Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 tells us Jesus was amazed by someone who was not a child of Israel. Matthew 8:10 says that Jesus was amazed! It had to do with a centurion. He would have been a life-soldier in the Roman army. He created a sense of discipline and stability within the military. Verse 9 makes it clear that His men obeyed when he commanded! The centurion tells Jesus, “I tell this one, `Go,’ and he goes; and that one, `Come,” and he comes. I say to my servant, `Do this,’ and he does it.”
This centurion and his kind are in charge of Israel! The Roman may give favours, but the Roman did not ask for favours! The conquerors gave commands to the conquered! Romans didn’t follow the principles laid down in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7!
Jesus was amazed. Here was a Roman soldier who didn’t behave as a Roman soldier might be expected to behave. This Roman soldier displayed a nature and character that Jesus should have witnessed in His own people, but didn’t!
Matt 5:7 says, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” The centurion was filled with concern for his servant, (the Greek is ‘doulos’, literally a slave or bond servant), who was seriously ill. He seems to have already spent a lot of time and money his servant. A slave’s lot in the time of Rome was not a pleasant one; and a sick slave could be easily replaced by a healthy one.
Matthew 8: 6 says, his “servant lies at home paralysed and suffering terribly.” And the centurion is determined to leave nothing undone to help his sick servant. The centurion might be an “outsider,” to the church of Israel, but he can identify with Jesus in his concern for fellow human beings. And Jesus was amazed. He was amazed because this Roman centurion loved his sick slave, but what was even more amazing for Jesus was this centurion’s attitude towards him. This commander of men acknowledges Christ’s authority above his own, something that Jesus’ people refused to do! We read in John 1:11, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Although an important figure himself, a commander in the Roman army, he saw in Jesus Someone greater than himself. Christ’s dominion was greater than that of his own. Verse 8 has the centurion saying, “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the Word, and my servant will be healed.”
What a contrast this centurion is to the unbelieving people of Jesus’ day who professed to be the children of God! Jesus finds this so amazing! They demanded signs and wonders from Jesus to prove his credentials were in order. On another occasion they wanted to see if Jesus’ miracles were greater than those done by Moses. Following the miraculous feeding of the 5000 with one boys lunch, we read in John 6:30 of the crowd asking Jesus, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘he gave them bread from heaven to eat” (cf. Exodus 16:4).
But not the centurion! He was a gentile, an outsider, but what he heard and knew convinced him of Jesus’ greatness. “Just speak the Word only,” the centurion said. Don’t need to come to my house, because I don’t deserve it. I am not worthy of such honour.
And all this amazes Jesus. Here is an outsider who has a respect for Jesus, which his own people should have had. He exercised and expressed a faith in Jesus that God’s people should have done, but did not. And this faith is so great that the centurion is rated among the “greats” of Israel’s history. Notice Matthew 8:10-12: “When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will b thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be gnashing of teeth.’”
There is an idea called ‘universalism’- that everyone will eventually be saved in God’s eternal kingdom. In the previous chapter, in Matthew 7:21-23, we have Jesus saying there will be those who believe in God and even do ‘miraculous’ things in God’s name, but they will be excluded from God’s kingdom because he doesn’t know them. Jesus made it quite clear that there is a judgment to come (John 5:21-30; cf. Hebrews 9:27,28). That will be the time to ‘separate the sheep from the goats’ (Matthew 25:31-46). It is a belief in Jesus Christ that includes obedience and commitment to him as Lord and Saviour in this life that gives a person eternal life (John 6:40; 1 John 5:12).
This centurion exhibited this kind of faith. His faith is so great that Jesus could boast about him. He is to be rated alongside the “Who’s Who” of the Old Testament “greats” we read about in Hebrews 11:4-40. This centurion will sit down in the kingdom with Abraham, while many in the church of Israel will be locked out (Matthew 8:11-12). I think that must have made the church of Jesus’ day feel very uneasy – at least uneasy with Jesus! I think it can make us feel uneasy today! It challenges a person’s honesty about his commitment to Jesus Christ.
But what a paradox we see being pointed out with this centurion! John in his Gospel says, Jesus “came to His own but His own received Him not” (John 1:10-11). This centurion was not a child of Israel but he received Jesus, and he believed in Him from the evidence that was apparent at the time.
One thing was obvious to the centurion. Just as he was able to wield power and authority given him by Rome, so Jesus could wield the power and authority of heaven to heal diseases.
Here was an outsider approaching God not on his own terms but on God’s terms. We read in Luke’s account the story that the church elders had presented his case to Jesus. He loves our nation, they said, and he has built us a synagogue. There was obviously a great sympathy towards the Jewish religion. The Bible might have described him as a ‘God-Fearer’ in the sense he had developed a respect for Yahweh and his teachings. There obviously a great sympathy towards Judaism, and in their eyes, his works made him worthy of Jesus’ attention. He had built them a synagogue!
That was the way the elders presented him to Jesus, but it was not the way the centurion presented himself. He made no claims for himself in the bank of heaven. He did not say I have done God or the church some big favours, and I am not such a bad fellow really. He did not say I have built the Jews a synagogue and I do care about my slaves! This centurion did not measure his life against others. He measured himself against Jesus, and he was not deserving or worthy.
He was saying to Jesus, I have nothing in my life to commend me, except one thing, – my great need, the healing of my sick servant! And that is all any of us have to commend us to Jesus, is our great need of him. That is something Jesus will always answer.
Because of his position and rank the centurion’s humility is all the greater; and so Jesus too thought he was worthy; but not for the same reason as the elders of the synagogue. They thought he was worthy because of his great works. Jesus thought he was worthy because of his great faith! And because of his compassion for his servant and his Jesus could heal his servant. Because of his great faith the centurion would sit with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.
Just simple faith and reliance on the Lord had placed this Roman among the great people of faith in Israel’s history (Hebrews 11). And this man had demonstrated all that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew, chapters 5-7. He had demonstrated that one’s passport into the kingdom is not through race, or ethnic origin, or membership of a nation, or because of a belief system, or through membership of a church.
Not that the church is unimportant. Jesus established the church and died for it (Ephesians 5:25-27). That makes the church important to the believer. It is to the church that God gives the Gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12). Despite its frailties made up from human weakness, the church is still the apple of His eye in this dark faithless world. But mention of effort, good works, church membership, church office, or our station in life, will not entitle us to the kingdom of heaven. Whoever I may be in this life, I have nothing to commend me for the kingdom of heaven, except my great need of Jesus and the salvation he offers!
The Bible tells the truth about ourselves. And truth that is allowed to pierce the heart can help us rid ourselves of self-conceit, and that is what God requires of us if we are to be in His kingdom.
This story about the centurion is an extraordinary story. But Jesus may still be amazed and astonished today by the most unlikely converts who put their trust in him, and be equally amazed at those who profess to know him, but don’t!
This story about the centurion is recorded for a purpose. All who are willing to put their trust fully in Jesus, and put their trust fully in His Word, will be saved in God’s kingdom. This is what is best about Christian belief. It is not what we do; what we do is in response to what he has already done for us. It is our accepting what God has done for us and allowing him to express his good will for us in this life that will save us for his eternal kingdom.