American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
From the first time that God revealed Himself and His purpose to mankind, He did so in love, offering a rebellious people salvation from the just consequence of their sin. Unlike any other in His creation, He gave people the capacity to know Him and have a relationship with Him, offering that relationship to anyone who would simply honor Him as their LORD. Though He revealed Himself to all, His purpose was to bless His people by involving them in His plan as He blessed Abraham for his faith, and promised to Abraham and his progeny that through them a promised Messiah would come, one who would fulfill His plan of salvation.
Of the apostles, John was arguably the one who knew the heart of Jesus the best. John referred to himself several times in his gospel as the Apostle who Jesus loved. Though Jesus loved all of His Apostles and disciples, John’s statements indicate a unique relationship between the two. This uniqueness comes out in the structure and presentation of John’s gospel message as he arranges and presents the events in a way that reveal both the heart of Jesus and the meaning behind His works.
In the first passage of Chapter 4, we find John’s narrative of Jesus’ testimony to a Samaritan woman who He meets at Jacob’s well, outside of the city of Sychar, the site of ancient Shechem. Twice so far in John’s narrative, Jesus has revealed Himself as the Messiah to individuals whom He sought to bring to faith. The first was Nicodemus, who might represent orthodox Israel, the community through whom The Promise would come, and the community who was given the responsibility of bringing the knowledge of God to a lost world. The Jews saw themselves as God’s people, to the exclusion of others, when God’s desire is first that the Jews would, indeed be His people. Hence, Nicodemus is a viable recipient of the gospel. However, when Jesus enters Samaria, He steps away from the orthodoxy, and demonstrates a clear message: the gospel is available to the Samaritans… those who are the descendents of the Jews. This is a concept that the Jews would not understand, and a concept that the Apostles and disciples must learn.
John 4:27. And upon this came his disciples, and marvelled that he talked with the woman: yet no man said, What seekest thou? or, Why talkest thou with her?
Upon their return from Sychar, Jesus’ disciples found Him at the well, speaking with the Samaritan woman. Some of the conversation is recorded by John in the earlier passage, a conversation where Jesus led the woman to understand His identity and purpose. The disciples “marveled” at this sight, as everything in their doctrinal background taught them that to speak with this woman was forbidden. However, none of the disciples challenged Jesus and asked Him how this could be. It is evident that Jesus’ ministry was intended both for the woman, her community, and for the disciples. The disciples would learn that God’s offer of grace is extended to all people, and this was the first lesson. They would not be concerned that Jesus spoke with Nicodemus, but now He was extending a hand of fellowship to a Samaritan, and a woman. Technically she is of Jewish heritage, and practices early Jewish traditions that originate in the Pentateuch. Jesus was extending the gospel gradually away from the Jewish Orthodoxy.
John 4:28-30. The woman then left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men, 29Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? 30Then they went out of the city, and came unto him.
The import of Jesus’ words on the spirit of this woman is revealed by her failure to complete her original purpose for coming to the well. She left her vessel behind as she returned home with a new mission: to tell anyone who would listen that she had met a man that might be the Taheb, the Promised One. She is convinced in her own heart that the Man who is currently at the well with His disciples is, indeed, the Messiah, and her argument was convincing enough that the men accompanied her back to the well to meet this one who had such an impact on the woman. As a small town, it is likely that all of the men knew her, and knew her well enough to perceive the difference in her demeanor. When one meets Jesus for the first time, one’s life s often radically changed as the Holy Spirit convicts us of the folly of our life apart from God and the blessing of the new life with Him. The woman was so excited that she broke with traditional taboos and spoke directly to the men, and by so doing brought them to Jesus where they would have opportunity to hear Him.
John 4:31-34. In the meanwhile his disciples prayed him, saying, Master, eat. 32But he said unto them, I have meat to eat that ye know not of. 33Therefore said the disciples one to another, Hath any man brought him ought to eat? 34Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.
Though the disciples did not say anything about the seemingly inappropriate sight of Jesus speaking with a foreign woman, their thoughts were quite evident to Jesus. In the testimonies Jesus as shared to this point and in those afterword, Jesus would be demonstrating a side of “religion” that they were not familiar with: evangelism of others without regard to social taboos. Consequently, while the woman has gone back to Sychar to bring back others, Jesus uses this respite as a teaching moment.
The purpose of the disciple’s visit was, as far as they understood, to get food to eat, so their offer of food to Jesus was appropriate and expected. It had been a while since they had shared their morning meal, so everyone was hungry. Though they had wondered about the spectacle of Jesus’ speaking with a foreign woman, their priorities were shaped more by their growling stomachs. And though they did not question Jesus’ conversation with the woman, the curiosity in their hearts was obvious to Jesus. Just as Jesus used the water in the well as a metaphor to teach the woman, Jesus used the food that the disciples brought as a metaphor to explain what they had just witnessed.
As the disciples were following Jesus, they were doing so for a very specific purpose. The lack of schools and seminaries necessitated a form of apprentice-style learning where the student would sit under the master with the intent of learning from the lessons that the master would provide. This was similar to the relationship that the disciples had with Jesus. There was an expectation that He would be a teacher who would draw examples from real life and present them to teach them a particular truth. The manner of Jesus response to their statements opened an opportunity for this type of teaching.
They were all hungry, but even though Jesus was also, His opportunity to share the good news of God’s grace with the woman was far more important to Him than eating. Where the disciples are thinking of food as the source of their sustenance, Jesus explained that His true strength and purpose, which is more important to Him than sustenance comes from saving people from the consequence of their sins. His purpose in teaching this lesson is to bring them with Him in this purpose, so that they will understand that they are each called to an important purpose, one in which they will also find a form of strength and sustenance that food does not offer.
John 4:35. Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.
Continuing with the food metaphor, Jesus turns specifically to the meaning behind what they witnessed when they approached the well. Many, if not most of these disciples have turned to Jesus in faith, and are recipients of His grace, and are receiving many of the blessings that come from the work of God in their lives. As they entered into Samaria they are surrounded by a people who do not have that faith, and are even now open to hear the message of God’s grace. This woman was an example of the harvest to which Jesus refers. It is Jesus’ purpose that His disciples would look at those people who are immersed in a secular and pagan world as a field to be harvested much in the same way that one harvests grain in its season. The difference is that the season for harvesting lost souls is always the present season. There is no need to wait four months, or even four days. The harvest that He is engaged in is the same harvest the disciples are to be engaged in
John 4:36-38. And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal: that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together. 37And herein is that saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth. 38I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour: other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours.
There is a necessary sequence of events that must take place in order for the farmer to obtain the harvest. The soil must first be prepared for the seed. If this is not done, the soil may not be able to provide the needed moisture and nutrients to allow the seed to germinate and grow. The seed must then be planted, watered, and cultivated by the farmer. The farmer must wait for the seed to grow into a mature plant, and then at the appropriate point for harvest, the farmer will receive the reward for his work. In their culture it was not uncommon for laborers to be used in the planting and cultivating, and it would be the master, or owner, of the fields who would be engaged in the harvest. This disparity between the one who sews and the one who reaps is a common scenario in the Old Testament text.
Jesus is inviting His disciples to join with Him in the cultivating of the soil, the sowing of the seed and in the harvest. Rarely will one individual be called upon to take part in each step of the process, as some will have a part in the preparation, some will have a part in the planting, some will have a part in the cultivation, and some will have a part in the harvest. Each will receive wages for their work, a reward for their work that is eternal.
John 4:39-41. And many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman, which testified, He told me all that ever I did. 40So when the Samaritans were come unto him, they besought him that he would tarry with them: and he abode there two days. 41And many more believed because of his own word; 42And said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.
If one is going to be an apprentice, studying under the tutelage of the master, the teaching process will often involve a discussion of the work followed by a demonstration of the work. Having established the context of His purpose of bringing the world to faith in God, and explaining the disciple’s part in it, the opportunity for demonstration came when the woman returned to the well, accompanied by “many” of the Samaritans.
It is evident that the woman, upon returning to Sychar with her excited testimony of her experience at the well, planted seeds among the Samaritans. The soil of their spirit had already been prepared by the authority that they gave to the Pentateuch, and their desire to worship God. Upon hearing Jesus’ message of grace, those Samaritans who came to the well were amazed at His teaching, and many recognized Him as the Promised One. Like the woman, they wanted others to meet Jesus, so they invited Him to return with them to Sychar where many more heard Jesus and believed that the Messiah had come.
John 4:43. Now after two days he departed thence, and went into Galilee. 44For Jesus himself testified, that a prophet hath no honour in his own country.
Though a familiar verse to many, there has been no little debate over the identity of “his own country.” However, when the context of the verse is fully explored, we may come to understand the contrast that Jesus was making following the back-to-back experiences of Judea and Samaria. The reception that Jesus received in Samaria is in extreme contrast to the reception that He received in Judea. It was God’s plan that the Messiah would come through Judea, through the house of Jesse, a son of King David. This places “his own country” in and around the City of David, Bethlehem, a small village only a few miles south of Jerusalem. Jesus would continually find rejection among those who were in the best position to recognize Him. Instead, Jesus found success among the people who the Judeans despise. There is no question that Jesus was disappointed that He was unable to bring the Judean Jews to salvation, as He is recorded as crying over Jerusalem.
The most difficult place to find success in sharing the gospel message is often in communities that appear religious. Like the Jerusalem Jews who believed that they were good enough to stand in God’s presence many today call themselves “Christians,” yet have never experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that comes only from a submissive faith in God. These do not perceive of the need of Jesus’ forgiveness in their lives, and turn away from those who may expose their sin and hypocrisy. However, those who have never been exposed to the Christian church often respond far more positively when they easily recognize their sinful state and are seeking resolution.
I once commended a missionary who served in an isolated Alaskan village for his dedication for working in such a difficult culture. He looked at me with a rather astonished appearance and stated, “No, Jack, you serve in the most difficult region for evangelism in the world: The American Bible Belt, the southeastern region of the United States. Though I was surprised by his opinion, what he was stating is consistent with the meaning of this passage: the people who have the most difficulty perceiving the nature of Christian faith are those who are blinded by the tenets of their religion. Even though Jesus is YAHWEH, the Messiah, the Son of God, He was unable to turn the hearts of the religious Jerusalem Jews. Because of their immersion in a religion of their own making, they could not see the Messiah when He was there, speaking in their midst, identifying Himself clearly as the Messiah. Indeed, this Prophet was not honored in His own town. So, Jesus’ ministry took place in Samaria and Galilee.
John 4:45. Then when he was come into Galilee, the Galilaeans received him, having seen all the things that he did at Jerusalem at the feast: for they also went unto the feast.
The next event in the sequence that John presents takes place back in Cana of Galilee. Note, again, the success that Jesus found when He withdrew from the region around Jerusalem. To this point, John has presented the beginning ministry of Jesus, starting at Jerusalem where He shared the good news of the gospel with Nicodemus, a member of the central Jewish Orthodoxy. Sharing with a member of the orthodoxy is exactly what the Apostles and disciples would have expected. Their world view held that they were the “chosen people,” those whom God intended to bless, and those through whom the Messiah would come, and to them, this Messiah would come for them, alone.
However, as John continues, he firmly contrasts this Judeo-centric view with the truth of God’s purpose when Jesus then shared the good news of the gospel with a Samaritan, one who was of Jewish blood, but separated from the Orthodox fellowship. This act drew the attention and curiosity of the disciples, many of whom believed that God was the God of the Jews, alone. They needed to understand the true universality of the gospel: that it is offered to all people. The next event that John records would serve to demonstrate that true universality even more dramatically.
John 4:46. So Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he made the water wine. And there was a certain nobleman, whose son was sick at Capernaum.
At some point when Jesus had entered Cana, one referred to as a “Nobleman” approached Him. Some have tried to equate the event that follows to the healing of the Centurion’s servant. However, this an entirely different event, taking place in a different location, with a quite different person. Because of the word used, the “Nobleman” was a Judean Jew who, most likely, served in the administration of King Herod. Considered as a Jew who worked for the Romans, this individual was more despised and more hated by the Judean Orthodoxy than the Samaritans. Just as the Samaritan woman was shunned by tradition and oral law, the Nobleman would have been shunned by bigotry and hatred. By merely speaking to the Nobleman, Jesus was moving yet further away from the “comfort zone” of the disciples. Also, this event enabled Jesus to address yet another stumbling-block that stands between the lost and their receipt of the gospel message.
John 4:47-48. 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. 48Then said Jesus unto him, Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.
It is clear that the Nobleman had heard about the healing ministry of Jesus. It is doubtful that he was aware of the miracle that had taken place in Cana only a short time ago since so few people witnessed it, and even of those who did, many would have simply assumed that Mary had placed wine in the stone pots. There is no evidence that the knowledge of the miracle at the wedding in Cana was widespread. However, news of Jesus’ healing ministry spread like wildfire, and very early in His ministry Jesus met crowds everywhere He went, crowds of people who came either for the miracle of healing, or to witness such a miracle. Though John does not specifically describe the fruit of Jesus’ healing ministry at this point, it is evident by the knowledge of it by this despised Nobleman.
When the Nobleman encountered Jesus he made a quite reasonable request, asking Jesus to come to Capernaum where his son was terminally ill so that Jesus could heal him. The Nobleman served as an example of many of those who came to Jesus at this point in His ministry. These did not come to learn of Jesus’ teaching, nor did they come with any interest in who Jesus was. They simply wanted to receive something from Him. It is this nature that describes the Nobleman that Jesus speaks to when He states, “You will not believe unless you witness signs and wonders.” Jesus encountered this stumbling-block to faith throughout the years of His ministry, and this stumbling-block continues today. People want the gospel proven to them through an unimpeachable event such as a great sign or wonder, fully ignorant that every live-giving breath they take is a miracle of the LORD.
Knowing the Nobleman’s ignorance and his need for salvation, Jesus was moved with compassion and responded to the Nobleman’s request.
John 4:49. The nobleman saith unto him, Sir, come down ere my child die.
The Nobleman then asked, for at least the second time, that Jesus would come to Capernaum and heal his son. There was simply no means by which the Nobleman could conceive of any other way that Jesus could heal his son. Not only was the Nobleman blinded from faith by his need to witness the miracle, he already had prescribed the methodology by which that miracle must take place.
We may often miss the blessings of God when we place a set of expectations around them. Often in our prayers we will speak to the LORD about a need, and in speaking we prescribe the LORD’s solution. We might state something like, “LORD, please (do this) so that (this) will happen.” In doing so we are prescribing a solution that is limited by our own knowledge and wisdom at best, or we are giving the LORD instructions at worst. When considered in context, the words of the Nobleman were certainly a request, but this second statement was worded in the form of a command. We often treat prayer like a credit card, and the LORD like a magic genie: we make our request by swiping our card, and then expect the LORD to do as we wish.
We should not be too harsh on this ignorant Nobleman, as he had little or no capacity to understand God’s will for his life. However, people who have experienced the transforming power of true faith have the capacity to understand God’s will, and in that understanding can make their requests to the LORD within the context of, and submitted to, His will. It is simply necessary to set aside our own personal desires and submit to the LORD and His will for us.
John 4:50-53. Jesus saith unto him, Go thy way; thy son liveth. And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way. 51And as he was now going down, his servants met him, and told him, saying, Thy son liveth. 52Then inquired he of them the hour when he began to amend. And they said unto him, Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him. 53So 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. 54This is again the second miracle that Jesus did, when he was come out of Judaea into Galilee.
The Nobleman came to Jesus expecting to witness a miracle if he could convince Him to come to Capernaum. However, as the Eternal LORD, Jesus is not limited by either time or space, both of which are physical properties of this universe that He created. Jesus did not need to be present with the Nobleman’s son in order to fulfill His will. Both the Nobleman and the disciples who witnessed this encounter would learn this.
One can only imagine the scene when the Nobleman entered his house to find his son freed from his illness. There was probably a good deal of celebrating mixed with a lot of questions. When the Nobleman explained that he went to Cana to bring Jesus to his son, Jesus was able to heal the child by simply willing it so. Having witnessed the miracle, the entire household came to believe that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, the Promised One.
When we observe the progression of miraculous events as presented by the writer of the Gospel of John we may note that as each event took place, Jesus was ministering to those who were continually further from the center of Jewish religious culture. The next event that John will present involves the healing of one who was considered untouchable and unclean, a Jewish man who was forbidden to enter the Temple. We might be reminded of Jesus’ final message to the disciples immediately prior to His ascension:
Acts 1:8. You shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
How do we follow the example of Jesus’ ministry as we join Him in His mission of grace? God's plan is that His grace is offered to all people, so we have no choice but to go to all people. Jesus describes a model of sharing this good news with four distinct groups of people:
1. Jerusalem. This is where you live. Jerusalem starts in your own home, your own family. As Jesus stated, this is the place where you may be least honored. Parents are morally responsible for the spiritual welfare of their children. It is not the responsibility of the church to bring our children to salvation. It is not the responsibility of the church to provide the spiritual nurturing of our children. There is no scriptural basis for such a thought. Scripture is clear that God's plan is that parents lead their own children to faith.
2. Judea. This is where you commute. This is the community of people with whom you interact on a regular basis, your social community. Most of the people you meet in the community are still destined for an eternity separated from God. God has called on every believer to be active in the business of making disciples in their local community. Those faithful who live in the community, led by the power of the Holy Spirit, are the most effective witnesses for God. If every believer was faithful to this mission, everyone in the community would see and hear the truth and many more would be saved.
3. Samaria. This is the area within the geography of your community, but outside of your comfort zone, your alienated community. Many people are surrounded by Christians, but never experience their love. When Christians embrace one another and exclude those outside of their cultural comfort zone, the church becomes a separate community in the same way that Judea separated itself from Samaria. The barrier between people of faith and their local Samaria is simply a stronghold of evil that is empowered by pride, ignorance, and bigotry, all unholy spirits. The barrier that stands in front of Samaria can be toppled when we put away those sins of pride and bigotry and develop relationships among the Samarian community. When this takes place the barriers of ignorance fall and love flows.
4. Uttermost parts of the earth. This is the area outside of the geography of your community, the global community. Reaching people outside of your community can be difficult and can require a significant sacrifice. This was a daunting task for the ancients who could travel only a few miles in a day. Those days are long over. Using the capabilities of modern communication and transportation, faithful Christians, many finding support from other groups of Christians, have worked to take the message of grace to almost every area of the earth. However, the earth is a pretty big place, and communities have grown at a far greater pace than Christianity has successfully reached. There are hundreds of people groups who have never met a Christian. There are hundreds of once faithful communities that have long ago forgotten God's grace. There are pockets of unbelievers in every area of the world, some surrounded by Christian communities that are all but silent. Even now we have an opportunity to travel to unchurched people groups with a singular, holy, purpose: to share the love of God. Ministry to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria is an individual task that each Christian participates in within their community. Unlike community ministry, work outside of that community is a group effort. When we send one of our own on a mission outside of our community, they represent our community, and they depend upon our support so that the mission can be accomplished. When we make the mission possible by our own sacrifice, we become a vital part of that missionary effort. Consequently, a mission to the "uttermost parts of the earth" involves two people groups: those who God calls to go, and those who God calls to support them.
Note that Jesus' command was not that some people go to Jerusalem, some to Judea, some to Samaria, and some to the Uttermost. The grammar of the sentence is clear: those whom He calls will find obedience when they are sharing God's love actively in all of these areas, and doing so is not a daunting task at all. Sharing God's love in these areas is simply a matter of identifying the barriers to our obedience, and calling upon the power of the Holy Spirit to break down those walls.
Jesus clearly demonstrated to us His will that all people would be saved from the just consequences of their sin by turning to Him in faith. If we are to join Jesus in His purpose, we must be willing to love all people without any regard to the value that this world culture places on them. God values every individual greater than anything else in creation, and those who have professed faith and obedience to Him should do the same. Once we find a means to love others as God does, we will find the means to share that love across any barriers that this world constructs. This is God’s purpose for all people of faith, for Jesus is the Savior of all.