Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 11. A Question of Authority
Mt 8:8,9 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, `Go,’ and he goes; and that one, `Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, `Do this,’ and he does it.”
Before I start, we need to restate the overall context of Jesus’ teaching and repeat what I said in two earlier studies: what we have here is a supreme challenge to enter into a new world, the world of Christ, the kingdom of God that works on very different values to the rest of the world. The difference of the ‘two kingdoms’ will now be seen in an amazing way in what now follows.
Now I realise I am stretching the boundaries of these studies because this is not a case of an analogy used by Jesus, but it is clear from what follows that he thoroughly approves it: “When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (v.10) This Roman centurion understood something about Jesus beyond anything Jesus had found in his own people. To understand the parallels implied in these two simple verses, we see on one hand the centurion’s perception of Jesus and then, on the other hand, the parallel of his own experience. It is easier to take his experience first and then apply it to Jesus.
This man is a centurion, not very high up in the Roman hierarchy but sufficiently high to have learned about authority in the army. As anyone who has been trained in the army knows, authority and obedience to it is essential. When a command is given, it is imperative that it is obeyed. Authority is the right and power to command and to be obeyed. It is built in very early on in the Forces by strict discipline that requires punishment for failures to obey implicitly. In the Roman army that discipline was about as strict as you may find anywhere in history. When the one above you issued a command, you obeyed! If you didn’t then you suffered. The point was that this man knew all of this and knew that when authority existed it WOULD be obeyed.
Now perhaps we should pause a moment to remind ourselves of the context, the situation involving this man. He comes to Jesus: “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.” (v.6,7) There it is. He comes to Jesus and addresses him with respect. He reveals his need and Jesus says he will meet it. It is at that point the man reveals his humility and awareness of the reality of his life: “The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” (v.8a) i.e. implied within this may be, “I am not religious and holy like you. I am a rough soldier who kills people. I have no right to demand anything of you,” but then all that is overcome by a combination of his concern for his servant and what he knows about Jesus.
The outworking of this is seen in his following words: “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed,” (v.8b) and he goes on to explain his understanding of authority. In it he is saying, “I know all about authority, and I know about you, and in the same way that when I command my men they have to obey, so when you command sickness to leave I know it will obey you and go.
Somewhere between all that he had no doubt heard about Jesus, and his personal knowledge of authority, he had put two and two together and realised that Jesus, in the spiritual world, exercised this same authority and brought about healing in the physical realm. Somehow, we might suggest, the Holy Spirit had released faith in him, in his understanding of who Jesus was, and therefore he knew that Jesus authority could bring the healing his servant needed.
The parallel here (it’s not really an analogy but a close cousin to it) is a most remarkable one that shows us in a unique way what it means to say that the Son of God has such authority. Jesus spoke about this at various times. One well known time is when the man was lowered through the roof and Jesus first forgave his sins, which upset some of the religious observers: “Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . .” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home.” (Mt 9:4-7) If Jesus declares it, it is so.
He also imparted that authority to his disciples: “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (Mt 10:1) which perhaps was the grounds for John to be able to record later, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12)
After his resurrection we read, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Mt 28:16-18) And because of that he was able to send the disciples out to continue doing what he had been doing: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt 28:19,20) In the context of the incident with the centurion, note the strength of his words: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” That has echoes of authority within it.
John shows us that this wasn’t a matter of following a set of rules, but learning to live under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, doing what the Father did: “Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working…. I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (Jn 5:17,19) It’s all about relationship, not rules or ritual. When we have that relationship, we will have that authority and we will do what Jesus did.