Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 8:5-13
The purpose of the passage is simple: Jesus has just taught with great authority; God then uses a Roman centurion to give the insight that the authority comes from God Himself. We learn from this exchange not to overestimate our own place in eternity and not to underestimate Jesus’ place in eternity.
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
“Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick.”
If your class is too politically astute to let the baggage behind this slogan go, switch over to “You and What Army?” We’ve all seen great scenes where the little guy confronts the big bad guys, and because he brought some support, the bad guys don’t mess with him. Seriously—is anyone going to mess with the little kid with the giant dog? Of course not! If you mess with one, you mess with the other. It’s a great movie trope (a funny variation of it is the “scared of what’s behind you” trope), and it has great real-world application. How do you confront a bully? With a bunch of friends at your back, that’s how! Preferably really big and tough friends. Here’s where I’m going. The Roman Centurion in this week’s passage understood how that worked. When he said something, he had an entire army to back him up. If anyone messed with him, they messed with Rome itself. Likewise, he realized that when Jesus spoke, He had the backing of God almighty. [Then you can make the application: “Shouldn’t that be the kind of support we have from our church family? If something happens to one of our class members, will the rest step in to defend or support?”]
“My Word Is My Bond.”
There’s another way you can go with this if you want to—talk about promises. The Centurion understood that when Jesus spoke, things happened. Literally. When Jesus gave His word, it was done. What kind of reputation do we have? Are we known for having good intentions to get a thing done, for promising more than we can deliver, for being people of our word, or not? With Jesus, His word is always good. The Centurion got it.
Our Context in Matthew
Here's a basic outline of Matthew:
Prologue: from birth to call (1-4)
Teaching: the Sermon on the Mount (5-7)
Action: first miracles (8-9)
Teaching: about ministry (10)
Action: opposition (11-12)
Teaching: parables (13)
Action: from Galilee (14-17)
Teaching: character (18)
Action: Jerusalem (19-23)
Teaching: the Olivet Discourse (24-25)
Action: from fall to rise (26-28)
The transition from chapters 7 to 8 is explained by the end of chapter 7: “the crowds were amazed at His teaching because He taught as one who had authority.” And He did! Now, Matthew sets about proving that Jesus didn’t just teach as one with authority, He actually had authority! Jesus didn’t just talk the talk, He walked the walk. Matthew 5-7 contains Jesus’ earthshattering teachings; Matthew 8-9 then is stuffed full of miracles that demonstrate the full range of Jesus’ authority to teach those things. We’re just going to talk about one of those miracles as we go through Matthew, but the list is pretty self-explanatory. Here’s a simple outline of these chapters:
Jesus heals a leper (8:1-4) . . . the centurion’s servant (8:5-13) . . . Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-15) . . . many at evening (8:16-17) Authority <> comfort (8:18-22) Jesus calms a storm (8:23-27) . . . exorcises two men (8:28-34) . . . forgives the paralytic’s sin (9:1-8) Jesus calls Matthew (9:9) Authority over sinners and fasting (9:10-17) Jesus raises a dead girl (9:18-26) . . . and the “hem of His garment” . . . heals two blind men (9:27-31) . . . exorcises a mute man (9:32-34)
Catch the variety. Power over disease. Power over demons. Power over sin. Power over nature. Power over the law. Power over death. Power to heal directly. Power to heal indirectly. Power to heal from a distance. It’s a tour de force of Jesus’ authority.
It wouldn’t take too long to write this little list on a board, and that would give you something to point to in teaching the lesson. The lesson outline puts a lot of emphasis on “humility” and “faith” (as in how we are to ask Jesus for a miracle). Those things are good, and I would consider them a good personal application, but those are not the point of the passage. This passage is all about authority. What kind of authority does Jesus have? Where does it come from? Matthew’s secondary purpose in including it here is to remind his readers of Jesus’ worldwide mission. His authority does not extend just to Israel, but to everywhere and everyone. I’ll bring out those themes as big as I can!
This Week's Big Idea: The Roman Military
Let’s start with a little about the Roman military. In the Bible, we mainly read about centurions and soldiers. They were the “boots on the ground” for the army. The military was divided into Legionaries and Auxiliaries. Legionaries were well trained citizens and kept close to Rome. Auxiliaries were conscripts kept out in the provinces (like Judea) to enforce the peace. They had to pay for their own food and equipment; their “spoils of war” were often things confiscated from criminals (like Jesus on the cross). Essentially, if they survived 25 years of service, they were rewarded with Roman citizenship. Soldiers of particularly strong character and ability became centurions (“commander of 100”; junior centurions commanded 80). 6 centuries made a cohort, and 10 cohorts made a legion. Rome kept about 30 legions in the empire.
The centurion was responsible for the continuous training of his century, mental and physical, as well as court-martialing (realizing that the centurion would also be punished for any misbehavior among his men!). He had to oversee fort construction and repair and was responsible for any assignments (like guaranteeing prisoner safety, building a bridge, or even a synagogue). He had to be able to move his men anywhere in the empire at a moment’s notice. The difference in pay from soldier to centurion was astonishing (from 225 denarii to the many thousands), as well as his respect in public. The discipline and fortitude of centurions turned the Roman Army into the greatest fighting force in history; they were not men to be taken lightly (centurions in the Auxiliaries were all promoted based on merit; birthright and nobility only clouded the Legionaries). Soldiers would have been everywhere in Judea all the time, certainly anywhere there was a gathering. They were a basic fact of life. When people came to hear Jesus, soldiers would have been around. That means they would have heard all of Jesus’ teachings and observed all of His miracles; this is almost certainly how the centurion knew to come to Jesus. Some of them would probably have been from a nearby area which means they would have understood Aramaic.
Part 1: Ask with Humility (Matthew 8:5-7)
When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony!” “I will come and heal him,” He told him.
Take a look at my aside on Capernaum and the brief overview I give you on the previous page and back page about centurions and soldiers. When we go through events and stories like this one, we can compare it with parallel passages—in this case, Luke 7:1-10 (the story told in John 4:46-53 is almost certainly a different event). Luke, having such an interest in historical details and the role of common people, adds that the centurion had had his troops (century) build the synagogue, and also that the centurion sent Jewish emissaries to meet Jesus before coming out himself, probably because he assumed that Jesus would respond more favorably to a Jew than a Roman centurion.
Remember that Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount by saying that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enjoy the blessings of the kingdom. Well, that’s immediately put to the test! But Matthew makes it clear that this man’s heart is right, which is why Jesus does what he asks. The centurion has a servant/slave (the term in Matthew is a more affectionate version) who is paralyzed for some reason (see the aside below). The servant could be a soldier under his command, but doesn’t have to be.
The centurion knew, as Luke makes clear, Jewish law and custom. He knew that a Jew could not enter a Gentile’s home without becoming “unclean.” He had probably worked out the exchange in his mind; he sent emissaries to Jesus first, then once he knew Jesus was coming he went out himself with his appeal to Jesus to heal from a distance so as not to inconvenience Himself with uncleanness. In hindsight, we know that the centurion didn’t need to go to such length; Jesus would have granted the request. But there is a comparison with the story of the Canaanite woman in Matt 15:21-28 (read it!) in that Jesus lets the Gentile demonstrate the quality of his/her faith and then uses that as a challenge to the Jews who overheard. In this case, Jesus responds in the form of a question: “Shall I come and heal him?” (the “I” is in an emphatic position), testing the centurion’s resolve. Will he respond as the military commander? Will he get angry and walk away? Will he beg and grovel? Well, he does respond as the military commander, but not in the way that would have been “expected.”
Your leader guide and the lesson outline emphasizes the humility of the centurion. That is absolutely there, and it is the proof that this man has come to Jesus for the right reasons (again, remembering Matt 7:21), but it is not the reason why Matthew included this story. I think you can absolutely make the application and lead the discussion around the idea, “Why do we ask Jesus for miracles? What are the motives behind our prayers?” Are we calling Jesus “Lord” to get what we want (as if it worked that way), or are we living as Jesus’ follower and seeking His will on the earth? He knows.
The main purpose Matthew includes this story is to explain the nature of Jesus’ authority (more on that in the next section), but the other purpose is the worldwide nature of Jesus’ mission. Jesus makes it clear to the Canaanite woman that He came first for the Jews, but through them He has come for the entire world. Not only does Jesus praise the faith of a non-Jew, but of a hated Roman soldier at that! (Again, more on this later.)
Aside on Capernaum
Capernaum was a fishing village on the north shore of Galilee, west of the Jordan. Perhaps 1000-2000 people lived there (including Peter, Andrew, James, and John). It had no wall, no administrative buildings, and just one public place (a synagogue).
So why did Jesus choose Capernaum after He left Nazareth? Well, Matthew noted Isaiah's prophecy (Matt 4:14 / Isa 9:1) about the land of Zebulun / Naphtali / Galilee, which uniquely described Capernaum. But in addition, Capernuam was an important garrison town, so it would have been safe and stable; most of its inhabitants were poor laborers, the very people He sought—a spiritual revolution led by people like that could only give testimony to the power of God, not men. Certainly not many Pharisees! As a shore city, it was easy to travel from, on foot (coastal plain) and by boat. It was on several major roads, so there would have been people from far and wide. (And frankly, this is pretty much as far away from Jerusalem as you can go and still have those criteria. I think that had something to do with it.) If Jesus hadn’t chosen it, we probably wouldn’t know a thing about it today; it’s otherwise not mentioned in the Bible.
Part 2: Acknowledge His Authority (Matthew 8:8-9)
“Lord,” the centurion replied, “I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. But only say the word, and my servant will be cured. For I too am a man under authority, having soldiers under my command. I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”
“Unworthiness” is the key to understanding the centurion’s attitude (somewhat ironic in that the Jews he sent made the argument that he was “worthy”), and I like this word even more than “humility” here. It’s not based on race; it has nothing to do with uncleanness or anything like that. It’s entirely based on authority. Jesus occupied a rung on the ladder (so to speak) so far above his own that he knew it wouldn’t be right for Jesus to “stoop” to his level. It was entirely out of respect for Jesus that the centurion recognized his unworthiness.
[I think this would be a fine application of humility. The centurion’s attitude had nothing to do with his self image. To occupy his position, he had to have incredible self confidence and self awareness. Rather, it had everything to do with Jesus’ image. It didn’t matter how great the centurion thought he was; he knew that Jesus was infinitely greater. That overcomes every human attitude.]
Importantly, Jesus has not yet demonstrated as ability to heal from a distance. The centurion deduced that ability from what he knew of Jesus, and that is what will impress Jesus so much. I’m sad that the leader guide glosses over this because this is the main point of the entire passage. Check out this diagram. Authority in the Roman empire was entirely top-down. All authority in the empire belonged to the Emperor, and he delegated it to others as he saw fit. The centurion had a small amount of that delegated authority, which means that when he spoke, he spoke with the authority of the Emperor. If one of his soldiers disobeyed him, he was disobeying the Emperor, and it would be dealt with as treason. Consequently, he didn’t have to worry if a solider carried out his orders. He knew the soldier would. Now, he puts Jesus into this same kind of chain; both were “men under authority,” which meant that their words produced results. The centurion received his authority from Caesar. He doesn’t say where Jesus received His authority (which is why I left it blank), but he leaves it completely obvious. Where does Jesus receive His authority? From God Himself.
Now Matthew has made it clear exactly how Jesus could teach with authority and challenge the words of the great rabbis. Jesus has the authority of God. Jesus’ words are God’s words. Jesus’ actions are God’s actions. As militaristic as the illustration is, Jesus makes it clear that the centurion got it right.
Aside: Diseases in the New Testament
It is just about impossible to diagnose the ailments described in the Bible. People in that day had no knowledge of bacteria or viruses, and they had a limited understanding of anatomy. For example, the term for “leprosy” was used to describe a wide range of eruptions which almost certainly included basis rashes, allergic reactions, and fungal infections. “Boils” could be a staph infection. Of course, “fever” could have been caused by countless infectious diseases. In one case, the fever was associated with “dysentery” which could bacterial or parasitic, and sometimes was made worse by hemorrhoids. A “withered hand” could be caused by muscular dystrophies to polio. A “seizure” is most likely epilepsy, although its causes and even treatment are still pretty obscure today.
The condition in our passage this week, “paralysis” (or “palsy”) is another very vague term that could describe any number of conditions. It could be that he was finally succumbing to polio. It could be that he was injured during training or construction. If caused by a disease such as a muscular dystrophy, the paralysis could have affected skeletal muscles or even core organs. There is no known cure for any muscular dystrophy. There are therapies designed to extend the use of a muscle, and there is otherwise simply the prayer that the dystrophy will only affect a non-life-necessary muscle group. While the New Testament audience would not have appreciated that (and likely believed it caused by an evil spirit), we today know that Jesus performed a true and inestimable miracle.
Part 3: Anticipate in Faith (Matthew 8:10-13)
Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, “I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith! I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus told the centurion, “Go. As you have believed, let it be done for you.” And his servant was cured that very moment.
Some people make a big fuss about the use of the word “amazed.” Think of it as an emotional response, not an intellectual one. Jesus was not “surprised” in the sense that He was caught off guard; His human emotion responded appropriately for such a powerful declaration coming from a human. You see, the “great faith” the centurion had had little to do with his prediction of long-distance healing but his penetration of the secret of Jesus’ authority.
This is when Jesus launches into His second major teaching that Matthew will take to heart: God’s mission did not end with the Jews. It never did. The messianic banquet (see Isa 25:6-9) long expected by the Jews did not have any Gentiles there in their later writings about it. We know they are Gentiles and not scattered Jews because of their juxtaposition with the “sons of the kingdom” which can only be Jews. And that’s the great irony of Jesus’ mission. Those who think they are in the kingdom will be “thrown out” and those who think they are not worthy of God’s kingdom (like this centurion) will be the first to come in. As proof of His acceptance (and this same pattern will be repeated in the case of the paralytic lowered through the roof), Jesus heals the man’s servant. Both Jesus and the centurion know that the physical healing is much easier than the divine reconciliation I’m sure was exchanged in their eye contact.
But the warning is pretty dire in Jesus’ words. He speaks of “outer darkness” 3 times (here, Matt 22:13, and Matt 25:30). To make things worse, He uses a definite article that is not translated in English: “the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” This is suffering and despair that Jesus doesn’t even want to describe here. In Mark 9, he includes a terrifying descriptor “where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched.” This is nothing to take lightly.
Application and Conclusion. Not to take the easy way out, but I thought that Lifeway’s commentary summarized things as well as I could.
"So then how do we apply this account that highlights both the authority of Jesus the King and the importance of faith in our relationship to Him?
First, consider what we have learned about the authority of Jesus: • Jesus has the authority of God Himself. When He speaks, it will be done as He has said. Jesus was (and is) God. He was (and is) the Messiah-King. As such, He is in a position of incomparable authority. • Jesus’ authority and ability to act does not depend on our faith or on any other human factor. He is able to do whatever He wishes.
Second, consider how the centurion serves as an example for us: • When we approach Jesus with a prayer request, we should do so, as the centurion did, with great humility. • When we approach Jesus with a prayer request, we can do so, as the centurion did, with full confidence in Jesus’ authority.
Third, recall the implications of Jesus’ comments to the crowd: • Many people who presumptuously assume they are included in God’s kingdom should carefully consider whether they are indeed people who have faith in Jesus the Messiah-King. • Participation in the future messianic banquet will include many Gentiles who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. • Faith in Jesus is the critical requirement for being part of His kingdom.”
Have your class connect the dots between this and the other things you’ve been applying. Want to invite somebody new to Sunday School? Talk to them about the prayers Jesus has answered for your class. Want to share Jesus with somebody? Talk to them about Jesus’ role in your life (as your Lord) and what He’s done for you. What to experience true transformation in your own life? Give more of your life over to Jesus! Acknowledge His authority over everything you do!
Closing Thought: From the East and the West
The Old Testament has three uses of this idea: (1) Israel will be gathered from all over the earth (Ps 107:3; Isa 43:5-6; Isa 49:12), (2) Gentiles from all over the earth will worship Yahweh (Isa 45:6; Isa 59:19; Mal 1:11), and (3) Gentiles from all over the earth will come to Jerusalem (Isa 2:2-3; Isa 60:3-4; Mic 4:1-2; Zech 8:20-23). Jesus’ words most clearly parallel (1), and since He is not talking about Jews, He is clearly drawing a connection between Old Testament prophesy about Israel and “true” Israel which is His followers, whether or not they are born Jews. This is actually a very important Bible question: are the old prophesies talking about physical Israel or spiritual Israel? Jesus, and I believe clearly, says it’s talking about spiritual Israel.