Foreign Authority: Matthew 8

In Summary:

Matthew shifts from the Sermon on the Mount to the itinerant ministry of Jesus, showing Him healing and teaching throughout Galilee and the surrounding region. This comes “when Jesus came down from the mountain (Matthew 8:1),” giving us a relative time marker for these events. Further, the notation of “large crowds” following Jesus down from the mountain tells us that these events do not go unwitnessed. It is also noteworthy that Matthew presents the events of chapter 8 in context of the teaching of Matthew 5-7. We cannot separate the teaching of Jesus from the actions of Jesus.

Matthew 8 gives us the well-known stories of the healing of the Centurion’s servant and Peter’s mother-in-law (not the same person!) We also see Jesus still the sea and challenge the Twelve regarding their faith. We see at least two disciples speak for higher commitment, but it appears that they do not follow through with the necessary actions. The chapter concludes with Matthew’s telling of the deliverance of the Gadarene Demoniac, which is also found in Mark 5 and Luke 8:26-39.

A brief observation in Matthew 8:1-4 before we come to our focal passage is in order. The leper is healed after confessing Jesus’ power, yet his response in worship is to continue on by obeying the Law of Moses. New life in Christ does not automatically mean the disrespect of tradition, or the abandonment of the Old Testament.

In Focus:

Take a longer look at Matthew 8:5-13. This is the story of the Centurion’s Servant. The story is told in Luke 7:1-5 as well, assuming that this only happened once, but the telling is slightly different. Luke’s narrative records that some of the Jewish elders came on the centurion’s behalf, while Matthew records him coming himself. This harmonizes in one of two ways: either similar events happened with two centurions, one who came himself and one who sent folks, or Matthew condenses the story.

A major idea in these events is “authority” and what it means to have it and use it. Given that, I think Matthew condenses the story and we can read through it that being in authority means being responsible for what is done in your name—both good and bad. The centurion spoke to Jesus, even if he did so through intermediaries.

Beyond that, the story is one of Jesus’ power, the centurion’s faith, and what it means to be in charge. The centurion, who is likely from out of the area, understands what is to have authority. He also understands what is to be a foreign representative—it would be typical for the Roman legions in the area to be from outside the region. That made for more effective military power. The centurion sits as the commander of a group of Roman forces, with authority over them, while knowing that he himself is under the authority of a higher power in Caesar. And knowing that how he uses his power will be judged by his masters.

This is reflected in his exchange with Jesus, who is the Lord of Lords but during His Incarnation clothed his power and glory. He worked, and works, through His disciples, and had a specific mission assigned from above. (Jesus speaks of His mission in terms of obeying His Father.) In this, I think the centurion speaks with more wisdom than he knew, showing an understanding of what Jesus had come to do.

Jesus, meanwhile, lauds the man’s faith though he is an enemy of Israel. He heals the man’s servant and uses the opportunity to highlight that many who are in Israel will find themselves outside of God’s kingdom while many like the centurion will find themselves at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.


In Practice:

Practically, what do we see here? Throughout the chapter, there are three key takeaways for our action:

1. Like the centurion, recognize the authority of Jesus over all things. Including ourselves: for a centurion to call someone “Lord” was an act of humility. Speak humbly of our Lord and Savior, and follow Him.

2. Notice also the calmness of the centurion, especially in contrast to the disciples in the boat (8:24-25). Recognizing the authority of Christ leads to resting in His authority. In Christ, we can rest knowing that His plan is all-encompassing.

3. Faith in Christ, rightly acted upon, is the determinant of membership in the Kingdom. Those who are subjects of the King of Kings, as Jesus points out about the centurion, are not from any one ethnic group but from those who believe.


In Nerdiness:  

And now, the nerd points:

1. There is no reason apart from reading modern life back into the text for the centurion’s servant to be considered anything but his servant.

2. If Peter has a mother-in-law, then he has a wife. Which is rarely a consideration as we talk about what the disciples did and didn’t do. Further, it’s relevant as we consider the rest of their lives. And whether or not a celibate clergy is really the ideal. If Peter is the first Pope, as claimed by Roman Catholics, and he had a wife, as evidenced in Scripture, why shouldn’t Peter’s successors?

3. Another aspect of the Synoptic Problem (when different Gospel authors record the same story differently) is the presence of two demoniacs instead of the one in Luke. There is no smooth reconciliation between those accounts.

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