Monday, March 31, 2008

"Your Son Lives" (John 4:46-54)

In John 4:46-54, John tells the story of Jesus healing the son of a nobleman of Capernaum. I used to think that this story was kind of plain vanilla, especially when compared with the stories nearby - Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, and the paralytic of Jerusalem. But it turns out, as you might suspect, that there is more than meets the eye.
  1. In each scene, John shows Jesus confronting, replacing or fulfilling a major institution of Judaism. Jesus is compared with purification rituals and the Temple (ch. 2), with a great rabbi (ch. 3), with a sacred well (ch. 4), and with the sabbath (ch. 5). In this scene, Jesus is compared with the rulers of Israel.
  2. The story has similarities to the healing of the centurion's servant (Matt 8:5-9) in that it involves healing at a distance in Capernaum. The The Gospel of John, a great movie, depicts this scene as if it were the same as Matthew's. But John tells the story with a Herodian nobleman and his son, not a centurion and his servant.
  3. Most scenes in John show Jesus as the source of life, echoing the idea found in John 1:3-4. The nobleman says "come, before my child dies;" Jesus says "go, your son lives" (4:50); the servants say "his child lives" (4:52); the nobleman remembers that Jesus said "your son lives" (4:53). Repeating it three times, as well as ending the account with the saying, tells us that John thinks it is important: Jesus is the source of life.
  4. Jesus uses the same words as Elijah does when he raises the son of the widow of Zarephath (ze ho huios, in Greek; see LXX 1 Kings 17:22). This may be an intentional allusion. Jesus is elsewhere compared to Elijah; here, he is seen as greater than Elijah by healing at a distance. (Paul does something similar in Acts 20:7-12; see this post).
  5. John is encouraging faith, as he often does. Jesus begins by pointing out the shortfall of signs-based faith (John 4:48). The nobleman then "believed the word that Jesus said" before he saw the miracle (4:50); then "he himself believed" after seeing his son, along with his whole household (4:53). He is a model believer - his faith grows, and through him, others come to believe.
  6. Most scenes in John have a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus. This one doesn't, but I don't know why.

The picture: The Healing of the Official's Son, from Auslegung der Episteln vnd Euangelien..., by Martin Luther, published 1544 (Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University).

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