Follow Me... Just Say the Word

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As he looked through the doorway and beheld his paralyzed servant, the master knew what lay before him. He had seen it many times before. It came in many shades, but there was no mistaking death's impending presence. Such a foe was no stranger to the man, for he was a Roman centurion.

Centurions were officers of the world's premier fighting force. They were not political appointees, but proven veterans with years of honorable service. Their command was over 100 men—a "century"—the integral building block of a Roman legion of 6,000 men. They were the glue that held their units together.

Polybius, a second-century B.C. Greek commentator on Roman society, wrote, "They must not be so much venturesome seekers after danger as men who can command, stand in action, and reliable, they ought not to be over-anxious to rush into the fight, but when hard pressed, they must be ready to hold their ground, and die at their posts."

Roman centurions always led from the front with strength and honor emblazoned in their actions. They took and gave orders without question. Many died in battle, more so than other officers, because they were groomed to be the pillars from which others drew support.

But now for the man at the door, there were no immediate solutions for this race against death. This centurion who had served for years in the imperial forces of Caesar was about to undertake the most important mission of his life. His was not a written order brought by courier or the bark of a tribune's voice, but by an inner call to step forward into previously uncharted territory.

Each step about to be taken was unthinkable in contemporary society. It would take strength and honor predicated on humility. Perhaps you and I, right now, may be standing at a similar doorway in life that demands answers to seemingly unsolvable situations, and perhaps we remain stymied because all the old answers just aren't working. Let's step forward with the centurion as he responds to a greater ruler's calling to "Follow Me."

A dramatic role reversal

Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 offer the details of this encounter of mutual respect between two men from totally different worlds. Matthew's account says, "When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, 'Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.'"

The driving force behind the centurion's quest was his love for his servant, "who was dear to Him" (Luke 7:2). It was rare in Roman society that a master would have such concern. Slaves and bondservants were considered living tools. What separated them from any other beasts of burden or tools, the thinking basically went, was that they could talk.

Ancient philosophers like Aristotle had warned against master and servant having close relationships. Yet here the centurion threw pride out the window because he dared to care.

Scripture does not convey that he requested a secret rendezvous in some remote spot, but rather openly sought the assistance of nearby Jewish elders to speak on his behalf (verse 3). After all, he was a centurion whose core values were strength and honor.

He had no doubt earned his status, but now he was requesting something not based on human merit. In a reversal of roles, he would appeal as a member of the conquering power to one among a conquered people—for he had heard about this Man of Nazareth and how death itself had surrendered to His command and touch.

Crossing a bridge of no return

Likewise Jesus, the Jew, crossed over a deep and wide ditch of humanly designed discrimination under the guise of religiosity. He confidently responded to the request, "I will come and heal him" (Matthew 8:7).

Understand this: In that day, it was considered ceremonially unlawful for a Jew to enter the house of a gentile (non-Jew). Anyone who did so would be labeled "unclean" because most Jews considered all gentiles unclean, to be avoided.

And yet, this same man whom the religious people of that day would have broad-brushed as unclean was also known to have been kind to the villagers and had given funds toward building a synagogue (Luke 7:5).

Thus, both men have not simply met in the middle of a proverbial bridge. Rather, they have crossed over a bridge of no return. There was no turning back for either, as both defied the social norms of the day for the benefit of a suffering servant.

While Christ was making His way toward the centurion's house (which was apparently nearby, for archaeologists have discovered the remains of a Roman military base just east of the town of Capernaum), the centurion, not desiring to impose himself or put the Jewish Teacher in a difficult position, sent additional intermediaries with this message:

"Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it" (verses 6-8).

It's here that the centurion's love for another was followed by the footstep of humility. Humility is the death of pride.

His earnest plea to this Jewish Teacher might well cause irreparable harm to his career as a Roman officer, but he was willing to sacrifice his career and future if it meant his servant would be healed.

Marching down the walk of faith

The centurion's next words reflect a march down a different kind of path called the walk of faith. "But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed," the centurion said (Matthew 8:8). The New Living Translation offers this rendering: "Just say the word . . ." I like that—short, simple, direct!

The centurion knew what it meant to carry out a battlefield order and in a sense responded: "I have reported for duty. I asked. I got my answer. Mission accomplished." He stated his belief up front that the victory was already won.

The Roman soldier's humility and faithfulness brought delighted astonishment from Jesus Christ: "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!" (verse 10).

Jesus took the courageous faith-filled actions of one man who had the love, humility and faith to step out of his comfort zone to challenge the rigid comfort zone of those who should have known better. Sound familiar?

He then told the centurion, "Go your way, and as you have believed, so let it be done for you." The centurion's servant "was healed that same hour" (Matthew 8:13).

Jesus' concluding remarks of "Go your way, and as you have believed, so let it be done for you" speaks volumes down to our day. His reach into our lives and for our well-being, whatever and wherever that might be, is not trapped in a particular time or geographic location. He was truly God in the flesh in His earthly ministry, and He remains God the Son in His heavenly ministry to each of us. Simply put: God sees things as if they already are! (see Romans 4:17).

His concluding remarks to the centurion offer us a lesson in how to respond to His call to "Follow Me" by understanding that often God has already answered our prayers and we have only to get off our knees and get out and meet God's solutions in faithful anticipation!

Still leading from the front

What allowed this Roman soldier to be held up as an example of living faith by Jesus Christ? And what can we learn from him, considering we have been offered the incredible life-altering invitation to "Follow Me"? What is it that keeps us from responding to God the Father and Jesus Christ with "Just say the word!" as this centurion did?

Let's answer that right now. The centurion's example shows how he thrust through three barriers that thwart us from truly following Christ. Those three barriers are the same for us as they were for him 2,000 years ago. They are:

1) Fear of shattering the man-made status quo of "That's the way things have always been."

2) Personal pride bedeviled by thoughts of "What will people think? I might lose everything!"

3) Believing only what we see in the moment.

So where lies the way forward? The centurion marched forward to the scriptural principle that "there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). Further, he put into practice what the Man from Galilee would later say—"Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Note that love is the permeating theme of this biblical encounter that unlocks all the other qualities that come forward.

Even so, the centurion was in a struggle unlike any he'd faced in his military career. It was his humility founded in love that allowed God's promise to be his—"God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6).

As modern-day spiritual centurions, we too have to be willing to inwardly "die at our post" before God steps in and grants us His victory that trumps all of our stalled human solutions.

Still, it's a humanly scary step. But remember what Christ tells us in John 12:25-26: "Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who despise their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. All those who want to be my disciples must come and follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And if they follow me, the Father will honor them" (NLT).

Ultimately strength and honor belong to God to grant to us in times of need. Indeed, the circumstances of life demand hearts with eyes that see beyond the moment and hold their ground by remembering God's encouragement that "without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6).

It's time for you and me to be modern-day spiritual centurions as the Captain of our salvation leads from the front (Hebrews 2:10)and says "Follow Me." In so doing, always remember that Christ never promised it would be easy, but it would be worth it.

The time is right and the moment ripe—as you emerge from your personal door of despair like that centurion of old—to come before the same Lord he did and faithfully proclaim, "Just say the word."