4. The Mystery – of a child

Focus on Christ Meditations: 4.  The Mystery – of a child

Isa 7:14     Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel

In searching out the ‘pre-history’ of Jesus we need to note that the prophecies in the early chapters of Isaiah (Ch.7 & 8) and there is mystery shrouding both of them. We have seen previously how the apostle Paul spoke of the ‘mystery of Christ’ and it is only when we come to examine the prophecies that are applied to Jesus that we see they are shrouded in whole areas of confusion or uncertainty.  In the previous study the mystery was why such a small town such as Bethlehem should be chosen over the greater city, Jerusalem. Confusing for the wise men, and confusing for those who sought to understand the prophecies.

To understand this and understand something of the mystery (or confusion), we need to see the historical context. It is a time of turmoil and when Isaiah first went to him with his son (7:3) it was to encourage Ahaz. The kings of Aram and Israel (the northern kingdom) had already come against Jerusalem and failed. Let’s see what follows:

The Historical context: First see Isaiah’s family: “the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub.” (7:3) and that name means ‘a remnant will return’. See also the role of Ahaz, king of Judah (the southern kingdom).  The Lord tells Isaiah to encourage him, (see 7:3-9) and at the end of it says, ask for a sign of confirmation (7:10) but Ahaz refuses (7:11). It’s almost like he says, I don’t need any sign, I can handle it, they failed to take Jerusalem once, I can deal with them.

It is into this unbelieving context that the Lord speaks, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (7:14) Well that sounds good, God being with us, especially when it continues, He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isa 7:15,16) That is even better, these present two antagonists will be destroyed.

If it stopped there that would be fine but instead it goes on to warn that the King of Assyria will be the one who deals with them but he will also come and deal with you! (7:17-25) The confusion here? You haven’t spotted it yet? This child is somehow going to be an indication that God is with them, but the end result of God being with them is that they are (after the initial worries about the first two kings are removed) going to be judged and the land destroyed.

The Second son: Now when we move on into chapter 8 we find the Lord telling Isaiah to name his next son, ‘quick to the plunder, swift to  the spoil’ which would speak of destruction and he adds the same words we saw in 7:16 Before the boy knows how to say `My father’ or `My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria,” (Isa 8:4)  which explains the name. This is followed by a long prophecy against Judah, so twice has this word come – a double sided word, one side removing the present threat and the other side bringing an even bigger judgment. So is ‘Immanuel’ (God with us) good news or bad? It depends were you stand before God.

The ‘Virgin problem’: But there is another problem. We find Isaiah a) has one son, b) brings a prophecy about another but born of a virgin (a young girl, previously unmarried), and then c) has another son by ‘the prophetess’. I have split these things out to remind us that there are three events here. The vagueness of this situation has led scholars to wonder if his first wife died and then he took anther wife, a prophetess, who then bears the second child; how else could the second child be born from a virgin, a young girl, previously unmarried? The two prophecies (7:14-16 and then 8:1-4 on) clearly link the two sons but we are still left with confusion about ‘a virgin’ because Isaiah’s family life is not spelled out in more detail. Isaiah is quite clear about it, however: “Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (Isa 8:18)

The Immanuel aspect: So, was this prophecy about ‘Immanuel’ something to do with the Messiah? Looking at the context it is purely historical, applying to Isaiah’s day, but then we come to the New Testament and Matthew is quite specific. Joseph is serious stressed that his betrothed appears to be pregnant and it is only a God-given dream that allays his fears. As a commentary to this Matthew writes, All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.” (Mt 1:22,23) Huh? Where did that come from? The Isaiah ‘Immanuel prophecy’ was all to do with judgment and Matthew now applies it to the coming of the Son of God because Mary IS a virgin in the full sense. Does Matthew see that that which appeared almost bizarre in Isaiah’s day, a warning of judgment, is now a message of mercy and grace? Or is there more?

In the excitement of Christmas we tend to think of Emmanuel or Immanuel as a lovely picture of God coming, but after Jesus was born an elderly prophet who met them at the Temple declared, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” (Lk 2:34,35) In other words the ministry of this child will be two edged. For those with hearts open to God, he will lift them, but for those who remain hard-hearted, stubborn and rebellious, he will be the means by which God will judge them and bring them down.

Isaiah’s Immanuel was all about judgment and yet (and here we go back to 7:3 and his first son’s name) the ultimate end would be salvation for the faithful remnant. Suddenly we get a bigger picture: the mystery of Immanuel and the virgin is that the Messiah will come to bring both blessing and judgment. At Christmas, we tend to focus only on the former but the bigger picture says, no, it is both! There is both hope and warning here and we would be wise to heed them both.

To reflect upon: in thinking about the coming of Jesus, do we hold this balance of blessing versus judgment, which all depends on those who receive or reject him? How might that affect the way we think of others?

1. History, a Battle for Reality

(As we come to the last two weeks before Christmas, I would like to take a break from Hebrews – we will come back and complete it in the New Year – and pause to reflect on the wonder of Christmas)

Meditations on the Reality of Christmas:   1. History, a Battle for Reality

Luke 1:1-4  Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

I have at least once in the past written Advent meditations but every year when I approach this time I find I come from a new perspective, it seems, or the Lord seems to be putting a new emphasis before me. From the perspective of a gifts giving, food focused, one day orgy, I do not like Christmas, but when it comes to the Christmas story as found in Matthew and Luke, I find it the most wonderful time. Just how it is celebrated will vary all over the world but, I would like to suggest to you in this short series, how we celebrate it is almost an irrelevancy. How God ‘celebrated’ the coming of His Son to the earth is something else.

Now here is my worry, a concern I have for all of us who are Christians, and it is that we sink Christmas to the level of a romantic fairy story. I don’t know about your part of the world, but where I live in the UK, junior schools still put of ‘Nativity Plays’ by the children which are increasingly dressed up in other guises. It is almost as if teachers think, “Well, we’ve done this old story over and over again. It’s getting boring now. How can we make it something more interesting? How can we make it something that appeals to all people and all faiths?”

So here is my point: this story IS history, it DID happen and if we take the time to think about it, it IS the most amazing story ever written down in history. I always like the start of Luke’s Gospel because it is so down to earth. Yes, it does speak of another culture – how many of us have a friend named Theophilus? But it speaks of truth.

I want to keep these studies or meditations short, quicker to read in this period which seems to get so full of activity, so let me tell you what worries me about all this. It is that we Christians ‘do’ the Christmas story, year in, year out, and the danger is that familiarity breeds contempt, or at least boredom. I mean we all of us know the Christmas story, so why bother to make it the basis of a set of meditations when there is already one set of such meditations on this site?

Christian revelation involves a constant battle for reality. The enemy would seek to either deride it as utter make-believe, or make it so boring that it becomes irrelevant, or make it so intellectual that it sits in our heads without touching our hearts, or make it so romantic it simply comes with an emotional buzz but no intellectual understanding, or make it so mundane that we cease to worship the one who comes. Can we nail these options on the wall so we are aware of them, and then say, no, I will not let it be like this! Lord please open my eyes afresh to see the wonder of this story, touch my heart with the experiences of the people involved, touch my mind with the reality of the facts before us, touch my spirit to see the glory of the coming one and so be able to worship him in reality.

As a sign that these words mean something as you read them, may I ask you at the end of each of this series to pause and pray something specific? For this one, perhaps words that begin, “Lord, please open my eyes…..”

10. Matthew

People who met Jesus : 10 :  Matthew

Mt 9:9,10 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples.

Now the further we move on with the apostles, the more we will find less being said about the individuals because we have taken the more famous first – but fame comes from different causes. Matthew – or Levi we will see his alternate name was – gets his fame from being a tax collector, one of that group of men who served the Romans and who had a reputation for not being very honest.

In a general list of the apostles we see him identified: These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him,” (Mt 10:2-4) and his designation is a ‘tax collector’. That is what made him stand out; in fact it stands out in each description of him as if to say, “Wow, how unusual, a tax collector became a follower of Jesus!”

In our verses today we simply see Matthew at his booth, that tax collectors had so people could know where they were and where to come to pay their taxes, when Jesus comes there and calls him to follow. Now there is no prior reference to Matthew so whether or not this was his first contact with Jesus is unclear. This takes place in the town of Capernaum where Jesus was living so it is almost certain that Matthew would, at the very least, have heard about Jesus, who he was and what he was doing. Had he been yearning for something more than the life he had? We don’t know.  Why did Jesus choose him? We aren’t told but must assume that the Son of God, who knows the hearts and minds of all men and women, knew Matthew’s state, saw his hunger, and saw what he could become.

When Luke records this incident in his Gospel we find the following: “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth.  “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.” (Lk 5:27-29)   Note that he calls Matthew, Levi but everything else about the account is so similar that it has to be the same person. Now the Jews often had two names (like we may be given two or more ‘Christian names’), or it may be that Jesus later renamed him; we just don’t know the reason for the difference, but it is clearly the same man. Mark also recorded him as Levi with the rest being so clear as to guarantee it being the same person: “As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth.” (Mk 2:14) Mark simply adds his family background.

Note also that Luke the physician, being the people-sensitive person that he was, makes comment that Levi ‘left everything’. That was the great marvel in Luke’s mind as he recorded this incident, that a man who dealt with money and whose life was money, should be so moved by Jesus that he was happy to just walk away from it all. Indeed this  is the marvel of Matthew, that he shows us that Jesus is so attractive that it is worth leaving all our material security to follow him. The other key thing about Matthew is that, of course, he shows us that Jesus will receive anyone; their background or past history is irrelevant. All that matters is their heart desire for Jesus.

The other thing that all three accounts show us is that immediately he left his job, he held a great feast or banquet for Jesus (which Jesus went to!) and invited all his tax collector friends along to. Thus, yet again, we see that one of the characteristics of these disciples is that they immediately wanted to tell their friends about Jesus. So wonderful was he, in their eyes, that they just wanted to tell others about him. Is this, perhaps, one of the required characteristic for anyone who is to be come a leader or even an apostle?

If we briefly note before finishing the meaning of the two names given to this man, we will see something interesting. Mark and Luke call him Levi which, if you go to Gen 29:34 you will see a footnote tells you means ‘attached’. Perhaps they continue to give him his old name because it accentuates the wonder of what has happened: a man who has been attached to materialism has been drawn away and detached from it by the wonderful Son of God. Matthew simply means ‘gift of God’ and it is Matthew himself who, we believe, was probably the author of the first Gospel, who uses it. It is as if he wants to accentuate the wonder of what he sees his life is, of what Jesus has made it.

Beyond these brief references Matthew receives no other reference in the Gospel. He is simply there as one of the twelve. He was still there in the post-ascension church (see Acts 1:13). He does not appear to have done anything outstanding that merited comment by the Gospel writers, but he was just there bearing testimony, by his life, of the transforming power of Jesus. That was enough!

16. Fulfilling Prophecy

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.16

Isa 8:3,4 And the LORD said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. Before the boy knows how to say `My father’ or `My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”

Understanding prophecy and how it is fulfilled requires a simple, open heart. It almost seems sometimes that the Lord does either the most obvious things or the most obscure, but whatever it is, it needs simple faith to understand it. God is constantly revealing the state of our hearts, and the way we respond to prophecy (Biblical or personal) does that. We made brief reference in the previous meditation about the ‘Immanuel prophecy’, that this was taken by Matthew and applied to Jesus. Now many of the New Testament writers do this sort of thing, taking an Old Testament prophecy and applying it to current events. It takes simple faith to understand and accept that God spoke words that would speak about the immediate future AND about His long term plans. You either have that simple faith, or you don’t!

The ‘Immanuel prophecy’ spoke about a virgin, or simply young girl (who in Hebrew culture would have been a virgin), having a child. Now in the context of Isaiah there is nothing miraculous about that. It was simply a prophetic picture that said within just a few years these things will happen. It is only in the New Testament that we find Matthew applying it because there IS a miraculous intervention by God with a young girl who is obviously a virgin, to bring in the Son of God, and no man is involved. Matthew sees the circumstances fit the prophecy! He catches God’s longer term plans in that word.

But as we said, this word in Isaiah has an immediate fulfilment. Let’s examine the order of events. First of all the Lord calls Isaiah to write down a name, a strange name which has meaning and significance: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means ‘quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil’. Now actually He doesn’t at that point say it is a name, just that Isaiah is to write it down and get it witnessed. The next thing to happen is that Isaiah goes to his wife, the prophetess, and she conceives and a son is born. Now frustratingly we aren’t told if the prophetess and Isaiah are just married and she was a virgin, but the closeness to the prior prophecy seems a little bit beyond coincidence.

Right, we now think, this child is to be named ‘Immanuel’ according to the prophecy, but no, he is to be called Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, ‘quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil.’ What a name to have! So what does that really mean? We are told in verse 4: “Before the boy knows how to say `My father’ or `My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.” A plunderer will quickly come and strip the land. Now look in your Bible at something of great significance. Verses 6 to 8 expound on this invasion but they are clearly spoken to the child and end with the name that the Lord applies to him, Immanuel! So he is called by a name that points to a coming discipline from the Lord, but he is also to be known as a prophetic fulfilment that says, “God is with is”, the meaning of Immanuel.

What is going on here? The Lord is making it plain through Isaiah that He is in the midst of all that is about to happen. This is not an out-of-control pillaging nation; this is an invader who has the hand of the Lord upon him. This is not a word for the faint hearted, but it is designed to make the proud and arrogant faint hearted! Remember, throughout all this, the Lord is seeking to draw Judah back to Himself so that they can come back into the place of right living, a place of blessing where peace and prosperity are the order of the day.

In our ordinary everyday world we believe in discipline and deterrent and justice. We discipline (and train) our children, otherwise they run amok and feel insecure. We enforce the Law that seeks to bring peace and order to our streets. We imprison criminals. All these things we take for granted, but the critical among us object to the Lord doing these things with a nation.

Carry out a simple exercise. Compare the description of Ahaz that we saw previously and consider the state of the nation as it must have been under him, and then go and read about the state of the nation under king Solomon as he ruled with the wisdom of God bringing the nation to the best and most affluent that it ever was. The latter is a picture of God’s desire for His people, because He was the one who enabled Solomon at the prime of his life. The former is a picture of foolish sinful mankind, getting in a total mess when it rejects God.

What we also find, when we consider what has been happening, is the Lord who is seeking to make obvious to His people what He is doing. When God brings warnings it is not because He wants to bring this invader, but He wants Ahaz to respond to the warning and take the appropriate action to avoid it. What is the appropriate action? It is to call the nation to repentance, to call them back to the Lord. If that had happened then the invader would never have come. If we are given warnings it is so that we can take appropriate action to avoid the danger. When we see warning signs on the road, we take avoiding action. If we see symptoms of the onset of a disease we don’t laugh it at and just carry on; no, we immediately rush to a doctor to see how to stop it happening. Why can we do these things when they are practical or health issues, but somehow be so blind when they are spiritual issues?

15. God’s Signs

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.15

Isa 7:10,11 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

There are two things about signs in Scripture, both of which seem to go against popular understanding. The first is that God is not put off when His people ask for signs and is not averse to providing a sign for them. The second is that despite the fact that God gives signs, people are notoriously bad at responding to them.

Gideon is an example of the first when an angel came to him: Gideon replied, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.” (Jud 6:17). The angel then set fire to the offering Gideon presented. Pharaoh is the classic O.T. example of someone responding badly to God’s signs: “though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.” (Ex 7:3,4). In John’s Gospel Jesus berated the Jews for their unbelief: “Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (Jn 6:26). ‘Signs’ are really for people with open hearts.

There is a third thing we should note about God’s signs and it is that often the signs is an “afterwards sign”. For instance when Moses was asking for guidance the Lord told him: “And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” (Ex 3:12). In other words when you have done it and find yourself back here, that will be a sign that it was me leading you! We find something similar in this passage in Isaiah.

In our verse today, the Lord asks Isaiah to ask for a sign. Now that is incredibly gracious. The Lord is willing to help Ahaz’s unbelief and is willing to do something to reassure him. The Lord knows our frailty and is willing to help us in it. Perhaps one of the most famous instances of this is Gideon’s fleece (Jud 6:36-). Twice the Lord did what Gideon asked for. I have always felt that it was a sign of immaturity to go asking the Lord for signs, but in reality we are frail people and we are called to a life of faith and not sight (2 Cor 5:7) and the Lord does not chide those who ask for such confirmation. In fact in chapter 7 of Isaiah He chides Ahaz for not asking! Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also?” (7:13)

It is at this point that the Lord says that HE will provide a sign even though Ahaz will not ask for one: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah–he will bring the king of Assyria.” (7:14-17)

Now most people miss a large part of this ‘sign’. It is not merely the child; it is also what happens in his early years. Yes, this is the verse that Matthew picks up and applies to Mary (Mt 1:23) and the child will be Jesus. Here, however, a child will be born to a young woman but before this child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, the Lord will bring Assyria to deal with the two kings opposing him – and on Ahaz’s land! In other words, when this has happened, Ahaz will know that this was not an accident, but the discipline of the Lord. He can take it as a sign of the Lord’s dealing with him and (implied) he will then need to put his life right with the Lord.

Ahaz’s failure to ask for a sign, when asked by the Lord, was an indication of his state of unbelief, and it was that unbelief that the Lord was moving against. Do we see that? The Lord is going to discipline Ahaz but the intent of the discipline is to bring him back into a right relationship of belief with the Lord, which his father had had. Because the Lord wants Ahaz to learn from it, He tells him before it happens what He is going to do, so that when it does happen it will act as a sign to Ahaz of the Lord’s activity that should bring him to his senses. Tragically, the record, that we looked at in the previous mediation, reveals that Ahaz didn’t learn and went from bad to worse, but he could never say, when he faced the Lord in eternity, that he didn’t know.

Oh no, when each of us comes before the Lord, when our time on earth comes to an end, we will never be able to say we didn’t know. I am convinced that when such a time comes, the Lord will be able to show us countless ‘signs’ that He gave us throughout our lifetime. The truth is that God is continually working to draw us into relationship with Him so that we can receive His blessing on our lives. He wants to bring us into a good place where we are living the way He has designed us to live so that we can be most fulfilled, but because of the nature of sin, He has to speak again and again to us. Have you heard or missed the quiet whisper that recently came, or the loud proclamation that came on a Sunday morning, or through the circumstances that make up your life, that are partly there by the Lord’s making as He seeks to draw you closer? Do we have eyes to see the wonder of what He is doing, of the wonder of His love as He constantly reaches out to us, giving us indication after indication of His love for us? May it be so!

Friends

Readings in Luke Continued – No.26

Lk 7:10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

I think there are times in the Christian life (if we are honest) when you hold your breath and wonder if you got it right as you wait to see an outcome. This particular account in the Gospels is one such case. There is an interesting divergence here between Luke and Matthew which we haven’t yet picked up. Just before this verse Luke records, “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,” which referred to the centurion’s comments about authority which, in turn follows the words from the centurion about his unworthiness – except Luke tells us that both sets of words were actually spoken by friends who the centurion had sent to Jesus (v.6).

We have commented before on how Matthew tends to give abbreviated accounts and he doesn’t mention anyone else acting as the spokesman for the centurion. He has just reports, “a centurion came to him, asking for help.” (Mt 8:5) and the conversation appears to have been with the centurion – but that is just shorthand which is not uncommon in the Gospels. We need to understand in these situations that writers in Jesus’ day did not have the same cultural requirement to give specific accurate details as we would expect today (although our modern Press sometimes seem to exhibit the same characteristics as the culture of two thousand years ago!). Often we find generalities in one Gospel account and specifics in another. Thus it is in Matthew that we have the words attributed to the centurion – as in fact they were even in Luke, but where others transmit them – while Luke gives us the detail of how it actually came about.

So much for the differences between Matthew and Luke, but now we have to consider disparities within Luke’s text. We have, first of all, seen that Jewish elders came pleading on behalf of this man for healing but it seems fairly obvious that they didn’t quite convey what the centurion subsequently realised he wanted, because we read earlier in Luke’s account, “The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.(v.3) but then later seems to want to stop him coming. Now either that was how the centurion originally put it (and subsequently changed his mind), or it was how the elders perceived it, how they assumed it, and assumed that that was what he was asking for. It is only when you start looking in detail at the accounts that you begin to realise the workings of the human mind. Look again at the two possible scenarios that we have suggested.

First scenario: the centurion asked for Jesus to come and then realised as he thought about it, that actually he didn’t need Jesus to come; Jesus had the power and authority to speak just a word and it would be done. This is an interesting situation because I do believe that sometimes faith flows and grows once we have committed ourselves to a course of action, and not before. Jesus is obviously on his way for we read,”He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him….” (v.6). One way or another Jesus received the first message and started coming, but when the centurion looked out of his house and saw the crowd approaching, he then obviously asked some friends to go out and stop Jesus with the words he gives them. Perhaps he was not in full faith for ‘distance healing’ before, but he is now!

Second scenario: the centurion in conversation with his Jewish friends, elders of the town, mentions he wishes Jesus could heal his servant and they naturally assume he means he wants Jesus to come to the house – I mean, how else can he get healed??? The other thing about writing in those days was that it was a far more arduous task than today; they did not have the ease of a computer keyboard! Thus they would have been fairly basic in what they included, so we aren’t told if, in fact, the centurion then followed his friends out of the house and talked to Jesus face to face, but that seems unlikely as we are told in today’s verse, “Then the men who had been sent returned to the house,” but that could mean of course they went back while he stayed talking with Jesus. That is the frustration of the Gospels sometimes; they don’t tell us everything we’d like to know.

So here we have a situation with some very human dynamics in it – and Luke likes such things! That’s why we get the details he gives us. This is no ordinary centurion. This is a Roman with Jewish friends who are willing to help him, his own (presumably) Roman friends who are similarly willing to run errands for him – and he’s a man of faith with great understanding about Jesus. This story, perhaps more than most, reveals Luke the writer interested in people and with their interactions. The proof of the centurion’s assumptions about Jesus is confirmed – the friends go back to the house and the servant has completely recovered – simply from a word at a distance from Jesus.

This is a very human story, as simple as it is, and yet it is also a story about spiritual understanding and divine power. We must not let the two writers’ different approaches in recording the events, detract from the wonder of them. These are two men of authority coming together. One has human authority, but that is obviously limited when it comes to changing human bodies, and the other one is divine authority and, interestingly we see elsewhere in the Gospels, it is limited by human belief. Where a man of strong belief encounters the one with spiritual or divine authority, it makes space for the latter to move and bring healing. Because he never changes, is the limited amount of healing we tend to see today in the church down to our limited faith, I wonder? It’s a challenge.