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The Voice: Status and Spirituality

John 4:46-54
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. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.
48 “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
49 The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
50 “Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.”
The man took Jesus at his word and departed. 51 While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52 When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him.”
53 Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.
54 This was the second sign Jesus performed after coming from Judea to Galilee. (NIV)

If you go to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), for $20 you can enjoy a guided tour. Depending on which guide you get determines which stories you hear. One guide might focus on Don Bradman’s exploits while another will highlight Shane Warne. You might receive a detailed recounting of the 1956 Olympic games held at the MCG or be told about the architectural features of this famous sporting venue. For example, there are no pillars in the stadium, so everyone enjoys unobstructed views. One guide might point out the one different coloured seat in the stadium which marks the spot where the biggest six was hit in a cricket match. Still another guide will describe how a capacity crowd can be evacuated within 15 minutes in an emergency. Yet, for all the different stories, one common story is told by the guides.

When the tour arrives outside the members’ lounge, the tour pauses. There on the wall hangs a huge tapestry. The tapestry depicts famous events and moments during the MCG’s history. The guide then asks the group, “The largest attendance at the MCG was 143,000. What was the event?” All kinds of answers are offered. “A Boxing Day test?” “Was it the opening ceremony of the 1956 Olympics?” “Was it an AFL final?” The guide’s answer is the same: “No.” The answer is in the very centre of the tapestry. There in the centre in this work of art is a man in a suit standing behind a microphone: Billy Graham. His 1959 evangelistic meeting holds an attendance record that can never be bettered as the playing field is now off-limits during non-sporting events.

The place, MCG, is defined by people and what they did there. If you are a sports fan, going to the MCG is a pilgrimage. But the Billy Graham story provides a startling and surprising twist. You are confronted by an unexpected message whereby a non-sporting event (a gospel event) has set a record that can never be bettered.

We have the same thing going on in John 4.

We have a royal official making a pilgrimage to a place (Cana), defined by a person (Jesus), because of an event (changing water into wine), but as the story unfolds, this pilgrim is confronted by an unexpected message.

The royal official is in crisis. His child is dying and so this influential man makes the day’s journey from Capernaum to Cana. He goes to the happening place, to the happening person to make something happen. The royal official is desperate. Yet once he is in the presence of Jesus, we see an example of something which happens throughout John’s Gospel: people initially described according to their status only to be stripped of that status. In this process, Jesus reveals their true self and what is truly important. Most importantly, Jesus’ status is revealed as is the message he bears. The royal official of John 4 is a helpful case-study of this dynamic.

Slowly, as the story progresses his status is stripped away. The royal official is labelled five times illustrating the effect of Jesus’s ministry stripping away status and redefining identity.

The story begins by referring to a “certain royal official” (v. 46). The second time he is simply referred to as a “man” (v. 47). This “man” hears Jesus has returned to Cana and so travels to Jesus to beg for his son’s life. Jesus’ response is blunt. His response comes across as an exasperated rebuke (v. 48). In response, or perhaps reaction, the “man” is now referred to again as a “royal official” (v. 49). This third reference has him rising to his full height and status as a person who is not in the habit of begging. He is a royal official no less and so he commands Jesus to come to Capernaum to heal his son (v. 49). Jesus responds in part. He does not accompany the royal official home but does promise the boy will live (v. 50). We then read the fourth reference to the royal official: “the man took Jesus at his word (v. 50).” A day later as he draws near to his home, he is greeted by the news that his son has been healed (v. 51). When he establishes that the miracle took place at the precise time Jesus assured him his son would live, we encounter the fifth and most telling description of the royal official.

So, we have an interplay between the terms “royal official” and “man” but it is the last reference describing him that is revealing. “Then the father realized …” (v. 53). From royal official to man to father. Now we are at the heart of things. Now we see him as Jesus sees him. Here is a father, a parent, afraid for his child. His true status revealed by Jesus’s ministry. Throughout Scripture, this spiritual dynamic is evident when people encounter God. We see it with Jacob wrestling with a Man all night (Gen 32). We see it with Isaiah in the temple (Isa 6). We see it with Paul on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9). In the shedding of our status we are better able to respond to God and discover our identity before God. Our identity, indeed, our spirituality, is one marked by uniqueness crafted by our Creator that we may worship him and serve in his name.

On his deathbed, a famous rabbi named Zusia (1718–1800) wept. He said, “When I face the celestial tribunal, I shall not be asked why I was not Abraham, Jacob or Moses. I shall be asked why I was not Zusia.”[i]

The royal official embarked on a journey from Capernaum to his destination of Cana. However, the true journey was from that of a person defined by social status to that of a person defined by family concerns. The true journey was from someone demanding action to someone humbled by Jesus’s word. We can see the centrality of the shift within the royal official in the arrangement of this gospel story. The story is arranged so that it mirrors itself with the key insight at the mirror point:[ii]

A 1st sign (v. 46)

B       Feature of royal official’s house (v. 46)

C             Hears of Jesus and begs (v. 47)

D                   Demand for signs and wonders (v. 48)

E                         Asks that Jesus comes down before the child dies (v. 49)

F                               Jesus tells him to go (v. 50)

                                           THE MAN TOOK JESUS AT HIS WORD ( v. 50)

F’                              Royal official goes (v. 50)

E’                        Royal official goes down & learns that the boy lives (v. 51)

D’                 Receives a sign and wonder (v. 52)

C’          Hears of Jesus’ timing & realises (v. 53)

B’      Feature of royal official’s household (v. 53)

A’ 2nd sign (v. 54)

“The man took Jesus at his word” (v 50). There it is! The true destination is arrived at. The man, the father, takes Jesus at his word in the absence of immediate proof that anything has happened. I wonder what the journey home would have been like for that father. It was the next day before he received confirmation his son was healed (v. 52). One of the themes throughout the Gospel of John is therefore illustrated: “It is a better faith that hears and believes rather than sees and believes.”[iii]

I wonder what journey you have embarked on. And what status Christ is intending to strip away that you might see yourself truly.

I wonder what word Christ has spoken to you that you are yet to see any evidence of. And whether you have continued the journey taking him at his word.

I wonder how a change in your status has resulted in a change of spirituality. 

Geoff New is Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership (Dunedin). He is a trainer for Langham Preaching in South Asia. He also leads Kiwimade Preaching. His doctoral research explored the impact of utilising Lectio Divina and Ignatian Gospel Contemplation when preparing sermons. 

[i] Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 120.

[ii] I offer this chiasm as a result of my observation of the text. I do not claim scholarly support for it, but it demonstrates the turning point in this narrative.

[iii] Don Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester: IVP, 1991), 100.