was made up of ten cohorts or sixty centuries, all together embracing from 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers. The nearest legion was the Tenth Legion stationed in Damascus. According to Josephus, there were no Roman legions stationed in Judea/Israel, only auxiliary units of centuries. Each century was under the command of a centurion. The infantry and cavalry each was formed into cohorts, whose strength varied between 500 and 1,000 men. The centurion, or Latin centurio, was the commander of company of 50 to 100 soldiers. The centurion most likely was a Roman from Italy and his soldiers were either Italians or mercenaries. Herod the Great would have had similar soldiers as well as Idumeans.
Another historian wrote that 90 to 100 men formed a “century,” six centuries formed a cohort, and ten cohorts (5400 men) formed a legion. The strength of an army was generally about 30 legions. A legion’s officers were sixty centurions, six military tribunes, and a legate of senatorial rank, who commanded the entire legion. In addition, there were special forces such as the Praetorian Guard, Urban Cohorts and the vigils, who acted as police and fire brigade.
This passage in Luke and Matthew again demonstrates the interesting comparison between Jews and Gentiles. While the magi were the first Gentiles to honor Jesus, the Jews in Jerusalem did not even care to see who was born in Bethlehem. Likewise the centurion honored Jesus by his faith, while many Jews in Capernaum failed to recognize Him in spite of this incredible miracle. There were two occasions when Jesus was impressed by the faith of the Gentiles, especially in contrast to his fellow Jews.
- The Roman centurion (Mt. 8:10), who was in a ruling position over Galilee, and
- The Syro-Phoenician woman (Mt. 15:28), placed her faith in the Jewish messiah. Conversely, Jesus was equally affected by the unbelief of the sons of Abraham (Mk. 6:6).
08.05.02.A. RUINS OF THE ROMAN BATH HOUSE IN CAPERNAUM. These overgrown ruins of a first century Roman bath house in Capernaum are situated near to what is today the Russian Orthodox Church. They confirm the presence of a Roman garrison and, possibly, a centurion, as mentioned by the gospel writers. Photograph by the author.
“He is worthy for You to grant this, because he loves our nation and has built us a synagogue.” The text implies that, because the centurion was extremely kind to the Jews, Jesus healed his servant. But the centurion was also extremely kind to his servant. It certainly is an interesting reflection upon Genesis 12:3 that reads,
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
This phrase does not imply that a healing could be purchased, but rather, Jesus was moved by the kindness and faith of this military professional. Most Romans considered slaves merely as living tools and could not care less if one lived or died. But the centurion, who was well-trained in killing men, was radically different and had a compassionate heart.
“I am not worthy to have You come under my roof.” This was an amazing comment for a Roman centurion to say to a Jew. He stood in sharp contrast to most Romans, who considered Jews worse than lepers, pigs, or dogs. The Jews were a captive people, reduced to peasant servitude. The centurion was aware that he, a Gentile, was considered unclean in their eyes. In fact, according to rabbinic Oral Law, his entire house and everything he owned was deemed unclean. Therefore, any Jew who would have entered a Roman home was considered defiled and could not worship in the temple or participate in sacrifices. The Roman centurion had such great respect and faith in Jesus that he did not want Him to become impure by entering his home. The fact that he considered himself to be unworthy is precisely what made him worthy to receive the blessing of Jesus.
“I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” This was a shocking statement! The Jews knew that, the Assyrians relocated the ten northern tribes to the east and that King Nebuchadnezzar had relocated the tribes of Benjamin and Judah to Babylon. Only a few escaped to the west and settled in Spain and in northern Africa. So obviously, Jesus was referring to the Gentiles. The Old Testament has prophetic blessings for the Gentiles and now Jesus indicated this promise was about to be fulfilled. Obviously the message was not well received. On a side note, to “recline at the table” was a sign of wealth and freedom – freedom from being impoverished and bonded to sin.
“There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus left absolutely no doubt that there will come a time when the unrepentant will be cast into the eternal fires of hell. It will be a place of unquenchable pain, an eternal death that has no end, no relief. This statement sounds like a word that John the Baptist would have preached.
08.05.02.Q1 Who met Jesus, the centurion (Mt. 8:5) or the Jewish elders (Lk. 7:3)?
This narrative seems rather innocent, yet it is filled with cultural implications. It was a common practice, and still is, that the messenger is sent by and with the authority of the sender. In the same manner, if the Jewish leaders in Capernaum sent the centurion to Jesus, in essence, both went to Him even though only one physically went.
This account is an excellent example of social protocol. According to the passage, the centurion sent a delegation to meet Jesus and make his request known. The reason the delegation was sent was that, if by any chance, Jesus would have denied their request, the centurion would not have been embarrassed as he would have been had he met Jesus personally. Furthermore, to insure success in a possible meeting with Jesus, the delegation consisted of Jewish elders who revealed that a friendship existed between the Romans and Jews in Capernaum. This was obviously in stark contrast to the Jewish-Roman relationship in Jerusalem. The Capernaum Jews encouraged Jesus to visit the centurion’s house and, as they were traveling, they were met by a second delegation consisting of friends of the Roman commander. The second delegation pleaded for Jesus not to enter his home, but just to give the command to heal. Most important in understanding this social custom is that these friends spoke as if the Roman himself was speaking. Luke recorded that the Roman commander had such a high respect for Jesus that he asked him not to enter his house because the Jews believed that entering the home of a Gentile would cause defilement. Whether Jesus would have agreed with that, or if that would have kept him out of the house is not the issue. The point is that the centurion recognized Jesus as a very important person, more important than himself. The protocol that was demonstrated was just as significant as the centurion’s faith.
The accounts of Matthew and Luke are similar in a number of points, although the Greek word for servant is different. The word used by Matthew could also be translated to mean child, as well as a servant. Yet there is no problem between the words servant and child. The reason is that not all servants were treated harshly as is portrayed in the media – the centurion evidently had a young slave whom he affectionately referred to as his child, because he care for him, as the narrative clearly shows.
Matthew also said that the servant was in extremely poor health, “paralyzed and suffering terribly” (8:6), while Luke said he was in a near terminal condition, “sick and about to die” (7:2). Obviously, there is no disagreement here, only slightly different description of a gravely ill person. Being dead or near death were often deemed to be one and the same, especially since there was no basic medical knowledge, as is taken for granted today, to determine the difference. And even if the difference between these two states of being were known, there was no medical cure to improve the condition of the dying or near death patient.
The difference between the gospel writers is that Matthew says the centurion came to see Jesus and Luke reported that first some Jewish elders came on behalf of the centurion. They were followed by friends of the centurion, who came to meet with Jesus. The cultural context is that there is no difference between an official and the agent who represents him. But the most important difference is the passage in Matthew which is not in Luke. These words of Jesus read as follows,
11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 8:11-12 (NIV)
At this point, it is important to recall the recipients of each of the gospels. Matthew was written for a Jewish audience while Luke was written for Gentiles. The cultural and religious differences were tremendous. Matthew included the verses 11 and 12 above because these words of Jesus would be most significant to Jews who identified themselves with the patriarchs while verses 11 and 12 would be meaningless to Luke’s Gentile readers. Matthew structured the centurion’s comments because they would be of special interest to a Jewish audience. Luke demonstrated similar respect, but for a Gentile’s interest.
Clearly, the gospel writers were mostly interested in presenting the full meaning of the event to their specific audiences. Other information that would be considered helpful in modern thinking is missing. Therefore, it is difficult to reconcile the two narratives. Normally, one could state that an agent for the centurion would be the same as the centurion himself. However, the details of the conversation eliminate this interpretation. Therefore, the question persists: Did the centurion actually meet with Jesus? The conversation recorded by Matthew would certainly indicate this, but the details may never be known. What is known is that the centurion…
- Was extremely wealthy
- Loved and respected the Jewish people, enough to finance their synagogue,
- Kept law and order in the Galilee region that was the hotbed of Zealot activity
- Highly valued his servant at a time in history when slaves (servants) were considered to be disposable property.
- Demonstrated respect and faith in Jesus.
It is remarkable, that even though the Romans were the occupying power, all centurions recorded in Scripture are mentioned honorably. Among them was the centurion who witnessed the death of Jesus said, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Mt. 27:54; Lk. 23:47), and Julius, who courteously entreated Paul on his way to Rome (Acts 27:3, 43). Furthermore, Scripture never hinted negatively of their military duties.
. Lk. 23:47; Acts 10:22; 22:26; 23:17, 23-24; 24:23; 27:43.
. Schurer, A History of the Jewish People First Division, 2:40-42.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:319.
. Pilch, The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible. 106.
. A cohort at full strength consisted of approximately 600 soldiers, although the word was also used for a maniple, that is a detachment of 200 soldiers. See Harrison, A Short Life of Christ. 199.
. Toynbee, The Crucible, 134-35.
. Gen. 12:3; Isa. 60:3; Amos 9:12.
. Other references are Lk. 13:28; Mt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30.