Text: Matthew 8:5-13 (NIV)[i]
5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, 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.”
10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.”And his servant was healed at that moment.
Before we interpret the centurion story, we need to first ask the question: what is the centurion story (hereinafter as CS) doing here?[ii]
Rings of Contexts
We start with the observation that the word “authority” stands out in the CS (“For I myself am under authority,” 8:9). The word also occurs before the CS (7:28,29) and after it (9:6-8). Thus, “authority” in the CS lies in the middle of two occurrences of the same word (7:28,29 and 9:6-8, respectively). Authority is ascribed to Jesus in this context. This is how it all stacks up:
Middle: “Authority” of the CS
Furthermore, that Jesus has “authority” is a conclusion reached by the crowds themselves in both instances, according to Matthew: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (7:28,29)[iii]; and “When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man”(9:8).
The crowd-reactions in 7:28,29 and in 9:8 – in which the authority of Jesus is emphasized twice – bracket the CS in the middle(8:5-13) –in which the centurion alludes to Jesus’ authority: “Just say the word…. For I myself am under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one…” (v8b,9). Thus,
Top Crowds were amazed[iv] at Jesus’ authority
Middle Centurion alludes to Jesus’ authority
Bottom Crowds praise God for Jesus’ authority
Finally, Jesus’ authority is a motif first found in the beginning of the gospel and lastly in its end. Jesus’ authority is implicit in the genealogy (1:1-17) while explicit in the great commission (28:18-20). Being the “son of David” (1:1) he was born “the Christ” (1:17). The authority descends towards him from King David, passing through all the “names” qua Davidic lineage.[v] Thus, by virtue of the Messianic lineage from David, Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. In my view, this is the function of the genealogy in Matthew. Thus,
Gospel beginning: Genealogy (authority is implicit)
Gospel end: Great Commission (authority is explicit)
The risen Christ is the Lord, not of Israel but of all nations in the end of the gospel. “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (28:18). He thus commands his followers to cause the spiritual lineage to come from “all nations”[vi] through discipleship to him “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”[vii]
Gospel beginning: Messiah’s physical lineage is limited to men in Israel (son of David)[viii]
Gospel end: Risen Lord’s disciples extends to “all nations” (son of Abraham)[ix]
In sum, the CS sits at the forefront of the gospel’s motif of authority concerning two authority figures, where one’s word (the Messiah) is greater than that of the other’s (the centurion).
The Authority of Jesus in the context of CS
Matthew uses 4 stories to dramatize the discovery of the authority of Jesus by individuals after he came down from the mountainside (8:1). A distinct pattern emerges in the way Matthew organizes the stories.[x] It is the pattern of 2 words that describe how the individuals encountered the authority of Jesus in each of their lives: touch-word-touch-word. The literary structure is called chiasmus and the pattern is A-B-A-B:[xi]
A touch (the leper, 8:3)
B word (the centurion, v8b)
A touch (Peter’s mother-in-law, v15)
B word (“many” who were sick, v16)
The effect of Jesus’ authority can be equally experienced by people in a variety of situations. Whether at home or on the wayside. Whether one is near or far from him. To the leper who approached him he spoke two words: “Be clean!” And “immediately” the leper was cured by his touch (8:3). The centurion asks Jesus, “Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” (v8b). And accordingly, his servant “was healed at that very moment” (v13b).
The genealogy then proves Jesus’ authority as Messiah. His words and deeds demonstrate it. But his words and deeds of power do not identify him as a political messiah, but as the Suffering One of the prophecies: “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows’” (8:17).[xii] Strange as it may seem, Jesus had the sole authority to “take up” our infirmities and “carry” our sorrows.[xiii]
The Authority of the Centurion
The authority passage of the CS is bracketed by two other authority passages surrounding it (Sermon on the Mount, 5;1-7:28 and the healing of the paralytic, 9:1-8). In other words, the CS lies in the middle of the two authority passages. Structurally, this makes the CS the emphasis of the entire authority context of 5:1-9:8.
Two authority figures encounter each other in the CS: Jesus and the centurion. The centurion governs his soldiers by word under a structure of authority (Roman army under Rome): “I myself am a man under authority.” Jesus is the Messiah as per the structure of the Davidic genealogy. But here the centurion’s recognition of Jesus’ higher authority is a nuanced one: “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof” (8:8). There is an A-B-A pattern here:
A I do not deserve to have you come under my roof
B Just say the word…
A For I myself am a man under authority
The A-B-A pattern tells us what it would mean for Jesus to “come under” the centurion’s roof (top A). It would mean Jesus will come “under” the centurion’s authority (bottom A). And the centurion would have none of that! He did not only show respect for Jesus’ authority; he submitted to it: “Just say the word.” The centurion was a person who understood authority completely.
Now here is the question. Given that the centurion has declared himself to be a man of authority, why then did Jesus hear him as a man of “great faith,” not as a man of “great authority”?
What is Matthew doing in the premises? I believe faith is a learned behavior as authority is. Faith is as much a structure under which one may grow[xiv] just as authority is a structure where one can rise through the ranks.
Put differently, faith grows in direct proportion to one’s depth of experience of obedience to God’s authority over one’s life.
In other words, we cannot just “decree” faith without basis.[xv]
[i] The scripture quotations in this study are all from the NIV. All emphases within the texts are supplied.
[ii] We should not read the words of the text simply. We should learn to observe what the author of the gospel (Matthew) is doing with the story. We should be aware of what is going on in the passages we are reading. Dr Gordon Fee, my professor in New Testament Exegesis, taught there are two levels of context in the Gospels. One is historical (the context of the individual story) and canonical (where the story appears in the work of the author).
[iii]The combination “You have heard… but I say to you” is repeated 6x within the body of the Sermon (5:21,21 / 27,26 / 31,32 / 33.34 and 38,39). Additionally, Jesus sums up his teachings with words that ring with authority: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice…” (7:24-27). The large crowds caught on.
[iv] The Greek word is ekseplasonto, literally “were struck out of themselves” (AT Robertson, Word Pictures, Mat 7.)
[v] This point was first brought to my attention by Richard Novick, our Bible teacher-in-residence at Friends of Jesus (Las Vegas, NV). A Jewish follower of Jesus himself, Richard and his family now reside in the Philippines where he participates in the ministry of a local church, as well as supervise our church plant in Cebu City.
[vi] “Many will come from the east and the west…” (Mat 8:11) anticipates the “all nations” of 28:19.
[vii] This means that the “authority in heaven and on earth” is no less the authority “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” which the risen Lord now exercises after He has finished His Messianic task “in the days of his flesh.”
[viii] King Heron asked the chief priests and teachers of the law “where the Christ was born” and got the reply: “In Bethlehem of Judea… for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel’” (Mat 2:4; Mi 5:2).
[ix] “All peoples of the earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:3b). See Rom 4:23,24.
[x]Another set of stories lies on the other side of the Isaiah text (8:17). The patternis A-B-B-A. Thus, A (Discipleship, 8:16-22) B (Jesus’ authority: over the world of nature, 23-27 and over the world of spirits, 28-34); B Jesus’ authority as Divine (9:1-8); and A (Discipleship, v9). This type of chiasmus is inversion, that is, A-B inverts to B-A. The ABBA is the expanded form of the basic ABA, which is possible in the Matthean passage of 8:18-9:8. Thus, the pattern of Discipleship-Authority-Discipleship.
[xi] This is an example of an alternate type of chiasmus. The parallelism A/B is repeated in alternate fashion, A/B.
[xii] I see the gospel of Matthew in 2 parts: 1:1-16:20 and 16:21-28:20. The division is marked by the words, “From that time on…” (The rest of the text reads, “…Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things….” (16:21). On this account, I believe it is a mistake to understand the Isaiah text in 8:17 in terms of “healing in the atonement.” I maintain Matthew sees the prophecy as fulfilling the identification of Jesus as the Suffering Messiah. “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.” The “infirmities” and “diseases” in the Isaiah prophecy are descriptive terms for sin and iniquity!The Isaiah text that Matthew quotes in 8:17 is lifted from the corpus of Servant Songs in the second section of the Book of Isaiah.
[xiii] The Suffering motif as it relates to the Messiah “in the days of his flesh” must include his experience of Temptation in the wilderness (Mat 4:1-11 and his consequent empowerment by the Spirit) where the Son learned obedience under the authority-structure of the Father and Scripture. The writer to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus thus: “Although Jesus was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (5:8).
[xiv] God has designed the home and the church as local structures where believers may learn to grow in faith/obedience under the Lordship of Christ.
[xv] Enlisted personnel do not have the authority to command. There is what is called a rank and file in the army. (“Theirs is not to make reply: Theirs is not to reason why: Theirs is but to do and die” – Alfred Lord Tennyson in Charge of the Light Brigade.) A new believer may not presume he has the “faith” to command. Authority is learned in a structure of submission. So is faith.