John 4:43-54 (NRSVCE)
The royal official was not sure Jesus was who he claimed to be. He wasn’t sure of anything. He was merely a father, desperately reaching for anything that might bring hope for his son. He goes to Jesus not knowing Jesus even could heal him. He had just heard Jesus had healed people, and is taking a shot. Jesus actually chastises him! Why do you need such a sign in order to believe? You should believe without the need for signs! But notice that Jesus doesn’t just leave it there. Jesus performs the sign anyway, because he knows it will make the man and his whole household believe.
There’s an interesting parallel between this story and a story that comes at the end of John’s Gospel: the story of “Doubting Thomas.” In John 20:24-31, Thomas is unable to believe that Jesus has risen “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.” Thomas is not indignant here. He’s just a stubborn old coot. Remember that he was one of Jesus’ disciples—one of the Twelve. He loved Jesus just as the others did, and followed Jesus throughout his ministry. He wants to believe, as they do. But just like the royal official, he couldn’t bring himself to believe. He needed a sign.
And Jesus gave it to him. Jesus appeared, and Thomas placed his fingers in Jesus’ hands, and his hand in Jesus’ side. Jesus once again says, just as he did to the royal official, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But he gave the sign anyway. And because Jesus gave Thomas that sign, Thomas was able to make the ultimate proclamation, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus is showing that though he wants us to be able to believe without the need for signs, without the need for miracles, he knows that is not always going to happen. He knows that sometimes, in our weakness, we will need signs. And he shows that he is there to meet us where we are. He will provide that sign for us, because what he cares about most of all is not whether or not we needed the sign. What he desires is us. He wants us to believe. Full stop.
These are two of my favorite passages in the Gospels for that reason. I fell away from the faith for a long time. I was quite hostile to it. My doubt took over my life. But Jesus promises that he will be there to help us overcome that doubt. So long as we seek him in earnest, so long as we have the desire to believe, as the royal official and Thomas did, Jesus will provide what we need. Like a shepherd he will lead us through the narrow gate to greener pastures. He will provide a sign to guide our way.