[May 3, 2009] In Luke 7:1 Jesus returns to Capernaum after He finished His first tour of Galilee, which began at the end of chapter 4. During this tour people began to be touched individually by the Jubilee of God, which Jesus announced in Nazareth at the beginning of chapter 4. During this tour He also began to call people to be His disciples, and He set aside Twelve Apostles to be His witnesses, whom He will send to Israel.
Now we have two transitional stories (7:1-10 and 11-15), stories that continue the theme of Jubilee but also prepare us for the next section in which Jesus reveals to His disciples who He is. This section comes to a conclusion with the story of the Transfiguration (9:35). On the one hand, these stories are symbolic and allusive; on the other hand, they are quite literal. Either way, their common theme is the love of Jesus and the power of His Word in the face of death.
The Gentile’s Faith (Luke 7:1-10)
The theme of Jubilee that Jesus announced in His first sermon in Nazareth is about liberation. Jesus is the One promised by God in Isaiah 61, who would announce and set in motion the new Age when Israel would be liberated from her bondage, forgiven of her sins, and brought into blessedness. Leaving Nazareth, Jesus then liberated the synagogue in Capernaum of its demon, restored the household of Peter, healed the sick and cast out many demons, liberated Peter from his preoccupation, a leper from his uncleanness, a paralytic from his sin, a tax-collector from his ostracism, and the Sabbath from its legalism. Now, having called and gathered his disciples and pronounced them blessed, a surprising turn takes place.
So far Jesus had announced the Gospel only to Israel. There was a hint of something more in 6:17 when Luke tells us that people from the Gentile lands along the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon had also come to hear Jesus and be healed of their demons. But those people may have all been Jews. Now we read that the Jubilee of God reaches even the Gentiles (non-Jews). The prophets foretold it. We take that for granted, but the writers in the Bible are always surprised by it.
In Isaiah 40, God tells the prophet to “Comfort, O comfort My people” because God will come to them in grace and forgiveness. They are in exile still, even in Palestine, but Jesus is the presence of God, gathering the people like a hen gathers her chicks or a shepherd his sheep. He is the presence of the kingdom of God, and individually He liberates and restores them, revealing the love of God to them and bringing them into blessedness. But God also reveals to Isaiah that He will gather the Gentiles. The gathering of the Gentiles will be the sign to Israel that the Messiah has come.
In Luke chapter 6, Jesus called the Twelve Apostles. The Gospel according to Matthew organizes their eyewitness testimony for the churches. The church then was almost entirely Jewish, but Matthew’s gospel showed the churches why the mission to the Gentiles was justified. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospel went first to the Jews. It was not until another Roman centurion, Cornelius, asked Peter to come to him and share the Gospel with him and his household, that the mission to the Gentiles was given approval.
The Roman centurion in our story, like Cornelius, was a “God-fearer.” That means he attended the synagogue and worshiped the God of the Jews. This particular Roman loved the Jewish people and even built—or paid for the building of—the synagogue in Capernaum. Nevertheless, both he and Cornelius were uncircumcised and were considered by the Jews to be ritually unclean. Even though they worshiped God, they were outsiders. Peter was criticized for entering the house of a Gentile (Acts 11:2-3), and he himself would not have done it if God had not told him to (10:28). So also, the centurion in the gospel does not come to Jesus himself, but he sent some Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come to him. When he thought further on the matter, he sent his friends to cancel the first request. He decided not to ask Jesus to come to his house, because Jesus would then have to defile Himself. “Do not trouble Yourself for I am not fit for You to enter under my roof.” It would be enough if Jesus would just speak a Word. (His humility is similar to the Gentile woman in Matthew 15:27; her faith was also “great.”)
Yet it was the elders of the Jews who begged Jesus to come and heal the man’s slave. We should not forget that it was the faithful of Israel who besought God for our salvation—like Isaiah, and like Simeon in the beginning of the gospel who quoted Isaiah announcing that Jesus would be a light for revelation to the Gentiles (2:32); but also like Matthew and Peter and Paul and all the others. We can easily forget that we owe our faith to the Jews.
Jesus does not enter the Gentile’s house. Just as Jesus ascended into heaven before the church brought the Gospel to the Gentiles, so Jesus here restores this Gentile and his household by His Word alone. We Gentiles do not have Jesus’ physical presence among us today. Yet His Word by itself is able to make us whole. This is what we have.
This story is similar to the story of Naaman and Elisha in 2 Kings 5. Naaman was a captain of the army of the king of Syria and needed healing. Elisha also healed him with a word (an instruction)—without coming out of his house and touching him. Jesus’ act reminds us of that one, and should make us wonder whether Jesus is a prophet like Elisha. The Jews (the Pharisees) believed that the age of prophecy was over, that it ended with Malachi, in the days of Ezra. Prophecy was not going to be restored until the Messiah comes. This was the hope that John the Baptist raised. Now Jesus acts like the prophets of old. Elijah and Elisha were the first of the great prophets.
But the story of Naaman is also different. Naaman was insulted by Elisha’s not coming out to him. He despised Israel and its land. The Roman centurion, on the other hand, loves Israel and he was the one to ask Jesus not to come to his house when Jesus was willing.
Jesus is amazed at the centurion’s faith. “Not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” It is not necessary for Gentiles to practice the Torah. What is necessary, and what is enough, is faith, faith in (and fidelity to) Jesus and faith in His Word.
What is special about this man’s faith in Jesus is what he says in verse 8. He recognizes Jesus’ authority, His authority to command. This everyone notices, but they often miss why he was able to recognize it. He recognized that Jesus could speak with God’s own authority because he saw that Jesus was completely under God’s authority. “For I also am a man set under authority.” He realized that Jesus was completely under God’s authority and therefore He could act with God’s authority. Do we recognize Jesus as the obedient One? He is our Savior because of His faithfulness to the Father. The Spirit of God was upon Him, yes, but God’s freedom to work through Him still depended on His faithfulness and humility. Do we see Him?
It is no different with us. We are not greater than our Master. If He assumed no authority to act on His own, even though He was sinless, as Christians we certainly should assume no authority to act on our own. The only authority we have is when we are under Christ’s authority. Then we really do have it, as the apostles show us. We exercise this authority for the Gospel, for Christ, not for ourselves.
He Gives Life to the Dead (Luke 7:11-15)
The name of the town of Nain means “Pleasure,” but in this next story, a procession is leaving the town carrying the dead son, the only son of a widow, for burial. As her only son, he was probably her only means of support, which makes this scene doubly sad. Not only is the son whom she loved dead, but she is left in the world alone.
“Do not weep,” Jesus tells her. In contrast to the Gentile—Jesus did NOT go to his house but spoke the Word from a distance—here He comes near to this procession and touches the bier. “Young man, to you I say, Arise.” If Jesus’ Word had power to heal from a distance, here His Word has power to bring life to the dead.
We are reminded of Elijah now, who in 1 Kings 17:17-24 raised a widow’s son from death. In these two events, people can see that Jesus is a prophet like the archetypical Elijah and Elisha. Prophecy has come back, and people’s hopes are raised.
The story also has symbolic value, especially coming after the story of the Gentile and his great faith. In Lamentations 1:1 Judah, in exile among the nations, is compared to a widow. And Ezekiel compares Israel and Judah to a valley of dry bones. While a remnant of Judah returned to Palestine in the days of Ezra, this was not the return that the prophets foretold. From a prophetic point of view, Israel was and still is in exile. But the prophets also said that in the last days, when the Messiah comes, the Spirit of God would blow on those dry bones and they would come to life. Paul in Romans 9-11 speaks of this, but he also says that it will not take place until after the Gospel is proclaimed to the Gentiles. “Have they stumbled so as to fall? Absolutely not! But by their misstep salvation has come to the Gentiles … but if their misstep has become riches for the world, and their loss, riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fullness be! … For if their being cast aside is the reconciliation of the world, what will their being received back be, if not life from the dead? … Hardness has come upon Israel in part, until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in; and thus all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:11-12, 15, 25-26). After salvation comes to the Gentiles, Israel will be saved and the resurrection from the dead will take place. Not only does the widow’s son represent the restoration of Israel when Jesus “comes near” (when He returns) and “touches the bier,” but he also represents the resurrection from the dead of all believers. The Word of Jesus is so full of life that it can give life to the dead.
If the widow’s “only son” symbolizes Jesus Himself, then His resurrection brings hope to Israel. Israel remains a widow as long as her exile continues, but she is not left alone. The resurrected Christ sustains the Jews and He is their hope, even if they do not know it.
In Luke, Jesus pays special attention to widows (2:37; 4:25-26; 18:2-6; 20:47; 21:2-4; see also Acts 6:1; 9:39, 41), as He does toward women in general and towards the poor. Hear this word, “When the Lord saw her, He was moved with compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” We are told that the centurion’s slave was “about to die,” and Jesus healed him. But to actually resurrect the dead is the ultimate act of Jubilee, and shows the extent of God’s love for us and the power He will exercise toward us. One day He will resurrect us so that we can be with Him forever. If He is willing and able to do that, would He not do less? We who are saved among the Gentiles, we share with Israel the status of widowhood, for we too wait for Jesus to return. We too live under God’s judgment, and so there are many things in this life that we must accept. But even though we are a “widow,” Jesus sees us. He sees us and is moved with compassion for us. And He says, “Do not weep.”
As the son brought back to life was a comfort to his mother, so Jesus brought back to life is our comfort in this time. He is away from us now, but He is present through the Word. His Word has the power to restore our lives and our households, to bring us healing, and to make us inwardly whole. Having heard the Gospel, let us remember Him in breaking bread, for the risen Lord is with us.