I know what it’s like to have a loved one’s life in jeopardy. When I was 16 years old, my mother was seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver. I was the one driving her to the hospital, while my dad tried to stop the bleeding. When we reached the hospital, I rushed out of the car and into the hospital, where a lady on duty attempted to start filling out papers. I put an end to that quickly. I wanted help to save my mother’s life, and I had no time for paper shuffling. Later in my life, my wife and I awoke to find our first child had died in his sleep. You can imagine my response when our next child appeared to be seriously ill. When I picked my daughter up, her eyes rolled to the back of her head. I did not care about speed limits that day; I only cared about getting help for her as quickly as possible.
The royal official in our text must feel the same way as his son’s life hangs by a thread. Jesus is his only hope. He rushes the 20 miles from Capernaum where he lives to Cana of Galilee, where he has heard that Jesus has returned and can be found. He cannot know whether his son is still alive, or whether he has died during his nearly eight-hour journey to find Jesus. But when he finds Jesus, he has only one thing on his mind—getting Jesus to come to Capernaum with him as quickly as possible, in the hope that there is still time to save his child’s life.
What a shock it must be for this royal official when he realizes that Jesus is not going to accompany him to Capernaum. Worse yet, our Lord’s response to this official’s request for help almost appears to be a rebuke. How can this be? How can Jesus respond so harshly to a father who is only trying to save the life of his son? We shall seek to answer this question in our study of this text. It is a wonderful text, with lessons for us, as well as for the royal official. Let us listen and learn what the Spirit of God has for us in this portion of His holy Word.
43 After the two days he departed from there to Galilee. 44 (For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country.) 45 So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him because they had seen all the things he had done in Jerusalem at the feast (for they themselves had gone to the feast).
These verses cause some students of the New Testament considerable grief. The problem centers around verse 44, where Jesus testifies that “a prophet has no honor in his own country.” Some see an inconsistency between verses 44 and 45: If Jesus believed that He would have no honor in “his own country,” then why does John tell us that the Galileans “welcomed” Him? All kinds of solutions to this problem are offered. The problem does not seem that difficult. This same proverb is found in Matthew 13:57; Mark 6:4; and Luke 4:24. In each of these instances, the circumstances are the same. In Matthew, we read:
53 Now when Jesus finished these parables, he went away from there. 54 He came to his hometown210 and taught them in their synagogue. They were amazed and said, “Where did this man get such wisdom and miraculous powers? 55 Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother called Mary? And aren’t his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And aren’t all his sisters here with us? Where then did he get these things?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own hometown and in his own house.” 58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:53-58).
Jesus has come to Nazareth and is teaching in the synagogue. Some of these folks had probably been in Jerusalem when Jesus was there, performing signs (see John 2:23; 4:45). If they had not personally been in Jerusalem, they must certainly have heard about some of the miracles He had performed there. When Jesus arrives in His own “hometown,” expectations are running high. “What will Jesus perform here, in His own “hometown”? In spite of their high expectations, a question begins to formulate in the minds of some. Jesus is becoming a very popular person and attracting a following. But they know (or think they know) His origins. Because Nazareth is His hometown, they think they know all about Him. They know His mother and (so they think) His father, His brothers and His sisters. How can anyone so important come from such humble origins? Due to this perception of Jesus, there was a drawing back or falling away on the part of Jesus’ countrymen. Jesus sees this response as typical and proverbial. After all, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own hometown and in his own house” (verse 57). As a result, Jesus performs few miracles there because of their unbelief.211
Now let’s relate this description of our Lord’s ministry in Nazareth to our text in John, which speaks of His return to Galilee, to His “own country.” The question at hand is this: “How can John quote this same proverb about a prophet not having honor in his own country when he then tells us that when Jesus arrives in Galilee, the people there “welcome Him”? From what we have seen in Matthew’s account of our Lord’s arrival at Nazareth, we see virtually the same phenomena. Jesus returns to His “hometown” and there receives an initial warm welcome. The people are aware of the miracles He has performed in Jerusalem (and perhaps elsewhere) and hope to see many more in their own town. But as they reflect on the origins of Jesus, they are not so sure. Has He come to bless the Gentiles as well as the Jews? This is unpardonable (Luke 4:16-30). And so what seems to start off well ends up in a very disappointing way, both for our Lord and for those of His “hometown.”
A principle is involved here when, once recognized, resolves the apparent problem in our text: A short-lived, superficial acceptance of our Lord is not the same as an informed, long-term commitment to Him. In the parable of the four soils, the second soil represents what I believe to be this same superficial, short-term commitment:
16 And these are the ones sown on the rocky ground: whenever they hear the word, they receive it at once with joy. 17 But they have no root in themselves and are temporary. Then, when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they fall away212 immediately (Mark 4:16-17).
Therefore we should not suppose that just because the Galileans initially “welcome” Jesus that they truly accept Him as Messiah. These folks are not even “sign-faith” believers; they are unbelievers fascinated by signs. The outcome of our Lord’s visit to His homeland is disappointing and yet exactly what our Lord intends. He leaves Judea because He is becoming too popular too quickly (John 4:1-3). He goes to His homeland so as not to be “honored.” There, He is initially welcomed, but He is not truly honored.
46 Now he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had made the water wine. In Capernaum there was a certain royal official whose son was sick. 47 When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was about to die. 48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will never believe.” 49 The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go home; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and set off for home.
Because others have made much of it, I will mention the fact that some say this story is just another version of the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:2-10). The similarities are very few; the differences are many. Allow me to mention some of these differences:
I think we can safely assume that the miracle of the healing of the royal official’s son is unique, as is most of the material in the Gospel of John.
Jesus returns to Cana of Galilee, where He turned water into wine (John 2:1-11). A royal official214 living in Capernaum hears that Jesus is once again at Cana. The official’s son is at the point of death and this father is desperate, as anyone who has ever been in his predicament knows. Jesus is his last and only hope to save his son. He hastily makes the 20 mile trek to Cana, in search of Jesus. When he finds Jesus, he pleads with Him to return immediately with him to Capernaum and to heal his son, who is about to die.
Our Lord’s response to the royal official is puzzling, almost disturbing: “So Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you people see signs and wonders you will never believe.’” The NET Bible, along with some other translations, indicates that the “you” in verse 48 is plural, and not singular. Jesus is therefore speaking to a larger audience than just the royal official. It is my assumption that the royal official asks around town to find out where Jesus is staying. As he does, a small crowd of curious bystanders gathers around the royal official and follows him to where Jesus is staying, hoping to see Jesus perform a miracle. Jesus has left Judea and come to Galilee to avoid the crowds. He does not wish to create undue messianic excitement too soon. Thus, our Lord does not seem eager to perform a miracle in a way which will draw attention to Himself.
I suspect that if our Lord had accompanied the royal official home to Capernaum, a crowd would have followed Him there too. Had they witnessed the healing of this lad, they would have told others, and many would have flocked to our Lord for healing. Jesus does not want this situation to arise. Our Lord’s response to the official, as well as to those gathered, achieves His desire to disperse the crowd. His words are a rebuke. These Galileans do not really believe in Him as the Messiah. They simply know of the signs He has performed elsewhere and want to see if He will do the same (or even more) for them. Jesus rightly rebukes them for being interested only in His miracles and not taking to heart what these signs signify. Our Lord’s words of rebuke send a message that Jesus is not going to “jump through their hoops” on this occasion. If they have come only to see signs, they will not see one now. The only thing they get is a rebuke.
Why stick around if nothing sensational is going to happen? I think the crowds left. It is true that Jesus’ next words should give them pause for thought. Jesus tells the man, “Go home; your son will live.” Looking back from our vantage point in time, you and I would expect the whole town to follow the official back to Capernaum to see if our Lord’s words actually come to pass. But remember that these people are sign-seekers, not men and women of faith. They are those who do not trust in Jesus as their Messiah. When they hear our Lord say, “Go home; your son will live,” they probably say to themselves, “Yeah, right!” I think they believe that His words are only intended to get rid of this persistent father, not words of assurance that his son really has been healed. We are not told that anyone accompanies the official to Capernaum, or that anyone other than his own servants come to trust in Jesus. The crowd disperses, and the sign-seekers go away disappointed, and perhaps a little angry.
But if our Lord rebukes the crowd, He seems to include the royal official as well. Does our Lord not seem to lack compassion toward this desperate man, whose only concern is the well-being of his son? Some might be tempted to ask, “How can Jesus be so rude, so insensitive, so critical?” Let me suggest that the solution to this dilemma may be found in the Gospel of Mark:
24 Jesus left there and went to the region of Tyre. When he went into a house, he did not want anyone to know, but he was not able to escape notice. 25 Instead, a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him and came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, of Syrophoenician origin. She asked him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and to throw it to the dogs.” 28 She answered, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “Because you said this, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” 30 She went home and found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone (Mark 7:24-30).
Is our Lord being unduly harsh with this Gentile woman, who begs Him to cast the demon out of her daughter? I think not. First of all, what Jesus says is true. He has come “to the Jew first” and then to the Gentiles (see Matthew 10:5-6; Romans 1:16; 2:9-10). Beyond this, I believe our Lord is dealing with this woman in a way that inspires faith. Having heard Jesus, does this woman cower and walk away? No; she presses Jesus even harder for her daughter’s sake, reminding Him that Gentiles are to benefit from His coming as well as the Jews.
I believe the same thing is taking place in our text. The on-lookers are merely sign-seekers, and our Lord’s words seem to send them home. The royal official is not about to let his son die, and he knows that Jesus is his only hope. It may be that his faith is weak, that he needs to see to believe, but he does believe that Jesus is able to heal his son, and so he persists with his request. I believe our Lord’s words press him in the right direction. They are not intended to turn him away, but to turn him to Jesus in faith.
It seems from what we are told that this official believes the saying, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” He thinks Jesus can heal the sick, but not raise the dead.215 And no wonder he thinks so, for Jesus has not yet raised anyone from the dead. The royal official seems to believe that Jesus can heal his son if He is at his side, but not from 20 miles away. Jesus now says to this official, “Go home; your son will live,” and the official goes home. This man’s faith seems to grow in the few moments he pleads with Jesus. And so the official leaves to return to his son, believing the word of our Lord.
I am reminded of my days as a seminary student in the Masters Program. I signed up for a class taught by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson. Dr. Johnson was then teaching at Believers Chapel, where I attended, and I was greatly blessed by his ministry. I wanted to take every class he offered at the seminary. When his class, “Paul’s Use of the Old Testament,” was offered, I signed up. The first day of class Dr. Johnson was obviously surprised at how many had signed up—more than he expected—more than he wanted. And so Dr. Johnson proceeded to inform the class that this was a “doctoral level” class that would be too difficult for others. He literally invited a number of us to get up and leave, and to sign up for something else. I didn’t move. I wanted that class, and I was not going to let him scare me out of it. I survived the class and did reasonably well. His words caused some to “fall away,” but not me. I knew what I wanted, and I knew he was the one I wanted it from. That is the way it was with the royal official and Jesus.
51 While he was on his way down, his slaves met him and told him that his son would live. 52 So he asked them the time when his condition began to improve, and they told him, “Yesterday at one o’clock in the afternoon the fever left him.”216 53 Then the father realized that was the very time Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live”; and he himself believed along with his entire household. 54 Jesus did this as his second miraculous sign when he came from Judea to Galilee.
Jesus tells the royal official, “Go home; your son will live.” The official does not get what he asks for; Jesus does not volunteer to return to Capernaum with him. Nevertheless, the man believes Jesus and leaves Him to return home. Exactly what does he believe? I think that he trusts Jesus, not knowing exactly what He meant. He understands Jesus to say that his son has not yet died, and that he will not die. As he makes his way home, his mind must be racing as he considers all the possibilities. While still on his way, he is met by his servants, who have news of the boy’s condition and do not want their master to agonize any longer than necessary.
We should pause momentarily to view this incident from the servants’217 point of view. Their master’s son becomes very ill, and they watch helplessly as his temperature climbs dangerously high. They know that if something does not happen quickly, the boy will die. They watch as, in desperation, their master hastens to Cana of Galilee, hoping to find Jesus and to convince Him to come and heal the lad. The child’s condition continues to deteriorate after their master leaves. They begin to lose all hope. They hate to think of how their master will respond when he returns home to find his son dead. Then, suddenly, the child’s fever breaks, and he begins to improve rapidly. They know the danger is past and that he will live. They do not have any clue as to how it happened, but they do not wish their master to agonize any longer than necessary. And so some servants go out to meet their master and to give him the good news.
As soon as their master is in sight, they call out the good news that his son will live. The words sound strikingly similar to the assurance our Lord has given the father just a few hours before. You can almost see the face of this father, the look of relief and joy that comes over him. And then there must be a subtle change of expression to a more thoughtful look. The father is starting to put the pieces together. He recognizes (as his servants do not) the relationship between the words of Jesus and the words of his servants. Jesus was right. The royal official’s faith in Him is well-founded. But now the ruler begins to wonder about these words. Has Jesus spoken as a prophet, assuring him that the child will not die, and will get better on his own? Or, did Jesus produce a miraculous “long distance” healing as he spoke some eight hours earlier, assuring him that the boy would live?
There is a way to find out. The ruler poses this question to his servants: “Just exactly what time was it when the boy suddenly improved?” They tell him it was 1:00 o’clock when the turning point came. Then he knows for certain, for he knows that was precisely the time Jesus assured him of the child’s well-being. It is a miracle indeed, a miracle brought about by our Lord speaking only a word. It is a miracle not unlike creation, when He spoke the world into existence (see John 1:1-3; see Hebrews 11:3; Genesis 1).
The father218 knows he has witnessed a miracle, and he “believes,” along with his entire household. Have we not already been told that he “believed” in verse 50? In that passage, the official believed what Jesus said. The belief I see in verse 53 is a deeper, more informed belief, a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, as the Savior of the world. This man and his whole household become a household of faith. This is the way faith is. Look at the disciples in the Gospels. In John chapter 1, several disciples come to believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah. Then they observe the Lord changing water into wine, and we are once again told that they believe in Jesus (John 2:11). Throughout the life of our Lord, more and more miracles are performed as the disciples witness them. And the more they see of Him, the more their faith in Him grows. Faith is not a static thing, something we experience once and then it remains constant. Our faith should grow as we come to know our Lord and His Word better, as we see that this One in whom we have placed our trust is even greater than we imagined!
John tells us in verse 54 that this is the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed when He came from Judea to Galilee. This cannot mean that He performed only two signs, for we know that John has been very selective (John 2:23; 3:2; 20:30-31) in the signs he has chosen to record. It is the second of his “selected signs,” employed to bring men and women to faith in Jesus as the promised Savior.
What a great miracle this is! Do you notice that in one sense it is a miracle very similar to the changing of water into wine? Jesus turns the water into wine in a way that keeps most of those at the wedding from even knowing what had happened. It is a “sign” evident to a few, which results in the faith of only our Lord’s disciples (2:11). So it is too with the healing of the royal official’s son. If Jesus had chosen to perform this miracle as the official had hoped (by personally coming and attending to his son), many would have followed along, and our Lord’s popularity would have greatly increased. But this is not what our Lord wants at this point in time. That is why He left Judea and returned to Galilee (4:1-3). Jesus performs this miracle in such a way that only the official knows it is a miracle. As he “testified” of this miracle to his servants, they too become members of the “household of faith.” Jesus not only performs a miracle, He does so in a way that is consistent with His purpose.
Jesus accomplishes this miracle in a way that enhances the official’s faith from “sign-faith” to “word-faith.” John introduces a theme in chapter 2 which persists in this Gospel:
23 Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs he was doing. 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people. 25 He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man (John 2:23-25, emphasis mine).
It is apparent that “sign-faith” is not pleasing to our Lord, for He chooses not to commit Himself to “sign-faith” believers. Sign-faith is not a bad starting point, but it should never end here. Jesus wants people whose faith is grounded in His word, not in miracles.
John the Baptist never performed a sign, but his words were powerful, and many believed them. Nicodemus, like his fellow-Pharisees, was not willing to take Jesus at His word. He had one question after another, but they did not bring him to faith at that moment (John 3). The woman at the well took Jesus at His word, and so did all the people of Sychar (John 4:4-42). The Galileans were impressed with our Lord’s signs, but they were not so inclined to accept His word. This royal official came to the point where he was willing to take Jesus at His word, and he and his household became believers.
If I sound like a broken record persisting in repeating the same theme, let me simply say that it is a theme John also keeps on repeating: “Sign-faith” is inferior to “word-faith.” Our Lord wants those to follow Him as His disciples who will take Him at His word.
We can learn another lesson from this royal official. He is wrong in (first) supposing that God can only accomplish what we ask for by doing it the way we prescribe. We all are like this when we pray. We tell God what we want, and then we proceed to tell Him how to do it. We think that the way we expect Him to act is the way He is most likely and able to act. The royal official thinks Jesus can save his son only if He comes to Capernaum and personally attends to him. He is wrong. Our Lord does intend to heal this man’s son, but in His way. He does not need to be at his bedside. He can heal him from a distance. (And, humanly speaking, if Jesus had agreed to go with the official, the son may well have died while they were on their way. Of course, He could have raised the boy from the dead, too.) Our Lord’s way of healing the boy keeps the crowds from witnessing the miracle, and restricts those who believe to the official and his household. Let us not lose hope when God refuses to “jump through our hoops” and does not answer our prayers the way we expect.
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? 35 Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him? 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
God delights in answering our prayers in a way that highlights His power, grace, glory, and sovereignty. We do better to trust Him to answer our prayers His way.
As I close, let me point out a very important principle: God often brings adversity into our lives—adversity beyond our ability to handle—so that we must come to Him as our only hope, so that we must trust in Him alone. I doubt very much that this royal official would have traveled 20 miles to beg Jesus to come heal his son if his son had athletes’ foot or an in-grown toenail. This man is desperate. He is helpless and hopeless, apart from Jesus Christ. Jesus said it: He came to heal the sick, not to minister to those who are healthy. There are those who came to argue with Jesus, who were trying to make themselves look good and Him look bad. But setting these trouble-makers aside, most of those who come to Jesus in the Gospels are those who desperately need help, those who are hurting and helpless.
Are you hurting? Do you feel helpless, unable to cope with what you are facing? This could be the gracious hand of God, drawing you to Himself for mercy and grace in your time of need. Let’s face it; we do not seek God when things are going well for us. We tend to turn to God only in our weakness, in our need, in our despair. If your life is like this, it may be the gracious hand of God, compelling you to come to Him in faith. Take Him at His word. Come to Him who is the solution to your every need.
210 The word “hometown” here is the same Greek term as found in Matthew 13:54, 57; Mark 6:1, 4 and Luke 4:24. In each case, the NET Bible renders it “hometown.” It is therefore reasonable to assume that this same term means basically the same thing in John 4:44.
211 This is a most interesting turn of events. John wrote this Gospel, including all the signs that He did, so that men might come to believe in Jesus as the Christ (20:31). The people of Nazareth do not believe, and thus they see very few miracles.
214 “Although basilikov" has often been translated ‘nobleman’ it almost certainly refers here to a servant of Herod, tetrarch of Galilee (who in the NT is called a king, Mark 6:14, 22; Matt 14:9). Capernaum was a border town, so doubtless there were many administrative officials in residence there.” Translator’s note from NET Bible.
216 Some agonize about what time it was when Jesus assured the official that his son would live. Since there are two means of reckoning time (Roman and Jewish), there is a certain amount of room for discussion about the exact time that Jesus assures the official his son will live. By the Roman system of reckoning time, it would have been 7 p.m. By the Jewish system, it would have been 1:00 p.m. Some are troubled as to why it took the man a full day to return to his home, and theories abound to explain the apparent discrepancy. Frankly, John didn’t find these details important enough to supply, and they appear to have nothing to do with the meaning and the message of this miracle, so I will pass this matter by.