Shall we take our Bibles and turn to the seventh chapter of the gospel of Luke? Luke chapter 7:
“When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, ‘This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.’ So Jesus went with them.
“He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: ‘Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, “Go,” and he goes; and that one, “Come,” and he comes. I say to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’
“When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’ Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
“Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’
“Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’ The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
“They were all filled with awe and praised God. ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said. ‘God has come to help his people.’ This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.”
And we could read on, and you should keep your Bible open so that you can have your eyes cast on the next few verses.
Just a brief prayer: O God our Father, help us now as we turn to the Bible. We realize that what you have said to us in the Bible is far more important than what we have to say to you. So grant that we might have the kind of ears and hearts that listen and pay attention and receive, even as we’ve expressed our longings to you in the songs that have been sung. For we ask humbly in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, we looked yesterday at Jesus in terms of his humility, seeing him as a humble servant, and we want to look today at Jesus in his compassion, if you like, seeing him as a compassionate servant, keeping in mind what we’ve said so far—namely, that the great issue is to be in Christ and, having been placed in Christ, to become like Christ, and like him here this morning as we think in terms of compassion.
We stopped at the seventeenth verse. In the section that follows, we discover that John the Baptist—that is, John, who had been so clear in pointing to Jesus as the Lamb of God—is actually apparently having second thoughts. And he has called two of his disciples to him there, you will read in 18 and 19, and he is dispatching them to the Lord Jesus to ask him what appears to be a very strange question: he wants them to go and just check with Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we be looking for someone else?”
I hope you find that surprising. You should. How could somebody who was so clear about his position in world history, as it were, even in redemptive history, who has stood up on the stage and said, “Now look, if you’ll see over here, behold, this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. I’m not worthy to untie his sandals.” And now here he finds himself in prison, and he calls two of his friends, and he says, “Could you just go and check this one more time? Could you just go and say, you know, don’t make a fuss about it, but just ask him, just say, you know, ‘Are we on the right track here?’”
It’s an indication, too, isn’t it, of the integrity of John the Baptist, of the vulnerability of John the Baptist, of the humanity of John the Baptist? And I can tell you what the issue was. We’re not going to belabor it because it’s not our point, but you will recall from the early preaching of John the Baptist that he was a humble man, but he was also very forceful. You remember, he begins one of his addresses, down in that dusty bowl of the Judean valley, with the opening sortie, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” It’s a wonderful start, isn’t it? I’ve never tried to start a sermon like that. I think it’s kind of off-putting, especially if you’ve brought a guest. But if you examine his preaching, it was very straightforward. It was about destruction; it was about wrath; it was about fire; it was about judgment. It was all good stuff. It was very striking and very clear.
And now as he is observing the ministry of Jesus, what he’s finding is that the notes that he has sounded seem so strangely silent in the preaching of his master, that Jesus himself seems actually to be on about something entirely different. And all the things that John had said, you know, “The axe is already at the root of the trees, the fire is already kindled for burning,” and he says, “Well, I don’t see any trees getting chopped down, and I don’t see the fire blazing the way I expected it.” No, because, you see, John the Baptist had to learn—and we have to learn, too—that the coming of the kingdom of Christ was not in this early instance in spectacular and dramatic victories over the powers and authorities of political forces and so on, but in actual fact the coming of the kingdom of God was being seen in works of mercy; that it was in the compassion of Christ that this great transforming impact was being felt throughout the world.
And that’s why when you read Luke’s gospel, you need almost continually to keep your finger in chapter 4, where you have the scene that we noticed on Sunday morning of Jesus returning to Galilee and going to the synagogue in Nazareth. And when he quotes from Isaiah chapter 61, interestingly, he doesn’t quote all the verses. You’ll need to go home and check this if you’re not nimble, but when you go to Isaiah chapter 61, you read as follows: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Now, interestingly, when Jesus reads from the prophecy, that’s where he stops: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Full stop. Then he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant. But it doesn’t stop there in Isaiah 61. It goes on: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” Now, why does Jesus stop? Not because there isn’t a day of vengeance, but presumably because the day of vengeance isn’t now. The day of vengeance is coming. Indeed, the day when he will bear all of the wrath of God upon himself in the cross is coming. But as he exercises his ministry, it is supremely a ministry of compassion and a ministry of mercy. It is, as Paul when he writes in Romans chapter 2, as if Jesus embodies what Paul writes and he says to the Jewish people, he says, “Are you so crazy, are you so dull, that you don’t even realize that it would be God’s kindness that leads you to repentance?”—his kindness that leads you to repentance. Yes, his kindness. Is it possible that some of us have a wee bit too much of the spirit of John the Baptist about us, wanting to call down fire and destruction on people and wondering why it is that they seem so disinterested in our story, find our appeals so unappealing? It may well be that we need the counterbalance by pursuing Jesus’ approach.
And in these little incidents to which we’ve turned—and of course, you know your Bibles well enough to recognize that we could turn to a number of places—in these incidents, the power of Christ is revealed and the compassion of Jesus is extended beyond man-made barriers of race and respectability. And you will see that as we look at these two households. Both of them are sad households.
First one is a household of a centurion. And this centurion was a man of prominence in his community. I don’t like people who delay on all the historical stuff, creating the impression that they really know a lot of material when, in point of fact, they only read one paragraph in an entire book. And so, I don’t want to fall foul of that, but let me give you the one paragraph I’ve read in the entire book concerning centurions. This is from Polybius, whom I’m sure you all know very well, Polybius the historian. He writes of a centurion, “As such, these men must not be so much seekers after danger as men who can command, steady in action and reliable. They ought not to be overanxious to rush into the fight but when hard-pressed they must be ready to hold their ground and die at their posts.” It sounds a bit like the Marines, doesn’t it? What is that, Semper Fi or something like that? So this is the kind of man, and it is a centurion to whom we’re introduced. This man has slaves within his house according to his status. Slaves in Roman law had no rights at all. That’s why they could be bought and sold and even killed. One Roman writer on estate management on farming matters suggests to his readers who are reading up on farming principles in the first century that a farmer ought to examine his implements every year and to throw out those which are old and broken. And then he adds, “and I suggest you do the same with your slaves.”
Now, that’s the environment, okay? Centurion, strong, in control, running his household, ready for every challenge, and here he is—and in his house one of his servants, you will notice, interestingly, whom in verse 2 we’re told “his master valued highly.” This is an interesting centurion—interesting on a number of fronts, but this one true. There is a centurion’s servant. And he would come down in the morning, as it were, and he would have said to one of the other people in his house, “How is Gaius this morning? How is Gaius my servant?” (I just invented his name, Gaius—one of the most common names in the Roman Empire, I believe, a bit like Fred or Joe.) “How is Gaius this morning?” “Well, there’s no obvious change in him, I’m afraid.” “Oh dear.” “In fact, he’s sick and about to die.”
Then look at this interesting little phrase at the beginning of verse 3: “The centurion heard of Jesus”—“The centurion heard of Jesus.” Doesn’t that just pique your interest? Now, you don’t want to go off on these things, because all that we need is in the Bible and nothing has been left out that we need, but it is interesting, isn’t it? It just says, “he heard of Jesus.” Wonder who he heard from? I tend to think probably it was a kind of Naaman experience. You remember how Naaman heard of [Elisha] the servant of the Lord: not as a result of an evangelist coming to town, but as a result of a lady in the broom closet, as a result of the lady who was a domestic help in his house, as a result of a lady who loved Jesus and did her work. She was a cleaner in a house. She was a cleaner in a rich man’s house, and she cleaned to the glory of God. And so she said to her mistress on one occasion, “You know, I know that your husband is horribly ill. I wish he would go and see the prophet of God. I’m sure he could help him.” Maybe something like that here; we don’t know how he heard of Jesus. But what he heard of him obviously was of importance, because having heard of Jesus, he “sent some elders of the Jews to him.” This is a clever chap. He didn’t get to be a centurion, you know, just by falling out of his bed. No, no, he says to himself, “Now, Jesus: Jewish. Me: not Jewish. How about I get some elders of the Jews, and I’ll send them. You’re religious folks, you’re in his camp. Could you please go and represent me to him?” That’s what’s happening. The centurion “heard of Jesus,” he “sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.” Where did he get this from? Where do you get this faith from? How does a man have such faith? This is amazing. If you don’t think it’s amazing, Jesus thought it was amazing. He actually says so.
So he sends them. He’s clear about the objective. As a soldier, he should be: “This is what we’re going to do, and this is how we’re going to do it.” And so they come to Jesus, and look at how they plead: they plead earnestly in verse 4, and they plead on the basis of patronage. They’re completely wrong, but nevertheless, this is their approach: “Jesus, we’d like you to come to this man’s house because he actually loves our nation and has built our synagogue. Therefore he’s done a lot of stuff for us, so why don’t you do something for him?” It’s not uncommon in Christian circles today to try and build into the lives of people on the strength of patronage. But actually that is not going to cut it.
And indeed, while he was [not] far from the house, the centurion sent friends. First he sent the religious elders. Now, the word may have come back—we don’t know what the distance was—but it’s not hard to imagine that somebody who was there with the religious elders to make sure that it all went well, as soon as he heard them start, beetled immediately back to the house and said, “You’re not gonna believe what they’re doing up there. They’re boasting about you, boss. They’re saying, ‘This man loves our nation. This man built our synagogue. This man is a big shot,’ and they’re appealing to Jesus on the strength of all the things you’ve done.” “Oh,” he says, “that wasn’t what I had in mind at all. Hey, come here, let’s get a couple of my friends and go down there and clean this act up for me, will you?”
So the friends come down, and the friends come down with a very different message: “Lord….” “Lord”—it’s a good start, isn’t it? “Lord, don’t trouble yourself. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. That’s why I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. I wouldn’t even for a moment consider coming down to meet you and parade my crummy credentials, as if somehow, some way I was worthy of your attention and I could, on the basis of who I am and what I’ve done, make an appeal to you that would be significant enough for you to do for me what I ask, even though I ask for someone else.”
You see, when grace grips a man or a woman, we come to Christ on bended knee. We may present ourselves in business, in academics, in athletics, in military matters on the strength of our stars and our stripes, but when we come to Christ, we come facedown. And the centurion understood what the religious Jews could not get. Why? Because Pharisees always come to Jesus on the strength of how well they’re doing. That’s why the boy would not come into the party. “For all these years,” he says to his father, “I have slaved in your house, and you never even gave me any kind of party. But this son of yours who made a hash of things has come back up the road, and look at all this singing and look at all this dancing.” You see, Pharisees will never understand such compassion, never understand such mercy. That’s why we will never then be the conveyors of such mercy till we understand that it is “with mercy and with judgment my web of time He wove, and aye, the dews of sorrow are lustered by His love.”
And Jesus steps forward, responding now to this entreaty, and we’re told in verse 9 that Jesus was “amazed.” The humility of the man is wonderful, isn’t it? Notice how he introduces himself: “For I myself am a man under authority”—not “of,” not “of.” Prepositions matter, not only when you’re playing Scrabble: “for I am a man under authority.” Not “I am a man of authority and you’re a man of authority, therefore there’s two of us of authority, and I do my part, now it’s your turn to do your part.” No, no, no, no: “I am a man under authority. I’m able in my limited sphere to say, ‘You can go and another can come.’ But you, Jesus, you can actually say to disease, ‘Go,’ and it will go. Now say it, Jesus, for my servant’s sake.” And “when Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him.”
There’s only two places in the Bible that I’ve found Jesus described as being “amazed.” One is here, and the other is in Mark chapter 6. Some of you will be smart enough to get this, but we don’t have time to turn it into a quiz. In Mark chapter 6, when Jesus returns to his own town—remember?—and it says in the Bible that he’s unable to do anything. And he says, “You know, a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” And it says there that “he was amazed at their lack of faith”—“he was amazed at their lack of faith.” And now here in Luke chapter 7, in an environment that is absolutely counter to the growing-up experience of Jesus, once again he is amazed: “and turning to the crowd that was following him, he said, ‘I’ve never found such great faith, even in Israel.’ And then the man who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.” That’s so wonderful. I’d love to have been there for that, wouldn’t you? Especially the first group that came back taking credit for it all, you know? “Well, if we hadn’t gone down there and in the first instance, I’m sure, no …” Oh, shut up please. Please just go and go get yourself a doughnut.
Let me just make three observations. Observation number one: the prophecy of Simeon in this instance is being fulfilled. “What is the prophecy of Simeon?” says someone. You have to go back to chapter 2. Simeon—remember, the ancient man in the temple—takes the child Jesus in his arms and he prophesies over him, and part of what he says of this child in his arms, he says, he is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” And people say, “Well, I wonder what that’s going to mean?” Well here we’ve discovered part of what it means, right here in the home of the centurion. That’s observation number one.
Observation number two: Jesus does not draw insider-outsider distinctions, even when confronted with the possibility of potential defilement—he doesn’t draw insider-outsider distinctions when confronted with the possibility of defilement. “What do you mean?” It was a defilement for a Jew to go into the home of someone who was a Gentile without the necessary preparations. But Jesus apparently was quite prepared to make the journey as necessary.
And the third observation is that we find in this little incident two essential requirements for receiving true blessing: number one, deep humility; number two, a steadfast faith in Jesus—number one, deep humility; and number two, a steadfast faith in Jesus.
We have to turn to our next incident, leaving behind the question, “What kind of faith did this man have? Did he have faith only to believe that Jesus could heal his servant, or did he come to faith in Jesus himself as not only the one who would heal his servant of physical disease, but also who would cleanse his evil heart from sin?” We’re going to have to wait until eternity to find out, but I have him on my list to look for early on in my experience of heaven. I’ll be wandering around going, “Has anyone seen the centurion from Luke chapter 7? Jesus was so kind to him.”
Now to the second one—and we’ve got very little time left, but it’s a briefer account of Jesus’ compassion: “Soon afterwards”—verse 11—“Jesus went to a town called Nain.” This is another sad home, six miles southeast of Nazareth, a day’s journey from Capernaum, which is where we’ve begun in verse 1 of this chapter. Archaeologists, we’re told, have found tombs in the rocks along the roads leading to Capernaum, and particularly around the eastern gate of this little village.
Now, the sounds of sadness would have been present from the dawn of that morning. Many of her friends—that is, the widow—would have gathered outside her home. The plaintive songs from the flutes, the cymbals, would have reminded the lady even before she got out of her bed what the day held for her. This was the saddest of all days. And once again, in this little incident, the focus like before is not so much on the healing as on the centurion’s faith, and here not so much on the raising of the dead son as it is on the compassion of Christ for the woman in her need.
She is a woman, first of all. She is a widow; therefore, she has no husband. And now she is sonless. Isn’t that what he says? So this is the end of the line for her. She is the epitome of “the poor.” “Well,” you say, “‘the poor,’ is that significant?” Well, I think it is, because we’re back at our pivotal verse in Luke 4, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” There couldn’t be anybody poorer than this lady. She has now no means of protection or provision: few openings for such a woman in this kind of environment. From a human perspective she now faces sadness, loneliness, and the end of the family line. Her predicament is well understood by the community; hence, Luke tells us that a significant crowd—“a large crowd”—had come along with Jesus, and there was a crowd that had gathered—“a large crowd” had gathered—from the town and was with the lady. They were there as a sign of mutual support: “Poor woman, she’s a widow, and now she’s lost her only son.” It’s a bit like the experience of Naomi as it’s recorded in Ruth, isn’t it? And all of the potential bitterness that floods in upon her.
Interestingly, in this incident there’s no request. Nobody’s sending anybody to do anything. No one has the idea: “Why don’t we get Jesus involved in this?” No, the events are unfolding as per routine. And then we read in verse 13, “When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her”—“When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her.” Seems that he saw her before he heard her. We would expect this of a compassionate shepherd, wouldn’t we? Because Luke also tells us that in relationship to crowds, when Jesus saw the crowds he was moved with compassion, not simply because the crowds made him feel a certain way, but because when he looked at them he saw them as sheep without a shepherd. Just like sheep without a shepherd. Just like when you sit at a football game, and you’re at one end zone, and you look down to the other end zone, and you see all of these people, all whom the Bible says will stand before the bar of God’s judgment and give a reckoning for their lives. At least once in a while, if there is anything of Christ in us, we must have been moved with compassion. But is it not true that depending on our social status and our background, when we see people who are in a mess—often a mess of their own making—we may be a lot quicker to the methodology of John the Baptist than to the compassion of the Lord Jesus? “Now, look at that. I can’t believe … can you believe somebody’s like that? Look at that!” You’re looking at yourself apart from the grace of God: at one time we were foolish and disobedient, without God and without hope in the world, by our very nature, all of the sins of humanity wrapped up in our evil hearts. The fact that we never gave rein to them all is only an indication of God’s amazing grace to us.
And “when the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her” and he said to her, “Hey, lady, don’t cry.” She didn’t know that he saw her, but he did. Everything’s a hymn quote, isn’t it? Here we go again:
Standing somewhere in the shadows, you’ll find Jesus.
He’s the only one who cares and understands.
And standing somewhere in the shadows, you will find him.
And you’ll know him by the nail prints in his hands.
Into the extremity of this little lady’s life comes Christ the compassionate shepherd.
And Luke tells us that he halts the progression of the coffin to the grave. I absolutely just love the thought of that: “Then he went up and touched the [coffin].” You don’t touch coffins! Not if you want to remain pure—as a Jew, you don’t touch death! There are all kinds of regulations about what you do and when you do it and how you do it. “Jesus, what are you doing? You don’t touch coffins.” “Be quiet. Be quiet.” He touched the coffin. No, you see, what he’s doing is he’s halting the tragic progression to the grave—halting the tragic progression to the grave. He’s doing, you see, what no one else can do. He’s doing what Buddha never did and never could because he is in the grave. He’s doing what Muhammed could never accomplish. He’s doing what only he who is “the resurrection and the life” could ever do: he halts the tragic progression to the grave. This is who Jesus is. This is why he’s revealed to us in all of his power and in all of his authority. And this is what makes his compassion all the more magnificent—that somebody as vast in his resources would stoop to the level of this, to some no-named woman in her miserable circumstances on a routine day as she buries her only boy. Who really cares, ultimately? Oh, the people come for a while as they do at funerals, and they’ll send little notes for a while, but she’s going to live with this for the rest of her life. And into the middle of all of that, Jesus comes and speaks.
Don’t you wish that you could have seen the eyes of the people, first as he touches the coffin? And Luke says, “and those carrying it stood still.” You bet your life they did! They were riveted to the spot. They’re like, “Whoa, ho! What is this?” And they couldn’t have been prepared for what happened next: and then Jesus said, “Young man.” People are like, “What? What young man?” “I … I think … I think he’s talking ….” “Don’t be crazy! You … you can’t talk to dead people! Don’t be daft.” “No, I’m telling you. Listen. Watch. Who knows what’s going to happen?” “‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’ The dead man sat up and began to talk.” Oh, what a day, huh? Whoo! Goodness, it’s not even lunchtime yet, and they’ve got all this unbelievable excitement. If you want a cross-reference, read 1 Kings 17, because you have a wonderfully sort of prophetic anticipatory story of Elijah and the widow at Zarephath. (That’s the honors course for those of you who know you have an Old Testament in your Bible. It’s 1 Kings chapter 17.) “And the young man sat up.” Why? Because “He speaks, and listening to his voice, new life the dead receive.” Mhm. And notice, here’s the key to this whole thing: “And Jesus gave him back to his mother.” That’s compassion. He says, “Listen, your mother needs you still.” Now, don’t get all hung up on how Jesus spoke to the dead and everything else. He’s the Lord of life and death. He possesses power over the invisible sphere of the spirit world to which the soul goes. He of all people is able to call back that which is apparently gone. He is the only one who could do it, and he did it. And the fellow looked up, and I guess he just said to his mom, “Hey,” and she said, “Hey. I’m glad to have you back.”
Observations, five; they go like this. One: unlike others, Jesus doesn’t simply comment on the great enemies of mankind; he overcomes them—sin and sickness and death. Number two: he hears the cries of the sorrowful, and he knows your heart, and he knows your cries. Number three: he’s the loving comforter, he’s the victor over death, he’s the reuniter of separated dear ones. Number four: what he did here he will one day do for all the faithful in a final, perfect form:
When the blest, who sleep in Jesus, at His bidding shall arise
From the silence of the grave, and from the sea,
And with bodies all celestial we shall meet Him in the skies,
What a gath’ring of the ransomed that will be!
What a gath’ring, what a gath’ring,
What a gath’ring of the ransomed in that summer land of love!
What a gath’ring, what a gath’ring,
What a gath’ring of the ransomed in that happy home above!
Into the sadness of our circumstances comes this compassionate shepherd. And fifthly: he will bring full and final comfort on that day, raise all his people, reunite us with our loved ones and all who have died in him.
Well, our time is gone. I’m three minutes over. Let’s pray.
Father, thank you for your wonderful love towards us in Jesus. Oh, we want to be like Jesus. We know that it is your work within us, that there is certainly that passive dimension to it; but we need to give ourselves wholeheartedly, and so we pray to this end. Help us this day, for your name’s sake.
 Luke 7:20 (paraphrased).
 John 1:29 (paraphrased).
 Luke 3:16 (paraphrased).
 Luke 3:7 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 3:9 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 61:1–2a (NIV 1984).
 Luke 4:19 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 61:2b (NIV 1984, emphasis added).
 Romans 2:4 (paraphrased).
 Polybius, History, 6.24.
 Source unavailable.
 2 Kings 5:1–3 (paraphrased).
 Luke 15:11–32 (paraphrased).
 A. R. Cousin, “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” (1857).
 Mark 6:4 (paraphrased).
 Mark 6:6.
 Luke 7:9–10 (paraphrased).
 Luke 2:32 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 4:18 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 9:36 (paraphrased).
 Titus 3:3 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 2:12 (paraphrased).
 E. J. Rollings, “Are There Crosses Too Heavy to Carry?” (1943).
 John 11:25 (NIV 1984).
 Charles Wesley, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (1739).
 Fanny J. Crosby, “What a Gathering” (1887).