SEED & BREAD
THE CENTURION OF CAPERNAUM
(Originally published 10 Dec. 79)
The Biblical accounts of the Roman centurion who was stationed in
Capernaum are found in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. A discrepancy has
been supposed in these two accounts, and students have long tried to
decide if the centurion came alone to the Lord Jesus, whether he sent
the elders of the Jews to represent him, or if the accounts record two
different events. My own opinion is that since among the Hebrews what
one did through agents he did himself, and the matter could be stated
either way. The centurion had commissioned (apostellO) these elders.
Matthewís omission of the detail about the elders is not at variance
with Luke. It is simply an abbreviation of the account.
This centurion is of special interest to us because of two things. The
Lord declared He had found no faith as great as his in Israel; and he
was one of the two Gentiles who received favors from the Lord Jesus
during His earthly ministry. The other was the Syrophonecian woman
spoken of in Matt. 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30.
The character of this centurion is such that some interpreters think he
was a proselyte; that is, one who had become a Jew. They are inclined to
describe him as what is called "a proselyte of the gate," a somewhat
meaningless term which has no basis in Scripture and would make this
centurion to be ambivalent, neither fish nor fowl. When all facts are
considered it will be seen that it was impossible for a Roman soldier,
serving in the army of occupation to have become a true convert to the
faith of Israel. There was a mutual exclusivity about these two
positions that made it impossible for one to be both at the same time,
unless he were a renegade and traitorous Jew. He then would have been an
apostate, but not a proselyte.
Those who make him to be a proselyte seem to do so because they feel
this explains his kindness, humility, faith and godliness. "How can we
account for one who was a heathen by birth, and a soldier by profession
showing such a spirit as this?" is the question asked by J.C. Ryle; a
question that would not need to be asked if men accepted by faith the
truth declared in John 1:9 that "the Word," the great Creator, is "the
true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." This
"Light" was not a feeble flicker, a pathetic failure, and neither was it
so murky that none could find the true God by following it. This Light
"shined in the darkness," and this centurion was one who followed it to
its source. He had sought and found God, and this was in no way based
upon any contact with Israel.
There are those who will reject this inasmuch as the idea of "the total
depravity of all men" is already indelibly written all over the slate
they give the Lord to write upon, and no clean space can be found on
which to write the truth concerning the Roman centurion we are
In the Roman army the largest unit was a legion composed of 6,000 men.
Each legion was divided into ten cohorts of 600 men each, and each
cohort had six divisions of 100 each. These were called "centuries" with
a centurion over each. One of these centuries was stationed in or near
Capernaum, and over this century the nameless centurion of our story was
in full command. He being the chief Roman in the area greatly enhanced
his prestige and authority. Even the elders of the Jews were under his
When the Lord Jesus entered Capernaum, He was no stranger to the people
of this area. After John was imprisoned, Jesus left Nazareth, departed
into Galilee, came to Capernaum and dwelt there (Matt. 4:12-13). From
here, He went about all Galilee, His fame spreading far north, even
throughout all Syria (Matt. 4:24). And in a simple way, making no effort
to excite the reader, Matthew tells by inspiration the tremendous number
of miracles He performed. Later in His ministry, when He was in the
synagogue in Nazareth, He said: "Ye will surely say unto Me this
proverb, Physician, heal thyself; whatsoever we have heard done in
Capernaum, do also here in thy country" (Luke 4:23). And, when they
sought to do Him harm, He left Nazareth and came again to Capernaum,
where a miracle performed in the synagogue caused such great amazement
that His fame went out into every place of the country round about (Luke
4:31-37). Thus it is evident that this time when He again entered
Capernaum, He was no stranger to the people there.
Among those who would be quite familiar with all He had previously done
in Capernaum, and probably more knowledgeable than most, was the Roman
centurion who was stationed there. It was a part of his duty to be
informed on all that happened in his district, and especially so if
This centurion had a slave who was very dear to him, and this slave was
at the point of death. Once again, that which had happened on previous
occasions was taking place. They were bringing the sick, the diseased,
the lame, and the demon-possessed to Him and He was healing them all.
The centurion knows what is happening, and now he is all the more
exercised about his own beloved slave. However, the healing ministry of
the Lord Jesus is not available for this man or his slave. We know this
from the clear declaration of the Lord Jesus who said to His disciples
that He was not sent (apostellO-commissioned) to any but to "the lost
sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 15:24).
The centurion having known before of the Lordís mighty works, having
evaluated them without prejudice as being the works of God, and knowing
that Jesus had returned to the city, determined to find some way to
approach the Lord concerning his slave. So, he sought out the elders of
the Jews, and commissioned (apostellO) them to entreat the Lord
diligently that He having come (i.e. to Capernaum, and now being close
by) would heal his dying slave.
When the elders came to Jesus they brought forth at once their two best
reasons as to why the Lord should do this: first, that the centurion
loved the Jewish nation; and second, that he had built for them a
synagogue. These were good reasons, and the Lord answered at once, "I
will come and heal him."
Whether these words were spoken directly to the centurion or to his
authorized representatives makes no difference. The centurion is now in
possession of a word of promise from the lips of the Lord Jesus, and we
can well imagine that from the moment these words were spoken they were
relayed from person to person and house to house. "He said He would come
ó He said He would come and heal him!" was the cry all along the route
to the centurionís house.
After declaring His intentions, the Lord moves to fulfill His word. With
the elders escorting Him, He moves at once to go to the residence of the
centurion. This was a most irregular and daring move upon His part,
since all Israelites were forbidden by law and strict custom to have any
personal contact with one of another nation (Acts 10:28), and these
strictures and prohibitions were doubly strong when it came to having
contacts with any member of the hated army of occupation.
The elders of the Jews who are escorting the Lord Jesus will not need to
enter the centurionís house. They can stop short and save themselves
from censure by their countrymen. Their presence at the sick-bed will
not be required, but it seems apparent that the Lord will need to go all
the way. And while the Mosaic law had no specific prohibition to this
effect, the law when taken in its entirety did result in such an
injunction. The one who acted otherwise was going contrary to the law.
This was understood, accepted, and practiced as a fixed principle
Therefore, if the Lord enters this centurionís house He will lay Himself
wide open to the damaging charge of having collaborated with the enemies
of Israel. Then, His own enemies, some of whom are always watching His
every move, will quickly seize upon His act and use it against Him.
The centurion well knows the damage that can be done to the Lordís
reputation as a true and faithful Israelite if He enters his house; and
he does not wish to secure the blessing he desires at such a great cost
to his benefactor. So as the Lord nears the house and the shouts arise,
"Heís coming! Heís coming!" the centurion quickly sends friends to the
Lord saying: "Lord, do not involve yourself in this trouble, for I am
not worthy that you should enter under my roof" (Luke 7:6).
Today the act of entering into someoneís house has little or no
significance, but this was not true in Palestine in 31 A.D. Then, such
an act was a public declaration of unity, friendship, and solidarity.
And for a great man to enter into someoneís house was fraught with much
greater significance. So the centurion said further: "This is why I did
not deem myself worthy to come unto you. All you need to do is speak a
word and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority
myself, and I have soldiers under me. I tell one man to go and he goes;
I tell another to come and he comes; I tell my servant to do this and he
does it" (Matt. 8:9).
When the Lord Jesus heard this, He marveled, and said to them that
followed Him: "Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith,
no, not in Israel"(Matt. 8:10).
The Lordís commendation of this centurionís faith, declaring it to be
greater than any He had found before, even in Israel, compels us to ask
what it was in his actions that brought forth these words of praise.
Many before him had sought the Lord for personal healing and had
received their desire. This can be seen in Luke 4:31-36; 40:41; 5:12,
13, 15, 17-26; 6:6-10 and 6:17-19. In all these incidents men had come
to the Lord personally. Furthermore, Peter, James, and John had forsaken
the valuable tools by which they made their living (Luke 5:11). Yet it
was of this centurion that the Lord said his faith was the greatest. The
question persists: "Why did He say this?" However, there is an answer.
This centurion believed that the Lord could work at a distance just as
effectively and powerfully as He could close at hand. Very few believe
this today. They are shocked when I tell them that the Lord can and will
do just as much for me from His place in heaven (Mark 16:19), as if He
were sitting across from my desk, hearing all my problems and petitions
in person. And they are shocked even more when I tell them that Jesus
Christ can govern this world better from His throne in heaven than from
someplace on earth, such as Jerusalem. Did He not say to His disciples:
"Nevertheless, I tell you the truth, it is expedient for you (to your
advantage) that I go away"(John 16:17)?
Issue no. 112