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.” (Matthew 8:10-12)
A sea change underlies the interaction between Jesus and the Roman centurion in Matthew 8—one which we, two thousand years later, are apt to miss.
Their conversation, and Jesus’ response to it, represents a change in the way human beings would relate to God going forward, a way intimately related to—but distinct from—the way they had done so in the past.
This change reversed the expectations of many in Israel at that time, and it lies at the root of Jesus’ continual confrontations with the Pharisees, confrontations which eventually led to his crucifixion.
The Shift Away from Ethnicity as the Marker of Relationship with God
Jesus both embodied and spoke out a message that with the coming of God’s kingdom to earth, covenantal relationship with God would no longer be limited to one ethnic family.
Moreover, entry into the covenant would not be depend on external, flesh-based signs like circumcision, which had been the distinguishing mark of God’s people since the time of Abraham.
God had set up a covenantal system that revolved around one family and that family’s faithfulness to certain signs, rituals, and laws. Now he was declaring that system to be on its way out, and the doors to covenantal relationship were about to swing wide to the nations.
To many within ethnic Israel in Jesus’ day, this was not a welcome revelation.
Let’s take a moment to think about the players in this conversation. Jesus is an itinerant rabbi in the north of Israel, a young Jewish man who is proclaiming the coming of God’s long-awaited kingdom.
For his countrymen, “kingdom come” carried a lot of expectations: foremost among them, that Israel would soon throw off the rule of pagan, Gentile empires and be restored to an eminent position of power among the nations.
They expected their religion, centered on the temple, to be purified and restored, and they expected to have victory over their enemies.
The Roman centurion in this story is one of those enemies. He represents the power of Gentile, pagan peoples over Israel. He represents the nations, the unholy world outside of covenant with God, from whom Israel had been careful to separate themselves.
While he himself may have been seen as a God-fearing man who had a decent relationship with the Jewish leaders (the Luke 7 version of the story indicates this was the case), in both his race and his role this man represents the division between Israel and the nations.
The presence of Roman centurions in Israel represented everything that was understood to be wrong with Israel’s situation in this time. The whole expectation of Israel was that when God arrived to bring his kingdom, he would show his glory by throwing people like this out.
For Jesus to honor the centurion’s faith and even exalt it above the faith of his own people—those who belonged to ethnic Israel and were faithful to their ancient covenant with God—was, frankly, offensive.
But he goes even further. He declares that this man, and many others like him, coming from the Gentile nations on every side, will sit down in the kingdom and eat with the ethnic patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And meanwhile, many of the physical descendants of those men would be cast out.
Back to the Faith of Abraham
At first glance Jesus seems to be contradicting the Old Testament in his assertion that the Gentiles will sit down in the kingdom of God on the basis of their faith, while the “sons of the kingdom” (those ethnically in line for it) will be thrown out.
But in fact, he isn’t. Paul would later explain, in Galatians and Romans primarily, that Abraham himself was a Gentile, and he was chosen and made righteous by God not on the basis of his circumcision or ethnic descent but on the basis of his faith.
And from the very beginning, this held true through the generations. No one was really ever “right with God” on the basis of ethnicity, but on the basis of faith.
We can see this vividly “typed” in the first few generations, where the patriarchs each have multiple sons, and those who are “of the flesh” are rejected while those who are “of the promise” are chosen.
Ishmael and Isaac. Esau and Jacob.
Even in Jacob’s family, birth orders and inheritance rights get shuffled around, with Judah and Joseph rising to firstborn preeminence over Reuben, and with Joseph’s second son, Ephraim, inheriting the firstborn portion.
This is why Paul can say, as though it should be perfectly obvious, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants” (Romans 9:6-7).
The Old Covenant, the law given to Israel which included physical circumcision as its membership sign, kept a people group in relationship with God for good or for ill.
But on an individual basis, righteousness and relationship were always a matter of faith.
Seen in this light, there’s a Jesus-like ring to the words of Isaiah in Isaiah 51:
Listen to Me, you who pursue righteousness,
you who seek the LORD:
Look to the rock from which you were cut,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father,
and to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain.
When I called him, he was only one;
I blessed him and made him many.
My righteousness is near,
My salvation appears,
and My arms will bring justice to the nations.
The coastlands will put their hope in Me,
and they will look to My strength. (Isaiah 51:1-2, 5)
In Spirit and in Truth
Although covenant with God had always been a matter of faith, for several thousand years this faith was primarily seen as available for the children of one ethnic family, and it was practiced through the laws and rituals given to that ethnic family.
Gentiles could convert, but they had to “become Jewish” in order to do so fully. They had to be circumcised, come to Jerusalem to worship, and physically enter the nation of Israel.
Jesus makes it clear that in the new era he had come to bring, this would no longer be the case. In John 4, he told the woman at the well that in the days ahead, people would no longer come to Jerusalem to worship. Instead, “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).
Paul explains it this way, again referring back to Old Testament precedent:
Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, then understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and told the good news ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you. So those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith. (Galatians 3:6-9)
From Flesh to Spirit (and the Choices Before Us)
Ultimately, this shift from ethnic “membership” in the people of God to faith-based “membership” in the people of God is a shift in overall orientation from flesh to spirit.
From externals to internals.
From conformity with a community to individual alignment with the Spirit of God …
… which in itself creates a new kind of community.
This leaves us with choices and challenges. Like the people of Jesus’ day, we’re asked to remake our conception of the world. To redefine what defines us.
In a Spirit-oriented, faith-based life, how do we define family? Or fruitfulness? Legacy? Love?
How do we measure “in” and “out”? What determines our attitudes toward other people, cultures, or groups?
How do we read history, when we no longer have the option of defining ourselves primarily by inclusion in an ethnic or political group?
All of these challenges faced Jesus’ listeners. His praise of the centurion’s “great faith” must have rocked their worlds.
But I have no doubt that when Peter, several years later, led the first Gentile convert to the Lord and saw him baptized in the Holy Spirit—along with his entire household—he remembered this encounter and the challenge it brought.
You see, that first Gentile convert was another Roman centurion, and his conversion kicked off a major controversy within the early church about the basis of acceptance into Christ.
When it comes to shifting from flesh to spirit, it takes us a long time to get it.
But the challenge is worth wrestling with. One day, all who are of faith, children of God by the Spirit of God, will sit down in the kingdom with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I expect that will be one incredible dinner conversation.
Better prepare your part of the conversation now.
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This is Part 103 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.