Pp Luke 7:1-10
1. Centurions in the Bible
2. The Rank of Centurion in the Army
Uncleanness and Authority
Say the Word
There are normally two parallel passages listed as being one and the same incident but I have chosen just to cite the one which appears in Luke’s Gospel (I noted that it is possible that Luke and Matthew are separate incidents here and, though this does remain a possibility, it seems more unlikely than probable) and which has similarities which don’t contradict. The other, John 4:46-53, has a resemblance to the passage in Matthew but, in John, the official begs Jesus to come with him to heal his son whereas, in both Luke and Matthew, the person is a Centurion who, from the outset, realises that it isn’t necessary for Jesus to come to his household for the miracle to be done, the ill person being a servant rather than a direct descendent (Mattask notes that the Greek word employed in Luke could be taken as referring to a ‘boy’ because ‘the Greek...is ambiguous’).
In John also, the incident is an opportunity for Jesus to speak to the official and tell him that the only reason he will believe is if he sees a sign done, something which appears to disclose the intentions of the man’s heart rather than for us to take it as a simple request for healing, while in both Matthew and Luke, the Centurion’s faith is commended and used as a fitting example of the sort of belief in the power of God that Jesus was desiring to find amongst Israel, the children of God.
Jesus also takes the initiative not to visit the official whereas, in both Luke and Matthew, it is the centurion who insists that Jesus doesn’t come.
Therefore, it’s best to take the passage in John as a separate incident seeing as there are so many differences in the two passages. Mathag, however, states that
‘The stories are too similar to deny they are variant accounts tracing back to the same original’
a statement which made me reread the commentator’s passage three times to make sure that he was saying what I thought he was when I first read it! Besides the differences noted above, John 4:54 states clearly that
‘This was now the second sign that Jesus did when He had come from Judea to Galilee’
the turning of the water into wine being the first (John 2:11). But Matthew places the incident after the cleansing of the leper (Mtw 8:1-4), a messianic sign, and Luke a long time after many of the miracles had been performed in the recounting of the Galilean ministry. If, as Mathag, John’s account is taken as being the same as the one recorded in the Synoptics, then there is a major problem with transmission of the events surrounding the entire life of Jesus for they are too different for us to be able to assert the inerrancy of the Biblical account.
John’s account is just too dissimilar to be taken as being the same incident and the reader’s best option is to take it as it reads - that is, a separate incident which occurred much earlier in the ministry of Jesus and before the incident concerning the Centurion took place.
But there is a major dissimilarity between Matthew’s and Luke’s account that can’t be resolved by simply insisting that the two incidents are different for the problems posed by such an assertion become far more difficult to resolve. In Mtw 8:5-6, we read that
‘...a Centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying...’
whereas, in Luke 7:3 and subsequent verses, the Centurion is never recorded as ever meeting with Jesus, the text telling us that
‘...he sent to Him elders of the Jews, asking Him to come and heal slave’
and it’s the Jewish leaders who implore Jesus to do the miracle for the Roman because the Centurion in question was a notable Roman who had been eager to aid the Jews in the building of one of their synagogues. It’s only when Jesus approaches the house that the Centurion sends more messengers to insist that Jesus need not come and perform the miracle in person or, perhaps, this had been his original intention in sending the Jews even though they misunderstood or misrepresented his words - Luke 7:3 would point towards the first of these, however.
The two passages seem to contradict one another, therefore, but what appears to be a contradiction is explained by recourse to a subsequent passage of Matthew in 11:2-6 where it’s recorded for us that
‘Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, “Are you He who is to come, or shall we look for another?”’
Here, John the Baptist is locked up in prison but, for one reason or another, he begins to question in his own mind whether Jesus is the One that he’d declared Him to be at His water baptism (John 1:29-34). So he sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him for a direct affirmation that He is the One that the nation had been waiting for. However, the text doesn’t say that the disciples asked Jesus any question but that John the Baptist did. Though John sends word, the writer of Matthew records that John ‘said to Him...’ rather than that the disciples ‘said on John’s behalf’.
Therefore, in the passage under discussion in Matthew, we need to take the words of the centurion as being those as declared to Jesus through an intermediary (or, intermediaries) who spoke with the authority of the Centurion who’d sent them. When Jesus ‘speaks to the Centurion’, He is, in effect, speaking to his representatives who stand between Himself and the Roman but it’s as if Jesus is speaking to the Centurion personally and this is how the writer records it.
Mattask comments that the problem presents readers ‘with serious difficulties’ at harmonisation, but his quotation of Augustine as saying that
‘he who does something through another does it also through himself’
and his citing of Knox who noted that the lack of the common phrase ‘came and fell down before Him’ (as in Mtw 8:2) is a good indication that the centurion was not present in person, is a sufficient enough explanation, I feel, for accepting the authenticity and harmony of both Matthew and Luke in this passage.
Both Luke 7:1 and Matthew 8:5 record for us that the start of this incident took place
‘As He entered Capernaum...’
that is, as He entered the city gates which marked out the start of the defined area, as opposed to the general area of Capernaum that extended from the city walls outward and which was also regarded as belonging to the city. The incident of the leper which has just taken place (Mtw 8:1-4) possibly occurred a short distance from the entrance to the city but as they were approaching it, for Luke 5:12 records that the miracle took place within the city’s boundaries.
The Sermon on the Mount, therefore, probably took place not a great distance from the city of Capernaum in one of the surrounding mountains - the traditional siting for the discourse is in this general area, though to be that specific about where it took place isn’t possible, nice though it might be for the church built there to be able to say
‘Jesus preached in our back garden. Would you like to make a contribution to the upkeep of the building?’
For information on Capernaum, see here.
It is surprising, and perhaps quite a deliberate ploy of the writer of this Gospel, to record the first three miracles for the reader as dealing with specific sections of Jewish society - people who were excluded from the people of God either categorically or by implication and treatment.
The leper (Mtw 8:1-4) was excluded on the grounds of his uncleanness which pushed him out into a life of exile away from the community of Israel while the Centurion (Mtw 8:5-13) would have been a Gentile, excluded from the children of God by birth. Simon’s mother-in-law (Mtw 8:14-15), on the other hand, would have been part of the people of God but, being a woman, she would have been regarded almost as a second class citizen for it was the men who led and directed the people.
But this was all going to change in the Kingdom and the Church (Gal 3:28) for the unclean before God would be transformed by the saving work of Christ and both the Gentile and the women would be given equal status with Jews and men respectively.
Indeed, the two disciples whose stories are recorded for us directly after these three miracles (Mtw 8:18-22) are both Jewish men who have found the cost of discipleship too much to pay and who fail to realise the call of God on their lives, a contrast with the active faith of the previous three recipients of healing (though, in the case of Peter’s mother-in-law, faith, if present, seems to have been in the people who petitioned Jesus for her healing).
1. Centurions in the Bible
There are a number of other Centurions mentioned in the Bible which, on the whole, are people who are recorded in a positive light, giving rise to Matmor’s statement that
‘Every centurion referred to in the New Testament appears to be a worthy man’
This, however, is inaccurate for a few of the Romans mentioned are seen simply as neutral - people who are going about their business in a manner which one would expect from a Roman soldier and who had the interests of the Emperor at heart rather than the plight of the christians they encounter.
For instance, the Centurion who transports Paul from Caesarea to Rome and who’s part of the Augustan cohort (Acts 27:1 - cohorts seem to have received specific names with which to identify them - see also Acts 10:1 - but the names in the Scriptures are probably familiar names rather than official ones) goes about his business in a manner which one would expect from a bodyguard charged with an important prisoner (Acts 27:6, 27:43) and listens to Paul the second time (Acts 27:31-32) after first ignoring Paul’s words about the dangers of the proposed journey, probably because he thought Paul was plotting some escape plan or was trying to delay his delivery to Rome (Acts 27:11).
So also we meet up with a Centurion being given orders to keep Paul in custody (Acts 24:23) and also another who demonstrates his desire that justice is done for he learns that Paul is a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-26). This latter soldier may be considered ‘righteous’ by ourselves but he would have let Paul be flogged regardless of the innocence or guilt of the apostle had not he made known to him that he was born a Roman.
Therefore Matmor’s statement is incorrect and, at best, all we can say is that there doesn’t appear to have been anything negative in the character in the lives of the Centurions who are recorded for us in the Bible.
But there are two specific soldiers who can be regarded as ‘righteous’ and in a right relationship, it would appear, with God. The Centurion currently under discussion is one and Cornelius, a soldier who was possibly retired from the army, the other who God visited with a vision and who responded by sending his servants to bring Peter - the Holy Spirit falling upon them as they were converted into the Church (Acts 10:1ff).
These two are both ‘righteous’ in the religious sense of the word but one other Centurion needs mention. While the Centurion responsible at the site of the crucifixion is asked to give a true witness that Jesus is dead which he does (Mark 15:44-45) - an action which is just a function of the position of his office - he is probably the same soldier who, at the moment of Jesus’ death, says, according to Mtw 27:54 and Mark 15:39 (RSV marg.)
‘Truly this was a son of God’
and, as Luke 23:47
‘Certainly this man was innocent’
It’s wrong to read too much into this statement but, certainly, the Centurion was affected by the events of the crucifixion and responded by declaring what he felt. The RSV’s original translation that the soldier states that Jesus was the Son of God is going just a little bit too far.
2. The Rank of Centurion in the Army
According to Zondervan, the rank of Centurion was placed over a group of Roman soldiers which comprised roughly one hundred men, even though the label would make us think that it had to have this exact figure. Centurions were an important part of the Roman army and Matmor, quoting F D Gealy, notes that they were probably the most important single position of authority within the Roman fighting machine because
‘The discipline and efficiency as a fighting unit depended on them’
However, few ever made it passed the rank, for more respected officers above them were received directly into the army, presumably from well-regarded Roman families, and so caused those below them to hope for, at best, to become a senior Centurion amongst their equals.
As Galilee was not specifically a Roman province in the time of Christ, it’s quite possible that the Centurion of the passage was a man serving in king Herod Antipas’ army which would have been organised on Roman principles - and may even have been given to him by the Roman authorities with which to secure his throne.
On this point it’s difficult to be certain, however, and, Mathag points out that
‘Being near the border and on a major trade route, the town probably had a contingent of Roman soldiers (despite Green’s point that Galilee was under the rule of the tetrarch Herod Antipas and not under Roman rule during the ministry of Jesus)’
It seems logical both to suppose there was a garrison of soldiers, loyal to the Roman Emperor, situated at such an important point in the land, but also that the ruling authority needed some display of force with which to maintain the security of the throne. Perhaps it’s best to think of the army as being a loan of the Roman Empire to king Antipas that the security of one of the borders of the Empire might be established while, at the same time, had the king taken the step of rebelling against Roman rule, the Empire would have known that they had loyal soldiers who could at least resist the overthrow while reinforcements were brought.
It was Roman policy to retire army veterans in communities that were Roman cities in the Empire but this doesn’t appear to be the case here as it was, for instance, at Philippi in modern day Greece
That the position of Centurion could become one of wealth is indicated by the Jewish leaders’ declaration in Luke 7:5 that he was instrumental in causing the Capernaum synagogue to be built for them (as Cornelius also seems to have been, another Centurion who feared God - Acts 10:1-2,7). He must, therefore, have been at least sympathetic to the God of the Jews and of their religious beliefs, for a man in just such a position as he would have been expected not to have strayed too far from the worship of the Roman gods - even though the obsessive character of Caesar worship had not yet been compelled upon Roman subjects.
Concerning the authority structure of the Roman army, Ungers notes that
‘The Roman army was divided into legions, the number of soldiers in a legion varying at different times. These legions were commanded by six tribuni...who commanded by turns...The tenth part of a legion, containing three hundred men, was called a...cohort...the cohort was divided into three maniples and the maniple into two centuries, originally containing one hundred men but later varying according to the strength of the legion’
Although the mathematical division of cohorts to maniples to centuries of men under the Centurion doesn’t work in this example, it does show us the structure of how the Roman army was made up. If, as Zondervan supposes, the Centurion was part of a localised army which was sentried in Galilee under the direct orders of the king, it’s difficult to know just how far up the scale we should go and what size of army we should presume was resident in the land, enforcing peace and the king’s rule.
Certainly, by the time of the Jewish rebellion of 66AD, there were insufficient troops available to be able to withstand the Jews from taking their land back into their hands and of defeating what force was present. But there had been political changes since the time of Christ and it would appear that there were more troops positioned in the land of Galilee (being, as it was, a Roman province at the outbreak of war) securing peace.
Josephus, moreover, gives us information in his account of the Jewish War (5.12.2) that, under the Centurion there existed a decurion, a man who was presumably in charge of about ten men and who was directly responsible to the Centurion.
But the Centurion certainly perceived the authority structure in which he served his masters above him and in which he gave orders to the soldiers beneath him (Mtw 8:9) for it was this principle of delegated authority that caused him to come to a realisation of the position in which Jesus stood and of the authority and power that had to be at His disposal.
For the Centurion to have called Jesus ‘Lord’ (Mtw 8:6) was quite some confession coming from his lips. It certainly meant nothing like our current use of the word to denote Jesus as having deity and divinity but it also meant far more than the more modern translation ‘sir’ which is more a mark of respect. As Mathag writes
‘He at least regarded Jesus as a person uniquely endowed by God with authority, if not sovereignty, over the physical realm’
The Centurion knew Jesus to be in a better position than himself when it came to a relationship with God and, being a man who could perceive a man’s natural authority and respect it, he could also realise that Jesus was in a position that prompted him to humble himself under Him.
Instead of approaching Jesus in the same manner as the soldiers sent by Ahab had done to Elijah (II Kings 1:9-12), he came more like the commander of the third military unit (II Kings 1:13-14) who realised the authority that was at the prophet’s disposal and who wanted to gain deliverance both for himself and for those of his unit who were with him.
Although Luke tells us that the Centurion specifically asked Jesus to come and heal his servant (Luke 7:3), the actual ‘question’ recorded for us by Matthew is in the form of a simple statement in which the soldier lays out the problem that he now has and allows Jesus to respond in whatever manner He chooses.
Certainly, the Jewish leaders who had been sent to approach Jesus (one can’t help but wonder whether the crowds would have taken very kindly to the advance of a Roman soldier into their midst. Perhaps there was even a consideration of self-preservation in the Centurion’s ploy of sending the Jewish leaders to Jesus - at the very least, he may have been protecting his position within the army by not being seen to be associated with a ‘Jewish healer’) are more emphatic with their requests (Luke 7:4-5) but it hardly seems likely that Jesus only decided to go and heal the servant because of their insistence.
It’s also likely that, although the healing was requested by a Gentile, the slave upon which it was to be performed was Jewish. This consideration is far from provable but perhaps one would have expected a reaction similar to that which greeted the Canaanite woman of the region of Tyre and Sidon in Mtw 15:21-28 when Jesus said to her request that her daughter be healed (Mtw 15:24,26)
‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel...It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs...’
Even though she eventually got what she wanted because of her persistence and faith, the objection was still there that she needed to overcome - here, though, no such opposition to the healing is uttered by Jesus and it seems logical to assume that the reason is that the slave who is lying paralysed is an Israelite - even though the passage centres not so much upon his illness or incapacity but upon the approach of the Roman and of his perception of delegated authority which inspires his faith.
Uncleanness and Authority
Jesus statement of Mtw 8:7 (which is emphatic in the Greek and conveys more of the sense of Jesus saying ‘I will come Myself heal him’ where the personal affirmation is repeated) has been taken by many commentators to be in the form of a surprised or probing question - that is, ‘You’re asking Me to come and heal him?’
We will look at this and consider the possibilities below but, first, we need to think about the situation that Jesus found Himself in by being asked to go to the house of a Gentile and to perform a healing, even if it’s likely that the slave was Jewish by birth.
The Mishnah is plain in its teaching that any residency of a Gentile and, therefore, a Roman, was unclean. Oholoth 18:7 states simply that
‘The dwelling-places of Gentiles are unclean’
though Danby notes that the reason for such a prohibition is that the Gentiles
‘...throw abortions down their drains’
and there follows the instructions concerning the need for an inspection of any Gentile house after a period of forty days’ residency in the land of Israel to make sure it’s clean, the inspection being necessary (according to some Rabbis) even in the
‘...deep drains and the foul water’
But we shouldn’t think that such a statement was restricted just to houses of the Gentiles within the land, for Oholoth 18:6 teaches its readers that
‘If a man [that is, a Jew] went through the country of the Gentiles in hilly or rocky country, he becomes unclean’
This principle of the Gentile habitations being unclean and, therefore, rendering unclean the Jews who either entered or passed through them is further supported by Scripture where the Jewish leaders fear entering the Roman praetorium to gain Pilate’s approval for Jesus’ crucifixion (John 18:28), John noting that they
‘...did not enter the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover’
Had they contracted ceremonial uncleanness, they would have been debarred from fulfilling the completion of the seven days of the festival (Num 9:10). But this was far from a belief that was only present in the religious Jews of the first century. Peter, when he met with the Centurion Cornelius in Acts chapter 10, said to the Roman and his family (Acts 10:28) - in words that would have been rather offensive, no doubt
‘...You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean’
and was approached by the Circumcision Party after his return (Acts 11:3) who questioned him immediately with the words
‘...Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’
because they still viewed contracted ceremonial uncleanness as something which was in need of ritually dealing with. Obviously, the implications of the previous passage (Mtw 8:1-4) had not yet been fully understood by themselves. But, especially in the original incident when Peter has to be instructed in a vision not to call things unclean which he had originally considered to be so (Acts 10:9-16), you feel like shaking Peter and saying to him
‘Come on, Peter! Don’t you remember what Jesus had been willing to do at the start of His ministry for the Centurion?!’
for the implication of Jesus being willing to go to the Gentile’s house, enter it, and so heal the paralysed slave was to contract ceremonial uncleanness in the sight of the Jewish nation. Though the incident of the leper might possibly be written off by saying that Jesus hadn’t actually contracted uncleanness because it had been banished, no such consideration would have been possible in this scenario.
Before we soundly condemn Peter, however, we should stop for a moment and think about our own relationship with God. After all, we may not like to think of ourselves as having a ceremonial belief system that causes us to feel contaminated by our presence with certain people or in certain situations but there are things which we push from ourselves not because they represent a temptation to sin but because we hold on to prejudices that restrict us from being fully available to God.
So Peter feels that it’s unacceptable before Jesus to mix with Gentiles and we say that he should have known better. But we find ourselves with choices to make in who we mix with - whether cultures, nationalities or types of people such as convicts and ex-criminals - and we pull away from too close an association because we have a low regard for them.
But Peter, like us, should have remembered Jesus’ willingness to go with the Jewish leaders when requested and to enter into a Gentile household in order that He might heal a paralysed slave.
But, as noted above, Jesus’ words here that He will ‘come and heal him’, may better be rendered in the form of a question following a statement by the Centurion through the Jews. It would appear from Luke 7:3 that the request to go to the house and heal the servant had originally been the request of the Jews, whereas the Centurion was willing just to make the statement concerning his need and to see what Jesus would do for him - if anything (Mtw 8:6). Jesus’ response is best understood as a question for both sets of people, though - for the Jewish leaders and the Roman Centurion - because of the implications that His coming would bring about.
Matfran translates Jesus’ response as
‘Am I to come and heal him?’
while Mathag suggests
‘Shall I come and heal him?
The meaning in the statement, however, is probably better brought out by a paraphrase which would run something like
‘Do you really want me to come and heal him? Do you realise what it is you’re asking me to do?’
Jesus has no problem with what He’s being asked to do but, first, the Jewish leaders (they would have heard Jesus’ words - Luke 7:3-5) who have come to Him must realise what it is that they’re asking Him - would they do the same, for instance? How then could they now think of asking Him to do something which they would shy away from? And when the Centurion sees Jesus approach (Luke 7:6), he sees the problems that his request will cause to the Jewish teacher that he’s called upon.
For Jesus to come into the house of a Gentile, as previously noted, would mean that He would contract ceremonial uncleanness which would render Him unclean in the eyes of the nation even though, before God the Father, there would have been no problem.
Even on a natural level, a question by Jesus makes sense at this juncture because, although the statement has been made by the Centurion that his servant is ill (Mtw 8:6), he has not yet formulated a direct request that Jesus would heal him. Therefore, if Jesus’ often regarded statement is, in fact, a question, it makes perfect sense, for Jesus is wanting to have what is required spelt out for Him.
As Matmor notes
‘[Jesus] is never recorded as having entered a Gentile dwelling’
and perhaps it is for this reason that He tried not to offend people unnecessarily. There were certainly going to be times when even what He did in their eyes which could have been accepted was rejected, so He chose rather to eat and drink with Jews, even though Gentiles would have been present on some occasions.
That the question was more necessary for the Jewish leaders is apparent, however, for they are the ones who are putting Jesus into a potentially damaging situation by causing Him to become ceremonially unclean through the entry into a Gentile’s house.
Jesus had already shown that the uncleanness of the leper had no effect on Him, so the uncleanness which could have been contracted from coming under the roof of a Gentile habitation must equally have had no effect upon Him. Therefore a relationship with God is more than achieving and maintaining ceremonial purity (Rom 14:17)!
The Centurion’s reply to the intentions of Jesus to come to His house and heal his slave show that he was probably aware of the situation that Jesus now found Himself in.
Matmor summarises the difficult situation by writing that
‘The Centurion would know that Jews regarded Gentile dwellings as ceremonially unclean, and accordingly to ask a Jewish religious teacher to come into his home would put the teacher in a difficult position. If the teacher agreed, he would be open to harsh criticism from stricter Jews; if he did not, he could be accused of not caring about a sick person’
His statement (Mtw 8:8)
‘I am not worthy...’
is paralleled in Mtw 3:11 where the same Greek word (Strongs Greek number 2425) is used when John the Baptist speaks of the coming Christ and states that
‘...He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry...’
The statement by both John and the Centurion imply that they recognise that they are merely servants of the One who they regard as greater than themselves. For John the Baptist, this meant much more than it did for the Centurion who had probably heard the reports concerning both the words and actions of Jesus and who knew that He stood in a much better relationship with the Living God than he did. But there may also have been an implication in the Roman’s words that he recognised his uncleanness in the eyes of the nation and that what he was now asking Jesus to do was more like a favour than a right of being an Israelite.
But the Centurion’s perception of authority and the unique position of Christ before God the Father is what marks this incident out as unique. Because the soldier is situated in his own authority structure within the Roman army with soldiers below him who do all that he tells them to do and, yet, also answerable to those above him, he can perceive that with just one word of command, Jesus is able to give him whatever he requests because the power to heal is a matter of authority and not of magical procedure and cure.
The Centurion can recognise that authority has been given by God to Jesus - a delegated authority that was His to use in accordance with the office in which He now operated - and so the use of that authority is all that he requires.
It’s quite amazing - even in today’s age and with the depth of teaching that’s in a lot of the churches - that non-believers can still come out with a revelation of God that is more than anybody within the Body of Christ has ever either realised or confessed! Knowing God and developing a relationship with Him is not just a matter of learning all there is to know about God and His ways - for this can be just head knowledge - but a matter of personally experiencing His presence and of receiving directly from Him instruction that is classed as ‘revelation’.
As it says of the New Covenant in Jer 31:34, in words that we often forget today
‘And no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying “Know the Lord” for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord...’
Divine knowledge under the New Covenant comes by revelation and, though we teach and preach to those who are fellow believers, the strength of a church is not in its numerical size but in its ability to receive and act upon revelation that comes directly from God Himself.
We will look at Jesus’ response below, but, for now, we need to note that healing comes by a word of authority as the Centurion realised and not through magical or mystical procedures that try to summon up something from within or which attempt to twist God’s hand on an issue.
Say the Word
We have seen in the previous section that the Centurion had a good perception of authority and how those who had been given such position could effect their own will in the situations around them by a word of command. The soldier, because he understands and accepts Jesus’ authority, can say to Him (Mtw 8:8)
‘...only say the word...’
and he knows that the power at His disposal will effect a cure in his paralysed slave. I have dealt with the word of God on two previous pages because, within today’s Church, we have lost a good understanding of what the term normally meant to the believer of both Old and New Testaments, consigning an interpretation normally to the equation that
word of God=Scripture
thus weakening our perception of personal authority, relying more upon inherent power in what is written. Although, for the believer, the infallibility of the Scriptures is something that is necessary and important, to consign inherent power to the words is misguided and verses have often been taken and applied to situations in which nothing much ever happens.
The problem is one of ignorance and my notes on the Restoration of Creation in part one section 3 entitled ‘The Creative Word of God’ and my notes in the Matthew series entitled ‘Scripture and the Word of God’ should, at least, give the reader enough information to research and study the subject for himself.
Here, however, I shall say a few brief words about the type of word which Jesus’ spoke in Mtw 8:13 and which have been dealt with in more detail on the web pages cited above.
The central word in the healing of this passage is, as would be expected, the ‘word’ of Mtw 8:8 (see also Mtw 8:16) and Jesus’ statement in 8:13 where he speaks to the Centurion through, presumably, a servant despatched to Him
‘Go; be it done for you as you have believed’
which is what the Centurion had required for his slave to receive his healing. This ‘word’ is paralleled in the OT as the phrase ‘the word of the Lord’ which seems to have had both a noetic and a dynamic element attributed to it in Jewish thought.
The noetic element is that which is understandable. The Bible falls into this category of being noetic if there is no power contained within the words. Ordinary literary books are also noetic for they contain words which impart understanding and which make sense without necessarily having any power inherent within them. But, within the Church, a sermon can be theologically sound and impart sense and meaning to those who listen to the words but, if it has no power, at best it can be described as mere thoughts.
Our expression ‘empty words’ would summarise the concept well as it implies understandable language but with the absence of action.
The dynamic element is that which brings about the thought. God’s word is always that which comprises both thought and power united. As a natural example, think about the normal human process of speech in which a part of a person’s breath is used to sound out the words spoken. So, too, when God speaks, He uses His breath, His Spirit, to give life to what it is He wants to say.
Nowhere is this unity of noetic and dynamic elements more evident than in the story of Creation. God spoke into existence the universe from nothing that was currently in existence (Gen 1:1). Weighted upon the simple noetic command ‘Let there be light’ (Gen 1:3-5) was the provision of the Holy Spirit to energise the situation and to bring about the command that had just been spoken. God, speaking with perfect faith, spoke everything into existence by a word.
The OT prophets, also, the mouthpieces of God, didn’t presume to speak out of their own mind but as messengers relaying the words spoken by the Lord as they heard them (see, for example, I Kings 17:2,8, 18:1). This is why the people feared the prophets, because whatever they said came to pass - it wasn’t their word and they got lucky but God’s. Therefore they had God’s power upon them and they knew that what had been spoken was certain to come about.
This word of authority, therefore, must contain both the thought and the power and, interestingly enough, it had already been recognised by the disciples and crowds who were present at the conclusion of the sermon on the Mount in Jesus’ teaching (Mtw 7:28-29) - now it is to be recognised by the Centurion in the matter of healing.
The Roman soldier thus realised that Jesus’ words were not just ‘thoughts’ that were spoken out to those around Him but that they contained power to bring about whatever He spoke into existence. Because the authority of God rested upon Jesus, the Centurion was confident in His ability to simply command something to become reality without having any doubts that there could be a problem.
The implications for us as the Church are far reaching, for it is not sufficient that we simply study and learn the Scriptures and think that, by somehow quoting them, everything will be made right. It is fundamental to the christian to get to know their way round the Bible and to understand the character of God and His ways as revealed there but, in individual situations, the believer must listen out for God’s specific word to them and use it wherever necessary.
In counselling and in speaking to the unsaved, we take on the role of an OT prophet (though not being prophets unless called to be so) and declare God’s word after first hearing it ourselves, not snatching Scripture out from the Bible and making them fit the situation and expect God to abide by our application!
This is going just a little bit off the teaching of the passage under consideration but it is necessary for us to understand the need to hear afresh God’s voice to us as individuals.
The Centurion here, however, recognised Jesus’ authority which rested on Him and knew that, if He was to just speak the word, what He would say would come about because His word of command would have power to bring about all that was intended in His meaning.
Jesus’ response, summarised, is to turn to the crowds which followed Him (Mtw 8:10) and bring out some Truth which He didn’t want those near Him to miss. But, before this actually takes place, the text says that Jesus ‘marvelled’ where the Greek word (Strongs Greek number 2296), according to Kittels
‘...has first the sense of astonishment, whether critical or inquisitive, then admiration, with a nuance of awe or fear at what is unusual or mysterious...’
This isn’t the sort of reaction one would have expected from Jesus who some commentators like to think of as operating on earth from His own deity and who is presumed to have known all things throughout His earthwalk. Rather, it’s the reaction of a Man who is relying upon the provision of God for doing everything, even if that Man is none other than God Himself in human form.
Matmor comments that Jesus’ astonishment is
‘...a very human trait’
and it shouldn’t be played down. The response of the Roman Centurion is not what He was expecting in the situation and He finds Himself amazed at the response - this is a positive reaction whereas the same word is employed to speak of Jesus’ reaction to the unbelief of the inhabitants of His home town of Nazareth (Mark 6:6) when they demonstrate their lack of faith in Him, forcing Him to leave for other villages where He can perform miracles.
As noted above, that revelation can sometimes be on the lips of those one would least expect it to be on, always causes either amazement in the believer or consternation that they got the revelation rather the believer! But, here, Jesus is positively and pleasurably delighted and He sees in the soldier’s statement something extremely important that has been grasped which needs to be relayed to those around Him.
That it’s of the utmost importance and not to be missed is shown in the fact that Jesus seems to ignore the person who’s uttered the statement for a short while until He’s finished bringing home the truth to the crowds which were following along the way.
We saw in the overview to chapters 8 and 9 that faith is not always evident in the incidents recorded for us but here it is clearly stated by Jesus when He says (Mtw 8:10) that
‘...Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith’
but we shouldn’t think that this ‘faith’ is the same sort of response that many leaders of churches expect to be present in the people they pray for before they will be healed. The Centurion had not known when he first sent the Jewish leaders to Jesus whether it would be His will to pay regard to his requests and heal his slave but, now that Jesus has expressed His intention to do just that, the Centurion is certain that it will come about.
The evidence that Jesus intends performing his requests would have been probably brought home to the Roman firstly by a returning servant who had told him of Jesus’ response (though this is absent from the text and may not have occurred) and by the approach of the multitudes towards his house.
There was no need for the Centurion to psyche himself up into a frenzy to make himself believe that Jesus was going to heal his slave, he had the evidence that it was going to take place because Jesus was approaching the place where his servant lay ill. By approaching the house, then, Jesus had already made His intentions clear that He was going to heal him.
The soldier’s faith demonstrated in the statement about authority had nothing to do with believing Jesus could or would heal - the former he already knew before he sent the Jewish leaders to Him and the latter he knew by Jesus’ response of approaching the house - but it showed that he was willing to act on what He knew about authority. His faith resided not in the methodology that could be used but in the word of command which came from Jesus’ lips.
Therefore Jesus commends the Centurion because he acts on what he believes (Mtw 8:10) and then goes on to point out to the Jews present that entry into the Kingdom of heaven is not on the basis of natural descent but upon faith (Mtw 8:11-12).
This is nothing new for, had the crowds been present with John the Baptist, they would also have understood that it was not sufficient to
‘...presume to say to yourselves “We have Abraham as our father”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham’
As Matfran points out
‘...the Kingdom of heaven is not a Jewish preserve but is open to Gentiles like this Centurion and, further, that Jews will in fact find themselves excluded’
The picture of the Messianic banquet (alluded to in, for instance, Mtw 26:29 and Luke 14:15 and which is asserted by commentators to have been an image used by the Jews when speaking of the coming Kingdom), in which Gentiles gain admission at the table while Jews are excluded, must have caused a fair amount of controversy. We saw on the previous web page how Jesus’ touching of the leper would have been regarded as an act that contracted ceremonial uncleanness and that, in this passage, the act of coming under the roof of a Gentile would, similarly, have performed such a function.
Eating with a Gentile was just as much a matter of defilement as either of these two former associations and to think that the Kingdom had been now thrown open to any and all who possessed a similar perception and who acted upon it as this Centurion had done, must have filled His hearers with a fair degree of horror.
And, just in case His hearers think that there may just be the odd one or two ‘righteous’ Gentiles in the Kingdom (but keep them way at the back where they can’t do any harm, okay?), He speaks of them coming ‘from east and west’ (Luke 13:29 - a similar statement of Jesus spoken at a different time - adds ‘north and south’ to imply universalism) implying droves of them in terminology which was used in the OT for the return of the sons of Israel into the land after the Dispersion and exile (see, for instance, Is 43:5-7 which couldn’t have been read in the same light again had Jesus’ words been accepted and believed).
In the context of first century Judaism, therefore, the crowds are less likely to have responded with an
‘Oh? That’s interesting!’
and more with a
‘You cannot be serious!!!’
Jesus’ words are terribly offensive to the Jew who prided himself on having a guarantee into the coming Messianic Kingdom of heaven through his genealogical line - that is of no use for entry, says Jesus, when Gentiles gain acceptance before God through their faith and Jews are excluded into
‘...the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth’
I don’t intend dealing with these three expressions in any great detail but suffice to say that the ‘outer darkness’ should be taken to be representative of the place which is furthest away from the light of God’s presence which is resident in the banquet now taking place. The ‘weeping’ should naturally be taken to be referring to sorrow as in other places, but the phrase ‘gnash their teeth’ has often been stripped of it’s Biblical context and made to express the action of one who is trying to alleviate pain.
However, the action is rightly a demonstration of one’s anger directed at someone specific (see my notes on ‘Eternal Habitations’ section 9g). In the context of the exclusion of the Jews from the Kingdom of heaven, this is not much to wonder at.
Finally, Jesus speaks the word of healing after addressing the crowd and
‘...the servant was healed at that very moment’
I have been in many meetings where ‘healing’ is said to be ‘progressive’. In the instances in which both Jesus and His disciples subsequently took part, the wholeness brought about was normally instantaneous rather than achieved over a long period of time. Both Jesus and His followers spoke with a word of authority (though the disciples sometimes found it difficult to do so when they lacked faith - Mtw 17:19-20) which was applied at one specific time in the person’s life and which brought about noticeable and immediate results.
That God does heal over time is not doubted - but that the Church is not moving with the same authority as both Jesus and His followers is evidenced by the lack of things that happen both in our meetings and through our personal lives.
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