One of the arching themes in these first four chapters of John is belief. What is true belief? Who will believe in Jesus? Nicodemus came to Jesus with belief: “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.” But Jesus shows him that he has insufficient belief. Nicodemus must experience the new birth, total regeneration of the heart to have saving faith. The same problem was illustrated in John 2:23-25. Many believed in his name when they saw the signs but Jesus did not entrust himself to them because he knew their hearts. John is dealing with what true belief looks like, since many seem to have faith and belief in Jesus, but it is insufficient, shallow faith. John returns to this problem of unbelief in the final paragraph of chapter 4.
Unbelief Described (4:43-45)
Jesus has been in Samaria and he stayed there two days. Many in Samaria believed because of the words he was teaching. They no longer believed because of the woman’s testimony but their faith had deepened to belief in Jesus because they had heard him for themselves. They confess Jesus to be the Savior of the world. Now Jesus leaves and continues to Galilee. Remember in John 4:3 that Jesus needed to leave Judea and was going to Galilee. But Jesus had this appointment with the woman at the well. Now Jesus continues his journey to Galilee and a curious statement is made in verse 44. He is going to Galilee and he had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown. But then verse 45 says that when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. The whole story does not seem to make any sense. He is going to Galilee, where is not going to receive any honor, yet the Galileans welcome him.
In Samaria Jesus has enjoyed unqualified, unopposed, and open-hearted success. Now Jesus is going to return to his own people, the Jews, and the response is not going to be the same. Jesus finds acceptance with the Samaritans but rejection with his own people. The Samaritans believed because of what Jesus said (4:42). This belief has led to their salvation because they recognize Jesus to be the Savior of the world. They are experiencing the life changing faith that Jesus is calling for. However, this is not true with his own people. Looking at verse 45, notice that the Galileans welcome Jesus, but look at the reason why. They have seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. They are welcoming him because of the signs. But Jesus does not want “wow” belief but new birth. Jesus is not trying to generate in people’s hearts a “wow, that was neat” belief. Jesus is trying to generate life-change, new birth, fully transforming faith. The despised Samaritans turn to Christ in faith while the historical covenant community of God either oppose Jesus or cannot progress beyond a fascination for miracles. This goes back to the point John made at the beginning of this gospel: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11).
Jesus is not being honored for who he is but what he was able to do. And the same false belief exists today. There are many who believe in Jesus on the basis of some shallow, physical benefit that can be derived from him. They do not believe because he is the Savior who has forgiven their sins and saved them from eternal punishment. Rather they believe because the church is nice, the music is good, some sort of financial gain, or some other shallow reason. When we turn worship into what we get out of it or what we like, then we do not have life transforming faith that Jesus expects. When we serve Jesus for what we get out of it or do what we like, then we do not have life transforming faith that Jesus expects. The people believe in Jesus because of what they can get from him. Rather than Jesus being the treasure, the treasure is what we can get out of Jesus. The problem is that people are not coming to Jesus for mercy and salvation, they are coming to him to divide inheritances, to tell others what to do, to justify their own lifestyle and decisions, and to gain something now. Jesus is not a hobby. Jesus is not an idol to be put on the shelf with the other idols in our lives. Jesus demands life change. Jesus calls for new birth. “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). John is writing this gospel so that we will truly believe in Jesus. These stories are causing us to ask the question: Why do we follow Jesus? Nearly everyone welcomes Jesus. But why do we welcome Jesus?
Shallow Faith, Greater Grace (4:46-54)
An official has an ill son in Capernaum. When he hears that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he goes to Cana (about 15 miles away) and asks Jesus to come with him to heal his son. Listen to the words of Jesus in verse 48: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Now it is important to note that the word “you” is a plural “you.” Jesus is addressing the people, not simply this official. A number of translations insert the word “people” into the text to help identify that the Greek indicates Jesus is not speaking to the official only. But Jesus said it to this official, so Jesus is lumping him in with the rest of the Galileans who are welcoming him only because of the signs he performs. But the official persists. “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
Rather than responding with the same words of how these people lack faith, listen to the powerful words of Jesus. “Go; your son will live.” Jesus is trying to work on this official’s heart. He does not ignore him or reject him. Then the man believed the word and Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. Now the official goes down the journey of faith like we see the Samaritans doing earlier in this chapter. His faith is not complete, as we will see in a moment, but it is forming. The man does not disbelieve. He leaves Jesus and is going back home. His servants meet him on the road and tells him that his son lives. The official asks when the son was made alive and they respond that it was at the seventh hour, the very hour when Jesus had said the words, “Your son will live!” Now listen to the end of verse 53, “And he himself believed, and all his household.” The official’s faith has been growing and leads to the full transformation that Jesus is looking for, just as we see with the Samaritans.
The official begins with belief because of the signs and wonders Jesus was performing. But Jesus is critical of this shallow faith. When he hears the words of Jesus, he believes. But then he hears the results of Jesus’ powerful word of healing, and now he fully believes in Jesus. Do you see that this is the same pattern as the Samaritans? The Samaritans first believe because they heard the testimony of the woman. Then they fully believe because they met Jesus and heard his teachings.
John is showing us something through the actions and teaching of Jesus. Faith starts shallow. The problem is not that we start at the beginning point of belief. The problem is that so many remain there and never go any deeper to true, saving, life changing faith. We enter the first stage of belief and think it is enough. We declare that we believe in Jesus. We believe he came to this world and died for our sins. But our belief never expands beyond that. Think about how James identified this same problem.
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! (James 2:19 ESV)
The demons believe, but it is not a saving faith. They have the starting point of faith just like many others. True belief is one that brings about radical life transformation in obedience to Jesus. This is exactly what James teaches in the rest of that paragraph.
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? (James 2:20–21 ESV)
Abraham’s faith was so deep that he was willing to offer his only son Isaac to God because God commanded it! That is true belief and radically transformed faith. True belief obeys God regardless of the cost. True belief does not leave God because of inconvenience and difficulty. True belief does not come to Jesus at night. True belief loves Jesus and seeks him, not because of what he does for us, but because of who he is, how great he is, and how I owe him everything. Friend, do not remain with basic, shallow belief that does not lead to life change. Take the road of faith. Let your faith grow. Grow deeper with your Savior.
Now let’s get to the sign. John calls this a sign so we need to pay attention to the meaning of the sign. Jesus goes to Cana in Galilee, the location of his first miracle where he turned the water into wine. Recall in John 2 that this turning of the water to wine was called a sign by John, meaning that there is a symbolism behind the miracle. Jesus was showing that what he had to offer was the blessings of God, which were greater, superior, and more abundant than the blessings which were found through the Law of Moses. Jesus returns to the town and John tells us that another sign is going to happen (4:54). So we must be watching for a deeper meaning to the miracle we are about to witness. The words are the very same words that Elijah spoke in 1 Kings 17:23 when healing the widow’s son. But Elijah had to be there. He had to stretch out himself over the child. But for Jesus the spoken word was enough. Jesus is greater than Elijah. Jesus does what only God can do.
Further, notice the repetition of the word “live.” I don’t like that the ESV translates that the son was “recovering.” Yes, he was recovering but it obscures a repetition in this section. Three times the Greek word zao is used and it means “live” (4:50, 51, 53) The servants come and tell the official, “Your son lives!” (NKJV). Jesus has the power to give life. This is what leads to our deeper level of belief. Jesus gives life. Notice the greatness of Jesus in the story. It is by his very words that this son lived. Jesus said simple words, “Your son will live” and the son lived. What power! When he tells you that you will live, then you will live! Listen to Jesus’ words:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26 ESV)
Whoever believes in Jesus, though we die, will have life! Jesus has showed us that he has power over physical life. He therefore has power over the spiritual life. Though we die, we will live. Whoever believes in Jesus shall never die (be separated from God). Oh, may we always contemplate the powerful word of the Lord brought life into this world by his voice. That same powerful word of the Lord has promised you life if you will not be stuck in shallow belief, but move to a deeper faith.