When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to Him, appealing to Him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And He said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” – Matthew 8:7-8 (ESV)
At first glance, this passage does not strike us as one of the most significant passages in the Gospel of Matthew, but it should. There is much to be learned here, especially as it relates to Jesus’ mission, the message of the Gospel, the proclamation of the Kingdom of heaven, God’s covenant faithfulness, and healing.
Just before we reach this story of the centurion, we read in the seventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus saying, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father in heaven’.” (7:21). Jesus follows that with another “Lord, Lord” reference, saying, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name, and cast out demons in Your Name, and do many mighty works in Your Name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness’.” (7:22-23) Those words come near the close of what is generally referred to as “the sermon on the mount.”
Shortly thereafter, right after Jesus has made these “Lord, Lord” statements, we read “When He came down from the mountain…a leper came to Him and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, if You will, You can make me clean’. And Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean’. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed” (8:1-3). One thing we can notice here, is that contrary to Jesus becoming unclean by touching the leper, Jesus actually makes the leper clean through His touch. This is contrary to the declarations of Leviticus concerning leprosy. This would not be looked upon as insignificant by those that viewed this encounter, nor by those that would hear or read about this encounter. Apart from that, the thing of which we should take greater notice is that, for the first time in the Gospel of Matthew, a person has come to Jesus and called Him “Lord”; and this has followed closely on the heels of the ominous “Lord, Lord” statements that were spoken on the mountain. Additionally, not only did the leper call Jesus “Lord,” but he also knelt before Jesus while using the title.
When Jesus gave His “Lord, Lord” warnings, what was missing from the words of prophesying, casting out demons, and doing many mighty works, was a kneeling before Jesus, in recognition that He was truly Lord. This might cause us to reflect on what Paul would write in Philippians, perhaps reflecting on the Jesus tradition of which he was aware and that was circulating in his day prior to the composition of the Gospel records, “that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:10-11). The other thing missing was the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord “to the glory of the God the Father,” as the prophesying, the casting out, and the doing of works was proceeded by the words “did we not.”
In the fourth chapter of Matthew, we read that Jesus “went all throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and affliction among the people” (4:23). The Gospel, of course, is intimately connected with the Kingdom, because the Gospel message is the proclamation of Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords. It is only shortly before this that we read of Jesus first saying “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (3:17b). We must note that He first made this proclamation, not in Jerusalem, but in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (3:15b). We also take note of the fact that this is also the first mention of healing in the Gospels, and it is bound up with Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of Heaven. As it relates to the leper of whom we have already learned, we can make the connection that his recognition of Jesus as “Lord,” and his kneeling before Him as Lord, as though he recognized Jesus as the Sovereign of a Kingdom, is what brought the healing, as the life of the age to come (the new creation, in which there is to be no sickness and no disease), breaks into the world where Jesus is recognized as Lord. In the leper’s words and actions, the Gospel of the Kingdom was preached.
This interaction with the leper occurs just before Jesus enters Capernaum and encounters the centurion. Great crowds had followed Him down from the mountain (8:1), and undoubtedly, many had witnessed the interaction with the leper. Though Jesus had told the leper “See that you say nothing to anyone” (8:4a), it is quite likely that, due to the crowds, the news had spread rather quickly. This information would have come to the ears of a Roman centurion, who would be charged with keeping peace and order. A man with large crowds following Him, about Whom such things was being reported, would put the centurion on alert. This makes his interaction with Jesus all the more interesting.