In our last essay we studied Luke 6:27-49, which completed our study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. In this essay we are studying Luke 7:1-17, which includes two miracle stories. The first is the healing of a centurion’s servant, and the second is the raising of a widow’s son from the dead. In 7:1 Luke tells us that Jesus went to Capernaum after preaching the Sermon on the Plain.
Capernaum sits along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Then Luke tells us that a centurion lived there. According to Howard Marshall, there were no Roman forces in Galilee prior to AD 44. Therefore this centurion may have been a member of Herod’s army, which was organized along Roman lines. Frederic Godet suggests that he may have been a Roman centurion who had been assigned to Herod’s forces. In either case, it appears that he may have been what is called a “God-fearer.” God-fearers were Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism’s God and attended synagogue services. But they had not become Jews.
At any rate, the centurion had a highly valued slave who was gravely ill and near to death. Matthew’s parallel says that he was “paralyzed, in terrible distress” (Mt. 8:6). Apparently he was so sick he could not be brought to Jesus. So the centurion sent the Jewish elders of Capernaum to Jesus to seek Jesus’ help in healing the slave. The centurion later said that he felt unworthy to come to Jesus himself (vv. 6-7).
The centurion undoubtedly believed that the elders could make a better case for his worthiness than he himself could. And indeed they did make a good argument. They told Jesus that the centurion was worthy of the miracle, because he loved the Jews and built their synagogue.
For someone who wasn’t even a Jew to build a synagogue for the Capernaum Jews was quite a financial commitment. Indeed it suggests that the centurion may have been a convert to Judaism rather than simply a God-fearer.
The story continues in verses 6-10. Jesus decided to go with the elders to the centurion’s house. But on the way, they were met by another delegation from the centurion. Some of the centurion’s friends met them and told Jesus, on behalf of the centurion, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof . . . only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” Then he explained how he, as a man of authority, simply speaks what he wants done, and it is done (vv. 7-8).
Jesus was very impressed with the centurion’s humility and faith. Indeed he was amazed at him, and Jesus said to those around him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And then the slave was healed. According to Matthew, it happened that very hour.
In Matthew’s account, the centurion comes to Jesus himself rather than sending a second delegation. This difference can be explained by the fact that Luke was giving a fuller account of the incident than Matthew. In that culture, the words of the delegation speaking for the centurion were received as though they were the centurion. Therefore it was the same thing as the centurion being on the scene speaking for himself. And that is the way Matthew reported it.
I believe that the best way to apply this passage to our lives is to focus on the centurion’s character and faith. First, in character he was a humble man. Although he held an exalted position in that society, he considered himself unworthy to be in the presence of a rather lowly Jewish Rabbi. And second, the centurion’s faith truly was amazing. He believed Jesus could heal his slave from a distance simply by speaking the word. And that is what happened. We therefore see a model of humility and faith for us to follow.
Now then, we are ready to move to the next story found in 7:11-17. As you see in verse 11, Jesus left Capernaum and went to the town of Nain, accompanied by his disciples and a large crowd. Nain was located on the Plain of Jezreel, six miles south-southeast of Nazareth.
As Jesus’ procession neared the town gate, they met another procession, a funeral procession (also a large crowd), on the way out of town to the cemetery. The picture is easy to imagine. One large group coming towards town is accompanying the Prince of Life, and another large group coming out of town is accompanying a dead man. The dead man is described as “an only son” of a widow. So the mother involved has suffered a double blow. She already had lost her husband, and now she has lost her only son.
Jesus was moved with compassion as he looked at the situation, and he spoke to the widow, telling her not to weep. Now to clarify the situation just a bit more, the funeral biers of the Jews of that day were open. They consisted basically of a plank with raised edges. And the body lay on the bier in its shroud, visible to all. So that’s what Jesus saw.
What happens next is quite dramatic. Keep picturing the scene in your mind. Verse 14 indicates that Jesus went up to the bier and touched it, which caused the bearers of the bier, and thus the entire funeral procession, to stop their movement. Touching the bier would have made Jesus ritually unclean; but as always, he didn’t worry about ritual uncleanness. So now picture these two rather large processions stopping in the middle of the road, and everyone in both groups are watching as Jesus speaks: “Young man, I say you, rise!” And the young man sits right up and begins to speak. Wow! Would you like to have seen that?
Then Jesus gave the young man to his mother. This detail makes one immediately think of the story in 1 Kings 18:17-24 where the prophet Elijah raised the son of a widow at Zarephath and gave him back to his mother. I’m sure that the similarity to the story in 1 Kings was intentional. Luke wanted his readers to see that Elijah’s miracle was a type of Jesus’ miracle.
In verse 16 I see four effects of the miracle. The first is fear on the part of those who were present. They weren’t afraid of God in the sense that they thought he was going to do something terrible to them; rather they were struck by awe. They felt the awesome respect that one feels when one sees a miracle of God.
The second effect was that the people glorified God. That is a natural progression. When the proper fear of God is stirred in one, one naturally begins to glorify God, because of the awe. Worship is a most natural response.
Third, the people recognized that a great prophet had risen among them, a prophet like Elijah or Moses. Only the great prophets in Israel’s history worked miracles of this sort.
And fourth, the people realized that God had looked favorably on his people. They would not have understood everything at this point. They may not even have grasped the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. But they did understand that God had done a marvelous thing in their midst and that a great prophet had come to them.
The story ends in verse 17 the same way that we saw a couple of earlier stories end (4:14, 37). The news of what Jesus had done spread everywhere. In this case, it wasn’t just reported across Galilee; but Luke tells us that the word spread throughout Judea as well.
Warren Wiersbe gives an interesting slant to the story with four points that he sees in the passage. First, two crowds met, referring to the two processions. Second, two only sons met. Jesus was God’s only son. Third, two sufferers met. The woman obviously was suffering the loss of her son on top of the loss of her husband. But Wiersbe reminds us that Jesus was the man of sorrows, and he could identify with her pain. Finally fourth, two enemies met, Life with a capital “L” and death. Paul tells us that death is “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). And Jesus overcomes death, as he did when he brought the young man back to life.
Turning to application, we are challenged to look upon Jesus and his ministry with awe. We are to glorify God for what he has done, because he has sent a great prophet among us, and has looked with favor on his people. But more than that, he has defeated death; and we have hope of life eternal with him.