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The Healing of the Nobleman's Son
by Richard Chenevix Trench
Chapter 2 from The Miracles of our Lord
JOHN iv. 46-54
THE difficulties of the three verses which go before this miracle (vs. 43.45), and which, so to speak, account for the Lord’s renewed presence at Cana, are considerable, and the explanations of difficulties very various. But it is unnecessary to enter here on this tangled question, and it will be sufficient to take up the thread of the narrative at verse 46: ‘So Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where He made the water wine.’ It is altogether in St. John’s manner thus to identify a place or person by some single circumstance which has made them memorable in the Church for ever; thus compare vii, 50; X1X. 39; again, i. xii. 21; and again, xiii. 23, 25; xxi. 20. ‘And there was a certain nobleman, whose son was sick at Capernaum’ —possibly, as by some has been supposed, Chuza, ‘Herod’s steward,’ whose wife, remarkably enough, appears among the holy women that ministered to the Lord of their substance (Luke viii. 3; cf ver. 53). Only some mighty and marvellous work of this kind would have drawn a steward of Herod’s, with his family, into the Gospel net. Others have suggested Manaen, the foster-brother of Herod (Acts xiii. 1). But, whether one of these, or some other not elsewhere named in Scripture, ‘when he heard that Jesus was come out of Judaea into Galilee, he went unto Him, and besought Him that He would come down, and heal his son; for he was at the point of death.’ From a certain severity which speaks out in our Lord’s reply, ‘Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe,’ we conclude that this petitioner was one driven to Jesus by the strong constraint of an outward need, a need which no other but He could supply (Isai. xxvi. 16), rather than one drawn by the inner necessities and desires of his soul; one who would not have come at all, but for this. Sharing in the carnal temper of the Jews in general (for the plural ‘ye will not believe,’ is meant to include many in a common condemnation), he had (hitherto, at least) no organ for perceiving the glory of Christ as it shone out in his person and in his doctrine. ‘Signs and wonders’ might compel him to a belief, but nothing else; unlike those Samaritans whom the Lord has just quitted, and who, without a miracle, had ‘believed because of his word,’ (John iv. 41). But ‘the Jews require a sign’ (r Cor. i. 22), and this one, in the poverty of his present faith, straitened and limited the power of the Lord. Christ must ‘come down,’ (Greg. the Great (In Ev. Hom. xxviii.)) if his son is to be healed; he cannot raise himself to the height of those words of the Psalmist, ‘He sent his word, and He healed them.

And yet, if there be rebuke in the Lord’s answer, there is encouragement, too; an implied promise of a miracle, even while the man is blamed that he needed a miracle, that less than a miracle would not induce him to put his trust in the Lord of Life. (Bengel) And so he accepts it; for reading no repulse in this word of a seeming, and indeed of a real, severity, he only urges his suit the more earnestly, ‘Sir, come down ere my child die.’ Still, it is true, he links help to the bodily presence of the Lord; is still far off from his faith and humility who said, ‘Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof; but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.’ Much less does he dream of a power that could raise the dead: Christ might heal his sick; he does not dream of Him as one who could raise his dead. A faith so weak must be strengthened, and can only be strengthened through being proved. Such a gracious purpose of at once proving and strengthening it we trace in the Lord’s dealing with the man which follows. He does not come down with him, as he had prayed; but sends him away with a mere word of assurance that it should go well with his child: ‘Go thy way; thy son liveth ' (cf. Matt. viii. 13; Mark vii. 29). And the father was contented with that assurance; he ‘believed the word that Jesus had spoken, and he went his way,’ expecting to find that it should be done according to his word. The miracle was a double one—on the body of the absent child; on the heart of the present father; one cured of his sickness, the other of his unbelief.

A comparison of the Lord’s dealing with this nobleman and with the centurion of the other Gospels is instructive. He has not men’s persons in admiration, who will not come, but only sends to the son of this nobleman (cf. 2. Kin. V. 10, 11), Himself visiting the servant of that centurion.’ And there is more in the matter than this. Here, being entreated to come, he does not, but sends his healing word; there, being asked to speak at a distance that word of healing, He rather proposes Himself to come; for here, as Chrysostom explains it well, a narrow and poor faith is enlarged and deepened, there a strong faith is crowned and rewarded. By not going He increases this nobleman’s faith; by offering to go He brings out and honours that centurion’s humility.

‘And as he was now going down, his servants met him, saying, Thy son liveth.’ Though faith had not struck its roots quickly in his soul, it would appear to have struck them strongly at last. His confidence in Christ’s word was so great that he proceeded leisurely homewards. It was not till the next day that he approached his house, though the distance between the two cities was not so great that the journey need have occupied many hours; but ‘he that believeth shall not make haste.’ ‘ Then inquired he of them the hour when he began to amend,’ to be a little better; for at the height of his faith the father had looked only for a slow and gradual amendment. ‘And they said unto him, Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.’ It was not merely, they would imply, that at the hour they name there was a turning-point in the disorder, and the violence of the fever abated; but it ‘left him’ altogether; just as it was in the case of Simon’s wife’s mother, who at Christ’s word ‘immediately arose and ministered unto them’ (Luke iv. 39). ‘So the father knew that it was at the same hour in the which Jesus said unto him, Thy son liveth : and himself believed and his whole house.’ This he did for all the benefits which the Lord had bestowed on him, he accepted another and the crowning benefit, even the cup of salvation; and not he alone; but, as so often happened, his conversion drew after it that of all who belonged to him; for by consequences such as these God will bring us unto a consciousness of the manner in which not merely the great community of mankind, but each smaller com-munity, a nation, or, as in this case, a family, is united and bound together under its federal head, shares in his good or in his evil (cf. Acts xvi. 15, xviii. 8).

But did he not believe before? Was not this healing itself a gracious reward of his faith? Yes, he believed that particular word of the Lord’s; but this is something more, of faith, the entering into the number of Christ’s disciples, the giving of himself to Him as to the promised Messiah. Or, admitting that he already truly believed, there may be indicated here a heightening and augmenting of his faith. For faith may be true, and yet most capable of this increase. In him who cried, ‘Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief’(Mark ix. 24), faith was indeed born, though as yet its actings were weak and feeble. After and in consequence of the first miracle of the water made wine, Christ’s disciples believed on Him’ (John ii. 11), who yet, being disciples, must have believed on him already.’ Apostles themselves exclaim, ‘Lord, increase our faith’ (Luke xvii. 5). The Israelites of old, who followed Moses, through the Red Sea, must have already believed that he was God’s instrument for their deliverance; yet of them we learn that after the great overthrow of Pharaoh and his host, they ‘believed the Lord and his servant Moses’ (Exod. xiv. 31). The widow whose son Elijah had raised from the dead, exclaims, ‘Now by this I know thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth’ (I Kin. xvii. 24). Knowing him for such before (ver. 18), she now received a new confirmation of her faith (cf. John XI. 15; xiii. 19); and so we must accept it here. Whether, then, we understand that faith was first born in him now, or, being born already, received now a notable increase, it plain in either case, that the Lord by these words of his, ‘Except ye see signs and wonders ye will not believe,’ could not have intended to cast any slight on miracles, as a mean whereby men may be brought to the truth; or, having been brought to it, are more strongly established and confirmed in the same.

One question before leaving this miracle claims a brief discussion, namely, whether this is the same history as that of the servant (paiv) of the centurion (Matt. viii. 5; Luke vii. 2); here repeated with only immaterial variations. It would almost seem as if Irenaeus had thought so; and some in the time of Chrysostom identified the two miracles, who himself, however, properly rejects this rolling up of the two narratives into one. By Ewald, too, it is taken for granted, though without the smallest attempt at proof.’ There is nothing to warrant it, almost nothing to render it plausible. Not merely the external circumstances are widely different; the scene of that miracle being Capernaum, of this Cana; the centurion there a heathen, the nobleman here a Jew (for had he been other it could not have passed unnoticed, our Lord’s contact in the days of His flesh with those who were not of the chosen seed always calling out special remark); that suppliant pleading for his servant, this for his son; there by others, in person here; the sickness there a paralysis, a fever here; but more decisive than all this, the heart and inner kernel of the two narratives is different. That centurion is an example of a strong faith, this nobleman of a weak faith; that centurion counts that if Jesus will but speak the word his servant will be healed, while this nobleman is so earnest that the Lord should comedown, because in heart he limits His power, and counts that nothing but his actual presence will avail to help his sick; that other is praised, this rebuked of the Lord. So striking indeed are these differences that Augustine (In Ev. Joh. tract, xvi.) compares, but for the purpose of contrasting, the faith of that centurion and the unbelief of this nobleman. Bishop Hall does the same. ‘How much difference,’ he exclaims, ‘was here betwixt the centurion and the ruler! That came for his servant; this for his son. This son was not more above the servant than the faith which sued for the servant surpassed that which sued for the son.’ Against all this, the points of likeness and suggesting identity are very slight and superficial; as the near death of the sufferer, the healing at a distance and by a word, and the returning and finding the sick well. It is nothing strange that two miracles should have such circumstances as these, in common.