Jesus—His Life and Message: Healing from a Distance (Part 1)

November 28, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

Within the Gospels, there are three times when Jesus heals a person who is not in His physical presence. Two of those times, the person who receives healing is a non-Jewish foreigner, and the third time it’s possible that the person may also not have been Jewish. The first of these healings from a distance is found in both the books of Matthew and Luke. We’ll focus on Luke’s version, as it contains more detail, but points from Matthew will also be included. The account begins:

After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.”1

The centurion was a commander of 80 to 100 soldiers in the Roman army and was a Gentile. While centurions were likely viewed as symbols of Roman occupation and Jewish oppression, this particular centurion was highly regarded by the people of Capernaum. He held Israel in esteem, and had generously paid to have the local synagogue built. As a Gentile, he may have been hesitant to approach Jesus and ask for help, so instead he sent prominent Jewish social leaders as emissaries.

The Jewish leaders pleaded with Jesus to help the centurion, declaring that he was worthy of help due to his love for Israel and the aid he had given. Their desire to help him also reflects the patron-client relationship which was prevalent in the Roman era. As a patron, the centurion had helped the city, which in a sense put the Jewish elders in his debt; so beseeching Jesus to help him would have been their part as “clients” in the relationship.

The sick servant might have been a slave, as the Greek word doulos can mean both. In Matthew’s account, he uses the Greek word pais, which can be translated as a servant or son. We’re told that the centurion highly valued the servant/slave. It could be understood that the slave had a high monetary value, but it could also mean that the servant was considered a member of the centurion’s family. In Jesus’ time, and until 193 AD, Roman soldiers were not allowed to legally marry or have families during their two decades of military service,2 but they did have households, so it’s possible that this centurion considered the servant a member of his family.3 In Matthew’s account we read that the servant was lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly,4 while Luke gives less detail, only saying that he was sick and at the point of death.

Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”5 

Jesus’ immediate consent to go to the centurion’s house was probably unexpected, as Jews weren’t supposed to enter the house of a Gentile. In the book of Acts, the apostle Peter tells an assembly of Gentiles: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.”6 But Jesus departed right away with the city elders to go to the centurion’s home. By accepting the invitation to a Gentile’s house, Jesus showed that His love and compassion were not limited by race or religion.

Some of the Jewish emissaries must have gone ahead, as the centurion had heard that Jesus was coming and sent others to express his feeling of unworthiness to have Jesus enter his home. The words spoken by the friends are understood to be the exact words of the centurion. He called Jesus “Lord,” which in this case was a term of respect used for people of significance. He expressed a very different opinion of himself than the one conveyed to Jesus by the Jewish elders. To them, he was someone worthy to receive Jesus’ help; whereas he sent the message that Jesus shouldn’t go to the trouble of coming to his home, as “I am not worthy.” Undoubtedly he knew that if Jesus entered his home, He would defile Himself and be ritually unclean until evening. When referring to the possibility of Jesus entering the centurion’s home, one author wrote: For a Jewish teacher in the public eye it would be an even more defiant breach of taboo than even Jesus’ controversial mixing with “tax collectors and sinners.”7 

Not only did the centurion feel that he was unworthy to have Jesus come to his home, he also felt unworthy to go out and meet Jesus, as seen by what his friends said next on his behalf: “Therefore I did not presume to come to you.”8

His message continued:

“But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”9 

As a military commander, he understood being under authority and having authority over others. He knew that he could give orders to subordinates which would be carried out, and he understood that Jesus, too, had authority over the forces causing the illness of his slave. Thus he had full confidence that Jesus could simply give a command to heal, and that His command would be obeyed, even at a distance, without His presence.

Darrell Bock commented: It is a profound insight that the centurion possesses and expresses: even though physically absent, Jesus can show his presence effectively. The lesson is a key one for Luke’s readers, who no longer have Jesus’ physical, visible presence.10

When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”11

Throughout the Gospels we read about people marveling at the things Jesus said or did,12 but only in this instance and one other13 do we read about Jesus marveling at someone else’s actions. Jesus was amazed at this man’s statement of confidence in His supernatural authority.14 Luke’s description of Jesus’ turning to the crowd before speaking is a phrase he used throughout the Gospel to add emphasis to Jesus’ statements.15

Jesus publicly commends the centurion’s faith, declaring that even amongst the Jews He hasn’t found such faith. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says: I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.16 That’s quite a statement, considering that He is commending the faith of someone who is not Jewish. Also in Matthew’s Gospel, additional words from Jesus are included at the end of this story which make the point that all who believe, both Gentile and Jew, are the children of Abraham. Contrary to Jewish belief at the time that every Jew would be at the “messianic banquet” in God’s presence due to their lineage to Abraham, Jesus stated that many others from outside Israel would also attend—and that some Jews would be cast out.

“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at 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.”17

Jesus’ comment about the faith of the Gentile centurion foreshadowed the future a few decades ahead when the Gentiles, people from east and west, would receive the message of Jesus’ disciples and become God’s children. No longer would Gentiles be kept from the kingdom because of their ancestry, and no longer would all Jews be accepted because of theirs.

Luke’s Gospel ends this encounter with:

When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.18

Unlike other descriptions of healings within the Gospels, which focused on Jesus’ power, the focus in this case is on the centurion’s faith, and therefore no verbal command from Jesus for the servant to be healed is recorded. While the story nonetheless highlights Jesus’ authority and His ability to heal from a distance, the emphasis is placed on the Gentile centurion's faith.

Within this Gospel account, we see an example of a Gentile who exhibits faith in Jesus and receives the healing he is seeking for his servant. We recognize that Jesus’ love and care extended beyond just Israel. We also see that the authority and power which Jesus had extended over distance as well as disease.19 This can give us faith that although Jesus is not physically present with us, He still answers our prayers and is able to do miracles today. The centurion’s faith and trust in Jesus’ power and authority should be an example to us when we bring our petitions to the Lord in prayer. He approached Jesus in faith and belief, knowing He was able to do the humanly impossible. We should likewise come to Him in prayer, knowing that He is able and willing to answer our prayers according to His perfect will.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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1 Luke 7:1–5.

2 While Roman soldiers couldn't legally marry, many had wives—who were technically considered concubines—whom they officially married once they were discharged. This would also entitle any children they might have had to become Roman citizens.

3 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 226.

4 Matthew 8:6.

5 Luke 7:6.

6 Acts 10:28.

7 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 313.

8 Luke 7:7.

9 Luke 7:7–8.

10 Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50, 641.

11 Luke 7:9.

12 Matthew 9:33, 21:20, 22:22; Mark 5:20; Luke 2:33, 4:22, 8:25, 11:14; John 4:27, 7:15.

13 He marveled because of their unbelief (Mark 6:6).

14 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 314.

15 For example: Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Luke 10:23). Also Luke 7:44, 9:55, 14:25, 23:28.

16 Matthew 8:10 NIV.

17 Matthew 8:11–12.

18 Luke 7:10.

19 Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50, 644.