Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) | Streaming Licensing # 20105663

Worship Guide

The Bible is full of examples of faith, many of which are particularly unlikely and uniquely inspiring. One such example is the unnamed centurion in Matthew 8. His story illustrates not only that you don’t have to fit a particular mold to have faith, but also that in response to faith alone, Jesus can and will act in miraculous ways. Watch this sermon as we explore the empowering simplicity of faith in a powerful savior.

  • View Sermon Transcript

    Download sermon transcript icon Download .pdf

    Last week I suggested that we live in a secular age in which embracing the Christian faith is sometimes perceived as merely choosing one option among many equally valid life choices. In our world, people assume that everybody has to do their own thing. You have your thing; I have mine. That's why, especially among young people in particular, people may not be offended by the Christian faith, they may not be offended by the fact that you're a Christian because they don't think that Christianity actually impinges upon them in any way. You might be into Christianity in the same way that someone else is into physical fitness or mindfulness or career success. Christianity is just one option among many equally valid life choices.

    At the same time, I would suggest that as we move deeper into a secular age, it may be that Christianity becomes an object of curiosity again. As Christianity becomes strange and foreign to more people, it may just be that it piques our curiosity. We begin to wonder, “Is there something more to the Christian faith?” especially if all those other options that we might pursue end up not being able to deliver the kind of meaningful life we thought that they would provide. Against that backdrop, we might find the person of Jesus strangely attractive and compelling. For that reason, we're engaging in a series over the summer months in which we're going to take a fresh look at Jesus through the eyes of the people who met him. Last week we considered an encounter between Jesus and an unnamed man in John 5, and today we turn to an unnamed centurion in Matthew 8. As we consider this centurion, I'd like us to take a look at 1) who he is, 2) what he did, and 3) why he matters.

    5When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6“Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

    10When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.

    Who He Was

    Let's consider who this man was. We're told simply that he is a centurion, but what does that mean? Technically, a centurion was a soldier in the Roman army who commanded a century. That's where the word came from. He commanded 100 foot soldiers, although the number was later reduced to 80. But the Roman army did not actually station legionary forces in Palestine during Jesus' lifetime, which means that this centurion was not part of the legionary forces but rather part of the auxiliary forces, which means that he wasn't a Roman citizen himself, but most likely he was from Syria. Nevertheless, he was a Gentile. He was from a non-Jewish neighboring territory of Syria, and he was working for the enemy. He was serving the occupying power of Rome, and he was under the direct charge of the governor, Herod Antipas. By the way, Herod Antipas was a bit of a nightmare. He was the person who had John the Baptist beheaded. He is the one that Jesus referred to as “a fox,” and that was not intended as a compliment. That's the closest that Jesus ever got to insulting someone.

    What does all that mean? It means that the centurion was a man of the world. You can think of him as more of a secular rather than a religious type. He understood how the world worked. He was part of the rough and tumble world of the first century military and politics. It wasn't a pretty scene. He would have seen it all: brutality, violence, death, political intrigue, power dynamics. I can imagine that he was probably coarse, tough, battle-hardened, perhaps a bit desensitized and a little cynical. You know what that makes me think of? When I think of this person, it reminds me of a New Yorker.

    That's probably a good thing, because here's the helpful realization: It means that we can relate to this person on at least some level. Maybe you don't consider yourself a very religious person. Maybe you didn't grow up going to church. Or maybe it is that perhaps you're part of the fast-paced, cutthroat world of New York City finance or fashion. Or maybe you go to a school or you have a day job that’s in an environment that you could not describe as polite or gentile.

    Good news: Even if you too have had to learn how to navigate the complex and complicated world of office politics or shady values, look at this guy. He wasn't a priest like Zechariah. He wasn't a religious professor like Nicodemus. No, he's a pagan soldier in the Roman army. In fact, as a Gentile, he wouldn't have been allowed to enter into the temple of Jerusalem. The closest he could have gotten would have been the outermost courtyard reserved for the pagans.

    And yet here's this pagan soldier in the Roman army seeking out a Jewish healer and teacher named Jesus. In verse 6, he calls him Lord and informs Jesus that he has a servant who is lying at home paralyzed, suffering terribly. It's striking that he calls him Lord. It's possible that that's just a polite form of address like referring to somebody as “Sir,” yet it's remarkable that an officer of the occupying forces would refer to someone who everyone else would consider to be nothing more than an insignificant member of this subjected people, he refers to this man as “Sir.” What's even more remarkable in verse 7 is that Jesus instantly says, in response to this news, “I will come and heal him.” In the Greek, the “I” is emphatic. Jesus says, “I, I myself, I will come and heal him.” The centurion hasn't even asked for anything yet. He simply stated a fact, and he's blown away by Jesus' eagerness to help.

    What He Did

    That's who this man is: a junior officer in the Roman army who seeks out Jesus' help. But what exactly did this man do? What makes him so special? Why is he important? Why is his story included in the Scriptures? Why are we talking about him today, 2,000 years later? Here's why.

    No one understood and appreciated the authority of Jesus better than this man did. That's all the more surprising when you remember that this man was not a pious, religious type. I wonder if you've ever stopped to consider the authority of Jesus and its meaning for your life. Let's see what this man has to teach us about Jesus' authority.

    Here we're told in verse 8 that the centurion did not think that he was worthy to have Jesus come under his own roof. That's interesting because, in Luke's account of the same story, in Luke 7, Luke tells us that he was a man worthy of honor and respect. The Jewish leaders in Capernaum actually advocate for this man. They plead with Jesus and say that this man is worthy of your help, because he had helped build their synagogue. They're so grateful, they want Jesus to help him. They consider him to be worthy of Jesus' help, but he doesn't have that same opinion of himself. He doesn't think that he's worthy to have Jesus enter his own house. But more than that, he doesn't think it's necessary. He doesn't think it's necessary for Jesus to enter his home.

    Why is that? It’s because he had witnessed Jesus in action. We don't know what it is exactly that he had observed about Jesus up to this point. But he had seen enough to be impressed by the clear authority that Jesus possessed. This man knew what it was like to command others. He knew what it meant to carry authority, so he draws a parallel to himself in verse 9. He says, “For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.” He's saying, “As a Roman officer, I know what it's like to receive orders from my superiors. As an officer, I also know what it means to issue orders to those under my charge. I know what it means to give and receive orders and to expect results. I tell one, ‘Go,’ and he goes. I tell another, ‘Come’ and he comes. I tell my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it. I know all about giving and receiving orders. I know all about obedience, and I know all about seeing a word carried out into action. I know all about authority.”

    Here's the kicker: He says, “I know that if you need to get something done, a command — a word of command — is all that's necessary. That's all that's required, so I don't need you to come to my house. Just say the word, and I know that it'll be done. I know that my servant will be healed.” John Chrysostom was an early church father in the fifth century, and he was impressed with the centurion because the centurion doesn't ask Jesus to pray on behalf of his servant or to plead on behalf of his servant. No, he merely asks him to make the command — issue the word — and it'll be done. Somehow, this centurion intuited that Jesus possessed delegated authority in the same way that he possessed delegated authority. His authority was delegated to him from above, and he knew that Jesus had received authority that was also delegated from above. That's pretty good theology, coming from a junior officer in the Roman army. What does Jesus himself say about his authority? At the very end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “All authority, in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” This man understands that Jesus has been entrusted with all authority, and therefore all he has to do is say the word.

    Here's what I love about this. In verse 10, we read that when Jesus heard this, he marveled. He was amazed. Almost every other time where words like that are used, they're used to describe people who are amazed with Jesus. But here, Jesus is amazed with the centurion. In the immediately preceding chapter, in Matthew 7, when Jesus completes his Sermon on the Mount, Matthew writes that when he had finished these sayings, the people were astonished at his teaching because he taught as one who had authority, and not like their scribes, who were constantly trying to back up their arguments by quoting other people. No, Jesus simply said it, and that was it. But everywhere else, people are amazed at Jesus, but here Jesus is amazed at the centurion. He's amazed with this man.

    Why He Matters

    If that's who he is, and if that's what he did, let's turn to why he matters. What can we learn from this episode? I would suggest that this centurion has something to teach us about 1) faith, 2) prayer, and 3) mission.


    First of all, he has something to teach us about faith. Why was Jesus amazed? Jesus marveled at the centurion, because he says, “I haven't found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I haven't found anyone in Israel with faith like this.” It's possible that you might find somebody in Israel with that kind of faith if they had been exposed to the Scriptures. But here's a man who believes that Jesus can heal his servant from a distance by merely saying the word. That would be remarkable faith in anyone, but it's especially remarkable coming from someone who had so little background information to go off of, so little exposure to the Scriptures, so little understanding of who God is and how God operates in the world. He's astounded by the centurion’s faith.

    Notice as well that this is the first explicit mention of faith in this gospel, and that in itself is significant. The Latin word ‘Religio’ forms the root of the English word ‘religion.’ In the ancient world, ‘Religio’ referred to the religious rituals one had to follow in order to venerate the pagan gods. Of course, there are some religious rituals within Christianity, but that's not the heart of it. The point is that when Christianity emerged on the scene, unlike all the religions that had gone before it, the veneration of the gods was the least important aspect. No, when Christianity burst onto the scene, for the very first time, the emphasis was on belief. For the first time, the emphasis was on faith, on trust of what one believed. That kind of ‘Religio’ was open to any and all.

    This is one of the primary arguments that Tom Holland makes in his book “Dominion,” which chronicles the history of Christianity. He talks about how Christianity introduced the very concept of belief and created an institution, created a community, created a church that was open to any and all, because only some people would have the means or the ability to jump through all the hoops in order to keep the gods happy. But if the essence of this community is belief, then any and all can join it. What ties people together is those shared beliefs, so Holland writes this,

    “Never before had there been anything quite like it [the Church]: a citizenship that was owed not to birth, nor to descent, nor to legal prescriptions, but to belief alone …

    That an identity might be defined by belief was in itself a momentous innovation; but that the learned and the illiterate alike might be joined by it, ‘becoming—despite their multitude—one single body,’ was no less startling a notion.”

    Jesus' mission, both then and now is to elicit faith — to elicit faith specifically in him. Like the centurion, he wants us to demonstrate simple trust in Jesus' authority and his ability to do what he says. Of course, it's not the centurion's faith that healed his servant. Only Jesus could do that, but faith is the channel through which God’s saving power flows into our lives.

    Martin Luther often used to say that faith is simply empty hands. Faith doesn't contribute anything itself. It's the channel through which God’s saving power flows. Faith is simply the empty hands that receive what Jesus gives, and what Jesus gives us, ultimately, is himself.

    What kind of faith do you possess? Do you trust Jesus' word? Do you believe that he can do what he says? And whether you consider yourself a Christian yet or not, what he wants us to cultivate is that kind of simple trust — simple trust in Jesus.


    Secondly, the centurion has something to teach us about prayer. Notice that initially the Centurion doesn't even make a petition. He simply states a fact: “My servant is lying at home, suffering terribly.” That's enough. That's all he needs to say, in order for Jesus to spring into action. “I will come. I will come and heal him myself.” I love that, because I don't know about you, but oftentimes, I don't know what to pray. I don't know what to think. I don't know what to do. I don't know what to say. I don't know what to pray. The point is that's OK, because sometimes all we have to do is state the problem, and Jesus can take it from there. Jesus will figure out the rest.

    I think that's what the Apostle Paul was talking about in Romans 8 when he says that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Remember, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit of Jesus helps us in our weakness, when we don't even know how we ought to pray. The Spirit Himself intercedes on our behalf, even when the only thing that we can express is wordless groans. Has that ever happened to you? You try to pray, but the words won't come. The only thing you can do is groan. The only thing you can do is sigh. But that's enough. The Spirit of Jesus will finish the rest. The Spirit of Jesus intercedes on our behalf.

    The good news here is that our prayer does not have to be articulate. It doesn't have to be especially precise or expressive. Jesus is so eager to help us that simply telling him about our lives is enough. Isn't that so freeing? Doesn't that make you want to pray more? That's all you have to do. Even a groan, even a sigh is sufficient. 

    Let me show you something else. This is the first long distance healing and the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus doesn't touch the servant. He doesn't even lay eyes on him. Jesus doesn't need to even be in the same room as another person in order to bring healing. All he has to do is say the word, such is his authority. What's truly amazing is that this man is healed by another person's faith. When the centurion comes to Jesus and tells him about his servant back home, Jesus doesn't respond by saying, “Tell me about this person. What is this person like? What's the condition of their heart? Do they trust me in the same way that you do? What kind of faith do they possess?” No, Jesus doesn't ask any of that. He simply heals him with a word. “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.”

    Do you realize that this episode provides us with perhaps one of the most powerful incentives for an intercessory prayer. The point is that we have the ability to carry one another. You can believe for another person until they can believe for themselves. Do you realize the power that is at your disposal? You have the authority of Jesus at your disposal when you come to him in prayer, praying on behalf of others who may not be able to pray for themselves. You can affect change in their lives by believing for them until they can believe for themselves. So think, who needs your prayer right now? Who may not be capable of prayer right now? You can pray for them.


    This centurion has something to teach us about faith. He has something to teach us about prayer. Then finally, he has something to teach us about mission — about Jesus' mission. Jesus praises the centurion for his faith, and in verse 11, he tells those who are gathered around him, “Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    Jesus here imagines the kingdom of God like a great big festive banquet, where those who have put their trust in him will recline at table with the fathers of the faith, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But he suggests that the final guest list will be full of surprises. There are some who claim to be the “sons of the kingdom” who will find themselves, to their own surprise, on the outside looking in. They thought they would have been included, perhaps because of their background or their pedigree, but they'll find themselves on the outside looking in, in a place marked by weeping and gnashing of teeth, in a place marked by tears and regrets. While at the same time those whom you would least expect to find there will join the party.


    How are we supposed to assess these words? On the one hand, we should take this as a warning. Jesus is trying to shake us out of our complacency. But there's something here that I never really noticed before, and that is that Jesus never warns non-believers of what he calls here “the outer darkness.” He never warns non-believers of what we might call hell. No, he reserves his strictest, his sternest, his severest warnings for those who think that they're believers, but who in fact might only possess a nominal faith at best. Those are the ones that are in greatest danger of finding themselves outside the party, on the outside looking in. They're the ones who might find themselves in a place of tears and regrets because they failed to see something that was in their grasp; they took it for granted. Jesus is trying to shake us out of our complacency. It's good that we're here in church this morning, but just because we're here at church this morning doesn't necessarily mean a thing. C.S. Lewis once said that sitting in a church no more makes you a Christian than sitting in a garage makes you a car. Jesus is encouraging all of us to examine ourselves. Is our faith genuine? Have we truly put our trust in him?


    At the same time, we should not only take these words as a warning but also as an invitation, because Jesus shows us that he is throwing open the doors to his kingdom. It's not just the people whom we expect who will join the party. No, people will come from east and west. It'll cover the globe. The question that we should ask ourselves is, in light of Jesus' mission to reach the whole world, who is the person that you think is least likely to put their trust in Jesus? And is that a person with whom you could have a spiritual conversation?

    Perhaps the person that you think is least likely to become a Christian is you, in which case, listen to Jesus' invitation. The kingdom of heaven is open to any and all because the only requirement is that we simply trust Jesus at his word. Anyone can do that. Even a pagan officer serving in the Roman army under Herod Antipas. If he can do it, so can you. Take this moment to put your trust in Jesus, and then join him at this table, which is meant to provide us with a sign, a foretaste, a glimpse of the great party that is yet to come.

    Let's pray together.

    Father, we thank you for this unnamed centurion who amazed even Jesus, because he understood better than anyone the authority that Jesus carries. As we look at his story today, we pray that you would show us what we can learn about what it means to put our faith in you — what it means to come to you in prayer, trusting in your ability to simply issue the command and it is done. Help us to better understand your mission to the world and join in it for Jesus sake. We pray in his name. Amen.