Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

70. The Healing of the Centurion’s Servant (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)*

Either version of the Sermon on the Mount can be read comfortably in less than half an hour. Of course there was a good deal more to it than this. Luke implies as much; “he filled all his sayings in the ears of the people” (7:1), a summary which could well be a designed allusion to the prophecy about a prophet like unto Moses (Dt.18: 18, 19). Presumably Jesus
added a good deal of explanation and illustration.

And now, the first preaching tour concluded, he returned to Capernaum accompanied by the great crowd which almost always beset him at this period in his ministry.

Back home, he was approached by a deputation of elders from Capernaum’s only synagogue (Mk. 1:21). Among these, almost certainly, was Jairus, who not long after this was to become a suppliant on his own account.

Just now they came hoping to enlist the sympathy and aid of Jesus on behalf of a Roman centurion -- of all people -- living nearby. Every NT mention of centurions shows them in a good light (Lk. 23:47; Acts 10:1, 2; 22:25; 23:17; 27:43). This man was deeply concerned over the sickness and suffering of a valued servant struck down by some incurable disease. That he should be so distraught was an eloquent testimony to the characters of both master and man. The fact that leading Jews should bestir themselves on behalf of these two bore additional witness to their qualities. It was a most extraordinary situation.

Sympathy for Israel
Unlike almost all other Romans in the country, this man enjoyed the close friendship of the Jews: “he loves our nation, and himself built us our synagogue” (Lk.). He was what the Jews called “a proselyte of the gate”-a Gentile who understood and believed the Jewish religion, but who accepted neither circumcision nor the food laws nor other religious obligations which kept the Jews a race apart.

That he should have taken his sympathies so far as to finance the building of a synagogue is a measure of his marked friendship for the Jews, and of his enthusiasm for their religion. It also indicates that he had considerable wealth.
He was now desperate with anxiety regarding his sick slave. The story of the healing of the sick son of the Capernaum nobleman must have come to his knowledge. Indeed it is not unlikely that the two men were good friends. If so, the appeal would be made to Jesus all the more confidently.

A Suffering Slave

The servant’s intense suffering is described in vivid terms -- though, strangely enough, not by Luke the physician whose strong professional interest in clinical details is so often discernible, but by Matthew: “sick of the palsy, grievously tormented”. Identification of this disease is not easy. Clearly if was some form of paralysis. But those afflicted with a stroke or paraplegia do not usually suffer terrible agony continuously. So perhaps the most likely diagnosis is tetanus, which brings on acute muscular spasm and with it intense pain.

Here is the first of a remarkable sequence in the Lord’s mighty works. The centurion’s servant was “ready to die”. Jairus’s daughter had just died when Jesus came (Mt. 9:18). At Nain the widow’s son was about to be buried (Lk. 7:12). Lazarus was raised after being four days dead (Jn. 11:39).

The widow made no appeal to Jesus, save by her own lamentation and misery. On behalf of the centurion it was witnessed: “He is worthy for whom thou shouldst do this.” Jairus was urgent: “Come quickly...” Martha and Mary were despondent and perhaps mildly reproachful: “Lord, if thou hadst been here, our brother had not died.”


Some have experienced difficulty with the apparent divergences in the narratives of Matthew and Luke. The former writes as though the centurion approached Jesus in person, whereas the latter is explicit that the elders of the Jews were sent on the centurion’s behalf. There is here a feature which is commonplace in the gospels, and throughout Bible narrative-the, omission of mention of the agent employed. For example, the expression: “himself built us our synagogue”, although so emphatic, would not be interpreted by anyone as meaning that the centurion did the actual building with his own two hands. Again, when the record says that “Pilate took Jesus and scourged him” (Jn. 19:1), | no one assumes that this was done by the! governor in person; nor when it declares that! “Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross”! (19:19). In Mark, James and John appear tol make their own personal plea for priority! (10:35), yet Matthew makes it clear that they did so through the advocacy of their mother (20:20).

Consideration for Jesus

The fact that the elders pressed their plea with Jesus time after time (Greek imperfect tense) suggests perhaps that they doubted whether Jesus would accede to the request or, more probably, that the Lord himself was hesitating, as well he might, for if word went round that he had visited the home of a Gentile, a Roman, most of the nation would marshal all its prejudices against him (Acts 10:28), and thus his ministry would die an early death.

This hesitance seems also to be suggested in another detail of Luke’s text (apecho; v. 6) which in LXX commonly has the meaning; “to hold off” or “abstain”.

However, not put off, Jesus agreed to their request; “I will come and heal him”. And no doubt a messenger was promptly sent off to let the centurion know that Jesus was coming. The Roman’s reaction was remarkable. He forthwith sent other friends, Gentiles this time-who met Jesus “now not far from the house”. Their message expressed concern for Jesus, not for the servant: “Lord, trouble not thyself (to come to the house)”. It was not solicitude lest Jesus fatigue himself which lay behind this. The Lord was already not far away, so the extra distance now involved would have meant nothing to him.
There is here a quite exceptional insight and thoughtfulness. The centurion was sufficiently familiar with Jewish prejudices to recognize that for Jesus to enter his Gentile home would be sure to provoke keen Jewish criticism and thus hamper his teaching work. He was not willing that Jesus should handicap himself for his sake. So, with recollection of how the nobleman’s son had been healed by a word spoken miles away, he urged: “I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof (no mean roof, either!)...but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.”

“Not worthy”! By that very phrase he proved how worthy he was.

Personal Approach

From certain details it is possible to infer that the centurion himself came out also to meet Jesus when he saw how near he was to the house: “Jesus marvelled at him” (Lk.) and “Go thy way; as thou hast believed, so shall it be done unto thee (Mt.). The words seem to require that they were spoken to the centurion himself.


This faithful man’s reasoning regarding the Lord’s power to heal has often been read rather carelessly. He did not say: “For I am a man set in authority, having under me soldiers, and I say to one, Go, and he goeth.” What he did say was: “For I also am a man set under authority.” The word “also” pointedly stresses a similarity in status between himself and Jesus. What was it? In effect, he declared: ‘My men obey every command of mine because I am under the authority of Caesar, They do my bidding because behind me is the supreme power of the Emperor. But I recognize that you, Jesus, are under the direction of One greater than Tiberius. Behind you is the authority of Almighty God. So you have only to speak the word of command, and my slave will be well again’. To complete the parallel it is perhaps possible to see an angel of heaven doing the will of the Son of God (Mt. 26:53) as the counterpart to the centurion’s underling immediately responsive to his officer’s commands.

Jesus greatly pleased

At this remarkable expression of faith by a Gentile, Jesus marvelled openly. Later he was to marvel at the inability of the people of Nazareth to believe him (Mk. 6:6 -- the only other time this word is used of Jesus). The present situation was in happy contrast with that, and the delight of Jesus was not to be restrained. Turning round, he addressed the expectant crowd: “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” Both the encomium and the implied reproach were well deserved. At this time had any other individual beside this centurion come to so clear and definite a conviction concerning Jesus?

Praised by Jesus

The list of those whom Jesus praised is instructive:

Lk. 7:9:
the centurion.

Lk. 7:44ff:
the woman in the city who anointed his feet.

Lk. 21:3:
the widow who gave two mites.

Mt. 11:7ff:
John the Baptist.

Mt. 15:28 :
the Canaanitish woman:

Mt. 26:10:
Mary of Bethany, anointing him shortly before his death.


And, by anticipation, Mt. 25:35ff: Those who are approved in the day of judgment for their righteous acts to “these my brethren”.

The list includes:

two men, four women
two Gentiles;
three specifically approved for their act of faith (and two others, by implication, for the same reason).

Prophetic Psalm

The gladness of Jesus expressed itself in a sweeping prophecy of the coming day when the doors of the kingdom would be thrown wide open to eager Gentiles: “And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west (cp. Lk. 13: 28, 29), and shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the Kingdom of heaven”.

There is an echo here of Psalm 107:3, where the redeemed of the Lord are “gathered out of the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the south” (cp. also Gen. 28:14; Mal. 1:11). This call of faithful Gentiles is foretold also by a delightful figure of speech; “He turneth the wilderness into a standing water, and dry ground into water
springs” (v. 35). Appropriate to the present miracle, the same psalm tells how men in sickness nigh unto death “cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he saveth them out of their distresses. He sent his Word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions (v. 19, 20).

Nor is this all. This amazing psalm also anticipates the storm on Galilee (v. 25-29), the healing and forgiveness of the paralytic let down through the roof (v. 17), and the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness (v. 2).

Then, was Psalm 107 divinely inspired to proclaim beforehand “the goodness and the wonderful works” of the Son of God? or did he frame his miracles according to that Scripture?

The saddening contrast between the centurion and the meagre response the message of the kingdom was evoking from Israel drove Jesus to add sombre words of warning to the crowd around him: “The children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. In this context it is tempting to interpret the outer darkness with reference to the dispersion and persecution of Israel, but elsewhere the phrase seems always to referto the last judgment.

The Miracle

Turning to the centurion Jesus bade him: “Go thy way; as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee”. But this man of faith had not asked anything for himself (except in so far as the healing of his servant would greatly ease his own sympathetic distress). So perhaps the words should be translated: “So be it done for thee.” The similar expression in Mt. 9:29 suggests the more familiar AV reading. If this is accepted, it must mean that Jesus looked beyond the immediate benefit-the healing of the stricken slave-to the lasting blessing of faith and its reward which would accrue to the centurion himself.

Luke’s expression: “They that were sent returned to the house...” probably implies that in spite of the Lord’s explicit “Go thy way”, the centurion remained with him, with all faith that the miracle had happened, and needed no personal verification of the fact. Thus the man’s attitude to Jesus rose to even greater heights. Although eager that his servant be restored, it was more important to him that one whom he deemed greater than Caesar be fitly honoured and thanked by a respectful presence rather than by a hasty departure which might imply disrespect.

This was the second miracle Jesus had performed at a distance without even setting eyes on the one to whom he brought such blessing (see Jn. 4:46-54). And again it was a Gentile who was healed. At least one other example of the same kind was to follow (Mt. 15:28). More and more, as the ministry of Jesus proceeded, it became evident to those who were not too blind even for the Lord to heal, that his miracles were more than miracles, they were signs.

Notes: Mt. 8:5-13

Could be read as a question expressing uncertainty of decision because of the unusual character of the situation: Shall I come and heal him?
Under authority. Note the bearing of this, and also the force of “marvelled” (v. 10), with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity. The centurion implies this kind of parallel:



The children of the kingdom cast out. Could the same be true of the New Israel also?

Lk. 7:1-10

For whom he should do this. The tense here (fut. indic.) implies confidence that Jesus could and would do what was asked.
He hath built for us. Extraordinary!!
Was. Gr. apecho. Cp the sense in LXX of Job 13:21; 28:28; Pr. 23:4, 13; ls. 29:13
A man. There is humility in his choice of word here -- anthropos, when aner might have been expected.

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