Jesus was brought up in Nazareth and He moved to Capernaum (“the village of Nahum ”) and it became a center of His ministry. There He became noted as a teacher and a healer (Luke 4:16, 23) and it was there that He was stunned by a pagan. Twice in the New Testament we’re told that Jesus was astonished and in both cases it had to do with faith.
Luke 7:1-10 (see also Matthew 11:5-10) tells us of a foreigner, a Roman officer, who despite being a part of the forces of occupation loved Israel and honored them and as a consequence he was esteemed by the Jewish leaders.
He had a servant he really cared for and that servant was very ill so the foreigner sent Jewish people to ask a favor of this young Jewish prophet. He wanted him to heal the sick man and Jesus was on his way to do just that. Before Christ got to the house the soldier sent word that he didn’t mean for Jesus to come to his house, only that he speak and the healing would be done. The soldier said he knew what authority was. He had soldiers under him and he himself was under others. When he or his superiors spoke the response was immediate–the order was carried out. He saw it as sufficient that Jesus simply command the disease to leave and it would.
Luke 7:9 tells us that Jesus was amazemed and turned to the crowd saying He hadn’t seen faith like that in His own nation. We’ve become accustomed to the idea that Jesus wept, became angry or was tender, that He was moved with compassion and pity but is there not something astonishing about Jesus being astonished? How did He look when He heard what the centurion had to say? What registered on His face? More important, what are the implications in the fact that He was astonished at the man’s great faith?
It implies that something utterly unexpected had happened, doesn’t it? But what are the implications in that? Did Jesus not see Himself or His Father as worthy of such trust? No, that wasn’t the problem, He knew they were worthy. What astonished Him then? We can guess about the man’s pagan raising and that he was living in a town that Jesus cursed for its arrogance and hard heart (Matthew 11:23-24). Maybe that enters into it. Be that as it may, whatever the man’s past or present environment, it’s clear that Jesus thought it astonishing that such faith could be found in such a person. And that should remind us that it isn’t always easy to believe or to believe with deep conviction. If believing and believing profoundly were as simple as hearing the gospel there would be no reason to be astonished. Exodus 6:7 reminds us of that.
That’s what’s so fine about Jesus Christ. That’s what leads millions to not only love Him but to like and admire Him. He just blurts out His pleasure when He meets up with something glorious and weeps His heart out when He meets something tragic. There’s an openness about Him that while it makes Him vulnerable to His enemies makes Him adorable to those with eyes to trust Him.
Neither Matthew nor Luke gives us a psychological study of Christ on this occasion but it’s not hard to see and sense His joy. “Can you beat that?” we can hear Him say to the following crowd. We understand very well that faith is God’s work in us but it isn’t coercive work; the believer is not turned into a mindless being, he or she must personally and freely give themselves in the process. And people can choose not to believe (see Mark 6:6). When we come across a believer we come across someone who has gladly allowed God to have His way with them.
All of that’s plain enough but still, Jesus was astonished! Given the norm, this man shouldn’t have that faith. Imagine Jesus with his eyes shining, turning to the centurion (compare Matthew 8:13 ), smiling and saying, “How’d you do that?” We can easily imagine the centurion saying, “Oh, sir, we both know that God accomplishes all such things in us.” Christ would totally agree but He is still mesmerized at a lovely human response.
The point I wish to make in particular is the fact that Jesus was astonished. I recognize that He was/is a human and that He shared with us the fine human traits but He better than anyone else knew that His Father was inexpressibly generous, a Lover beyond telling and gracious beyond fathoming—He knew all that and is STILL astonished that this sinful human believed! What does that imply?
We’ve met people who were raised and continue to live in horrendous circumstances and there they are, up to their hearts in trust. And I don’t find it difficult in the least to imagine Christ with joyful astonishment on His face looking at them and saying, “How’d you do that?”
I think it was William Arnott who said who said when he spoke about the miracle on the miraculous catch of fishes. “God is at all troubled about empty fishing boats but He is about empty hearts.”
Here’s to all you “centurions” who provoke in God’s chosen people a godly jealousy and a Christlike astonishment.