Now on the other side of this encounter we have Jesus Christ. What do we say about him? Well, first of all, he was everything the centurion imagined he was and a great deal more besides. The centurion said to him, “You are able to speak the word, and if you speak it, it will be done because I understand authority. I speak with the authority of Rome, and you speak with the authority of God.” And of course that’s true. That is exactly the way Jesus spoke. Jesus said on many occasions, “The words I speak to you are not of myself but they’re the words of the Father.” And when he healed people it was with the power of God, and when he forgave their sins it was because it was as God that he spoke. The centurion was certainly right in that.
And yet, as I say, undoubtedly more besides, because although he must have had some intimation of who Jesus was—one who spoke with the authority of God in a way that no other man upon the face of the earth had ever done—did he actually understand that Jesus was God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity? No doubt not. The centurion was on the right track, of course, to learning about Jesus, but he hadn’t quite come that far. But he was commended for how he responded toward Jesus with the knowledge of him that he had.
And then the second thing about Jesus is his compassion. The centurion was concerned about his slave, but Jesus was not only concerned about the slave, but he had compassion on the centurion as well. These stories that are given to us in this first portion of Matthew 8 all make the point of Jesus’ compassion. Immediately before this Jesus heals a leper, one who is an outcast because of his disease. In our story he heals a Gentile slave, who along with the centurion are outcasts because of their race. And immediately following this he goes into the house of Peter and heals Peter’s mother-in-law, who though a Jew was of lesser standing because she was a woman. See, in each case you have the compassion of Jesus reaching out to all who are needy regardless of whom they may be.
And then you have this marvelous picture of Jesus, absolutely amazed at the great faith of this Gentile centurion. That is amazing, isn’t it? It’s amazing that Jesus was amazed, because we’re told that Jesus was never surprised by men and women. The Bible says he didn’t trust himself to men because he knew what was in them. Only two times in the Gospels are we told that Jesus was amazed. One of those times is in the sixth chapter of Mark, where in verse 6 we read that Jesus was amazed at the unbelief of Israel. He was amazed at their unbelief because the Jews had the Old Testament revelation and the law and the prophets and the promises, and they of all people should have believed when Jesus came and yet they didn’t. And of course the other time in which Jesus is amazed is our story from Matthew 8. Here he is amazed at someone’s faith, but it is not the faith of a spiritually privileged Jew, but the faith of a Gentile from whom one would not expect it.
So those are the two parties, the centurion on the one hand, who in spite of all the things he had going for him, nevertheless was separated from the God of Israel, and, on the other hand, Jesus who was God incarnate, far more than this centurion imagined, who had great compassion for him.
Now what changes? Well, the centurion is quite obviously changed. He had already been changed before this, of course, because of the understanding he has at the beginning of the story. How did he ever get the kind of faith he has unless God had already been at work in his heart. When we think of this we can’t help but think of that other centurion to whom the Apostle Peter was sent with the gospel as recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts. Cornelius was a man who was also prepared, a man to whom an angel had come and who had been instructed to send soldiers to Jappa and inquire after one Peter, who would come and tell him what to do. He’s a man whose heart had obviously been prepared by God, a man of great faith and character. But although he had been enlightened by God was not yet saved. It was only when Peter came on that occasion and preached the gospel that he and his household believed. The Holy Spirit came, and they were all baptized in recognition of it.
When is it that the centurion from Matthew 8 saved? I don’t think you can say it was before, though he had great faith and it was faith in Jesus. I’m not sure you can say he was saved afterward, since the text does not tell us anything about him after the servant’s healing. Perhaps in this very incident itself the centurion came to saving faith because Jesus talks about Gentiles like him being present at the Messianic banquet. But what I do know is that he was saved, and that change in the centurion was the greatest of all possible changes you and I can imagine.
We’re going to go on in these stories. We’re going to find other things that happen. Some people are sick and they get healed, and that’s a change. Some people are hardened, to whom God lives understanding, and that is a change. The greatest of all changes is the change involved in salvation when one who was lost in sin finds the righteousness of Christ, when one who is in darkness enters into light, when one who is spiritually dead is made spiritually alive. And certainly that is what happened to this man. We don’t know the rest of his story. All we have is this little incident, but we know that one day when we, if we have been likewise changed, sit down with Jesus at the great Messianic banquet, the marriage supper of the Lamb, that this man, this Gentile centurion, a servant in the Roman army, will be there also.