Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Faith of a Centurion (Matthew 8:7-14)

The original readers of Matthew lived under the control of the Roman Empire. They also knew that Jesus was demanding from his followers a higher commitment to him than they could show to the authority of Rome. No doubt they would have anticipated a collision eventually between the representatives of Rome and Jesus or with one or more of his disciples. Matthew here describes once such encounter.

The approach of the centurion

It is important to note that the centurion had already believed in Jesus. His approach to Jesus is that of a person of faith rather than one seeking for faith. We are not told how he came to be a believer in Jesus. Perhaps he had identified himself with the Jewish faith and had been looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. Whatever the process of his conversion, he did trust in Jesus as the Saviour.

How was his faith revealed? First, we can see from the account that he was a man of compassion. This is revealed in his desire for his servant to be helped. I suppose we can see his sense of compassion in his use of the word ‘terribly’. It indicates that the centurion was marked by sympathy. In this he was like every other true believer. It is impossible to be a true disciple and not be marked by compassion, by love for others, and that love will cause the person to do something to bring help to the needy person.

Second, we can see from the account that the centurion had great confidence in the ability of Jesus. The servant’s illness was very serious because he was paralysed. Normally, that is a situation beyond the hope of recovery. Yet the centurion believed that Jesus could do the impossible. He believed in the divine power of Jesus and expressed this aspect of faith when he said that Jesus did not need to come to the centurion’s home in order to heal the servant.

We should notice in this regard that Jesus tested the centurion’s faith. The test was in the response that he would go to the house and heal the servant. This kind of test is difficult to engage in because initially it seems to go against the desire of Jesus. Perhaps we would have expected the man to respond submissively and accept that Jesus could come to the house. But such a response was not an expression of faith. If the centurion had gone along that road, he would be hiding the fact that he believed Jesus could heal the servant with a word.

Sometimes we can use divine instructions to hide the fact that we have faith in Jesus. We are told to pray, to read the Bible, to keep the Lord’s Day, and we obey those requirements. But say we do them and don’t go to the Lord’s Table, even although we are believers. In that scenario, we are using divine instructions to hide the fact that we have faith in Jesus. And when we behave in such a manner we fail the test.

Connected to the matter of authority, it is obvious that the centurion believed that Jesus had authority in areas that he or his masters did not. He and they could order people about in an external manner, but none of them had the power to dismiss a disease. But he believed that Jesus had authority in those supernatural areas of life. His confidence in the authority of Jesus should cause us to ask in which areas of life we acknowledge he has undisputed authority.

Third, we can see from the account that the centurion confessed his unworthiness. It is important to observe that he did not link a sense of his unworthiness with a low expectation of what Jesus could do. Instead he had great confidence in the power of the Saviour. True confession of unworthiness does not lead a person to say that Jesus cannot help him. Paul confessed that he was a sinner, but that did not lead him to say Jesus could not enable him to be an apostle. David, in Psalm 51, details the awfulness of his sin, but he does not conclude that the God of mercy would never use him again to speak to others about God.

We have no way of knowing if this man had ever been a flagrant sinner. Although a Gentile, he could have been a moral person. The point I am making is that a person’s sense of unworthiness is not connected to the visibility of his sins. If that was the case, then the unworthiness is based on what he thinks other people think of him. Had the centurion based his personal estimation on the opinion of others, he would have concluded that he was worthy. Instead, true sense of unworthiness comes when we see our inner lives and the weaknesses and sinful attitudes we have in contrast to what we should be, even as Christians.

What is the point that the man makes when he refers to soldiers obeying his instructions? I think he is saying that his authority was seen in the actions of others. If Jesus had gone to the centurion’s home, the public impression would have been that the centurion was in charge of the movements of Jesus and had ordered him to go to the house. The centurion did not want that impression to happen. Instead, he wanted Jesus to be seen as the One with authority. In other words, he wanted Jesus alone to have the glory.

The astonishment of Jesus

The first comment that we can make about this is that the response of Jesus reveals the reality of his humanity. We find it difficult to know who to think of Jesus at times because he is both God and man. The best way to consider his humanity is to remind ourselves that he will always do what is appropriate in each situation. We see this on numerous occasions in the gospels. In those situations, Jesus always did what love to one’s neighbour required.

A second detail to observe is how Jesus wanted to encourage the centurion and commend his faith. As mentioned earlier, some Jews may have wondered if a Gentile could have real faith. We know from other Gospel accounts that this man was highly regarded by the Jewish leaders because he had financed the erection of a synagogue. Whether other Jews did or not wonder about the faith of a Gentile, Jesus defended the man because he honoured Jesus by the way he asked his request. The Saviour will defend those who serve him in a humble way.

Then there is the fact that astonishment is a valid Christian response. After all, if Jesus showed astonishment, then we should do so as well if we are to be regarded as Christlike. Astonishment should be a regular Christian experience because salvation is full of wonders. It is a wonder that dead sinners become spiritually alive, it is a wonder that weak saints overcome their spiritual enemies, and it is a wonder that imperfect saints become the perfect inhabitants of heaven.

Of course, the amazing detail here is that a Gentile was making incredible progress in his faith. We can see at least two details in his spiritual outlook. First, he had previously realised that the Jews had the truth in contrast to the Gentiles. Such a realisation was common at that time. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction. Second, the man was prepared to take further steps beyond that the vast majority of Jews. He realised that the promised Messiah had come. Becoming a proselyte took him in touch with the truth. Yet he needed more than that. He also had to come in contact with the Messiah.

The anticipation of Jesus

The confession of the centurion led Jesus to make a prophetic announcement concerning the final day. There are several details here that we should note for our encouragement. First, there is the confidence of Jesus in the success of the gospel. This one Gentile centurion was a sample of the many Gentiles who would believe in him from the east and the west.

Second, there is the reference that the Saviour makes to the covenant promises that had been made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The place where we find those promises is the Bible. God’s covenant promises are connected to certainties. It looks as if Jesus made connections between his current situation and relevant passages in the Bible, and he wants his disciples to do the same.

Third, there is the comfort of heaven. We see the concept of comfort in the reference to reclining. The experience of heaven is not like a military parade ground where everyone is on edge in case their nose gets itchy. Heaven, while obviously reverent, is a very relaxed experience for those who will be there.

The illustration of a table points to three features of heaven: host, company (guests) and provision. Although he does not mention it here, we know who the host is – Jesus himself. Surely we can sense his anticipation of this experience. The company are believers, those who have trusted in Jesus for salvation. Sometimes we go to events and enjoy listening to the life stories of those present. How much more will we enjoy listening to those who met the Saviour through his grace. The provision comes from Jesus and is described elsewhere as eternal life, its quality as well as its quantity. Jesus anticipates providing the fullness of life to his people.

Fourth, Jesus also mentions an awful contrast – the contrast between heaven and hell. He mentions the sights and the sounds. As far as the sights are concerned, it is outer darkness. Outer darkness is the opposite of God because he is light. To be in darkness is to be lost because the person cannot see the path to walk on. A lost eternity is a terrible prospect. No escape from the judgement of God. Darkness is loneliness – we have all found ourselves in situations that were so dark that we could not see a person standing beside us. An eternity of isolation and dread, with no one to help them even for a moment.

Then there are the sounds. There will be weeping because of the despair, and there will be gnashing of teeth. This is an awful picture of the despair connected to being lost forever. Of course, Jesus is making a prediction here and he knows the future exactly. This is going to be the experience of the lost. One wonders what each person in the crowd made of his words. Hopefully, each of them responded correctly. Imagine what you would have done had you heard this detailed description of the endless experience of the lost. You do not need to imagine it because in reading the account you already became part of the crowd listening to Jesus.

The answer of Jesus
We can see what the Saviour did – he answered the centurion’s request and healed his servant. While the matter here concerned the physical healing of an individual, we can see from the words of Jesus that he also responds to faith in him. That is the point that should concern us. The issue is not whether we know correct details about Jesus, but whether or not we have faith in him and what he can do for us. The centurion believed that Jesus could provide a temporal cure. We are required to believe that he can provide an eternal cure to our spiritual disease of sin. If we do, we will experience his saving grace.

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