If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 4, verses 43 through 54. John says:
After two days He left [Samaria] for Galilee. 44 Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country. 45 When they entered Galilee, the Galileans welcomed Him because they had seen everything He did in Jerusalem during the festival. For they also had gone to the festival.
46 Then He went again to Cana of Galilee, where He had turned the water into wine. There was a certain Royal Official whose son was ill at Capernaum. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea into Galilee, he went to Him and pleaded with Him to come down and heal his son, for he was about to die.
48 Jesus told him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.”
49 “Sir,” the Official said to Him, “come down before my boy dies!”
50 “Go,” Jesus told him, “your son will live.” The man believed what Jesus said to him and departed.
51 While he was still going down, his slaves met him saying that his boy was alive. 52 He asked them at what time he got better. “Yesterday at seven in the morning the fever left him,” they answered. 53 The father realized this was the very hour at which Jesus had told him, “Your son will live.” Then he himself believed, along with his whole household.
54 This, therefore, was the second sign Jesus performed after He came from Judea to Galilee.
This is the word of the Lord.
Today’s passage is strange in a number of ways. On the surface it seems pretty straightforwardly uplifting, right?
Looking at verses 46-47, John says:
“There was a certain Royal Official whose son was ill at Capernaum. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea into Galilee, he went to Him and pleaded with Him to come down and heal his son, for he was about to die.”
Skipping forward to verse 50, Jesus says, “Go, your son will live.” And the man believed what Jesus said to him and departed.” On his way home, he learned that his son miraculously got better at exactly the same hour that Jesus had told him that his son would live, and John says in verse 53, “Then he himself believed, along with his whole household.”
So it’s easy to see why this has landed in kind of the greatest hits reel, as far as Bible stories go. If that’s not a success story I don’t know what is. But as is often the case, Jesus can’t just do something miraculous and then leave it at that. Reading through the gospels, it almost seems like Jesus’s mission in life is to be a glorious buzzkill. As a result, most of the stories in the gospels are kinda like Thomas Kinkade paintings that somebody spray painted a skull and crossbones over, or something. Jesus will do something miraculous and heartwarming, and then follow it up by saying the most ruthless thing he could possibly follow it up with.
That’s exactly what we see happening in our passage today. Jesus heals the son of the Royal Official, but before healing him, he sticks a crowbar in the spokes of his bicycle wheel. John says in verse 48 that Jesus just lays into him, he says “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” That’s a pretty cold-hearted thing to say to somebody.
It’s always tempting to fly past something like this so we can get on to the stuff that will really preach, but instead I want to park the car right here and probe a little bit further. Why is Jesus lambasting this Royal Official for coming to him and asking him to heal his son’s terminal illness? Isn’t that what Jesus has been doing? Isn’t that part of the point of his ministry? Isn’t that part of what the Son of God came to earth to do. Why is he punishing this Royal Official for asking for it?
I think in order to answer that question, we have to have a solid understanding of what Jesus means when he talks about signs and wonders?
As it turns out, the Bible is full of “signs and wonders.”
As an obvious case-in-point: You might remember the story of Noah’s Ark from those early chapters in Genesis. Picking it up in Genesis chapter 9, we see that the flood has just subsided, and God brings Noah and his family out of the ark, and it says that God placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign of the covenant that he was making with them. The rainbow was a sign that he would never again annihilate all the creatures of the world, like he did in the flood, but that instead he’d do the opposite.
The rainbow was a sign that God’s ultimate goal is not to destroy the world because of its badness, but to redeem it back into goodness. I’m gonna say that again: God’s ultimate goal is not to destroy the world because of its badness. God’s goal is to redeem the world back into goodness.
Fast-forwarding a little bit to Exodus chapter 10, we see that the Lord tells Moses, to “Go to Pharaoh,” because he’s going to perform “miraculous signs and wonders among them,” so that everyone will “know that I am Yahweh,” he says. The Lord performs signs and wonders in Egypt, not as a way of impressing the Egyptians or even as a way of scaring them into obeying, but as a way of declaring that he has come to redeem the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. God’s “signs and wonders” are not just a “Laser Light-Show.” They’re a taste of the redemption that is to come.
These are some of the things that would have been rattling around in the heads of just about anybody looking on at the ministry of Jesus from the outside.
That’s why in John chapter 3, Nicodemus, a man from the Pharisees, comes to Jesus at night and says, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs and wonders You do unless God were with him.” Nicodemus sees the signs and wonders that Jesus is performing, and it reminds him of the rainbow God sent after the flood. It reminds him of the Exodus.
When Nicodemus looks at Jesus, it rightly reminds him that God’s ultimate plan is not to “condemn the world” but to redeem it, like John 3:17 says. He’s reminded that like in the Exodus, God is here to liberate us from all of our slaveries.
So everybody knew that these signs and wonders meant something, in general, but it matters deeply what these signs and wonders mean in particular.
And it matters because some people take them in really, kinda, sketchy directions. There’s a rather frightening number of people in the United States who intentionally forego health care because they believe that the Bible teaches that God will always heal all of your diseases all the time if you have enough faith.
I don’t know how many closet metalheads we have at Mount Zion, but you might remember the Metallica song, The God That Failed. It’s about lead singer James Hetfield’s mom, who died of cancer in the year 1979 because she was a member of a group who believes that using secular medicine was sinful because it meant you lacked faith in God to heal you miraculously.
She had a very common type of cancer that is certainly devastating but is extremely treatable, but like thousands of people every single year, she refused potentially lifesaving treatment because her particular faith community had a well-intentioned but mistaken understanding of passages like this.
So we’ve got a really lighthearted sermon today.
It’s really easy to point at situations like Mrs. Hetfield, kind of scoff at the silliness of it and then move on, but there’s a really good chance that you believe almost the same thing as Mrs. Hetfield, but instead of applying it to your physical health, you apply it to your mental health.
My first semester of college, my psychology professor told a story about one of his students who arrived in his dorm on moving day, got to talking to his new roommate, and said, essentially, “I just want to let you know upfront, I have a condition called clinical depression. Sometimes it’s OK, sometimes it’s really bad, but I just want you to know upfront. I don’t want you to be surprised. If I go through kind of a weird phase, I don’t want you to think it’s your fault, I just wanted to give you a heads up so that you know what you’re looking at if I go through an episode.”
And the way that my psychology professor told the story, his roommate immediately said, “Well, if you’re going through depression, that means you’re not right with God. It means you don’t have enough faith. If your relationship with God is in a good place, your mental health will follow.”
Imagine somebody saying that about your broken arm: “Y’know, your arm is broken because your relationship with God is broken. Un-break your relationship with God, and your arm with fall back in place.”
And it sounds dumb when you put it that way, but I think a lot of folks really do believe something very similar. A lot of us assume that if our faith is strong enough, we’ll just always be OK all the time, but you’ve all lived long enough to know that’s not true, right? Your relationship with God can be absolutely wonderful and you can still die of cancer. You can be as right with God as you could possibly be and that absolutely will not stop your heart for giving out at a horrifyingly young age.
Exactly the same principle applies when it comes to mental health, not just physical health. Some of the godliest, wisest, most Christ-exalting people I have ever known go through lengthy periods where they can barely get out of bed, and it’s not because they’re lazy and it’s not because they are weak and it’s not because they are a stick in the mud, it’s because they have an often invisible struggle that they can’t just turn off.
So it’s important to clarify right here at the outset that you should not take passages like our passage today as an indication that you can always expect to be healed of your difficulties. You might be chronically sick the rest of your life, and there may be no physical or emotional healing coming during your lifetime.
And yet I want to make the argument that even if that is the case, there are still immeasurable riches to be found here, once we wrap our heads around what Jesus is showing us through the miraculous signs that he performs throughout the Gospel of John. Mount Zion, there is more joy and comfort to be drawn from this passage than I have the ability to grasp or articulate.
So that tells us a lot about what this passage isn’t saying. It tells us a lot about what these signs and wonders aren’t pointing us towards, but we still need to talk about what they are pointing us towards. Right?
So what are they pointing us towards?
If we were one of those old school Independent Baptist churches that did all day services with three hour sermons, we could dive in-depth into all of the specifics, but, uh, we are not one of those, so I’m gonna cut straight to the chase instead and point out that the “signs and wonders” we see Jesus performing – like “healing the sick,” and “raising the dead,” and “multiplying bread and fish” – point towards something we already know and believe: And that is that God will make and is making everything right through Jesus Christ. I’m gonna say that again: The “signs and wonders” we see Jesus performing point us towards the fact that God will make and is making everything right through Jesus Christ.
I’m gonna rephrase that one last time just to be sure we’re on the same page, here: The point of the healings that we see Jesus perform in today’s passage and countless other passages is not that Jesus is really strong and powerful and cool because he can he all your diseases, the point is that a day is coming when God decisively undoes the brokenness of the world, once and for all.
When Christ heals the son of the Royal Official, it’s kind of like a down payment. It’s like that very first yield at the beginning of the harvest season. Christ heals that little boy in our passage today, but one day he’s going to heal everything that’s broken and this is pointing us towards that. And even more importantly, it means that the process has already begun.
To come at it from yet another angle, the signs and wonders that Jesus performs throughout his ministry are pointing us towards the coming kingdom of God.
They point us towards a kingdom in which there is no sickness. They’ point us to a kingdom in which there is no poverty. They point us to a kingdom in which there is no death. In which nobody is outcast. Nobody is alone. Nobody is abandoned. In which every lost sheep is gathered back with the other 99, every downtrodden person is lifted back up, and every crooked thing is made straight.
To steal a quote from an old, dead British guy, the signs and wonders that we see Jesus performing are pointing us towards a kingdom in which “every sad thing has come untrue.” And even more importantly, it means that the process has already begun.
But here’s where record-scratch comes. Because throughout all of this, our Royal Official from today’s passage has been standing on the outside looking in at the ministry of Jesus but he’s never really taken a position, apparently. We know that because he’s still a Royal Official.
You can contrast him with Nicodemus, the man from the Pharisees, because Nicodemus eventually started following Jesus. The same thing is true about Joseph of Arimathea, another important leader in his community, because Joseph of Arimathea eventually stepped down from his position of prominence and started following Jesus, alongside all the poor fishermen and beggars.
But the Royal Official is very much a bystander. He’s clearly not opposed to Jesus of he wouldn’t be asking for his help, but he’s also not joining in the work of his ministry. He sees what’s happening and he gets it, but up until he experiences the power of Jesus for himself in today’s passage, it wouldn’t have been quite right to say that he believed.
And we know that because when you believe something, it shows. This is the dumbest example in the world, but bear with me. I grew up in a town of 4000 people in North Texas, kind of a rural exurb of Dallas, and my friends and I used to play this game where you would dare somebody to grab the electric fence. We were 7. That was our idea of a good time. So you would dare somebody to grab the fence, and if they were afraid to do it, you’d double dog dare them, like in a Christmas story, you know. Ninety-percent of the time, that did not work, they were too smart to fall for it, but every once in a while, somebody would take you up on the dare, just to prove how cool and brave they were.
And they would grab the fence with two hands, and it wouldn’t go well. Nobody got seriously hurt, obviously, but still – you’d get a shock. And every time that happened, we’d be like, “We told you it’s an electric fence, why would you actually do that?” And they would always say the same basic thing: They would say some variation of, “I don’t know, I guess I just didn’t really believe it was going to shock me.”
That’s how belief works.
If the other kids in the neighborhood really believed that they were going to get shocked by that electric fence, they would have probably just stayed away from it. They would have said “No” when we double dog dared them to grab it.
And we’re using something dumb to illustrate something serious, here, but you can apply the same logic in the situation of this Royal Official. He sees Jesus, he has witnessed some of the signs and wonders that he has performed, and yet he’s never been possessed to step down from his lofty position and join the movement that Jesus has begun throughout Galilee. It took his son getting deathly ill for him to finally come out and meet Jesus, and even then, all he really wanted was his help.
He likes the laser light show, but he’s apparently got no interest in the glorious realities that the laser light show is pointing towards. He likes the signs and wonders, but he’s not particularly invested in the kingdom they’re inviting us into. He sees what’s happening and he gets it, but up until he experiences the power of Jesus for himself in today’s passage, it wouldn’t have been quite right to say that he believed.
Because if he believed that God’s kingdom had come – a kingdom where God overcomes our sickness, where he overcomes our poverty, where he overcomes our suffering, where he overcomes our hunger and thirst, where he overcomes our broken relationships – he would be doing very different things than he’s doing.
I don’t know whether it would mean that he quits his job as a Royal Official, but it would certainly mean that he’d be following Jesus around the backwaters of Galilee, ministering alongside him.
He wouldn’t have been standing on the sidelines, vaguely admiring Jesus, he would have been investing his life into joining in the work of the Kingdom, because that’s what you do when you believe the signs and wonders that Jesus has shown to us.
That’s what you do when you recognize that Christ is at work in the world: You step in and prayerfully seek out how you can join in the Kingdom work of Jesus. That’s why nearly every time Jesus heals somebody, every time he touches their life, every time we see Jesus restoring somebody’s dignity, we see him follow it up by saying, “Now, come follow me.”
So as a point of application, you should ask yourself, “Do I actually believe “signs and wonders” that Jesus is performing?” “Do I actually believe what Jesus says about his kingdom?”
Ask yourself: What would your life look like if you seriously thought that Christ was putting an end to all our sicknesses, that he was putting an end to our poverty, that Christ is putting an end to all of our broken relationships, that he is even putting an end to death itself?
Would you live differently? How?
Ask yourself, “How – specifically – would I live differently if I believed that the God of the universe had begun the process of putting an end to all of these things and had invited me into the process sharing that good news with the rest of the world?”
Determine how you would live if you seriously believed, all the way to your bones, that the gospel Jesus preaches is true, and then live that way. That’s the application. That is the whole thing. That’s how you avoid the error that this Royal official had fallen into: Live the way that you would live if you really believed in the deepest parts of yourself that the message of the kingdom is true.
Because if you seriously believed that you have been turned into a citizen of a kingdom where every broken relationship is stitched back together and healed, how would it affect your relationship with that family member you haven’t talked to since the 90s?
If you seriously believed that you have been adopted into a family where nobody goes hungry, where nobody goes thirsty, how would it affect your relationship with the people down the road that you know do not have enough to get by?
If you seriously believed that you’ve been invited into a New Age through Jesus Christ, where all of our disease, all of our sickness, all of our injuries, and even our death has been overcome and abolished, how would it affect your relationship with the folks in your life who have medical bills they can never hope to pay off?
Jesus says that people like this Royal Official demand “signs and wonders,” because at the end of the day they are faithless. But followers of Jesus don’t demand a new “sign,” they act on the “signs” they’ve already been given.
So our application for the day is actually very simple: Carry the Kingdom of God into every single corner of your life, until every single corner of your life is submitted the good news the Christ is undoing our brokenness.
We have entered into the section of the service that we typically refer to as the “Altar Call.” What that means is that I’m going to stand awkwardly at the front as we respond in worship to the Lord through song in just a moment. If there is something that you feel that the Lord is calling you to, the altar is open for to come down and pray, or sit in silence. If you’d like, I’d be happy to talk through whatever you feel that the Lord has laid on your heart this morning.
The altar is also open for everyone else. If you have never placed your faith in Jesus Christ, if you’ve never surrendered yourself to follow him the way that Nicodemus, or Joseph of Arimathea, or any number of the folks we see throughout the New Testament have before you, I would love to walk through that process with you, answer any questions that you have, and pray together.
If you would, bow your heads with me, let’s pray.