A Centurion’s Faith (Matt. 8:5-13)


In Matthew 8 Jesus has just finished the Sermon on the Mount and is travelling to various places around the Sea of Galilee healing and teaching many. Though Matthew is written to a Jewish audience, throughout chapter 8 Jesus heals people that Jews typically avoided. He touches a leper to heal him. Peter’s mother-in-law is sick and he heals her – a woman. In our particular story, Jesus heals a centurion’s servant – a Gentile. As we struggle to see what strong faith looks like in our own lives, the centurion displays surprising faith in the face of his non-Jewish status and the enormity of what he asks of Jesus. His faith gives Jesus the opportunity to discuss the nature of those who will be included in the kingdom of heaven. The outstanding faith of the centurion is emphasized as something that will be a norm for the future subjects of his kingdom. Our task is to learn about this faith and the result of not having a faith like this centurion.

Faith Beyond Reason (8:5-9)

We learn at the end of Matthew 4 that Jesus’ fame had already spread throughout the entire Palestinian region as crowds followed Jesus everywhere. Many sought healing from Jesus as he cured the lame, demon-possessed, leprous, and disease ridden. Now, as Jesus came to the northern city of Capernaum, a centurion comes to Jesus seeking healing for his servant. We do not know what caused the centurion’s servant to become paralyzed and suffer so terribly, but Luke 7 records that this servant was at the point of death. Jesus says he will “come” to heal the servant. This is always how miracles were performed. Whether it was Jesus, a prophet, or an apostle, he healing was always performed in person. The centurion gives a surprising response to Jesus statement that he will “come” to the servant in verses 8-9. “Jesus, you do not have to come to my house. I am not worthy of that. Say the word and you can heal my servant.” I’m sure there were many stories spreading about Jesus’ healings. There is a teacher who can heal you by laying his hands on you. This is a problem for the paralyzed centurion’s servant who is on the verge of death and has no ability to come to Jesus. As far as we are aware, Jesus had never healed someone at a distance. Jesus did not know this servant’s name, what he looked like, or where he was. None of this gave the centurion reason for doubt. He believed Jesus’ mere words could heal.

How did the centurion overcome these barriers to faith? How can he believe Jesus can do something for someone he has never seen? He recognizes who Jesus is. Notice what he says in verse 9. A centurion was a Roman officer who typically led about 80 soldiers stationed in a particular area as a Roman presence. Notice how he says that he is “under authority” – meaning that his commands are backed by the force and higher authority of Caesar. The centurion understood that he and Jesus were in similar positions. Jesus did not have limited power. Jesus was sent by the Father and had the power and authority of the Father backing him. Though the centurion could command people, Jesus carried authority over all nature. There are no barriers to healing he cannot overcome. When he speaks, nature responds. If he will say the words, his servant would be healed.

Though Jesus had the power to heal anyone anywhere, it is interesting that this is not what he normally does. Typically, we see Jesus heal those who have faith. Jesus was going to walk all the way to the centurion’s house to heal his servant. Ephesians 3:20 says that God is “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think,” but the centurion would not have experienced this magnitude of power if he did not have the faith. Though there will be times that Christ may prove himself to us even when we doubt, if we remain in unbelief in his infinite power we will not experience it. Can you imagine having faith like this? Can you imagine having the faith to walk away from Jesus when a loved one’s life is on the way? The centurion cannot shoot Jesus a text message asking him to try again. When the centurion walks away from Jesus knowing his servant is healed, he shows us what true faith is like.

But this miracle is not for us to merely marvel over Christ’s power to physically heal; this sign points to the identity and surpassing power of Christ. In Matthew 9 Jesus explicitly uses his power of healing to prove his authority to forgive sins. Sin and corruption at times feel like they have taken complete control of our lives and crippled our growth. Those in the world will at times recognize the seemingly irreparable mess their lives have become. But if Christ can bring life to a paralyzed man on the brink of death, he is showing the world that nothing is irreparable. He has infinite power to repair and redeem our lives from corruption. Think about the sins that haunt you. You do not have to fear. Christ heals more powerfully than sin destroys. But seeing events like this must stir our faith to believe this is true. The crowds did not have faith and did not see this power. If we do not have faith in his infinite power, we will rarely experience it. As Mark 9:23 says, “All things are possible for the one who believes.” Strong faith in Christ’s power can change our lives. But, as Jesus next exposes, this faith is extremely rare among the religious.

Great Faith is Rare (8:10)

Jesus is completely blow away by this centurion’s faith and uses this as an opportunity to teach his followers. Why did Jesus marvel at the centurion’s faith? “With no one in Israel have I found such faith.” This is an astonishing statement. Could it be true that a Roman soldier’s faith exceeded all those Jesus encountered in Israel? Israel is the Lord’s chosen nation. Israel is the nation that had experienced the Lord’s power and closeness more than any other nation. Deuteronomy 4:34-35, “Has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by deeds of terror, all of which the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other beside him.” If anyone should have faith in the Lord’s abundant power, it should be the Israel. But, no one in Israel has faith like this centurion. Jesus had already been to Jerusalem and encountered priest, Pharisees, and scribes. Even these religious leaders who knew the scriptures backward and forward did not have this faith. We know the stories throughout the gospels. Jesus would heal someone and most of the religious leaders would criticize Jesus and question his authority. They stubbornly rested in unbelief. This passage is typical of Jesus’ encounters. Gentiles and commoners believed in his power while Israel rejected him.

Matthew’s gospel account is written to a Jewish audience and has a special emphasis on who will be in the kingdom of heaven. In a book that emphasizes who is in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is teaching the Jews that this centurion has something they do not have. The Jews felt secure because they strictly studied and practiced the law. They practiced circumcision and the Sabbath. Yet, with all this religiousness – they didn’t have faith in Christ’s power. Though the Jews displayed outward regularity and dedication, their hearts were stiff. They refused to accept him. They attributed his power to Satan. When the centurion heard about Christ, he humbly recognized him as the all-powerful source of healing without limits. The centurion did not belong to the right nation. He was uncircumcised. He didn’t observe the Sabbath. He enforced the power of hated Rome. His full and living faith was Jesus’ concern.

Unfortunately, the difference between the faith of the centurion and the nation of Israel is such a common distinction in faiths we still see today. It is terribly easy for longtime “church going” Christians to end up looking like Israel looked in that day. We lose the forest for the trees. We get caught up in all the details of making sure we have the right religious activity and that we have outstanding knowledge of the scriptures. What does knowledge of the scriptures matter if it does not lead to faith in God’s power? We seek for academic understanding that he is all-powerful, but lose the practical belief that he is living, active, and able to accomplish anything in our lives. This is especially dangerous because when we participate in all the outward signs of religion like Israel did, we all feel comfortable that our faith must be in the right place. We may know our Bibles well. We may comment in classes. We pray. We teach against other “Gentiles” who don’t have our religiousness. This is the same thing Israel did! Our hearts have become dull. Though we may have once had a faith and firm trust in the Lord, it is now deadened. But who is going to approach us when we do all this and say, “I don’t think you are exhibiting a trusting faith in the power of God in your life.” This fault is difficult to diagnose in someone else. We must recognize it ourselves. In spite of this, I believe we can sometimes see the contrast between those with fresh faith like this centurion, and those who are no longer impressed with God’s power. They are quick to sacrifice anything for Christ in trusting faith. Family may desert them and trials try to distract them, but they talk about horrible situations with faith and confidence in the Lord’s power. This is not naivety. This is a firm faith that consciously seeks to rely on the Lord for everything. Faith does not have to become less powerful over time; it can grow deeper into old age. Christ now continues to describe the shocking end for those who have the dead faith of an Israelite.

Rewards for Great Faith (8:11-13)

The image of “reclining at table” with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is another way of describing the delights of heaven. “Reclining at table” denotes the common posture of the day when people ate. This was the Jewish picture of paradise. The true people of the Lord would one day be reunited with their Hebrew fathers that had gone before them. A banquet was waiting for them, while the unclean Gentiles would be cast into outer darkness. But this is not what Jesus says. Jesus uses this centurion’s display of faith to prophesy that many more will come from the east and west to join in this great banquet prepared by the Father. More Gentiles would continue to come to the Lord. The idea that all are invited to this great banquet is talked about in Isaiah 25:6, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” This messianic prophecy shows how the Lord will offer paradise and a covenant to all. This messianic banqueting prophecy was now coming true. Gentiles are coming in faith.

The shocker is in verse 12. Jesus could have stopped at verses 10-11 and said, “To each his own! Some will have a strong conviction of my power and some will not.” But this is not the result. It is not just that people all over the world would join in this blessing – the “sons of the kingdom” will be cast into outer darkness. What a shocking statement for Jesus to make to his Jewish audience! The “sons of the kingdom” clearly refers to Israel. Because of faithlessness, the reward Israel thought was especially prepared for them is now given to uncircumcised Gentiles. They will be kicked from the kingdom. We like to think there is some middle ground here. Even though Israel didn’t have this strong faith, they did go to temple, offer sacrifices, pray, fast, and memorize the law so they will go ahead and get a pass on the faith thing. This isn’t how it works. They did all those things but didn’t see Christ as he is. They didn’t see or understand his power. They did not give him all their trust. They rejected him. Faithlessness results in being cast into outer darkness.

Jesus describes the place of darkness as a place “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Why will there be such misery? We don’t like to talk about this very often. We would rather just talk about how some will go to heaven and not talk about what happens to those who do not. When you think a father’s inheritance, who definitely receives a portion? The children! No question. Jesus is saying that on that day there will those who believe the inheritance is in their possession –the sons of the kingdom – but it will taken from them and given to another. This is why they weep and gnash their teeth. What would you do if you expected a great reward at the end of your life, and instead you are eternally left out of that reward and kicked into darkness? We will be away from our family and away from our Lord. Everyone is inside enjoying the reward we expected. For eternity, there is nobody to blame but our stubbornness to not believe. Don’t let that be you. Matthew 7:22-23 “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Jesus’ words here should frighten us. If Israel can fall into this trap, then so can we. Israel was so confident that they would receive kingdom blessings, but missed it. How can we develop a faith like the centurion’s to guard against Israel’s mistake?

Developing Our Faith

We must first understand that faith like the centurion’s in the Lord’s infinite power is not academic. The Lord is not looking for us to have an academic understanding that he is omnipotent. Israel knew that God was omnipotent. Their problem was that this knowledge did not translate into a personal faith. It did not result in a personal faith that put everything in his hands. Until we place all our sins, trials, weaknesses, and burdens in his arms, we have not experienced this faith. If we cannot see this distinction in our lives, then our faith is merely an academic understanding. Struggles find their true resting place when we give them to our Christ in trusting faith.

Second, we can develop a faith like this by personally being more and more impressed with our Lord’s power. We must move from being minutely impressed with our Lord to being massively impressed with him. We can do this by seeking the opportunity to be freshly and daily impressed with him, his care, and blessing in our lives. We will be most impressed with our Lord when we not only awestruck in this way, but when we continually praise this deliverance and healing in our lives. Faith, love, and trust fulfill their ultimate good in our hearts when we express them from our lips. When we begin personally expressing our faith, love, and trust they will only grow stronger. Think about it like this. If I forget to regularly write letters to and verbally praise my wife for her amazing characteristics and faithfulness to me, then I will honestly forget how great she is. If we stop praising and expressing heartfelt trust in our Lord, we will forget how powerful and worthy of our adoration and faith he is. The more we praise his power with our lips, the more we will give him our trust in prayer and action.

Third, this faith must never stop growing. Those with academic faith often do not understand how faith can be deepened and enriched. Our greatest danger would be to see the example the centurion’s faith and proudly state that we have arrived. No! There are greater depths of faith in the riches of Christ for those who never stop developing this faith. His power is exceedingly above and beyond what you can imagine. Growing in our faith in it is more joyous and blessed that we can imagine now. Trust his power to do great work in your life. Live and pray with confidence in our Lord.

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