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The Centurion's Tale


I have read the passage a hundred times, in a dozen different translations. It is not a passage frequently used as a sermon topic—the use of authority is greatly frowned upon these days—but it has its place when discussing the concept of great faith. I repeat the story to you from the New American Standard Bible, with one word emphasized:

When He had completed all His discourse in the hearing of the people, He went to Capernaum. And a centurion's slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. When they came to Jesus, they earnestly implored Him, saying, "He is worthy for You to grant this to him; for he loves our nation and it was he who built us our synagogue." Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, "Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. "For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and 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." Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the crowd that was following Him, "I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

(Luke 7:1-10 NASB)

The New International leaves that word out; the King James catches the point, and I hope you do too. It is not just that the centurion is a man under authority; it is that he recognizes in Jesus a man who is under authority too! He sees in Christ one who can give orders, and can take them just as well. It is on that basis that he is completely confident of Jesus; after all, if he were given an order, it would be carried out. How much more would the orders of this prophet from Nazareth.

No doubt his theology was a little hazy; it’s likely he thought the man another one of the Old Testament prophets (which is, in part, correct). But he knew one thing: this man was under the authority of God. The miracles he had done showed that. Therefore, say the word and all would be well. It was simply a matter of proper understanding of authority—and Jesus confirms this as great faith.

Consider that: the proper understanding of the authority of Christ is sufficient to grant one “great faith.” Why is it, then, that we in the

church seem to ignore, or even deny, the authority of Christ? If it is a key to great faith, it would seem worth exploring.

The Problem

Let us begin by acknowledging the existence of the problem. The church—by which I mean all believers who acknowledge that Jesus is indeed the Christ—is obviously, visibly of weak faith. There are individuals of great faith, but the church as a whole is of weak faith. If we had to select, this would be the Laodicean church. In spite of how obvious this is, it is a subject which seems taboo. We will talk about our wonderful programs and missionary trips, but the rock solid faith of the church of just a hundred years ago is clearly gone. If asked to show our faith, we would show Christ our date books—and he would look at how worn are our knees.

Indeed, nothing is so common in reading 19th century Christian authors as the sense that they moved in an era of divine providence. The genuinely miraculous was rare, but they regularly relied upon God’s providence—successfully. Their stories now gather dust; our stories relate more to how we feel about what God has done. Again, there are outstanding exceptions; but they are just that—exceptions.

How does this relate to the concept of authority, and particularly the authority of Christ? Consider the following:

· As a culture, we have an abiding distrust of authority. Politicians are assumed to be lying and concealing. Science is warped for the purposes of making a buck—or worse. Religious figures are in constant scandal. Is it any wonder then that we distrust authority in general?

· We are now told that we must each find our own way in the matter of right and wrong. This idea, by its very nature, denies the possibility of moral authority outside our own heads.

· You may think this is just a secular issue. Go back and read (for example) Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. Study it diligently; is there any suggestion of the authority of the church? Certainly not. Yet the evangelical church in particular is greatly enamored with it. (I am not suggesting that Rick is wrong; I’m suggesting that he understands his readers very well. Whoever’s fault that might be, it is not Rick Warren’s.)

The Solution

If we are to restore the authority of Christ, and its potential as a source of great faith, we must begin by understanding the true nature of authority. Permit me to do so by way of example.

Consider that specimen of fine, masculine authority, the fireman. Have you noticed how much authority we give to those men in the red trucks? They have but to turn on their sirens and lights and we are obliged to move over to the side of the road as quickly as possible. Do we object? No, we’re pleased. The next heart attack victim might be you. Even though they have this extraordinary authority over us, we accept it and even cooperate with it.

From this we may extract some general principles.

· All legitimate authority descends from Christ. The fireman is an agent of the government. Paul explicitly tells us to be obedient to such, as being divinely blessed. Jesus himself tells us to render unto Caesar. Sometimes the trail is twisted, but if the authority can’t be traced back to Christ, it is not righteous.

· Such authority exists for the benefit of those in submission to it. We move over for the fireman; he puts out fires. We give firearms to the policeman; he is to catch crooks. Great authority is given—but always for purposes which benefit those in submission.

· Ultimately, such authority rests upon our voluntary submission. If we did not submit, the authority could not prevail. (If you think not, try going 65 mph in the fast lane some Saturday). The fireman has neither time nor numbers to force us.

· Such authority is properly exercised in the Christian concept of servant leadership. It is no accident that our forefathers coined the phrase “public servant.” They understood that these men were not to lord it over us, but see to the business for which they were appointed or elected. (This is almost the definition of the difference between public servant and bureaucrat.)

· The proper response of the Christian is submission to proper authority. Pull over for the fire truck. First, we are taught to honor him to whom honor is due. Indeed, the Christian goes beyond this; we are to pray for those in authority over us. It is higher than that; we are to submit to them so as to make their task a joy (see Hebrews 13:17).

· The Christian recognizes that punishment is due to those who will not render proper obedience to authority. This is true in matters civil and criminal; it is all the more true in matters spiritual.

May we then apply these same principles to the relationship between Christ and His church?

The Authority of Christ

It should be obvious that all authority in heaven and earth is given to Christ. A Christian who cannot acknowledge that has denied having a lord. And without lord, there is no savior. Indeed, the church might be said to be defined by his authority. It consists of all those people of all places and all times who submit to the authority of Christ.

Is this for our benefit? It is indeed, and greatly so. For in the church we find salvation; we find comfort; we find eternal life; we find guidance; we find all those things most necessary for the spiritual animal. All this depends upon the authority of Christ.

Is this a voluntary relationship? Certainly. You joined voluntarily; you can leave any time. The fact that you don’t must mean something.

What is our duty to the authority over us? Obedience, first, and then a cheerful cooperation. More than that, we are to make those who are set in authority by the church to find their task a joy. It is not grudging consent but joyful participation.

Is there punishment for those who do not? Hell is not a particularly popular sermon topic these days, but you’ll find the Bible has not lost any verses on the subject.


You have faith in the fire department. Will you have faith in him?

· Can he deliver on his promises? He always has.

· Will he deliver on his promises? How can God lie?

· Does he deliver on his promises? To those who believe.

By the authority given to Him by God the Father, Christ has commissioned his church. Some day that authority will be plain to all; the faith will become sight. In the meanwhile, consider what it means to say that he has complete authority over the church—which includes you.