The purpose of the Johannine gospel is laid out with clarity in John 20:30-31. “Therefore, indeed, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which have not been written in this book; but these have been written in order that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in order that by believing you might have life in his name” (my translation).
A quick reading of the text from John 4:46-52 should make it clear that this healing story is intimately connected to understanding the purpose of the Johannine account. Jesus mentions signs and wonders and their connection (or lack thereof) to believing. There is the drama of a child on the point of death and Jesus’ declaration that the child lives. When the Royal hears about the timing of the child’s healing, then he and his whole household begin to believe, although they do not actively follow Jesus.
Whenever we have the chance to preach on a Johannine text, it’s a good idea to review Craig Koester’s article, mentioned in the “References and Resources.” I will review portions of that article and make some observations as well.
What is the connection, at least in the Johannine account, between Jesus’ signs and the response of believing? Koester reviews the various scholarly opinions dealing with this question. It may be that Jesus doesn’t have much use for a faith that depends on being impressed by visible signs. Or it may be that the signs are part of the Johannine account for the precise purpose of calling forth believing.
Others propose that the signs may produce a sort of introductory believing, but disciples have a deeper and fuller trust. Still others note that the signs are only effective in producing believing among those who have already begun to trust in Jesus to some degree and thus have a confirming rather than a producing function when it comes to believing (page 327-328).
Koester reminds us that one of the strategies in the Johannine account is to put stories and characters next to one another. This juxtaposition allows us as readers to compare and contrast the variety of responses to Jesus. In our case, the parallel stories, Koester suggests, are the story of the Royal’s son and the story of the Man on the Mat in John 5:1-16. He argues that we should read these stories together for two reasons: the common theme of a healing sign and the features of the stories that make them “mirror opposites” (page 336).
I’ll summarize Koester’s schematic of the texts. Our story happens in Cana of Galilee, a location where believing happens readily. The second story is in Jerusalem, where believing is a struggle and resistance is more likely.
In our story the man approaches Jesus. Jesus resists the request with talk about signs and wonders. The man persists in his request. Jesus promises the healing, and the man departs believing. On the way he meets his slaves who bring word of the healing. The man checks the timing of the sign and believes. In addition, the man’s whole household believes.
In the second story, Jesus approaches the man. The man resists the overture with talk about a wonder. Jesus makes a second offer, and the man doesn’t respond. Jesus heals the man. The man leaves, still oblivious to Jesus’ identity. Afterwards, the man encounters “Jews” who complain about violation of Sabbath law. Jesus again approaches the man. The man turns Jesus in to the authorities, who then persecute Jesus.
“The sharp contrast between these episodes,” Koester writes, “again raises the question as to why some people respond to Jesus with faith, while others show unfaith or hostility” (page 337). The Royal came with an expectation of healing. The Man on the Mat had no such expectation or even desire. The second story “demonstrates that simply seeing or experiencing a miracle is no guarantee of faith,” Koester argues. “Moreover, the story indicates that the man’s unbelief was not due to some failure on Jesus’ part, since it was Jesus who consistently initiated contact with him” (page 338).
The story of the Royal paints a different picture. The man hears about Jesus and is willing to “come and see” (yes, we can think about the call of the disciples in John 1). He trusted in Jesus’ promise that his child was living. On the basis of hearing the word and trusting the promise, Koester suggests, the man was then able to discern the meaning of the signs. “The sign in turn confirmed his faith,” Koester concludes, “as the first Cana miracle confirmed the disciples’ faith” (page 338).
What does this all mean in the Johannine account? Koester notes that in this account genuine faith comes through hearing. “In the case of the disciples, the royal official, the blind man, and Martha,” he writes, “hearing evoked an initial response of faith or trusting obedience which was confirmed and deepened by a sign.” That deepened faith empowered them to understand the sign and experience it as evidence confirming Jesus’ claims (page 347).
Seeing, according to Koester, does not have the same impact in the Johannine account. That is the case with the Man on the Mat in John 5. He simply missed the point altogether. Some reacted to what they saw with confusion, like Nicodemus. Others responded with hostility and even violence. Nonetheless, Koester argues, “Our study does not suggest that the evangelist disparaged seeing signs, resurrection appearances, or actions like the temple cleansing” (page 348).
Believing based on seeing, however, does not move the person into deeper faith in the Johannine account. “The evangelist makes clear that Jesus’ actions were rightly perceived only by those who already responded with faith or trusting obedience to what they had heard from or about Jesus,” Koester concludes. The progression to deeper faith in the fourth Gospel moves from hearing the Word to seeing confirmatory signs to deeper understanding of the signs and a development of genuine and mature faith no longer dependent on the signs (page 348).
In these mirror opposites, then, do we have a contrast between believing that grows and believing that is stillborn? Karoline Lewis helps us look closely at the grammar for some clues. This gets into the Greek-speaking weeds, but I think it’s helpful. Things that would be obvious to a Greek-speaking listener or reader or often simply and literally “lost in translation.”
“Therefore, Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you would see signs and wonders, you might not ever believe’” (John 4:48, my translation). The verb for believe is an aorist subjunctive, “putting how the official will respond into a condition of uncertainty” (Lewis, page 70). The negative is a “strong future denial,” which is why I render it as “you might not ever believe.” Jesus’ comment to the Royal is not a condemnation but it is certainly a test of his trust. Lewis puts it well. Jesus says, “I wonder what it will take for you believe. Will it be the signs and wonders, like everybody else?” (page 70).
The frantic father has no interest in the existential dilemma. “Sir, will you please just come down before my child dies?” (John 4:59b, my translation). “He believes what Jesus says,” Lewis writes, “before he believes because of what Jesus does” (page 71). This is the nature of a deepening faith in the Johannine account, a believing that takes Jesus at his word before any confirmation is offered. “The truth of Jesus’ words, Jesus as the truth, is dependable even without Jesus present, which is central to the meaning of the healing of the royal official’s son,” Lewis notes.
What is at stake here for the Johannine author and community? Lewis puts it well. “The healing is not premised on Jesus’ being there but on his word,” she suggests, “and it is therefore an embodied event that demonstrates a larger theological issue for the Fourth Gospel, the possibility of believing in Jesus even after his return to the Father” (page 72). Lewis refers us to the overall purpose of the Gospel in John 20 at this point.
Is the point, then, to just believe no matter what? No, Lewis says. That can’t be it. “To say that what Jesus says is true does not mean he speaks verifiable facts,” she writes. Instead, “Jesus is truth because he is the one on whom we can be utterly dependent,” Lewis continues. “Jesus’ words are true because there is a correlation between what he says and what he does and who he is” (page 72).
It’s not that we are called to trust Jesus without any “evidence.” Instead, our desperate search for help can lead us to meet Jesus. In this meeting we can experience healing and salvation. At that point, we can take our healing and leave, like the Man on the Mat. Or we can be open to a deeper relationship and understanding that doesn’t depend on signs and wonders but is rather rooted in undying trust.
The child lives. But there is still a funeral somewhere in the future. We get a bit of foreshadowing of the Raising of Lazarus in John 11 here. We also get a reminder of what the life of believing is like for any of us. We believers can point to times where we were almost dead, only to be brought back to life by the Lord Jesus.
Yet, even as we tell those stories, we know that unless Jesus returns soon there is still a funeral somewhere in the future. Is believing in Jesus something more than a variety of terror management strategy as we contemplate our own mortality? I don’t know how that preaches, but it is a question worth contemplating this week.
References and Resources
Koester, Craig R., “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John” (1989). Faculty Publications. 22. http://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/22.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Augsburg-Fortress, 1998.
Meier, John P. “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Herodians.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 119, no. 4, Society of Biblical Literature, 2000, pp. 740–46, https://doi.org/10.2307/3268526.
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