Topic Scripture: John 4:46-54
Thesis: Jesus always heals—physically, spiritually, or eternally
A friend in our congregation recently sent me an interesting e-mail. It seems that he was watching a particular news commentator on television one night, and heard the reporter try to make his point by saying, “There’s the passage that says, ‘God helps those who help themselves.'” Right after, the station went to a commercial break.
My friend and his wife were just starting to comment on how often that non-biblical reference is attributed to God’s word when one of our church’s televisions spots came on the screen. In this particular TV spot I begin by saying, “My favorite verse in the Bible used to be, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ Until I discovered it’s not in the Bible.” Then I proceed to explain that God helps those who cannot help themselves, by his grace. It’s been said that coincidence is when God prefers to remain anonymous.
Sometimes God manifests his presence and power in small, unseen ways. But sometimes we need him to help us with dramatic, life-transforming power. In this study, a pagan Roman official will help us answer a vital question: Does God always heal? When you need him most, will he be there? Will he heal you? Will he answer your prayer for someone you love? Does God always heal?
Remember what Jesus has done
Our story begins: “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” (John 2:46-47).
This “certain royal official” was a most unlikely candidate for a miracle from a Jewish rabbi. The Jews hated Gentiles, considering them pagan idolaters. They commonly said that God made Gentiles so there would be firewood in hell. They would not allow their nurses to help Gentile women in childbirth, for this would only bring another Gentile into the world. Every Jewish male began every morning with the same prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.”
And this man was not just any Gentile. He was a “certain royal official,” part of the cursed, despised Roman occupation. He was most probably a court officer for King Herod (his Greek title, basilikos, was used by the Jewish historian Josephus to refer to Herodian troops. Though it can have other functions, an army official is its most likely definition here; cf. Brown 190). It was his job to protect Herod from the masses who despised his rule, and to enforce that rule among the Jews. Israel was oppressed by Rome, and he was one of the chief oppressors.
By now the Jewish nation has suffered under the boot of Rome for generations. They are an occupied territory. They must pay Rome exorbitant taxes, and bow to Caesar’s rule. They have lost the right to govern themselves, and have no hope of independence in the future. John’s readers knew that 40 or so years after the events recorded in his Gospel, Rome would destroy the Jewish temple forever and scatter the people across the world. Thanks to Rome, Israel would cease to exist as a nation. And this man’s army would ensure their destruction.
I spent a summer doing mission work in East Malaysia, a Muslim nation. One cannot work for the government unless he is Muslim. The government severely restricts the Christian church there. If a believer shares his faith with a Muslim, he can be arrested and sent to prison. Christians find it hard to advance in work or education. Many lose their homes for their faith, and some, their lives. If a government official were to come to such an oppressed believer for help, he would be in somewhat the position of this Roman who stood before the rabbi, surrounded by an incredulous crowd of hostile Jews.
Why would this man believe that Jesus would even hear his request, much less honor it?
The clues begin early in our story. Because not a single word in holy Scripture is wasted, we must ask why John states that it was in Cana that Jesus “had turned the water into wine.” We will remember our Lord’s first miracle, recorded only two chapters earlier. I think it is likely that the writer includes this episode not to remind us but to connect this miracle to the official who needs such a miracle in his own life. Perhaps he had heard of Jesus’ power in that tiny town, his assistance given to simple peasants. If Jesus would help them, perhaps he would help him as well.
The official “heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea” (v. 47). What had Jesus been doing down south? Cleansing the temple in Jerusalem (John 2:12ff), evangelizing a member of the Sanhedrin (3:1ff), receiving the testimony of John the Baptist as to his divinity (3:22ff), and ministering to a Samaritan woman and her entire town (4:1ff). John 4:45 adds further, “When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they also had been there.” These two chapters of John’s Gospel occupied eighteen months of our Lord’s life (Hobbs, Study Guide 24).
So our Roman official has heard much to encourage him about Jesus. He would help peasants—perhaps he will help a nobleman. He would “heal” the temple—maybe he will heal his son. He would speak with a Sanhedrin member—perhaps he will speak with a Roman official. He would minister to a Samaritan—maybe he will minister to a Gentile in need. And he was right.
Do you need God to heal you or someone you love? To heal physically, emotionally, relationally, or spiritually? Are you wondering if he will? First, remember what Jesus has already done for you. Think about the ways he has already proven his love for you. His Son left heaven’s glory to be born in a peasant’s feedtrough, just for you. He endured crucifixion, a form of execution so horrific it is outlawed all over the world today, just for you. He has forgiven every failure you have ever confessed to him, and will continue to do so. He knows every sin you’ve ever committed, and what’s more, he sees every sin you will ever commit in the future. But he loves you anyway. He likes you. He finds joy in you even as you read these words.
He told his prophet, “The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!” (Is 30:18). Think of all the ways he has already blessed you. Does your family love you? So many are trapped in loveless, abusive homes. Has he provided for your material needs through physical abilities and vocational opportunities? So many are trapped in endless poverty. Has he given you the privilege of life in America’s freedom? Who of us earned the right to be born in this country and not in Iraq or North Korea?
Has God showed you his miraculous power in your past? We each have experienced help we did not earn and could not explain. I remember well a Wednesday night prayer meeting in our first pastorate. One of our elderly members came into our Fellowship Hall, her face white as a sheet. She told us that her doctor had called just that hour with the test results: she had pancreatic cancer and only months to live. We prayed earnestly and passionately. The next week she was back, in glorious health. The cancer was gone, and the doctor had no explanation. But we did.
My dentist in our Midland church was in open-heart surgery, and his heart would not start beating again. The doctor came out to tell the family that he was dying. We began to pray. A few moments later the doctor returned to tell us that his heart had started again, on its own, and that he had never seen such a thing in all his years of medical practice. Later, the mayor of Midland suffered a debilitating heart attack. The surgeons operated, but discovered that half of the heart was hard and dead. There was nothing the surgeons could do. But then, while we were praying outside, that dead tissue came back to life and started to beat. The surgeons said they had never seen such a thing.
I know drug addicts who were miraculous healed of their habit, Satanists who were powerfully converted, prisoners who are now preachers. I remember a couple brought to one of our worship services in Atlanta by friends. They were planning to file for divorce the next day. But in a Sunday school class that morning, God healed their marriage. One of our church members here in Dallas came to our country as a Muslim missionary to convert Americans to Islam, and is now a Christian missionary to Muslims. When he came to Christ, his father back home issued a warrant for his arrest should he ever return. He recently went home anyway, and led his father to Christ.
Think about all the ways God has shown his miraculous power to you and those you know. Remember what he has done. Think back to times when he turned your water into his wine, when he met your needs and those of people you love. Remember what Jesus has done, and you’ll be encouraged to believe that he will do it again.
Bring him your pain
Since beginning my work on this commentary, the official in our story has become one of my favorite models for biblical faith. He teaches us much about the kind of trust which Jesus can honor with his miraculous power.
First, we trust Jesus despite every obstacle. The Roman official “went” to Jesus (v. 47). John’s readers knew what we do not: this man walked nearly a marathon to bring his need to our Lord. He was stationed in Capernaum, a significant fishing town on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. Cana was at least twenty miles to the west. The Sea of Galilee is 700 feet below sea level; Cana was situated atop the Galilean hills (“Galilee” is from the Hebrew word galal, “to roll” [Hobbs, Invitation 39]). But neither distance nor height deterred this father. He teaches us to bring Jesus our pain, however hard the journey may be, however difficult such faith is for us.
Second, we trust Jesus in humility. The official “begged him to come and heal his son” (v. 47). He did not order Jesus to do so, though his rank and office would have afforded him such authority. Social standing and status would not deter this father. It is an amazing scene: an official of the Roman Empire pleading with a Jewish village carpenter for his help. If a high-ranking Army officer stationed in Afghanistan were to walk 20 miles to seek help from an Afghan peasant, we’d be no less astonished. He teaches us to bring Jesus our need, in honest humility.
Third, we trust Jesus personally. The official came himself, not sending a servant in his place. This is the way we each must come to Jesus: “The rich and the poor, the high and the low, must come personally as humble supplicants, and must be willing to bear all the reproach that may be cast on them for thus coming to him” (Barnes 223). The Roman teaches us to get on our own knees before Jesus.
Fourth, we trust Jesus unconditionally. The official begged him to “come and heal his son.” Undoubtedly he had already tried the best physicians Rome could offer, without success. Now he has faith to believe that this itinerant carpenter, this unordained rabbi could do what other men could not. He didn’t ask Jesus to “try to heal his son,” but simply to heal him. He believed that he could. And he was right. He teaches us to ask in absolute, unwavering faith.
James commends such certainty: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (Ja 1:5-8).
Fifth, we trust Jesus with our best faith. The official did not know Jesus’ divine power as we do. He wanted Jesus to “come” to heal his son, as a physician would. He had no idea that our omnipotent Lord could heal across time and distance, with just a word. Another Roman official did have such faith, and said to Jesus, “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). And Jesus commended him: “I have not found anyone in Israel with such faith” (v. 10), and healed his servant in that very hour (v. 13).
Jesus would have welcomed such faith in this Roman, but he did not require it. He meets us at the point of our belief, when we give to him the best faith we have. The official in our miracle did not know what we do, but Jesus honored his request nonetheless. You may think your faith too small to receive a miracle from God, but if it is the best you have, it is all he requires. One of my favorite prayers in the Bible is the request of the father whose son was possessed by a demon. Jesus said to him, “Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23), and he replied, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v. 24). And Jesus did. He receives such faith as we have, by grace.
Last, we trust Jesus with persistent faith. “Begged” is in the continuous tense in the Greek, showing that the man repeated his insistent requests (Tenney 60). Jesus taught us to “ask and keep on asking, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7, my literal translation). The Roman teaches us to heed Jesus’ instruction.
Now our Lord gave an odd response to such remarkable faith: “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe” (v. 48). At first glance, it appears that Jesus rebuked this man’s great trust in him. But the first glance is often wrong, especially in reading the word of God.
“You” is found twice in Jesus’ sentence, and is the key to its meaning. This is the second person plural, addressed to the entire crowd gathered before Jesus. His words were not spoken directly to the nobleman, but to the audience which was listening to his request. Jesus knew that most people were consumers, interested in him to the degree that he could help them. And he was right.
Tragically, he still is. For countless churches theology is therapy, the congregation a club. Members join the club that offers the services they want, and pay only for what they receive. The deacons are a board of directors, elected to ensure that the members’ needs are met. The pastor is a kind of “head pro,” with a staff hired to serve the membership. A few years ago a troubling survey was conducted. Thousands of churches and their pastors were asked the purpose of the church. 90% of the pastors said the purpose of the church is to fulfill the Great Commission; 10% said it is to meet members’ needs. 89% of the members said that the purpose of the church is to meet their needs; 11% said it is to fulfill the Great Commission.
So Jesus was both testing this nobleman’s faith and revealing that of his contemporaries. The official passed the test and more: “Sir, come down before my child dies” (49). “Sir” is a title of immense respect, unheard of on the lips of a Roman officer speaking to a Jewish peasant. His prayer was again a request, not an order. It was another statement of humble, personal, unconditional, persistent faith, the plea of a breaking heart. Not a demand that Jesus prove his ability, for this man already believed in his power.
So should we. When we bring Jesus our pain, we position ourselves to receive the grace he already wants to give. How many of our needs go unmet because we will not give them to our Master with the faith of this pagan? When last did you give your problem to Jesus as he did?
Trust his word
The Roman teaches us to remember what Jesus has done for us in the past, and ask him to do it again today. Now we learn a last, vital lesson from our Gentile teacher today: trust the word you hear from God. Immediately, without reservation or hesitation. Put feet to your faith. Stake everything on his word and will. Trust the word of God.
Jesus’ reply to the nobleman’s commendable faith was an absolute shock to his troubled mind: “You may go. Your son will live” (v. 50a). “Live” is a Semitic term which means both recovery from illness and return to life from death (Rienecker 228). That’s the good news. But the bad news is that Jesus would not go with the official to make it so for his dying son. He would not come to him in his hour of greatest need. No reputable physician in human history has ever claimed to heal a person he has never seen of an illness he has not diagnosed. This boy lay near death, 20 miles away, his illness unknown but terminal. And now a peasant carpenter claimed to have healed him with only his words.
Imagine yourself calling your doctor for help with a gravely ill child. The physician refuses to see your child, or to go to him. He will not prescribe medicine, run tests, or consult with other medical professionals. He doesn’t even inquire as to the precise nature of the illness. He simply says, “Your son will live.” Over the telephone, from an office 20 miles away. How would you respond?
Our pagan official “took Jesus at his word and departed” (v. 50b). His response and faith were instantaneous (Robertson 76). He started on his way, acting on his faith. Note that he did not stay with Jesus until receiving word that the promised cure had been effective—he simply left to go home to his healed son (Bruce 734).
With this result: “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'” (John 2:51-52). The servants whom the official refused to send to Jesus in his place now entered the event. They have come to find their master, for his journey was no longer necessary: “his boy was living,” literally, “he lives.” He is healed, and well.
These servants had never met Jesus, and had no knowledge of his actions. They had no idea when Jesus had spoken his healing word. And so their testimony was objective and substantively compelling. It provided independent verification of this miracle, much as the servants in our first miracle did for Jesus’ work there.
They didn’t know the full import of their report, but their master did: “Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live'” (v. 53a). The “seventh hour” would be either 1 p.m. (Jewish time) or 7 p.m. (Roman). Given that the nobleman met his servants the day after speaking with Jesus (v. 52, “The fever left him yesterday”), it is likely that Roman time was employed here. The father had begun the long trek home after hearing Jesus’ words, camped along the way, and now met his servants the next morning.
When he received their report, “he and all his household believed” (v. 53b). This was the best news a father could ever hear, and it turned him to his own Father. He “believed,” with trusting, saving faith. Before he had believed in Jesus as a healer; now he made him his Master and Lord. Before he had trusted Jesus for his son’s physical life; now he trusted him for his own eternal life.
Such faith was radical, revolutionary, and sacrificial. At the very least a Roman follower of this itinerant Jewish rabbi could expect no further advancement in his political career. At worst, assuming his refusal to worship Caesar as his lord, his career and even his life could be in jeopardy. And he knew all this at the beginning of his faith commitment.
But he made his decision anyway. And he led his family to do the same: “all his household believed.” This pagan oppressor of the Jewish people became the first person in the New Testament to lead his whole family to Christ. Later Lydia would win her family in Philippi to Jesus (Acts 16:15), as would the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:33, 34) and Crispus, the synagogue ruler in Corinth (Acts 18:8). But this Roman soldier was the first. May fathers and mothers across our church and country follow his example today.
It is plausible that the Roman official did even more in the service of our Lord than we are told here. Luke tells us of a certain “Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household” (Luke 8:3). This Joanna was among “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases” (v. 2), and were “helping to support them out of their own means” (v. 3). If this nobleman was the Cuza identified by Luke, then we can infer that his faith led his wife to faith as well. And that the One who healed his son also healed his wife, and led her to sacrificial discipleship.
Another possible identification of our nobleman is found in Acts 13:1: “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manean (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Paul.” If Manean was the official of our story, we can trace his evolution of faith from the army of Herod to leadership in the church of Jesus.
Both possibilities are speculative, of course. We cannot know for certain the name of the Roman official in our story. But God does. And that’s all that matters.
Our pagan official teaches us today to remember all Jesus the ways Jesus has met our needs in the past, and trust him to meet them again today. He then shows us that we must trust in the word he gives us, with immediate and total faith. Such faith led the nobleman to the physical salvation of his son and the spiritual salvation of his entire family. Jesus healed a single body so he could heal many souls. He waits for another who will bring him similar faith, and receive a similar miracle.
Will Jesus always heal us?
So, does God always heal? Will he always do for us what he did for this father?
John concludes our text: “This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee” (John 2:54). Not the second miracle Jesus did in total, for while our Lord was in Jerusalem for Passover “many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name” (John 2:23). Our miracle was the second performed by Jesus in the region of Cana (Hovey 128), and was the last “sign” John numbered in this way (Carson 239). But not the last miracle Jesus would do.
In coming weeks we will watch Jesus cure a paralytic, feed a multitude, walk on water, heal a blind man, raise the dead, and appear in his own resurrected glory. Most of us have experienced his miraculous power in our lives today. But does he always act in this way? Does he always heal our bodies, whenever we ask?
No. Jesus healed 40 people we can identify in the gospels, out of the thousands who were sick and dying. All of his disciples but one were executed for their faith, and he didn’t heal their bodies. Paul, the greatest theologian and missionary of all time, prayed three times that his “thorn in the flesh” be removed, but Jesus didn’t do what he asked (2 Corinthians 11:7-9). He doesn’t always heal our bodies. And even those he heals will die, unless he returns to earth first. Lazarus died again. The nobleman’s son died later. So will we.
Sometimes Jesus heals us physically. But sometimes he works an even greater miracle—he heals us spiritually. He gives us the strength and spirit and courage to bear up under life’s sufferings. Sometimes he removes the pain, and sometimes he does the even greater work of giving us the strength to endure it. Either is a miracle of the Lord.
David Ring knows the truth of this principle. David has cerebral palsy and a severe speech impediment. God could have healed him long ago, but then David would have nothing of the ministry which is his through his physical challenges. His shirts are held together by Velcro; his speech is rough; his body is twisted. But his faith and courage will move any person who hears him.
David once said in a sermon, “They said I would never ride a bike, but I did. They said I would never get married, but I did; I have five kids to prove it. They said I would never preach, last year I preached 265 times. I have cerebral palsy, but I preach. What’s your problem?”
I am convinced that much of what happens in the world today is not the result of God’s intentional will. We know that God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but every one to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), but not all do. Some use their free will to refuse God’s will in their lives. The consequences they experience are not the result of God’s will but their own. In the world as God intended it there would be no cancer, AIDS, or heart attacks, no drunk drivers, accidents, or disease. My father died of heart disease through no fault of his own. You may have lost a parent, spouse, or child to such innocent death, or even the tragedy of someone’s misused freedom.
In such times, God’s greater miracle is to enable us to withstand such horrific pain and loss. He can heal our bodies, and what’s more, he can heal our souls. Which do you need him to do for you today?
Let’s close with an example of our text in life today. Jim Cymbala is the renowned pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, one of the most anointed leaders in the American church today. Ten years ago he told the story of his daughter’s healing in answer to prayer: “Up until age 16, my oldest daughter was a model child. But then she got away from the Lord and involved with a godless young man. She eventually moved out of our house and later became pregnant.
“We went through a dark tunnel for two and a half years…in February, we were in our Tuesday night prayer meeting (the choir and the church leadership now knew about Chrissy, but we didn’t spread the news any further in the church). I had not talked to my daughter since November.
“An usher passed a note to me from a young woman in the church whom I felt was a spiritual person. ‘Pastor Cymbala, I feel deeply impressed that we are to stop the meeting and pray for your daughter.’ Lord, is this really you? I prayed within myself. I don’t want to make myself the focus. At that moment Chrissy was at a friend’s home somewhere in Brooklyn with her baby.
“I interrupted the meeting and had everyone stand. ‘My daughter thinks up is down, white is black, and black is white,’ I said. ‘Someone has sent me a note saying she feels impressed that we are to pray for her, and I take this as being from the Lord.’ Then some of the leaders of the church joined me, and the church began to pray. The room soon felt like the labor room in a hospital. The people called out to God with incredible intensity.
“When I got home later that night, I said to my wife (who wasn’t at the prayer meeting), ‘It’s over.’ ‘What’s over?’ Carol said. ‘It’s over with Chrissy,’ I replied. ‘You had to be there tonight. I just know that when we went to the throne of grace, something happened in the heavenly places.
“Thirty-six hours later, I was standing in the bathroom shaving. My wife burst into the room. ‘Chrissy’s here,’ she said. ‘You better go downstairs.’…I wiped off the shaving cream. I went to the kitchen, and there was my daughter, 19 years old, on her knees weeping. She grabbed my leg and said, ‘Daddy, I’ve sinned against God. I’ve sinned against you. I’ve sinned against myself. Daddy, who was praying on Tuesday night?’
“‘What do you mean? What happened?’ I said. ‘I was sleeping,’ she said. ‘God woke me up in the middle of the night, and he showed me I was heading toward this pit, this chasm, and Daddy, I got so afraid. I saw myself for what I am. But then God showed me he hadn’t given up on me.’
“I looked at my daughter and saw the face of the daughter we raised. Not the hardened face of the last few years. So Chrissy and our granddaughter moved back into our home. That was three years ago. Today she’s directing the music program at a Bible school and was married this past year to a man from our church.”
Sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes he lets the storm rage and calms his child. Will you ask God to calm your storm and your soul today?