After spending a short time in Samaria, Jesus returns to Galilee where he was welcomed by the Galileans (4:45). The journey from Sychar to Cana is about 40 miles, about three or four days journey. We do not know how long Jesus remained in Jerusalem, but this is likely about a week after the encounter with the Samaritan woman. An official from Herod Antipas’ government approaches Jesus in Cana and asks Jesus to heal his son, who is near death in Capernaum.
The Galileans had attended the Passover feast witnesses his sign at the temple and perhaps other miracles. “All that he had done at the feast” seems to imply more activity than just the Temple action, but it is Jesus’s words and actions in the Temple which likely attracted their attention. Galilee has a reputation for rebellion against Rome, in A. D. 6 Judas the Galilean led a movement which refused to pay taxes to Rome. There was a great deal of animosity between the ultra-poor of Galilee and Rome, represented by the Herodian dynasty.
John was very selective in Gospel. When he chooses to tell us about a miracle or sign, it is for a theological reason. In this case, the faith demonstrated by the official in this sign stands in contrast to the crowd of Galileans who welcomed Jesus – they welcomed him but only because he had done miracles and stirred up the Temple aristocracy. The Greek verb δέχομαι (“welcome”) has the sense of being open to another person or idea, perhaps even approving of that idea. For example in Matthew 11:14, Jesus says that if one was willing to accept the idea, John the Baptist was in fact Elijah. We even use the word this way in American English, we can be “open” to ideas in the same way we open our home and offer hospitality.
John knows that later Jesus will be rejected his hometown of Nazareth and in Galilee in general. Usually it is thought that the main reason is this crowd was interested in Jesus is his miracles. But perhaps the Galileans witnessed his Temple action and were interested in him as someone who stirs up trouble in Jerusalem. (Galilee was the 99% in the first century!) The Herod Antipas was not a popular king, The crowd of Galileans may very well have thought that Jesus would continue his protest against wealth and power by pronouncing judgment on this Herodian official who came to beg a healing for his son. The “shock” of the story is that Jesus heals the sick child, but does so in a way that the Galileans do not witness it, despite their preoccupation with seeing a messianic sign.
The point of the signs in John’s gospel is to support the theme for the whole book, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. He has demonstrated that He is the Messiah in a private sign at a wedding and a public sign at the temple. Now He has healed a person in a way which highlights His power – He was not even present for the child to be healed. The story of the gentile’s belief stands in contrast to 5:31-47, the unbelief of the Jews after a similarly spectacular healing. A clue to the point of the miracle is the three-fold repetition of the phrase, “your son lives” (vv. 50, 51, 53). This is balanced by a three-fold repetition of the developing official’s faith (vv. 48, 50, 53). Beasley-Murray compares this to the theological statements in (5:21, 25-26, 28-29), which are also three-fold. In 5:21 Jesus says that the Son can give life to whomever He wants, including the son of this official.
The official who comes to Jesus moves from pragmatic belief in Jesus to a real faith which effects his whole family as a result of this miracle. This stands in contrast to the Galileans who are interested in a sign, but eventually shift to unbelief and eventually antagonism toward Jesus.