Do You Believe in Miracles?

Do You Believe in Miracles?

John 4:43 – 4:54

Our youngest daughter, Annie, has been attending college in southern California for nearly five years. Eighteen months ago, she met a young man named Greg. He is from the East Coast, and he had been working temporarily in southern California. They spent some time together during the fall. Even though they do not share the same spiritual values, Annie wondered if their chance meeting was an indication that Greg would be significant in her life. At first it seemed like a casual friendship, but as the reports trickled in from down south to my wife, I began to get concerned. Like myself, my daughter is a romantic. I know how much trouble that can lead to. As is the case with most parents, I have tried to teach my children not to do the things I did.

Annie prayed for wisdom and direction from God. A couple of months into this friendship, she saw a car driving out the school gate. Its license plate read “NOT GREG.” She had never seen the car before, and wondered whether it was a sign from God. My wife told her it was the next best thing to being hit by lightning! Annie became convinced that God was not in this relationship. Greg returned home, and they didn’t stay in touch.

A few weeks ago, Greg moved to southern California to resume his work, and he contacted Annie. They kept running into one another at coffee shops and began spending a little time together. Once again, Annie wondered if something magical was happening, and once again dad started to become concerned because of their different values. Last week, Annie was driving out of school and saw the same car with the same license plate at the same place she had seen it before: “NOT GREG.” She has only seen this car twice in her life. This time she was convinced that it was a sign from God.

We have a fascination with signs and wonders, with words of knowledge and miraculous occurrences. We want a sign from God about whom we should marry, where we should work, or where we are supposed to live. We ask God for a sign that he loves us or that he is in control of the events of our lives. We say to God that if he shows us a sign, then we will believe in him. We tell God that if he just comes through this one time, or does one miracle, we will never ask anything of him again. There is no doubt that God works miracles; he has been doing so for a long time. But the question is, How do we reconcile signs and faith?

We have reached the concluding verses of chapter 4 of John’s gospel, the account of the healing of the royal official’s son. This is the final scene in the section that opens with the wedding in Cana in chapter 2. The text begins with a transition, as Jesus leaves Samaria and goes to Galilee.

After the two days He went forth from there into Galilee. For Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country. So when He came to Galilee, the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things that He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they themselves also went to the feast. (John 4:43-45 NASB)

In the middle of a journey from Jerusalem to Galilee, Jesus stopped to rest at Jacob’s well, just outside the village of Sychar in Samaria. There he had an encounter with a woman, an event that changed her life. Their meeting also had a fantastic impact on the entire village. At the request of the villagers, Jesus remained there for two more days.

John seems to indicate that the reason Jesus left Judea and went into Galilee was that “a prophet has no honor in his own country” (or homeland). The Galileans received him enthusiastically. On the surface it would seem that home for Jesus was in Judea. However, this proverbial statement about a prophet receiving no honor appears in each of the other gospels (Matt 13:54-58; Mark 6:1-6; Luke 4:16-30). It refers to the fact that Jesus received no honor from the residents of Galilee. In the other gospels therefore, home for Jesus clearly is Galilee, the place where he grew up, while in John, home appears to be in Judea. John seems to contradict the other gospels.

The question then becomes, where is Jesus’ home? Perhaps in John’s gospel it’s not in Nazareth but in Judea, the place where Jesus was born, and the center of Jewish life and worship. But in John’s gospel, Jesus’ home is both Judea and Galilee, more likely. The superficial reception that Jesus receives from the Galileans is based on the signs they had witnessed. By chapter 6, there will be just as much opposition in Galilee as there was in Judea. “Home” may be referring to both Judea and Galilee. The comparison in John may be between Jewish soil, Judea and Galilee, over against Samaritan soil, the place where Jesus received honor. As it was with Jesus, home is sometimes the hardest place for us to have influence for God and respect for our beliefs.

Therefore He came again to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water wine. And there was a royal official whose son was sick at Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, he went to Him and was imploring Him to come down and heal his son; for he was at the point of death. So Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” The royal official said to Him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 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. (4:46-54)

Notice the setting of this story. The mention of Galilee alerts us to one of the distinctions of John’s gospel compared to the other accounts. Unlike John’s account, much of the action of the Synoptic Gospels takes place in Galilee. Apart from this story, the only other events in John that occur in Galilee are the call of Philip and Nathanael, the wedding miracle, and the multiplication of the loaves in chapter 6. Most of the action in John takes place in Jerusalem.

Furthermore, Jesus is back in Cana, where he had turned water into wine. We learn that the healing of the child is a second sign. Jesus did other signs, but this was the second one in Cana. All of this indicates that this episode brackets the wedding episode, and that Cana forms an inclusio to chapters 2-4. This section of text is oftentimes titled “from Cana to Cana.” The story has come full circle, an indication that John will start something new following this account. We also see that the phrase “come out of Judea into Galilee,” frames this particular story. John is very deliberate in his use of names and geography. It is important to pay attention to these details.

Upon his arrival in Cana, Jesus is approached by a royal official, or nobleman (the term comes from the word for king), who lives in Capernaum, 16 miles away. This man probably was in the service of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee from 4 B.C. to 39 A.D. He travels 16 miles to see Jesus because his son is sick (actually he is at the point of death). Obviously he has heard of Jesus and the things he has done. He urges Jesus to come with him. (The word for “urge” is the same word which the disciples used to urge Jesus to eat something in Samaria.) He does not come to Jesus based on who Jesus is. There is some conjecture that this episode is John’s version of the miracle of the centurion slave (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:2-10). However, there is no evidence that this official was a Gentile, unlike the centurion in Matthew and Luke. Also, the sick person is a son, not a servant. There really is no reason to think that this is not a different situation.

The official makes his request, and Jesus responds with a stiff rebuke, as he rebuked his mother at the wedding in chapter 2. But this is different, because the response is in the plural, meaning that it is addressed to the whole community: “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” This is the only time the word “wonders” is used in John, and here it is used in connection with “signs.” Jesus is asking the official what he is really after, what he expects. He is asking the people of the community for their understanding of signs. The Galileans received Jesus, yes, but why?

Following Jesus’ rebuke, the official repeats his request. He is not concerned with signs or theology. He doesn’t care who Jesus is. His only concern is for his son. Clearly he is desperate. Every parent knows this feeling. When something is wrong with one of your children, you will do anything to intervene. The child’s pain is magnified by the parent’s sense of helplessness. Parents would gladly give their lives for their children. Some of you here this morning know this man’s sense of desperation. You are asking Jesus for a miracle.

Jesus responds to the man’s persistence just as he responded to his mother at the wedding. The man believes, and departs. The text says he “believed the word of Jesus.” His faith was immature, but he takes Jesus at his word and believes he can meet his need. Remarkably, he just does what Jesus says. Sometimes the prayers of young Christians are answered more quickly than those of the more mature. Young Christians have a sense of boldness. We should never doubt the power of immature faith. Jesus will meet people where they are.

On the official’s way home his servants inform him that his son is alive. He inquires as to the timing of his recovery. Upon discovering that it was at the same time that Jesus proclaimed his son to be alive, the man believes a second time. Initially he believed that Jesus could work miracles, and he believed in the word and obeyed. Later, he just believes, and not only him, but also his entire household, thus setting up the pattern that we find throughout the book of Acts.

What can we learn from this episode, and why did John include it in his gospel? The story of the Samaritan woman is rich and full and exciting, and then we come to this brief story of the official and his sick son.

A. The story forces us to evaluate the basis and object of our faith.
In the 1980 Olympics, the United States hockey team defeated Russia and went on to win the gold medal. The U.S. team consisted of young amateur players, while the Russian team was made up of older players who had been teammates for years and dominated the world in ice hockey. The U.S. team’s win over Russia prompted television commentator Al Michaels to coin the now well-known phrase, “Do you believe in miracles?” The question that John raises for us is, “Do you believe without miracles?”

The word “sign” appears six times in chapters 2-4. John says that people in Galilee were attracted to Jesus because of signs and wonders. The same thing happened in Jerusalem.

Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man. (2:23-25)

The people of Judea and Galilee were Jews, religious people. The reluctant Jesus accommodated them and they believed. But they believed in the sign, not what it pointed to. Their faith was immature and inadequate. In Samaria, no sign was necessary. The entire village of Sychar believed in Jesus, in his person, and gave him the title “Savior of the world.”

We see the same tension between signs and faith today. People want a sign or a miracle to validate their faith. We want something visible so that others will believe that God is with us. We want assurance of his presence. We ask him to intervene in some dramatic way to help us in our need. If a miracle takes place in a church, everyone goes to that church. If some dramatic sign takes place anywhere in the world, people flock to the site, hoping the sign will be repeated and so boost their faith. We hear about it on television and read about it in the news magazines. People are kept afloat by a dramatic display of God’s power. And those who desire miracles are usually religious people. When they begin to sink, they cry out to God, asking for some new demonstration that will buoy them up once again.

God is certainly able to perform miracles. When someone is healed of cancer, we rejoice and affirm our belief. But this story forces us to ask why we believe. What is the object of our faith? Do we believe in the Jesus who is the Savior of the world or the Jesus who does miracles? Are we fixated on signs or on what they point to? Too much interest in the raw miracles themselves is spiritually dangerous. Signs can become a game we play with God, a way we strike a bargain. Miracles cannot compel genuine faith. They might be the beginning of faith or they might encourage it but they are not the end. Jesus wants us to believe without the signs. What if we have to live by faith alone?

Lesslie Newbigin has a word for us here:

A belief which requires signs and wonders is one which lays down in advance the conditions which are required to authenticate any alleged revelation of God. It is thus guilty of putting the constructions of the human imagination–often a very pious imagination–in the place of God. The belief is not a response to God as he actually reveals himself, for God’s revelation may completely contravene our predetermined view of what God must be and do…The demand for a visible sign means that the one who makes the demand keeps ultimate sovereignty in his own hands. He has himself prescribed the tests by which divinity must prove itself…One does not obey an image or a picture; one obeys (or disobeys) a word.1

Many of us come to Christ for the wrong reason. We were desperate and we wanted God to fix our lives. And that’s all right. Jesus meets us where we are. Those early days of faith are often filled with miraculous happenings. But as we grow in faith we move from believing in the signs, the dramatic events, to believing in the person. The official first believed in the word that Jesus spoke regarding the man’s son. Because he believed in that word and obeyed it, that was the beginning of true belief. But later he believes in Jesus. Remember what Jesus said to doubting Thomas: “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29).

This does not mean that God wants us to have a dull and boring relationship with him. He wants our relationship with him to be exciting. What it means is that eventually God wants us to be excited about him, not merely what he does. He didn’t come to fix our lives but to transform them. He wants us to move into a more complete faith that is less dependent on circumstances. At some point we need to stop going from church to church looking for signs and wonders and instead commit ourselves to a place of growth and service based on the word, not on miracles.

B. The story highlights the unity and the theme of chapters 2-4.
One cannot miss the many similarities between this healing and the miracle at the wedding in chapter 2. Both signs take place in Cana (2:1; 4:46), and they are numbered. In both the wedding and the healing there is an ordinary human need, a request, a rebuke by Jesus, persistence on the part of the requestor, an order given and obeyed, a “sign” recognized by servants, and a response of faith (the disciples and the official). We also see in the healing episode a connection to the rest of chapter 2, with references to Capernaum (2:12; 4:46), and immature faith (2:23-25; 4:45, 48). Certainly we cannot miss the fact that John wants us to consider these three chapters as one whole.

First, Jesus turns water into wine and fills us with the joy of the wine of the Spirit. He is the giver of joy. Second, he cleanses the temple. He is the new temple, the true place of meeting between God and his people. Third, he reveals himself to Nicodemus as the giver of a new birth from above. Fourth, to the Samaritan village he gives living water and becomes known as the Savior of the world. And now Jesus becomes the giver of life from the dead. What is John trying to tell us?

So much of what John says in these chapters has to do with Jesus as the giver of life: He snatches life back from the brink of death; he gives living water to a Samaritan woman. To Nicodemus, he offers life from above. John says that if we believe we will have eternal life. Three times the text in this account tells us, “Your son lives.” Maybe God is telling us, “My Son lives, and in him is life.”

The stories of the Samaritan woman and this account are connected by the word “left.” The woman “left” her water pot at the well when she ran into the village. She “left” behind the water from Jacob’s well. She “left” behind the source from which she tried to quench her thirst. When Jesus healed the boy, the fever “left” him. John is saying that Jesus gives us life, and in order to embrace this life, the old must go. The fever from which we are dying has to be healed if we are to live. Life in not found in Torah, in temple worship, in Jacob’s water, even in the miracle. Life is in Jesus. This is the miracle. “In him was life, and the life was the Light of men” (John 1:4). “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:12).

Viewing these chapters as a whole, Samaria stands in stark contrast to Galilee and Judea. The woman with the messed-up life who worships at the wrong mountain drinks living water, and an entire village believes. They do not need any signs. They embrace Jesus as the Savior of the world. On the other hand, on both sides of Samaria, in Judea and in Galilee, there is skepticism, questioning and immature faith. The prophet receives no honor. Jesus comes to his own and they do not receive him for who he is. What is John saying? Perhaps he is warning the Jews, to whom he is writing, to not miss out on the blessing to which they should be heirs. They are in danger of letting it pass by. Holding on to what is old is keeping them from life.

What does this say to us? Life doesn’t come from following the rules or keeping the proper format. We should never let religion stand in the way of life from above. Our focus should be Spirit, living water, and eternal life.

Sometimes God does work in miraculous ways. If we are desperate, God can meet us where we are. Our desperation is a gift from him to help us believe. But more often than not, the life of Jesus comes in the ordinary daily events as we become aware of our need, open up our hearts, and experience his grace, forgiveness and love. This too is a miracle. When our children struggle, while we are doing ordinary things like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn, we look to Jesus and are reminded that life comes from him. In a sense, we are always desperate for this eternal life. Every day we depend on it. Ordinary life becomes extraordinary. As we gather every ordinary Sunday we do so to remind ourselves that Jesus is real. The Word became flesh, and in him and him alone is life.

1. Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 57-59.

© 2004 Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino