The Father of a Dying Son
January 28, 2001 | Ray Pritchard
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This is the story of a man whose son was dying. We do not know the precise nature of the son’s illness except that he had a high fever and was near the point of death. We do not know the son’s name or his age but there is a hint in the text that he is not yet an adult. The mother is not mentioned in this story but we can assume that she shared her husband’s profound concern.
I think this is every parent’s deepest fear—that somehow, someday, in an accident or by illness or through some other means our children will be taken from us. Nothing seems more unnatural than the death of a child. It is a prospect so terrible that we can hardly think of it, much less speak of it in public. Having to bury one of our own children is a tragedy we silently pray we will never have to endure. But it does happen. J. C. Ryle points out that the first recorded death in the Bible was not of a father but of a son—when Cain killed Abel. And when the Apostle Paul points out that death has come to “all men” (Romans 5:12), he doesn’t mean just grown-up men, he means the entire human race—young and old alike, rich and poor, male and female. Death has come and will come to all of us sooner or later. But when death draws near to the young, it brings the parents to a moment of personal crisis. This is how C. S. Lewis put it in A Grief Observed (p. 25):
You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it? … Only a real risk tests the reality of belief.
This week I chatted on the phone with my brother Alan who is a physician in Tupelo, Mississippi. He commented that when your child is sick, you don’t care about test results, x-rays, percentages, new medicines, research protocols, or anything like that. To quote my brother directly: “People just want to know one thing: ‘Is my child going to be all right?’” Nothing else matters. Everything else is just details.
Our text tells about a very important man who had a very important conversation with Jesus. As a result, he received a most incredible miracle. What happened to his son was not due to luck or coincidence. His son was dying and Jesus healed him. And the wonder of the story is, Jesus never met the child and the child never met Jesus. It was a long-distance miracle recorded by the Apostle John for our benefit.
This story also illustrates how faith grows in the human heart. None of us is born into God’s family with our faith fully developed. We all go through various stages to arrive where God wants us to be. Our text reveals to us seven stages of faith. Let’s take a look together to see how faith grows in the midst of very desperate circumstances.
Stage #1: Crisis 46
“Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum” (John 4:46).
Faith almost always starts in a crisis. When things are going good, it’s easy to forget God, but when life tumbles in around us, we suddenly start looking to heaven for help. This story centers around a man who is called a “royal official.” (Some translations use the word “nobleman.”) The Greek uses a general term that means “one who serves the king.” It almost certainly means that he was an official in the government of Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. No doubt he was rich, powerful, and influential. He was in the upper crust, a power broker, a man others feared and respected. He was accustomed to giving orders and having them carried out. In his own corner of the world, he had enormous authority because he answered to the king and the king answered to Caesar. If he wanted something, it was done for him. If he had a request, he had but to say it and his will would be done. People came to him to have their problems solved. But now he has a problem he can’t solve.
Let us learn from this that even the rich and powerful have their troubles. Behind every smiling face is a story of sadness and heartache. No matter how much money you have, you never reach the place where you are protected from trouble. Trouble comes alike to the rich and to the poor. An Arab proverb declares that “grief is a black camel that kneels at every tent.”
As I have already said, we do not know the precise details of his son’s sickness. We only know this. It broke the father’s heart and consumed all his energy. This man who could do so much had no power to help his son. He watched day by day as his beloved child grew weaker and the fever raged without breaking. When his son cried, “Daddy, help me,” there was nothing he could do. At night when his son could not see him, he wet his pillow with tears of anguish.
Little did he know that this heavy burden was an angel in disguise. If his son had not been sick, he might never have met Jesus. God often uses trouble to focus our attention on him. Through this sickness, God now has his undivided attention. I love the words of A.W. Pink “It is well when trouble leads a man to God, instead of away from God. Affliction is one of God’s medicines.”
The doctors must have done all they could do and they evidently said, “There is no hope.” In such a situation, desperate men take desperate steps. Desperate times call forth desperate measures.
What will this man do?
Stage #2: Humility 47
“When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him” (John 4:47).
By this time Jesus had become well known in Galilee. Not long before he had performed the amazing miracle of turning water into wine. Word had spread that this carpenter from Nazareth had the power to heal the sick. Multitudes came to him with maladies of every kind, and it was said that he healed them all. Word of Jesus’ healing ministry reached the little fishing village of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
That brings us to the second stage of faith. When the nobleman heard that Jesus had come to Cana, he instantly decided to go see him. His plan was simple. He would meet Jesus face to face, explain his son’s sickness, and ask him to come back to Capernaum so he could heal his son. He is a man of action, of forceful decision, of courage in the face of uncertainty. If there is any chance that this man called Jesus can help his boy, he will go to Jesus himself. Please note that at this point he doesn’t really know who Jesus is. Like the Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42), he can’t pass a test in theology, but he has heard about Jesus and wonders if he can help his son.
Who can blame him? He loves his son and wants him to be healed. That means more than the world to him. He could have sent his servants to Jesus. That would have been appropriate but he came himself. He doesn’t know Jesus, never met him, knows only his reputation, but that is enough for this man. In going to meet Jesus, he risks everything, for he does not know how Jesus will receive him, and he knows his son could die while he is gone. He would not leave his son’s side for any other reason. He leaves in the desperate hope that his son might be healed. He doesn’t know! But he goes anyway. That’s what faith does. It doesn’t know the future but it steps out anyway.
Capernaum is on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee while Cana is in a hilly area about 22 miles away. As he traveled those dusty roads, I imagine he rehearsed over and over again what he would say. I’m sure he made up his mind that he would do whatever it took to convince Jesus to come to his son’s bedside. As a royal official, he was accustomed to having people come to him. But now he must humble himself and go to Jesus pleading for his son’s life. In this desperate moment his money and power meant nothing. His friends could not help him. He comes with nothing to offer and with only a desperate plea for his beloved son.
Stage #3: Request 47
“And begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death” (John 4:47).
The best prayer is born of desperation. Only needy people pray. Those who aren’t needy don’t need to pray. And they don’t! That’s why people in hospitals call for pastors and chaplains. They don’t want to die with burdens on their soul. They want to be healed, and if they cannot be healed, they want to make sure they are ready to meet God. When hard times come, we cling to God like a drowning man clings to a rope. In this case desperation turned a powerful man into a beggar. The word “begged” in the original actually means to beg repeatedly. I do not doubt that this powerful official got on his knees and begged Jesus to come and heal his son. Even a skeptic will pray at a time like this. There are no atheists in the Emergency Room. When all human props are taken away, we realize that only God can help us.
It appears that his request was very simple and very direct: “O Jesus, come and heal my son!” That’s all. No King James English, no long preliminaries, no formalities. He got right to the point.
*He knew what he wanted: Jesus to come with him.
*He knew what he needed: Healing for his son.
*He knew why he needed it: His son was near death.
Time was of the essence. “Jesus, you must come right now. My son may die at any moment, but I know you can heal him.” There is something positive and something negative in what he says. On one hand the father totally believes Jesus can heal his son. But his faith is defective because he thinks Jesus must be personally present for the miracle to happen. He believes that for Jesus to work a miracle in Capernaum, he can’t stay in Cana. He’s got to travel the 22 miles back to Capernaum in order for his son to be healed. He can be forgiven for this very understandable weakness. Most of us would feel the same way.
I note that he didn’t use his wealth or his power and he didn’t try to argue that he deserved special treatment. And he didn’t say, “My son is popular and handsome and gifted.” His son was dying. That was all that he needed to mention.
Stage #4: Persistence 48-49
“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies” (John 4:48-49).
Jesus’ answer is unexpected and appears to be almost rude. It’s as if he is irritated and doesn’t want to bother with this man’s sick son. Jesus was putting this man’s faith to the test. “Are you coming to me just because you want a miracle or do you really know who I am?” The problem is not our desire for miracles but our addiction to miracles. And this explains why he would not come to Capernaum and heal the son in person. If he went to Capernaum and performed the miracle there, it would attract a great crowd. They would follow him as a miracle worker but they would not believe in him as the Son of God from heaven. He didn’t want to become some kind of carnival sideshow. He would have become popular but he would not have been worshiped as the Lord from heaven.
Because we want to see signs, we put conditions on the Lord before we will believe in him. We like to say, “Seeing is believing.” That’s backwards. First you believe, then you see. Faith must always come before the miracles. Miracles have no use except to point to Jesus. If we get miracles but don’t fall in love with Jesus as a result, we’ve missed the whole point. What seemed to be a rebuke was really a spiritual challenge. Jesus is moving him to a higher level of faith. We want proof but God honors faith. Strange as it seems, Jesus is actually helping the man by refusing his first request. Could Jesus have gone to Capernaum? Sure. No problem. But that would not help this man’s faith.
I love the way this desperate man responds. He simply repeats his request. It’s as if he’s saying, “I don’t know anything about this signs and wonders stuff, but I know you can heal my son.” He will not be turned away.
He calls Christ “Sir” or “Lord”—a mark of great respect.
He knows he has a need—His son is dying.
He knows Christ can meet that need—He can heal his Son.
He knows what he knows and that’s all that matters.
And for all that, his faith is still immature. He’s not only making a request, he’s telling Jesus how to answer his prayer. He’s trying to tell God how to be God. And that brings us once again to the First Rule of the Spiritual Life: He’s God and We’re Not. Who has been the Lord’s counselor? No one! Who gives him advice? No one! Who can trace his path across the starry skies? No one! This man has faith and a plan. The faith is good, the plan isn’t so good. You’ve heard me say this before: Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans! There was nothing wrong with this man’s plan; it just wasn’t Jesus’ plan. He has something bigger and better in mind. This week I ran across a wonderful definition of faith. I don’t know who said it, but it fits our story and it applies to all of us who face desperate circumstances: “Faith is confidence in God’s faithfulness to me in an uncertain world, on an uncharted course, through an unknown future.”
Stage #5: Obedience 50
“Jesus replied, ‘You may go. Your son will live.’ The man took Jesus at his word and departed” (John 4:50).
The man said, “Come down” and Jesus said, “Go!” That put the royal official in a hard place. I am sure I would have argued the point. “Jesus, you’ve got to go with me. You don’t understand how sick my son is. I can’t take a chance. If you come, I know you can heal him.” But something gripped his heart in that moment. I think the Holy Spirit whispered in his heart, “You can trust the words of Jesus.” And he did. There were two miracles that day. The first one was the healing of the son. The second was the healing in the heart of the nobleman. It must have been hard for him to leave Cana and make the journey back to Capernaum alone. He has nothing to go on but the words of Jesus: “Your son lives.” This is naked faith. Simple faith. This is faith not in miracles but in the word of the Lord.
Would we have gone so easily or would we have stayed to argue some more? I find it noteworthy that this man didn’t ask for a token or a sign. On one level, he didn’t know what would happen. He had no outward proof. But he left anyway. If he is wrong about this, his son will soon be dead. He is risking his son’s life on the bare words of Jesus Christ. He left without a written promise and there were no visible angels to accompany him. He had nothing to lean on but the word of the Lord. He believed that what Jesus said, he would do. St. Augustine put it this way: “Faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of faith is to see what we believe.” Very soon this man will have the reward of his faith.
Stage #6: Confirmation 51-52
“While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, ‘The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.’ Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live’” (John 4:51-52).
Now we come to the delightful portion of the story. As the man is making the journey home, I’m sure many thoughts are running through his mind. He knows what Jesus has said and he believes it. Yet he remembers how sick his son was when he left. Could the words of Jesus really be true? I’m sure he wondered how long it would take his son to fully recover from his deadly fever.
As he walked along the road, he saw before him in the distance a crowd of people coming his way. Whoever they were, they seemed to be in a great hurry. As they got closer, he heard shouts and he realized it was his servants. For a moment, his heart sank as he considered what their coming must mean. Is it bad news? But no … they are laughing and shouting and smiling. “Master, we have good news. Master, your son lives!” Then they surrounded him, and the party started right there in the middle of the road. Cheering, laughing, dancing, shouting. The father weeping with joy. “How did it happen? When? Tell me everything.” The father wanted to know when his son started to get better. The laughter increased. “Master, you don’t understand. He didn’t ‘begin’ to get better. He got better all at once. It’s a miracle!” But when did it happen? “At the seventh hour.” That would be 1:00 p.m. And the man paused for moment and began to think. He started counting the hours on his fingers. The first hour, the second hour, the third hour, the fourth hour, the fifth hour, the sixth hour, the seventh hour. Then it hit him. The seventh hour! That was the very moment when Jesus said, “Go your way. Your son lives.” Jesus healed the boy in Capernaum even though he was 22 mile away in Cana. And the boy was healed the very moment Jesus spoke to the father. That’s not a coincidence. That’s a flat-out miracle. And it proves that Jesus is the Lord of time and distance.
Stage #7: Commitment 53-54
“So he and all his household believed. This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee” (John 4:53-54).
There is one final stage in this man’s faith. Three different times he believed in Jesus and each time his faith moved to a higher level.
*He believed once when he came to him in Cana—faith in his Miracles.
*He believed again when he left to go home to his son—faith in his Word.
*He believed ultimately when his son was healed—faith in Jesus himself.
And he believed so fully that he swept his whole family and all his servants with him into the kingdom of God. He came and they came with him! Here is an important word for fathers. Let the father believe and the mother will believe too. Let father and mother believe and the children will believe too. Let the family believe and soon the relatives will believe. Thus does God’s grace spread from one person to another.
I should add at this point that not every prayer for help is answered in the same way as this prayer. Not every child is healed in a miraculous way. Oswald Chambers speaks to this point: “Faith for my deliverance is not faith in God. Faith means, whether I am visibly delivered or not, I will stick to my belief that God is love. There are some things only learned in a fiery furnace.” This is a wonderful story with many applications. Let us learn from this that all the roads of human experience lead ultimately to Jesus Christ. When we find him, all will be well.
Behind everything else in this story is the sovereign hand of God. Though the father could not see it in advance, his son was brought to the point of death that the entire family might be brought to eternal life. Thus does God work through our adversity, our pain, our trials, and our sorrows. When we are in the midst of desperate circumstances, we see only our problems and we come as children begging for help: “Lord Jesus, come quickly. We need you. The world is falling apart and only you can help us.” And Jesus quietly says, “Go your way. Be in peace. I will take care of your problems.” Will we have faith to go in peace, trusting him? When we do, we discover that Jesus is as good as his word. And very often we look back much later and say, “I didn’t see it then. In my sorrow and sadness I thought the Lord had forgotten me. I thought my prayers had been ignored. But now I see clearly that the Lord was there all the time. He answered in ways I did not expect. And if it had not been for the Lord, I would not have made it at all.” Many times we can see that a greater miracle has been wrought than the one we sought in the beginning. And so we learn again that his ways are not our ways. Give God enough time and all will be made right. He will be vindicated in all things and his Word will be proved true. Our part is to trust him and to obey the light we have. Once we bring our problems to him, we must then go our way and trust him to do what he knows is best. This is true faith.
I’ll close with a story fitting for Super Bowl Sunday. For 29 years Tom Landry was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He was also a strong Christian and for many years was on the board of my alma mater, Dallas Theological Seminary. When asked to explain his philosophy of coaching, he said that the job of a coach is make men do what they don’t want to do so that they can achieve what they’ve always wanted. That’s what Jesus does for you and me. He continually puts us in places we didn’t want to go, and he makes us face things we didn’t want to face, in order to achieve in us what we always wanted but didn’t know how to find. This is a blessing no one wants but everyone needs if our faith is to grow and mature. If desperate circumstances bring us to Jesus, then those circumstances are a gift from God. Amen.