In Matthew 8:11-12 we encounter one of Jesus’ most controversial statements. In reaction to the extraordinary faith of the Roman centurion Jesus declares, “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.”
Jesus responds to the faith of the centurion with a prophecy that Jewish people will return from exile (those who “will come from east and west”) to the land of Israel and dine as guests at a banquet hosted by the Patriarchs. This future banquet is just one of the many ways that the Hebrew Bible spoke about the kingdom of God that is yet to come.
But why does Jesus link the faith of this Gentile with a prophecy concerning the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel? Many have mistakenly concluded that he is reapplying “those from east and west” to Gentile Christians and making a contrast between Gentile Christians and the nation of Israel. They believe the point of this passage is to teach that Gentile Christians have replaced Israel as God’s people.
Unfortunately, these individuals have missed the point of Jesus’ “Old” Testament imagery! The prophets did envision the restoration of Israel but they also envisioned the conversion of the Gentiles who would turn to God in faith as a result of Israel’s salvation. The restoration of Israel and the conversion of the Gentiles are inseparable events. The faith of the Roman centurion demonstrates that the kingdom of God has arrived. In fact, it confirms, rather than denies, God’s covenant faithfulness to the Jewish people.