Last week we saw Jesus do the unimaginable – he actually touched a leper. Directly on the heels of that, in Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus violates yet another societal norm. He interacts with a non-Jew, a Gentile.
Immediately after coming down from the mountain, and cleansing the leper, Jesus entered Capernaum. The city of Capernaum, meaning village of Nahum,1 was situated on the northwest edge of the Sea of Galilee.
Capernaum was primarily a fishing village, but its strategic location on a primary trade route between Damascus and Jericho/Jerusalem gave Capernaum a level of prominence that made it necessary to have a Roman presence in the village. It also made Capernaum an effective location for the collection of taxes, as well as a ministry center for a significant portion of Jesus’ ministry. Having left Nazareth, Jesus settled there,2 and it became “his own city.”3
Vignette 2 – The Gentile
Upon entering the city, a Centurion came to Jesus with a surprising statement. “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.”4 Note that the Centurion did not ask Jesus for a healing but rather explained the situation concerning his servant. It was Jesus who offered the healing.
Many specifics of this encounter are surprising, not the least of which is that this Centurion would approach a Jewish religious figure with a request of any kind. And do not miss the address with which he greets Jesus, calling him “Lord.”
A man of this Centurion’s stature simply does not do such a thing. It is demeaning, and it undermines his rank and vocation. Matthew Henry noted of this Centurion, “The greatest of men must turn beggars, when they have to do with Christ.”5
A Centurion was the commander of 100 soldiers in the Roman army, a non-commissioned officer who had progressed about as far as he could, and prevalent social strata of the day was such that relatively few Centurions were promoted beyond that rank.6 Though we are not told this, it is likely that this Centurion was the highest-ranking military official in the village, and that he and his 100 soldiers were responsible for maintaining order in Capernaum.
A Centurion’s authority and influence was extensive, with direct responsibility for the discipline of his soldiers, and even overseeing executions in capital cases, just as we see with the execution of Jesus.7 The Centurion was highly respected, and well paid. Those who achieved this prestigious rank usually made a career of it. Despite the tension between the Romans and the Jews, every Centurion portrayed in scripture is represented as a gentleman, a man of high character with a devotion to duty.8
As surprising as it is for this Centurion to come to Jesus, it is equally surprising that Jesus, as a Jew, would interact in a friendly way with the Centurion, a Gentile, Roman oppressor. But just as we saw with the leper, now we see with the Centurion. Jesus shatters the social and religious barriers of his day. To the Christ-follower, no man or woman is out of bounds or beneath the level of our concern.
A Man of Character
We learn much about the Centurion in his brief interaction with Jesus once we get beyond that fact that the two men are talking at all. We see that the Centurion comes speaking not for himself, but rather on behalf of his servant. This tells us something about his character. We have multiple instances of parents coming to Jesus on behalf of their children, but this is the only recorded incident of a master coming on behalf of a servant.
From Luke’s account of this same encounter,9 we find the local Jewish leaders vouching for this Roman soldier, saying he was worthy of Jesus’ assistance, because he loved their nation and built their synagogue. This is surprising as well, because the Jews hated the Gentiles in general, and Romans in particular. The presence of this military man among them was a constant reminder of their subjugation to the Roman oppressors. We learn something of the moral fiber of this Centurion from the Jewish support he enjoys.
When Jesus learned of the servant’s illness, he said, “I will go and heal him.” Again, we are greeted with the surprising and the unusual because no self-respecting Jew would ever go to the home of a Gentile, much less that of a Roman. In response to that offer from Jesus, the Centurion made a statement of faith that astonished Jesus and challenges our own faith 2,000 years later.
The Centurion’s Reply
But the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel.” – Matthew 8:8-10, NASB
The Centurion, though he did not know Jesus to be the Creator of the universe,10 humbled himself before him. In this brief interaction, we see the prophetic word of Simeon coming true, that Jesus would be a light to the Gentiles.11 The light shone brightly enough in this instance that the most powerful military man in Capernaum just proclaimed to a local Jewish rabbi, “I am unworthy to have you come under my roof.”
This Roman Centurion understood enough about Jesus and about authority to know that a mere word from Jesus’ mouth held both great power and authority. When the Centurion speaks, the power of Caesar’s throne is behind him, and the Centurion recognizes a similar authority behind the words of Jesus, the words of one who addressed nothingness, saying “Let there be light,” and there was light.
In Jesus, the Centurion sees an authority that transcends both time and distance. Here is a Gentile soldier bringing practical understanding to what, for most, is simply ideological or theoretical. “‘Am I a God who is near,’ declares the LORD, ‘and not a God far off?’”12
As a follower after Christ, when Jesus directs me to do a thing or to go to a place, I do not hesitate in doing so, for I know that the full authority of the throne of God in heaven is behind me as I go. Joe Focht, Pastor of Calvary Chapel, Philadelphia, once noted, “The authority you walk in is directly related to the throne you bow the knee to.”
When Jesus Marvels
We have only two recorded instances of Jesus marveling, and they each involve levels of faith. Here, Jesus marveled at the faith of a Roman Centurion, a Gentile in whom he found a faith that he had not found even among the people of the covenant, the chosen people of the I Am. In Mark 6, Jesus marveled at the unbelief or lack of faith of the Jews.
The Christ follower marvels not at great cathedrals, densely populated congregations, or eloquent (and often bombastic) preachers. That which arouses wonder in the disciple of Jesus is the deep faith of an individual or the stubborn disbelief of the masses.
Upon seeing and hearing the faith of the Centurion, Jesus turned to the crowd and commended him to them. Note that he did not commend the Centurion to himself, as the Centurion had already stated his unworthiness before the Lord. The Roman Centurion who was willing to confess Jesus before the crowds over which he held dominion, was in turn confessed before those same people by the one he called “Lord.”
Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 10:32-33, NASB
1. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 415). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
2. Matthew 4:13
3. Matthew 9:1
4. Matthew 8:6, NASB
5. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 1648). Peabody: Hendrickson.
6. Biblical Studies Press. (2006). The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Mt 8:5). Biblical Studies Press.
7. Matthew 27:54, Mark 15:39, 44- 45, Luke 23:47
8. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 33). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
9. Luke 7:1-10
10. John 1:3, John 1:10, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:16
11. Luke 2:32
12. Jeremiah 23:23, NASB