The Lord's Day Morning
October 18, 2009
“God Has Visited His People”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 7 as we continue our way through the great gospel of Luke. In this passage, Luke is telling us two stories that are designed to help us and his original readers appreciate more fully who Jesus is. Throughout Luke's gospel and the other gospels, the gospel writers are driving home the point that Jesus is the promised Messiah that Israel has been looking for and more fully developing their appreciation and our appreciation for who Jesus is, and Luke is doing that in this passage. Perhaps to help you understand more fully the impact of this passage on its original audience, it would be good for you right now to transport yourself in your mind and in your imagination back about nineteen centuries.
Let's find ourselves somewhere in a small, Palestinian village, maybe in the north of Palestine, not too far from Antioch, which would have been above the ancient boundaries of Israel, but was a central place for the growth and the export of Christianity. Let's assume that we're on a Sunday morning in a home, where a small group of Jewish Christians have gathered with some of their Jewish friends that they’re sharing Christ with, and the pastor of that local Christian church is a convert, a man who was converted at a young age under the ministry of Barnabas, and he's now advanced in years and maybe seventy years old. It's the early part of the second century, and there's a great deal of excitement in this little gathering of Christians in this church which meets in a home on Sunday mornings because they have with them a copy of the gospel of Luke, and the pastor is reading through that gospel. And so their Jewish friends from the synagogue – that their Jewish Christian friends have invited to come and to hear their pastor read from the gospel of Luke – and as they’re reading, the Jewish friends know that their Jewish Christians friends believe that Jesus is the Messiah and they’re interested to see what Luke says about the Messiah — what's He like?
And Luke in this passage, in two stories, tells us about the compassion and the power and the person of Christ. The first story, you’ll see that story in verses 1-10, is the story of Jesus intervening in the family of a centurion. Now what's surprising about that of course is that centurion is a Gentile. He's not Jewish. And he's not only a Gentile, he is a Roman officer. He is part of the occupying force of Romans that most Jews want out of their country. But this centurion loves Israel, and he's even paid to build a synagogue. I'm sure — can you imagine the thoughts that would have been running through the minds of those Jewish Christians and those Jewish friends that were gathered that Sunday in the home to hear this gospel read — they would have had all sorts of conflicting feelings running through their minds as they heard about Jesus, the One who is the Messiah, going to this Gentile, this Roman centurion, to help his family in a time of need.
And then the second story is just as interesting. It's the story of a widow in a little town named Nain, maybe a little bit south of Nazareth. And there's a big funeral procession, and this widow, who's already lost her husband, has now lost her only son. And Jesus meets her and He does something that would have blown the mind of any Jewish person hearing this passage read in those days. And in doing this, Luke is showing you the compassion of Christ, the power of Christ, and the person of Christ.
Let's bear that in mind as we read it, and let's pray before we hear God's Word.
Heavenly Father, what we want to see, more than anything else, and what we want to see clearly and eternally is Jesus. So show us Jesus. We pray it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“After He has finished all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to Him elders of the Jews, asking Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with Him earnestly, saying, ‘He (that is the centurion) is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.’ And Jesus went with them. When He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.’ When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed Him, said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.
Soon afterward He went to a town called Nain, and His disciples and a great crowd went with Him. As He drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then He came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and “God has visited His people!’ And this report about Him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Have you ever not known who you were talking to? I have — and more than once. Kurt was a dear friend of mine — Kurt Armstrong. He was a student from the United States, studying at the University of Edinburgh. He was doing, I think, a master's degree in English. I think he's a university professor now. He was one of the kindest, nicest young men I think I've ever met. He was my point guard on the University of Edinburgh team, but he was good enough that he could play two and even three a little bit. And I loved talking with Kurt about the English compositions that he was writing and about the things that he was studying, but also about his family. Kurt and I had a close enough relationship that he could even share with me some of the deep burdens and pains of his life. His mom and dad had split up when he was younger, and it was clear that he loved both his mom and his dad, but that he didn't know his dad very well. And yet he loved his dad and he wanted to know more about his dad. But I could ask him things like, “Kurt, what does your dad do?” and he never could quite tell me. And that was very poignant to me. He lived with his mom and he didn't know much about his dad.
Well, we were getting ready to play the University of Saint Andrews and Kurt came to me the week before and said, “My dad's going to be here next week. Would it be okay if dad rode with us on the team bus, ate the team meal before the game with us, attending the game with us and sat with us on the bench, and then rode back from Saint Andrews to Edinburgh with us on the team bus?” I said, “Of course, Kurt. It would be a delight.” So the day came and it was time for us to load up, and there was Kurt's dad and he was introduced to me. Kurt said, “This is my dad, Brian.” “Nice to meet you Brian.” And we had a delightful but somewhat superficial conversation on the bus on the way to Saint Andrews, and he sat with us on the bench and we had a meal together and another meal together after the game and then on the way back to Edinburgh and it was delightful conversation. He too was a kind man and an interesting man, but I didn't get to know him well.
The following week at practice I was talking with Kurt and I asked him again, “Kurt, now where is it that your dad teaches?” “He teaches at GeorgiaState.” “Really? Kurt, do you have any idea what he teaches? What kind of books do you see in his library when you go to visit him?” “Well, I see lots of history books.” “Hmmm…maybe he's a historian. What kind of history books?” “Well, a lot of them are religious books. Some of them are about the Reformation.” Now suddenly, something was beginning to dawn on me. My friend was Kurt Armstrong, and his father was named Brian, and he taught at GeorgiaState, and he had history books in his library and a lot of them were about the Protestant Reformation and I said, “Is your dad Brian G. Armstrong?” “Yes, yes he is.” “Brian G. Armstrong as in the one who wrote the book, Calvin and the Amyraut Heresy, one of the most famous Reformation scholars in the English speaking world?” “Well, I'm not sure, but I know he wrote a book once.” I didn't tell Kurt, but I had written my master's thesis to refute everything that his father had written in that book!
But his dad had been to places and to libraries in Europe and seen things that I had never seen. I would have dearly loved to have picked his brain for twelve hours and to have learned from him, but I didn't know who he was.
It's happened before. I was in the dining hall of NewCollege in Edinburgh — this massive room with forty foot ceilings. It looked like the interior of a Scottish castle with dark wood and long, formal tables. And it was late one summer morning at breakfast time and there was a man sitting by himself with a book and his bowl of porridge at one of the tables and I thought I would go over and befriend him. We had all sorts of visiting scholars at the university during the summer and he looked like he was in his middle age, but rather boyish, and so I went over to speak to him. And we struck up a conversation and I asked him, “What are you here studying?” “Well, I'm here doing some research on George Whitfield.” Well I chirped in, “Let me tell you a few things about the George Whitfield collection here at NewCollege because we've got some quite interesting things.” And then I recommended that he read a few books. And the books that I recommended were about like books that you would recommend a second or third year seminary student who knew absolutely nothing about George Whitfield.
Well, the conversation went on and it was delightful and about a half hour later I knew I was taking up more of his time than I should, so I said, “Look, I've never introduced myself. I'm Lig Duncan. What's your name?” “I'm Skip.” “Skip?” “Skip Stout.” Oh, no, something was dawning on me now. “Skip Stout. Are you from Yale?” “Yes.” “You teach at Yale?” “Yes.” “You’re Harry S. Stout, whose book, whose biography of George Whitfield (The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield…) just won the Gold Book Award this last year. Dr. Stout, I am so sorry, I want to apologize. I didn't know who I was talking to!”
You understand that these people in Luke 7 had no idea who they were talking to. They had absolutely no clue of the glory of the person that they were talking to. They knew some things about him, and surprisingly in verses one to ten, this centurion seems to know more things about Him than even the people in Israel knew about Him. He knew that this Man somehow had power and He had power from God, but none of them had any idea who it is that they were talking to. And Luke has written these stories so that when you talk to Jesus you have some idea of who it is that you’re talking to.
It's quite extraordinary, this first story, isn't it? It's a centurion who sends for Jesus. He's a Roman officer. He's in command. He's called a centurion because technically that means you’re in charge of what — a century of men, a hundred men. But more frequently, it was about sixty to eighty men you were in charge of. You got paid more than they did. You couldn't get married if you were a Roman centurion because you were sent out into the very corners of the empire sometimes to stay for twenty years in the service of the empire. You can imagine how hard that would be on the family for the father to be away for twenty years. And so centurions could not be married. That meant that oftentimes they got to be very close to their servants because their servants were about the only family that they had.
This man is clearly a good man, a kind man. The Jewish elders around him respect him. He seems to clearly love this servant of his who is sick unto death, and he is ready to call for a master healer to come and to spare his life. And not only that, this centurion, while he has been stationed in Israel, becomes deeply impressed with the religion of Israel and with the God that the Jews worship and with the morality of their conduct, and he has gotten to the point where he has actually devoted a large proportion of his income to the building of a synagogue. And so when he hears of this Jewish prophet, Jesus, who has the power to heal, he speaks to the elders of that synagogue that he had helped to build and he says, “Look, I'm a Gentile and I'm a Roman centurion, would you friends, you Jewish friends, go speak to this Jewish prophet and see if He would consent to come and help my servant who's dying?” And these men clearly love and esteem him and so they go to Jesus and it's so fascinating, isn't it? Look at verse 4. They say, “He is worthy for You to do this thing, for You to do this request, because he loves our nation and he is the one who built this synagogue.”
By the way, this is one of those passages that proves to me the Bible is true. Now you know that there was a century of strife between Jews and Jewish Christians and it would have been so easy to paint all Jewish people as mean and narrow and oppositional, but Luke paints such a favorable picture of these elders at this Jewish synagogue. This is not like something that is made up by people with an ax to grind. This is something that reflects the reality of the history before us. It surprises you because, if you read other ancient literature, it tends to paint enemies as cartoons, and Luke is being faithful as a historian down to the final details. We see here something of the truth and the historicity of the Bible, even in the way these Jewish elders are described.
But at any rate, they come to Jesus and they say, “This man is worthy.” And Jesus says something amazing. He says, “Well, I'm going to go to his house.” What's amazing about that? Remember we're back in the second century and we're hearing this in the little home where the Jewish Christians are meeting with their Jewish friends and the pastor who was converted under Barnabas is reading this passage and explaining it, and everyone in that room knows one thing — Jews do not go into Gentiles’ houses, because if you do, you become ritually, ceremonially unclean for a day and you have to go through a purification ceremony even if you've come into contact with a Gentile. And yet Jesus is headed right for his home.
Do you see what Luke is telling you? Luke is telling you that Jesus, the Messiah, is fulfilling exactly what Nate Shurden read to you from Isaiah 56 this morning. God will bring the nations to the temple of God. And His temple will be called a house of prayer for all the nations. The Messiah will bring in the nations to the worship of the true God. And Luke is showing you just a glimpse of how Jesus is going to the Gentiles. It's just a little testimony, just a little trickle. After Pentecost, the Gospel will spread to the ends of the earth, but he's showing you the Savior, the Messiah, going after the Gentiles.
And then something quite remarkable happens. As they’re on the way, another delegation, another embassy, from the centurion comes. This time it's some friends. And the centurion says, “I am not worthy to have You come under my roof.” You see, the elders of the synagogue said, “He is worthy for you to do this.” That's not the attitude of the centurion — “I'm not worthy for You to even come into my house.” He knew the protocol. He knew that a Jew would be declared unclean if he came into his house. And so he says to Jesus, “I'm a man under authority too, Jesus. I understand You. You see, the emperor and his generals have given me charge over men, and if I tell them to ‘Go,’ they go, and if I tell them to ‘Come,’ they come, and if I tell my servants to do something, they do something. And You’re like that too. You've been given authority too, but the authority You've been given comes from God. And I know that because You've been given that authority, if You say something, it will be so. And I know that You don't even need to come into my house. So that you don't be come ritually unclean, just say the word and I know that my servant will be healed.”
And if you look at verse 9, the Lord Jesus does something remarkable, and here's what He does — He marvels at this man.
Do you have an inkling of how kind and compassionate that little phrase is? You know, it would make sense if that man were marveling at Jesus, but Jesus, in His kindness, is marveling at this man, this Gentile, this Roman officer, and marveling at the man's faith. And He turns to the crowd that's with Him, and He says, “You know, I have been up and down this land, from Dan to Beersheba, and I have not found this kind of faith in Israel.”
Now there's a message for us. Most of us here are Gentile Christians. We have a few Jewish Christians in our congregation, but most of us are Gentile Christians. Most of us are just like this centurion — we're outside the covenant; we're the people being talked about in Isaiah 56; we're the ones who had no right to the covenant and to the promises, but God has brought us in. But having been brought in for so long, sometimes we begin to think just like the people of Israel, and we begin to lack the faith, the same kind of lack of faith that Jesus saw in Israel in His own day. And sometimes we have to be reminded by people who are outside the bounds of our fellowship, that Jesus can be trusted. And that centurion taught that lesson to those Jewish elders and to others that day. And Jesus marveled at it.
And here's the thing — even the centurion had no idea who he was dealing with. Because we know from Jesus’ actions elsewhere in the gospels and what comes up in the next story, that Jesus would have entered into his house, and He would have even sat down and supped with him. And you know what? Jesus would have done it and He wouldn't have become unclean.
We know that because of the story that's going to be told next, and because of a story that's going to be told in Luke chapter 8. And what is so glorious here is Jesus reaching out in His compassion and in His power to this Gentile. And Luke doesn't even tell us what word Jesus said. Luke doesn't even record for us what it is that Jesus spoke to heal this servant. Luke just tells us that when everybody gets back home, the servant is well. The centurion knew that Jesus could speak the word and it would be so, but as far as Luke is concerned, Jesus didn't even need to speak the word. That's how powerful He is, because He doesn't just come along side us and say, “I feel for you. I'm hurting for you; empathetic with you; there for you, but I can't do anything about it.” He can heal the dying.
And then Luke tells us this other story in verses eleven to seventeen. Jesus is on His way into a little town called Nain. Out of that town comes a funeral procession. Almost everybody in town is in that procession and you learn why — it's a widow who's lost a child, and it's not just a child, it's her only son. In that culture, this almost certainly means that unless she has a near relative that can take care of her, she is going to be reduced to begging. In those days, the way a funeral procession worked was, the bereaved person walked in front of the funeral bier, and the bier was actually not much more than a wide plank of wood. There was no closed coffin. It was an open coffin. The body of a deceased person was laid out on that plank of wood, already embalmed to be taken to whatever grave there was to be entombed. And this woman is walking in front of the funeral bier of her son and her son's wrapped body is on top of that open plank of wood. And she's weeping, and Jesus walks up to her and says, “Do not weep.”
Now we know that philosophers in those days very often comforted the bereaved with these words, “Do not weep. It will do no good.” I have never heard such a counsel comfort anyone, and Jesus does not give that counsel. That is not the platitude that He offered. He says, “Do not weep” for a very different reason. And then He does something remarkable — He reaches up His hand and He touches the funeral bier. Let's go back again — we're in the early second century, somewhere outside of Antioch, we're in that little household on Sunday and the Jewish Christian pastor who was converted under Barnabas is reading to us Luke. Every one of us in that room would stop breathing, because there is no greater ritual impurity in Israel than to touch a corpse or to touch a thing that a corpse has touched. It does not mean one day of ritual uncleanness. It means seven days of ritual uncleanness and a very elaborate purification ceremony to attend with it. Anything that a corpse touched was declared unclean. If you came into contact with anything that a corpse touched, and then came into contact with another person, they became unclean as well as you. There was no defilement more dramatic than contact with the dead in the ceremonial law of Israel. And here is Jesus, reaching up His hand to touch the funeral bier.
But He does not become unclean. Instead He says, “Stop right there. Young man, I say to you, get up.” And the man gets up and he begins to speak, and then in a language — go back and look at it this afternoon; look at the cross references in your passage here in Luke 7, and go back and read it in Kings. In the exact same words that the ancient prophet gave back her son to the widow, we read, “And He gave him back to her.” And everybody in that synagogue is saying, “Who is this? Who is this that touches a funeral bier and doesn't become unclean but brings the man to life?” And the people who were there that day are saying, “Who is this? Surely a great prophet has arisen! Surely God has visited us in this person of a great prophet!” It was a wonderful and an appropriate and a faith-filled response, but they still had no idea who it was that they were talking to. It wasn't just that God has visited them with a great prophet. God has visited them Himself in His Son. God was there with them that day, but they had no idea who they were talking to.
You know, John 4 records the story of Jesus’ conversation with a woman who was married and divorced five times and living with a man, and they had a long conversation about the water that gives eternal life, they had a long conversation about where real worship was to be given and what real worship was. And she said to Him at the end of that long conversation, “I know what You’re saying is true Jesus, I've read it in the Bible. When the Messiah comes, He's going to make exactly what You've been talking about happen.” And you know what Jesus said to her next? He looked at her deep into her eyes and He said, “Woman, you’re talking to Him. I'm the Messiah.” And it changed that woman's life. It changed her life on the spot. She had no idea who she was talking to, and then in a moment, she did, and it changed her life.
I don't know what burdens you are facing today, and in one sense, it doesn't matter. I care what they are, but it doesn't matter what those burdens are. You have no idea who you’re talking to when you’re talking to Jesus. You have no idea of His compassion; you have no idea of His power; you have no idea what He's capable of. No matter what your situation, He can change it or He can change you. And if you’re tempted to despair of that with all your hopeless tears over whatever it is, whatever it is that's broken in your life, I just want to say — you have no idea who you’re talking to. This Man can raise the dead. He can touch the dead and He doesn't become unclean, they become alive. And this Man, He can think a thought and save a servant miles away. You have no idea who you’re talking to, but you can trust Him.
Our Lord and our God, Your Son, our Lord, is our Savior, our Shepherd, our Guardian, our Guide, our Friend. He is the Rock of Ages, He is Lover of our souls, He is the One who has power to save us from the deterioration of our bodies and raises us to the newness of life. He has the power to conquer dominating sin in us, to rescue us from the mess that our own sin has created in our lives, to turn the circumstances of our lives that daunt us and discourage us and leave us on the brink of despair into moments of unsurpassing joy and praise to Him and only He can do it. But sometimes we have no idea who we are talking to. It is exceedingly important that we, like every generation before us, know who it is that we're talking to and sense something of His compassion, and know something of His power, and believe and rest on His person. So, O God, we pray that we would do this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus, the Christ.