This story is the first of the only three healing stories that occur in John. The other two are the healing at the pool of Bethesda (5:1-18) and the healing of the man born blind (John 9). The story also connects with what comes before insofar as it concludes what scholars refer to as the “Cana to Cana cycle.”
Mapping the Text
Geography is theology in John. In the Cana to Cana cycle, Jesus begins by working on behalf of Jewish people at the wedding at Cana (2:1-12), expands his scope to embrace Samaritans (4:1-42), and concludes by including even Gentiles. The story opens soon after we hear that Jesus is the Savior of the Cosmos (kosmos) (verse 42). Our passage certifies it.
John intentionally reminds the reader of the earlier sign done in Cana. The wedding is “in Cana of Galilee” (2:1). Likewise, our passage opens with, “Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine” (4:46). Second, they are connected by the language of believing, since 2:11 declares: “Jesus did this beginning of the signs in Cana of Galilee and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (my translation). We will explore the nature of the official’s belief below. Third, in each story a character makes a request from Jesus and, instead of acting immediately, Jesus pushes back with a mild rebuke (2:4; 5:48). Each persists, however, and Jesus delivers. Fourth, the stories are connected by the town of Capernaum. The first Cana story ends with Jesus, his mother, his siblings,1 and disciples going to Capernaum and abiding there for “many” days (polus), 2:12; the NRSV puts him there for only a “few” days).
Our story opens “Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum.” Capernaum continues to be important in John as it is on the way to Capernaum that Jesus walks on water (6:17) and reveals himself to the disciples in the boat as the great I AM (6:20)2 who has power over the natural world and the ability to show up during times of rough rowing to bring peace, the kind only he can give (14:27).
They all make it to Capernaum. Anon, the crowds whom Jesus had fed come to Capernaum to find him (6:24). He then launches into the Bread from Heaven discourse, which also reveals who he is as God—one who feeds with the eternal bread of himself. The text concludes (6:59) by telling us that he taught all of this in “the synagogue at Capernaum” (which you can still visit today). He teaches as an authoritative religious leader in the synagogue, having been rejected by the religious leaders of Jerusalem. Place matters.
Likewise, identity matters. Who are Jesus’ own? In 1:11-12 we hear “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (1:13) Just before our story begins, we learn that Jesus had come from Jerusalem to Galilee (making a fateful stop in Samaria along the way), because “Jesus himself had testified that a prophet does not have honor in the prophet’s own fatherland” (patris; my translation).
Throughout John, when Jesus goes to Jerusalem, opposition occurs with the religious rulers. In Galilee, he fares well among the people. This makes the identity of the royal official especially interesting and scholars debate it. Is he a Roman (Gentile) or a Hellenized Jewish person serving the Jewish leader Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great)? I would argue the former. First, in the parallel story in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 the man is a centurion (Roman). Second, given the emphasis in this cycle of expanding inclusivity, it makes sense to construe him as Gentile. Third, given the nature of the Herodian family, even if this man worked for Herod, he could easily be a Gentile3. “Jesus’ own” include all nationalities and ethnicities; they are bound not by their own blood, but by the blood and water that come from the side of Jesus as he births the church from the cross (19:25-34).
The children of God are also bound by believing (pisteuo). This verb occurs 98 times in John and always as an action (never a noun). The man seeks Jesus out and asks him to cure (iaomai; same word as 5:13) his son. Jesus responds: “Unless y’all (you plural) see signs and wonders y’all (you plural) won’t believe.” Why use the plural when speaking to an individual? This is common in John, as different characters represent people groups (for example, Nicodemus, 3:7; , Samaritan Woman, 4:22). In this case, Jesus is expressing impatience towards those with “signs faith”—a kind of belief that John considers immature.
But is it fair to lump this man in with that group? After all, he, like Jesus’ mother in Cana, already believes that Jesus can affect the help that is needed. Also like Jesus’ mother, he does not engage Jesus’ comment but rather presses forward on behalf of another’s well-being. His tenacity is rewarded by Jesus commanding him to go, declaring: “Your son lives” (present tense of zao, not future tense as implied by NRSV). Like believing, living and life are favorite Johannine words. John begins with life (“in him was life and the life was the light of the world,” 1:4), has life all throughout (for example, 10:10, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly”), and ends with life: “[T]hese are written so that you (plural) may come to believe [or continue to believe] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you (plural) may have life in his name. (John 20:31 NRSV). The man believes and it results in his son living. Surely his son living gives him life. Abundant life is infectious.
The word believe (pisteuo) occurs a second time in our passage in verse 50 where we hear that the man believes the word of the Word. Here we see deepening belief and greater understanding of who Jesus is. Jesus speaks a word and life happens, just as God does in the opening of Genesis. According to John, the Word was God and nothing was brought to life without the Word (1:3). Of course the narrative is written for the sake of us readers, not the man in the story, so we are the ones whose belief and understanding may deepen if we pay attention to the Word here. The fact that Jesus heals from a distance also shows his power and command over life and death. As he says of his own life, “I have the power to lay it down and the power to take it up again” (10:18). This is no small god we believe in. And no small life we live as a result.
The man heads back home to Capernaum. On the way his servants validate Jesus’ words, telling him that his son “lives.” They also indicate that his son became well right at the time the Word spoke. The fever left him at the “seventh” (hebdomos) hour. Seven is a number of completion for this audience. Recall that the Samaritan woman had six husbands and Jesus the bridegroom meeting her at the well (a site of betrothal in the Old Testament) makes the seventh husband. This rich meaning is lost in translation as it gets translated “one in the afternoon,” since the clock starts at 6 a.m. That is technically correct but metaphorically flat. I encourage the preacher to restore the mystery and beauty here.
We then hear for a third time that the man believed (pisteuo), but now his whole household believes as well. It was customary at this time that the religion of the head of the house determined the religion of the whole household (for example, Cornelius in Acts 11:14 and Lydia in Acts 16:15). I think John is going a step further, though, and indicating that the experience of the healing caused direct belief in both the father and the others who witnessed it for themselves (just as the Samaritans believe not only because the Samaritan woman shared her testimony, but because of their own experience of Jesus’ power, 4:42).
Many of John’s important themes appear in this passage, including the nature and process of believing; truly living; geography as theology; and the expansive scope of Jesus’ mission. What about healing? The Synoptics narrate many more healing stories than John. John contains only three, as mentioned above. Two involve characters becoming followers of Jesus. One does not. Let’s take a brief look at that story to see how it differs4.
Back to Jerusalem: Seeing is not Always Believing
5:1-18 finds Jesus performing another cure (iaomai). Whereas in the preceding story the father seeks out Jesus, in this case (as in chapter 9), Jesus approaches the physically ailing person. He asks the man if he wishes to be made well. The man never answers that question, but Jesus cures him. As in chapter 9, Jesus chooses to do this on a Sabbath, which provokes controversy. The man in chapter 9 (whom John presents as a character we should imitate) defends Jesus and gains a deeper and deeper understanding of who Jesus is during his testifying (from “the man” Jesus to a full confession in 9:38: “Lord, I believe!”).
The man at Bethesda, however, capitulates to Jesus’ opponents, does not defend Jesus, and never understands who Jesus is (he never moves beyond Jesus as “the man who made me well” (hygies) and certainly never becomes a disciple within the narrative. His second encounter with Jesus does not move him to any deeper insight. Instead, he promptly goes and reports Jesus to the authorities, catalyzing their persecution of Jesus (5:16). As I noted above, “signs and wonders” don’t necessarily lead to faith at all, and when they do, it’s not necessarily a solid one. Unlike the royal official and the man born blind, this character does not come to a faith of his own. He does not speak on Jesus’ behalf or lead others to believing in Jesus and having life. Quite the opposite, in fact. Which of the characters will we imitate and how?
One of the (many) brilliant aspects of John’s Gospel is the variety of characters whom we can compare and contrast as we learn how to become true, faithful disciples who embrace Life and share with others from the overflow. The passages for this Sunday teach us, on the one hand, to be wary of demanding signs and wonders in order to believe. On the other hand, we are called to keep our eyes peeled for the signs and wonders that we do experience and express gratitude and testify in response. In the end, the author expects that the Gospel of John itself is a site of revelation, a sign, a place where we can encounter Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, we might have life in his name.
God of miracles, Sometimes we are slow to believe in your power, even when your miracles occur all around us each and every day. Open our eyes to see and our hearts to believe. Amen.
I’ve just come from the fountain (trad.) On my heart imprint your image ELW 811 Go, my children, with my blessing ELW 543
There is a balm, trad.