Beyond the Lectionary Text: John 4:46-54
by Lora Copley
Jesus is no Ned Flanders. The “okely-dokely” nooberly-nice Evangelical neighbor of the Simpsons is a far cry from the Lord, who can come off as needlessly harsh, even rude. Who says to a desperate father–with a feverish son at death’s door- “unless you people see miracles, you won’t believe?” Who says to a desperate mother–with a daughter tormented by a demon – “It’s not right to give dogs the kids’ food?” Even Jesus’ response to his own mother seems callous “Woman, what is that to me? It’s not my hour.”
What is going on? This poor dad.
First, we have to look at the context. It all starts two chapters earlier, back in Cana, when Jesus does his first sign, and because of the sign “his disciples believed in him (2:11). Then Jesus goes down to Jerusalem for Passover where, in chapter 2:23, “many people saw his signs and believed in him…but Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew what people were like.” (also cf 2:18) In contrast, while on his way back to Galilee, a whole Samaritan town put their faith in him, not because of signs, but (vs. 41) “because of his word.” (“logon” is singular) The text emphasizes: “We no longer believe because of what you (Samaritan woman) have said; now we’ve heard for ourselves, and we know this man really is the Savior of the world (4:42.)
Jesus just gets back to his own neck of the Galilee woods and people are welcoming him. But John presents the welcome with suspicion (vs. 44). Why? Because the welcome is based on the miraculous–“for they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem.”
The gospel writer is clearly calling his readers to examine their belief. Is our faith based on the spectacular, the eye-catching, the crowd-pleasing? If so, what happens to it when Jesus’ work reveals the opposite–when it’s about mundane obedience, or suffering, or the repulsiveness of the cross? (cf. Bruner, John, pg 287) To put another way: what happens to our faith when it must be grounded in the ear and not the eye?
Enter the royal official. This “king’s man” (βασιλικ «?ς) from Capernaum was probably not at the Passover festival. For one thing, as a “royal official,” he’s on King Herod’s payroll and Herodians aren’t known for their piety. Secondly, as a father, he’s been helplessly at the bedside of his young son, agonizing as the boy’s sickness goes from bad to worse. By now, the fever had taken over and death is knocking at the door.
Most likely this nobleman gets a report from folks who had been in Jerusalem, saw what Jesus had done and knew the miracle worker is only 20 miles away in Cana. Never mind that Cana means “zeal” and some consider it a Zealot stronghold, not a place to put out the welcome mat for Herodians. Never mind that twenty miles means a sixteen hour journey, there and back again. This man’s son is dying and he’ll endure anything for his boy to be made well.
The official gets up before dawn and arrives to Jesus around noon, begging for a healing. But Jesus puts him off. Or can we say, he pushes on the man’s faith. “Unless you see a sign, no, you folks won’t believe.”
The man grabs on “Sir, come with me! This is life or death for my boy.”
Then Jesus makes the man move his faith from his eye to his ear. He does not come with the man, but only gives him a word, as the sundial shows one o’clock, “Go home. Your son lives.”
What? Can that even happen? A long-distance miracle? That’s not how it works! Elijah had to lay on the Zarepheth’ widow’s son. Elisha did the same for the Shunammite’s son. Moses threw in wood to heal the water. Can this man not even be physically present, but just speak a word and twenty miles away a dying boy revives? What kind of power is this? What kind of Word is this?
Jesus will not go with the man. And so began the most agonizing turn back. The official had planned to get Jesus to come with him. But “best laid plans often go astray.” He didn’t get what he planned. What he got was Jesus’ word.
Can you see the father, heart pounding, on that journey back saying “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Each step forward becomes the prayer of every disciple: “Lord, increase my faith!” Lu17:5.
It’s a good prayer, for “without faith it is impossible to please God.” Hebrews 11:6
The pattern revealed in this text happens all through Scripture. God has us move out on faith, without any real certainty, not knowing what is going to happen, without having the miracle yet. But moving out as if we did. Moving out on just the Word.
- Think of the healing of the lepers–they had to move, without a healing, to show themselves to the priest. It was only on the way that they were healed.
- Think of the disciples, seating the 5,000+ on the green grass. Jesus had never done a miracle with food or of that magnitude before. They didn’t know what he was up to yet they obeyed the word to sit the people down to eat.
- Think of the armies of Joshua, Gideon or Jehoshaphat who had to move out in faith that the battle was theirs, and only as they were moving, did God’s ambushes fall.
- Or think of the previous sign in Cana. The wedding servants had to draw water and hand it to the master of the banquet before they knew a miracle occurred.
In each case, there is a risky action of faith and obedience–where it feels like you’ve just died to yourself, your will, and your reason– and then there’s a space, and then God’s hand.
We live by faith, not by sight. We move on the “assurance of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1) Or to put another way: “Man does not live by signs or facts or eyes alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Even when every reality seems discouraging, even when Jesus himself seems discouraging (to this Herodian father, to the SyroPhoenican mother, to his own mom), faith doggedly hangs on and sees the Savior beyond the severity. “Increase my faith.”
Jesus wanted the salvation of more than just the official’s son. He wanted the salvation of the official himself. He wanted the salvation of even the official’s family. And to do that, the official had to stake his faith on more than just signs and wonders, but on Jesus Himself. So Jesus doesn’t give the official what he asked for. He gives him better. He gives what he needs.
When the night was drawing, and the official was still on the agonizing road of obedience, his servants met him with the good news. His son turned from death to life at 1o’clock. As the official realized that Jesus accomplished the impossible, by the sheer re-creative power of his Word, I rather think his heart sang these words before Cowper ever penned them: Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace. Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.
The official becomes a poster child for the whole point of John’s gospel: “Then Jesus told him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Jesus performed many other signs … But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:29-30).”
One of the first full-fledged celebrities in America was a tightrope walker named Charles Blondin. In the mid-1800s he wowed everyone. Abraham Lincoln even mentioned the Great Blondin in a couple of his campaign speeches.
It’s June 30, 1859 and Blondin was attempting what no one had done. He was going to cross the Niagara Falls from New York to Ontario on a tightrope. Some records say a 100,000 people show up.
Blondin asks the crowd if they believe he could cross. Some shout “We believe!” Some say, “Pass the popcorn.” But there he goes: crossing the 1,100 foot expanse, over the churning waters 160 feet below him.
Blondin makes it across, no problem. The crowd is abuzz — they just witnessed the impossible. So when asked if they believe Blondin could cross blindfolded, the crowd gets into it a little more, “Yes, we believe!”
Blondin does it. A third time he asks the crowd, “Do you believe I can cross pushing a wheelbarrow?” (And it’s a wobbly, wooden 1850’s wheelbarrow!)
But he does it again. People go nuts. Women take out their smelling salts.
Finally, Blondin pulls out all the stops. “Do you believe the Great Blondin can cross the Niagara… (yes! yes!) pushing the wheelbarrow …(yes! yes! we saw it with our own eyes!) with a man in it?” The crowd in a fervor chants back, “We believe! We believe! We believe!”
“And now… who will get in the wheelbarrow?”
Silence. Crickets. “Anyone? Hello? Anyone?”
No one in the crowd of tens of thousands fans– who moments before shouted, “We believe, we believe!”– offered to get into the wheelbarrow.
Belief is more than stirred-up emotions. Belief is more than intellectual assent. Belief, trust, is putting our life on the line and getting into Jesus’ wheelbarrow.
It’s easy to join Blondin’s crowd and holler “we believe!” We put it on our mission statements, we splay it on our brochures, we confess in our sanctuaries week after week. But will we die to self, risk our life and go out on Jesus’ word. (Think of His word just in the Sermon on the Mount: forgiveness, purity, generosity, secrecy and sacrifice.)
The official had to let go of his grasp on the situation. He had to take that long walk back even when he didn’t what would happen next. Without faith, it is impossible to please God.
P.S. Only two people ever did come forward –years later- to put their lives in the hands of Blondin’s abilities. Blondin’s manager, Harry Colcord, was carried across the Niagara Fall on Blondin’s back and Blondin’s nephew himself actually got into the wheelbarrow and was wheeled across. What do both of these have in common? A relationship with Blondin. A stranger never laid it all on the line.
Rev. Lora A. Copley is ordained by the CRCNA. She is a teacher for Classis Red Mesa’s Leadership Development Network and preaches by invitation.