It is not often that we think about the way in which the sinless God-Man–living in the world that He and His Father had created, and yet, living among fallen mankind–was affected by His surroundings. The Scriptures speak of Christ’s astonishment at the unbelief and the faith of the men He had made–in response to His claims about Himself. William Law, in his though-provoking little book The Emotions of Jesus, offers some meditations on the astonishment of Jesus in His earthly ministry. Law noted:
Though little is directly reported of it in the Gospels, this also belonged to the perfection of our Lord Jesus. No one has ever lived in such a marvelous world as He, to whom “the glory in the grass and splendor in the flower ” continually revealed the diviner miracle of a Heavenly Father’s munificent love and care. No one ever felt as He did the wonder of God—the infinite majesty and the infinite tenderness, the infinite purity and infinite forgiveness of God. No one has ever felt as He did the wonder of man, of the human soul with its heights and depths, its heroisms of love and loyalty, virtue and self-sacrifice, its marvels too of baseness and ingratitude—the amazingness of sin.
Yet it was not the virtues or the vices of men that most excited the wonder of Jesus. What He is expressly said to have shown Himself astonished at was their faith and unbelief.1 When He came to His own and His own received Him not, He was stirred out of His habitual calm. He was not taken by surprise. He recognized that His was the common experience of God’s messengers: “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and among his own kin.” Still, He marveled at it. Such blindness, such perversity is really amazing, nor does it become less so by repetition. And when He came to those to whom He was a stranger, like a Roman centurion or a woman of Canaan, and they showed a penetrating insight into His character, and received Him with prompt welcome and vigorous faith, again He marveled. If. was wonderful that they whose faith had such distances to travel and such obstacles to surmount should unerringly find their way to Him—a thing to think upon with wondering thankfulness.
The instance of faith which specially excited His wonder and admiration was that of a Roman officer, who, when he sought from Jesus the healing of a favorite slave, expressed his conviction that Jesus could bring this about from the spot where He was standing as easily as by His actual presence at the sick-bed. “For I myself,” he says, “am a man of subordinate rank, owing obedience to my superiors; and I again have under me soldiers, and when I say to one, Go, he goes; and to another, Come, he comes; and to my servant, Do this, he does it” And he is sure that Jesus in the region of His activity is vested with an authority no less efficacious and far-reaching. If at the word of a centurion the well-drilled cohort moved like a piece of perfect mechanism, at the word of Jesus the legions of heaven, the angels of healing, will instantly obey. It was at this Jesus marveled. He had never before found faith like this, so swift yet so sure, flying like an arrow to the heart of truth. He had not found it in His own disciples; He had not found it in all Israel, not in a single representative of a nation whose history was shot through with religious ideas and hopes. It was reserved for this Gentile, this mere hanger-on to the skirts of the Chosen People, to form this original and daring conception of Christ’s power, to see under the humble exterior of the Prophet of Nazareth the great Commander of the invisible powers of the Kingdom of God, and to set on His head the Messiah’s crown.
It is evident that the element of unexpectedness entered into this wonder of Jesus. To find such faith in such a quarter was to come upon an Elim in an arid wilderness. The centurion was a pioneer soul, who followed no man’s lead, but made a path in which others should follow. The story of every mission field has to tell of such pioneer souls; everywhere, indeed, they are the makers of history in the Kingdom of God. Yet our Lord’s wonder is not merely the wonder of surprise; it is the deeper wonder of admiration. Such faith as the centurion’s is wonderful in itself, not merely because of its exceptional circumstances. There is something marvelous in all religious faith. So marvelous is it that to Jesus it once seemed a question worth asking, whether at His coming He should find faith in the earth. We think it wonderful if any man is an infidel, whereas really it is much more marvelous that any man is a believer. Just as we esteem it strange if any one is dumb, or lacks any of his senses, or is an idiot, whereas the true marvel is not dumbness but speech, not idiocy but intelligence; so, I say, the most wonderful thing about the human soul is not its worldliness, its atheism, but is its persistent and unconquerable faith in God and the spiritual world.
1 Wickedness has its marvels as well as goodness; unbelief as well as faith.
Nicholas T. Batzig is the organizing pastor/church planter of New Covenant Presbyterian Church, a PCA church in Richmond Hill, Georgia.