Jesus said to him, “Go; your son lives.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started off. As he was now going down, his slaves met him, saying that his son was living. So he inquired of them the hour when he began to get better. Then they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives”; and he himself believed and his whole household. This is again a second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee. (4:50–54)
Instead of agreeing to go back to Capernaum with him as the official had begged Him to do, Jesus merely said to him, “Go; your son lives.” At that very instant (vv. 52–53), the boy was healed. Even though he had no confirmation of it, the man nevertheless believed the word that Jesus spoke to him. The Lord’s words to him had moved him from the third level of unbelief (which needs miracles) to the second (which believes Christ’s word). Without any tangible proof that his son was healed, he took Jesus at His word and started off for home.
Leaving Cana in the Galilean hill country, the official went down toward Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee (about seven hundred feet below sea level). On the way, his slaves met him, already having left the town to find him and tell him the good news that his son was living (i.e., that he had recovered, not merely that he had not yet died). Overjoyed, the man inquired of them the hour when he began to get better. The servants replied, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” The seventh hour would have been early afternoon, sometime between 1 and 3 p.m. in the broadest reckoning. By the time he left Cana and arrived in the vicinity of Capernaum, it was after midnight (yesterday). It is possible that Jesus’ word to him relieved his anxiety about his son, allowing him to remain in Cana, perhaps to hear and see more from the Lord and understand His message. That would have been critical, because it led him to fully believe in Jesus when his servants reported the complete healing of his son, confirming the Lord’s claims (v. 53).
It was the time of his son’s recovery that verified to the father that a miracle had taken place, because he knew that his son’s healing had happened at that very hour in which Jesus had said to him, “Your son lives.” When he heard the news, the royal official himself believed, along with each member of his whole household (cf. Acts 11:14; 16:15, 31–34; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15).
John concluded this account with the footnote, This is again a second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee. This act of healing was the second of the eight major signs that John records as proof that Jesus was the Messiah. It was also the second sign (the first having taken place at the wedding at Cana [2:1–11]) He had performed in Galilee. That it was not Jesus’ second miracle overall is made clear from 2:23. In this instance, the stunning verification of Jesus’ power lifted the royal official all the way from sign-seeking unbelief to genuine saving faith.
The Second Miracle
Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.
“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.”
The man took Jesus at his word and departed. While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.”
Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed.
This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.
It does not matter who you may be, sooner or later you are going to experience great sorrows or even tragedies in your life. You may be rich or poor, a man or a woman, black or white. Tragedy inevitably will become a part of your personal experience and there will be nothing you can do to avoid it.
That is not merely my own opinion, of course. It is a truth that has been recognized by many throughout history. One of the oldest pieces of literature in any language contains an expression of this that has become somewhat proverbial. It is from the Book of Job: “For hardship does not spring from the soil, nor does trouble sprout from the ground. Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:6–7). The Hebrew of this saying is beautiful; for the two Hebrew words translated by our one word “sparks” are literally “the sons of flame,” and the thought is that men are born to endure the fires of this life and eventually perish in the burning.
We know it is true. Psychologists tell us that life begins with pain, as the child, who for the first nine months of its life has rested warmly and comfortably within the uterus of its mother, is suddenly pushed and pulled into a hostile environment in which his first independent act is to cry. The experience is one akin to strangulation as the baby gasps for its life. For a time after birth the mother cares for the baby’s needs. Yet, as the child grows up, the years progressively knock away the props of life and the child is forced increasingly to depend on his own resources. He must learn to eat and clothe himself. Eventually he must go to school, then earn a living. In time there will be the failure of his plans and the dissolution of cherished relationships. There will be pain and sickness. Death will inevitably come to friends and family, and at last the person himself will face his own death and that which lies beyond.
I am not pointing this out to spread gloom. There is enough sorrow in this world without emphasizing it. Rather, I am writing in this way to start us thinking about how you and I will react to such events when they come to us. What will we do? Will we be beaten down by them? Or will we triumph over them in complete victory? The verses we end with show how we can have such victory and how the same solutions can enrich our lives even in the far more abundant times of joy and great happiness.
In Joy and Sorrow
The basis for arriving at such solutions comes from a story in the life of Jesus Christ. It is the story of a rich nobleman whose son was dying and who, out of his desperation, came to Jesus about it. By the end of the story we find that not only had the son been cured but in a far more wonderful way the rich man and his entire family had found a genuine faith in Christ.
The story begins by telling us that “once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine” (John 4:46). It ends with the remark: “This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee” (v. 54). Why do we have this emphasis upon the place where Jesus performed the miracle? Why is this called the second miracle, when obviously many other miraculous things had been done by Jesus previously (cf. John 2:23; 4:45)? Why, in fact, is the former miracle of changing water into wine at Cana mentioned? Quite clearly, this is John’s way of telling us that we are to put the two miracles—that of changing water into wine and that of healing the nobleman’s son—side by side. In other words, we are to see them in relationship to each other and compare them.
What does the comparison show? In the first place it shows a number of similarities. Both were “third-day” miracles. Thus, the miracle at the wedding occurred three days after Jesus had left the area of the lower Jordan River to return to Galilee (2:1), while this miracle similarly occurred three days after Jesus had determined to leave Judea to return to Cana through Samaria (4:43). Both miracles contain an initial rebuke to the one who requested it. In the first case it was to Mary, Jesus’ mother (2:4). In the second it was to the nobleman (4:48). Third, in each case Jesus performs the miracle at a distance, doing nothing but speaking a word (2:7, 8; 4:50). Fourth, the servants possess unique knowledge of what happened (2:9; 4:51). Finally, each account concludes with a statement that certain persons who knew of the miracle believed. Thus, in the earlier story we are told that “his disciples put their faith in him” (2:11), while in the second narrative we are told that the father “and all his household believed” (4:53).
These points reinforce the need of comparing the two stories. Yet the significant point of the comparison is not in the similarities but in their one great difference. What is the difference? Certainly that in the first the scene is one of joy, festivity, and happiness. The stage is a wedding. In the second the scene is fraught with sickness, desperation, anxiety, and the dreadful shadow of death. One is a picture of joy, the other of sorrow. In comparing the two we are clearly to see that life is as filled with the one as the other and that Jesus, the One who is the answer to all human need, is needed in both circumstances.
One writer has noted: “Jesus is more than equal to either occasion. He has a place in all circumstances. If we invite him to our times of innocent happiness, he will increase our joy. If we call on him in our times of sorrow, anxiety, or bereavement, he can bring consolation, comfort, and a joy that is not of this world.”
In pointing to this truth John is further documenting his claim that Jesus is indeed “the Savior of the world”; for Jesus is the Savior of all men, at all times, and in all circumstances.
Growth of Faith
The next fact we are told is that the man who came to Jesus at Cana was a nobleman. This is not the same word that is used in chapter 3 where Nicodemus is described as being a Pharisee, “a ruler of the Jews.” The word that is used of Nicodemus is one that denotes preeminence of authority, however derived. In this case, the word is basilikos, which is related to the word for king and therefore denotes royalty. The word could even mean that the man was a petty king, but in this context it probably means that he was one of the royal officials at the court of Herod.
Moreover, the man had some means, for he had servants. Here was a nobleman, rich, no doubt with great influence. Yet neither his rank nor riches were able to exempt him from the common sorrows of mankind. Remember, as you think about those in positions of importance or power, that there is just as much sickness among them. And there is just as much of a need for Jesus Christ.
The wonderful thing, of course, is that this man sensed his need and its solution. When Jesus had performed his first miracle by changing water into wine, the miracle was at first known only to the disciples and to the servants who bore the wine to the master of ceremonies. Still, people being what they are, the news must have spread and have created a stir in Galilee. In time, some of the Galileans got to Jerusalem and learned of miracles that Jesus had been doing there. They told about these when they returned. It is part of the same picture that news of what Jesus was doing must have reached even Herod’s court, for the nobleman had heard of Jesus and immediately remembered what he had heard when faced with the fact of his son’s illness.
News came to the nobleman that Jesus was back in Galilee at Cana where the first miracle had been performed. Leaving home he made the four-hour trip (about twenty-five miles) from Capernaum, where he lived, to Cana. There he begged Jesus to accompany him back to Capernaum and heal his son.
There are two ways of looking at the man’s faith at this point. The first way is to be surprised that he was exercising faith at all. Here was a man who was high in the court, where he doubtless exercised great authority, traveling twenty-five miles to request a miracle from a carpenter. It is true that desperation has driven many men and women to unusual actions, and that therefore we must not find this overly significant. Nevertheless, the man’s faith is surprising. That is one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at the man’s faith, however, is to look at it in the way in which Jesus looked at it and to realize that although it was real faith it was nevertheless quite weak. The man apparently believed that Jesus was able to heal his son. But he limited Jesus to the place—he thought it was necessary that Jesus should come down to Capernaum—and to a mode of operation. Presumably the nobleman thought that Jesus would have to touch his son to heal him, just as Jairus thought that Jesus would have to touch his daughter to heal her (Mark 5:23) and the woman with an issue of blood thought it would be necessary for her to touch the hem of Christ’s garment (Mark 5:28). It therefore became Jesus’ purpose to teach the nobleman and to help his faith to grow.
At first Jesus delivered a rebuke. He said, “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe” (John 4:48). That was the equivalent of calling him a curiosity seeker and was perhaps directed as much toward the crowd that had gathered as to the nobleman. It was a test of the man’s faith or sincerity. How did he react? Fortunately, the nobleman proved himself to be truly noble, for he was not offended, nor did he seek to justify himself either before Jesus or the others. He simply stood his ground, reiterating his need and humbling himself to receive his answer in whatever way Jesus chose to give it to him.
Here then is the first answer to the way in which we can find triumph or victory in sorrow. It is to trust Jesus enough to allow him to operate in whatever way he chooses.
Believing Is Seeing
But there is also a second lesson to be learned, and it was this lesson that Jesus next began to teach him. Jesus taught that one must believe first, then he will see the results. Jesus had said, “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe.” This statement was a true description of the thinking of vast numbers of men and women. The world even has it in a proverb, which says, “Seeing is believing.” The teaching of Jesus was that in spiritual things the order is reversed and that believing is seeing, for it is only as one believes in Jesus that he sees spiritual things happening. Therefore, Jesus told the boy’s father, “You may go. Your son will live” (v. 50). The nobleman was called upon to believe without sight. It was hard, but that is precisely what he did. The story goes on to say, “The man took Jesus at his word and departed.”
Needless to say, if it had been a mere man speaking, the belief of the nobleman would have been absurd. No one believes without sight. Yet in spiritual matters it is entirely logical to do so—because we are dealing not with a man but with God. Jesus is God. Hence, to believe him is the most logical thing in the universe.
Moreover, to believe in Jesus is also the most effective way to set one’s mind at rest, even when faced with sorrow. For we are told that having believed Jesus the nobleman simply continued on his way. The word used, plus the tense employed (imperfect), suggests that the nobleman believed Jesus so implicitly that he simply picked up his work where he had left it and went on about his business. At any rate, it is obvious that he did not rush home; for although the conversation took place about one o’clock in the afternoon and the journey was only four hours, the nobleman did not get back until the next day. When he did return it was to learn that his son had been healed instantly the day before at the very hour in which Jesus had spoken to him.
What a splendid story this is! And it is all the more splendid in that the man came to such strong faith from such a weak beginning. It is hard to read this story without thinking of that other similar story of the centurion who came to Christ requesting him to heal his sick servant. There are some noted similarities, so much so that some scholars have imagined these to be two versions of the same incident. Yet they are not the same, and the greatest of all differences is to be found in the attitudes of the two men involved. The centurion had the greatest faith. He said to Jesus, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matt. 8:8). Jesus praised his faith, saying, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (v. 10). Still the centurion had this faith from the beginning, while the nobleman who sought out Jesus in Cana came to the same level of faith in a very short time through Jesus’ teaching.
Truths for Everyone
The applications of this story to our own experiences are obvious. I am sure that you have already seen some of them. First, if Jesus acted as he did with this man and if his actions actually had the effect on him that the Bible tells us they did, then surely Jesus is the answer to our own anxieties also. The man came, talked to Jesus, and then went on his way without any tangible evidence that his request had been granted. Why? Because in meeting Jesus and in talking with him, his anxiety evaporated. It can be the same for you. You may be weighed down under great burdens. You may be crying inside. Just come to Jesus. Tell him about it. He will be delighted to ease your burdens and to take the weight of them all upon himself.
The second application is that the experience I have described may be true even though our actually seeing the results is postponed. They may even be postponed until after this life. We witness the death of a parent, friend, or child. We experience sorrow or sickness ourselves. We come to Jesus and find him saying, “I know what I am doing. I am working it all out.” The Bible says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). There will always be circumstances in which we will not see that this is true. Nevertheless, we are to go on about our business. We may have to pass through the night into the bright day of the next world before we see how our prayers are answered. Still we are to believe and know that Jesus has heard and that he has answered.
Finally, there is fact that these truths are for everyone. That is the burden of this first great section of John’s Gospel. What has John done? He has shown Jesus at work in the three major sections of his world—Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. He has shown him with the rich and the poor, with the educated and the uneducated, with Jews and Samaritans, with religious leaders and those who show no religious orientation at all. He has shown him as the “light of the world,” “the lamb that takes away the sin of the world,” “the Savior of the world.” In other words, he has shown us that the gospel is for everyone. Thus, the gospel is for you also, whoever you may be.
Jesus is speaking to you when he says, “Come now, let us reason together … though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isa. 1:18). He speaks to you when he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
The Second Sign
The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. (John 4:49–50)
Scholars believe that John wrote his Gospel in part to record events from early in Jesus’ ministry that were left out of the other Gospels. As we conclude John 4, we continue John’s chronicle of those early days. We can follow the events in a clear progression, starting with John the Baptist’s testimony about Christ, which took place after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (see Matt. 4:1–11). John’s testimony brought Jesus his first disciples (John 1:19–42), after which he went north to Galilee, where he found Philip and Nathanael (1:43–51). There, Jesus attended the wedding in Cana (2:1–12), after which he went for a stay at Capernaum and then to observe the Passover in Jerusalem. And there, Jesus violently cleansed the temple, performed a number of miracles (2:13–22), and had his meeting with the Pharisee Nicodemus (3:1–21). From there, Jesus went back to the Judean countryside where more of John the Baptist’s followers transferred to him (3:22–36). When this attracted official notice, Jesus decided to go back north to his native Galilee, and on the way he passed through Samaria, where he met the Samaritan woman and brought the gospel to her town (4:1–42).
After this, Jesus “came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine” (John 4:46). This return to Cana wraps up John’s presentation of Jesus’ early ministry, a period in which Jesus revealed himself to Israel as witnesses bore testimony to him. By showing two miracles that both happened in Cana, John invites a comparison between them. The first miracle produced wine at a wedding feast; this second miracle occurred in the midst of sorrow and death. Our lives are filled with both joy and sorrow, gain and loss. John wants us to realize, as one writer observed: “Jesus is more than equal to either occasion. He has a place in all circumstances. If we invite him to our times of innocent happiness, he will increase our joy. If we call on him in our times of sorrow, anxiety, or bereavement, he can bring consolation, comfort, and a joy that is not of this world.”
The People Whom Jesus Saves
The narrative begins in Samaria, where Jesus stayed and taught the people for two days. John tells us of Jesus’ reluctance to continue his journey to Galilee: “For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown” (John 4:44). This fits one of the themes in John’s Gospel, one that runs all the way to the cross: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (1:11).
There are three kinds of people in this last section of John 4, two of whom do not savingly receive Jesus. The first are the ones he lamented from his hometown—those who do not honor him but reject him outright. It is clear that Jesus expected such people in his native region of Galilee, and he probably refers specifically to his hometown of Nazareth. Luke reports that when Jesus got to Nazareth, news of his miraculous powers had already reached there (Luke 4:14). Nonetheless, Jesus was rejected by his hometown when he publicly announced his ministry there (4:16–21). “They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ ” (4:22), so Jesus was not accepted by them. Jesus left Nazareth—apparently for good—and his hometown scarcely benefited from his miracles or teaching. Whereas the despised Samaritans received Jesus with a joyful faith, his own people rejected him. Likewise, many people today reject Jesus outright, since he does not meet their approval or fulfill their worldly expectations.
On the way to Nazareth, Jesus stopped by Cana, where he was warmly received. John writes, “When he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast” (John 4:45).
Here, we see a second class of people: those who do not reject Jesus, but receive him for what he can do. The Galileans liked having someone who could work wonders—especially like the one at the wedding—so they welcomed Jesus. Among them was a royal official from Capernaum whose son was gravely ill. Apparently, he had heard that Jesus could help, so he made the twenty-mile journey to Cana to find Jesus and bring him back to his home (John 4:47).
Jesus’ reaction to this might be startling, but it is also revealing: “So Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe’ ” (John 4:48). It is helpful to know that Jesus was using the plural; he was commenting about the people in general rather than simply this bereaved father. His complaint was that the people did not worship him as Savior and Lord, but merely sought to employ him as a useful wonder-worker. They were consumers, not worshipers; admirers, not followers. John says that the miracles were signs (4:54)—that is, their true value was in revealing Jesus as Son of God and Savior—but the consumers did not believe in what they signified, only in what the signs themselves offered. Alexander Maclaren explains Jesus’ distress:
Christ had just come from Samaria, the scorn of the Jews, and there He had found people who needed no miracles, whose conception of the Messiah was not that of a mere wonder-worker … and who believed on Him … because they heard Him themselves, and His words touched their consciences and stirred strange longings in their hearts. On the other hand … such recognition as Christ had thus far received “in His own country” had been entirely owing to His miracles, and had been therefore regarded by Christ Himself as quite unreliable (2:23–25).
How little has changed since then. There are those who express no interest in Jesus, rejecting him with hardened hearts. But there are others who come to church and get involved in religious activities, not because their hearts have been awed by the glory of God and Christ’s saving majesty, but strictly for self-gratifying, worldly reasons. They have little interest in learning about God and the doctrines of the Bible, but seek mainly the lifestyle benefits of the “practical” preaching they demand. But Jesus rebukes and refuses any but a faith that is centered on him as Lord and Savior. Mark Johnston sums it up: “Jesus is not interested in satisfying crowds who want to be entertained. He is interested in sinners who feel their need and are prepared to take him at his word.”
Who, then, are the people whom Jesus saves? The answer is seen in the man’s reply: “The official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my child dies’ ” (John 4:49). The first thing we notice is his humility. Here is a man of authority—the Greek term for official (basilikos) suggests that he was an officer in Herod’s court—coming to a carpenter’s-son-turned-rabbi. We might expect him to say, “Listen, you carpenter’s son, my boy has noble blood. You will come as I command.” But instead he came to Jesus humbly. He began by addressing Jesus as “Sir,” a sign of respect for a man much lower in the social order. (In fact, the Greek word is the one normally translated Lord.) This is the kind of person—almost alone among the people of Galilee—who is saved by Jesus: one who honors him as Lord and not merely seeks to employ Jesus’ services but humbly seeks his grace.
The Grace by Which Jesus Saves
Our focus in this passage is not merely on the humble royal official, but on Jesus and the grace by which he saves. The term grace is often defined as “God’s unmerited favor.” That is a good definition, except that it doesn’t go quite far enough. Since we are all sinners before God, grace really is God’s favor extended toward those who deserve the opposite. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes:
When we deserved nothing but punishment and hell, when we deserved nothing but to reap the fruit of our own sowing, when we were nothing but the children of wrath, God, because of his eternal and everlasting love, and according to his knowledge and wisdom, looked upon us with that eye of favour so that now we are peculiarly under his grace.
According to the Bible, this is how God saves sinners: not according to their own works or merits—since our works are sinful and merit condemnation—but according to his own grace. Paul states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
This is exactly what this passage shows: Jesus saves the official’s son not because any payment was made or because the official was less a sinner than others (as a servant of Herod, he was likely a greater sinner), but because his is a merciful grace. This is good news, because Jesus has the same mercy for us. Jesus said, “Go; your son will live” (John 4:50). Likewise, because salvation is by grace—that is, by God’s free gift—Paul writes, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13).
Notice as well that Christ’s is a sovereign grace. The ruler apparently thought that Jesus had to be physically present to perform a miracle, since he asked him to come to his son. But Jesus merely spoke and the salvation occurred. The next day, when the official returned home, he learned that his son had been cured at the very moment Jesus spoke (John 4:52). This shows that Jesus has the authority to save by his own will, and with a might that is equal to any need. This is why John so often emphasizes Jesus’ divine nature (see 20:31): if Jesus is God, he has divine power to save us. Jonathan Edwards points out that knowing this ought to strengthen our resolve to trust in Christ: “What are you afraid of, that you dare not venture your soul upon Christ? Are you afraid that He cannot save you, that He is not strong enough to conquer the enemies of your soul? But how can you desire one stronger than the ‘mighty God,’ as Christ is called (Isa. 9:6)? Is there need of greater than infinite strength?”
Together, this shows that Jesus is both willing and able to save all who humbly come. He is willing because his is a merciful grace. He is able because his is a mighty, sovereign grace.
Moreover, we see what Christ’s grace does: it conquers death and the sin that makes death terrible. Jesus said, “Your son will live,” and his saving grace has the effect of imparting forgiveness and life. Most important is the gift of eternal life to those who are spiritually dead. Paul explains, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.… But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:1–2, 4–5). This is what Jesus wanted not merely for the official’s son but for the ruler himself. The man should not merely have come, saying, “I am a father whose son needs to be healed,” but should also have said, “I am a sinner and I need to be saved.” The greatest need that each of us has is to be born again to spiritual life so that we may believe, be forgiven through Christ’s blood, and enter into eternal life. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
The Faith through Which Jesus Saves
Christ’s gift of eternal life has been the theme of this entire section of John’s Gospel. It was symbolized in the wine that Jesus made in this very town of Cana (John 2:1–12). Then Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (3:7) in order even to see God’s kingdom. Spiritual life is what Jesus offered the woman by the well: “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14). Now, to the desperate father, Jesus says, “Go; your son will live” (4:50).
The great question, then, is: “How do we receive this life that Jesus gives?” The answer all through John’s Gospel, illustrated here, is that we receive such life through faith in Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,” John 3:16 said, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
What can this episode tell us about saving faith? First, it shows us that faith comes to Jesus seeking salvation. Faith does not stand afar, but does what this official, who traveled twenty miles to seek Jesus, did. Perhaps he had heard of the other miracles, but however he learned it, he came to Jesus, begging salvation.
Second, the official shows us that saving faith believes Christ’s word. Verse 50 provides one of the most succinct pictures of true, saving faith: “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” The man believed, not because he saw Jesus perform a miracle, but through faith in Christ’s word alone. Martin Luther rightly observes: “In faith one must look to nothing but the Word of God. Whoever permits anything else to be pictured in his eyes is already lost. Faith clings to the naked and pure Word, neither to its works nor to its merits.”
It is noteworthy that the official did not even bother to hurry home. When he learned that his son had been healed, he inquired about the hour. His servants replied, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him” (John 4:52). The seventh hour is 1:00 p.m., which means that the ruler might have had time to hurry home after meeting with Jesus. But his faith was strong enough that his heart was at peace. Can the same be said of us, or does our constant busyness suggest that we are not resting on the Lord with the peaceful faith that he deserves? Many of our lives have no greater need than that we would believe Christ’s Word and rest our hearts on it in faith.
We contrast this with Jesus’ earlier rebuke of those who believed only when they saw signs and wonders: true faith believes his Word. This makes an important point for us in our ministry for building Christ’s church. If we want to encourage false converts, we will impress them with fleshly enticements according to all their own desires. But if we want to inspire true and saving faith, we will simply employ Christ’s Word. Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote: “We have spoken of churches that are famed for faith in our day. The reason in every case is that they are centered on the Word of God. The Lord … has promised to bless His Word. If we cleave to the Word there must be blessing.” Nothing glorifies God more greatly than when we believe his Word, and nothing builds faith like the Word of God ministered faithfully.
Third, we need to be reminded that faith itself does not save. Faith does not itself possess saving power. It was not the man’s belief in Jesus that cured his son; it was Jesus who healed the boy. This is important, because if faith itself heals us, then our salvation can be no more secure than our faith allows. Given the weakness of our faith, we would often live in despair. But since we are saved by Christ, whom we receive by faith, then even a weak, though true, faith saves us, for that weak faith receives a strong Savior. We trust, therefore, not in our believing but in him in whom we believe.
Finally, we see that faith grows strong by the experience of grace. It is true that a weak faith saves us, yet we are always to seek a strong and more fruitful faith. Verse 53 concludes that when the official learned that his son had been healed—and at the very moment Jesus had spoken—“he himself believed.” This may seem odd, since he already believed, until we realize that John means that his faith grew. In the same way, every time we trust Jesus and find that his grace is sufficient to our need, our faith is increased.
This is why it is so important for us to know the promises of God’s Word and to trust them in our daily lives. One Puritan advised, “Every time a godly man reads the Scriptures … and there meets with a promise, he ought to lay his hand upon it and say, This is part of my inheritance, it is mine, and I am to live upon it.” The story is told of an old man whose Bible was marked on page after page with the initials TNT. When asked about it, he replied that it meant “Tried and True.” He explained, “Where you see those letters, it means that I tried it and I found that it was true.” That is the way to a strong faith: to know the promises in God’s Word, to try them by faith, and to find that they are true.
And what promises God makes in his Word! He promises mercy to sinners, compassion on the weak, forgiveness through the cross, and power to change our sinful hearts. God promises strength for the performance of our duties, guidance for direction, comfort in sorrow, help in trouble, provision in life, and glory beyond the grave. J. C. Ryle writes, “About all these things there is an abundant supply of promises in the Word. No one can form an idea of its abundance unless he carefully searches the Scriptures, keeping the subject steadily in view. If anyone doubts it, I can only say, ‘Come and see.’ Like the Queen of Sheba at Solomon’s court, you will soon say, ‘The half was not told me’ (1 Kings 10:7).” Just as our muscles increase through exercise, so also our faith will grow as we exercise it in the gymnasium of God’s Word.
If Jesus were later to come back to this believing official, and call on him to make some sacrifice for his kingdom, the man’s experience of Christ’s power would strengthen him to believe and obey. He would reason, “Jesus has shown me the power of his word by raising my son from near death. Surely he can provide all my future needs by his same sovereign grace. I need not fear if I trust in his word.”
The Witness of Faith
There is one more thing to notice. I pointed out that this whole narrative of Jesus’ early ministry focuses on witnesses that are given to him. This passage ends with a witness—the natural result if we live by a growing faith in God’s Word. John says, “He himself believed, and all his household” (John 4:53).
If we want people to be persuaded of the truth about Jesus—if wives want to win unbelieving husbands, if children want to evangelize non-Christian parents, if parents want to inspire their children in their faith, and if we want all kinds of people to open their minds and hearts to Jesus—then we must start by living out our faith in their presence and letting them see God’s faithfulness and power for themselves. No doubt the official had told his servants about his faith in Jesus when he left for Cana. But surely it was the effects of his faith—especially seeing the boy alive—that persuaded them about Jesus. Martin Luther writes, “It is the character and nature of faith that it attracts other people, breaks forth and becomes active in love.” In this way, the very faith that brings us life by Christ’s grace will also save others, as we believe and live by trusting Christ’s Word.
50 Jesus responds with a straightforward, “Go; your son lives” (NASB; TCNT, “is living”). The official’s faith is put to the test. He is to return to Capernaum on the simple word of Jesus. Jesus will not go with him and perform some miraculous healing. He simply tells the official to take him at his word. Distance causes no problem. The trust that Jesus would elicit is not dependent on anything other than the word of the Master. Translations that take the present tense zē (“lives,” GK 2409) as a futuristic present, such as “your son will live” (NIV) or “your boy is going to live” (Williams), promise a return to health but do not adequately stress the unusual fact, as we will learn from vv. 52–53, that at that very moment the fever had already gone and the boy was alive and well. The man believed what Jesus said and left. (Note the construction pisteuō plus the dative, which reflects a less firm religious commitment than pisteuō eis; Brown, 191, translates as “put his trust in.”)
50 Jesus’ reply must have been totally unexpected. The man had been urging him to come down to Capernaum, evidently thinking that the Master’s presence was necessary if he was to perform a cure (contrast the centurion of Matt. 8:5ff. who asked Jesus not to come to his house, since he could easily heal without doing so). Jesus’ words impose a stiff test. He gives the man no sign. The officer has nothing but Jesus’ bare word. But this is enough and he rises to the implied demand for faith. He believes what Jesus says and goes his way.
50 Instead of “coming down” from Cana to Capernaum with the royal official, Jesus simply tells him, “Go, your son lives!” The repetition of “your son lives” two more times, once in indirect discourse (v. 51) and once verbatim (v. 53) gives it the character of a healing formula. The point, of course, is not that the child still clings to life as by a slender thread, but that he will recover. He is healed. Most English versions translate it idiomatically as a future, “Your son will live” (RSV, NRSV, NIV, NEB, REB, NLT), but if it is future, it is an immediate future. There is value in retaining the present tense of the Greek, for it captures this Gospel’s accent on “life” as a present possession. Jesus’ power to save physical life becomes here a metaphor for his gift of eternal life (see 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36). “Go” (poreuou) means that the royal official should go back to Capernaum, without Jesus, to rejoin his son. So “the man believed the word Jesus said to him, and he went.” It is as if he had heard Mary’s command to the servants at the Cana wedding, “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5). More specifically, the language parallels the story of the centurion in Matthew and Luke, when the centurion told Jesus, “For I too am a man under authority, having soldiers under him, and I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Mt 8:9; also Lk 7:8). The centurion’s assumption is that this is how Jesus operates as well. In John’s Gospel we see him operating in just that way, and with similar results. Another similarity is that the centurion also told Jesus to “say the word,” and his servant would be healed (Mt 8:8; compare Lk 7:7), and here the royal official “believed the word Jesus said to him.”
With this, the faith of “the man” becomes explicit. He has seen no signs or wonders, yet he believes. His faith is in Jesus’ word, and in that alone. Some commentators conclude from this that it is in some way incomplete, or at least preliminary to the full-blown faith expressed when the healing is verified (v. 53). Yet at the corresponding point in the synoptic story of the centurion Jesus says, “I have not found such faith in Israel” (Mt 8:10; Lk 7:9), and in the story of the Gentile woman, “Great is your faith” (Mt 15:28). While there is no such commendation here, the man’s action is an eloquent response to Jesus’ remark about “signs and wonders” (v. 48). Perhaps the commendation comes indirectly and belatedly near the end of the Gospel when Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who did not see, and believed” (20:29). Like these unnamed beneficiaries of Jesus’ last beatitude, the royal official believes without having seen. To this extent his faith, like theirs, surpasses that of Thomas.
Clearly, there are stages of faith here, as elsewhere in the Gospel. For example, Jesus’ disciples believed in him at first because he “revealed his glory” in a miracle at Cana (2:11), but only later, “when he rose from the dead,” did they “remember” and “believe” his word (v. 22). Our closest precedent is the case of the Samaritans, who first “believed in him because of the woman’s word” (v. 39), but later heard Jesus for themselves and “believed because of his word” (vv. 41–42). The contrast there was not between faith and sight, but between a secondhand and a firsthand report. The narrative moved from faith (genuine faith, as far as we can tell) to its subsequent verification, but at both stages it was a matter of hearing the word, not of seeing anything in particular. Here the movement is from faith to sight: when the royal official took Jesus at his word (v. 50), he exercised genuine faith, verified later by what actually happened (v. 53). This is similar to the presumed situation of the Gospel’s readers as well. The royal official is someone with whom they can identify, for their faith in Jesus’ word, the word written down in this Gospel, will eventuate in “life” in Jesus’ name (20:30–31).
48–50. Jesus therefore said to him, Unless you see signs and wonders, you will definitely not believe. Jesus complains that this man, who had already heard (and, perhaps, seen) so much of the Christ, is still standing on the lowest rung of faith’s ladder. His confidence, and that of others like him, has to be constantly fed by signs and wonders. He does not believe in the divine person of Christ nor even in his word if the latter be unaccompanied by a miracle.
When Jesus spoke of signs and wonders, he was not referring to two kinds of supernatural works. Rather, the same deed of power is a sign when it is viewed in one way, and a wonder (τέρας) when it is viewed in another way. (For the meaning of the term “sign,” σημεῖον, see on 2:1–11.) A wonder is something startling. The term views the mighty deed not, like sign, from the point of view of the light which it sheds upon the person and work of the Lord, but from the aspect of the effect which it has upon the spectators. These spectators were always looking for something sensational or exciting! So Jesus says, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will definitely not (οὐ μή) believe.”
This arrow of tender rebuke hit the mark. The man takes to heart the word of earnest warning and serious complaint, as is shown in 4:50. At the same time his heart is all wrapped up in the condition of his son. The courtier therefore pours out his soul in this one, brief word of urgency: he said to him, Sir, come down, before my dear child is dead.
Jesus, who at this very moment is healing both the son’s body and the father’s soul, said to him, Go your way, your son lives. This last expression must not be toned down to something like “is going to live.” It indicates that by a deed of omnipotence performed at this moment the child is now fully restored and is, therefore, enjoying complete health and vigor.
The man whose faith had been resting completely upon miracles now advances to a higher stage: he believed the word which Jesus had spoken. Accepted the word though he saw no deed. The next day (cf. 4:52), probably at dawn, the father went on his way back to Capernaum.