If we could get to Heaven based on our goodness (and we can’t), how worthy do you think you’d be of winning a place in Heaven? Where would you even start to define the invisible line that divided the worthy from the unworthy? Are there people that you know that you would consider worthy?
In Luke 7:1-10, we find an example of a man that many people thought was worthy. But what did he think?
Most people think that they will get to Heaven because of some sort of worthiness on their part. I watched a video where different people were asked the question, “What do you need to go to Heaven?”
One person said, “I guess for everyone it’s different…pretty much holding up to your morals and…your integrity and just living your life to the best that you can and hope that you’ve done everything right throughout your life.”
Other people answered, “be a good person” or “be good, don’t get in trouble” or “be a general, nice, caring person” or even, “keep going to church.”
All these people who answered would say that they were Christians and perhaps attended church on a regular basis. But they think that they will go to Heaven because they are worthy (or that they need to be worthy to go to Heaven).
It makes sense when you think about it biblically. Everyone is a sinner and pride is at the core of sin. So of course, sinners are going to think that they are worthy to go to Heaven.
But this is not what the Bible teaches, and the account of the centurion shows us the divide between thinking we are worthy and needing to recognize our unworthiness.
WE THINK THAT WE ARE WORTHY
Luke 7:1 Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum.
Luke 7:2 And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die.
What is a “centurion” (ἑκατοντάρχης)? A a centurion was a Roman, a Gentile, a non-Jew; normally there was a hatred between those two peoples.
However, this particular centurion had won the respect of the Jewish people—they said of him “he loveth our nation and he hath who built us a synagogue” (Luke 7:5). Already we see that our centurion is a remarkable man.
A centurion was an officer in the Roman military. More specifically, centurions were officers who worked their way up through the ranks.
The centurion in the passage was probably someone who has been in the Roman Army for a long time. He was a man who worked his way up from the ranks, so he knew what it meant to be under authority, thatʼs important later.
In the New Testament, Centurions, like this one or the one at the cross who said that Jesus was a righteous man, are always viewed in positive light in scripture (Mark 15:39; Acts 10:1–2; 22:25–26; 23:17–18; 27:1, 42–43).
The centurion here in Luke is remarkable because of his love for his servant. His servant (δοῦλος, a slave that he bought and owned, not a paid butler) was “dear unto him.”
In those days, a slave owner might desire to save the life of a slave for the same reason a rancher might work hard to save the life of an animal—monetary value. But this centurion was a goodhearted man, who wanted to save his servant because he loved him. And so…
Luke 7:3 And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant.
The centurion had heard of Jesus and his healing miracles. He knew that Jesus could heal his servant. But, as we will see, he did not think himself worthy to come to Jesus personally.
He asked the Jewish elders to go instead (perhaps he also thought that Jesus would be more open if the request came from a fellow Jew, not a Roman centurion).
We must stop here, because there is an apparent contradiction in Matthew that we need to address.
5 And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him (Matthew 8:5)
Did the centurion come to Jesus as Matthew says, or did he send some Jewish elders to Jesus on his behalf as Luke reports?
The best answer is that the centurion did not come personally, but sent the elders and then friends to Jesus. Matthew is using a type of speech where someone of high authority can be said to have come and asked personally when, in fact, they sent the message through agents.
You might hear on the news, “Today, the President asked the Russian leader to disarm more nuclear warheads.” It could have been a person-to-person call, but more likely it was an ambassador who delivered the message. Likewise, the Jewish elders came on behalf of the centurion.
Luke 7:4 And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this:
Luke 7:5 For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.
Here’s another reason to like the Roman centurion. The elders say that he loves Israel and he built them a “synagogue,” the Jewish equivalent of a Christian church building. Centurions were well-paid, making between 3,500 and 7,500 denarii (Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994], 635).
A denarii was the rough equivalent of what a blue-collar worker could expect to be paid each day, so the centurion made 10 or 20 times more than the average guy. He could have easily financed the building of the synagogue by himself!
The religious Jews looked at all this and deemed the centurion “worthy” of attention from Jesus. He loved their nation, loved his servant (probably a Jewish slave), and financed the building of a synagogue. How could he not be worthy?
This is the case with most of us humans. We look at our accomplishments and really think that they can measure up to what God wants from us. We admit that we make mistakes, but surely the good we’ve done must make up for them. We might even lay claim to helping to build a church building—that has to could for a lot!
Most people think that salvation is based on merit. That we can be worthy to be saved.
What is most remarkable about this centurion, however, is not the good things that he had done or even the love he had for his slave. The most remarkable thing is that he did not think himself to be worthy!
WE MUST RECOGNIZE THAT WE ARE UNWORTHY
Luke 7:6 Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof:
Luke 7:7a Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee:
Jesus heads off to the centurion’s house with the Jewish elders. Apparently someone ran ahead and told the centurion that Jesus was coming, or else he changed his mind after sending the elders to Jesus, because now he sends a group of his friends to tell Jesus not to trouble himself with him.
Why doesn’t the centurion want Jesus to come? Part of his thinking could have been that a Jew could not (according to the religious leaders of the day) enter into a Gentile’s house without becoming ceremonially unclean.
But I don’t think the centurion was concerned too much about those rules and regulations, and Jesus’s comment about his faith in verse 9 shows us that is the case.
No, this centurion had come to see that he was an unworthy sinner and did not deserve to have God’s grace in his life. In his message to Jesus he twice says that he was not “worthy.”
Throughout scripture, we find that the first step in coming to God is recognizing that we are unworthy.
When the prodigal son returned to his father, what did he admit?
21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. (Luke 15:21)
Or look at Romans 5:8—
8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
How did John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the greatest prophet who ever lived (Matthew 11:11), view himself?
11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: (Matthew 3:11)
Nowhere in scripture does it say that God loves us or gives us grace because we are worthy. He loves sinners despite our sin, not because of our supposed goodness and worthiness.
Am I saying that we ought to wallow in the dirt like a lowly worm? Should we be perpetually depressed? No, but we do need to recognize our unworthiness in a way that causes us to look to the Lord for help. Charles Spurgeon said:
Your sense of your unworthiness, if it be properly used, should drive you to Christ. You are unworthy, but Jesus died for the unworthy. Jesus did not die for those who profess to be by nature good and deserving, for the whole have no need of a physician; but it is written, “In due time Christ died for the ungodly,” “who gave himself for our”—what? “Excellences and virtues?” No; “who gave himself for our sins, according to the Scriptures.” (C. H. Spurgeon, “The Centurion’s Faith and Humility,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 14 [London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1868], 148.)
To go to Heaven, we first must recognize our unworthiness, but we also…
WE MUST HAVE FAITH IN JESUS’S AUTHORITY
This is what the centurion recognized—he was unworthy and Jesus was ultimately most worthy and glorious. So he says to Jesus (through his friends):
Luke 7:7b but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.
Luke 7:8 For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
Centurions were in authority over 60 to 100 soldiers—called a Century (the equivalent of company today). Several centuries (the number varied) made up a Cohort (the equivalent of a modern battalion).
Roughly ten Cohorts made up Legion, which could have up to 6,000 soldiers in it (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cohort). Cohorts and Legions were commanded by higher ranking officers, so the centurion understood what it meant to be under authority as well as in authority.
The centurion recognized Jesus as someone with authority. This should be surprising to us. The centurion was a Roman soldier, part of the most powerful military the world had ever known. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, and not one from any respected school like the apostle Paul was, but from the backwoods town of Nazareth.
Humanly speaking, the centurion could have ordered Jesus to be brought to his house. He could have been ordered to heal the slave, after all, he was one of Jesus’s kind. But instead, the centurion places himself under Jesus’s authority. Why? Because he had faith in Jesus’s authority to heal the servant.
Luke 7:9 When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.
Luke 7:10 And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.
The centurion had faith that Jesus could say a word and the servant would be healed.
The centurion had faith that Jesus had authority over people and diseases.
I think you can also say, indeed, you must say, that the centurion had faith that Jesus was God himself—that is why the centurion felt so unworthy of him.
The centurion’s faith was rewarded with Jesus’s commendation that he had not found such faith in Israel—quite a statement considering that the Jews were supposed to be the fortress of faith in the world and here Jesus identifies the greatest faith as being found in a Gentile.
The centurions’s faith was also rewarded with Jesus’s amazement—he “marvelled.” There’s only one other time that Jesus marvelled at someone, and that was in Nazareth, when he marvelled at the people’s unbelief—lack of faith (Mark 6:6).
Again, the people who had all the advantages from God—his Word, the temple, the sacrifices, his election of them as his people—failed to have faith.
This still happens today. Many people come to church, indeed even grow up in the church, and do not have the faith in Jesus and his authority that this centurion did.
This happens because we do not really see ourselves as unworthy. Our culture does not want people to see themselves as unworthy.
We’re good at heart. We need better self-esteem and so on. We are the authority in our lives; no one else.
But look at this centurion—if anyone could be worthy, it would have been him. Yet Jesus didn’t say to him, “Because you have loved God’s people and even built a synagogue, I will heal your servant.”
No, because the centurion thought himself too unworthy to even meet Jesus, Jesus saw in him the greatest faith he had ever seen in Israel.
The centurion saw in Jesus an authority that was greater than he, and he placed his faith in Jesus’s authority to save his servant.
This account of the centurion is an example of the basic principles of salvation:
1) Our worthiness is not enough to heal and save us. Why? One reason is that if our worthiness could save us, we would be boastful about it. We would not give God the credit. Think about the verses from Ephesians 2—
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
If your worthiness could save you, you would not worship God in Heaven for all eternity—you would worship yourself.
Like the centurion, you must see yourself as unworthy.
2) A second principle of salvation that we see here is just as the centurion saw Jesus’s authority to save his servant, so must you recognize that Jesus has authority to save you. He has this authority because he willingly laid down his life on the cross for our sins.
The only one actually worthy to enter Heaven by his own merits died for those who are unworthy.
21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Jesus also has authority to save us because he rose from the dead. His resurrection validated what he did on the cross. It shows us that God the Father approved of his sacrifice.
What is left? Faith. Faith in Jesus’s authority to save you and give you eternal life. Is the Lord dealing with you right now? Have you recognized your sinfulness and called for Jesus to come and save you?
If you have admitted your own unworthiness and come to trust in Christ as your Savior, isn’t wonderful to know that you have a God who loves you despite your unworthiness?