The Faithful From East and West

Matthew 8:5-13

Hebrews tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. As Augustine would put it so well, “Faith is to believe what we do not see; the reward of faith is to see what we believe.” We can see a great example of that in the miracle recorded in our passage here. The centurion not only believed that Jesus could do this great healing miracle. He also believed that Jesus could do it while never setting foot in his own home. He had never seen Jesus do something like that. If he had seen any of the miracles that Jesus had already done, he couldn’t have seen what he was about to ask Jesus to do. That is faith. It is the belief in God, concerning that which we cannot see. It is belief in the authority of God over all the earth. And it is not just belief, but trust. We see all these things in this story.

First of all, we need to learn a bit about centurions. The Roman legion was about 6,000 troops. Those troops were divided into 60 groups of 100 soldiers each. Over each one of those groups of 100 soldiers, a centurion had charge. You can see the root centum, which means 100, is present there from Latin. The word “century” comes from the same root. These were the most important men in the Roman army, and that was not because they had the highest rank, but because they were the glue that held the army together. They ran the army. Interestingly, the Bible always mentions centurions with honor. There is not a single centurion mentioned in the entire Bible who ridicules the Christian faith. You can look it up in your concordance and find out for yourself. This centurion certainly has honor. He loves his servant. He wants to care for him, and is concerned about him, especially since the servant is suffering terribly.

But what distinguishes this centurion from many other people in the entire Bible is his great faith. It amazes Jesus that this man has that much faith. Why is the centurion said to have this much faith? It is because the centurion understands authority, and believes that Jesus has it. Let’s look carefully.

The centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Notice that he says, “Lord.” That, right there, is a good indication that he is a pious man. But after Jesus tells him that He is willing to go and heal him, the man says something remarkable. First, notice his humility. According to the world’s way of reckoning, the centurion had a much higher place in society than Jesus did. Centurions were accorded more honor than carpenters were. So the centurion saw that Jesus was really higher in any order of things that counts. He sees Jesus’ authority, and recognizes it to be far greater than his own. He is not blinded by society’s hierarchy.

Secondly, the centurion knows and understands the concept of authority. Now this statement is a bit of a puzzle at first, until we understand him. At first, he seems to be saying that he is in much the same position as Jesus is. That would seem to us to be a proud statement. However, that is not what the centurion is doing. In effect, he says this, “If even I, who have people over me, can have authority and tell someone to do something and he does it, then how much more can you, who have no one over you in authority, tell anything to happen, and it will.” That is the point of the phrase “I am a man under authority.” He is not saying that Jesus is under authority. Rather, he is saying that if it is true with little old him, then how much more is it true with the ruler of the universe. In other words, he is saying that Jesus is Lord of the universe.

Thirdly, notice that his faith believes that the Word of God is powerful. He says, “Just say the word.” This is a vitally important detail just here. He believes that God’s Word is sharper than any two-edged sword which he himself might wield in battle. He knows that God’s Word can pierce even to the joining of marrow and bone, such that a person can be healed. He knows that the Word of God can change a person instantaneously.

The centurion’s faith is so strong that he even believes that Jesus can heal this person without going there to see or touch. That is amazing faith, isn’t it?

It is certainly amazing to Jesus. Now, we must be careful here. Nothing can amaze or surprise God. And Jesus is God. So we might think that Matthew is uttering blasphemy here by saying that this amazed Jesus. But the answer is relatively simple. This amazed Jesus as a man. We are talking about Jesus in His humanity here, not Jesus as He is divine. Jesus, as a man, also wept. Jesus, as a man, also grew in wisdom and knowledge. This is a bit mysterious to us, but this is the way that the Bible speaks.

The amazement that Jesus experiences here leads Him to talk a bit about the future kingdom. This statement is truly astonishing. The Jews believed, of course, that they were going to sit down to a great banquet in the coming age. They would sit down with their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, what Jesus is here saying is that that isn’t going to happen. Instead, what will happen is that Gentiles will come from East and West and sit down with the patriarchs. Now, Matthew has already given us two examples of this East and West. The wise men came from the East. And, this Roman centurion came from Rome, which is in the West. They will recline with the patriarchs at the table. One important note here is that people did not sit in chairs when they ate in those days. Instead, they lay on cushions spread around a very low table. So, to “recline” here is to lie down on these cushions around a low table, and prop your head up with one hand, and use the other to eat. But notice then what Jesus says. He says that the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the utter darkness. We are to imagine a great wedding feast happening at night. Inside the building, there is plenty of light. Outside, all is dark. Jesus could not have made a more stark contrast if He had wanted to do so. But the ones who will be thrown out into this darkness are the Jews! Now, we have to remember that Jesus and all His disciples were Jews. So this statement does not give us leave to hate the Jews. Indeed, if we wanted to translate it into modern terms, we could say, with commentator Douglas Hare, “Many will come from east and west, yes, from Africa and Asia, and sit in judgment on the nominal Christians of America and Europe, who too glibly call Jesus “Lord, Lord” and do not do what He says” (pp. 91-92). Who will judge the household of God? Will it not be those whom we have failed to evangelize? Will it not be those Christians out there who are being persecuted for their faith? I am not saying here that one must undergo death-threatening persecution to be a real Christian, although lesser forms of persecution will always be the lot of any true Christian. What I am saying is that America is full of very rich, fat, and lazy Christians.

After Jesus says these things, He tells the centurion that the servant is healed. Jesus’ Word does this miracle.

So now we come to this important application: how do we view the Word of God? Does it have authority in our lives? We may not have a hard time when it comes to salvation, believing in the Bible. Many of us, hopefully all of us, believe it already. The point is this: do we also believe God’s Word when it comes to things that happen in our everyday lives? For instance, do we believe in the Fourth Commandment? Do we believe that it is okay to work on Sunday? Do we believe that it is okay to make someone else work for money on Sunday? Do we believe that we are the exception to the rule? What do we really believe about gossip? Oh, we usually call it “sharing.” “I just want to share with you what so-and-so did to me.” Here is a helpful rule: if what you are thinking about saying in any way damages that person’s reputation, then you should not say it. Now, if you want to tell about someone else’s good qualities, and good deeds, then “share” away. Go to it. Build up one another. Again, the question is this: is the Bible truly sharper than any two-edged sword? Does it really tell me how to live my day-to-day life? The answer is yes. That is the great good of reading it every day. The real problem with obeying it is our own sin. We have a real problem obeying the Word, because we sin. We think that the Bible was written such a long time ago (that’s what people mean when they say, “Oh, the Fourth Commandment is an OT thing. I don’t have to obey it now. We are not under law but under grace”). The law of God still applies. Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Now, we obey it still. It is a guide for the Christian life. We do not obey it for salvation. However, it is still vitally important that we obey the law out of gratitude. This means good deeds. That is the true result of faith as it plays out in the believer’s life. May we be at the table.