Life of Christ 58
In Jesus' recent ministry He has accomplished two stunning things, the ordaining of the Twelve, and the preaching of the Sermon on the Mount. (I skipped that in this series on the life of Christ since I intend to write much more about that in a later series.) These two things alone, if done by any other religious leader, would have assured him a place in world history. Following these, He returns to Capernaum, and does what many looking at His life would call just another routine miracle (Matthew 8.5-13), if there is such a thing.
This particular centurion was not a Jewish proselyte. A proselyte was a Gentile who undertook the laborious process of converting to Judaism. This was occasionally done at the time, and although the Jews did not seek converts the authenticity and devotion of their religion did appeal to some around them. 'The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof' (Matthew 8.8). The Gentiles were deemed to defile any Jewish house into which they entered, and proselytes, non-ethnic Jews, were no longer considered to be Gentiles. Thus, obviously, this centurion was not a convert to Judaism. He was a Roman military leader of Gentile or Samaritan descent. This is a critical point and basic to the entirety of the whole aim of Jesus' remarks here.
Although this centurion wasn't a Jew he was, at the same time, someone who clearly had a great deal of respect for the Jewish people and their religion. In fact, it was the Jewish community leaders in Capernaum who appealed to Jesus to heal the centurion's servant with this memorable line, 'That he was worthy for whom he should do this: for he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.'
Jesus and the Apostles immediately begin to head toward the centurion's home, and the centurion, who out of respect didn't want Jesus to defile Himself as a Jew by entering a Gentile home, sent more friends to intercept Him, and to ask Him to just heal his servant from a distance.
I am rather impressed with this centurion. He was a respectful man in a foreign culture. He was a religious man. He was a generous man. He was a man who cared for the people who worked for him. But beyond all of these, he was a man of faith.
By now, everybody in Capernaum had heard Jesus and His sermons and miracles discussed multiple times, and this centurion had probably even heard the story of Jesus' second miracle at Cana, the one in which he healed the nobleman's son 25 miles away in Capernaum. The centurion must have believed this to be true, and thus believed Jesus, and this simple faith and belief moved Jesus very much (Matthew 8.10). I have said it before and I'll say it again, Jesus came looking for belief. He found it in this good man, in this Roman centurion.
What makes this story stand out, however, are the comments which Jesus made immediately afterward which frame His point. Remember, Jesus rarely did a miracle for the miracle's sake, but rather in order to send a message. Thus far, it is true that Jesus' ministry had reached out to those whom the society of His day deemed to be unworthy. He had cleansed the lepers, and He had healed those with unclean spirits, but His only interaction so far with a Gentile was the woman at the well, and that was a private interaction to which only His disciples were privy.
Here we see Him, for the very first time, in the most public manner possible, ministering by way of miracle to an out and out Gentile. And Jesus marks the occasion by drawing attention to it in the clearest possible manner. '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' (Matthew 8.11-12).
Yes, He came to the Jews, but He was already preparing for the time when they would reject Him, and the Gospel would be carried primarily to and by non-Jews. This is the public genesis of that transition, and it is, in its own way, as crucial as the choosing of the Twelve or the Sermon on the Mount.