Open Matthew 8:5-10.
Only one person in the Gospels surprised Jesus with their faith. Can we learn from this guy?
Jesus was heading home to Capernaum when a centurion from the Roman army stopped him. The officer requested help for his house-servant. The servant is house-bound (literally thrown in the house), unable to move (paralysed), in intense suffering (terribly tortured).
Jesus offered to come and heal the servant, but the centurion objected. He couldn’t shame a person of Jesus’ rank by inviting him into his house. He wasn’t hoping for Jesus to visit — just to issue a command.
Did you get that? No one else thought Jesus could heal by remote command! Even his closest friends assumed that Jesus needed to be present to heal (John 11:21). How did a foreigner develop a faith that leapfrogged Abraham’s descendants?
The Roman officer understood one thing: commands. If he commanded someone to come, they came; or to go, they went; or to do something, they did it. Why? The Roman Empire stood behind his commands. His words carried authority greater than himself, for he was “a man under authority.”
He recognized Jesus as a man under authority too (8:9). The centurion was the agent of and spokesman for Rome; he figured Jesus was the agent of and spokesman for heaven. All Jesus needed to do was issue the command, and it would be done.
Jesus labels this faith (8:10). It’s significant: the first occurrence of the word faith (πίστις) in the New Testament. The centurion’s faith began with his recognition of Jesus’ authority. He didn’t have the Christological language to describe it, but he understood Jesus to be heaven’s envoy — a ruler who cares for humans who are thrown aside, paralysed and tortured.
For the New Testament writers, faith is not assenting to a bunch of beliefs. Faith is acknowledging Jesus’ authority. Faith is giving allegiance to the heaven-anointed king (Christ) as ruler over humanity (Lord). That is Matthew’s message; it’s where he takes us at the conclusion of his Good News.
Did you note the irony in this story? The centurion is a man under the authority of Rome, but Rome cannot heal. The Empire gained and maintained its power through force. The empires of this world cannot solve human suffering. In fact, they contribute to it. As is all too obvious later in Matthew’s Gospel, anyone who opposed the Empire would be thrown aside, immobilized, and tortured — the very terms used of the suffering of the centurion’s servant (who was probably Jewish).
Imperial powers still do that. They use their power to throw people into houses like Guantanamo Bay, and to paralyse their enemies. You even hear their presidents publicly justifying infliction torture.
The centurion didn’t appeal to Rome for his servant. He understood Jesus as the representative of a different kind of power. Unlike the Empire of Rome, the kingdom of God brings healing to people who’ve been thrown aside, immobilized, and tortured.
So where’s your faith? Forget the politics of this world’s rulers. Speak directly to the king about the suffering you see. He doesn’t have to be physically present to heal: word from the throne is all it takes.
What others are saying
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 85:
What does it mean to recognize, and submit to, the authority of Jesus himself? What does it mean to call him ‘Lord’ and live by that? There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that ‘faith’ is a general awareness of a supernatural dimension, or a general trust in the goodness of some distant divinity, so that some might arrive at this through Jesus and others by some quite different route. ‘Faith’, in Christian terms, means believing precisely that the living God has entrusted his authority to Jesus himself, who is now exercising it for the salvation of the world (see 28:18).
Matthew W. Bates. Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 77-78:
The gospel climaxes with the enthronement of Jesus as the cosmic king, the Lord of heaven and earth, even though all too often this portion of the gospel is entirely omitted when it is proclaimed today. As such, the gospel cannot be reduced to statements pertaining to how salvation has been wrought through Jesus’s death for our sins, or to his resurrection. In this chapter, having reframed the gospel so that its climax has properly been identified— Jesus’s reign as king— we are now in a stronger position to discuss what faith is. The gospel reaches its zenith with Jesus’s installation and sovereign rule as the Christ, the king. As such, faith in Jesus is best described as allegiance to him as king.
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