John (Part 12): The Royal Official (Ch 4:43 – 4:54)
We must recall that the incident at the well was in the middle of Jesus’ journey back to Galilee. We learned at the beginning of chapter 4 that Jesus intended to avoid confrontation with the Jewish leaders because his ministry was not yet over (his “hour” had not yet come). So, he was headed to his own country—a greater distance from Jerusalem and an area controlled by Herod Antipas and not (so much) by the Jerusalem Jews. He had met the Samaritan woman in Sychar along his route. Verse 43 tells us that he spent two days there before continuing on to Galilee.
John then informs us that Jesus had said a prophet has no honor in his own country. This was a saying or proverb of the day, and we can certainly understand it. We have a similar saying: familiarity breeds contempt. All three Synoptics record the event of Jesus speaking this proverb (Mt 13:54-58; Mk 6:1-6a; Lk 4:16-30). All three mention that Jesus said this in his hometown (Nazareth). So there is no doubt that the reference is to Galilee and not Judea (as some have supposed). The reason some commentators have supposed Judea is because of John’s following verse. After just mentioning that a prophet has no honor in his own country, John tells us in verse 45 that the Galileans “welcomed Him because they had seen everything He did in Jerusalem during the festival.” Dishonor? How so? They seem to welcome him! Here is another example of John’s narrative disconnect that requires us to pause and meditate. Note that at this point Jesus is not speaking the proverb; John inserts it in the narrative intentionally, and so we must discover why.
The Galileans welcome Jesus, happily expecting to see a miracle. This happy welcome is what has driven some commentators to opt for Judea as John’s reference to “own country.” But depicting honor by the welcome is not John’s intent. Verses 43 through 45 are transition verses intended to draw a contrast between the Samaritans that Jesus had just left and the Galileans to whom he had just come.
The Samaritans were strangers. Jesus performed no miracles before their eyes. He simply claimed Messiahship, and they listened to his words and believed. They met the man, and their conclusion was that he “really [was] the Savior of the world” (4:42b). On the other hand, the Galileans, who had seen his signs in Jerusalem (4:45b), clamored about him with not one word by John confirming a change of heart, belief in messiahship, or honor as the Son of God. They sought a sign. As we move into the story, we find this disheartening to Jesus. Amid the crowds, as the royal official pleads with him, Jesus complained about their interest merely in “signs and wonders” (4:48).
This contrast is what prompts John to offer the commentary that a prophet is without honor in his own country. A warm welcome in anticipation of seeing wonders performed did not equate to honoring Jesus. Consider that Jesus is the true Son of God—the Word made flesh—come to offer his very life in sacrifice for the sin chasm fixed between God and humankind. Recognition, appreciation, gratitude, and embrace of that would be honoring. Offering welcome merely so as to be thrilled by marvels actually denigrated Jesus; it did not honor him. John emphasizes the lack of regard for the worth of our Lord by showing the Galileans’ lust for self-gratifying titillation.
The end of this segment on the royal official—verse 54—mentions that it is the second miracle performed by Jesus in Galilee. This is not meant as a statement of chronology. Misunderstanding the intent as emphasis on miracles has prompted some commentators to attempt an outline of the book (or at least the first 12 chapters) based on a series of signs, numbering them all. But John nowhere else assigned numbers to the signs. The only such references are for the first Cana sign in 2:11 and here with the second Cana sign (4:54). To go beyond these two, then, misses the point. John is linking these two signs. He is telling us, in our consideration of this sign, to call to mind the activity and lessons of the first sign for they are similar.
The storyline begins in verse 46. The son of a royal official was sick at Capernaum. We are not told whether this royal official was a Jew or Gentile. He could have been either for John’s purpose. Remember that the royalty of this area—Galilee—is connected with Herod Antipas. Antipas cared little for Jewish orthodoxy or orthopraxy. He was thoroughly Hellenized, and as such would hire Jews or Gentiles to oversee his operations. Therefore, when looking at this particular royal official, whether he was Jew or Gentile did not matter. As a Jew he would be thoroughly Hellenized as well. And, significantly, the more orthodox Jews of the area would treat a Hellenized Jew with as much or more disdain as they would a Gentile.
Antipas built the town of Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Most royal officials of the area lived in that town. Jews actually would avoid the city because the town was built on a gravesite, and Jews feared becoming unclean. Perhaps this particular royal official lived here rather than Capernaum and was only visiting Capernaum. Perhaps his son who had become ill was an adult and living in Capernaum, and his royal official father had come to visit him. We don’t know that detail. What we do know is that the son was very ill to the point of death. The official had run out of options and hope. And then he heard (probably through the royal grapevine) that the miracle worker of Jerusalem had come to Galilee. So it was in desperation that he set out to find this man as a last ditch effort to save his son.
Somehow obtaining the information that Jesus was in Cana, the man traveled the 15 or so miles from Capernaum to reach Cana. He found Jesus and, moving in among the crowds, pleaded with him for his son as we are told in verse 47. We are not told that he competed against the crowds for Jesus’ attention, but based on John’s emphasis of the people wanting signs and Jesus’ pluralized reply, the official’s pleading was most likely intermingled with the crowds’ vocal interest in seeing a sign.
Jesus replied to his plea in an almost general way. Seemingly lumping the official’s request in with the other requests for signs, Jesus, we’re told, said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe” (4:48). Jesus’ address to him singularly, including him with the rest in plural, is key to understanding this passage. At first glance, we may think Jesus was refusing him and actually being rude in his reply. After all, how did Jesus know his motive?
Ah! Here is one common point linking this incident with the first sign in Cana. Did we not think the same thing there? Mary told Jesus, “They have no wine.” In his reply, we at first thought Jesus may have been refusing her (“what has this concern of yours to do with Me”) and actually rude (“Woman”). But he was not. He was addressing the hidden thoughts of Mary.
After Jesus makes his statement, the official replied to Jesus, “Sir [or Lord], come down before my boy dies” (4:49). And then (surprisingly?) Jesus performed his request. Notice that the official in verse 49 said nothing differently from his request in verse 47 before Jesus’ voiced his complaint. And yet this time, Jesus complied. Again, we are struck by the similarity with the Cana wedding event. There, after Jesus’ confusing reply, Mary spoke again as if Jesus had said nothing and told the servants to obey him. And Jesus, there too, complied with her request!
The point is that, without the emphasized link to the first miracle, we may have concluded that Jesus was simply mistaken about the official’s motives in verse 48 when he accused him of seeking only signs, and then Jesus must have either changed his mind to help him or brusquely healed the son, still not sure whether the official was expressing true faith. But with the link to the previous miracle, John forces us to think through the official’s story in the same way we did to reach satisfaction in Mary’s story. The official, like Mary, did not have the proper honor of Jesus as the Son of God / Son of Man, moving according to the direction of the Spirit. Mary sought to manipulate events. She was rebuked; she accepted her rebuke, recognizing God’s control and leaving the matter to Jesus in faithful trust. This, I believe, is the pattern that we are to apply to the official. He came to the “miracle worker.” Jesus’ words hit his soul accompanied by the Holy Spirit’s revelatory enlightenment. The official realized the rebuke, recognizing that Jesus was from God and moved by God’s bidding. And so, his repeated request in verse 49 was now from a heart not approaching a mere miracle worker—a genie to grant requests—but rather to his recognized Lord. Jesus, again knowing his heart and mind as he did Nathaniel’s, Mary’s, Nicodemus’s, and the Samaritan woman’s, provided healing and relief.
Significantly, the official left Jesus (just as Mary had done) in faithful trust. Do we have a hint of that trust? I think we do. The official had pled that Jesus “come down” to Capernaum. Cana was at a higher elevation in the highlands of Galilee. Capernaum was at the level of the Sea of Galilee. So, the 15 or so miles between the two towns would slope down toward Capernaum. How long does it take to walk 15 miles downhill? Strolling along, 3 miles per hour would seem easily done. That means it would take about 5 hours to get back to Capernaum. According to the discussion between the man and his servants in verse 52, it is the next day when they meet. Thus, it seems that this official is no longer in the urgent rush he had been previously. He didn’t return that same day. He spent the night, waiting until the next day to get home. Even if the 7th hour of the healing meant 7 in the evening, he didn’t hurry home to his dying son. Rather, he slept, and then refreshed, he went home.
My point is that on the way to Jesus, the official had been in urgent hurry, convinced his son would die. But afterwards, this man, so assured that his son would live, did not need to rush home to see for himself. His trust allowed him to wait until the next day, even finding peace in mind to sleep. And, just as with the Samaritan woman, others received the benefit of his witness and testimony about his new Lord.
Chapter 5 opens with John’s familiar transition “among these events,” signifying that the next event isn’t necessarily the next chronological incident but rather another among many that speak to John’s theme. Verse 1 also notes that a Jewish festival was taking place. Some commentators have latched on to this to assume John organizes his Gospel according to festivals. But the problem here is that the festival is not mentioned. Of course, those who understand the book to be chronologically based, may link this festival with Pentecost since the last one mentioned in chapter 1 was Passover. But the fact remains: we are not told.
It does seem that the festival would be that of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, or Tabernacles (Booths) because God required attendance at the Temple by everyone for those three events (Ex 23:15-17). But what could be the purpose for John mentioning the festival? Chronology does not seem likely. We’ve already discussed that. Organization of events according to theme of each specific associated feast does not seem likely since John does not even tell us which festival this is. So, why mention a festival without mentioning which festival? I think John’s purpose is to have his readers associate the purpose for all festivals with the activity. The 7 festivals (3 springtime, 3 fall, and Pentecost) required the people to stop work—stop the routine—and to think of God as Caregiver. He gave them land and he gave them their crops—their food. These ideas were what the feasts were meant to celebrate. John mentions it here because he is about to show us an incident in which Jesus provides care. It is a simple connection, but it is significant because caregiving by God through Jesus is God’s obligation in the New Covenant. Trusting in that caregiving is our obligation.
Verse 2 of chapter 5 sets the location. Just to the north of the temple and outside the city walls close to the Sheep Gate is the pool called Bethesda. Verses 3b and 4 offer some explanation as to the significance of this pool. However, these verses are not in our oldest manuscripts, indicating that they were possibly not part of the original. They seem to be an explanatory note written to the side (as copyists had done numerous times), but in later copying had been incorporated into the text. Whether original or not, they seem to be a logical explanation for the sick man lying by the pool and hoping someone will help him into it when the “water is stirred up” (5:7).
Did an angel really come stir the waters? Were people really miraculously healed when they then jumped in? My guess is no. It simply does not seem consistent with how God worked throughout the OT period. If people were not really healed, why did the sick hang around the pool? Probably for the same reason people continue to go to TV evangelists who slap people on the forehead shouting, “Heal!” Chances are that someone who was ill did get better after a visit to the pool. And this incident, no doubt, sparked a theory that swept into tradition among the people. But the coincidence of renewed health after someone’s visit was probably, in my opinion, not due to a game played by an angel to grant supernatural grace to whomever could get there first.