Open Matthew 8:10-13.
Some of Jesus’ kingdom pictures sound odd to us. He spoke of people from the east and the west coming to take their places with Israel’s long-dead patriarchs (8:11). Some readers imagine they’re all dead and gone to heaven, but that doesn’t do justice the way Israel’s kingdom story worked or to the role of the patriarchs in that story.
Genesis describes the founding patriarchs of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Their story (the promise of God’s nation) is couched in a wider narrative (God as sovereign over all the nations). Genesis 1–8 describes how earth was designed to be managed by heaven, but degenerated into anarchic violence. The heavenly sovereign therefore permitted earthly government (Genesis 9), and that’s how nations came into existence (Genesis 10). God blocked their attempt to take over God’s world (Genesis 11). He called Abraham to establish a nation ruled by God, so that the nations would see the blessing they were missing (Genesis 12).
But over the centuries, Israel suffered terribly at the hands of the nations. Assyria and Babylon (the kingdoms named in Genesis 10:10-12) overran God’s nation. You can understand why some Jewish people developed negative attitudes to other nations (gentiles). For centuries, they had been subjected to nations and kingdoms, and every foreign soldier reminded them of their oppression. Some would have bristled with indignation to see a Roman officer approach Jesus (8:5).
This centurion shocked even Jesus! While Israel had not yet recognized their Messiah, this foreigner recognized Jesus as a man under heaven’s authority, a servant of a government bigger than Rome. For Jesus, this centurion was a living example of the promise God gave to Abraham, that the nations of the earth would ultimately experience God’s blessing.
So Jesus’ attitude to the nations was different to many (not all) of his contemporaries. Sure, they and their soldiers had long tortured Israel. Jesus himself would die at their hands. But Jesus believed that the promises to Abraham would ultimately be fulfilled, that the nations would come under the blessing of God’s rule, that earth would once again be governed by heaven (the kingdom of heaven).
That was the point of the first covenant God made with humanity. He promised never to give up ruling all the people of the earth, no matter how difficult they were (Genesis 9). Later covenants (Abraham and Sinai) established Israel as the means by which he would restore the nations, but the nations were always the goal.
In Jesus’ picture of the kingdom, therefore, Israel’s patriarchs have the seats of honour. They received the promise and laid the foundation for God’s nation. Moses saw Israel’s birth, and David’s descendants reigned on earth as servants of the true king in heaven.
But Jesus’ kingdom vision is larger than Jacob’s descendants (the sons of the kingdom in 8:12). God did not bless Abraham in order to damn the nations, but to restore them. So, Jesus’ kingdom vision is of a world where the nations enter into the Abrahamic blessing, where they take their place at Abraham’s table, enjoying the peace of God’s reign:
Matthew 8:10-12 (my translation)
10 Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to his followers, “I’m telling you the truth: I haven’t found this degree of faith in Israel. 11 I tell you that many will come from east and west to be seated with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in heaven’s kingdom. 12 But the kingdom descendants will be deported to the deepest dark, lamenting and grinding their teeth.
As Jesus ponders the inclusion of the nations, he is deeply concerned for his own people. A Roman centurion just recognized his authority, while Jacob’s descendants have not. Is it possible that the sons of the kingdom will refuse to give allegiance to their heaven-sent king? Will some of them miss their Messiah and be excluded from his reign (as in Psalm 112:10)?
Jesus’ kingdom hope includes all nations — people from the east and west coming to take their places with the patriarchs under the Messiah’s reign. There’s still a long way to go to fulfil that goal.
So what Jesus did in that moment was to issue the royal command for the healing of the centurion’s servant (8:13). It’s what our king does: he brings restoration to a world where people are thrown aside, paralysed, and tormented. His desire is to bring us all back under his reign.
What others are saying
Robert H. Mounce, Matthew, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 75:
Jesus speaks of an eschatological messianic banquet attended not only by the renowned patriarchs of Israel but by many Gentiles from the east and the west. … To be excluded from what was considered a national destiny and to have Gentiles take their place was a shocking revelation to the Jewish religious establishment. They would never be able to accept as true the scenario that Jesus laid before them.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 84:
Though Jesus was quite clear that the time for Gentiles to come flooding in to God’s kingdom was not yet (see 10:5–6), he knew that it would happen soon enough, and he saw this man’s faith as an advance sign of it. The great celebration party of the kingdom would take place, and the patriarchs, the great ancestors of Israel—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—would be joined, as the scriptures had predicted, by a great multitude from around the world. But Jesus saw at the same time that, despite his own best efforts, many of his kinsfolk would refuse to believe, and so would find themselves excluded.
[previous: Faith that amazed Jesus]