READ : Matthew 8:5-13
One of the most remarkable examples of faith in Jesus anywhere in the gospels is found in a most unlikely person — a Roman centurion. His story shows us the kind of faith that amazes even Jesus.
As the 8th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew opens, Jesus has just completed his Sermon on the Mount. When he descends from the mountain where he has been teaching, Jesus encounters a leper, whom he promptly heals. Jesus then returns to Capernaum, the town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee where he had made his home since the start of his public ministry. And there he is immediately confronted with another request for help. “When he entered Capernaum, we read, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly'” (v. 5).
A Man of Faith
I have always loved this Roman centurion, a man who, when he’s faced with a serious problem, turns to Jesus for help. To me, this unnamed foreign soldier has an irresistible appeal. First of all, he is a total outsider, an officer in the Roman army that had conquered the Jewish people and were occupying their country. And yet, here he is, early in the gospel story, appearing as a model of faith and prayer. The first person who turns to Jesus for help in the book of Matthew is a leper, an unclean outcast. The second is a gentile. Do you sense a trend here? But popular prejudices don’t have any effect on Jesus. He doesn’t care who you are, what you’ve done, where you come from. It makes no difference to him what language you speak, what color your skin is, what religion you follow. If you turn to him when you are in need, if you cry out to him for help, he will respond.
Another attractive thing about the Roman centurion is the way he cares about others. He comes to Jesus, not asking anything for himself, but on behalf of a servant. Actually, the word translated “servant” here literally means “boy,” or “child.” It could very well be that the centurion’s concern is not merely for a household slave but for his own son. That would make the urgency of his appeal even more understandable. But either way, he obviously cares deeply about the boy who is so terribly ill. And when the man turns to Jesus, he doesn’t even have to ask for help. So quick, so willing is Jesus to meet our needs that the officer has only to describe the situation—”Lord, my child is suffering”—and Jesus immediately says, “I’ll come and heal him.” When you are approaching the Lord you don’t have to make sure you put your request in the right form of words. You don’t need to make the proper offerings so that he will listen to your prayer and respond. He knows what you need even before you speak a word, and he also knows what’s best to do. Here’s the best way to pray, I think: tell your trouble to the Lord, but don’t tell him what to do. Let him decide how and when to fix it.
Here’s yet another appealing quality displayed by this centurion. It’s his humility. Most conquerors are arrogant and rude. After all, they are the winners. History is full of examples of invading armies who seize what they want from the local population, and consider themselves generous if they just take the property and not the lives of those whose countries they overrun. But this Roman soldier humbles himself at the feet of Jesus. He recognizes that not only does he have no claim on Jesus’ help; he has nothing whatsoever to commend himself to Jesus’ favor. In fact, he actually turns down Jesus’ offer to come to his home: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” Face to face with Jesus Christ, none of us is worthy or deserving. But Christ came precisely for the unworthy; in fact, it’s only when we refuse to acknowledge our lack of worth that we shut ourselves off from his help. St. Augustine has a lovely comment about this Roman soldier: “By owning himself unworthy for Christ to enter his house, he became worthy for Christ to enter his heart.”
Finally there is the most important thing of all about this man. It’s his faith. “Lord,” he said to Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” That is truly amazing to me. How did this Roman soldier come to have such a high view of Jesus’ power? Notice what the man said to Jesus: not, “Perform the ritual, and my boy will be healed;” not, “Administer the medicine and my boy will be healed;” not even, “Offer the prayer and my boy will be healed”; but only, “Say the word.” This man believed that Jesus could do what only God can do, to heal with just a word, to perform a miracle simply by willing it. No wonder Jesus was impressed with his faith.
How could a gentile outsider, who, we must assume, didn’t know Israel’s God, recognize this God when he came in the flesh? When so many who ought to have known and honored the Lord Jesus instead rejected him, how did this pagan professional army officer come to have such insight? Well, actually, the man explains it himself. “For I too,” he says to Jesus, “am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes” (v.8). As a career soldier, this Roman knew all about authority. A lifetime in the army had taught him all there was to know about both how to take orders and how to give them. And he knew a natural commander when he saw one. You could say that the man recognized Jesus as a brother officer, though of an infinitely higher grade. “So just give the order, Lord, and sickness and death itself will have to obey you.”
Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard this, “he marveled” (v.10). There aren’t many times in the Gospels where we read that something astonished Jesus, but this tough, no-nonsense soldier’s faith is one of them. Jesus exclaimed, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith!” That statement, in Matthew 8:10, is the very first time the word faith appears on the pages of the New Testament. Isn’t it interesting that it’s used not of a devout Jewish believer, but of a foreigner, a pagan, a gentile?
From East and West
The way Jesus responds to this centurion’s faith is highly instructive. Of course, he grants the man’s request. Matthew reports the healing matter-of-factly, almost incidently, at the very end of the story. But the final lesson comes in a comment that Jesus makes to the disciples after praising the centurion’s faith. Jesus turned to those who were following him and announced, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vv. 11-12). That’s a hard word, isn’t it? And it’s both a warning to us and an encouragement to hope.
We need to be careful when we assume that when it comes to God’s kingdom we know just who’s in and who is out. It has often been observed that Jesus spoke more about hell and about the terrible possibility of eternal damnation than anyone else in the Bible. But what’s less often noted is that he always addressed his warning words not to pagans or outsiders, but to people who assumed they were “in.” If you, like me, are a church member, you need to understand that Jesus is talking to us here. “Watch out,” he says to those who are nominally religious. “You may think you’ve got it made, but unless you have real faith in me and my word, faith like this Roman soldier’s, you will miss out on the kingdom.” Are you consciously living as a man (or a woman) who knows what it means to be “under authority,” the authority of the Word of God, the authority of Jesus himself? If not, beware! Your situation is perilous in the extreme.
But at the same time, Jesus’ words give genuine believers real hope. “Be encouraged,” he’s saying to those who are truly following him, “You may think that the church is going down the tubes, that Christianity is being overwhelmed by other religions, that faith is giving way to atheism, but don’t worry. My kingdom is eternal. My church is universal. Even if some seem to be abandoning the faith, others will come most unexpectedly to take their places.”
People from the east and the west, from north and south, are streaming in to feast with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God. And that’s happening right now throughout the world. Do you know that last Sunday more Anglicans worshiped in the country of Nigeria than in England, the United States and Canada combined? Do you know that there are more Presbyterians in Ghana than in Scotland, the birthplace of Presbyterianism? Did you realize that more people worshiped in one congregation in Seoul, South Korea, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, than in many whole denominations in America?
They’re coming from east and west and north and south even as our western society becomes more and more blasé and disinterested in God and even turning against the gospel. Yes, there will be some big surprises on the last day. As Matthew Henry, the great puritan Bible commentator remarked, “When we come to heaven, as we shall miss a great many there that we thought had been going thither, so we shall meet a great many there that we did not expect.”
Just make sure you don’t miss out yourself.