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In response to a royal official’s plea that Jesus come heal his son, Jesus responds:

Unless you (people) see signs and wonders, you (simply) will not believe. - John 4:48 NASB

Why did Jesus respond in this way to the official? Was Jesus expecting the official to believe in Him without the healing of his son, or was He referring to something else?

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This is the best explanation I've found. Jesus' response in 5:48 was primarily to the disciples. The official believing what Jesus said and heading back home showed superior faith.

The immediate response of Jesus is remarkable in the context. ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe’ (iv. 48). John does not inform us what prompted this abrupt rebuke. On the surface it would seem that the man had exercised faith to take the trouble to urge Jesus to go to his son. What then was the point of Jesus’ remark? When considered as a part of the whole purpose of the gospel it becomes intelligible. The connection between faith and signs is part of the warp and woof of the gospel, but John is concerned to record our Lord’s distinction between faith based on mere wonder working and faith based on an essential spiritual understanding of the sign. It is as if Jesus had said to the man, Is your faith really of the kind which can exist without any props? The man’s answer is the cry of a parent’s aching heart, but when Jesus assured him that the son would live John records that the man believed (iv. 50). When he returned home and discovered that the healing happened simultaneously with Jesus’ command, not only he but his whole ‘ household believed. In this sign, therefore, is seen a definite extension of faith. The whole incident becomes an incentive to faith on the basis of Jesus’ word of power, but without reliance on any external attestations. Such a faith is deeper than that of the disciples’ faith in ii. 11, which was based on what they themselves had seen. -- Donald Guthrie, “The Importance of Signs in the Fourth Gospel,” Vox Evangelica 5 (1967): 74-75.

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Note that Jesus was not specifically talking about the official but about the Jews in general in John 4:48

Unless you [people] see signs and wonders, you [people simply] will not believe.

To balance this, we also have John 10:38

But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father."

Paul expressed a similar sentiment in 1 Corinthians 1:22

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,

Jesus point can be found in John 20:29

Then Jesus told him [Thomas], "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

Was Jesus expecting the official to believe in Him without the healing of his son?

I don't think so, at least not as a matter of expectation.

When the official heard John 4:

50a “Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.”

He believed before seeing the result:

50b The man took Jesus at his word and departed.

And his household was blessed:

53Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.

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Unless you (people) see signs and wonders, you (simply) will not believe. - John 4:48 NASB

Jesus' statement seems more wistful than harsh, more longing than expectation. His words hang like a cloud over this story. The man in this account believes in Jesus' words that his son will live. When his son does in fact recuperate, not only he but his whole household also come to believe.

Despite the happy ending, one wonders whether the man would have continued to believe had his son not recovered. This account and Jesus' statement bring to mind the parable of the seeds that were sown in rocky soil:

The one sown with seed on the rocky places, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution occurs because of the word, immediately he falls away. —Matthew 13:20-21

The significance of Jesus's statement may lie in what it reveals about human beings in general, and believers in particular. Perhaps it is less about his expectations of us and more about our expectations of God.

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Lets try to keep the analysis of the aforementioned verse in the context of the overall story of the Healing a Nobleman’s Son discussed in John 4:46-54

John 4:46-54 (NASB1995)

Healing a Nobleman’s Son

**46 Therefore He came again to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water wine.

And there was a royal official whose son was sick at Capernaum.

47 When he heard that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, he went to Him and was imploring Him to come down and heal his son; for he was at the point of death.

48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see [a]signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.”

49 The royal official said to Him, “[b]Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son lives.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started off. 51 As he was now going down, his slaves met him, saying that his [c]son was living. 52 So he inquired of them the hour when he began to get better. Then they said to him, “Yesterday at the [d]seventh hour the fever left him.” 53 So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives”; and he himself believed and his whole household. 54 This is again a second [e]sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee.

It is important to keep in mind that the John 4:46 bible verse emphasizes that He returned to Cana of Galilee where he conducted the miraculous sign of turning water into wine. The next verses state that there was a royal official heard that Jesus Christ was in Galilee. The royal official's son was sick, and he went to Jesus Christ in order to ask Him to heal his son. Therefore, based on circumstantial evidence it is very likely that the initial reason for the royal official willingness to seek Jesus Christ's help to heal his son was because the royal official had known about the miraculously sign of turning water into wine by Jesus Christ in Cana of Galilee.

Therefore, it is likely that Jesus Christ was sort of cynically saying that people(i.e, humanity in general) only believe when they see signs and wonders.

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