Now when he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him and pleaded with him, Bible see other translations

This record about the centurion is also found in Luke 7:1-10.

“a centurion came to him.” This verse reflects the custom of “agency” in the biblical world, as well as the custom of using an intermediary to represent oneself to a person of “higher” position, power, or influence, instead of direct person-to-person negotiation. Although the text seems to say that the centurion came to Christ, that actually never happened, as we can see from the parallel record in Luke 7:1-10. Instead, the centurion sent intermediaries who acted as his agents to speak to Christ. The custom of agency is that a representative, intermediary, or “agent” can speak and act on full behalf of the one who sent him.

There were various reasons that a person would use an agent or intermediary, and although the functions often overlapped and an intermediary would also be an agent, there were differences between an intermediary and an agent. If a powerful person needed work done that he himself could not do, he used an agent who was empowered to speak and act on his behalf. If a person of less status or power needed something from someone of more status, he used an intermediary who often also acted as an agent. It often happened in the biblical world that a person of high rank or position simply would not bother to see someone who was considered somehow “lower,” especially since that lower individual almost always needed something. It therefore was incumbent on that lower person to find an intermediary who would be considered respectable enough to actually get an audience with the person of higher rank. That was the case here in Matthew 8. The centurion, who was a Roman soldier and Gentile, would likely have thought that a great healer and rabbi like Jesus would never see him, so he sent intermediaries as agents to make contact for him. Another example in the Gospels is when some Greeks wanted to see Jesus, they went to Philip and asked to see him rather than trying to go to Jesus himself (John 12:21).

Because of the very limited nature of communication in the biblical world, it was necessary, especially for people of status and power, to use agents to represent them and get their work done. The agent would speak and act with full authority of the one who sent him—as if he was in fact that person. In the Bible agents sometimes speak in third person, as when a prophet says, “The Lord says…,” but sometimes the agent can so fully represent the principal that the agent actually uses the word “I” or speaks as if he were the principal that he represents. In our modern world the concept of agency is commonly practiced in what is known as power of attorney. The person with the power of attorney speaks on full behalf of the person, the principal, who gave him the power or attorney.

In Roman custom, an agent of the Emperor was called the Imperial Legate, although today the word “legate” usually refers to a representative of the Pope. The Greeks used the word presbeuō (pronounced pres-'boo-ō), which occurs in 2 Corinthians 5:20. The Jews had the same custom, where the agent was regarded as the principal person himself. This is well expressed in The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion:

“Agent (Heb. Shaliah): The main point of the Jewish law of agency is expressed in the dictum, ‘a person’s agent is regarded as the person himself’ (Ned. 72b; Kidd. 41b). Therefore any act committed by a duly appointed agent is regarded as having been committed by the principal, who therefore bears full responsibility for it with consequent complete absence of liability on the part of the agent.”a

One major difference between the biblical agent and an agent in our modern world is that today the agent makes it clear that he is an agent, and not the principal, but that was not always the case in biblical times, as we will see from the examples below. That means that in reading the biblical text we must often study the scope of Scripture to see if the principal or an agent is speaking.

The record of Jesus healing the Roman centurion’s servant is a clear example of agency (and the use of intermediaries). Reading only Matthew 8:5-13, it seems clear that a Roman centurion came to Jesus to ask him to heal his servant. Scripture records the scene as if the centurion and Jesus are having a conversation. However, when the same record is read in Luke 7:1-10, we find that the centurion never actually spoke with Jesus, but in fact had acted through agents, in this case, Jewish elders. The concept of principal and agent was so firmly cemented in the minds of the people of the first-century culture, both Jews and Gentiles, that people had no problem harmonizing Matthew and Luke and seeing that when Matthew said, “a centurion came to him [Jesus]” it meant he came in the form of the agents he sent.

One reason that it is so important to understand the law of agency is that Christians are agents of Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, the Greek text says we are the presbeuō (#4243 πρεσβεύω) of Jesus Christ. Although presbeuō is usually translated “ambassador” in our English Bibles, in the Greco-Roman world it was used for elders, ambassadors, and legates. As was stated above, the Emperor of Rome used legates—people who spoke and acted in his place—to get his work done across the empire. Similarly, there are times when Christians speak and act for Jesus. There are clear places in the New Testament when people did healings or miracles and identified themselves as agents of Jesus Christ by using the formula, “in the name of Jesus Christ,” that is, “by the authority of Jesus Christ” (Acts 3:6; 16:18). However, there are times when believers simply represented Christ without using any kind of formula that identified them as agents of Christ (cp. Acts 9:34, 40; 13:10-11; 14:10). If we Christians are going to be fully effective in this world, we must recognize that we are agents of Jesus Christ and many times he will use us to do his work.

The lack of knowledge of the custom of agency has caused a lot of confusion when it comes to properly understanding the Bible, especially in the area of the Trinity. Many Trinitarians see verses where angels refer to themselves as “God,” and instead of properly seeing that the angels are simply agents of God who can speak on His behalf, they try to prove the Trinity. The Bible has a number of records where an agent of God is referred to as “God” or “the LORD,” but those verses only show that God used angels as His agents to do His work. The prophets spoke for God, but it was God’s angel-agents who represented Him so powerfully that the biblical text and people sometimes referred to seeing them as having seen God. The following are examples of angels actually standing in the place of God such that afterwards the human beings involved said they had encountered God Himself. We must emphasize, however, that when angels acted as God’s agents, their identity as angels is unmistakably preserved in Scripture. The Bible says they were angels, and they were angels.

HAGAR AND THE ANGEL (Gen. 16:7-14). In Genesis 16:7-10, 13-14, the angel who appears to Hagar speaks as God, identifies himself with God, and claims to exercise the prerogatives of God. Many orthodox Bible commentators say Old Testament accounts of angelic manifestations such as this one are appearances of Jesus in his “preincarnate” state, but there are Trinitarian commentators who recognize that is an inference, and never directly stated. For example, Charles Ryrie calls this use of “the angel of the Lord” a “theophany, a self-manifestation of God.” However, Ryrie does recognize that the doctrine that this “angel” is the preincarnate Christ is an inference based on Trinitarian doctrine; it is never directly stated in the Bible.b

We assert that when Ryrie and other theologians say that in these “theophanies,” God Himself is present and acting in the form of the preincarnate Christ, they are missing the point that the angel is an angel acting as an agent of God. Trinitarian theologians often say that Jesus is probably “the angel of the Lord” because the angel of the Lord never appears after Jesus’ birth, and it seems “reasonable” to Trinitarians that the angel of the Lord would appear in the Bible until the end. But the angel of the Lord does appear after Jesus’ conception, as we can see from Matthew 1:24. Since Jesus was already in Mary’s womb when the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph we can conclude that “the angel of the Lord” cannot be Jesus. Furthermore, once Jesus ascended, he took charge of God’s creation, so there would be no need to emphasize that it was an angel of God.

The NIV Study Bible acknowledges the principle of divine agents being identified with God Himself, and says:

“Since the angel of the Lord speaks for God in the first person and Hagar is said to name ‘the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,”’ the angel appears to be both distinguished from the Lord (in that he is called ‘messenger’—the Hebrew for ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’) and identified with him. Similar distinction and identification can be found in Gen. 19:1, 21; 31:11, 13; Exod. 3:2, 4; Judg. 2:1-5; 6:11-12, 14; 13:3, 6, 8-11, 13, 15-17, 20-23; Zech. 3:1-6; 12:8. Traditional Christian interpretation has held that this ‘angel’ was a preincarnate manifestation of Christ as God’s messenger-Servant. It may be, however, that, as the Lord’s personal messenger who represented him and bore his credentials, the angel could speak on behalf of (and so be identified with) the One who sent him. Whether this ‘angel’ was the second person of the Trinity remains therefore uncertain.”c

We are glad that scholars like Ryrie and the authors of the NIV Study Bible accept the possibility that it could have been an angel, not the “preincarnate Christ” who spoke to Hagar, but we strongly assert that the Bible says in black and white that the speaker was an angel. In order to make the jump from the speaker being an angel to the speaker being the preincarnate Christ, there would have to be some clear scriptural evidence, and that evidence does not exist. The biblical record makes it clear that Hagar was speaking to an angel of God acting as God’s agent.

SODOM AND GOMORRAH (Gen. 19:1-15, 21). God is said to have destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah but actually, He sent two angels to do the job. The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening (Gen. 19:1). They informed Lot that “we” are going to destroy this place. Lot called the angels “my lords” (Gen. 19:18), asking them if he could flee to Zoar. God spoke via the angels: “He” [God, singular, not “they,” the angels] said to Lot that his request was granted. Then Yahweh rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire, and He overthrew those cities (Gen. 19:24). These Scriptures combine to portray a beautiful picture of agency. Of course, God is the One who supplied the power and authority, but the angels did the work. We use the same kind of language today. The owner of a construction company might be showing off some of the buildings his company had built. He might well say, “I built that building over there,” and everyone would understand that he did not actually do the physical work, but was the planner and the authority behind the job.

JACOB’S DREAM (Gen. 31:11-13). Jacob said to his wives, “The angel of God said to me in a dream…I am the God of Bethel…” Jacob’s statement shows that the concept of agency was not confusing to the people who knew the customs and the culture. Jacob was comfortable saying that an angel said, “I am the God of Bethel.”

JACOB WRESTLES WITH “GOD” (Gen. 32:24-30). In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestled with “a man” until daybreak (Gen. 32:24), but in verse 30, Jacob said he had “seen God face to face.” We might think this was one of the times that God took on the form of a man in order to better relate to mankind (for information on God appearing in human form, see commentary on Acts 7:55). However, the book of Hosea speaks of the same record and lets us know that the one who wrestled with Jacob was an angel (Hos. 12:3-4). Thus, the one who is called “God” in Genesis is identified as an angel in Hosea, a clear example of agency.

MOSES AND THE BURNING BUSH (Exod. 3:2, 4, 6, 16). Exodus 3:2 says, “The angel of Yahweh appeared to him [Moses] in flames of fire from within a bush.” Yet the record then goes on to say that “God” and “Yahweh” spoke to Moses. The reader has to pay attention in this record because, although the angel is said to be in the fire, the record never actually says the angel speaks. It is possible that this is an example of agency and the angel spoke for God, or it could be that the angel was involved with the fire and when Moses drew near the bush, then Yahweh Himself spoke.

TRAVEL IN THE WILDERNESS (Exodus-Deuteronomy). Understanding the concept of agency allows us to better understand the records of the Lord accompanying the Israelites in the wilderness. Some records indicate an angel was in the pillar of fire, while others indicate that it was God in the pillar of fire (cp. Exodus 13:21; 14:19; 23:20-23). Exodus 23:21 gives us more evidence of the custom of agency because God said that His “name” was “in” the angel. A study of the culture and language shows that the word “name” stood for “authority.” Examples are very numerous, but space allows only a small selection. Deuteronomy 18:5 and 18:7 speak of serving in the “name” (authority) of the Lord. Deuteronomy 18:22 speaks of prophesying in the “name” (authority) of the Lord. In 1 Samuel 17:45, David attacked Goliath in the “name” (authority) of the Lord, and he blessed the people in the “name” (authority) of the Lord. In 2 Kings 2:24, Elisha cursed troublemakers in the “name” (authority) of the Lord. These scriptures are only a small sample, but they are very clear. God told the Israelites to obey the angel because God’s name, i.e., His authority, was in him, and thus the angel represented God. Today we use “the name of Jesus Christ,” meaning the authority of Jesus Christ.

THE ISRAELITES AND THE ANGEL (Judg. 2:1-5). Judges 2:1 identifies the speaker as “An angel of the LORD” (many English versions say “The angel,” but the Hebrew text is “an angel”), and verse 4 also says the speaker was an angel. But then the angel says “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land…,” speaking in the first person as if he were God.

GIDEON AND THE ANGEL (Judg. 6:11,12,14,16,22). Judges 6:11, 12, say that an angel spoke to Gideon. However, in verses 14 and 16, “the LORD” spoke. This may be confusing to English readers, but Gideon was not confused. In Judges 6:22 he said, “I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” Gideon knew the custom of agency, and had no trouble understanding that the angel could represent God.

MANOAH AND THE ANGEL (Judg. 13). The record in Judges 13 is very interesting because when the angel first showed up, Manoah and his wife did not recognize him as an angel, they thought he was a man of God (Judg. 13:3, 6, 21). Finally, they realized it was an angel (Judg. 13:21). However, immediately after Manoah realized that, he exclaimed, “We are doomed to die, we have seen God” (Judg. 13:22). So Manoah knew he had seen an angel, but he also knew the angel was God’s agent and representative, so he said he had seen God.

BEFORE GOD OR BEFORE THE JUDGE? The concept of agency can cause translators some real difficulties. The Hebrew word elohim can refer to “God” (which is how it is used most often), “a god,” “gods” (because elohim is plural), “angels,” “heavenly beings,” or human beings who represent God, such as judges. So in verses like Exodus 21: 6, different translators think differently: “Then his master shall bring him unto the judges” (KJV and NIV); “Then his master shall bring him to God” (NASB and RSV).

Exodus 21:6 is about a slave who did not want to be released. In those cases, the master was to bring him to “the elohim” to become a slave forever. But does elohim mean “God” or “judges?” Because the judges represented God as his agents on earth, they are called by His name, “elohim.” There is a sense in which both of the above translations are correct. The judges did in fact represent God, elohim, and so were called elohim. But also, in bringing the slave to the judges, he was being brought to God, elohim. In this case, because the actual representatives of God were the judges, and it was the judges who actually witnessed the slave’s vow, “judges” seems to be the better contextual translation of elohim in Exodus 21:6 and 22:8, 11.

It is important to understand the custom of agency and the use of intermediaries to properly understand the Bible, and the Bible contains examples of men being agents of other men, men being agents of God, and angels being agents of God. It also helps to remember that the custom of agency was much more prevalent in biblical times than it is today. Our swift and reliable means of direct communication, such as by telephone or email, or swift travel by car, train, and airplane, have made the actual practice of agency much less necessary.

[For more on the use of intermediaries, see commentary on John 12:21.]

Werblowsky and Wigoder, Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, 15.
Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, text note on Genesis 16:9.
The NIV Study Bible (1984), text note on Genesis 16:7.

Commentary for: Matthew 8:5