Scripture: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too 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, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” Matthew 8:9-10 ESV
Observation: Having cleansed a leper, Jesus continues his itinerate ministry, visiting Peter’s hometown of Capernaum, located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. As Christ enters the town, a distressed centurion approaches him and earnestly pleads for Jesus to heal his suffering paralyzed servant. Jesus agrees and adds he will come to this Gentile’s house. But the centurion humbly acknowledges his unworthiness to receive Jesus into his company—perhaps aware that it is unlawful according to Jewish law to fellowship with a Gentile (see Acts 10:28). Instead, this military leader acknowledges that Jesus (like him) is a man of authority. Thus, he asks Jesus to “only say the word, and [his] servant will be healed” (v.8, above).
Astonished by the centurion’s faith, Jesus tells the crowd that he has not found such faith in all of Israel and adds that this is just the beginning of his kingdom revolution: “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” (vv.11-12a ESV). Jesus then instructs the centurion to return home, where he will find his healed servant, just as he had believed. Matthew concludes the story with an epilogue that the servant simultaneously healed with Jesus’ pronouncement.
Of note, Capernaum was an important garrison town. Not surprisingly, Rome posted a centurion (leader of a hundred troops) in this outpost to secure its position. In the parallel passage of Luke (7:1-10), Luke emphasizes the centurion’s Jewish sympathies and humility, whereas Matthew stresses his faith and race. And while Luke cites that the centurion sent emissaries (elders of the Jews), Matthew makes no mention. Matthew most likely omitted this detail because it was nonessential to what he wanted his audience to hear: a Gentile demonstrates greater faith in Christ than most Israelites. Regarding Matthew taking license, theologian D.A. Carson contends that Matthew follows the excepted principle of “qui facit per alium facit per se (‘he who acts by another acts himself’), a principle the centurion’s argument implies” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, p.200).
Takeaway: This story reverberates several years later to the genuine faith of another centurion: Cornelius. Luke records in his book of Acts that Cornelius, a devout godfearing man, encounters an angel in a vision who commands him to send emissaries to Joppa to bring Simon called Peter back to his house to hear what God has to say. To make a long story short, Peter agrees to go, having seen a vision and hearing a voice that tells him not to declare unclean what is clean. So he preaches the Gospel and witnesses the Holy Spirit descend on Cornelius and his family. And this marks the paradigm shift where faithful Jewish Christians extend their Gospel to all nations—not just the Jews who relocated to other countries (Acts 10).
So what’s the takeaway for us? Faith in Christ, not pedigree, defines a follower of Christ. And more to the point, genuine faith is marked by humility, a mature understanding of our unworthiness contrasted by Christ’s worthiness. Paul certainly understood this essential foundation of our faith. In his first prison epistle to Timothy, Paul writes, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15 ESV). Here, Paul does not self-deprecate but confesses his unworthiness. Still, he gives more pen and parchment to extolling Christ’s worthiness. Perhaps Paul best summarizes his Lord’s worthiness to the Philippians:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11 ESV).
In sum, the children of God walk by faith, knowing they are unworthy but, more importantly, that Christ is worthy. Thus, we join the Saints in singing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12 ESV). Indeed, Christ is worthy for us, the unworthy!
Prayer: Father God, we confess that we are unworthy to receive your love and grace in Christ. Still, in your mercy, you have received the atoning life of your Son, the Lamb, who is worthy, to reconcile us to you. So would you please help us to exercise faith in your Son in demonstrating gratitude and humility in relying on his goodness and grace to see us through our earthly trials as we await complete healing and perfect joy and peace in your heavenly kingdom? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
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