Naaman

Jesus & The Centurion: Humility & Trust (Gospel of John Series)

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Please open up to John 4:46–54:

“[46] So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. [47] When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. [48] So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” [49] The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” [50] Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. [51] As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. [52] So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” [53] The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household. [54] This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.”

The Centurion

The story opens with Jesus coming back around to where this whole section had began. If you recall the outline, you’ll remember that John writes using the miracles as chapter dividers (I’m not talking about the chapter divisions that came later in the 16th century.)

This whole section opened with the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine, the inauguration of King Jesus and the start of His earthly ministry. Then we read how his mission expands geographically and by population as He meets bigger and bigger groups from more diverse places – towns to cities to crowds, Jews to Samaritans, and now we see him with a gentile. They all meet Jesus, hear the gospel, and are forced to either accept or deny Him.

Now, we see this section coming full circle, back to where it began, Galilee. John mentions the first miracle right before he closes this chapter with an encounter with the final people group – a Roman Centurion, likely serving in the honour guard of the very wicked King Herod Antipas.[1]

The miracle of the water to wine had happened at a private wedding, but the story had apparently spread like wildfire, not only among the Jews, and not only in Cana, but throughout Galilee – even all the way in Capernaum, a day’s walk away.

I don’t need to tell you that Jews and Romans didn’t get along. The Romans had conquered the Jewish people, taxed them into oblivion, and oppressed them in myriad ways. Any Jewish person who had any partnership with Rome would be kicked out of his synagogue and treated as a pariah.

So, you can imagine the scene when Jesus, His disciples, and anyone else who was tagging along, saw this Roman Centurion, leader of a hundred Roman soldiers, clad in armour and robes, sticking out like a sore thumb among the crowd.

But this man wasn’t coming to Jesus as a representative of the King, a man of influence and power, one to whom many bowed their knee – he was coming as a desperate father with a very sick child.

Our pomp and self-importance sure does melt quickly in the face of illness, death and tragedy, doesn’t it? Most days we walk around thinking we are pretty well off, pretty in control, pretty pleased with ourselves, thinking that the problems of the world are affecting everyone else, and that our choices are why our lives are better than theirs. We look at the old, sick, tired, poor, weary, anxious, fearful, desperate – and we think, “Oh, those people. If they’d only live like me, they wouldn’t feel like that! If they’d just do what I do, they’d be so much better off.” We start to think that we’re untouchable, above the mess of the world, specially blessed, untouched by the curse of sin that weighs so heavily on others.

And then we get sick. Or someone we loves gets sick. Or an accident happens. Or a tragedy strikes – we get laid off out of nowhere, a natural disaster wipes us out financially, we wake up one day and the whole world has changed.

I remember having that experience a few years back when I woke up one day and one whole side of my face was completely paralyzed. It had sunk down like you see when people have a stroke and I couldn’t move it at all. I went to bed feeling absolutely fine – and when I woke up, I couldn’t talk, eat, or even blink. I went to the doctor and got some medication – and then the pain set in. It was excruciating. I remember reading somewhere that because the nerves in the face are so sensitive, so close to the brain, so many nerves bundled up there – that facial nerve pain is some of the worst pain a person can experience. And I can attest that it is absolutely awful. Medication wouldn’t even touch it. The only relief I got was heating up a magic bag in the microwave and, basically, cooking that side of my face. That was a miserable time. And it happened absolutely out of nowhere.

And it scared me. I looked really weird now and couldn’t talk properly. And I basically talk for a living. In a moment, my face was even scarier than usual – and my calling as a preacher was over. It was really hard.

I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. You’re fine – and then you are humbled by sudden tragedy. It takes you down a peg or two, doesn’t it?

But that’s not a bad thing. It shows us our limitations, reminds us of our humanity, forces us to contend with death, reminds us that we aren’t God, and brings us face to face with just how powerless we really are.

That’s what this Centurion had experienced. You can hear the desperation in his voice in verse 49: “Sir, come down before my child dies.” It’s not an order from on high. It’s not a command from a military leader. It’s a desperate plea from a man who cannot do anything – to the only person he’s ever met that can. That’s the blessing of pain, struggle, sickness, tragedy, and death. It forces us to contend with ourselves, and gives us the motivation to come to God.

Jesus Tests Him

 Look at Jesus’ response. Is it an immediate yes? Does He take the 20 mile walk with him? Does he even respond with anything positive? No. Jesus says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

This wasn’t spoken merely to the Centurion – it was spoken to everyone. The disciples, the Pharisees, the followers, the looky-loos. Why? Because this was their heart. They didn’t want to believe, or follow, or humble themselves, or make Jesus their Lord and Saviour, unless He was willing to perform for them, do what He was told, meet their worldly needs.

The apostle Nathaniel needed a miracle before he believed (1:46-51). Mary wanted a miracle from Jesus when it wasn’t His time (2:4). The Pharisees demanded a miracle when Jesus cleansed the temple (2:18). Those who believed His message kept demanding signs over and over (2:23-25). We learn later, that even John the Baptist doubted who Jesus was until He heard about the miracles (Luke 7:19).

We’ve talked about this lots before, so I won’t belabour the point, but motives are super-critical to God. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason often gets filed under “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 5:8). Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, regardless of how benevolent or costly or positive the effects, is actually credited as sin.

  • Proverbs 16:2 says, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.”
  • James 4:1 says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”
  • Ecclesiastes 12:14 says, “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
  • Jesus in Matthew 6:1, during the Sermon on the Mount says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Later, in verse 5, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.” And in verse 16, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.”
  • Hebrews 4:12–13 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Motives are critical to God. And that’s exactly what Jesus is testing here. What are the Centurions motives? Is He coming to have Jesus perform another miracle for show? Is this a test of Jesus’ claims to godhood? Is this some kind of power play to make Jesus do what he wanted? Or was this man really coming to Jesus in desperation and faith, knowing that Jesus was His only hope?

  • James 4:6, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
  • 1 Peter 5:5, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
  • Proverbs 3:34, “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.” – which is another way of saying, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

When Jesus said, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” He knew what was in the Centurion’s heart – and He knew was about to use him as an example to His followers and detractors. Sure, it was a test of the Centurions motivations – but just as much it was a teaching moment for everyone else.

The Centurions response, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”, was a way of saying, “I don’t care about all that. I’m coming to you for help, for a miracle, because I need some grace and you’re the only one in the whole world who can do this. I believe in you. I believe you are touched by God. Please, just help.”

Trust And Obey

Jesus’ response is extremely interesting and very important. What was the request? “Come down and heal my son.” The walk from Capernaum to Cana was a day’s walk uphill, so to go from Cana to Capernaum was all downhill. “Come down and heal my son.”

What does Jesus say, “Go; your son will live.” (v 50) The Centurion says “Come”, Jesus says the opposite; “Go”. What do you think of that? His child is dying, he has just walked or ridden for hours, trying to track down Jesus. He finally finds Him, humbles Himself before Him, makes an urgent, maybe tearful request, and Jesus says, “No, I’m not coming. Just go. It’s done.”

What a moment of crisis for the Centurion, right? Every doctor, every rabbi, every healer, every miracle worker he’s ever experienced or heard of had to be there for it to work.

It reminds me of the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-14. Turn there. Let’s read it together (Keep your thumb in John):

“Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.”

Ok, so super important, high up, guy. Famous, powerful, a friend of the King of the mightiest kingdom in the world. But, he’s got a problem. (Sound familiar?) He got leprosy. Like I said – sickness is sometimes the only way God can break through our pride and get our attention.

Keep reading in verse 2,

“Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ So Naaman went in and told his lord, ‘Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.’ And the king of Syria said, ‘Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.’

So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.’”

Why did the King of Israel freak out? There was an uneasy truce between the nations, but Israel couldn’t hope to defeat Syria in any kind of military engagement. And here, on his doorstep, is the commander of the Syrian army with a letter in his hand from the King that says, “Here’s a huge amount of money. I want you to cure my guy from leprosy.” A seemingly impossible task, but one that if ignored could lead to war and the destruction of Israel. The King of Israel knew he couldn’t do it, but He also didn’t ask God to do it, and didn’t even think of Elisha… he had no faith, no trust, no humility – only fear.

Keep reading in verse 8,

“But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.’”

Look at the similarity between Jesus and the prophet Elijah – because we’re supposed to see that connection. Elisha says, “Where is your faith, king? Why so upset?” Which is very similar to Jesus saying, “Where is your faith, Israel? Why do you need so much proof?”

Consider things from Elishas perspective. There’s Naaman coming down the road; this great, foreign leader parading to his house. He’s a friend of the king, a dangerous and powerful man. Just like the Roman Centurion. What does Elijah do? He doesn’t even come out to meet him. He sends a messenger saying, “Go.” Just like Jesus. “Go and wash… and your flesh shall be restored.”

Same deal, same test. What is Naaman’s motivation? Where is Naaman’s faith? Remember why Elisha got involved? So that the leader of Syria’s armies would know, without a doubt, that God was with Israel, and that there was a real prophet among them – so they’d better be careful how they treated the Israelites. But Naaman needed to see it. Naaman needed the miracle. He wouldn’t believe without the miracle.

But here’s where the stories part ways. Jesus says “Go”. Elisha says, “Go”. The Centurion obeys, leaves in faith, trusts Jesus, and meets a messenger that says “Your son is better.” What does Naaman do?

Verse 11:

“But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage.”

Faith. Trust. Motives. Humility. He has none. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” The Centurion was humble. Naaman – not so much. “Why didn’t Elisha didn’t greet me personally! Doesn’t He know who I am? I’m insulted! Why doesn’t he wave his hand and make it better? That’s what the really good prophets do. That’s how it works! What’s with this wash in this dirty, foreign river stuff? And 7 times?! C’mon if all I needed to do was take a bath, I’ve got even better rivers back home! This is stupid! I’m leaving!”

I want to tell you something important here, and I need you to see it. God doesn’t do things our way and has no problem hurting our feelings if it’s what’s best for us. I’m going to say that again: God doesn’t do things our way and has no problem hurting our feelings if that’s what’s best for us. He’s a good parent, a good friend, a good shepherd, a good leader, a good doctor, a good king. He doesn’t do things our way and will hurt us if that’s what will heal us. God will use tragedy to bring about humiliation, so we might have right motives, so we will trust and obey Him.

God wants obedience, humility, worship, deference, respect, submission. He demands it of all of us. The Bible reminds us multiple times that every knee will bow to God. (Isa 45:23; Phil 2:10-11; Rom 14:11) There is no forgiveness without repentance, there is no repentance without obedience and submission to God’s Word and will, and there is no obedience and submission without humiliation. To save you, God must humble you. If God left you proud and full of self-esteem, you would be damned. The God that modernity and liberal churches have created, and some here have created – the God that puffs up your self-esteem, only tells you how great you are, how special you are, how lovely you are, how unique you are, only dice nice, comforting, easy, soft things –is super concerned about your feelings, and would never do anything to make you upset – is a false god. 

God cares more about your soul than you do. He cares more about you than you do. He cares more about your spouse, your kids, your parents, your friends, and your church than you do – and He wants them saved and holy and with Him (2 Peter 3:9) more than you do. And so, He’s willing to do more than you will do, to do the hard things you don’t want to do, to say the hard things you don’t want to say, so that they might see their true selves, their true nature, their real problem, and humble themselves before God while they are still alive on earth – so they don’t have to do it later before they are condemned to hell for all eternity.

That’s why the Bible tells us to do hard things – things that sometimes hurt people’s feelings.

  • Things like Titus 3:10 where you warn a divisive person twice and then have nothing more to do with them.
  • Things like 1 Corinthians 5:5 or 11 where we turn our friend and church mate “over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved” and to refuse to associate with anyone who calls themselves a Christian, but is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or idolatry, or abusive in speech, or addicted, or a liar. To “not even eat with such a one.” 
  • Things like Jesus says in Matthew 18:17 where if someone refuses to repent from their sin, even after being confronted by their friends and the church, to treat them like they are an unsaved person.
  • Or 2nd Thessalonians 3:13-15 which says, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
  • Or Romans 16:17-18, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”

But that’s not nice! Aren’t Christians supposed to be nice? What if we hurt their feelings? How are we supposed to grow the church and gain followers and fill the offering plate if we do all this and hurt people’s feelings? Won’t that affect our reputation? Won’t that hurt the church?

That doesn’t matter. The glory of God, our obedience to His word, and our humility before Him, is what matters. The purity of the gospel, seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness is what matters. Confronting sin, being truthful, and doing battle against the devil in the name of Jesus Christ, is what matters. God grows and defends the church, and has given us the Word telling us how to do it. Even if someone gets offended, even if their feelings get hurt, even if they get mad, leave, and seek revenge.

1 Peter 2:9-10, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

We proclaim God’s excellencies and live as His people by doing things His way even when it’s hard any unpopular.

Turn with me to 2 Peter 2 (but keep your thumb in 2 Kings, and your other thumb in John) and I want to read the whole chapter, because I want you to see how serious God is, how serious the apostle is, about standing on God’s truth, protecting the purity of the church, and confronting sin with some pretty serious language that will definitely hurt people’s feelings.

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.

Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.

These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.’”  

Sin within the church, among church members, is no small thing, and God has given us some very specific commands on how to deal with it – even though it’s hard, even though it’ll make us unpopular, even though it will hurt someone’s feelings.

Verse 10, “Bold and willful, they do not tremble…” Why? Pride. And God opposes them. And if we don’t deal with them as God has commanded, God will oppose us too. So what is the kind thing? For God to take away their boldness, break their will, and make them tremble.

Let’s finish the story in 2 Kings 5:13:

“But his servants came near and said to him, ‘My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?’”

Can you imagine how hard that would have been? There’s the greatest military leader in the world, best buddy of the king, and he’s hopping mad – literally raging. And the servant says, “Just do it. Humble yourself. Obey. Oh, great one who commands the greatest army in the world and could have me killed with a word – please humble yourself. God’s prophet told you to do something. Just do it, man. Humiliate yourself and be clean.”

In verse 14 we see the story converge again with Jesus and the Centurion:

“So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

He humbled himself and obeyed. Elisha and Jesus weren’t doing things the way they wanted, weren’t meeting their expectations, were treating them with a sort of insensitivity, and required them to humiliate themselves and obey before they would see the miracle. For the Centurion, it was a long walk back home. For Naaman, it was washing himself over and over and over and over and over in a place he didn’t want to be.

And their humility, obedience, and faith that God’s way was right and better, led to the miracle – and it lead to even more people hearing and seeing and fearing the power of God. Obedience leads to blessing. Pride and fear of man leads to losing God’s blessing.

Conclusion

Let me close with this. God is asking you to do something hard right now. I know this. You have come to Him asking for a miracle because you need something. You see a bad situation and you need God to step in. You are afraid, in need, desperate, anxious, worried, sick – or someone you love is – and you need a miracle. Our church is being asked to do some hard things right now; to confront sin, division, pride, rebellion… and God is asking us to do some difficult things that are going to hurt some people’s feelings.

My question to you is: Are you willing to humble yourself before God, before God’s word, before God’s spirit, and do things His way – even if it means you’ll become unpopular, make someone mad, make someone sad, make someone lonely, hurt someone’s feelings? Are you willing to confront sin and obey Jesus, doing the hard things scripture asks you to do, even if people are going to call you mean, rude, angry, selfish, arrogant, and unfriendly? Will you take that persecution for the sake of Jesus’ name, His glory, His church? Are you willing to say, “Your way God, not mine. Your plan God, not mine. Your will God, not mine. And for your glory, in your name, for love’s sake, I’ll do whatever you ask, no matter what the consequence – because I want your blessing and to see your hand work more than anything else in the world.”

You are being tested right now. In your private life, and in your church. I hope that, like Naaman, like the Centurion, you humble yourself and pass the test.


[1] The Gospel and Episles of John FF Bruce – Pg 117