As Jesus moves back into Galilee the faith of the Samaritans, which has just been described, is contrasted with the lack of faith among the Galileans. Yet we meet a royal official who is an amazing example of one who has the characteristics of true discipleship. In this story we will have another reflection on the nature of faith as well as a continuation of the revelation of God's grace.
The transitional section (4:43-45) addresses the people's reaction to Jesus, but it does so in a somewhat ambiguous fashion. Jesus says, a prophet has no honor in his own country, but he is then immediately welcomed by the Galileans. He comes from Nazareth in Galilee (1:45), but, given this welcome by the Galileans, our text seems to suggest that Galilee was not his own country. This text, however, is commenting on the reception given him by these Galileans, not on whether Galilee is his country. The Galileans are identified as those who had seen what Jesus had done in Jerusalem at Passover, which means these Galileans are associated with the many in Jerusalem who had a faith that was faulty (2:23-25). Thus, there is something wrong with this welcome, as will be confirmed in the story (4:48). Accordingly, both Judea and Galilee are viewed as Jesus' own country because in neither does he receive real honor.
Then we are back in Cana (v. 46), where we see Jesus healing the son of a certain royal official (basilikos), a servant of Herod's court. This official could be either a Jew or a Gentile, and if he was a Gentile, then the divine grace revealed in this story is even more remarkable. But John does not indicate that the official is a Gentile, so we cannot be certain. In any case, for many Jews a servant at Herod's court would be little better than a Gentile, so the scandalous nature of God's grace is evident here even if the official is a Jew.
In response to this man's request that Jesus come and heal his son Jesus says to him, Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders . . . you will never believe (v. 48). At first glance Jesus' saying seems clear enough, though rather harsh. But when we look closer it becomes evident that it is completely inappropriate as addressed to this man, for the request that Jesus heal his son implies that this official already believes in Jesus, or at least he believes that Jesus is able and willing to heal even his son, the son of a Herodian official. Faith is belief that God is who and what Jesus reveals him to be, the loving Father, and it is trust in this God. This official seems to have something of this faith.
So while this rebuke is spoken to the official (Jesus told him, v. 48), it is addressed also to those standing around (you people), which suggests that this one saying has two purposes. It is directed in part to the Jews of Galilee, who would not think too highly of a servant of Herod. They need to see signs and wonders performed for such a despised person before they will understand that God loves him also and is willing to freely grant life to his son. In Galilee, with its "freedom-loving inhabitants" (Schürer 1973-1987:1:341), Jesus' acceptance of a member of Herod's court would perhaps be the best possible example of God's scandalous, gracious love, whether or not this official is a Gentile.
This official does have such faith, and so, addressed to him, we understand that Jesus' second purpose is to test the one to whom he speaks. From what the official says, we see that he passes the test. To Jesus' provocative statement the official simply says, Sir, come down before my child dies (v. 49). With this response the official demonstrates perseverance, which is like the humble patience of Jesus' true disciples. To this request Jesus answers, You may go. Your son will live (v. 50). The NIV catches the meaning but not the ambiguity of this statement. Literally it says, simply, "Go, your son lives" (poreuou, ho hyios sou ze). This need not convey the rather positive message implied in the NIV. The official could have heard this as a simple command to go away, especially since "lives" need not imply healing. Despite this possible misunderstanding, however, it says that the man took Jesus at his word and departed (v. 50). Here it becomes yet clearer that Jesus' statement about needing to see signs and wonders does not apply to this official. He believed Jesus' word alone, even a potentially ambiguous word. Even though he had requested that Jesus come with him to heal his son (v. 47), he believes Jesus can do it without coming with him. Here is faith indeed!
This faith is confirmed and deepened when he learns of his son's recovery (v. 53). His faith in Jesus as one who is willing and able to heal the son of a Herodian official progressed to faith in Jesus' bare word. Now at the end of the story it is simply said that he believed, with no other qualifiers. This form of expression is used often in this Gospel, usually in reference to a person who has insight into Jesus' special identity and accepts of him (for example, 1:50; 20:8). As the Samaritans had their faith confirmed and deepened, recognizing Jesus as Savior of the world, so this man has his faith confirmed by this healing. It is not said what deeper insight the man gains, but the description of the healing in terms of life and death might suggest he catches a glimpse of Jesus as the giver of life. If so, then this healing illustrates a theme developed earlier (3:15-16, 36), which is about to come to the fore (5:19-30).
Whether or not the official grasped any of this significance, it is there for the reader. The grace here is obvious, for God is revealed as willing to grant life to the son of a Herodian official. The universal love of God, already noted (1:4, 7, 9; 3:16), is seen active in these two stories in chapter 4.
This story ends with a reference that This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee (4:54). It is common to take this verse as evidence that John is using a source that consisted only of signs. Originally, then, this story was the second sign in the Signs Source (see introduction, under "Three Explanations for the Complexity"). While it is possible that an earlier draft of the Gospel focused on the signs, this verse fits its present context very well. John does not say this is Jesus' second sign, but his second sign having come from Judea to Galilee; that is, he lays as much stress on the geographical motif as on the signs. These two signs are done when Jesus goes "out of Judea" (ek tes Ioudaias). Immediately we hear of a feast of "the Jews" (ton Ioudaion, 5:1). If Jesus' opponents are called "the Jews" at least in part because of their attachment to Judea (cf. 1:19), perhaps John is linking these two stories through a common word, as he has done earlier (cf. 2:25 and 3:1). The fact that Jesus does signs outside Judea as well as within indicates that Judea is not the favored place the opponents think it is (cf. 4:21).
Twice now Jesus has moved into Galilee, and both times he has performed very significant signs. Both signs have pointed to God's gratuitous generosity: the first one, at the wedding, was in a presumably kosher Jewish setting, and the other seems to have involved the healing of one whom many Jews would not consider kosher. These two signs in Galilee stand in contrast to the many signs he did in Jerusalem, for each of the two signs performed in Galilee are received in faith by someone, whereas the signs in Jerusalem were not received in true faith.
The account of these two signs is not only a summary of what has happened, but an anticipation of what immediately follows. Twice now Jesus has moved into Galilee, and twice he has revealed God's glory, and some have been able to receive it. Now he will go to Jerusalem again, and this time he performs a revelatory act that is grasped by the Jewish opponents. But this is a provocative act, as are all of Jesus' actions and teachings. Unlike during his disturbance at the temple, the opponents' hostility is aroused (5:16). Jesus' provocation has finally resulted in confrontation. Up to this point in the Gospel there has been no controversy as such. But we have been prepared for controversy by the dualistic language (1:5), the contrast between those who believe in him and those who do not (10-13; 3:18-20, 32-36), the scandals Jesus has caused (2:18-20; 3:4-10; 4:27) and the difficulties that those who do receive him have had to overcome (1:46; 2:4, 17, 22; 4:9-27, 33, 48). Thus the note in verse 54 not only concludes the previous sections, but sets off the one that follows and hints that the story has reached a transition.