THE ROMAN CENTURION
Jesus has finished His long sermon on a mountainside, and now He’s returning to His home base of Capernaum—a city that is located beside the Sea of Galilee. A huge crowd is following Him, no doubt hoping to get a glimpse of the famous miracle worker in action. As Jesus enters Capernaum, representatives of a Roman centurion hurry over to greet him. A centurion was a military officer who commanded a unit of 100 soldiers. Normally the Jews despised pagan Romans, but this particular centurion has won the favor of certain Jewish elders with his unusually pro-Israel attitude. But he also understands that Jewish bigotry declares it is unlawful for Jews and non-Jews to mingle in public. So instead of approaching Jesus himself, the centurion sends some Jewish elders to go and entreat Jesus on his behalf. The problem? The centurion has a slave who he greatly cherishes, and the slave has fallen fatally ill. The centurion is hoping Jesus might be willing to heal his slave, and he’s trying to approach Jesus in the most respectful way possible.
The Jewish elders earnestly begged Jesus to help the centurion. “If anyone deserves Your help, he does,” they said, “for he loves the Jewish people and even built a synagogue for us.” (Lk. 7:4-5)
Jesus agrees to help and the elders start leading the way to the centurion’s house. Messengers rush ahead to let the officer know that Jesus is on His way. When he hears this, the centurion quickly dispatches some more of his friends to intercept Jesus again.
But just before they arrived at the house, the officer sent some friends to say, “Lord, don’t trouble Yourself by coming to my home, for I am not worthy of such an honor. I am not even worthy to come and meet You. Just say the word from where You are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it.”
When Jesus heard this, He was amazed. Turning to the crowd that was following Him, He said, “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all of Israel!” And when the officer’s friends returned to his house, they found the slave completely healed. (Lk. 7:6-10)
Always looking for opportunities to point out the spiritual rebellion of the Jews, Jesus drops the mother of all insults in declaring that this non-Jewish centurion has demonstrated more faith in God than all of Israel. In other words, Yahweh finds this Roman far more pleasing in His sight than all the Jews put together. Yikes. This is extremely insulting language, and yet it is well deserved, for the Jews at this time are steeped in willful defiance. We’ll soon learn that the city of Capernaum is especially steeped in rebellion, so when Jesus takes this potshot at Israel, He’s intentionally doing so in the hearing of many Jews who are really helping it be a valid complaint.
Today you often hear that the Jews were Yahweh’s chosen people. What does this mean exactly? It means they were given a ton of direct illumination about who God was and what He wanted from them. Imagine if representatives from a prestigious university traveled to a community of folks who were dirt poor and invited certain individuals to attend the university free of charge. Those chosen individuals are being given a special privilege: a chance to gain an education that’s economically out of reach for their peers. This was what it was like for the Jews: they didn’t seek out a relationship with Yahweh, He came to them. He gifted them with a special education about who He was and what He wanted. If they’d been wise, they would have recognized the great privilege and cherished it. But instead they were foolish and they squandered the great opportunity God had given them.
Suppose some of the kids from that poor neighborhood went to the university but didn’t take their studies seriously. Instead, they partied and cheated and cut classes until they were eventually kicked out. What a waste that would be. This is what the Jews did: they blew off the fact that they had been chosen by Yahweh. Instead of seizing the great spiritual advantage that they had been given, they squandered it. They tried to define their “chosen” status as some eternal guarantee that God would always give them special protection and abundant blessings. But no, that was never what being “chosen” meant to Yahweh. Being “chosen” was a spiritual opportunity—one that the Jews totally abused, thus all they gained from it was extra discipline.
The problem with God choosing you is that once He does, you become more accountable than the fellow who wasn’t chosen. The greater your understanding of God is, the more obnoxious your defiance of Him becomes. Today the whole “chosen” deal has completely backfired on Jews who are still trying to cling to Judaism. As they flaunt their knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, they prove how informed they are about who Yahweh is, and thus they set themselves up for greater judgment in eternity. It was the same in Jesus’ time, which is why we find Him making so many caustic cracks about the Jews. Their defiance of Yahweh is far more pointed than that of unilluminated pagans. It’s utterly mind-blowing how the Jews show such contempt for Yahweh while spiritual outcasts like Romans and Samaritans are pursuing Yahweh with sincere hearts and accepting His Messiah with open arms. Jesus says:
“I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all of Israel!” (Lk. 7:9)
And it’s to Israel’s great shame that this is true.
THE WIDOW’S SON
We’re told it’s a short while later that Jesus travels to a city called Nain. Once again, He’s being followed by a large multitude of people. As He arrives at the city, a large funeral procession is heading out of the city gates. A woman’s only son has died—a very significant loss in a male-dominated society. We’re told that Jesus has compassion on her and tells her not to cry. Then He touches the coffin, and the man inside sits up and starts talking. What a shock that would be. A wave of reverential awe sweeps over the crowd as mother and son are reunited.
Great fear swept through the crowd, and they praised Yahweh, saying, “A mighty prophet has risen among us,” and “Yahweh has visited His people today.” And the news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding countryside. (Lk. 7:16-17)
God is always multitasking and clearly one of the goals of this miracle was to draw even more attention to Jesus throughout the land. Who isn’t going to be impressed with a Guy who can bring dead people back to life? Talk about ultimate power. It’s amazing how “devoted” people suddenly become when the miracles start happening.
A DISCOURAGED BAPTIST
Now while Jesus has been busy with self-promotion, John the Baptist is stuck in a jail cell getting mighty depressed. Nasty old Herod threw him into prison for calling Herod out on some of his glaring sins, one of which was Herod marrying his own brother’s wife. As soon as John was thrown in jail, his Cousin fled to the north, making it exceptionally clear that He had no intention of using His supernatural powers to bail John out. That’s more than a little discouraging after John has spent his life paving the way for Jesus’ public ministry. Now as he sits in jail feeling forgotten and depressed, John starts second guessing himself about, well, everything. What if Jesus isn’t really Yahweh’s Messiah after all? What if John promoted the wrong Guy? What if John’s whole ministry has been a crock? Ever feel disillusioned when things suddenly go south in your efforts to serve God? One minute you feel certain of what He wants you to do, and the next minute everything seems like a muddled mess and you wonder if you took a wrong turn somewhere. This is how John is feeling, and he finally sends some of his disciples out to find Jesus and ask Him a rather embarrassing question.
John’s two disciples found Jesus and said to Him, “John the Baptist sent us to ask, ‘Are You the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?’” (Lk. 7:20)
Have you ever felt the need to ask God, “Do You really exist or am I just delusional?” These kinds of questions are a natural part of the journey. God is wild, and He does a lot of things that leave us feeling confused, upset, and overwhelmed by doubt. Depending on how intense the crisis is, we can easily find ourselves doubting the most essential truths of the faith, like “Is God even real?” When these moments come, we often feel too ashamed to let anyone know how much we’re struggling. Yet there is no shame in asking questions. It’s through wrestling with doubts that faith grows stronger.
At that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and He restored sight to many who were blind. Then He told John’s disciples, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. And tell him, ‘Blessed is the one who does not turn away because of Me.’” (Lk. 7:21-23)
That last line is very important. John was a sincere believer under the Old Covenant. Up until now, he and a lot of other Jews have been sincerely seeking Yahweh. Now Yahweh is transitioning to a New Covenant—He’s changing up His requirements for salvation and He’s introducing some shocking new concepts, such as the existence of multiple Gods. How will serious Yahweh followers react to their God acting so wild and crazy? Will they stick with Him or will they be so scandalized by Jesus that they turn their backs on Yahweh and say “Forget it! I’m not accepting this New Covenant of Yours!”
Those who stick with Judaism today are trying to stick with the Old Covenant. Though they pray to Yahweh and pretend to worship Him, they’ve really turned their backs on Him, for the New Covenant is YAHWEH’S Covenant. The revelation of multiple Gods was YAHWEH’S decision, and when we reject these things, we are rejecting Yahweh Himself. Jesus says that those who stick with Yahweh and do not turn away on account of Him will be blessed. Jesus is the embodiment of some extremely disturbing revelations which Yahweh is making. It’s only natural that Jews would want to reject Jesus, and in doing so they would be rejecting Yahweh. Here Jesus is urging His cousin John not to fall into that trap. Yes, He is the Messiah—YAHWEH’S Messiah. John needs to stick with the program.
After John’s disciples left, Jesus began talking about him to the crowds. “What kind of man did you go into the wilderness to see? Was he a weak reed, swayed by every breath of wind? Or were you expecting to see a man dressed in expensive clothes? No, people who wear beautiful clothes and live in luxury are found in palaces. Were you looking for a prophet? Yes, and he is more than a prophet. John is the man about whom it is written:
‘Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You, and he will prepare Your way before You.’ [Mal. 3:1]
I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Yahweh is greater than he is!”
When they heard this, all the people—even the tax collectors—agreed that Yahweh’s way was right, for they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and experts in religious law rejected God’s plan for them, for they had refused John’s baptism. (Lk. 7:24-30)
This language makes it clear that there are a lot of pro-John folks in Jesus’ current audience. Back in his baptizing days, John preached that a Messiah was coming, and he urged people to publicly declare their devotion to Yahweh through baptism. John played an important role in helping sincere Yahweh followers get ready for some surprising theological changes. Why did the Pharisees and experts in Yahweh’s Laws refuse to get baptized by John? Because they were already defying Yahweh in their heart. They were righteous in their own eyes and they had no use for sincere submission to God. Naturally if they didn’t want to follow Yahweh before Christ came, they really had no use for Him now that He was acting so wild by introducing Christ. No, the Pharisees are focused on turf wars. They want to control Jewish society by controlling Jewish religion, and Jesus is becoming a major thorn in their side. The only reason they keep following Jesus around is to try and find some way that they can take Him down. We see the same pattern today. All someone has to do is start preaching God’s truth and hecklers will congregate around that person—looking for ways to try and publicly discredit them. Rebellion hates obedience and it wants to stomp it out.
Remember that as God, Jesus sees into the souls of all the people around Him. As He looks around at His current audience, He sees a few souls who care, but a whole lot of rebels who don’t. It’s now the rebels He addresses by saying:
“To what can I compare the people of this generation?” Jesus asked. “How can I describe them? They are like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends, ‘We played wedding songs, and you didn’t dance, so we played funeral songs, and you didn’t weep.’
For John the Baptist didn’t spend his time eating bread or drinking wine, and you say, ‘He’s possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’ But wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it.” (Lk. 7:31-35)
Here Jesus compares Himself with His cousin and makes the point that no matter how Yahweh approaches the Jews, they refuse to listen. John was an odd loner who didn’t mingle and mix. They rejected him as possessed. Jesus is mixing it up at people’s homes and being far more social than John, yet the Pharisees are accusing Him of hanging out with immoral lowlifes. In both cases, meaningless externals are being used as excuses for why no one should have to take Yahweh’s messages seriously. It’s all just a game. No matter what method Yahweh uses to reach out to His people, they’ll find some ridiculous excuse for why they don’t have to listen to Him.
We need to avoid falling into similar traps today. Some Christians are taught that God would never speak through a woman, so the minute they see a female speaking, they excuse themselves from having to listen. Others get huffy about listening to someone who is younger than they are. Others say God can’t talk through certain ethnicities or in certain locations or through certain methods. The whole “speaking the truth in love” doctrine often comes down to, “If my ego is offended, I don’t have to listen.” Such games don’t fly with God. When He puts truth in front of us, we become accountable for how we react to that truth. Rejecting God’s messages doesn’t become okay simply because we don’t like the type of messenger He uses. God might speak to you through your enemy, your boss, your neighbor, or a rock. The method is irrelevant—whenever God speaks, we need to listen.
Now we come to a very interesting passage. Jesus has been concentrating on one particular geographical region for quite some time. Instead of traveling far and wide, He’s been reaching out to the same crowds in the same cities over and over again. Certainly people are traveling long distances to see Him, but He Himself is not traveling too much. This means that there are certain towns which have received quite a generous dose of spiritual illumination. And what happens when God gives us extra education? We become more accountable. Hearing about Jesus is one thing. Listening to Him preach in your living room is another.
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities where He had done so many of His miracles, because they hadn’t repented of their sins and turned to Yahweh.
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the miracles I did in you had been done in wicked Tyre and Sidon, their people would have repented of their sins long ago, clothing themselves in burlap and throwing ashes on their heads to show their remorse. I tell you, Tyre and Sidon will be better off on judgment day than you!
And you people of Capernaum, will you be honored in Heaven? No, you will go down to the place of the dead! For if the miracles I did for you had been done in wicked Sodom, it would still be here today. I tell you, even Sodom will be better off on judgment day than you!” (Matt. 11:21-24)
This chilling passage reveals three shocking truths. The first one is that there will be varying degrees of torment in Hell. Jesus makes it clear that those who receive more illumination and reject that extra degree of illumination will be punished more harshly than those who were never so favored. What does this mean for Israelites who have received reams of direct illumination from Yahweh, yet they’ve spurned it? They’re going to be in for a much worse punishment in eternity than non-Israelites who were not given as much illumination. So you see, being “chosen” comes with a great responsibility. You not only have an opportunity to be blessed, but you are also at risk of being extra-damned if you respond poorly. God will NOT by mocked by us without fully avenging Himself. The more we mock Him on earth, the more we will suffer later on (see Understanding God’s Justice: Inequality in Hell).
The people of these three cities that Jesus has spent so much extra time in have rejected Him. Even His home base of Capernaum is responding terribly. But what about these huge multitudes who have been following Jesus about and looking so devoted to Him? The majority of them are fakers. They aren’t really interested in God—they’re just interested in His power. How can Jesus make their lives more comfortable? How many of their problems can He fix? How much can He entertain them with His amazing feats? This is the second shocking truth that Jesus reveals: people can put on a very good act of being interested in God when they’re really not.
The third shocking truth is that God sometimes withholds illumination from those who He knows would respond to it. This is perhaps the most disturbing revelation of all, yet there’s no getting around it when we see Jesus saying things like:
“For if the miracles I did for you had been done in wicked Sodom, it would still be here today.” (Matt. 11:23)
Sodom was a city that Yahweh wiped off the map in a torrent of fire and brimstone because He was fed up with their rebellion. Of course Jesus was there at the time and quite involved in Sodom’s destruction, because Jesus is God and has been around forever. So if Jesus and Yahweh knew that the wicked people of Sodom would have repented if they’d been wowed with some miraculous signs, why didn’t They provide those signs? Well, why should They? To say that God was wrong to withhold miracles from Sodom is to assume that saving people ought to be God’s top priority in life. Well, no, it really isn’t. Exalting Himself is God’s top priority and God’s enormous ego simply refuses to put up with our flak for an extended amount of time (see The Illusion of God’s Long-Suffering Patience). When we keep lipping off to Him, His patience with us dwindles. There’s no way to guess how much patience God will have with any particular individual, but one thing is clear: the amounts vary. By now you’ve noticed how people die at very different ages in this world. Or, to be more accurate, God is killing people at very different ages. Some He kills as babies, some as teenagers, some in midlife, some in their old age. How long God is going to wait before killing YOU is a question which only He knows the answer to. But He is clear about this: He makes no guarantees up front. He could kill you off at any time, and the moment He does, you will have to answer for how you responded to Him while you were in this world. The popular mentality of “I’ll have plenty of time to get serious about God later on” is a dangerous gamble. No one knows how long they will live. No one can see God’s patience wearing thin. The Sodomites took that gamble and lost. They rebelled so much for so long that God decided not to give them extra illumination. Even though He knew He could persuade them with miracles, He decided, “Why should I? I’ve given them enough chances as it is. I’m God, I don’t have to put up with this attitude.”
God owes us NOTHING. This is something we must never forget. It is vital that we cherish the illumination He is giving us TODAY, and not treat the whispers of the Holy Spirit as trivial things. In this passage, Jesus reminds us of how real our option to choose is, and what an impact our choices can have. If the Sodomites had responded differently to Yahweh way back in Abraham’s day, Sodom would still be on the map. But they didn’t, so Sodom was obliterated. “Where would I be today if I had obeyed God?” isn’t a question we want to be stuck asking. We want to obey Him NOW, and experience His best plan for our lives.
As the word of Jesus’ miraculous powers spreads, the crowds around Him continue to grow. Traveling through the region of Galilee, Jesus is starting to gather a crowd of faithful women around Him, some of whom are wealthy and voluntarily paying His way. This just aggravates the Pharisees further, and they are desperately looking for some way to take Jesus down, but every time they publicly rebuke Him, He answers with some zinger that makes them look stupid. Meanwhile, Jesus is busy preaching in parables—parables that endlessly confuse people. Even Jesus’ own disciples don’t understand what He’s talking about most of the time, and when they ask for clarification, Jesus is more than a little crispy. Then comes the time when they’re caught in a storm and Jesus demonstrates His control over the weather. That was certainly impressive. Then there are endless healings, including the healing of a woman with a bleeding disease. More people are being raised from the dead, more demons are being cast out, and still the people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth reject Him. At last Jesus decides that it’s time to send His disciples out on their first mission trip without Him. This is big stuff, and Jesus’ pre-mission pep talk makes it clear that being chosen by God to be His messenger to the masses is no picnic. There are a lot of useful principles about serving God that we can learn from studying that speech, and we’ll start unpacking those principles in our next lesson.
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