A Faith Not Found in All Israel: The Story of the Roman Centurion

by Dr. Joe Matos, DBU Faculty

Day 5 of Advent

Today's Reading

Matthew 8

“Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” Matt. 8:10

Matthew’s Gospel indicates that shortly after Jesus began his ministry he settled in at Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, which would serve as his home base of operations (Matt. 4:13). Matthew goes on to report that Jesus began calling disciples to Himself and preaching repentance in light of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 4:17). Accompanying his preaching ministry, Jesus engaged in miraculous activity. News about Him quickly spread throughout the region of Syria, which lay to the north. People from there, as well as from points east and south, traveled to see Jesus. He healed people suffering from all sorts of ailments as they were brought to Him. Paralytics were among those brought to Jesus (Matt. 4:23-25). He was attracting large crowds, and clearly the regions they came from indicate there were Gentiles among them.

Matthew then records Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), the first of five major sections in the Gospel focused on Jesus’ teaching. At the conclusion of the sermon, all who heard were amazed at his teaching, for He taught as one having authority (Matt. 7:28-29). As Jesus descended the hill, again large crowds followed Him. Over the next two chapters, Matthew relates a series of nine specific miracles of Jesus that included individuals who suffered from the sicknesses and diseases mentioned in chapter four. Jesus healed a man with leprosy, and then He made his way back to Capernaum.

What follows (Matt. 8:5-13) brings together in a single event many elements previously stated: a man possessing authority; a paralytic; Gentiles. The centurion himself was possibly from Syria as some commentators suggest was common practice. 

After Jesus arrived at his base in Capernaum a centurion approached him, imploring him regarding one of his servants. The centurion described his servant as being paralyzed and as suffering severely. Seemingly, he had suffered some sort of accident which resulted in his paralysis. Jesus’ response to the centurion is variously understood. It is either a question, “Do I come and heal him?” It could be a statement of commitment, “I will come and heal him.” Regardless, the centurion will have no part of that idea. He will not have Jesus come to his home. But not because of anything the centurion finds objectionable about Jesus. Rather, the centurion declared himself unworthy to have Jesus enter his house.

On many points, this is surprising. As a commander of over 100 soldiers, the centurion was in the practice of telling people what to do. He said as much to Jesus. But by his own admission, his own role as a leader put him in a position to recognize Jesus as a person of authority as well. Perhaps the centurion was among those who were amazed at Jesus’ authority after the Sermon on the Mount. 

His own understanding of Jesus’ authority gave him confidence that Jesus need only say the word and the servant would be healed, much the same way that the centurion spoke and those under his command obeyed his orders. On hearing this, Jesus Himself was amazed (the same word used to describe the crowd’s amazement at Jesus). What amazed Him was the extent of the centurion’s faith. It was a faith He had not found among any in Israel. He said as much to the crowds. This provoked Jesus to make a bold statement: “Many will come from east and west” and join in the kingdom of heaven.

Then Jesus assured the centurion that his request, made in faith, had been granted. Matthew concludes by telling the readers, the servant was healed at that instant.

This Gospel, written to a Jewish(-Christian) audience to demonstrate Jesus as the Messiah, the King of the Jews, early on and often shows that Jesus came not just for Israel but for all people – of all ethnicities, of all socio-economic backgrounds – who express faith in Him. Matthew speaks a bold word to the Jews of the time (and to us today) who would have thought that people fitting the description of the centurion were unfit for inclusion in the kingdom. 

Jesus extended His acts of grace to those beyond the people of Israel, and He continues to do so today.

This is why He came.