Topic Scripture: Matthew 8:5-13
Meeting Billy Graham was one of the most moving experiences of my life. It was my privilege to lead the delegation which invited Dr. Graham to Texas Stadium for the Metroplex Mission in 2002.
He was preaching a Mission in Fresno, California when we were ushered in to meet with him. He had broken a bone in his foot the night before, and had a walking cast on it. He was sipping water and looking over his sermon notes when our group was brought to sit with him.
I’ve never seen eyes like his—piercing, gracious, holy. We presented him with 700 letters of invitation from across the Metroplex, and I explained our reasons for wanting him to come. He listened to each of us, then turned to me and asked, “Why do you think I can help you?” I misunderstood his question, thinking he was asking about the need for such an evangelistic meeting in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, and proceeded to describe the number of lost people in our community and our other spiritual needs.
He listened politely, then asked, “But why do you think I can help?” He was not sure that, at 83 years of age, he could be relevant to our needs. He received our letters and promised to pray. And he did—for more than six weeks, longer than he took to accept any invitation in the history of his ministry, we were told.
His humility was the single most impressive part of the entire experience.
It was an awe-some experience in every way. I felt unworthy to be in the presence of the man who has preached to more people than any person in human history. Most of us know the feeling of being unworthy to be with someone greater than ourselves. I’ve been privileged to meet presidents and governors and felt that way. I’ve been with great ministers and missionaries and scholars and felt that way. There are times when I feel that way especially with God. He knows my mistakes and failures and guilt better than I know them. There are times when I don’t feel worthy to pray to him, to ask for his help, to seek his grace. We’ve all been there and we’ll all be there. Today’s story is for us.
The centurion from Capernaum
To understand the true significance of this article’s story, we need to know something of the cultural history behind the text.
We have a “centurion” in Capernaum. Who and what was he? The Roman army was divided into legions of 6,000 soldiers, which were further divided into “centuries” of 100, each commanded by a “centurion.” These were the sergeants, the men on the ground; historians call them the “backbone of the Roman military.”
In a city the size of Capernaum, he would be the presiding officer, the military leader of the occupied city. Thus the most hated man in Capernaum. Why? Because the Jews hated the Romans, and even more, the Gentile world they represented.
The story goes back 800 years, to the time when the Assyrians (roughly Syria today) destroyed and annihilated the ten northern tribes of Israel. They burned their cities, enslaved their women and children, and killed most of the men. Some stripped their skin to use for wallpaper. They are called the “lost tribes of Israel” to this day.
Then, in the sixth century before Christ, the Babylonians did the same thing to the southern kingdom of Judah. They destroyed their temple, enslaved their people, destroyed their nation.
The Persians eventually overthrew the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their ruined homeland, but under Persian dominance.
That’s how the Old Testament closes. Then the Greek empire under Alexander overthrew the Persians and enslaved the Jews. One of their generals, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, tried to force the Jews to worship Greek gods. He slaughtered a pig on the altar of the Holy of Holies and erected a statue of Zeus in the temple. The Jews revolted in 166 B.C. under the Maccabees and gained their independence for 103 years.
Then, as their leaders were fighting each other, in 63 B.C. the Romans under Pompey captured Israel and made it theirs. And that’s how the New Testament opens.
You can see why the Jews hated the Gentiles. They said that God made Gentiles so there would be firewood in hell. They forbade their women from helping a Gentile woman in childbirth, for that would only bring another Gentile into the world. They wouldn’t eat Gentile food, go into Gentile homes, or speak to Gentiles in public. One famous prayer repeated by men across Israel each morning was, “Lord, I thank you that you did not make me a woman, a slave, or a Gentile.”
And this man was not only a Gentile, he was a Roman; and not only a Roman, but the man presiding over the Roman occupation of their city. Archaeologists have discovered the military barracks where he lived, just east of Capernaum. This is the background Matthew assumes we know when he tells us that “a centurion” in Capernaum came to Jesus.
But against all odds, he “came to him, asking for help.” Capernaum was Jesus’ ministry center in Galilee; this man had heard our Lord teach and preach and heal. Now he came to him for help.
He called him “Lord,” a remarkable statement. “Lord” translates Kurios, a title reserved for Caesar. Each year every Roman citizen was required to burn a pinch of incense before a bust of Caesar and say Caesar Kuriou, Caesar is Lord. In decads to come Christians would refuse, saying instead Iesou Kuriou, Jesus is Lord. For this more than a million were slaughtered by the Empire.
Now this man came to Jesus, calling the itinerant Jewish carpenter his Lord, his Caesar. And bringing him a very special request: “My servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Again we see his remarkable character, in caring so deeply for a “servant,” a slave, an attendant.
Jesus offered to go and heal him, but the man understood Jewish sentiments about going into Gentile homes. He replied, “Lord [again], I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” But he knew that just a word from Jesus would heal his servant, no matter where Jesus was. Jesus told his disciples that this hated Gentile Roman military commander had more faith than any he had met among the people of Israel. And his servant was healed at that very hour.
What does our story stay to those of us who feel unworthy to ask Jesus for the help we need? The centurion would teach us three life lessons.
First, we can accept the grace of God, no matter our past or problems or need.
God’s word gives us this remarkable assurance: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).
The last class I taught at Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth included a student who had been a drug dealer in New York City, living in its subways. A woman handed him a gospel tract. He read its message and gave his heart to Christ. That semester he graduated from seminary to go back to New York City as a minister. Another student had been a convict in a maximum security prison when a chaplain reached him for Christ. That semester he graduated to go back to prison, not as a prisoner but as a preacher.
I know a man who killed his wife in a drug-induced rage but is now preaching the gospel. I know of former Satanic high priests who are ministers for Jesus. God hits straight licks with crooked sticks. You can accept his grace today, no matter your past or problems.
Accept his grace and give him your need. Jesus healed the man’s servant because the centurion asked him to. I can find only one miracle in the Gospels which Jesus seems to have initiated—the lame man by the pool of Bethesda. Every other miracle in his ministry was in response to a request, a prayer, an intercession. James says that we have not because we ask not (James 4:2). Wesley was convinced that God does nothing except in answer to prayer.
So accept his grace, give him your need, and trust him to respond. The centurion knew that Jesus would do whatever was best. He always does. He always answers your prayers. He always gives you what you ask for, or whatever is best. He always redeems what he allows. That’s just the way Jesus is.
Why are you a centurion today? What about your past are you glad we don’t know today? Who is your “servant”?
Billy Graham’s response to our invitation was a typical expression of his genuine humility. In his autobiography, Just As I Am, he makes this statement:
I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is to ask, “Why me, Lord? Why did You choose a farmboy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what you were doing in the latter half of the twentieth century?” I have thought about that question a great deal, but I know also that only God knows the answer (p. 723).
When he came with such reservations to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, Dr. Graham preached to the largest crowds in the history of his ministry in North America, received the largest offering ever given, and saw the largest response he has ever seen in our country. All because he trusted God’s grace with humility.
What will the Father do with your next prayer?