September 1, 2013
We’ve all heard stories of men who had “foxhole” conversions. The man was on the front lines in battle. Bullets were flying and mortars were exploding all around him. He feared that he would die. Suddenly, his partner was hit and killed right next to him. In his panic, he flashed back to the Sunday school upbringing from which he has strayed. He thought about his godly mother, who prays for him every day. He cried out, “God, get me out of here safely and I will follow You the rest of my life!” The Lord answered his prayer and brought him safely through the battle.
The real test of that man’s faith, however, is not how sincere he may have been in crying out to God in the heat of the battle. The real test of his faith is rather measured by what he does when the pressure is off. Will he forget God and go back to his old ways? Or, will he go deeper and develop genuine faith in the person of Christ that is not just a response to his immediate need? Will he repent of his sins, trust in Christ as his Savior, and follow Him as Lord after his crisis is over?
This also applies to everyone who has cried out to God in an emergency. Maybe you or a loved one was facing a serious health problem. You cried out to God and promised that if He brought healing, you would follow Him. Maybe it was a financial crisis or the need for a job. Perhaps you were lonely and praying for a wife or husband. The Lord does not want us to seek Him merely for deliverance from some crisis, and then to put Him back on the shelf until we need Him in the next crisis. Rather, He wants us to go deeper in our faith and to trust and follow Him because of who He is, not just because of what He can do for us.
This is the central point in John 4:43-54, where Jesus heals the son of a royal official who is near death. The lesson is:
The Lord wants you to move from the foxhole faith that solves your crisis to the mature, saving faith of eternal life.
The Lord often graciously meets us at our point of crisis, but that’s just the beginning. He wants us to believe in and follow Him not only because He delivered us from our crisis, but also because He is the only Savior and Lord. He is worthy of our trust because of who He is.
Verses 43-45 form the background to the narrative that follows. After two days of fruitful ministry in the Samaritan village of Sychar, Jesus and the disciples headed north into Galilee. John adds (4:44), “For Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country.” This statement occurs in the other gospels in connection with Jesus’ visit to Nazareth (Matt. 13:57; Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24), to explain His rejection there. But here John does not mention Nazareth, but only Galilee. And, why does he introduce the verse with “for”? It’s not easy to see how verse 44 explains verse 43.
Perhaps the sense is that after His unexpectedly warm reception in Samaria, Jesus went into Galilee to show that His own people did not receive Him, illustrating John 1:11, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 285) explains,
He had come unto His own, not under a delusion that He would be welcomed, but knowing full well that He must expect a rejection. This would not take Him by surprise, for it was in the divine plan. So, to fulfil all this implies, He went to Galilee.
John wants us to understand that Jesus went to Galilee because He was following God’s will. In spite of knowing that He would not be honored in his own country, He went. But then we would expect verse 45 to say that when Jesus came to Galilee, He was rejected. But instead, John adds (4:45), “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.” Why does he say this?
There are two clues to interpreting verse 45. The first is the phrase, “having seen all the things that He did in Jerusalem at the feast.” This takes us back to 2:23-25, where many of the Jews at the feast were believing in Jesus because they saw the signs (miracles) that He did. But Jesus was not entrusting Himself to them, because He could see that their faith was shallow. Then John tells the story of Nicodemus, who was impressed with the signs that Jesus was doing (3:2), but who did not understand his need for the new birth through faith in Jesus as his sin-bearer (3:3-14).
The second clue is Jesus’ rebuke in 4:48, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” “You” is plural in this verse. Jesus was not just rebuking the man who was asking Him to heal his son. He was rebuking the Jewish people because of their superficial reasons for seeking Him. They sought Him for the miracles He did, but they didn’t understand that they should seek Him because He is their Messiah and Lord.
So in verse 45, John is using irony. He doesn’t stop here to explain that the Galileans’ reception of Jesus was superficial, but that’s his point. Neither they nor the royal official recognize and honor Jesus as the Savior of the world, as the Samaritans did. They believed in Jesus without any miracles, except for His words to the woman unmasking her past and present immorality. They believed in Him because of His word (4:41-42). But the Galileans only sought Him because of the signs which He performed. John wants us to go beyond the shallow Galilean “faith,” which receives Christ because of the miraculous. He wants the signs that Jesus did to lead us to believe in Him for who He is, the Christ, the Son of God, so that we might have eternal life in His name (20:31).
That background brings us to the story in 4:46-54, which illustrates the point of 4:43-45. This royal official comes to Jesus with Galilean “faith,” looking for a miraculous sign, but ends up going deeper to believe in Jesus as the Christ. Note the emphasis on “life” in the story: In 4:50, Jesus tells the man, “Go; your son lives.” In 4:51, as the man was returning home, his slaves met him, “saying that his son was living.” In 4:53, the father came to know that his son had been healed in the same hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son lives.” As a result, both he and his whole household believed. Thus they serve as an illustration of John’s purpose for writing this gospel (20:31), “these [signs] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
John notes (4:46) that Jesus came again to Cana of Galilee, where He had done His first miracle of turning the water into wine at the wedding feast. Then he concludes the story by linking this second miracle or sign to the first (4:54). Why does he make these connections here?
A. W. Pink (Exposition of John, on monergism.com) says that John wants us to compare the two miracles. He draws seven comparisons, which I can’t mention for sake of time. But the most significant comparison is that the result of the first sign was that the disciples believed in Jesus (2:11); the result of this second sign was that the royal official and his household believed (4:53). That’s the response that John wants all of his readers to make: These signs are written so that you will believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and thus have life in His name (20:31).
But as James Boice (The Gospel of John [Zondervan, 1-vol. ed.], p. 293) points out, there is also a great contrast between the two stories. The first is a scene of joy and happiness; but the second is a scene of sickness, desperation, anxiety, and the shadow of death. Boice says that by comparing the two stories, we are to see that life is filled with both kinds of situations and that Jesus is the One that we need to trust in all the joys and sorrows of life.
John describes the man as a royal official. We don’t know whether he was a Jew or a Gentile, but he probably had some post in Herod’s court. He could have been Manaen, who is mentioned in Acts 13:1 as having been brought up with Herod the tetrarch. Or, he may have been Chuza, Herod’s steward, whose wife Joanna contributed to Jesus’ support (Luke 8:3). But we don’t know. We can be sure that between John the Baptist’s witness and the report of this miracle on his official’s son, Herod had more than adequate witness about Christ. And yet he refused to believe. This official probably had heard of Jesus’ first miracle in Cana and also of the miracles that He had done in Jerusalem at the feast.
But he probably never would have come to Jesus if it hadn’t been for this personal crisis: His son was sick and at the point of death (4:47). He probably had sought all of the physicians in Capernaum, but they had not been able to help. So in desperation, the man makes the 15-20-mile walk from the north shore of the Sea of Galilee up to Cana to find Jesus. The verb tense that John uses indicates that he was repeatedly imploring Jesus to come down and heal his son. Every parent who has had a very sick child knows the anxiety that this father was feeling.
God often uses the crises in our lives to get us to seek Him in ways that we never would have done if the crisis had not occurred. But we need to understand that seeking the Lord in a crisis is not automatic. Many curse God and grow bitter when trials hit. We should follow this man’s example by seeking the Lord when trouble strikes.
Probably the man was fairly well-off, but his position and his money could not save the life of his son. All of us, whether rich or poor, will face afflictions and eventually death. Being young does not guarantee many more years of life. This young boy was dying. The story shows our helplessness without God. The time to seek Him is now, when you have the opportunity, not later.
Jesus’ reply to this man’s desperate cry for help seems harsh (4:48): “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” But Jesus knew that the man was not seeking Him because he wanted to worship Him or follow Him for who He is. He wasn’t coming as a sinner seeking forgiveness and eternal life. Rather, he was like the soldier in the foxhole. He desperately needed immediate help. And so Jesus’ rebuke, which as I said was directed both at the man and at the Galileans who were there, was a gracious rebuke intended to help the man see his greater need. Jesus wanted him to move from his foxhole faith to genuine saving faith. We should learn that the Lord never rebukes us to hurt us, but always for our good, so that we might grow in faith and holiness.
Note also that the man’s faith at this point was quite limited. He thought that Jesus had to make the journey to Capernaum in order to heal his son. And it never occurred to him that even if his son died, Jesus could raise him from the dead. But it was sincere faith, even though limited. He didn’t try to convince Jesus that he was worthy of this miracle because he was a royal official or a man of means. He didn’t take offense at Jesus’ rebuke. He just pathetically cried out (4:49), “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
Before we leave this point, even those of us who have believed in Christ as Savior need to look in the mirror. All too often, we’re just like this royal official. We don’t pray unless we’re in a crisis. We keep Jesus on the shelf, like Aladdin’s lamp. When we need Him, we pull Him off the shelf, try to rub Him the right way, and ask for His help. But after the difficulty passes, we put Him back on the shelf and get on with life virtually without Him.
But Christ wants to be worshiped as Lord, not used as Aladdin’s lamp. He wants us to believe in Him for who He is and to fellowship with Him at all times. He doesn’t just want us to seek Him when we need something or we’re in a jam. Any father can identify with this. What if your son only talked to you when he needed money or wanted to borrow your car? Well, that’s better than no communication at all. But it would be far better to hear, “Dad, I love you because you’re such a wonderful father.” And it would be nice if he wanted to talk to you at times when he didn’t need anything, just because he liked being with you.
The story moves from foxhole faith to the next stage:
As I said, the man had it fixed in his mind that Jesus had to accompany him back to Capernaum to heal his son. Often, we have a preconceived idea of how the Lord must work to solve our crisis. Jesus could have gone with the man and healed the boy in his presence. He did this with Jairus’ daughter when He raised her from the dead (Luke 8:41-56). That would have been more dramatic, but it wouldn’t have developed the man’s faith.
So, instead, Jesus puts the man in a curious dilemma: The man said, “Come!” but Jesus said, “Go; your son lives.” By doing this, Jesus forced the man to believe without a sign. Either he had to doubt the word of the One in whom he had placed all of his hopes for his son’s recovery, or he had to believe Him and go. So Jesus very skillfully drew this man into a deeper level of faith: Faith in Christ’s promise or word.
Here, the man has nothing but Jesus’ “bare word” to go on, but John reports (4:50), “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started off.” Note that the Lord answered the man’s desire (to heal his son), but not his request (to come down to his house). So the man had to put aside his expectations of how Jesus would work and just take Him at His word.
This story reminds us of the story of the Syrian army captain, Naaman, who had leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-19). His servant girl, a Jewish slave, told him about Elisha the prophet, who could cure him of his leprosy. He was desperate, so he put together a nice reward and went to the prophet. He expected Elisha to come out to him, stand and call on the name of the Lord, wave his hand over him, and heal him. But instead, Elisha didn’t even come out of the house. He sent his servant out to tell this important man to go and wash in the Jordan River seven times and his leprosy would be cured. Naaman was furious. This wasn’t what he expected. Besides, the rivers in Syria were better than the lousy Jordan. So he went away in a rage.
But then his servants appealed to him and said (2 Kings 5:13), “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So Naaman went and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan River and was cured of his leprosy. He believed the word of the prophet, obeyed, and was healed.
J. C. Ryle points out that Christ’s word is as good as His presence. He says (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 4:254-255):
What Christ has said, He is able to do; and what He has undertaken, He will never fail to make good. The sinner who has really reposed his soul on the word of the Lord Jesus, is safe to all eternity…. In the things of this world, we say that seeing is believing. But in the things of the Gospel, believing is as good as seeing.
So this royal official believes Christ’s word that his son was healed and he demonstrates his faith by starting off for home. This leads to the third level of faith:
The official probably had to spend the night somewhere on his return journey. The following day, as he was on the way home, his slaves met him with the wonderful news that his son was living. The man was no doubt overjoyed, but he wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just a coincidence. So he asked them at what hour “he began to get better.” They replied (4:52), “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” Left is the same word used when the Samaritan woman left her waterpot. It wasn’t just a slow, natural recovery. It happened instantly. The man then knew that it was the same hour when Jesus had spoken the word, “Your son lives.” As a result, the man and his entire household believed in Jesus.
At this point, he entered into a deeper faith in Christ’s person. C. H. Spurgeon calls it the “full assurance of faith” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 6:249). His faith has grown from the initial foxhole faith when he sought Christ to get him out of a crisis, to the stronger faith of taking Christ at His word, to this mature faith in Jesus for who He is, the Christ, the Son of God. He and his family recognize that Jesus is no ordinary prophet, but one who can speak the word and heal at a distance. He is God in human flesh.
John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 182-183) realistically acknowledges that God doesn’t often give us immediate answers to our requests, as Jesus did to this man. But even then, we must trust that He has a good reason for His delays and that He waits for our good. Calvin applies this by saying that while we wait, we should “consider how much of concealed distrust there is in us, or at least how small and limited our faith is.” Ouch! But Calvin’s point is on target. How often I expect God to answer in my way and my timing; but when He doesn’t, I doubt His love or His care. I need to trust that in His way and His timing, He will work all things together for my good, even if I don’t see it in my lifetime.
I conclude with two other applications. First, if you have believed in Christ, entreat the Lord for the salvation of your entire household. Throughout the Book of Acts, as here, there is a sequence of entire households coming to saving faith (Acts 11:14; 16:15, 31; 18:8). It may not happen instantly with your family, as in these cases. But if the Lord has done wonders in saving your soul, begin to pray for your family. Live a gospel-transformed life in front of them every day. Let them see the love of Christ in you. Ask the Lord to save your family from their sins.
Second, if you have never believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, then you’re under the sentence of death—eternal separation from God. But just as Christ instantly granted life to this dying boy, so He will instantly give you eternal life, if you will call on His name. You cannot do anything to save yourself, but Christ can and will save you if you cry out in faith to Him. This sign was “written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation