So Jesus came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. 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 Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. 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.” And he himself believed, and all his household. This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee (John 4:43-54).
There is a letter written around AD 56, about 25 years after the event recorded here in John 4:43-54. It is an urgent note sent from a woman named Miriam to a certain Eleazar, who is in Alexandria, Egypt, on what appears to be some sort of short-term diplomatic assignment. The letter is about Joseph, their son. Here is a translation of the text:
My Dear Eleazar, Oh, how I wish you were back here in Capernaum. I don’t know what to say or how to say this. Protius, our faithful servant, has agreed to rush this note to you. And I know that you won’t mind, for I am sparing no expense. But he has been instructed to tell you nothing of the details of the tragedy until after you read this.
Our dear son Joseph has died. Protius knows of the circumstances of his death better than I. He was there with Joseph when what has been called an “accident” occurred. From what I have been able to learn it appears that Joseph was caught in the midst of a violent altercation in Jerusalem between some Jewish zealots—when will our people ever learn?—and some of the Procurator Felix’s guards. The Romans were ruthless—cutting down many who had no part in the insurrection. How awful, Eleazar. It all seems so random, so useless! Protius was with Joseph and has assured us that Joseph died quickly of a head injury. He was pushed off a wall or something. I don’t want to think about that. To think of you reading this, Eleazar. . . I’m so sorry you had to hear such news in this way. What else was I to do? I do so wish that you were in my arms right now.
I need to write, Eleazar. If I don’t, I’ll go mad or worse.
Of course, Pastor Alexander was here immediately when he heard the news. And the response of the churches in Capernaum has been overwhelming. As you know, it has been 25 years since our Lord’s wonderful work for little Joseph. We knew that being healed didn’t make him immortal, but . . . I just don’t know. Pastor says that already many who had been healed of various sicknesses during Jesus ministry among us have died of other sicknesses, accidents, and even of old age. He says that they were healed during our Lord’s ministry as a sign of his power over sin and death. That we should trust Jesus. That one day we will all rise from the dead. That our dear Joseph lives with Jesus now and will be resurrected from the dead at the last day. He says that we must be strong. I can’t be strong now, Eleazar. I need you here. I believe what our Pastor says. I believe the Lord’s words, but I feel dead and even sometimes angry. Why would the Lord heal him just so he could die like this? I don’t understand. Do return soon. I’m trying hard to be an example, but sometimes I just don’t have it in me.
I will write more, dear, because I have to do something. Every time I stop and relax a little I remember little Joseph and how happy and proud he made you. I remember when he was rescued by Jesus from that deathly fever and how it changed your life. How it changed our whole family’s life. What a day that was. And now this. I think it was Job who said, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be his name,” or something like that. It’s easy to say, but difficult to accept. Maybe impossible to understand.
The reason I remembered this saying was Pastor Alexander reminded me of what Job said to his unfaithful wife. He wasn’t suggesting that I was like her, but Job’s words to her, as difficult as they were, were words of faith. Job said something like, “Shall we accept only good things from God and not also calamity.” Pastor Alexander said we received the gift of our son Joseph for 35 years when he should have died when he was 5. Now, the Lord has called him home and we should accept that. I want to, Eleazar. Oh, the Lord knows I want to, but I don’t understand.
Elder Philip also visited just an hour or so ago. He said something that I think you should hear. I’m sure you and he will talk when you return. All of your fellow elders have called and expressed their sorrow and willingness to help. I know that you and I have comforted others since you have been an elder, Eleazar. Now we will need the comfort and service of God’s people ourselves. I’ve never really thought about being on the other end of that ministry. What can anyone do or say to take away this emptiness I feel?
Maybe what Philip said will help. I want you to think about it on the way home so you can help me understand and accept it. So I’ll write it out as best as I can recall. He reminded me that we will see Joseph again in heaven and at the last day. Everyone’s been saying that. But he said something a little different which I think you should think about. I believe it may help. He related our present distress back to the time when we traveled to Cana to get an audience with Jesus. I would never have thought about this particular detail in relation to what has happened in the last day or so, but it seems so relevant now.
Remember, how you implored Jesus to come to our house? I’ll never forget what Jesus said. He looked around at everyone there and rebuked us, “You people won’t believe unless you see miracles and wonders.” At first, I thought that was cruel and I wondered whether we had made a big mistake traveling to Cana to see this man. But you kept right on petitioning him. You took that as a challenge. You believed in him even though he rebuked you.
Philip reminded me how Pastor Alexander explained Jesus’ words to us in church. We learned that Jesus was intent that his disciples not simply follow him because he could turn stones into bread and heal all their worldly illnesses. He wanted followers who would believe his word, even if they did not see and experience what he promised immediately. And you did just that, Eleazar.
You had insisted that he come to Capernaum. So when Jesus said to you, “Go your way,” I almost fainted. Who did he think he was? But then he said, “Your son will live.” When you thanked him and turned to leave, I was skeptical. I wanted to say to Jesus, “does that mean you are coming with us?” But Jesus had already turned away and was talking to someone else. I was bewildered. But you, dear, you trusted in him. You believed what he said. His word was enough, even though you could not see Joseph or know for sure that he was going to be healed. Then we had that dreadful day-long trip back to Capernaum ahead of us. I’ll never forget those long hours we spent on the road back to Joseph. You said, “I believe what he said, Miriam. Wait and see.”
Then, when we were still hours away, our faithful servants—Annius, Marcellus, and Salome—were ahead of us. Running to tell us that Joseph was well. You asked them when the fever broke and they said it that it was at the 7th hour the day before. They, of course, didn’t know that that was exactly when Jesus said, “Your son will be well.” But we knew.
Of course, you know these things, dear. How often we have gone over these events. But Elder Philip said that we are now in a similar situation. When he said that I was confused for a moment. I thought maybe he was suggesting that Joseph could be brought back to life from the dead. But that was not what he meant.
Philip said that Jesus has given us his word that those who die believing in him have eternal life. But just as back then, before we heard from the servants, while we were traveling home, all we had was Jesus’ word. We could not see or hear Joseph. We had to trust in Jesus word—just as you did, dear. Do you see? Now, too, we must trust Jesus’ word of promise. Joseph is with Jesus and Joseph will rise again at the Last Day. That’s what Philip said. We’ll have to wait. But this is so much harder, Eleazar. So very much more difficult. We have to wait a good deal longer. And poor Joseph’s body is on its way to Capernaum. This is so much harder. He is not simply sick, but dead. Come home to help me. I believe. I do, but I need you.
One more thing, dear. You know, I’m sure, that we will have to bury Joseph before you return. You won’t be able to make it back in time. But Pastor Alexander would like to have a special assembly and service after you return. But we will bury him as soon as his body arrives. All the house churches in Capernaum are expected to be there. Joseph was important to many people, as you know. Pastor Alexander says that our Lord predicted that tensions would escalate between the Jews and the Romans, and as they do many Christians will suffer and die. This is just the beginning, dear, of great tribulation. I’m frightened and frustrated. Pray for me on your way home. Pray for our daughter-in-law, sweet Mary. She is now a widow. And the little ones are without a father. I can’t even look at them. I don’t know what to say.
I miss you so much, Eleazar, and I have so much to talk with you about. We have a great deal to do when you get home. I can’t do it alone. Do your best, please, to come quickly.
Your loving wife, Miriam.
Of course, this letter is fictional. But it could have been written, and something very much like it was surely expressed by any number of mothers and fathers and husbands and wives who had had one of their loved ones miraculously healed by Jesus. They, like us, have to understand just how those healings functioned as signs—signs to help us believe in the loving purposes of Jesus for us all.
Jeff Meyers is pastor of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.
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