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Seeing Isn’t Believing
One of the more popular challenges I hear from people who don’t trust in Jesus or believe in God pertains to the general fact that “no one has seen God”. You haven’t seen God. I haven’t seen God. The Bible says that “no one has seen God and lived”. The person sitting next to you has never seen God—and yet, here we are. We’re all gathered together this morning, to worship a God and a Jesus whom none of us have ever seen first-hand.
This isn’t a little-known criticism. For many people, this is a massive hurdle. “Seeing is believing” is a culturally accepted motto. Some might say this the big elephant in the room—“these people are worshipping Jesus, whom they’ve never seen or met!” They claim Jesus is “with” them wherever they go, but I don’t see him!
How do we reconcile this, folks? We’re basing our lives upon a Bible written 2000+ years ago; we’re relying on eyewitnesses of Jesus from over 2,000 years ago. Isn’t this all a little bit crazy? Even faithful Christians might struggle with this. It’s not uncommon to find a Christian who believes in Jesus say, “my faith would be just that much more stronger if I got to see some clear revelation, or sign, from Jesus, that he’s really there and love me.”
But, here’s the problem. When we look to the Bible, it quickly becomes clear that when God does give the signs, we won’t listen. We’re stubborn people, folks, if we’re left to ourselves. We always have a way to deem the signs insufficient. Do you remember what we read in Numbers, just a moment ago? “How long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”, God says to Israel in Numbers 14:11. He said that to Israel, folks. To Israel—the same group of people who saw God issue ten devastating plagues in Egypt. These are the same folks who just witnessed God part the red sea and drown ol’ Pharoah and his crew—and God still has to say “How long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”. Why did he say that, there in Numbers 11? Remember? Israel refused to enter into the promised land because the Canaanites there were too big. Can you imagine it, after you have seen God work such majesty and power on your behalf to deliver you from slavery?
That’s how that story goes in the bible, folks—the story of God’s signs and our faith. It’s the sort of story that reveals an incredibly awful situation that we’re in. We are so stubborn, folks, that we won’t give ourselves over to God even if he literally splits a sea open for us to walk through. We love ourselves (and our control) too much. We literally don’t have time this morning to go through all the stories wherein God’s miraculous signs don’t change stubborn hearts to trust him. There’s a lot of them, folks.
Our story this morning is one of those stories. It is one of the stories which helps us understand the relationship between God’s signs (or miracles), and our faith. You see that in verse 48, don’t you? Jesus says to a desperate man, pleading for the life of his child, “unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe”. That was actually a rebuke. We’ll see why in a moment—but, at the very least, you see that Jesus is drawing attention to the relationship between his signs (his miracles), and our faith. That’s what this passage is addressing. If you’re waiting on a sign from God in order to believe upon him, or trust him more, then you’ll never believe rightly.
Three Lessons on God’s Signs and Our Faith
Let’s look closer at our story this morning. As we do, we’ll see three lessons on this matter of God’s signs, and our faith, as they emerge from the story. So, listen for those lessons as we move forward, here. I’ll make them explicit as we come upon them.
Lesson Number 1 (With Not a Little Background Story)
Let’s look at verse 43 with me, where our story begins. And yes, I know this is one, quick verse—but, I want us to get our bearings in the greater story of what’s happening, here. Our story is one part of a greater story that really began way back in chapter 2. Many say John chapters 2–4 form a literary unit (a story within John’s gospel), and I think we’ll see why in a moment. For now, look at verse 43—
43 After the two days he departed for Galilee.
That’s where our story picks up. This is an itinerary—Jesus is somewhere for two days, and then he heads to Galilee.
Try to rememeber from last week (or just read back a bit)—where was Jesus during those two days, before departing for Galilee? He was with the Samaritans. This entire chapter—chapter 4—is giving us the story of Jesus returning to Galilee from Judea after the Passover feast. You see that in chapter 4 verse 1, “…he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria.” So, that journey from Judea, through Samaria, to Galilee, is John chapter 4. Now of course, it’s not an uneventful journey. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well, and that becomes a several days’ pit- stop because the woman was convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, and all the townspeople followed her witness. Then, as our passage shows us, Jesus spent two whole days in their midst—teaching them and being received by them. That’s amazing. Remember, the Samaritans were despised and rejected by the Jewish people. They were ceremonially unclean. Yet, Jesus spent a brief moment at a well with one of their destitute women, and it turned into two days of Jesus reaping a spiritual harvest. They received him gladly as “the savior of the world” (if you look back at verse 42).
What led them to believe Jesus? I know this is looking back at last week’s passage, but it leads well into what we’re talking about today, in reference to Jesus’s signs and our faith. What led them to believe? You see the process described there in verses 39–42. It started with the woman’s testimony. “May Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did’” (verse 39). That’s reference to a sign, isn’t it? “He told me all I ever did—he told me about my several husbands, about my current scandalous living situation which nobody knows about. He could only know this if God told him—and, he claims to be the Christ. Could this be the Christ?”. That’s how it all got started, folks, with the sign. But, that’s not where it ended. The reason Jesus stayed with them for two days is because they asked him to. They wanted to investigate, to ask questions, to meet the man Jesus himself. It was about the person, Jesus, far more than it was about the signs and miracles. They took two days to be with him, after which they said to the woman in verse 42, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world”. Do you see it? Yes, the signs got them intrigued, but what happened? “We have heard… and [now] we know”. It’s not “we have seen, touched, felt”. It’s, “we have heard”. They say, to effect, “we’ve heard this man speak, and his words changed our hearts. The savior of the world is in our midst”.
Signs, folks, do have a purpose in bringing people to the faith. We see that here. Although, they must draw attention to the person and the words of Jesus, that we might have faith in Jesus. That’s how it works. The signs point to Jesus—not to yourself and your demand for a personal revelation or signs from God. Signs don’t point to the glory of healing, generically. They don’t point to the glory of some abstract power or magician that woos the crowds. They point to Jesus and the truth that he taught concerning an eternal, comprehensive salvation. His words declare eternal life, even as he speaks life into dead men like Lazarus.
The Samaritans got it—and, by the way, we should see a stunning contrast to these Samaritans and the Jews whom Jesus just left in Judea. Again, this whole chapter is framed by Jesus leaving Judea, and making his way back home to Galilee through Samaria. The fact that the Samaritans high-jacked Jesus for two days after a brief encounter with him through a woman at the well should be striking. They didn’t flock him for miracles. They flocked him for his word—“we have heard”, they say in verse 42. Jesus entrusted himself to these Samaritans who wanted to hear him. That’s not how he acted around the Jews in Judea, when he was there for upwards to a month. Remember what we read in chapter 2, verse 23—
23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when
they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to
them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he
himself knew what was in man.
That’s incredibly revealing, folks. “Many [of the Jews] believed in his name when they saw the signs [plural] that he was doing”. They saw the signs—all of them, and the people wanted more. That’s why they wanted Jesus. He could do things for them. They had a signs-oriented faith. It’s a striking contrast to the Samaritans who, by the way, only had one sign. Jesus revealed the woman’s sexual promiscuity, she was humbled to the dust, and she believed in Jesus with all of her townspeople. They had one sign, and they wanted to listen to Jesus. They had a Jesus-oriented faith, desiring to hear him rather than see his miracles.
Do you see the difference? The Jews had a signs-oriented faith, while the Samaritans had a Jesus- oriented faith. The Samaritans received Jesus as “the savior of the world”, the Jews wanted him as a miracle-worker. It’s a big difference. We’re going to see how this all plays into our story in a moment, but let’s take this closer to home for a second.
What’s Wrong with Signs-Oriented Faith
What’s wrong with a signs-oriented faith? What’s wrong with a faith that needs a little sign—a little, external confirmation from God?
At worst, it’s faulty faith. It bargains with God. It puts conditions on God, as though your in control. “I’ll trust you, God, when you change my circumstances. Then I’ll be content. Then I’ll start repenting. I’ll only repent and believe when you start showing up on my terms, fixing what I want fixed”. If that’s what fuels your faith, you’re going nowhere. You’ll always have another demand. At worst, that’s a false faith that’s more concerned about your control, your desires, rather than God’s holiness and majesty and wisdom.
At best, it’s a fickle faith. Do you know anyone who has that sort of spirituality? Perhaps you’re that sort of person in one way or another. I think we all have this in us, to varying degrees. Your ups and downs in the faith are all determined on what sign God may have shown you that day, or that week, or that month. If he doesn’t show up, you feel low and abandoned, unable to move or obey him. If he does show up with a sign, you’re as bright as the morning sun, pumped up and eager to obey him.
Now, let me ask you—is that the sort of aith that honors God? Is that even the sort of faith that is enjoyable, and good for you? If we live like this, we’ll be entirely at the mercy of unpredictable, uncertain signs that may or may not be from God, and we’ll be at the mercy of our feelings which ebb and flow as the signs come and go. It’s an awful way to live, folks. It’s powerless against sin. “I know my fussing or anger or bitterness is a problem, but I’ll fight it when I think the time is right—when God really presses it upon me through some sign or circumstance”. What does God’s word say? It says “repent now”. It says “God gives you grace to fight and repent now. Jesus is alive and interceding for you now”. If it’s really about Jesus—and not your circumstances or your preconceived needs—then you’ll tend to Jesus’s grace and power now, won’t you?
So as we’ve seen, those who “believed” in Judea believed because of the “signs he was doing”. It was a signs-oriented faith, and that’s a contrast to the faith of the Samiratns who heard Jesus, and believed he was the savior of the world.
What About the Galileans’ Faith?
What about the Galileans, in our passage this morning? (I told you it’d take us a bit to circle back to our passage, but look at our story again. What about the Galileans’ faith? What was their faith like?Keep reading in verses 43–45,
43 After the two days [of being received by the Samaritans] he departed for Galilee. 44 (For
Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.) 45 So when he
came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem
at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast.
Do you see what’s happening here? Do you see why I spent time hashing out the sign-oriented faith of the Judeans, and the Jesus-oriented faith of the Samaritans? “The Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast”. These are the same people who Jesus “did not entrust himself to” back in chapter 2! That’s really important to see, in this passage, folks! Whatever is about to happen with Jesus and this official, and the sign Jesus is about to perform, is happening in the context of a very signs-oriented, Jewish people. When they “welcomed him” into Galilee, there in verse 45, they welcomed him as a medicine man. They were eager for more miracles. That’s how we reconcile verses 44 and 45, there. Did you notice how those verses almost seem to contradict each other? Scholars actually make a big deal out of that—and, I think the answer is really easy. Jesus went into Galilee “for… a prophet has no honor in his hometown. Therefore when hecame to Galilee, [they] welcomed him”. That’s all really strange, if you don’t think of it through what we’ve been talking about. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Jesus went into Galilee, for the people didn’t honor him as a prophet. They honored him and welcomed him as a miracle worker. So, he went in so that he might break through that misunderstanding, and teach a certain official a lesson about faith.
Somehow, Jesus is going to break through their stubborn, signs-oriented faith and teach them (or at least, this official) a lesson. How is he going to do that? As we press on, I think we’ll see the answer to that question.
Lesson Number One: See Jesus, not the Signs
Now, let’s take a deep breath and ask the question you may have been wondering about. What’s the lesson we’ve seen so far, concerning God’s signs and our faith? The first lesson, folks, is that true faith sees Jesus, not the signs. True faith is Jesus-oriented (like the Samaritans), not signs-oriented (like the Jews and Galileans). Now, let’s see how this pans out as Jesus enters Galilee. Let’s see if he breaks through the misplaced faith of these Galileans.
Lesson Number Two (With Not a Little Misery)
Look again with me at verse 46—
46 So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at
Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had
come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son,
for he was at the point of death.
So, that’s the scene we’re looking at. Jesus has made himself a reputation. He made water into wine in that very region. Then, as people from Galilee were making their way back from the Passover festival, they came back with the stories of Jesus’s miracles in Jerusalem. Jesus is popular, folks.
Now, in verse 46, we learn of “an official whose son was ill”. Verse 47 tells us that “he was at the point of death”. If you’ve ever been there, folks, as a father or mother, then you know this man’s desperation. There isn’t a love that’s comparable to a parent’s love for their children. It’ll drive you to do the craziest things. When I worked with folks in drug and alcohol recovery, I found that a common reason why a person would give up a lifetime of drug use is their children. “I’ve been running drugs, drinking alcohol, my whole life—knowing it was wrong. I just don’t know any other life. I don’t know how to be sober, healthy, loving. But when my first child was born, and those eyes were looking up at me, I knew I needed to find a way.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way, folks.
This man had a will. It was for his son—his dying son. Verse 46 tells us he was an “official”. The Greek word, there, is vague enough that we really can’t discern much about him. What is fair to assume, however, is that this man had resources. Presumably, he may have already tried the town’s doctor. He already tried the home remedies. He had tried everything. That’s what you do before getting desperate and going to the doctor, right? You first need to get desperate, to exhaust all other remedies. This man, presumably having exhausted his resources, comes to Jesus as his son had reached the point of death. He asks Jesus, “come down and heal my son!”—meaning, “Come down the mountain, down to Capernaum where my son lay ill. If you come, perhaps you’ll be able to heal him!”.
What does Jesus say to him? Verse 48, “unless you see signs and wonders you will never believe”.
Isn’t that something? Jesus sees something in this man, at this moment, that is very reminiscent of the Jews’ sign- oriented faith. This man is relying on the signs he and others had seen Jesus perform. He’s not looking through the signs to Jesus.
But Jesus isn’t only referring to the man in that statement. Our English doesn’t all us to see it, unless your speaking with a southern drawl (which the ESV doesn’t, sadly). More properly, it should be translated “unless ya’ll see signs… ya’ll will never believe”. He’s referring to “you”, plural, there— referring to the official and all the Galileans around him. This is a rebuke, folks. I half wonder if Jesus is saying “unless you see signs”—it’s plural there, meaning—“unless you see signs, and more signs, and more signs, and more signs, you’ll never believe”. That’s how signs-oriented faith works. Signs-oriented faith is always going to be seeking more signs, never to be satisfied. It’ll never be content, secure, happy. “Just one more sign, and then I’ll believe”.
Now, ignoring Jesus’s statement, the official pleads with Jesus one more time to come with him. “Do one of those miracles we’ve all seen you do.” What does Jesus do? He gives the man a cross- roads. He’s going to give the man a choice to choose between Jesus’s signs, or Jesus’s word. Verse 50—
50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.”
That’s it. One statement. One word. “Your son will live”. Let me ask you—is that enough for you? Is that enough? Four simple words—that’s all you get from Jesus, when you are pleading to him for life. “Your son will live”. The man had no ability to verify what Jesus said. All he had was Jesus’s word.
Think of the faith it must have taken for this man to physically calm his spirits, and say “ok, I’m going to walk away from Jesus, now. He told me to go. He told me my son will live. I’m leaving now. I’m going to walk away from the only person who can save my son”.
You know, you just made the long journey up the mountain to meet Jesus, hoping Jesus would accompany you on the way back. That’s your only hope, right? But no, you’re returning empty-handed. It’s a long walk home—a walk of silence, and the only thing standing between despair and hope is faith in Jesus’s word. No sign, no miracle, no confirmation—just his word. Is it enough?
Is it? Perhaps your plagued with guilt—is Jesus’s word of forgiveness enough? Or, perhaps it’s loneliness. Is Jesus’s word and blessings enough? “Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand”. It’s a blood-bought promise for God’s people. Is it enough?
Continue reading, verse 50—“The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” He believed, folks. That’s a Jesus-oriented faith, right there. The entire walk back was a walk of thinking about nothing other than the man Jesus—“He spoke the words, could he possibly be capable of this? Could he heal my son from miles away? If he can, who is he?”
Folks, by not coming with the man, Jesus forced these questions, these considerations, upon this man. Jesus forced this man to believe not visible signs, but the very words and person of Jesus.
Isn’t that the point? If you remove signs and miracles from the equation, all you have is Jesus and his word. That’s all you have. You can’t be distracted by the glory of a miracle. You have Jesus, his word, and your soul—and, the only thing that could go wrong in that equation is if your soul would say “Jesus is not enough”. Again, this is all about seeing the glory of a Jesus-oriented faith over against a sign-oriented faith. We’re seeing that first lesson come through the story again, aren’t we? We must see and desire Jesus, not the signs.
What about the second lesson? I said there was a second lesson coming, what is it? Think about the man’s situation, for a second. His son was dying. He had absolutely no control over the situation, at all. He was desperate. Did he have a choice, on whether to believe Jesus or not?
In some ways, I think he did. He could have argued with Jesus. “No, Jesus! You have to come! I’m not leaving your side until you walk with me and heal my son!” He could have done that. Or, he could have said in utter disbelief, “forget you, Jesus”. But I think there’s something about the man’s desperation and utter lack of control in this situation that led him to acknowledge that if he is to have any hope, it must be in the man Jesus and his word. “Whatever you say Jesus, I’ll do it”. It’s a desperate soul—and, that’s the second lesson. Yes, we need a Jesus-oriented faith over against a
signs-oriented faith. Although, we won’t ever desire Jesus until we’re desperate enough for him.
This man had nowhere else to turn. He couldn’t bargain with Jesus—“give me a sign my son will live, and then I’ll leave”. This man was miserable, helpless, destitute. That’s how Jesus breaks through our stubborn, sign-seeking, bargaining souls. He makes us aware of our misery, and that he himself is our only hope.
Folks, if you’re looking for a sign from God—of his love and care, his protection, whatever it may be—could I suggest to you that you’re not actually desperate enough to really receive him yet? Truly desperate people don’t look for signs. Signs are a way to keep control—“I’m going to keep holding onto this misery, this sin, until you show me a sign, God!”. That’s the problem with sign-oriented faith.
If you’re truly desperate—if you truly know the misery that you’re in as a sinner under God’s wrath—you’ll behold God in his word and say “I want no more of this misery. I want no more of my sin or this world’s pain, or this guilty conscience.” You’ll say to God with a sense of urgency, “your word is enough, your grace is enough. I must believe your word, repent, and rest in your grace right now, lest I perish in guilt and misery”. That’s a Jesus-oriented faith. It’s urgent. It doesn’t wait for—much less demand—signs from heaven. It takes God at God’s word, and says “yes!”.
Now, to be clear, Jesus has given us a host of signs—a host of blessings—of his grace. I don’t want to be bashing the idea of signs entirely, this morning. Yes, he’s given us his word in the Bible. He’s given us his Spirit. He’s given us his sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—which are visible signs of his grace. Jesus has given us spiritual fruit, the fruit of the Spirit. That’s a sort of sign that God is working in you. Jesus has given us his church, his body to be another sort of sign of his salvation and love. Even more—Jesus really does answer our prayers. Is it not encouraging to your soul when you see him answer prayers? But through it all, are you miserable enough in your sin and in this cursed world to say “Jesus and his promises are enough”? That’s the question this is confronting us with. “Go, your son will live”—will you trust that word and go in faith and repentance? If your sin and sorrows make you miserable enough, you will.
So, the two lessons so far—(1) True faith sees Jesus, not the signs. (2) True faith is too miserable with sin and this world’s sorrows, that it can’t be distracted by the signs. Part of faith is acknowledging our misery outside of Christ, folks, and turning to him for forgiveness and help. That’s what compels sinners to go empty-handed to Jesus, for Jesus in all his saving power.
Lesson Number Three (We Must See the Signs)
Now, let’s consider the third lesson—and I’ll just state it up front for us before looking at the story. True faith must really and truly see the signs, and worship. That’s what happens in this story, isn’t it? The man returns after already believing in Jesus’s word, and he discovers that his son was healed at the exact moment of the day when Jesus spoke the words. What happens? Verse 53, “and he himself believed, and all his household”. He had already believed Jesus’s word in verse 50. That’s what the story says: “The man believed the word Jesus spoke to him and went on his way”. Then, he discovers the boy, verse 53, “and he believed, and all his household”. So this time, he really believed, as he saw the sign fulfilled exactly as Jesus had spoken. His son was well.
Now, you might be thinking “Peder, you’re contradicting yourself”. The first lesson was that we must see Jesus, not the signs. Now, the third lesson is “we must see the signs”. It’s funny how this works, isn’t it? Jesus rebukes people for looking at the signs, and yet he gives the signs so that we would look at them. He gives the signs, to quote a verse later in John, “in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ… and … have life in his name” (20:31). That’s what the signs are for! Jesus did the signs so that we would believe. So, we must see them as they’re written down for us in Scripture, and they ought to drive us to worship Jesus. The signs show forth is power—he turns water into festive, joy-filled wine. He heals a sick boy from miles away. Those are all telling us about him, and his salvation. His salvation is like a banquet of joy. His saving power is not restrained by spatial limitations. Behold the signs, and so behold Christ.
That’s true faith in Jesus, folks. (1) True faith sees Jesus, not the signs. (2) True faith is too miserable with sin and this world’s sorrows, that it can’t be distracted by the sign. (3) Truth faith sees the signs,and worships Jesus.
Are you Miserable Enough?
So, here’s the question—are you miserable enough to take Jesus at his word, and receive Jesus and all his promises by faith, to be satisfied? Are you at that point, folks, to be so miserable and shaken by your sin and sorrows that God’s simple word is enough—even when he tells you that in Christ, you’re forgiven, accepted, protected, and provided for? Let me close with the famous words from Hebrews—
1 faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the
people of old received their commendation. (Hebrews 11:1–2)