The Healing of the Nations

Matthew 8:5-13
The Gospel of Matthew is filled with stories of Jesus’ miracles, each of which is intended to teach us something important about both His identity and His purpose (which are really one in the same thing) – but these little details are often easy to miss or overlook in favor of the miracle itself.

When Jesus heals a leper, gives sight to the blind, or tells a lame man to walk, we see the miracle itself (rightly) as a sign of Jesus’ power and of His Lordship. Jesus is again and again demonstrating His power as one in the same with the creator God.

There is certainly nothing wrong with seeing the miracles in this way, but it is often clear that the Gospel writers want us to see much more than that, as well. They want us to see these miracles as the fulfillment of a long history of expectation; they want us to see that Jesus is not just God come to rescue us from damnation, but God come to heal the world, to usher in a new creation, to make life more abundant for all who would find their rest in Him.

The story of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8 is one of those stories that it is easy to read past too quickly, and in so doing we miss the many little details that make the story so much more than just “another miracle”. Here, however, I want to focus on just one of these details (but by no means not the only one), as it provides just a bit more nuance as to what Jesus is actually accomplishing in this encounter.

When we see a Roman centurion coming to a Jewish teacher in a remarkable expression of faith, we are meant to note, first, that he is a Gentile. In fact, he is not only a Gentile, but a symbol of Roman authority. He is not only a non-Jew, he is part of the subjugation of Israel. He is the enemy. It is a bold step by Jesus (so it seems) outside of the realm of Jewish orthodoxy.

But Jesus’ willingness to serve and heal those outside of Israel shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the Jews of Jesus’ day. Those in Israel who devoutly sought guidance from the scriptures would have recognized the promise now being fulfilled in Jesus’ miracles.

Among the most consistent themes woven into the prophecies of the Old Testament was the future blessing to and conversion of the nations. Haggai writes of a future temple as a place so glorious that by it, God would “shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts” (Hag. 2:6-7).

Isaiah also wrote of thus future reality in numerous locations, including in the opening chapters of the book, where God declared:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
    that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
   and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”

Isaiah 2:2-3

In fact, the origin of this promise goes all the way back to the very beginning of Scripture. It is the reality underlying creation itself. It is the hope that undergirds God’s command to Adam that He “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). The duty of Adam and Eve was to take the glory and splendor of the Garden and carry it outward, bringing the glory and blessing of God – and, consequently, His blessings – to the farthest reaches.

While Adam and Eve failed to carry out this purpose, God reaffirmed his goal in renewing the Covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:1), and with Abraham, to whom God promised not just to make his family great, but to make them a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3).

This was always to be the driving purpose of God’s people in the world. God’s intention was never to make Israel great for its own sake, but so they would be a reflection of God in the world, extending His blessings to all people and drawing them in.

Here, then, as Jesus reaches outside of Israel to heal the centurion’s servant, He is not just paying homage to the promises God had made to Israel – He is actively fulfilling them and making them come true. This is good news, certainly, but there is a practical component as well for every Christian.

Later in His ministry Jesus declares that these same promises continue to come true through us. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink… Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38). This is the same “living water” that was prophesied in Ezekiel 47, flowing out of the temple of God and bringing life to dead places, and it is the same river that John later sees flowing out of the church, beside which grows the “tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit…” with leaves that are “for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).

This is the reality demonstrated by Christ in His healing of the centurion’s servant (along with other miracles), and it is the reality still being lived out by the Church today, and it is a reality that has only been made possible through the work of Christ.