The second miracle in Matthew 8 is another story of a healing, but it adds two elements not present in the first story. First, it is about a Roman centurion, which means it is about a Gentile. This indicates that the Gospel Jesus was preaching is for the entire world and not for Jewish people only. This is a recurring emphasis in Matthew, even though Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels. It begins with Gentile Magi coming to Jesus, and it ends with the command to “make disciples of all nations.” Here a Gentile approaches Jesus and is not turned away.
Matthew adds Jesus’ unexpected teaching about the heavenly banquet to be held at the end of the age. He says, “I tell you, that many will come from east and west, and recline table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those “from east and west” are Gentiles. Jesus is teaching that Gentiles will sit down with Jews at the messianic banquet – that is, Gentiles will be saved – while many of the privileged children of the kingdom, the Jews, will perish.
The healing takes place through the channel of the centurion’s faith. The centurion tells Jesus about the sad condition of his servant: “Lord, my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus says that He will heal him. But in a most surprising response, instead of merely saying, “Thank you,” and waiting for Jesus to come and perform the healing, the centurion replies, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too 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.” Jesus was so impressed with this answer that He observed He had not found any person in Israel with such faith.
Why did the centurion speak about authority? And why does Matthew include these comments? D. A. Carson explains the man’s thinking like this: All “authority” belonged to the emperor and was delegated. Therefore, because he was under the emperor’s authority, when the centurion spoke, he spoke with the emperor’s authority, and so his command was obeyed.… This self-understanding the centurion applied to Jesus. Precisely because Jesus was under God’s authority, so that when Jesus spoke, God spoke. To defy Jesus was to defy God; and Jesus’ word must therefore be vested with God’s authority that is able to heal sickness.
The greatness of this man’s faith was not merely that he believed Jesus could heal from a distance, but it was in the degree to which he had understood that Jesus spoke with God’s authority and as God. In linking faith to the matter of Jesus’ authority, as the centurion did, we see how the stories of healing carry forward the theme found at the end of chapter 7: “He taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” In chapters 5–7 Jesus taught with authority; now He is healing with authority as well.
The third miracle story in this section of Matthew is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, joined to the healing of many demon-possessed and other sick people at this time. It lets us know, as an unrelated point, that Peter was married and that he had moved from Bethsaida to Capernaum with his wife, presumably to be close to Jesus.
This healing is told briefly in Matthew but at greater length in Mark and Luke. Matthew replaces Mark and Luke’s emphasis with a reference to Isaiah which Jesus is said to have fulfilled: “He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.” What Matthew is stressing is that Jesus healed people as well as taught and that He did it in fulfillment of Biblical prophecies.
Some critics suggest that Matthew habitually misuses Old Testament texts for his own limited purposes, but all this shows is how thoroughly these scholars misunderstand Matthew. Matthew knows that Isaiah 53 is about Christ’s suffering for sin. When he supplies His own translation of the Hebrew text (“he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows,” rendered “infirmities” and “diseases”) rather than the Septuagint (“he bears our sins and is grieved for us”), he is making the point that Jesus’ healing of our sicknesses is evidence of a far more important healing of our sins, which is what these stories are actually about.
We may miss seeing this here, but we can hardly miss it in the next chapter, where Jesus tells a paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven.” When the teachers of the law complain that this is blasphemy, since only God can forgive sins, Jesus replies, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” Then, so they would know that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He healed the paralytic. The linkage between healing sickness and forgiving sins is carried into the next section as well. Jesus tells the Pharisees and everyone else who may have been complaining about His association with tax collectors and sinners, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.… I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In each of these stories, sickness is used as an illustration of sin – we might call the disease “sin-sickness” – and Jesus’ healing of those who are physically sick becomes an outward demonstration of the Lord’s more important authority over sin and His ability to forgive it.