Why do the Gospels emphasize faith in so many of Christ’s miracles? If all of His miracles were to prove His divinity and usher in His Kingdom, it naturally follows that the prominence of faith surrounding these miracles demonstrates its centrality in His Kingdom. In this new Kingdom of God, faith would be the primary distinguishing factor of its citizens—not heredity, gender, social status, upbringing, good works, or any other human factor. Faith is so important that it is impossible to please God without it (Hebrews 11:6) and any thought, motive, word, or deed that is not rooted in faith is actually sinful, no matter how good it may appear (Romans 14:23).
When we read of the various miracles in Scripture, the faith of the people involved is at the forefront of the narrative in many cases, which can lead us to think that not only miracles but all of the blessings of God are somehow dependent on the faith of the recipient. This has led to some gross misapplications of these miracles to say that if we exhibit enough faith, God is somehow compelled to bless us. The obvious counterpart to this would be to say that if God does not bless us, it can only be because we lack the appropriate level of faith. This distortion is most clearly seen in the prosperity gospel that exhorts people to display their faith by “planting seeds” in the form of monetary donations, thus compelling God to bless them with health, wealth, and happiness. However, it is not only the false teachers of the prosperity gospel that hold this view. In a more subtle form, it dwells in many American Christians, particularly in how they approach suffering. This view is so prevalent in large part because the miracles of Jesus seem to support it. However, as we examine a few of His miracles, we will see folly of this view.
Faith as the Key (But Not Magical) Ingredient
Jesus healed many people, drove out many demons, and even raised three people from the dead. These people were both male and female of various ages and from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. But a common trait is seen in many of them: faith. When He healed a woman while enroute to raise the daughter of Jairus, He told her that her faith had healed her (Matthew 9:22). He said the same to blind Bartimaeus as He restored his sight (Mark 10:52) and to ten lepers as He healed them (Luke 17:19). At other times, faith seemed to move Jesus to heal people, such as when the paralytic was lowered into the room through a hole in the roof that his faithful friends had made (Luke 5:20). Similarly, Paul observed that the crippled man in Lystra “had the faith to be made well” before healing him (Acts 14:9). These incidents seem to suggest that the faith of these people caused them to be healed, especially since Jesus told His disciples that if they prayed in faith, they would receive what they asked for (Matthew 21:22). But is faith really the stimulus to which Jesus responded by healing these people? Is it our faith that causes God to answer our prayers and work on our behalf?
To answer this, let’s look at a couple of Christ’s more spectacular healings. Of all of the people Jesus healed, only three were healed without interacting with Him at all. Interestingly, two of these three involved Gentiles. A centurion’s slave, a Gentile woman’s daughter, and a Capernaum official’s son were all healed by Jesus without ever meeting Him. We will look at the first two in some detail and contrast the third with the first to see the role faith played in these incidents.
The Centurion’s Faith
The first of these involved the Roman centurion in Capernaum. Not long after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus entered Capernaum and had a remarkable encounter with the centurion there that resulted in Jesus healing the centurion’s slave, recorded in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. A centurion was an officer in charge of one hundred Roman soldiers. At one point, I was an officer in charge of about one hundred enlisted personnel, so I can relate. This particular centurion also has the distinction of causing Jesus to marvel at him. When we consider that Jesus, being fully divine, was omniscient, it is remarkable that anything or anyone could cause Him to marvel, but one thing did: faith (both its abundance and its lack). Jesus was astonished at the incredible faith of this centurion, but was equally astonished by the lack of faith in His own hometown of Nazareth (Mark 6:6). In contrast to Christ’s friends and relatives who should have known who He really was, this centurion had remarkable insight into His true identity that no one else had at the time. But he was also remarkable in his character and reputation. Despite being a Gentile in general and a Roman occupier in particular, he was highly regarded by the Jews in Capernaum. Local Jewish leaders described him to Jesus as one who loved their nation and who had built their synagogue. Therefore, when his slave was seriously ill, he did not hesitate to ask the local Jewish leaders to go to Jesus on his behalf and ask him to heal his slave, and those leaders emphatically and wholeheartedly fulfilled that request. They even went as far as to say that this centurion deserved Jesus to heal his slave because of his righteousness in their eyes. You would he hard pressed to find a Roman official in all of Judea or Galilee at the time with such a reputation among the Jews.
But it was not this centurion’s upstanding reputation that amazed Jesus. Instead it was his faith, both understanding who Jesus is and who he was. This began with a proper understanding of who Jesus is. While Jesus was on His way, the centurion sent friends to tell Jesus that he was unworthy of Jesus even coming into his house. This stands in stark contrast to the Jews telling Jesus that he was worthy of not only a visit from Jesus but also a miracle. He knew that regardless of how righteous and upstanding he was, he did not deserve for Jesus to do anything for him, especially not for Jesus to make Himself ceremonially unclean by entering a Gentile’s house. So the centurion asks Jesus to heal his slave without entering the house but merely speaking the words. This reveals his unparalleled understanding of who Jesus was. The Jews debated over who Jesus was, with many seeing Him as some form of prophet. As such, they would have had certain expectations as to what Jesus could and could not do as a prophet. There were various stories of prophets healing people in the Old Testament, but in all of them the prophet was present with the person either before or during the healing. Instead, this centurion realized that such proximity was not required because Jesus had authority, which is something he as a military officer understood well regardless of his knowledge of Israel’s past prophets. To him, it was incredibly simple for Jesus to heal his slave. He was used to both giving and receiving orders, knowing that the power of any order comes from the authority behind it rather than in the manner in which it is given. He therefore heard about the previous miracles of Jesus and deduced that Jesus had authority to command nature just as he had authority to command his soldiers. Therefore, Jesus didn’t need to by physically present to heal his slave but merely had to give the order and nature would obey just as his soldiers obeyed him. When I was in charge of a hundred personnel, they obeyed my orders because I had the appropriate authority from my rank and position, just as I obeyed my commander I because he had been appointed over me and thus had the appropriate authority. He could be on the other side of the country or the world, but if he gave me an order, it was just as valid as if he gave it to me personally. That is how this centurion understood the authority of Jesus over nature. So to him, healing his slave was as simple as Jesus giving the order, regardless of His location.
Contrast this with the account of Jesus healing the official’s son in John 4:46-54, in which the official asked for Jesus to travel with him from Cana to Capernaum and heal his son there, leading Jesus to lament the general lack of faith of the Jews who required signs in order to believe. Conversely, this centurion believed before witnessing a miracle, realizing that Jesus had authority over nature and was therefore divine. Not even His disciples understood this yet, as evidenced by their bewilderment when He calmed the storm later in His ministry (Matthew 8:27, Luke 8:25). That was something no prophet was able to do. The closest was Elijah who prayed for a drought and then prayed for it to cease.