In John 4, a royal official comes to Jesus. His son has a serious fever and is at the point of death. We learn three things about this man that are encouraging for small-town pastors.
A Man With No Name
First, he’s a man with no name. Of course, he had a name while he was living, but we’re never told what it was. He’s anonymous, like the Samaritan woman in the passage just before this one. Both are relatively minor characters. They appear and disappear without further mention. Their importance lies chiefly in what they show us about Jesus.
The same is true for small-town pastors. Most of us aren’t known very far beyond the boundaries of our town. And, like the vast majority of the people all around us, our names will never appear in any history books. I realized recently that I can’t name all of my own great-grandparents. They’re only three generations back, I wouldn’t be here without them, and I don’t even know their names. Soon after this realization struck me, I began to wonder whether all my great-grandchildren will know my name. Of course, the answer is: probably not.
We’re all minor characters in a larger story. We’re unnamed, anonymous even to our own descendants. We come on stage and soon depart. Our lives count mainly for what they show others about Jesus. Strikingly, in this story it’s the royal official’s need that displays Jesus’ worth. Most small-town pastors I know feel weak and needy a good amount of the time, and we see plenty of weakness in our churches. We often work hard to minimize or mask our weaknesses. But it’s precisely the grave illness of this man’s son, and his inability to do anything about it, that puts Jesus’ greatness on display.
A Man With One Plan
We’re not told what other treatments the royal official has attempted for his son, or whose help he’s sought. But clearly, he’s desperate. When he hears that Jesus is in Galilee, he goes to him – and that’s a big deal. The distance between Capernaum (where the official lives) and Cana (where Jesus is) is about a day’s journey, along a road that climbs 1,350 feet. This means the official is planning to leave the side of his dying child for at least two days (one there, one back). What could possibly compel him to do that?
The answer is: a blend of desperation (nothing else is working) and confidence (Jesus can help). By leaving his son in order to come to Jesus, the official puts all his eggs in one basket. He doesn’t send someone else in his stead so that he can stay home or search for help elsewhere. This seems to demonstrate at least some measure of faith in Jesus. Though Jesus offers a rebuke of the sign-dependent faith of the official’s generation (v 48), the official himself doggedly persists in his request that Jesus return home with him to heal his son (v 49). In fact, he seems to grow in the content and nature of his faith throughout the unfolding events (v 53). The official has just one plan (bring Jesus back) and he’s sticking with it. He’s all in.
Small-town pastors know a thing or two about limited options. We often lack resources that are more plentiful in other places. Where we are, there are fewer people and fewer funds. There simply aren’t as many opportunities to trust in great music, big crowds, new visitors, or growing budgets as our markers of success. John Hindley, a church planter and pastor in rural England, shares that during a tough time in his ministry he wasn’t sure whether the gospel was working. But because he was convinced that nothing else would work, he stuck with the gospel! God in his wisdom helps small-town pastors to be men with one plan (the gospel) by removing all viable alternatives. We stick with Jesus because we know nothing else will work.
The royal official’s fervent hope is to get Jesus into the presence of his fevered son. But what Jesus gives this man is different from what he came to get.
A Man With One Word
Jesus says to the royal official, “Go, your son will live” (v 50). That’s it! Jesus doesn’t plan to go to Capernaum. He just speaks this word. Is it enough for the official? Stunningly, it is. "The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way” (v 50). He banks everything on the truth and power of Jesus’ word. He has no proof that it’s true (he certainly can’t call home to find out). He simply has to trudge those long miles back to Capernaum. His departure from Jesus is as much an act of faith as his coming to Jesus. He leaves because he believes.
On his way home, he comes to see the most amazing thing about Jesus’ word. “As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, ‘Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.’ The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live’ ” (vv 51-53). These verses demonstrate the staggering power of the word Jesus spoke. They show that Jesus wasn’t wrong when he said, “Your son will live.” But far more than that, they demonstrate that Jesus wasn’t simply describing what would happen. Because the son’s fever broke at the very time when Jesus spoke, it’s clear that Jesus’ word was causing (not merely describing) the healing. This is no merely human word. A word that calls reality into being is a divine word (Genesis 1:3).
The royal official understands that something extraordinary has happened. “And he himself believed, and all his household” (v 53). This is the point of the story. It’s not ultimately about the official or his son, but about Jesus, whose powerful, creative word conquers death and supernaturally gives life (v 54 says this miracle was a sign pointing to Jesus).
There’s a rich invitation here for small-town pastors. Does it seem impossible to us that God could ever do something big in our tiny towns? When we look at our churches, do we see only dying congregations? This story of the royal official calls us to behold the glory of Jesus, the one who calls life into being through his word. The official was happy to have Jesus’ word, because he believed it. We too are invited to treasure Jesus’ word, to be fully assured of its power. This passage is a freeing reminder for small-town pastors that we don’t need a great name. Instead, we’re invited to come to Jesus with all our weaknesses and stand amazed as his powerful word calls life out of death in our small churches and forgotten towns.
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Stephen Witmer is the lead pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, MA. He's a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the University of Cambridge, and serves on the steering committee of the Gospel Coalition New England. He is the author of “A Big Gospel in Small Places” which will be released November 5th. He and his wife Emma have two sons and one daughter.