Faith at a Distance: Matthew 8:5-13

In these verses, Matthew continues to put on display for us the magnificent power of Jesus Christ.  We saw it last week in his healing of a leper – a disease which was then considered incurable and little short of a death sentence.  But the Evangelist is also doing other things.  He is also showing us the compassion and mercy of Jesus Christ, for he did not come to heal the rich and the famous – he came to heal those who were excluded from society.  Some, like the leper, were excluded because of their physical identity.  Others, like the Gentiles, were excluded because of their racial identity.  Our Lord healed them all.

In our text, our Lord heals the servant of a Gentile soldier.  This man was not a Jew, although he was probably a soldier in the army of Herod Antipas and therefore a recruit from one of the surrounding regions, probably from Lebanon or Syria.[1]  In our day, we would call this man an officer, because he commanded a number of men.  We don’t know how many, but the number could have been anywhere between 80 to 200 men.  Luke gives us the further information (Luke 7:1-10) that this centurion was a friend of the Jews and that he had even built a synagogue for them.  In fact, he was probably the same type of man as Cornelius in the book of Acts, a Gentile who had not fully converted to Judaism, but who was known as a “God-fearer,” a Gentile sympathizer to the Jewish faith.  Luke tells us that it was the elders of the Jews that came “beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant” (Luke 7:3).

Now at this point, many people find a problem in the story because Matthew seems to say that it was the centurion himself who came to Jesus, whereas Luke, who is obviously telling the same story, says that it was the elders of the Jews who came to Jesus in the behalf of the centurion.  I remember as a young man sitting in a Bible study where one man made the suggestion that Luke was wrong because he was not there, but had got his information garbled in the process of writing his gospel.  However, there is no need to say that either was wrong.  As we’ve already noted, Matthew has the propensity to take stories about Jesus and whittle them down in order to accentuate a point he is trying to make.  He leaves out the details about the Jewish elders mediating because – I think – Matthew wants to accentuate the fact that Jesus is reaching out to a Gentile here.  As D. A. Carson puts it, “one reason Matthew says nothing of the intermediaries may be because they were Jews, and he does not want to blur the racial distinction.”[2]  But this does not mean that Matthew has now garbled the story.  He is telling the truth.  For the Jewish elders were intermediaries, which means they were acting for the centurion, so that what they said was the same as if the centurion himself had said it.  And later, when the centurion sent other friends to intercept Jesus to tell him he is not worthy for the Lord to enter into his house – the friends again are just repeating the words of the centurion (Luke 7:6).  In either case, it is the centurion who is speaking through others.  Matthew therefore has not got his information wrong; he has just eliminated some details because they are not important to his purpose.

And Matthew’s purpose here is to point out that our Lord is reaching out to a Gentile.  This was important to Matthew because he understood perhaps more than others the breadth of the gospel scope and the grace that it conveyed.  For he himself was a member of a part of society that was scorned by the respectable – he was a tax-collector, collecting taxes for a foreign overlord and suspected of taking advantage of his fellow countrymen.  And yet Jesus came and called him, just as he healed other outcasts like the leper and a Gentile soldier.  And as we move through this gospel, we will see that no one who came to Jesus in true faith was ever cast away.  As our Lord himself put it on another occasion, “All that the Father giveth to me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (Jn. 6:37).

It’s not race that is important, nor society’s opinion of you that is important.  It doesn’t matter what your skin color is or what country you are from, whether you are rich or poor, educated or ignorant.  What is important is whether or not you have faith in Christ.  As we pointed out last time, we all need to be healed – not from a physical disease but from our selfishness and sinfulness that has ostracized us from God most of all, and from our fellow man as a consequence of that.  And Jesus is the only one who can heal us.  He is the only one who can put us right.  He is the Great Physician, and we need to look to him for our healing.

And the centurion had faith.  Not just a generic faith nor faith in yourself that our culture celebrates.  No, this man had faith in Jesus Christ, that he was able to heal his servant.  But it is worth our while this morning to consider the faith of the centurion, because the text says that our Lord’s response to it was that “he marveled” (ver. 10).  Now it is something for the Lord of glory to marvel – to be astonished – over something.  But he was astonished by this man’s faith.  It was unlike anything that he had seen up to that time: “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”

How was this man’s faith so great?  First of all, it was great because of the illness that he wanted Christ to heal.  We are told in verse 6 that the servant was “sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.”  We don’t know exactly what this man’s condition was, but it was obviously bad.  The doctors couldn’t do anything for the man, and so when the centurion heard that Jesus had come back to Capernaum, he immediately called for him.  He wasn’t coming to Jesus for something that he could do, or anyone else, for that matter.  As in the case of the leper, this man could only be helped by a supernatural power.

Second, this man’s faith was great because he recognized that Jesus was able to heal at a distance (ver. 8).  We noted last time that when the leper came to Jesus, he reached out and touched him and then he was healed.  In this case, Jesus never even enters the man’s house.  Physicists talk about “action at a distance” as in gravity and electromagnetism, when two objects act upon one another at a distance without touching.  In this case, we might say that this is faith at a distance.  For the centurion somehow grasped the fact that all Jesus had to do was to speak the word and his servant would be healed.

Third, this man’s faith was great because he understood who Jesus was.  In verse 9, he says, “For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.”  This is given as the reason why Jesus need only speak a word for the servant to be healed.  The reason is this: just as the centurion is under others and must obey their orders, and just as he has authority so that those under him must obey his orders, even so Jesus has authority so that even diseases must depart when he speaks the word.

Now consider how great this man’s faith was.  Here was a Gentile, not even privileged with the word of God as part of his culture.  And here he was at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, when even most of his own disciples didn’t fully grasp who he was.  And yet this centurion was able to see that this man Jesus Christ had such authority that he needed only to speak a word and an incurable disease would depart.  Later, when Jesus was on a boat in the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm, his disciples would themselves be astonished at the power of Jesus, saying, “What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!” (ver. 27).  They hadn’t figured it out yet.  But this Gentile soldier had.  He knew that Jesus Christ was more than just a prophet, more than a magician.  He knew that this was a man clothed with such authority that he had only to speak and all creation would bow before him.

Now this should encourage every one of us.  We live in a day when faith in Christ seems to be declining in our country.  I saw map the other day which showed the rate of the growth of evangelical Christianity in the world.  In most places, it is outpacing the population growth.  But here in the United States, even though evangelical Christianity is growing, it is growing at a slower rate than the population – which obviously means that if this trend continues, Bible-believing Christians will become more and more a minority in this country.  And all around us, we can see this trend happening before our very eyes as the U.S. is becoming more and more secular.  However, we should not despair!  God can make faith, even great faith, appear in places and people where we would have never expected it.  He did it then, and he can do it now.

However, we need not only to admire this man’s faith, but also to emulate it.  It is not enough to have spiritual privileges, as our Lord’s next words show.  Turning to those following him, he said, “And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.  But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (ver. 11-12).  The “children of the kingdom” was a reference to the Jews.  They had spiritual privileges, but many of them rejected the Messiah and were cast into outer darkness.  However, Gentiles from the east and west, despite the poverty of their spiritual privileges, would flood into the kingdom of heaven.  Now, the point of this is not that Jews are bad and Gentiles are good.  To say such a thing is to completely miss the point of the passage!  Rather, the point is that having God’s word and truth is not enough.  We Gentiles can make the same mistake as the Jews did – in fact, the apostle Paul warns us of this very possibility in Romans 11.  We should beware of unbelief.  Rather, let us believe God’s word and his Son just as this centurion did.

The importance of faith is highlighted everywhere in this Gospel, and seems to be one of the themes that Matthew picks up on again and again.  We see it in verse 13: “And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee.  And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.”  In other words, it was in response to this man’s faith that Jesus exercised his power.  And this is the take-away for us: God responds to faith in his Son.  As the psalmist put it: “Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act” (Ps. 37:5, ESV).

Of course, we have to be careful here. “As thou hast believed” should not be interpreted to mean “in proportion to your faith” or, “so much miracle for so much faith.”  Rather, the “as” is referring to the content of faith: “as you have believed that I could heal your servant, let your servant be healed.”  Sometimes Jesus rewards even the faintest movement of faith in his children.  And sometimes God in his sovereignty moves in his power when there is no faith at all.  For example, in Matt. 8:23-27, Jesus rebukes the wind and the sea in response to the “little faith” of his disciples (cf. ver. 26).  They had faith enough to seek the help of Jesus, but not faith enough to be free from fear and to completely trust in their Master.  They were “little-faiths.”  And then in Matt. 8:28-34, we have the story of the Gadarene demoniac.  Far from possessing any faith, this man was possessed with a legion of devils!  Far from seeking Jesus for help, the demons in the man cried out, “What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God?”  And yet, Jesus cast out the demons, restored the man’s sanity, and called him to be an evangelist for the Christ (cf. Mark 5:19).  Thank God that he is not tied to our faith.  God is sovereign.  And yet, neither should we diminish the obvious Biblical truth that God often does respond to the faith of his people, and that sometimes God does not act precisely because of unbelief.

Let’s consider the statement that God sometimes does not act because of unbelief.  In Matthew 13:58, we have what I think is one of the saddest statements in all the Bible.  Jesus is back in his hometown, and the people there reject him because, despite all the miracles, they just can’t believe that a carpenter’s son could be the Messiah.  The story ends sadly, in this way: “And they were offended in him.  But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.  And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief.”  In the parallel passage in Mark, we read that “he could there do no might work, save that he laid his hand upon a few sick fold, and healed them.  And he marveled [same word as in Matt. 8:10] because of their unbelief” (Mk 6:5-6).

In chapter 14 of Matthew, we have the story of Peter walking on the water to go to Jesus (14:22-33).  And yet, even though Peter had faith to get out of the boat, when he saw the waves and the wind, his unbelief got the better of him, and he began to sink (ver. 30).  Jesus rescued him, with the rebuke, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (ver. 31).  In other words, it was Peter’s doubt that caused him to sink.  Even so, when we doubt God, we can expect to inevitably sink in the rough seas of life, though we are thankful that we have a watchful Savior who will never let his people drown.

God is not honored by unbelief and so God will not honor unbelief with his power.  Another example of this in the Gospel of Matthew is given in chapter 17 in the story of the demon possessed child that could not be healed by the disciples.  Jesus has to heal him, and he is not pleased: “Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?  Bring him to me.  And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.  Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast them out?  And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief” (17:17-20).

Unbelief is a failure to trust in God and to believe his promises.  It is rooted in sinful self-reliance, which is just another form of idolatry.  And it is clear that God is grieved by unbelief, especially when it is in his children.  He will not bless our unbelief when it so signally fails to honor him with the love and trust that he really deserves.  And this is especially true when it comes to prayer.  We are to pray “nothing wavering.  For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.  For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord” (Jam. 1:6-7).

On the other hand, we see faith rewarded again and again in Scripture.  This is the premise of the entire chapter of the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  For by it the elders obtained a good report. . . . But without faith it is impossible to please him [God]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb. 1:1-2, 6).  And it is highlighted in Matthew’s gospel.

In chapter 9, we see it on three different occasions.  In verse 2, Jesus looked at the friends who carried their palsied friend through the roof to be healed and “seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee.”  Then, in verse 22, in response to the woman who had an issue of blood (ver. 20), and was healed by touching his garment, he said, “Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole.”  In verse 29, in response to the plea of the two blind men, Jesus touched their eyes, saying, According to your faith be it unto you.”  [Note the question Jesus asks the men in verse 28!]

And then we have this great example in chapter 15 of the faith of a Gentile woman whose daughter was “grievously vexed by a devil” (ver. 22).  Jesus at first did not respond to her entreaties, and even tried to put her off, by saying, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs” (ver. 26).  In amazing faith and humility, she responded, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table” (ver. 27).  Jesus’ reaction?  “Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt” (ver. 28).  This woman’s faith enabled her to persevere through great difficulties and to obtain her request.

Our Lord himself sought to teach his disciples the importance of faith by an object lesson.  In 20:18-22, we have the story of the fig tree that Jesus cursed.  The whole point of this lesson is given to them in verses 21-22, that “if ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.  And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”  This lesson is not meant to teach that the disciple has a blank check when it comes to prayer.  But it does teach that we cannot expect our prayers to be effective – even when our aims are holy and good – if they are riddled with unbelief in God’s power and promises.  Prayer must be mingled with faith if it is to be effective and powerful.

Now if faith is so important, surely the question we should be asking ourselves is this: Do I have this kind of faith?  And how do I measure if I do have faith in the power and promises of God?  We have to be careful.  It is not measured by a feeling of confidence that “something is going to happen.”  Rather, it is measured by our acquiescence in the will of God.  How willing are you to let God’s will and way be done in your life?  That is the measure.  Otherwise, “faith” just becomes another way to manipulate God to serve our own selfish and sinful habits.  In Psalm 37, trusting in God (ver. 3) is the same thing as delighting oneself in him (ver. 4) and committing one’s way to him (ver. 5).  For those who trust and delight in God and who commit their ways to him, God will act: “He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday” (ver. 6). 

[1] D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC), p. 200.
[2] Ibid, p. 200.


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