A reflection on:
"When He had concluded saying all this to the people who were listening, He entered Capernaum. A centurion's servant, who was highly valued by him, was sick and about to die. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Him, requesting Him to come and save the life of his servant. When they reached Jesus, they pleaded with Him earnestly, saying, 'He is worthy for You to grant this, because he loves our nation and has built us a synagogue.' Jesus went with them, and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to tell Him, 'Lord, don't trouble Yourself, since I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. That is why I didn't even consider myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under my command. I say to this 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 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.' When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant in good health."
This passage recounted in Luke's synoptic of the gospel is a very significant testimony, as it captures one of the two only recorded instances in which Jesus Christ Himself marveled [or was amazed]- the other occurrence is found in Mark 6:6, in which our Lord marveled [or was amazed] in response to the unbelief of those from His home town of Nazareth. Though both passages show us that Jesus reacted/responded with amazement, Mark's account stands in stark contrast to Luke's in that Jesus stands amazed at His countryman's unbelief, whereas Luke's account shows Jesus' amazement over the faith [or belief] of a single man: a Roman centurion. This passage has far to oft been mishandled, and misinterpreted by untrained and ignorant Christians alike as justification or ground in the attempt to "goad" our Lord Jesus into doing something, or even "stir" Him up to action: "Look Jesus! I have faith that You can do this! Just say the word. That's all You need to do, for Your word has power. Just say the word and I know that You can do [said thing]." Before beginning to handle the passage set before us, it seems best to me to express to those who find themselves reading this that I can testify with a sincere conscience- the Holy Spirit bearing witness, that my intention for writing this is not merely to question the sincerity of believers who cling to the hope that our Lord Jesus will preform a miracle on their behalf, nor is my intention to be used as an instrument to place doubt into the hearts and minds of those who [with sincerity] attribute all power to the words of our Lord Jesus as if to say, "Jesus cannot act and intervene per our requests made to Him." Jesus Christ is more than capable of doing everything and absolutely anything, for all power and authority has been granted to Him [Matthew 28:18] to do so.
My desire is simply nothing more than to examine this occurrence revealed in the Gospel whilst simultaneously seeking after the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ in the hopes of acquiring a better comprehension of how and why our Lord was amazed by the Roman centurion, and more importantly what He desires for us to grasp concerning both Him and His heart through this text and the context by which this testimony is revealed to us.
As such, it is imperative for us to be reminded of who has authored this written testimony: Luke. Not having any prior knowledge of the person of Luke poses certain obstacles when reading his work- as we are left to our own assumptions in concluding his purpose for writing. There are some who would make the claim that having no knowledge of Luke [as an author] has no significant impact upon his writing, because all men are insignificant, especially when dealing with the Gospel [which revolves around the life and ministry of one Man, Jesus]. And though I would agree upon the sentiment that all men [myself included] are insignificant, having a better comprehension of the man behind the writing ascribed and attributed to God grants us insight to both the inspiration and intended purpose for their writing. In the same way Satan could not be trusted as a faithful messenger when tempting our Lord in the wilderness despite quoting and citing the Scripture [Luke 4:10], for the motivation behind him citing Psalm 91:11 became clear and was revealed as originating from a place of evil- desiring to test God, and also because in accordance to Hebrews 13:7 we are called to carefully examine those who impart God's word to us. Now I must stress, the purpose for using Satan as an extreme example is not to call into question Luke's character [which has been tested and proven], nor to vilify the apostles in their apostolic commentaries of the Gospel in their letters, I resort to using him to show the benefit examining the character of those who quote, recite, and ascribe writing(s) to God has as it shows us their intention and motivation. And harkening back to the opening of my discourse- unfortunately many believers take this account [which, in and of itself is a pure source as it is included within the canon of Scripture] and through motivations/inspirations which differ from that of Luke's, coupled with an ignorance of Luke's motivation and inspiration for the inclusion of this account, the final thought produced differs from the original. For those of us who desire to devote ourselves to the study of Scripture and mature in our knowledge of God and of Christ in it would be wise to quickly learn that sincerity does not equate to validity.
The Author: Luke the Historian
Contrary to what some Christians may believe, Luke was not one of our Lord's original twelve disciples, nor was he an eye witness to Jesus' public ministry and death- thus disqualifying him from being associated as an apostle. Despite this, Luke's writing is included among the synoptic [generalized summary] of the Gospel among Matthew, Mark, and John who were eyewitnesses to Jesus' life, ministry and resurrection. Aside from his Gospel synoptic, Luke is also attributed to writing the accounts of the apostles in what we refer to as the book of Acts, and yet it is his written account of the Gospel which stands out. The reason why is simple, many church historians and theologians alike cite Luke's account as being the most accurate. Ponder that thought for a moment: An account written by a man who was not an eyewitness is considered to be the most credible among other accounts written by eyewitnesses by many who have devoted their lives to the study of the Gospel. This speaks volumes of Luke's character as it reveals his devotion to the Gospel and defense thereof- his writing accounts closely mirrors that of Mark's, only with other details [dates, locations, etc.] which is why Luke is oft referred to as "the historian", as he dedicated his life to closely examining Gospel accounts and interviewing eyewitnesses in order to produce a clear and orderly account. This ought to clear up any doubt concerning the validity of Luke's character, and as such there are some other facts which we can factor in before examining his written account:
1. Luke was not a Jew
- Unlike the rest of the synoptic authors, Luke was not of Jewish descent which would make him a Gentile. He was born in Antioch [present day Turkey] which would make him of Greek heritage.
2. Luke was discipled by Paul
- It is through Luke's writings of Acts, and the transitioning between first/third person in the narrative ["they" vs. "we"] which enables us to surmise that Luke acted as a travel companion of Paul in Paul's mission trips [Luke most likely converted during Paul's mission in Antioch]
- Paul, in his letter to Philemon refers to Luke as his "Fellow worker" (Philemon 1:24b)
- While in Rome and awaiting his approaching death, Paul testifies in his second letter to Timothy how all had forsaken him, aside from Luke (II Timothy 4:11)
Purpose: Defense and Clarity
Having already established that Luke was not an eyewitness account, we should naturally question what compelled Luke to write a synoptics of the Gospel. Luckily, in the introduction of his writing Luke reveals the circumstances behind his writing:
"Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed."(Luke 1:1-4)
The very first thing we ought to discern when reading this is the target audience of Luke's account. Unless your name is Theophilus, and unless you lived two thousand years ago and somehow managed to be alive until the present day, this was not written to you. Theophilus is attributed as being a financial supporter of Paul's Corinthian missionary work, as well as someone who supported the church with his finances. Although this is not written to us, it is included in the canon of Scripture for us, in that we get to benefit from it as well. as such, some things we can note:
- Luke's account of the gospel is a Gentile [Greek] writing to a fellow Gentile.
- Mark's target audience was also to the Gentiles, however Mark was a Jew writing to Gentiles whereas Luke was writing to his "fellow man".
- Luke's purpose for his writing of the synoptics is clear:
1. To defend the Gospel and Jesus Christ: "[E]vents that have been fulfilled among us"
2. Bring clarity: "so that you may know the certainty"
- Luke pens this as late as 70-80 AD, meaning that the church has been well established, however due to a lack of transcribed accounts of Jesus and His ministry, there were a lot of confusion and uncertainty which had crept into the church.
Luke's self-witness, coupled with some insight on Luke [being Paul's companion and disciple], we can reach a conclusion as to why Luke's account is so significant. He was a Gentile, motivated by his spiritual mentor, Paul: who avidly defended the Gospel and ministered to the Gentiles, writing to a fellow Gentile to defend God's grace show to, and acceptance of, the Gentiles within His will and plan of salvation. Bearing this in mind, there is no doubt that this account in which our Lord Himself testifies of the faith of the centurion being incomparable to any in Israel ought to have acted as a major triumphant truth in the pursuit of his defense.
Background: Location and Time Period
Another very important thing to take into consideration when examining the account of our Lord standing amazed at the faith of the Roman centurion is the time period in which this recorded testimony occurred. It may seem redundant and fruitless to weigh this in our minds as we approach and examine the text, however; by gaining more insight as to the environment in which this incident occurred, we are able to comprehend it's significance more deeply.
- Hellenistic Age:
- During the time in which the Gospel account occurred, Israel was experiencing what is referred to as, a "Hellenistic period." Contrary to what we might initially think, Hellenism has no correlation to the term "hell"- that is, the society was not one which embraced and welcomed hell and it's moral degradation. Rather the term is derived from the Greek word, "Hellazein" which means "To speak or associate with the Greeks." After the death of Alexandre the Great, Greek culture began to rapidly flourish and spread to other surrounding regions, which included Israel. In short, when Israel was experiencing the Hellenistic Age, it simply means that Israel's culture was being influenced and mingled with the Greek culture which had grown so predominate and vast.
- Under Roman Occupation:
- It is also during this time which Israel was subjected to the governing authority of Rome. Israel was it's own nation- having their own king, however they were under the occupation of the Roman empire, thus restraining the freedom and liberties which Israel had.
This ought to enable us to get a certain perspective on what life must have looked like for a Jew living during this time, but more importantly the thoughts which may be going through the mind of a Jew living during that time. Per the reoccurring cycle revealed in the Book of Judges, this was another instance in which Israel had been handed over into the hands of their enemies, and placed under their yoke. Think Israel under the authority of the Philistines when Samson judged Israel, or when Israel was subjected to the Midianites during Gideon's time as a judge. As a Jew, you would be quick to conclude that the reason your nation was not independent and "blessed by God" was because you- as your ancestors, strayed from the God of the Torah and as such had to face the repercussions. You might also reach the conclusion as to what led to this [aside from Israel's failure to strictly adhere and uphold the Law], and that is: the Gentiles were to blame. Because the Greeks came bringing their Hellenism with them, and it influenced Israel's identity- their culture, God was displeased and handed Israel over into the hands of the Romans so that they might seek God and the "Ancient paths"(Jeremiah 18:15).
From the perspective of a Jew, the Pharisees would appear as the religious "white knights" of those times. They "discerned" the times, and they "knew God's mind". The term "Pharisee" originates from a self title which they gave themselves, translating into "set apart", and they were set apart alright. They devoted themselves to upholding every Law and ordinance as described in the Law of Moses- going to the extent of tithing the mint leaves which grew on their trees [Matthew 23:23a], and accentuated their Jewish heritage and identity by strictly adhering to Jewish traditions while simultaneously ensuring that they did not associate with the Gentiles, because then God would be pleased with them, and have favor on Israel once more. If you were a Jew during those times and ignorant of the Messianic prophecies, the Pharisees were the good guys who wanted Israel to "return to the God of Moses", and to be "separate from the Gentiles".
"Now when He concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum."(1)
The region of Capernaum was a village situated on the bank of Lake Tiberias, making it a fishing village. The significance of Capernaum within the Gospel narrative was that it acted as Jesus' headquarters for His public ministry: in Mathew 4:13 we read that Jesus left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum where He began His ministry, continuing on in verses 18-22 Matthew recounts that it was in Capernaum where Jesus called Simon [Peter] and his brother Andrew, and the two sons of Zebedee [John and James]. And although not much description is given concerning Capernaum in the Gospel [in the apostle's defense, they were unaware that we would be reading their accounts two thousand years later], through excavation done in the area and archeological findings within the area dating back to Jesus' time reveal dwellings and other finds made with Greek influence. In other words, Capernaum was a village consisting of Hellenistic Jews.
Ponder this and contemplate the impact having this insight would have upon the Jews of that time- especially the Pharisees. The significance of Jesus' ministry is that it also marked the first time which God "picked up His work " in the midst of Israel in roughly four hundred years. However, the sect of the Pharisees was founded around 150-167 BC, meaning their standards and way of thought was already established for some time before Jesus began His ministry, so picture a Man who begins to work through preaching and teaching things pertaining to God and performing signs and miracles attributed to God- everything that you would expect from an OT Prophet or Judge, only He's not doing it in accordance to your expectation, but contrarily in the opposite manner. Jesus was not a "good ol' temple boy who matured into a religious zealot which taught and upheld the traditions of the fathers, and who condemned the Gentiles and withstood the Hellenistic movement- standing firm in His Jewish identity. Instead they saw a Man who broke traditions, seemingly embraced the Hellenistic movement by moving to, and setting the headquarters of His ministry to Capernaum, rather than Jerusalem, Israel's capital. It's understandable then why they cited His works as having been done by the power of Beelzebub [that is, Satan].
Enter: the Roman centurion
Hopefully going through the background of the history has enabled us to acquire a structured thought/ backdrop of our passage to see the significance of this man in light of the circumstances that he finds himself within the Gospel narrative. Although I desire not to over-encumber you in thought, it seems beneficial to examine Roman centurions seeing as nothing is known of the identity [name] of this man who caused our Lord to stand in amazement aside of the fact that he was:
1. A Roman citizen.
2. A centurion
A centurion was a military position holding authority over a detachment of roughly one hundred soldiers [though was not as distinguished a position as a chiliarch or hegemon], but was a step above a decurion. For those familiar with military terminology, he would've been the equivalent of an "army-captain." To us, this may not seem like much, however within the Roman empire, such a position was not granted to any ordinary man but to a man of proven character. Some of the qualifications for a centurion would've included:
1. Not be so much "seekers after danger" as men who can command.
2. Steady in action, and reliable; they ought not to be over anxious to rush into the fight.
3. Able to hold their ground when hard pressed and willing to die at their posts.
One thing was certain of those considered to hold the position of centurion: they needed to be men of fortitude and integrity. However admirable this would make this man, it would mean absolutely nothing to the stiff necked and hard-hearted Jews. To them, it mattered not his integrity and tested character- he was a Roman military captain who was occupying their homeland. Now, reconsider the weightiness of what we see unfold in this passage when considering everything that we've gone through. A Roman soldier- which is Israel's enemy, comes to Jesus of Nazareth- who is not only a Jew; but someone who is attributed as being a prophet, a teacher sent by God, or false prophet/teacher [according to the Pharisees]. You can imagine the controversy and scandal it would've brought: it's the equivalent of a Philistine going to Samson and asking him for something, or a Midianite coming to Gideon- it makes absolutely no sense, right? It would've quickly been met with criticism- if not in word, more than likely in thought. "What are you doing? Who do you think you are? You have no right to inquire anything of Him you Gentile." And to an extent, such thoughts may appear justifiable- even when our Lord converses with a Samaritan woman by Jacob's well tells her plainly, "You Samaritans worship what you do not know. We worship what we do know, because salvation is from the Jews."(John 4:22) And yet, this man is one of whom the Lord testifies openly to the crowd: "I have not found so great a faith even in Israel."(9) While briefly looking through the passage we can conclude that this is the main theme which is brought up to the forefront in the passage: Faith. Many times within the Gospel we will see that healing is attributed to one's faith- i.e. "Let it be done in accordance to your faith.." And the precise Greek word of faith used in this instance, "πίστις", or "pistis", is defined as such: "Entire reliance upon, and trust in God." For those familiar with the letter written to the Hebrews, would most likely remember this verse in the midst of the author's discourse on the topic of faith:
"Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen."(Hebrews 11:1)
While also stating later:
"Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to Him must believe that He is and that He rewards those who seek Him."(Hebrews 11:6)
And we see this beautifully revealed in our passage: the Roman centurion seeks out Jesus, Jesus testified of the Roman centurion's faith, and the Roman centurion is rewarded with Jesus' divine intervention of healing his servant. Yet bearing in mind what Jesus says [no such great faith even in Israel], let us now examine our passage to see exactly what this Roman centurion does which reveals his great faith so that we might leave with a better understanding of how faith works- after all, this was not the first miracle which Jesus performed, so what made him and this occurence so special?
"When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Him, requesting Him to come and save the life of his servant."(3)
Here we see that the Roman centurion sends some Jewish elders to Jesus on his behalf to make his request known, yet does not go himself. This doesn't really show faith, does it? Where's the boldness? Where's the attitude of showing no regard of how others might perceive him? In other instances where people receive divine healing we see them running up to Jesus and casting themselves at His feet in order for Him to heal them- in the previous chapter in Luke [chapter 6] we see that a group of people went to the extent of tearing off the roof off the house where Jesus was teaching and healing just to lower their paralytic man in Jesus' midst so that He might heal him. Surely that's what you call faith! This Roman centurion wants something of Jesus, yet he doesn't even have the audacity of coming before Jesus Himself! Why on earth would Jesus stand amazed at this man and testify that there was none in Israel with the same kind of faith as this man?
Before receiving a full answer, we must remind ourselves of his identity in order to attempt to reach a conclusion as to his reasoning- he is a Roman centurion. He is more than aware of who he is in light of who Jesus is. He is aware of the public opinion the Jews have towards Gentiles- considering them enemies, and seeing as he lives near Capernaum [he was within a justifiable walking distance] he must've been exposed to Jesus' ministry, or at least His reputation of being a Prophet mighty in word and deed. He factored this in while desiring to make his request- harkening back to one of the requirements for a centurion: "not be one prone to running/seeking danger, but able to command". He was exercising his thought as a centurion- that is, strategically. During military exploits/expeditions, when an army desired to approach a neighboring nation [especially one considered to be hostile], it was common to first send out a delegation party to intercept or go before, in order to attempt to broker a peace treaty and avoid any rising tension or conflict. So the Roman centurion does precisely that- he sends out Jewish elders [which were considered to be either predominant and respected judges of the community or leaders within the temple] to Jesus [who was also a Jew] in hopes of peaceably making known his request.
"When they reached Jesus, they pleaded with Him earnestly, saying, 'He is worthy for You to grant this,"(4)
Notice the shifting of the Jewish elder's manner in making the Roman centurion's request known to Jesus. The Roman centurion simply gives the command [but it is more likely asks] to make his request known to Jesus, yet the Gospel message reveals to us that these men who were entrusted with going on his behalf began to plead with Jesus. The word plead is defines as "to make an emotional appeal", which would reveal that at first, Jesus may have remained passive as they initially made the Roman centurion's request known, causing them to become more persistent and speak with an "unscripted" response, or it would show that they themselves were emotionally invested to this Roman centurion's request. Notice what they tell Jesus- "He is worthy for You to grant this" compared to what the Roman centurion says of himself later on [as he was unaware of what the Jewish elders said of him]:
"Lord, don't trouble Yourself, since I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. That is why I didn't even consider myself worthy to come to You.."(Luke 6b-7a)
This humility of the Roman centurion ought to act as a sobering truth for all who desire to come before our Lord and make our requests known to Him. He does not attempt to justify nor defend himself, he simply entrusted his request to the Jewish elders and it was they who testified of his character. This is what Solomon means when he writes:
"Let another praise you, and not your own mouth- a stranger, and not your own lips."(Proverbs 27:2)
This is the basis by which the scent of faith is found upon the Roman centurion. He had absolutely no confidence in himself when desiring to approach Jesus- despite being a Roman soldier with authority. He could've very well exploited his position and authority and command that Jesus be brought to him in order to heal his servant, yet acknowledged that he was not worthy that Jesus enter his household [he was aware that Jews considered entering a Gentile's home as being unclean, let alone come to Jesus himself. He acknowledged his standing and his identity compared to Jesus, yet also comprehended and trusted that Jesus had the capability of healing his servant. He was not convinced that Jesus would heal his servant, but he was more than convinced that he could. When we examine the Jewish elder's defense of the Roman centurion, we learn something even more valuable of the Roman centurion:
"because he loves our nation and has built us a synagogue."(5)
What is interesting in their response is not necessarily the fact that he was a sympathizer of the Jews, but rather that he built them a synagogue. According to historical records, when Rome would occupy another nation, the soldiers and delegators were encouraged to be somewhat friendly towards the local populace as to ensure a peaceable rule with as little tumult and resistance as possible. However, they were strictly given the command not to grow attached to the people, ensuring that they would remain loyal to the Roman crown and prevent them from defecting from Rome. This Roman soldier appeared to not adhere to that Roman principle concerning the occupation of another nation, building a synagogue for them using his very own resources. Why? What would cause this man to invest his personal money into something which benefitted the Jews rather than Rome who occupied Israel? If he were simply a Jewish sympathizer, why did he not build a school, or homes, or other building that the Jews could benefit from? Why a synagogue, which was a building intended to be dedicated for worshipping God? What was his motivation, if not because he himself was interested in the Jewish faith?
This thought and question becomes more than a clause when we cross examine to Matthew's eyewitness account of the exact same occurrence found in Mathew 8:5-13. Both testimonies run parallel [aside from slight differences due to different perspectives], however Matthew includes something additional which gives us more insight as to why He decided to follow these Jewish elders who intercepted Him, as well as the heart of the Roman centurion [as Jesus knew the hearts of all men]. Compare Jesus' confession of the centurion's faith in Luke 7:9 to what Mathew adds:
"Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, 'Truly I say to you, I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith. I tell you that many will come from east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."(Matthew 10-12)
In His response, Jesus reveals His intention for going along with the Jewish elders which in doing so seemingly interrupting His ministry of saving the Jews- to use it as an opportunity to teach the crowd of Jews who followed Him a valuable lesson: The Kingdom of God and salvation comes by faith and faith alone. No one can closely examine Jesus' public ministry in the Gospel without quickly concluding that his ministry was one marked by rejection. "He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him."(John 1:11) Because Israel had grown so hard hearted He chose to fulfill the request of a Gentile to show Israel that their standing meant nothing compared to those who truly believed, and He uses this to illustrate how God would extend His salvation to the Gentiles because Israel would reject Jesus as their Messiah in accordance to Isaiah 49:6, and this would cause Gentiles to be justified whereas Israel to be condemned. Because of this- coupled with the Roman centurion building a synagogue for the Jews, it is strongly suggested that the Roman centurion was not only interested in the Jewish faith, but jealous of the salvation which would be revealed to the Jews, and comprehended that Jesus was the promised Messiah [which is why he felt unworthy to approach Him].
Now we can begin to comprehend why Jesus was amazed by the faith of this Roman centurion. Now we can begin to discern what made his faith so great- it was not solely in his comprehension and trust of Jesus' authority: "Say the word, and my servant will be healed"(7b), his great faith which amazed Jesus is attributed to the fact that he overcame his preconceived thoughts concerning the God of Israel and of Jesus. Imagine: You are exposed to the faith of Israel and hear that the day would soon come when salvation would be revealed at last! And as conviction enters your heart, and is met belief, you are quickly met with the realization that this hope is not reserved for you. And should you find yourself investigating further of the faith you have, you are reminded of the religious zealots- the Pharisees, that you have no right to worship alongside of them. "Sure, I guess you can build us a synagogue. But you are not allowed to enter in. Because if you do, the temple will become defiled and everything within will become unclean." For how long, do you suppose this man struggled with his thoughts as he pondered the loving kindness of God? Though the Gospel is not explicit in sharing that information, it would've been longer than it would have taken them to build the synagogue. And all that time, the Roman centurion was on the outside- struggling with the thought that this love of God was reserved for somebody else, that this grace was intended for only the Jews, and so he stood there- outside. Perhaps this resonated with our Lord- the feeling of isolation and exclusion from the misrepresentation of God, the ritualism and all of the religious formality! Though the Gospel gives us no timeline of this man's struggle in thought, one thing is certain: it took him almost losing his servant to seek after Christ. What will it take dear reader, to get you to seek our Lord?
Seeing as the main theme which is brought out from the passage is faith, I would like to transition from this passage and revert back to the verse in Hebrews:
"Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to Him must believe that He is and that He rewards those who seek Him."(Hebrews 11:6)
It is with sadness that I would make the claim that many confessing Christians fail to comprehend this verse aright and have a tendency to focus upon the latter end of the verse which deals with reward, rather than the first part of the verse which ought to be the central focus of a Christian. If we were to be sincere in our hearts, many would come to the realization that they interpret the verse as such: "If I acknowledge the existence of God, He will shower down blessings upon me." And though I desire not to belittle those who uphold such thoughts in their hearts, I do want to stress that such a comprehension of God is tragic, as it attempts to constrain an otherwise limitless and infinite God. Those who hold such a faith is one which is dependent upon circumstances rather than the person of God: "I know that you exist God, and I know that You love me if...."Faith is not dependent upon God's word either- that is, something which He says. Harken back to Abraham who is attributed as the "father of faith" and why he was accounted as righteous before God:
"He took him outside and said, 'Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' Then He said to him, 'Your offspring will be that numerous.' Abraham believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness."(Genesis 15:5-6)
Notice what the Scripture does not say. The Scripture does not say, "Abraham believed the word of the Lord", but it says, "Abraham believed the Lord", that is, the person of God. As a theologian once said, "You know the word of God- very well. But let me ask you this: Do you know the God of the word?" Such a question must be asked by every confessing Christian and be answered with sincerity. Faith revolves around one thing and one thing only: the person of God. This is why continuing on in their discourse on faith the author writes:
"Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source [other translations read "author'] and perfecter [other translations read "finisher"] of our faith."(Hebrews 12:1b-2a)
The word of God has its important and vital place- in that it brings us to the knowledge of God, however it is exactly that: our means to the end. We cannot have a relationship with God unless we know God, and we cannot know God aside from the knowledge of God which has been revealed to us. This is imperative to grasp as there are two stumbling blocks which hinders and stunts our growth in the faith:
I do not desire for you to understand my statement amiss: I am not saying that a believer is never going to have experiences with God, nor am I suggesting that circumstances cannot bring about edification. I'm saying that although experiences and circumstances can be enjoyed, they cannot act as the source nor backbone of our faith. The source of most false religions is from a place of sincerity. And even if someone consciously aware of the existence of God, that does not transmute into a proper comprehension of God.
1. Experiences ≠ Faith:
Before some who read this become "spiritually zealous" for what they presume to be God and the things pertaining to God, allow me to expound upon what the author of the Hebrews discourse on faith [which they define as being the person of Jesus], by using Israel as an example- primarily the account of them gathered together at Mt. Sinai. God extends the invitation that He would reveal Himself in the midst of the children of Israel so that they might see and know that He was their God which took them out of Egypt, in order for them to walk in accordance to the Law and statues which He was going to reveal to them by means of Moses. For those familiar with the passage ought to recall how Israel responded to bearing witness to God descending upon Mt. Sinai:
"All the people witnessed the thunder and lightening, the sounds of the trumpet, and the mountain surrounded by smoke. When the people saw it they trembled and stood at a distance. 'You speak to us, and we will listen,' they said to Moses, 'But don't let God speak to us, or we will die." Moses responded to the people, 'Don't be afraid, for God has come to test you, so that you will fear Him and will not sin.' And the people remained standing at a distance as Moses approached the total darkness where God was."(Exodus 20:18-21)
Based off of Israel's experience, begin to form a perception of God in your mind. Clear your mind of absolutely everything you know concerning God and allow you faith [or comprehension of who God is] be conformed to Israel's experience. Take some time to reflect upon this passage and examine what is produced prior to reading onward. Chances are, what is produced is not very "bright", you probably picture an angry God, a God who is apt to destroy and break out against Israel. It is also imperative to note what was produced as a result of Israel's perception of who God is: an immediate quenching of the desire to seek after God- "You speak to us, and we will listen... But don't let God speak to us, or we will die." There was no longer a desire for person-to-person fellowship and communication with God. After some time which Moses spent in the darkness alone with God, Israel presumes Moses is dead because he has not returned ["why wouldn't he be dead, did you not see the wrath of God?"] resulting in them goading Aaron into fashioning an idol for them, Provoking God to anger, so Moses has to descend the mountain, destroy the calf using the Ten commandments, and return back to God. Listen to the revelation which God gives as a self-witness to Moses:
"The Lord came down in a cloud, stood with him there and proclaimed His name, 'The Lord.' And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, 'The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation."(Exodus 34:5-7)
When the Scriptures tells us that the Lord [Jesus] came down to meet with Moses and proclaimed His name before Moses, this is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews was getting at: Jesus [the Lord] is the source of faith. So when He reveals Himself to Moses, He is quite literally proclaiming who He is to Moses in order for Moses to return full of faith. Now, compare what Jesus declares of Himself in His self-witness to Moses to Israel's perception of God based off of their experience of meeting with Him at Mt. Sinai. They are in stark contrast to one another. Israel was terrified of he Lord and ran, wanting nothing to do with Him nor stand in His presence nor hear His voice, but dedicated this to Moses instead. Is there reason to fear based off of Jesus' self witness to Moses? Of course there is: He does not clear the guilty, and visits the sin of the father upon the next generations. But what is the very first attribute which the Lord testifies? "I am merciful. More than that- I'm gracious Moses. Not only am I merciful and gracious, but I'm longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth. I keep mercy for thousands, and I forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin Moses." If someone were to introduce themselves in this manner to you, would you be terrified? Would you run away and respond with, "Get away from me! Do not talk to me lest I die!" If you saw a conversation unfold in that manner, you would probably surmise that the person responding in that manner was hysterical and overreacting. And this is why Jesus was needed to be manifested in the flesh- apart from addressing sin, to reveal the glory of the God [John 1:14]. An illustration which I heard once might help us to better understand:
For those who have gone to a lake in the springtime, recall moments in which you walked along the banks of the shore. looking back, you may remember instances in which you saw groups of little fish swimming around. What would occur if you tried to make contact and interact with those little fish? How do you suppose they would respond? The moment your big toe touched the surface of the water, and the water began to be disturbed, would they not immediately flee from your presence? So to was Israel at Mt. Sinai: The moment God dipped His toe upon Mt. Sinai- Israel fled before He even had a chance to proclaim, "I am merciful.." But what if, while standing on the bank and peering into the water, you transform yourself into a fish, how do you suppose the other fish would respond? Would you not go by unnoticed? So to was our Lord Jesus Christ manifested in the flesh: Came unto His own, yet they knew Him not, comprehended Him not, accepted Him not.
This passage in Exodus also gives us a valuable lesson: Out of all the children of Israel- from the least to the greatest, from Aaron to the sons of Korah, of the whole congregation of Israel a single man entered into the darkness to receive a revelation of the person of God. Moses had to enter into total darkness- why? Because he had to reach a place where he could receive faith. He had to reach a point in which he could have to focus on what would proceed from the mouth of God- he wasn't to depend and rely upon what he saw, felt, experienced. He was to leave this meeting and interaction with nothing but the pure word of God- which would have to be undistorted, and ensure it was not misinterpreted by including his experience. We to, who desire to grow in our faith and in a mature standing of the knowledge of Christ must enter into the total darkness to receive it: a place where we rely not on the experience of others, nor depend upon our own experience. But, laying it aside and emptying our minds of preconceived thoughts examine the revealed knowledge of who God has proclaimed Himself to be and allow this pure revelation of God captivate our thought and saturate our hearts, so that we might come to know God.
This was Israel's stumbling block: They depended upon their experience. They relied upon their fathers' experience to shape their perception of God so that when God stood before them by the Man Christ Jesus, they scoffed at Him, ridiculed Him, crucified Him. Such a tragic thought to consider what was produced as a result: people using the Law of the Sabbath as a means of condemning [Luke 6:7]. Israel knew who their God was, but they did not know God. To better understand this thought, I would pose a question to you: Do you know who your father is? "Of course I do!" You would most likely reply, "I can spot him out of a room full of people, and I can discern his voice immediately!" Ok, now a follow up question: Do you know your father? This is not intended to be a trick question, as I assure you I am not asking the same question twice. I'll explain what I mean by this with a personal testimony:
Growing up, I knew who my father was- I recognized his voice, his face, etc. However, it wasn't until I graduated and started to work for my dad that I realized I never knew my father growing up. Growing up my relationship with my dad consisted of obeying everything which he told me to do and facing the consequences if I didn't. This left me with a very skewed perception of my dad, as I thought he was mean and cruel- it also didn't help that he scarcely showed, solidifying my perception of him and it resulted in me fearing my dad- even simply having to go and ask him for something. However, after I began to work with him and talk with him I realized that my preconceived thoughts of my father were completely false. You also might acknowledge God as your Father, Israel did to. Yet they did not know God, and this showed with time.
2. Circumstances ≠ Faith
This topic ought to be a more simple one to grasp. As stated before, faith is dependent on nothing except for God as a person- that's it. The reason why our faith cannot be dependent of circumstances is because it would mean that we cannot grow in faith unless those circumstances are met. Go back to the Mt. Sinai passage, where Moses entered the total darkness- he had to be completely isolated and alone, surrounded by nothing. Peter writes that our faith is to be tested [I Peter 1:6-7], and the circumstance for him writing this letter was to bring comfort to those who had been scattered abroad [verse 1], which is why I would ask you: for what purpose did Peter write concerning their faith needing to be tested? Was it to provoke the thought of "If you believe God enough, He will give you this or that! Bless you with this or that!" Certainly not! But what was the reasoning? As a means of invoking this question: "In light of everything occurring around me, and to me- does this cause me to change my perception of God? Is He still loving when I get mistreated? Is He still merciful when my friend dies? Does He still forgive sins when I stumble?" We often attribute one's faith to how much they have acquired: "Oh look! that person received so much because of their faith!" Yet I would argue that the mature one in faith is revealed not through the acquiring of things- but rather one who is able to suffer great loss and continue to endure for God's kingdom. Look unto our Lord Jesus Christ- His sufferings, and glory which followed. Read through Psalm 22, David's prophetic writing concerning Jesus' suffering upon the cross. Many think that faith is being able to move the mountain of adversity in their lives, true and authentic faith is choosing to accept it with joy- for the glory which will be revealed when our Lord returns.
In closing, I would like to finish with why I personally love this passage concerning the Roman centurion. The reason why is simple: I believe this best exemplifies the Gospel. Much like the Roman centurion, I too was an enemy of Jesus Christ. And like the Roman centurion, this did not come by choice, but it was something predetermined from the moment I was born. When God fashioned me in the matrix of my mother's womb He did not ask me, "Well, tell Me now, your gonna have to make a choice. Will you be my enemy or friend?" From the moment I drew my first breath I might as well have been cursing and blaspheming the name of God because like the Roman centurion, I was born at odds with Jesus Christ as I was born in sin. And yet, unlike the Roman soldier that sent a peace delegation as he sought Jesus, Christ sought me. A wretched sinner, without hope. And He did not send a peace delegation, but He became my peace delegation- in order to reconcile me to the Father. He acted on my behalf to bring about salvation- not in response to my faith, but in spite of my lack of it. And He also did this for you, so that you might be reconciled to God. I hope you do not take this for granted- that you rely not on other people's experiences, nor your own to form a comprehension of who God and Jesus are. But rather, like Moses pressing into the total darkness you might drain yourself of your senses and emotions, focusing in onto God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture- and Jesus in the Gospel, so that you might return like Moses from your meeting place with God fully steadfast and grounded in your faith, in order to bear fruits befitting such an interaction, and so those fruits remain despite the circumstance.