After Jesus finished His great discourse on the mount, He came down and large crowds followed Him everywhere. The message that He had just delivered would have been enough to gain such a following; but the fact that He spoke and acted with perfect authority commanded attention. And so in the next few chapters Matthew has presented us with case after case of events in which Jesus demonstrated His authority, authority over disease, authority over nature, authority over demons, authority over sin and authority over death. These were the credentials of the King. They show that He could realize a victory as well as project a vision.
It is helpful in Bible study to try to determine why the material has been arranged in the way that it has--what is Matthew saying with these accounts, arranged as they are? Here, in chapters 8 and 9 of his Gospel we have nine manifestations of Christ’s power. And these are arranged nicely into three groups of three events each. After each set of three wonders there is an immediate effect. The first three miracles were the cleansing of the leper, the healing of the centurion’s servant, and the restoration to health of Peter’s mother-in-law. Immediately after that a man said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever You go,” to which Jesus replied with a teaching on the cost of discipleship.
Then moving beyond the realm of the physical we have three events where Jesus showed His authority over the elements by stilling the storm, over the spirit world by casting out demons, and over sin by healing the paralytic. Immediately after these three the response was that people were afraid and glorified God.
Then we have the third group, miracles in what seemed impossible difficulties: raising the child from the dead, the healing of the woman who touched Him, and the healing of the blind man. After these things the multitudes marveled.
In the first part of Matthew 8 there was the first set of three events. The first case is of a man with leprosy. The four verses give us the brief report of how a man with the dreaded disease came to Jesus to be made clean. This miracle demonstrates not only that Jesus could heal, but that in so doing He was fulfilling the Law. The Law declared that the leper was unclean, and could only bar him from the holy place; Jesus could satisfy the Law by making him clean and sending him to the priest for reinstatement into sanctuary worship.
The second case in the chapter is our passage in which the centurion came to Jesus on behalf of his paralyzed servant. Here the emphasis in the story is on the power of the word of the Lord, that by His command He was able to heal the sick. And here we have a brief lesson by Jesus on faith. The fact that this faith was demonstrated by a Gentile and not a Jew has a sense of foreboding about it in the Gospel of Matthew.
The third case (vv. 14-17) is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, probably of malaria. With a simple touch now he healed her. Then Matthew records how many demon-possessed and sick people were brought to Him for healing. This He did with a word. Then the evangelist quotes Isaiah 53:4 that the Suffering Servant would take our infirmities away.
Matthew is clearly using these three cases to support the message that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Servant of the LORD who would take away their illnesses and diseases. The point of Isaiah 53 is that this deliverance from infirmities and illness is to be accomplished by His death as the sin-bearer, when He would take the sins of the world on Himself. Matthew will show that this would be at the cross. In taking care of the sin problem Jesus the Messiah would also be taking care of the effects of sin, disease and death. Jesus fully understood that all of mankind’s disability that He corrected were the outcome of sin_ftn1.1 And so it was based on the power of the cross that He healed this leper, this servant, this woman, and countless scores of others, all prior to the actual historic accomplishment of the atoning death on the cross which was the basis for these healings.2 By doing these things Jesus drew attention to Himself as the Messiah who had come to restore a lost order to what God had originally intended. So it is in that light that we read how He made people whole.
We also see in these events the humility and the compassion of the Lord. He did not stay on the mountain making declarations. He did not go immediately to enter the holy city. He began to deal with human need at its lowest level--leprosy, paralysis, and fever, in individuals who were suffering. And all these events were in response to appeals that the afflicted made. Jesus responded willingly to them, and personally. First, he touched a leper, an outcast, whom no one would dare touch. But Jesus’ touch made him clean and fit for the temple. Then He healed the servant of a hated Roman, with whom there would be no communication. Then he touched a woman, who in the opinion of many people, did not count. This, then, is the picture that begins to emerge of the Suffering Servant in the Gospel of Matthew. He did not hesitate for one moment to take hold of sin and all its effects as He showed compassion for these poor suffering outcasts. At first the people were shocked, and afraid; but then they began to bring people to Him to be healed. His power to deal with sin and its effects was revealed through His compassion.
5When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, asking for help. 6“Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.”
7Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”
8The centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But speak the word only, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. 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.”
10When 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. 11I say to you that many shall come from the east and from the west, and shall take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
13Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.
The story is also told in the Gospel of Luke (7:1-10) with some additional information. Luke says that the centurion sent word to Jesus through Jewish spokesmen, which would make sense if he was sensitive to Jewish-Roman relationships and also if there was a language barrier. The Jewish elders appealed to Jesus to help him because, they said, he was very deserving, he loved Israel, and had even built them a synagogue. Then, when Jesus drew near the house, the centurion, again with representatives, appealed for Jesus to speak the word only because he was not worthy for Jesus to enter his house. The centurion could have been there in person but speaking through his spokesman. So Luke focuses more on the details of the centurion and the way he communicated with Christ; Matthew simply records the request from the centurion and focuses more on Jesus’ teaching about faith and about Gentiles in the kingdom.
So here we have the report of a miracle with a teaching. There are a number of these in the Bible so we have to determine what unique things are found here that set this passage apart. The occasion is certainly unique, because the request is made by a Roman soldier on behalf of his servant. The study will have to deal with the impact of this in the Gospel.
The focus in the story, judging from the centurion’s speech, is on the authority of the spoken word. Here was a man who understood the power of authoritative commands, and who recognized that Jesus had that power.
And this prompted Jesus to express His amazement at the faith of this man, a faith unequaled in Israel.
So while we have a story about a healing, these three elements will play a big part in the interpretation. But of the three, the most important is the authority of the spoken word, because the other two elements play off of it. This will be the subject matter then.
As far as the structure of the passage goes, it is easy to follow. It is mostly made up of conversation and speeches. In verses 5-7 we have the initial request: the centurion appeals to Jesus on behalf of his servant, and Jesus immediately responded to go and heal him. But this is interrupted by the centurion who expresses his unworthiness and asks for Jesus to speak the word only (vv. 8,9). That faith is then appraised by Jesus in a short teaching on faith and on Gentiles in the kingdom (vv. 10-12). Finally, we have the spoken word and the healing (v. 13). So the structure is:
(A) the initial request for healing,
(B) the appeal for the authoritative word only,
(B’) the response to this appeal by Jesus, and
(A’) the healing.
At the outset we need to make sure we know the facts about the setting, and then the significance of those facts. The story takes place in Capernaum, the town that Jesus made his “base of operations.” Capernaum was a good-sized place on the shores of the lake, a natural site for fishing, which is why Peter had his home there (and perhaps Jesus stayed with him). But Capernaum was also on the main road, the road that led from Damascus in the north down past the lake at Capernaum, through the hills and passes to the Jezreel Valley, and then over to the coast through more mountain passes to connect with the coastal highway to Egypt. It was a main thoroughfare for caravans, traders, and military. Since Capernaum was a significant city on the main highway, it had a military presence there, hence, the centurion. A centurion was, as the name suggests, a military officer over a hundred men. That would mean there was a sizeable military unit stationed at Capernaum.
Capernaum was also the home of Levi, called Matthew, the tax collector (Matt. 9:9-13). There would be tax collectors in such a town, backed up by Roman soldiers, to collect taxes and tariffs from both the locals and from the traders passing through the region. Neither the Romans or the tax collectors would have been accepted by the Jewish population.
Matthew does not make a point out of this Roman’s character, but Luke does (so we have to be careful not to play up the hatred of the Romans too much here). This was a man who loved Israel and built the people of the city a synagogue. This would happen more easily in Galilee, where people were somewhat used to having Gentiles around, than in Jerusalem where separation from Gentiles was pursued with greater zeal.
But the significance of this setting is not diminished by the goodness of this Roman. Jesus had just healed the leper, an outcast. Now he turned to the servant of a Roman, a non-Jew. Jesus was declaring that He came to seek and to save the lost, those who had no hope, those who were the outcasts, those who had nowhere else to turn. And in turning to this Roman and his servant’s need Jesus saw a marked contrast between his faith and the faith that He has seen in Israel.
This emphasis on championing the needs of the outcast or downtrodden was always present in the Old Testament as evidence of genuine righteousness, and certainly the top priority of a righteous king--but many of the “pious” Jews had different criteria for their expected Messiah. Psalm 72, for one example, says of the anointed king (looking forward to the Messiah): “He will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy, and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in His sight” (vv. 12-14). To this passage we could add prophecies that say the Messiah will take away all illnesses and infirmities, and passages that say He will vindicate the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in the land. Jesus wasted no time in His ministry in demonstrating that He came to fulfill these, and more.
The initial request (8:5-7). There is not a whole lot more that needs to be said about these verses. The goodness of the man that Luke explains is clearly shown in this passage too in that he, a centurion, was appealing to Jesus on behalf of his servant who was paralyzed and suffering. Either this was a wonderful, irreplaceable servant, or the centurion was a kind and responsible master--or both. But his request speaks of his humility, first for coming on behalf of a servant, and second, coming to a Jew as a Roman commander. But there was a need, and so he came asking for help.
By the way, the point can be made here that as the story unfolds we learn that the servant was healed, but also that the centurion who exhibited great faith was healed, spiritually. Jesus’ little teaching implies that this centurion will be one of the Gentiles who will come and sit down in the kingdom of heaven.
Verse 7 records Jesus’ response: “I will go and heal him.” There are two things about this statement that are worth thinking about. First is Jesus’ willingness to go. This willingness was first introduced in the story in 8:1-4. Here he is willing to go again--but now into a Gentile’s home. The second thing to note is the confidence that Jesus has: “I will go and heal him.” It will happen, no doubt about it.
The centurion’s speech (8:8, 9). If we look at the sentences in this section we find a statement, a request, and an explanation of the request. The statement is that he is not worthy for Jesus to come into his house. Perhaps several things informed this statement: he was a non-Jew, he was a Roman soldier, and he was inferior to Jesus. He certainly recognized that he was in the presence of someone who was much more than a prophet. He had heard of this man’s power and authority, and so turned to Him for help.
So his request was that Jesus would speak the word only. Jesus did not have to come and see the sick man. He did not have to lay hands on him. He simply had to speak. This indicates the centurion’s tremendous faith, but it is only a tremendous faith because he considered the object of his faith powerful. He believed tat Jesus had so much power and authority that His word would be sufficient for the healing.
It would be interesting here, or along the way in such a Bible study, to look at the passages where Jesus did mighty works simply by the spoken word--healings, exorcisms, resurrections, calming storms and the like. From there the study would turn to authoritative things that Jesus said that would be fulfilled after death or in the future, things like “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” or, “Depart from me” and the like. You cannot take too much time here doing this, because it will be a very large subject. But a brief listing could be a helpful correlation.
Then we have his explanation. The centurion was in the military. He was a man under authority. He gave commands and people obeyed, because he had authority to do that. He was given commands by his superiors, and he obeyed them because he recognized authority. Because he was under authority he was able to exercise authority over others. And so he was saying that this was true of Jesus as well. Because Jesus was under authority, He was able to exercise authority. It had been given to Him. But His authority was far greater than the centurion’s authority. The centurion commanded men to do things physically possible, and had the authority to make them do it (with threats of punishment or discipline). But Jesus had the authority to command things physically impossible, things beyond human capacity, diseases, demons, dead people, and the like. And the only reason that there was a response to His commands was because His word was efficacious in and of itself. Thus, in the Bible this is one of the basic attributes of deity--it is God who commands light to shine in the darkness; and it is God who commands the blind to see and the lame to walk and the deaf to hear. As people said, “No one could do these things unless God were with Him.” But as Matthew unfolds the Gospel it will be clearer and clearer that this was God with them.
Jesus’ Response (8:10-12). Jesus first praised his faith, and then predicted that Gentiles would take the place of many Jews in the kingdom. The praise is: “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” In His travels in the land, in His public ministry, Jesus saw every kind of response. But this one was the greatest demonstration of faith He had seen, greater than any Israelite’s faith so far.
Here it will be helpful for you to try to study the word “faith” a bit. It will not be that important in this particular story to spend a great deal of time on it. But you need to be able to define faith, for Jesus is praising it here, and saying many in Israel did not have it. A good word study book or theological dictionary will give you enough ideas to work with. Faith is the confidence or reliance one places on the object of faith; it apprehends the facts, it assents to their truth, and it acts accordingly. Here the centurion had a certain amount of information about Jesus, he accepted that it was true, and he acted in confidence on it. It is also worth emphasizing that strong faith in the Lord also comes from great humility, from one who depends on the Lord for that which he cannot do for himself. Those who are self-sufficient seldom have the opportunity to develop faith like this.
But Jesus said He had not seen such great faith in Israel. No, what He saw very often were self-righteous and self-sufficient people, or people demanding a sign from Him to prove what He had said, or people following Him for a while and then leaving when His sayings became too difficult. Even His disciples who believed in Him exhibited a weak faith when threatened by the storms and challenges of life. But they continued to follow Him, which in itself is a sign of growing faith.
What was it that Jesus found so amazing about this man’s faith? Perhaps it was the simple acceptance of Christ as the sovereign commander of life and all its aspects. Or perhaps it was the fact that it was so intelligent, so well reasoned and logical. Or in the final analysis, it may be that he simply accepted the fact that Jesus had authority. The majority of Jews did not accept that Jesus had authority over life and death, that He came in the full power of God. But this man apparently did.
Because of the difference in the faith of this man and the Jews, Jesus took the opportunity to prophesy that many Jews--”subjects of the kingdom” He called them, would be cast out when people from all over the world would enter the kingdom and sit down with the greats. John started his gospel by telling us that Jesus came to His own, but His own received Him not, but to as many as received Him He gave the right to be called the sons of God. Jesus foresaw this dark side of Israel’s unbelief and already announced that because some would not come to Him with this kind of faith there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth--pictures of the great anguish of judgment. The Bible will make it clear that without faith it is impossible to please God, and that faith now must be in His Son (Heb. 1 and 11).
The healing (8:13). The declaration was clear in the light of this man’s faith: “It will be done just as you believed it would.” This is a basic principle of faith in the first century--as you believe, so will it be. But here Jesus recognized the faith of this man, and honored his request by healing his servant. And He was pleased to do it in a way that demonstrated to all who were there, and to us, that He has this authority even over disease.
I have already said enough to tip you off about thinking about the authoritative word of the Lord. But there is another area of biblical material that has to be connected to all such healing passages, and that is the reason for illness in the world and the promise to remove it. Matthew 9 will afford a better chance to discuss the reasons; but here we may consider the plan of God for sickness and disease. As has already been mentioned, the Old Testament prophecies, especially Isaiah, and the New Testament visions of the world to come, have no place for sickness and sorrow and death. The Bible foretells that the Lord will wipe away all tears, destroy death and disease for all time, and make all things well (either through the resurrection of the dead or the glorification of the saints who are alive and caught up to be with the Lord).
So if you read a bit in the theology books on that subject you will soon have a collection of ideas and biblical passages to work with. Then, when you look at individual studies like this one, you can fit it into the picture. Jesus did not heal everyone on earth, and is not healing everyone now (Paul, remember, did not have the thorn in the flesh removed), because it is not yet the time to do that. Jesus first had to deal with the question of sin before He would make all things well. But in doing these selected mighty works Jesus was showing that He indeed is the promised Messiah who is able to do these things, and will do all that Messiah is to do when He comes again.
There has been enough discussion already on the theme of this little passage that it does not have to be repeated at length here. Matthew records this event to show that the King has authority over disease, and that by His powerful word He is able to heal. Matthew is also showing that the healing is a response to the man’s faith, a faith that was not shared by many in Israel.
I think there are a number of applications or lessons that you could make from this story if you rethink the details. The obvious one would be that if you have an infirmity, or if you have a friend or relative who is ill, prayer to the Lord is a vital expression of the faith and a means to restoration to health. The passage shows that Jesus has authority over these things. And so as a believer you may pray to the Lord in confidence and in simplicity, “Speak the word only” and I/he/she/they will be healed. In connection with this you would then tie in other passages in the New Testament that talk about praying for the sick (like James 5:13-18).
But remember that this passage is a narrative; it records something that Jesus did upon an occasion. We call that a “descriptive” passage because it reports what he did for the centurion’s servant. The lesson here reveals that Jesus can do this kind of thing. It does not teach that Jesus always will do it. For specific promises to believers you need to connect passages in the epistles. And there we find that God may not heal in the way we ask or at the time we ask; he may, but we cannot presume. Paul was told, “No. My grace is sufficient.” So we learn to pray as Jesus did, adding to our petition “Nevertheless, thy will be done.” This is not a cop-out for when prayer doesn’t seem to “work.” We can still pray with perseverance and confidence for Him to heal. But it acknowledges that the Lord is sovereign, and if it is His will to heal the one we pray for, He will heal that person. If it were not this way, then the whole process would be mechanical and predictable and require no faith at all.
A second, related application, then, would be instruction on how to build this kind of faith. The story does not explain how to do this--it says he had more faith than the many Israelites Jesus had seen. So you would want to gather a few instructions on how faith is to grow. Here you would have to consider the teaching of the Bible as a whole on how to develop this kind of trust. Ideally, faith is best taught in a believing home from the very beginning (see, for example, David’s experience in Ps. 22:9,10; and 2 Tim. 3:15). And that gives us a paradigm--if you come to the faith as an adult, you have to start as a child. This means first beginning to learn about the Lord from the word of God (for faith will only be as strong its knowledge of the object of the faith), and second seeing the life of faith modeled or lived out by genuine believers. The more you are in the word of God, and the more you fellowship with believers who have learned to put their faith into action through prayer and praise, the faster you grow in the faith. And as you grow you begin to pray and see the Lord work in your life; and in the process you build even more confidence in the Lord.
Some people have a greater capacity for belief (like this centurion whose role in life led him to it quickly), and some have tremendous hurdles to believing (they have known only broken trust in their childhood or their relationships and find believing difficult). But whatever your experience, you must see developing faith as a process in the Christian life. Developing a strong faith usually involves all that is connected with spiritual growth in the word of God, by the power of the Spirit of God, under the influence of the saints of God, and through a personal relationship through prayer with God.
1 This is not to say that the leprosy in the man, or the paralysis in the servant, or the fever in the woman was directly caused by some sin. They could have been, but we are not told that. But in general, all sickness and death is a result of sin in the world, and so often we find Jesus addressing the cause when dealing with the effect.
2 Somewhere in these studies it would be good for you to read about the effect of the death of Jesus, that is, what all it accomplished. Christians often think of it as basically paying for sins. And while that is certainly true, it is not complete. What Jesus paid for on the cross was all the sin of the world and all its effects. Because of His perfect sacrifice He made reparation for all the damages that sin has brought (Isa. 53:10). When He paid for our sin, He also made it possible for us to be whole.