Monday, April 7, 2014

Four Lessons From a Centurion

  Life of Christ 59

        In the last post I brought you the story of Jesus’ healing of the Roman centurion’s servant (Matthew 8.5-13). I see four lessons here, and I offer them for your profit today.
         First, there is here a rebuke of the Jewish nation. This was not just for rejecting Him, though that is bad enough, but the rebuke is that it was His own chosen people, Israel, that would reject Him. Paul said in Romans 3 that there were great advantages in being Jew because to them had been given so many spiritual blessings that hadn’t been given to any other nation. For instance, though the moral commands of God have always been binding on the entire world the Torah itself was a very Hebrew book. It is true that there are scriptural evidences for God appearing or speaking to nations and cultures outside of Israel but it is also true that the vast majority of God’s revelation came via Hebrew prophets. Additionally, as a people in the time of Christ they had two millennia of history displaying Jehovah’s protecting hand on their nation.
          Jesus would elsewhere say ‘unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required’ (Luke 12.48). The nation of Israel was God’s chosen vessel, specifically designed and prepared over a period of many centuries to receive in human form God’s very Son from Heaven. Of all the nations and peoples to reject Him, that it should be this nation and this people was unspeakable.
          I see in this aspect of the centurion’s story both a great sadness and a great caution. I am saddened at what God had done to Him by His own people, and I am cautious because we are His people in this dispensation, and to whom much is given much is required.
Isaac Blessing Jacob, Govert Flinck, 1638
          Secondly, there is here a statement of equality. ‘Many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 8.11). No one was more esteemed in the Jewish mind than the fathers, and here, Jesus, to a crowd of Jews in a Jewish city, explicitly places believing Gentiles on the same level as the fathers.
          Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes was a Baptist. Upon moving to Washington, D.C. he chose a Baptist church, and went forward to join it on a particularly Sunday morning. The same morning a number of others had come but the pastor, excited by the honor bestowed upon his church, attempted to begin the introductions with Justice Hughes. Calmly, yet kindly, Justice Hughes refused to be first, saying, ‘Pastor, please start at the other end of the line. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.’
                    I do not care if you are a native born citizen of the United States, a naturalized American, a legal visa holder, or an illegal immigrant, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I do not care if you were raised in church since Shep was a pup, or if this is your very first Sunday to darken the doors of a church, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I do not care if you are Caucasian, Latino, Asian, African, Polish, Assyrian, Filipino, Indian, Italian, German, or Irish, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I do not care if your 401k is maxed out for the year already or if all your cash is tied up in debt, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I do not care if you have so many degrees behind your name you are a thermometer or if you spent the best three years of your life in the 8th grade, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I do not care if you are tall or short, light or dark, rich or poor, educated or ignorant, respected or neglected, a dreamboat or a shipwreck, the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
          We will all of us get to Heaven the same way, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. We will all of us sing in the greatest choir in history assembled with the millions on that glassy sea facing that emerald rainbow encircled throne. We will all of us walk the streets of gold and kneel prostrate at His feet for the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
         Thirdly, there is here a statement of unity. If we are all equal in the eyes of God, sinners saved by grace, then there ought not be any separation amongst us. One of the most reprehensible aspects of American history is the whole notion of ‘separate but equal’, the now cast aside idea of the Jim Crow South that whites and blacks should have separate drinking fountains, restaurants, and schools while at the same time pretending they were equal. The simple truth is that when you separate out an entire group or class there is no equality. As a young man I heard preachers still maintaining that black people and white people should attend separate churches. Such an opinion is complete anathema to the entire tenor of the New Testament, both in the life of Christ and in the life of the early Church. Not just equality, but unity is to be the watchword in God’s churches.
          Fourthly, there is here a call for missions. Jesus explicitly said that ‘many’ Gentiles would be in the Kingdom. Well, how do those ‘many’ come to Christ from nations far to the east and far to the west of Palestine? Very simply, somebody had to leave the comfort of their own native land and take the Gospel to a foreign people. And they did, and the succeeding centuries of Church history are replete with wonderful examples of this. Beloved, we in our day have a solemn responsibility to continue this great heritage.
          When Mandy and I first moved to the inner city of Chicago ten years ago we spent much of that first year or two undergoing a great culture shock. She grew up on a farm on a rural Pennsylvania hillside. I grew up in self-contained Ohio village of 4000 people. Together, we spent our first years of ministry and marriage in a patch town on the Ohio Pennsylvania line that was so small the entire borough didn’t have a single stop light. Upon arrival here we found ourselves in a place that was different in every possible respect from any other place we had lived. The politics were different. The languages were different. The congestion was different. The foods were different. The crime and grime were different. Even the Caucasians in our church had a different culture, being city people, than that to which we were accustomed. Frankly, it wasn’t very much fun at the beginning, to put it mildly, but we rested secure in the knowledge that God had called us to this very needy part of the world. In this we learned a great lesson: Christians at ease in their comfort zone will never reach the world.
          Is your giving in a comfort zone? Is your prayer life in a comfort zone? Is your soul winning in a comfort zone? The only way that the early Church did such a wonderful job reaching their world is that the small group composed almost exclusively of Jews at the very beginning left their comfort zone, and took the Gospel to the Gentiles to their east and west.

          …and I, for one, am heartily glad they did, for the Gospel would not have come to me, as a Gentile living far to the west of Palestine, if they had not. As God’s people we have no right to turn inward, focusing on ourselves and our own needs, while the world goes to hell. Jesus didn’t just come for His own people. He came for those to the east and west as well.

If you would like to listen to the audio version of the blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 30, 'Many Shall Come From the East and West'.

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