In what way are you safe? In what way are you not?
For some, safe means a total absence of danger.
For others, safe is merely an acceptable absence of danger.
For others, safe describes the runner who’s not out at first or the way you sometimes drive.
Distinctions like this come up, in the world, all the time, and we understand them when they do.
But in the Church, we’re afraid to distinguish between, for example, temporal safety and eternal life.
I don’t mean always—but sometimes, we’d rather not offend the sensibilities of the heathen, whether family or not, and so we remain silent when we should speak or we stay home when we should go.
It shouldn’t be this way, but we like to play it safe.
Christians have to be prepared to make distinctions, otherwise, someone will ask, “What does this mean?” or “What do you believe?” and we won’t know. Or worse yet, we’ll know—and we’ll choose not to answer.
Here’s an example of a distinction we should make.
What does the word until mean?
It means up to—but not after—a certain point.
Until 3pm includes 2:58pm, and it may even mean include 3:05pm, but it never reasonably includes 7pm.
We know what until means.
In Mark chapter ten, Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there [ἕως] until you depart from there” (Mark 10:6). So clearly, you stay there until you leave. Then—you don’t stay there anymore, because you leave.
We know what the word means.
But in the last chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always, [ἕως] until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Here, the same word [ἕως] until can’t mean the same thing as before, or else Jesus won’t be with us after the end of the age, and that’s not right. He’s with us now, until the end, while our consciences need comfort. And He’s with us after the end, too, when we have our lasting peace.
Until means both up to and not including after and up to and including after, and the only way we know the difference is context—what the rest of chapter or verse says.
You don’t need to be able to wax poetic about the nuances of translating prepositions, but you do need to be open to the fact that the same word might mean two different things.
Here’s another example.
We know that “[God] tempts no one” (James 1:13), that how St. James has it.
That’s simple and clear.
But how do you explain it when God tests Abraham, and it says—this is how Moses writes it—“It came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham” (Genesis 22:1, KJV).
The Hebrew word is [נִסָּ֖ה] tempt.
The Lutheran Study Bible has this footnote: “[The] verb is translated ‘tempt’ elsewhere, but that is not the sense here.”
That is the word, but that’s not the sense, meaning, we know God tempts no one even though we also know Moses used the word tempt.
So, what does this mean?
Just as with the word until, the word tempt has more depth to it than maybe we’d like.
God gives us a cross to bear, but He doesn’t desire us to sin.
God leads us into temptation, but He doesn’t tempt us.
This is the beauty and endless frustration of language.
The words until, tempt, and even believe all have a depth to them that we readily understand.
And in today’s Gospel lesson, there’s another word that’s used multiple times, that doesn’t mean the same thing each time.
We’re not making this up as we go. We’re not changing things to make them say what we want.
We’re distinguishing between what is and what seems.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we need to make a distinction regarding the word believe.
What did the man believe?
And what did the man and all his household believe?
Because the man believes twice.
He believes the word Jesus speaks to him when Jesus says, “Go; your son [lives]” (John 4:50).
And—after he meets his servants on the way home (cf. John 4:53), he and all his household believe.
The word for believe in those two verses is identical. The man believed—he and all his household.
But what he believed, what that means exactly, is different in each verse.
When Jesus tells the man, “Go; your son [lives]” (John 4:50), “the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way” (John 4:50).
It has to be said—our translation renders it in an odd way. It’s not “your son will live.” Literally, it’s, “Your son lives.”
Regardless, the man believed, but at this point, he believes only that his son would live.
I say “only,” but it is a big deal. Moments ago, for the boy to live was an improbable hope. “He was at the point of death” (John 4:47). The man believes the word Jesus speaks to him, and he leaves with a victory.
A small victory—a fleeting one—because he doesn’t yet believe that he or his son will live forever.
The man believes the word spoken to him, that his son lives, but it could be that he assumes, merely, that his son is stable.
Not dead yet.
Getting better, maybe.
But stable doesn’t necessarily mean good.
Regardless, the man believes only that his boy will die later—not sooner—and that’s a victory.
But, “as he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son [lives]. 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.’ [And] the father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son [lives].’ [Then,] he himself believed, and all his household” (John 4:51-53).
They’ve put it together.
If St. John were only to have written, “And he himself believed,” we could think that the father simply believes the report. He believed the factual report from Jesus about his son, and he believed the factual report from his servants.
But the addition of his household—“He himself believed, and all his household” (John 4:53)—that is a wonderfully telling addition.
The servants that meet him on the road are part of his household. They bring the good news of the boy’s life, but they already believe, in the first sense, that he lives.
That’s why they’re on the road.
That’s what they’re coming to tell him.
The father, though, remembers the hour when Jesus confessed his son’s life. And upon hearing that the hour his boy got better was the same hour that Jesus spoke, the father realizes that something greater than coincidence is at work.
He himself believes not just that his boy is here today and gone tomorrow—no—not merely that.
Now, the father has faith.
He believes that Jesus has power over life and death. He believes that Jesus speaks into existence life and all things. He believes, basically, that Jesus Christ is Lord.
And then he does what every Christian father must, he teaches his household the faith—and they believe as he does.
Of course he does.
And of course they do.
The servants who come from home, who meet the father on the road, for their part, they have nothing to believe if the man doesn’t teach them.
How else would they know?
For the household to believe merely that the son is alive would be meaningless. They bring that message, themselves, to the father. So no—here, the household believes that Jesus Christ is Lord, and they believe because the father believes and has taught them.
They believe the boy will live, and that is a victory.
But they believe, now, because of Jesus, that though he will one day die, yet shall he live again and forever.
More than that, they believe—as our Lord teaches—that everyone who lives and believes in Jesus will never truly die.
The man went to Jesus hoping his boy would live, and he left believing he’d see him alive again.
But the gospel lesson concludes with the man hoping past life and death, trusting beyond what his eyes can see, leaning not on his own understanding, but trusting in Jesus, who speaks and brings life and immortality to light.
This man trusts Jesus to speak so that he and his son and all his household would be safe.
But safe how?
And until when?
And what does that mean?
Believe the Gospel—that Jesus speaks life and peace into existence, forgiving sin and raising the dead—and you’ll know.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Trinity 21 Sermon, 2021
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt