“Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” John 4:48
God wants to talk to us today about two things, about faith and miracles. Both are involved in real Christianity. Miracles are God’s part. Faith is our part. And today God is opening a door for us to go into a settled place of trust in him, that right now we might not know even exists.
So let’s think first, briefly, about God’s miracles. We see a miracle here in the passage. Then we’ll press into what faith is, because that’s what the passage is mostly about.
I hope you believe in miracles. Jesus is a miracle. John’s Gospel says, “And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). God became man. That’s a mega-miracle. Creating the universe was a mini-miracle. Physics and the so-called laws of nature are glorious but limited. We need what only God can do.
Jesus himself believed in miracles. He calls them “signs and wonders” in verse 48. Why? A miracle is a wonder, because we can’t explain it. And a miracle is a sign, because it points beyond itself to God. I see no support in the Bible for the spectacularized “miracles” in Benny Hinn extravaganzas. A real miracle is a modest thing. It’s a mere sign pointing to something greater. When I drive north on I-65 and see a sign that says “Louisville 100 miles,” the sign doesn’t make Louisville real. I know Louisville exists for reasons other than the sign. The sign simply tells me I’m driving the right direction. So let’s believe in miracles. God isn’t subject to the laws of nature; he created the laws of nature and uses them every day as his standard method of running the universe. But he can set them aside. It’s like the traffic patterns in our city. We drive on the right side of the road, we stop at red lights, we go at green lights, and so forth. It’s predictable. It’s meant to be predictable. But every now and then an ambulance comes along with its siren blaring and its lights flashing, and we depart from our pattern, we pull over to the side of the road and let the ambulance go screaming by on its way to help someone. A miracle is like that ambulance. We’re living our lives according to the traffic patterns of nature, but we pull over when God drives by at high speed to help someone in an unusual way. I don’t see a problem there. Do you? “Our God is in the heavens, he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
The only question is our faith. The apostle John shows us how our faith gets traction and how our faith grows – to the point that we can face anything. What we see here is how our faith goes on a journey from its first stirrings to something profound in three phases. And when a whole church together settles into deep, enthusiastic assurance in Christ – an author I read a while ago called the prophets of the Old Testament “men sure of God” – when a whole church together becomes sure of God, it makes Jesus non-ignorable in this frightened world.
Let’s remember the purpose of John’s Gospel: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). So here’s the question for every one of us this morning. Where are you in your faith in Jesus? Have you started out? If not, you can today. If you’re underway, you can go deeper. So let’s find out where we are. There is a way to know. We see it in this man whose son Jesus healed. We can track his progress by noticing three words in this passage – the word “heard” in verse 47, the word “believed” in verse 50, and again the word “believed” in verse 53. He heard about Jesus. Then he believed what Jesus said to him. Then he believed – period.
After the two days he departed for Galilee. (For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.) So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast. John 4:43-45
Do you see what’s wrong with this picture? His hometown people welcome Jesus, but he feels dishonored by them. Why? Jesus has just left Samaria, where the people responded to him with wholehearted faith. They say, in verse 42, “We know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” His ministry in Samaria was his first big success. Now he leaves those Samaritan outcasts who are wonderfully sure of him, their faith is decisive and definite, and he arrives back home in Galilee. How do his own people respond to him? They welcome him, in verse 45. It could also be translated, “They received him.” We today speak of “receiving Christ.” But in verse 44 Jesus testifies that no prophet gets the credit he deserves from his hometown people. We can understand why. It’s hard to accept as a prophet of God a man we coached years before in little league. We can understand their condescending attitude. It was wrong. It blocked out their connectivity with Jesus. So, they welcomed him. But they were only interested in his miracles, his wonder-working powers, the way people are enthusiastic about a home-town boy who makes it big and comes back to town with lots of money to spend. But they weren’t interested in Jesus for who he really was.
So, what’s the insight here? It is possible to accept Jesus with a condescending attitude. And that kind of acceptance he rejects. The Samaritans accepted all his claims as the Savior of the world, the only answer to all the problems of the entire human race. But here, among his own people, there is a way to welcome Jesus that Jesus considers an insult. Which proves how important it is to examine what kind of faith is going on inside us.
So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. John 4:46-50
This is how faith begins. We see it in the word “heard” in verse 47. This man was a royal official. He was a privileged insider. He was a cut above the crowd. But even he gets body-slammed by life. Tragedy strikes his son. And it got so bad that this man didn’t even dare move his son. He didn’t have him carried to Jesus. He had to leave the boy at home. He was that precarious. And this man is desperate. Then he hears about a young prophet who works miracles. His ears perk up. He’s curious, intrigued, even impressed. He’s not sure. But he’s so scared he’ll try anything.
That curiosity is Phase 1 in the journey of faith. We hear what God is doing in the lives of other people. We hear that Jesus forgives sin, that Jesus calms anxiety, that Jesus answers prayer, and so forth. Something we hear about him matches an urgent need in our own lives, and a new thought enters our minds, “Could that work for me? I’ve been let down so many times. But my need is so intense, all options are open!” That openness is a good frame of mind. It isn’t what the Bible calls faith. But if your sufferings are cracking your heart open, you aren’t far from God.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was thrown into a Russian concentration camp. He wrote a book about it in which he said, “Bless you prison, for being in my life. Lying on the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity, as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the soul.” God sometimes takes us into hardship so that we come to say, “Bless you, pain, for without you I never would have found God.”
Phase 2 is marked by the word “believed” in verse 50. We cross a line from curiosity about Jesus to belief in Jesus. It happens in this man. He goes to Jesus and begs him to come the twenty miles or so to his home to heal his son. But the Lord’s response is surprising: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (verse 48). The “you” in verse 48 is a plural “you” in the Greek text. Jesus sees in this one man’s response the overall attitude in Galilee. But what a strange conversation! “Jesus, my son is dying. Come lay hands on him! Come heal him!” “You people just don’t get it, do you? You always hanker after the wrong things!” Which tells us something. Being loved and feeling loved are not always the same. Jesus loves this man. But the Lord is willing to say hard things to alert us to the barriers inside us, barriers to himself that we’re not even aware of.
The Lord’s rebuke makes more sense, if we compare this Jewish official with a Roman soldier in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 7:1-10). This soldier had a servant who was dying. He asked Jesus for help. But he also said, “I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” And Jesus said, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Here in John chapter 4, where is that humility? This royal official has it all worked out how Jesus is going to fix his problem: “Sir, come down before my child dies.” It hasn’t entered his mind that Jesus doesn’t need close physical proximity to work a miracle. It hasn’t entered his mind that Jesus might have other needs to care for. This man is an important person. He’s used to giving orders and getting things his own way. And that’s a barrier. What’s holding him back is not a lack of evidences but a lack of humility. Does Jesus have the right to work his power his own way? When we humble ourselves before him, it’s amazing how our faith can grow.
But look how gracious the Lord is to this proud man: “Go, your son will live” (verse 50). The Lord doesn’t wait until this man improves his attitude. The Lord speaks a merciful word: “Your son will live.” That’s all that was needed – just a word from the Lord. And the man believed it. The authority, the definiteness, with which Jesus spoke satisfied his heart. And he took off for home with expectancy. And in fact, his son was healed at that very moment by the power of the Lord.
Now, we might think, end of story, happy ending, hooray. But there’s more here, because there’s more to faith:
As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household. This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee. John 4:51-54
Phase 3 faith is marked by the word “believed” in verse 53. We saw that word back in verse 50. But here it is again. Why? Because faith in Christ grows. And this explains a lot about our spiritual experience.
In Phase 2, we bring our need to Jesus. We ask him to fix some urgent problem in our lives. But what is it our faith wants? Some kind of relief from trouble. We want the title of Joel Osteen’s book: Your Best Life Now. Let’s not laugh at him. Jesus did say, “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). And that includes many wonderful interventions in our lives. But eventually this man’s son died, and this man died, and so will we. At some point, many of us will be wheeled into an operating room somewhere, and we won’t come back out. What we need is a faith that can face that, a faith that can face anything. And that is what Jesus offers all sinners and sufferers today, because the reward of true faith is Jesus himself. And nothing can take him away.
Phase 3 is when we settle into the place where Jesus himself is our confidence, our treasure, our delight, whatever happens. In verse 50, the man believes the Lord’s promise about his son. In verse 53, he believes period, absolutely. Now the Lord himself means everything to this man. His heart is tasting the living water only Jesus can give.
Maybe when you started following Jesus, you were amazed at how he answered your prayers and blessed you in so many ways. But now that you’ve walked with him a little further, it isn’t like that any more. Why? He hasn’t forsaken you. Miracles are the training wheels on the bike. But when you get your balance and learn to ride, you don’t need that any more. The Lord isn’t robbing you. He’s drawing you deeper into himself.
For example, the man who wrote Psalm 73 was so angry as he watched the bad guys running this world. Evil seemed so strong, and God seemed so remote. This biblical author nearly lost his faith. But then he realized that this world doesn’t need to change for him to be okay with reality. All he needs to be at peace is the nearness of God himself:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
For me, it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge. Psalm 73:25, 27
This man came to the place where of saying, “Life stinks. But it’s okay. I have God.”
Or I think of the three young men that King Nebuchadnezzar was going to throw into the furnace. They said to the king, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, we want you to know, O king, we will not serve your gods” (Daniel 3:17-18).
Then there’s the apostle Paul. He was rescued financially by his friends. He was grateful. But he told them, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. . . . I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).
And I think of Hebrews chapter 11. It tells us that some believers, by faith, “conquered kingdoms, stopped the mouths of lions, escaped the edge of the sword,” and so forth. But other believers, by the same faith, “were tortured, were killed, were mistreated” (Hebrews 11:32-38). When you put your trust in God and things get worse, you have not lost your way. What’s happening is Phase 3 faith. He is taking you beyond trusting him to fix your problem into trusting him to be your everything. Christianity is not the American dream; Christianity is Christ. Christianity is being captivated by his glory, so that you find yourself ravished by him. Whatever your circumstances, you settle into a deep contentment for Christ to define your future, your identity, your sexuality, your career goals, your value, your reality, your everything, because he satisfies your deepest heart.
Where are you in your journey today? If you’re curious about him, just stay open. He will guide you. If you’re trusting him for a need in your life, don’t stop. But you are at a fork in the road. You will go one of two ways. Either you will say, “Sure, he helped me. But here’s a new problem already. And you just never know.” If that’s what your heart is saying, you will never stop looping back through Phase 2. The other way to turn at that fork in the road is to say, “Lord, with or without a miracle rescue, I give my heart completely to you. If my life right now is a cross, I’m not worried about it. There is also a resurrection.”