Thursday, May 8, 2014

Matthew 8.5-13 and Luke 7.1-10: Possible Resolutions to Tensions

I wrote the following for my high school systematic theology class when discussing the topic of inerrancy.  The whole discussion is pulled from Vern Poythress' book Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Westchester: Crossway, 2012), 17-24.

Matthew 8.5-13 and Luke 7.1-10: Possible Resolutions to Tensions[1]

Matthew 8.5-13 (ESV)
Luke 7.1-10 (ESV)

5 When he had entered Capernaum,
 a centurion
came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”

7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal
8 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.
9 For I too am a man 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.”
10 When Jesus heard this,
he marveled and
said to those who followed him,
“Truly, I tell you, with
no one in Israel have I found such faith.
11 I tell you, many will come from east
and west and recline at table with Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,
12 while the sons of the kingdom
will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.”

And the servant was healed at that very moment.

1 After he had finished all his sayings in the
hearing of the people,
he entered Capernaum.
2 Now a centurion had

a servant who was sick
and at the point of death,
who was highly valued by him.
3 When the centurion heard about Jesus,
he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking
 him to come and heal his servant. 4 And
when they came to Jesus, they pleaded
with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to
have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our
nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.”
6 And 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.
7 Therefore I did not presume to come to
But say the word, and
let my servant be healed.
8 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 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.”

10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant well.

·      Matthew: no mention of intermediaries (i.e., “elders of the Jews” and “friends”)

·      Luke: no mention that centurion met Jesus face to face; intermediaries

Possible Responses

1.     Possibility of multiple events: are these two different events being narrated?

In any case that deals with parallel passages we have to ask whether they recount the same incident or two different incidents. In this case there are many similarities between the two accounts. The centurion’s speech given in Matthew 8:9 is almost identical to Luke 7:8. We can safely conclude that we are dealing with two accounts of one event. So there is a genuine difficulty.[2]

2.     Several stages of events

a.     Postulate stages in the encounter between Jesus and the centurion

                                                        i.     Centurion first sent elders of the Jews (Luke 7.3-5)

                                                       ii.     Then centurion sent friends (Luke 7.6-8)

                                                     iii.     Then centurion came in person and repeated some of what had been said earlier (Matthew 8.5-9)

b.     Norval Geldenhuys’ view

When we bear in mind the parallel account in Matthew viii. 5–13, we must picture to ourselves that after the centurion had sent his friends to Jesus he also went to Him himself. Owing to the seriousness of the circumstances and his inner urge to go to Jesus himself, notwithstanding his feeling of unwor- thiness, he overcame his initial hesitation. Luke emphasises the fact that the centurion sent friends, while Matthew only states that the centurion went to Jesus. And so the two Gospels supplement each other.[3]

c.      Minor difficulties

                                                        i.     Centurion states explicitly that he is unworthy (Luke 7.6) and that is why he has sent others (Luke 7.7).  Yet, he then changes his mind comes for a face to face to meeting with Jesus.

But Geldenhuys supplies possible motivations by reminding us of the “seriousness of the circumstances,” by postulating an “inner urge” to come to Jesus, and by labeling his original attitude “initial hesitation” rather than a firm resolve not to come because of his unworthiness. Is all this possible? It is. Human motivations and decision making are complex and often include some wavering or change of mind.[4]

                                                       ii.     Repetiton: Luke 7.6-8 friends give speech then, according to this theory, centurion says the same thing again (Matthew 8.8-9)

In Geldenhuys’s picture of the event, the centurion repeated in person what he had said to his friends earlier. We may ask why the centurion thought he had to repeat his speech, since his friends had already delivered it. But human motivations are complex. Particularly in a situation of distress, such as the emotional turmoil the centurion experienced, he might in spite of himself repeat what he knew had already been said.[5]

3.     Representatives acting on behalf of the centurion

a.     Augustine, Calvin, and R. T. France all offer this view

His [Matthew’s] omission of the means of the centurion’s approach to Jesus is a valid literary device to highlight the message of the incident as he sees it (on the principle, common in biblical and contemporary literature, that a messenger or servant represents the one who sent him to the point of virtual identity).  R. T. France[6]

b.     Craig Blomberg points out that Matthew 27.26 and Mark 15.15 also illustrate this principle.  “Both verses report that Pilate scourged Jesus; but given the social and military protocol of the Roman world, Pilate would not have taken up the scourge in his own hands.  The verses mean that Roman soldiers would have physically handled the scourge, acting on Pilate’s orders.”[7]

What We Learn from the Differences in the Narratives

1.     Plausible harmonizations are not inspired; the texts with the differences are inspired!

a.     The differences of nuance and detail have something to teach us

b.     Beware of “flattening out” the text into a harmony

2.     Matthew stresses the centurion’s Gentile status

a.     Matthew 8.11-12

b.     Theme in Matthew’s gospel

Matthew shows repeated concern for the unique role of the Jews and the issue of Jewish rejection of Jesus. Matthew alone has the expression “sons of the kingdom”: “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer dark ness” (Matt. 8:12). These “sons of the kingdom” are Jews who are resisting his ministry. They have the privilege of having a certain nearness to “the kingdom,” that is the kingdom of God, and yet, tragically, they “will be thrown into the outer darkness.”Matthew alone includes the pointed threat, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matt. 21:43). Matthew, more than the other Gospels, emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus (Matt. 1:1–17). Twice Jesus emphasizes his ministry “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24). But Jews who presume on their heritage are in danger of being left out.

This theme is important to Matthew. It comes out pointedly in our first pas- sage, Matthew 8:5–13, because Jesus commends the centurion for his faith and contrasts this commendation with the failure in Israel: “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt. 8:10). The centurion was a Roman soldier, not a Jew. His Gentile character comes more starkly to the foreground in that Matthew does not mention “elders of the Jews” as intermediaries.[8]

3.     Luke stresses the humility of centurion

The Gospel of Luke has humility as a theme. “He [the Lord] has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14; see 14:11). Luke devotes attention to social outcasts and marginalized people: women, the poor, the sick, tax collectors, Gentiles (Luke 4:18; 7:21–23). Luke 7:1–10, by explicitly including the role of the intermediaries and by including the contrast between “worthy” (7:4) and “not worthy” (7:6), has highlighted the theme of humility and of Jesus’s mercy to the “unworthy.”[9]

4.     Conclusion

In sum, Matthew and Luke have distinctive emphases; Matthew emphasizes the centurion’s Gentile status, and Luke emphasizes his humility. Both of these emphases say something significant about the kingdom of God and Jesus’s ministry. First, the kingdom of God will include Gentiles and all who come to Jesus in faith. Jews who do not trust in Jesus are excluded. Second, those who enter the kingdom must come in humility, recognizing that they do not deserve the benefits that God offers.[10]

[1] I am dependent upon Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Westchester: Crossway, 2012), 17-24.  Online:
[2] Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, 18.
[3] Quoted in Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, 19.
[4] Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, 19.
[5] Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, 20.
[6] Quoted in Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, 21.
[7] Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, 21.
[8] Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, 23.
[9] Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, 24.
[10] Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, 24.