How much power do your words have? I mean, if you gave an order or a command, would your words carry any weight? Maybe they would, if you’re a mom and you asked your son to empty the dishwasher, or if you’re in charge at the office and you told your secretary to draft a letter. You speak, and it gets done. In a certain context, under the right conditions, our words have power.
But what if you’re out of earshot? What if you also want your son to vacuum the kitchen, but you only think of it when you’re half an hour away, and you’ve forgotten your phone, and you can’t actually speak to him? You can say it all you like, even shout the command over the hills and valleys, but he won’t hear you, and it won’t get done.
Our words have a limited strength. That’s because we’re not omnipotent, far from all-powerful. Neither are we omnipresent, able to be present—and make our presence felt—in more than one place at a time. Our ability and authority are severely restricted by who we are as weak and mortal human beings.
Not so with God, of course. And not so for Christ. His words have power, even power over a great distance. That’s what we see in our text, as Jesus heals a man’s dying son. As with any story about Jesus, it’s easy to stop appreciating the wonder of what is happening here. Of course Jesus can heal him! Of course all He has to do is say the word! He’s Jesus, after all! But we miss something important if we’re blasé about what happens.
This healing is a sign. And the signs in John’s Gospel all point in a certain direction. They announce a clear message. They call us to take action. So let’s give careful attention to the healing of the nobleman’s son. For in this sign we see the amazing power of Christ’s words. He can speak, and it is done. By his word He grants life to those who are dying. This is our sermon theme from John 4:46-54,
Jesus gives life to the dying son of a nobleman:
1) the hopeful request for help
2) the unmistakable power of Jesus’s word
3) the expanding reach of this miracle
1) the hopeful request for help: Our text begins with a reminder of the first sign that is recorded in John: “So Jesus came again to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water wine” (v 46). He’s back in the small village of Cana where He had first shown his glory.
Time has gone by, of course. And Jesus has performed other miracles since then. This is what Nicodemus says to Jesus in John 3:2, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Listen carefully: “these signs [plural] that you do.” Jesus has been busy since the beginning of his ministry, not just turning water into wine, but healing the sick, and casting out demons, and much more.
But John has chosen to focus our attention on seven specific signs. He wants to linger over them and carefully draw out their meaning. The first sign showed Jesus as the holy Bridegroom, who brings his people true cleansing and lasting joy.
Now Jesus is in Cana again, and He is going to unfold another aspect of his glory. For what happens when an outsider approaches Jesus? Does Jesus have something to give to people who aren’t acceptable by our standards? In other words, are strangers also invited to his wedding feast, invited to share in the joy between Christ and his bride? That’s what we’re going to see.
John says, “There was a certain nobleman whose son was sick at Capernaum” (v 46). The word ‘nobleman’ needs a bit of explanation. The Greek word behind it means something like a ‘royal official.’ Now, that’s either a person who is born of royal blood, or it’s an official who is in the service of a king—and probably the second is more likely.
The man who comes to Jesus is probably an officer in the service of Herod Antipas, who was in charge of Galilee.
Working in Herod’s court, he’s a man with connections. He might have been a Gentile, though John doesn’t say so. But even if he’s a Jew, it’s quite likely that his work for Herod made him distinctly unpopular. Herod Antipas was a ‘puppet king,’ someone appointed by the occupying Romans to take care of business in the region. But the Romans were not well-loved, and neither was Herod, and neither was anyone who worked for him. That’s why I called this man an outcast, a persona non grata—in the same underclass as the taxmen and toll-collectors.
Does Jesus have time for those who are undesirable? Is his embrace wide enough to include Samaritans and Gentiles and people who have long tiptoed on the boundary between the church and the world, even those who have stepped over it?
I think we know the answer, but let’s first see how this nobleman realizes his need to help. He might have been privileged and influential, but this trouble brings him to the same level as everyone else. He’s got a sick son—in verse 52 we learn that his son is afflicted with a fever.
Now, when you or I have a fever, we take a dose of something to bring down our body temperature. But what if you didn’t have proper medication? Or what if your fever was caused by a serious infection in your body somewhere, and there wasn’t yet such a thing as antibiotics? Even today, having a high-grade fever for more than a few days can be dangerous, and it can soon become deadly. So this man probably wasn’t exaggerating when he said that his feverish son “was at the point of death” (v 47). His son might not be able to last much longer.
Parents who have had children who were seriously ill can maybe relate to this man’s desperation. You’d do anything to take away the hurt, try to relieve the pain. You’d even take it onto yourself, if you could. This man is desperate, so he travels from Capernaum in order to meet Jesus in Cana. You should know that it was about 25 kilometers from Capernaum to Cana, and with Capernaum being 200 meters below sea level, the road up from there was tough. Traveling on foot, this was going to be a long day’s journey.
What does the man know about Jesus? By now he’s certainly heard about Jesus’s power being put on display in his various miracles. Reports of dramatic healings have given his man hope, so verse 47 says, “When he heard that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, he went to him and implored him to come down and heal his son.” With Jesus heading north again from Judea, now was the time to ask.
But Jesus has a harsh-sounding answer for the man: “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe” (v 48). It’s pretty abrupt, and shows that Jesus is reluctant to get involved.
Why would Jesus say this? We need to see that it’s not so much an answer to the father’s request, but more a response to the thinking at this time. Jesus is already coming up against faith which believes only when it sees.
Look at John 2:23-24, “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit himself to them, because He knew all men.” Jesus was quickly gaining in popularity, gathering followers and believers, but He knew their fickle hearts.
For already in the first months of his ministry, the Jewish leaders had pressed him to prove himself with a miracle.
Even among his own people here in Galilee, there was a hesitation about Jesus. Right before our text, in verse 44, “Jesus himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country.” It was like He always needed to put on a show, that the only way they would accept him is if He continually wowed and amazed them.
So when this nobleman comes to Jesus, He needs to say something to all those who were listening in and watching at this moment, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe.” People were missing the point, trusting in the signs, not the Saviour.
And this remains a struggle for God’s people. It is so natural to let our faith be reliant on what we see, to let our faith get its strength from what we experience. Not that we’re looking for miracles, or asking God to do incredible things before we’ll trust in him. But we’re eager to receive the signs of God’s favour. I can rejoice in God if I’m having a lot of success at work. I can be confident in God if my bank account is bulging. I’ll be at peace in the Lord when my friendships are solid, my health is OK, my mood is sunny, and I have holidays coming up. And as soon as life turns sour, my trust in God falters.
Isn’t that something like the attitude Jesus encountered in his day? “Unless you see signs and wonders—unless you experience good things—you will by no means believe.” Our strength of faith is so often tied to circumstance. Our confidence in God ebbs and flows according to the status of our life, the variability of our feelings. Instead, Christ says, let your faith rest on God’s Word alone, on his promises. Even if life is hard, we can trust him. Even if the good things don’t come, God is good.
Jesus says that faith based on miracles won’t measure up. Not to say that God won’t ever use miracles. Think of how the disciples believed after Jesus’s first sign at Cana. Or how Thomas came to faith only when he touched the risen Christ. But remember also what Jesus said in John 20, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v 20).
God’s people don’t always get to see. In fact, sometimes God’s people have to live for a long time in the dark. Why didn’t He answer my prayers for healing? Why did He let this tragedy happen? Why couldn’t He have made my life easier? Where is He bringing me? We don’t see it. We shouldn’t need to see it. But all the same, we can trust in his Word. For we know him: his wisdom, his faithfulness, and his love for us.
2) the unmistakable power of Jesus’s word: Maybe you can tell that the nobleman is used to being in charge, a man who gives orders and sees them done. Because he won’t take no for an answer. In response to Jesus’s words, the official presses him, “Sir, come down before my child dies!” (v 49). He is persistent, and you know that elsewhere, Jesus praises those who ask with persistence. If you ask once, don’t get the answer you like, and never ask again, perhaps you didn’t really want it—or you didn’t really think that God can help. But this man knows enough about Jesus to know He’s able to do something with his power.
So though Jesus has been reluctant, He will perform a miracle. Jesus says to the man, “Go your way; your son lives” (v 50). This is not a prediction, a hopeful prognosis, but this is a declaration. It’s as if Jesus says to the man, “To your dying son, I grant a restoration of life—now.” It’s a lot like what Elijah said to the woman of Zarephath when he raised her dead son. Elijah brought him back to the woman, and he said, “See, your son lives” (1 Kgs 17:23). Jesus is the great prophet—greater even than Moses and Elijah, for He brings true life to his people.
And you can underline how that declaration is repeated three times in our short text. First, in verse 50, Jesus’s words to the father: “Your son lives.” Then in verse 51, when the man’s servants happily report, “Your son lives.” And a third time in verse 53, when the man realizes his son was healed “at the same hour in which Jesus said to him, ‘Your son lives’” (v 53).
Anytime the Holy Spirit repeats something like this, we know that He wants us to take notice. There’s a message here, that Jesus has the power to give life. And of course that means more than just physical life. The Gospel writer John loves double meanings, saying things that are true in more than one sense of the word.
So when we see the life of the dying boy restored, don’t think only of physical life—having brain activity, and breathing lungs, and a good temperature—think of life in its fullness, spiritual life, everlasting life. In the next chapter, for example, Jesus will say, “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).
Remember, these miracles are signs along the highway, billboards not meant to draw attention to themselves but to point solely in one direction, to Jesus. It is Jesus who gives life to the dying, Jesus who gives life to the dead. He takes people who have no hope, no remedy, who are far from God and bound for condemnation, and He gives us life. “Your son lives. Your daughter lives. You live.”
And what about that desperate father, the man with earthly power who realized that earthly power amounts to very little? John reports in verse 50: “So the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and he went his way.”
In a sense, we see a progression in the man’s faith. He first came to Jesus, needing him to physically come to Capernaum. But now the man can leave, even though Jesus isn’t with him, even though Jesus only spoken a few words. He will go, even though he hasn’t heard yet that his son is any better. Yet he’s confident: “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him.”
Compressed in that statement is the beautiful reality of faith, in any age, for any person. The man believes that what Jesus said is true. He is ready to take Jesus at his word. That is the heart of faith. Jesus doesn’t go home with us—at least, we don’t see him with us, physically and tangibly. We said Jesus doesn’t give every answer, and He sometimes sends us on ahead without any certainty that things are going to change. He doesn’t give a sign that will ease every doubt about our future, or worries about our family, or whatever else.
Yet we can be confident in all that God has said. True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word. At the same time it is a firm confidence in what He has said.
The desperate father in John 5 had a little knowledge, and a lot of confidence. And his faith is well-placed. For as he is returning home to Capernaum, his servants meet him and announce the good news, “Your son lives!” (v 51). Ever since their master left, the servants have been watching—and suddenly they see an improvement. So they out a delegation to reassure their master. And as it turns out, his son recovered from the fever at exactly the hour which Jesus spoke, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him” (v 52). About 1:00 in the afternoon, the very moment when Jesus gave his order, the boy got better.
Let’s notice that Jesus restored his life, and He did so at a distance. He didn’t need to travel with the man to Capernaum, because Jesus probably didn’t want to. The obsession with his miracles had started to distract from Jesus’s message. So Jesus will do this one quietly. He tells the man that his son is already getting better. Few will know about it, and the ones that do, will keep the focus where it should be: on the Christ who spoke the word.
Jesus heals the boy in a quiet way, but there’s an unmistakable message here. All Jesus has to do is speak, even if He’s miles away and out of earshot. That’s the power of his Word. It’s the same power held by God the Father, who spoke in the beginning, and all things came to be.
And it’s the same power that our Saviour has today. Sometimes Jesus can seem far from us, seated on his throne in heaven, far removed from our daily concerns and all the upheaval and distress of this world. Does Jesus really see what’s going on? Can He really do anything about our situation?
Then we need to remember that Christ is not limited by time or space. He is almighty and ever-present, and his words never fail. He speaks into our life with great effect. So trust what He says to you. Rely on his promises and submit to his commands. Like Jesus says later in John, “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). His words are life! If you want to live, trust in what Jesus says. And if you want to trust, then know what Jesus says. Store up his words within you.
3) the expanding reach of this miracle: When I read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry, I find it striking how quickly the Jewish leaders like the scribes and Pharisees start turning against Jesus. Already in the first chapters of John, there is misunderstanding and confrontation and even hostility.
In our story, that unbelief is put in contrast with the faith of the nobleman. It’s ironic that while the rulers in Jerusalem reject Jesus, the servant of a worldly prince believes in him. An outsider, a stranger, is among the first to believe in Jesus—not just impressed by his miracles, but willing to believe his Word.
And this “second sign” of Jesus has an expanding reach. For Jesus’s word is powerful enough to bring not only the royal official to faith, but he “and his whole household” (v 53). This nobleman was the head of his family, of course, and he had servants underneath him—people who had actually shared in the experience of Christ’s words. And they too, come to faith.
It is similar to what we see in the book of Acts. There, not only individuals believe in the gospel, but entire families and households. And it is how God is pleased to work, still today. When a father and mother know the word of Christ, and they humbly believe it, this can have a powerful effect in the lives of all their children.
Parents, let this encourage us all to hold fast to the words of Christ. Know that God’s work in you can have an ever-expanding reach. When you walk with Christ faithfully, even in all weakness and sin, your example and teaching can be life-changing for those in your household.
And the gospel has a power that reaches even beyond the home. It has a reach when we accept the word of Christ, and we live out his word, and we speak of it with the people around us—the nonbelievers and strangers whom God has brought into our life. Then God can use this beautiful testimony to bring others to Christ. When people hear of our faith, and they see our faith in action, and we take the time to share it, Christ’s words can have an ever-expanding reach.
We don’t have all the answers, but to our children and to our neighbors and to our fellow church members, we can say this, “God’s Word is true. God doesn’t break his promises. Even though I don’t see him now, I’ve learned that I can depend on Christ always, and everywhere. For it is He who has given me life.” Amen.