Lessons from John 4

John 4:43-54: A Prophet Without Honor

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast 1-14-07

Introduction:               We are still in chapter 4. Personally I think this chapter should have ended with the story of the Samaritan woman, but I wasn’t around in the 12th century when the chapter divisions were added to Scripture. Verses 43-45 of chapter 4 mark a clear transition from the story of the Samaritans to a healing story in Galilee. It is worth noting that they have long troubled biblical scholars. Raymond Brown says that they “constitute a notorious crux in the Fourth Gospel.” This crux was not invented by modern scholars; it was recognized as early as the 3rd century. The basic problem is that these verses show Jesus moving from Samaria to Galilee where he was warmly welcomed because of the reports of his miracles in Judea. But verse 44 speaks of the proverb that a prophet is without honor in his own country. You may have already seen the problem with this. A prophet is without honor in his own country, but the Galileans received Jesus of Nazareth enthusiastically. Some have speculated that John thought Jesus’ home was Judea rather than Galilee, but elsewhere he refers to Jesus being from Nazareth. Since scholars have been debating this question for over 1500 years, I think it is safe to leave it as a problem, but do note that this is one of those places in John’s Gospel where the transmission and editing of the text produced some difficulties.

No Honor:      It is interesting that the problem centers on a proverbial saying attributed to Jesus that a prophet has no honor in his own country. This is one of the few verses in John that is found almost verbatim in the other three gospels. It is different enough in form to indicate that John did not take it from Mark or Luke. What we have here is a statement that was part of a strong oral tradition known to John and the other evangelists because it described the life of Jesus who was honored more by outsiders than by his own people. It is also a proverb that remains true today. You’ve heard the quip that an expert is someone with a powerpoint presentation who travels more than fifty miles for the meeting. We often dismiss the insights, knowledge, and ideas of those closest to us because we know their flaws.

            Tomorrow is the annual celebration of the work and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We honor King by closing the post offices and sending teen-agers to the mall instead of to school, but we should remember that he was not always honored in America. During his lifetime, the world recognized his courage and vision, but many Americans objected when he received the Noble Prize. Our national leaders today pay homage to his memory now that he belongs to history, but we should remember that in the 1960s the FBI tapped his phone and read his mail. Our government viewed King as a threat. As you listen to the news today about government surveillance, remember that we put laws in place in the 1970s in direct response to what the government did to Dr. King and others who voiced opposition to the policies in Washington. We should also remember that Dr. King was killed by an American, just as Prime Minister Rabin was killed by an Israeli and Gandhi by an Indian. Prophets are not without honor – except in their own country where they tend to get killed.

            Amid all of the frequent references to his great speech “I Have a Dream,” we should also remember King’s commitment to peace and non-violent resistance. In his conviction that violence escalates violence, King was in line with traditional Moravian teaching. Dr. King was one of the many great figures of the 20th century who demonstrated that steadfast commitment to the teachings and example of Christ can move mountains. We should not speak too lightly of following the teaching and example of Jesus, though. Our lesson for today reminds us that a prophet is without honor in his own country. Speaking the truth, even in love, can lead a person to the cross, to the stake, or to the assassin’s bullet. Someone once asked me what the difference between a public theologian and a prophet was. Kathy Otterbourg gave the answer: prophets tend to get killed. I should add that they get killed by those whom they love and serve.

The main part of our lesson today is a healing story.

Read: 4:46-54                       

Signs and Wonders:               A few weeks ago I mentioned that there are seven miracle stories in John. In the other gospels, including those that were not included in the NT, Jesus performs many miracles. In Mark’s gospel, he spends an entire day healing the crowds of people that were brought to him in one village. As Marcus Borg indicates, there is strong evidence that during his lifetime, Jesus’ reputation rested mainly on these miraculous healings. As the priest says in Jesus Christ Superstar, “a trick or two with lepers and the whole crowd’s on its feet.” He cast out demons, which was the first century’s way of describing a cure for mental illness or epilepsy or deafness. There were exciting reports that he made blind people see and enabled the lame to walk. Our lesson for today says that Jesus was already famous because of the miracles he did in Jerusalem, which is a bit curious since the gospel did not narrate any miracles in Jerusalem. Clearly the author expected the reader to know that Jesus had done such things.

            There is no denying that miracles have been important in the history of Christianity, as they have in all religions. Christians today disagree over how much emphasis to place on miracles, though. Since the rise of modern science, many people reject all miracle stories as simply legend or fiction. In the 19th century, liberal biblical scholars looked for natural explanations for the miracles in the Bible. You can still see some of these theories on television. For instance, some writers speculated that the plagues of Egypt in the Old Testament were caused by natural phenomena, such as mud in the Nile. Such clever attempts to make the miracles seem rational ignore the fact that they were important because they were seen as supernatural. In the past, miracles were offered as support for the claims of faith, but today many people do not believe in Jesus or God or the Bible precisely because of the miracles in the Bible. I don’t think we can solve this problem this morning, but I imagine that some of you have struggled with this issue.

            Let me just say that the question of miracles is very complicated. There is the philosophical question of whether miracles are possible at all. Is natural law absolute? There is also an historical question of whether miracle stories can be trusted any more than similar stories today. Beyond that there is the question of whether belief in miracles is necessary for religious faith. Can you be Christian without believing in miracles? Different churches and theologians answer that in different ways. The Moravian Church is not dogmatic on the question of miracles.

            I think it is helpful to know that the relationship between miracles and faith has never been straight forward. Our lesson for today is unusual in John’s gospel because it refers to “signs and wonders” rather than just to signs. It is likely that this phrase was borrowed from the account of the Exodus where God tells Moses that Pharaoh will not believe even if he sees “signs and wonders.” What is the difference between a sign and a wonder? Simply put, a sign points beyond itself and a wonder points to itself. A wonder leaves your mouth agape. Magicians do wonders. Prophets give signs.

Faith:              Before looking at the details of this miracle story, let’s address the relationship between faith and miracles. Clearly, the gospels relate the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his power. The philosopher John Locke, who is considered the founder of modern empiricism, argued that the proof of Jesus’ divinity lay in the miracle accounts, but it is not so simple. Many people witnessed miracles of Jesus without believing in him. They recognized his power, but not the truth of his words.

            Think back on the inventions of the past century that seemed miraculous when they were first introduced but quickly became routine. Electricity is probably the best example of a force that we now control that still seems magical. Think how startled people were with electric lights and motors and wireless radio and telephones. Wonders hold our attention for a while and then lose their effect. Humans on the moon? Seen it. Wonder quickly wears off and cynicism sets in. So it is with miracles. I saw a cartoon of Moses presenting his resume to a search committee that replied, “sure you parted the Red Sea, but what have you done lately?” The trouble with basing faith on miracles is that you will always need another miracle, another wonder, another thrill.

            What is important for our discussion this morning is not whether miracles are possible, but how John deals with the miracles of Jesus in his gospel. In the Gospel of John, miracles are only important as signs of who Jesus is, not as evidence of his power. Many commentators note that Jesus’ statement that “unless you people can see signs and wonders, you never believe” is probably a criticism of those who must have miracles before they will believe. John seems to be saying that belief in miracles is different from faith in Jesus. Wonders, miracles, and supernatural events may dazzle our eyes for a moment, but faith endures. Faith is based in God, not in a display of supernatural power.

The Royal Official’s Son:      The healing story for today took place in Cana and Capernaum, which was the base of Jesus’ ministry in the other canonical gospels. There is a nice geographical touch in the fact that it says that the royal official went down from Capernaum to Cana to speak with Jesus. In fact, the 20 mile journey from Cana to Capernaum is downhill the whole way. Again, we see that John knew Palestinian geography.

            The royal official mentioned probably served in the court of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. It is not clear if the official was a Gentile or a Jew, but it probably does not matter. This story has strong parallels to the healing of the centurion’s son in the synoptic gospels as well as to the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s child. In these three stories, the narrative focuses on Jesus’ ability to heal a child from a distance, but there is also a focus on the faith of a Gentile who believed that Jesus had authority and power to heal from a distance, like a god. There are many differences between the healing story in the other gospels and this one in John in addition to the location, but the basic story remains the same. A person of great authority has a sick child. He has heard about the miracles of Jesus and sends to him for help. Many biblical scholars are convinced that all four versions of this story go back to a single event in the ministry of Jesus that was so dramatic it became part of an oral tradition.

            The stories in the other gospels also took place in Capernaum, but it is only John that says that Jesus himself was in Cana at the time. John makes a direct connection between the miracle of the wine and the healing of the boy. They were the two big miracles outside of Judea. In both stories, Jesus is initially reluctant to do what he has been asked to, but the resulting miracle is greater than expected. These stories are intended to teach us 1) that even persons with secular authority humbled themselves before Jesus; 2) that Jesus could heal without even touching someone; and 3) that prayer does sometimes change reality.

Life:                There is a progression in revelation from the first miracle of Cana, which confirmed to the disciples that Jesus was the one who would preside at the eschatological wedding feast. In this story, the royal official and “his entire household” believed in Jesus. This formula sounds like the book of Acts, where entire households converted to Christianity and were baptized in the name of Jesus. There is no baptism account here, but it is implied since it comes so soon after the baptismal story. John strengthened this theme of the spread of faith by placing this healing story immediately after the long account of the Samaritan woman.

            A second, and probably more important theme, is that Jesus brings life in situations where death is anticipated. In the prologue we read that in the Word brings life. Jesus promised Nicodemus that he could have everlasting life. And here, for the first time, Jesus restored a person to back to life. Jesus tells the royal official simply “your son is going to live.” He will say the same of Lazarus. And that is the message left to the church. This does not meaning that physical healings are to be expected or demanded. True life is a life that triumphs over death, not one that simply delays death.

Conclusion:     We have come to the end of chapter four, which marks the end of the first part of the Gospel of John. Next week we will look at chapter five and note that the action returns to Jerusalem. The next section of John is focused on events connected with Jewish religious festivals and observances: Passover, Succoth, and the Sabbath. We will have another important healing story next week that repeats some of the same themes.

John 4:43-54: A Prophet Without Honor

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast 1-14-07

Introduction:               We are still in chapter 4. Personally I think this chapter should have ended with the story of the Samaritan woman, but I wasn’t around in the 12th century when the chapter divisions were added to Scripture. Verses 43-45 of chapter 4 mark a clear transition from the story of the Samaritans to a healing story in Galilee. It is worth noting that they have long troubled biblical scholars. Raymond Brown says that they “constitute a notorious crux in the Fourth Gospel.” This crux was not invented by modern scholars; it was recognized as early as the 3rd century. The basic problem is that these verses show Jesus moving from Samaria to Galilee where he was warmly welcomed because of the reports of his miracles in Judea. But verse 44 speaks of the proverb that a prophet is without honor in his own country. You may have already seen the problem with this. A prophet is without honor in his own country, but the Galileans received Jesus of Nazareth enthusiastically. Some have speculated that John thought Jesus’ home was Judea rather than Galilee, but elsewhere he refers to Jesus being from Nazareth. Since scholars have been debating this question for over 1500 years, I think it is safe to leave it as a problem, but do note that this is one of those places in John’s Gospel where the transmission and editing of the text produced some difficulties.

No Honor:      It is interesting that the problem centers on a proverbial saying attributed to Jesus that a prophet has no honor in his own country. This is one of the few verses in John that is found almost verbatim in the other three gospels. It is different enough in form to indicate that John did not take it from Mark or Luke. What we have here is a statement that was part of a strong oral tradition known to John and the other evangelists because it described the life of Jesus who was honored more by outsiders than by his own people. It is also a proverb that remains true today. You’ve heard the quip that an expert is someone with a powerpoint presentation who travels more than fifty miles for the meeting. We often dismiss the insights, knowledge, and ideas of those closest to us because we know their flaws.

            Tomorrow is the annual celebration of the work and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We honor King by closing the post offices and sending teen-agers to the mall instead of to school, but we should remember that he was not always honored in America. During his lifetime, the world recognized his courage and vision, but many Americans objected when he received the Noble Prize. Our national leaders today pay homage to his memory now that he belongs to history, but we should remember that in the 1960s the FBI tapped his phone and read his mail. Our government viewed King as a threat. As you listen to the news today about government surveillance, remember that we put laws in place in the 1970s in direct response to what the government did to Dr. King and others who voiced opposition to the policies in Washington. We should also remember that Dr. King was killed by an American, just as Prime Minister Rabin was killed by an Israeli and Gandhi by an Indian. Prophets are not without honor – except in their own country where they tend to get killed.

            Amid all of the frequent references to his great speech “I Have a Dream,” we should also remember King’s commitment to peace and non-violent resistance. In his conviction that violence escalates violence, King was in line with traditional Moravian teaching. Dr. King was one of the many great figures of the 20th century who demonstrated that steadfast commitment to the teachings and example of Christ can move mountains. We should not speak too lightly of following the teaching and example of Jesus, though. Our lesson for today reminds us that a prophet is without honor in his own country. Speaking the truth, even in love, can lead a person to the cross, to the stake, or to the assassin’s bullet. Someone once asked me what the difference between a public theologian and a prophet was. Kathy Otterbourg gave the answer: prophets tend to get killed. I should add that they get killed by those whom they love and serve.

The main part of our lesson today is a healing story.

Read: 4:46-54                       

Signs and Wonders:               A few weeks ago I mentioned that there are seven miracle stories in John. In the other gospels, including those that were not included in the NT, Jesus performs many miracles. In Mark’s gospel, he spends an entire day healing the crowds of people that were brought to him in one village. As Marcus Borg indicates, there is strong evidence that during his lifetime, Jesus’ reputation rested mainly on these miraculous healings. As the priest says in Jesus Christ Superstar, “a trick or two with lepers and the whole crowd’s on its feet.” He cast out demons, which was the first century’s way of describing a cure for mental illness or epilepsy or deafness. There were exciting reports that he made blind people see and enabled the lame to walk. Our lesson for today says that Jesus was already famous because of the miracles he did in Jerusalem, which is a bit curious since the gospel did not narrate any miracles in Jerusalem. Clearly the author expected the reader to know that Jesus had done such things.

            There is no denying that miracles have been important in the history of Christianity, as they have in all religions. Christians today disagree over how much emphasis to place on miracles, though. Since the rise of modern science, many people reject all miracle stories as simply legend or fiction. In the 19th century, liberal biblical scholars looked for natural explanations for the miracles in the Bible. You can still see some of these theories on television. For instance, some writers speculated that the plagues of Egypt in the Old Testament were caused by natural phenomena, such as mud in the Nile. Such clever attempts to make the miracles seem rational ignore the fact that they were important because they were seen as supernatural. In the past, miracles were offered as support for the claims of faith, but today many people do not believe in Jesus or God or the Bible precisely because of the miracles in the Bible. I don’t think we can solve this problem this morning, but I imagine that some of you have struggled with this issue.

            Let me just say that the question of miracles is very complicated. There is the philosophical question of whether miracles are possible at all. Is natural law absolute? There is also an historical question of whether miracle stories can be trusted any more than similar stories today. Beyond that there is the question of whether belief in miracles is necessary for religious faith. Can you be Christian without believing in miracles? Different churches and theologians answer that in different ways. The Moravian Church is not dogmatic on the question of miracles.

            I think it is helpful to know that the relationship between miracles and faith has never been straight forward. Our lesson for today is unusual in John’s gospel because it refers to “signs and wonders” rather than just to signs. It is likely that this phrase was borrowed from the account of the Exodus where God tells Moses that Pharaoh will not believe even if he sees “signs and wonders.” What is the difference between a sign and a wonder? Simply put, a sign points beyond itself and a wonder points to itself. A wonder leaves your mouth agape. Magicians do wonders. Prophets give signs.

Faith:              Before looking at the details of this miracle story, let’s address the relationship between faith and miracles. Clearly, the gospels relate the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his power. The philosopher John Locke, who is considered the founder of modern empiricism, argued that the proof of Jesus’ divinity lay in the miracle accounts, but it is not so simple. Many people witnessed miracles of Jesus without believing in him. They recognized his power, but not the truth of his words.

            Think back on the inventions of the past century that seemed miraculous when they were first introduced but quickly became routine. Electricity is probably the best example of a force that we now control that still seems magical. Think how startled people were with electric lights and motors and wireless radio and telephones. Wonders hold our attention for a while and then lose their effect. Humans on the moon? Seen it. Wonder quickly wears off and cynicism sets in. So it is with miracles. I saw a cartoon of Moses presenting his resume to a search committee that replied, “sure you parted the Red Sea, but what have you done lately?” The trouble with basing faith on miracles is that you will always need another miracle, another wonder, another thrill.

            What is important for our discussion this morning is not whether miracles are possible, but how John deals with the miracles of Jesus in his gospel. In the Gospel of John, miracles are only important as signs of who Jesus is, not as evidence of his power. Many commentators note that Jesus’ statement that “unless you people can see signs and wonders, you never believe” is probably a criticism of those who must have miracles before they will believe. John seems to be saying that belief in miracles is different from faith in Jesus. Wonders, miracles, and supernatural events may dazzle our eyes for a moment, but faith endures. Faith is based in God, not in a display of supernatural power.

The Royal Official’s Son:      The healing story for today took place in Cana and Capernaum, which was the base of Jesus’ ministry in the other canonical gospels. There is a nice geographical touch in the fact that it says that the royal official went down from Capernaum to Cana to speak with Jesus. In fact, the 20 mile journey from Cana to Capernaum is downhill the whole way. Again, we see that John knew Palestinian geography.

            The royal official mentioned probably served in the court of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. It is not clear if the official was a Gentile or a Jew, but it probably does not matter. This story has strong parallels to the healing of the centurion’s son in the synoptic gospels as well as to the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s child. In these three stories, the narrative focuses on Jesus’ ability to heal a child from a distance, but there is also a focus on the faith of a Gentile who believed that Jesus had authority and power to heal from a distance, like a god. There are many differences between the healing story in the other gospels and this one in John in addition to the location, but the basic story remains the same. A person of great authority has a sick child. He has heard about the miracles of Jesus and sends to him for help. Many biblical scholars are convinced that all four versions of this story go back to a single event in the ministry of Jesus that was so dramatic it became part of an oral tradition.

            The stories in the other gospels also took place in Capernaum, but it is only John that says that Jesus himself was in Cana at the time. John makes a direct connection between the miracle of the wine and the healing of the boy. They were the two big miracles outside of Judea. In both stories, Jesus is initially reluctant to do what he has been asked to, but the resulting miracle is greater than expected. These stories are intended to teach us 1) that even persons with secular authority humbled themselves before Jesus; 2) that Jesus could heal without even touching someone; and 3) that prayer does sometimes change reality.

Life:                There is a progression in revelation from the first miracle of Cana, which confirmed to the disciples that Jesus was the one who would preside at the eschatological wedding feast. In this story, the royal official and “his entire household” believed in Jesus. This formula sounds like the book of Acts, where entire households converted to Christianity and were baptized in the name of Jesus. There is no baptism account here, but it is implied since it comes so soon after the baptismal story. John strengthened this theme of the spread of faith by placing this healing story immediately after the long account of the Samaritan woman.

            A second, and probably more important theme, is that Jesus brings life in situations where death is anticipated. In the prologue we read that in the Word brings life. Jesus promised Nicodemus that he could have everlasting life. And here, for the first time, Jesus restored a person to back to life. Jesus tells the royal official simply “your son is going to live.” He will say the same of Lazarus. And that is the message left to the church. This does not meaning that physical healings are to be expected or demanded. True life is a life that triumphs over death, not one that simply delays death.

Conclusion:     We have come to the end of chapter four, which marks the end of the first part of the Gospel of John. Next week we will look at chapter five and note that the action returns to Jerusalem. The next section of John is focused on events connected with Jewish religious festivals and observances: Passover, Succoth, and the Sabbath. We will have another important healing story next week that repeats some of the same themes.

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