I Saw the Sign: The First Sign

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For my personal devotions, I read a Psalm daily along with some chapters out of the New Testament. I’m currently reading through the gospel of John. I enjoy reading the gospels because what better textbook to read for a pastor than reading about the Great Shepherd and see how He treats people and see His interactions with His followers. The book of John is full of great golden nuggets. I’d like to share some insights from John 2; what Jesus did at the Wedding at Cana and what it means.

NOTE: Some of the insights shown below were taken from two books; The NIV Application Commentary of John (Burge, Gary M.. The NIV Application Commentary of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.) and Encountering John (Kostenberger J. Andreas. Encountering John. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999.).

John 2 opens with Jesus and His followers (along with His family) attending a wedding at the city of Cana. Most consider this to be Jesus’ first sign. There are a total 7 signs that John recorded in his gospel. They are:

  1. The changing the water into wine 2:1-11
  2. The temple cleansing 2:13-22
  3. The healing of the nobleman’s son 4:46-54
  4. The healing of the lame man 5:1-15
  5. The feeding of the multitude 6:1-15
  6. The healing of the blind man 9:1-41
  7. The raising of Lazarus from the dead 11:1-44

John does not use the word miracle to describe what Jesus does as the other gospels do. John’s purpose is different than the other gospels. John consistently refers to Jesus’ mighty works as “signs;” the Greek word semeion (say-mi’-on). A miracle underscores power and is generally received with awe. A sign reveals something from God; something that was once hidden. The signs are not merely acts of power and might, they reveal that God is at work in Jesus and is present in Him. All of Jesus’ signs were done in the first half of the Gospel of John which we refer to as “Jesus’ public ministry.”

While Jesus’ disciples see in Jesus’ signs a reflection of the glory of God, the very same signs reveal the hardening of the Jewish leadership in its rejection of Israel’s Messiah.The two events showed in John chapter 2 (Turning the water into wine and the Temple cleansing) shows Jesus as the restorer of Israel. In the wedding of Cana, Jesus is shown to fill up the depleted resources of Judaism. Remember, at this time Judaism had evolved into more of tradition and religious practices than a relationship with a living God. As a people, they were running on empty.

John 2:1-2 says, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; and both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding.” In verse 1, we are 3 days after the events of the close of chapter 1. In John 1, we were in the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, and now we are going 15-20 miles to the hills in the west, to a small village just north of Nazareth called Cana of Galilee. We saw in John 1 that Nathanael is from this village and it being some 5-7 miles north of Jesus’ hometown makes it natural for His family to be present for this wedding. We have no clue to the identity of the bride and groom, but most likely they are either relatives or friends of Jesus’ family. The presence of Mary and the invitation to Jesus and his disciples suggests this, as does the attitude of Mary in approaching Jesus and asking him to do something when the wine ran out.

In the village culture of Palestine, weddings were important events. They were announced well in advance and recognized by the entire village. They were major celebrations and provided imagery for messianic celebration. When Jews reflected on what heaven or the arrival of the Messiah would be like, they thought about banquets, and the wedding banquet was the model that came to their minds. Following a public betrothal that was far more permanent than a modern engagement, the family would announce the wedding date, and start the planning for the ceremony that would last as long as a week.

Gift-giving was carefully considered, not as a simple gesture of goodwill, but as a means of bringing honor on the couple and their families. Legal ramifications followed when the appropriate custom was not followed because it implied public shame on the couple. This gives us an interesting insight on why there was concerned when the wine ran out before the banquet was over. Running out of wine would not just be an embarrassing situation; it would be a dishonoring crisis for the host. Honor was everything in the Jewish culture and running our wine would not only be embarrassing but it could have ended being a legal matter. J. D. M. Derrett, an expert in Oriental law, points out among other things the strong element of mutual benefit about weddings in the Ancient Near East: it was possible in certain circumstances to take legal action against the man who failed to provide an appropriate wedding gift.

The bridegroom and family here might have been involved in financial liability for failing to provide adequately for their guests. This is most likely why Mary-Jesus’ mother-approached him in verse 3 (When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.”). What was Mary asking for in verse 3? There is no evidence that Jesus had done any supernatural works prior to this event. Some think Mary was only reporting the situation, or asking Jesus to give some godly exhortations to the guests and thus relieve the bridegroom’s embarrassment. But the words, and the reply of Jesus in verse 4, seem to imply something more.

John 2:4 says, “And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.”’ It is not inconceivable that Mary, who had probably been witness to the events of the preceding days, or at least was aware of them, knew that her son’s public career was beginning. She also knew the supernatural events surrounding his birth, and the prophetic words of the angel, and of Simeon and Anna in the Temple at Jesus’ dedication. Mary had good reason to believe Jesus to be the Messiah, and now his public ministry had begun. In this kind of context, her request does seem more significant. In verse 4, Jesus’ response to His mother seems to us to be somewhat strange when you first read the “Woman . . .” The actual phrasing is “a term of respect or affection”.

This is Jesus’ normal, polite way of addressing women; Jesus addresses the woman at the well and Mary Magdalene in the similar way. But it is unusual for a son to address his mother with this term. The custom in both Hebrew and Greek would be for a son to use a qualifying adjective or title. Is there significance in Jesus’ use here? Most likely it probably indicates that a new relationship exists between Jesus and his mother once he started his public ministry. He is no longer or primarily only her son, but the “Son of Man”. Going past what Jesus calls His mother is His reply back to her; “. . . what does that have to do with us?”

Jesus’ response is best understood in the view of the Hebrew expression in the Old Testament. When someone was asked to get involved in a matter he felt was no business of his, he could say to the one asking him, “What to me and to you?” meaning, “That is your business, how am I involved?” Although some have taken this remark as a rebuke to Mary; I think a rebuke is unlikely. In the last part of verse 3, the immediate context the meaning is clearly “It is not yet time for me to act.” Jesus’ remark to his mother indicates that the time for this self-manifestation has not yet arrived; his identity as Messiah is not yet to be publicly revealed. Remember, we are in the second week of Jesus’ Earthly ministry.

Verses 5 through 11 of John 2 shows what happened:

5 His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.”

6 Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each.

7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” So they filled them up to the brim.

8 And He said to them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it to him.

9 When the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom,

10 and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.”

11 This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.

We’re not given the entire conversation Mary and Jesus had but we do know that at the end of it, servants were told to do what Jesus told them to do. We’re told that there were 6 large stone water pots that were used for Jewish purification rituals. Jews would not eat until they washed, and washed often. Jesus was going to transform some water used in Jewish ceremonies. This symbolized a transformation in Judaism, even the fulfillment of ceremonial washings.

Imagine what would happen if guests wanted to wash their hands again—they would go to the water pots and find every one of them filled with wine! There would be no water for their ritual. The spiritual cleansing of Jesus’ blood superseded ritual washings. Jesus has fulfilled the rituals and replaced them with something much better—Himself. Remember, the rituals have become empty at this time.

Jesus will use the water pots for something different than their original use. Jesus asks the servants to fill all 6 water pots with water from the nearby well. Once the servants had filled all the pots to the top, there were 120 to 130 gallons of water. In having the pots filled to the brim; to the top meant something. Jesus filled the rituals completely; rendering them obsolete. In the messianic age, no space is left for ritual washings.

Once the servants filled all the pots with water, Jesus told them to take some to the headwaiter or master of the banquet. Only the servants, Mary, the disciples, and Jesus knew what was being offered to the master of the banquet was drew from water; NO ONE ELSE KNEW. When the master of the banquet drank, he tasted wine and not only wine but very fine wine. This wine had a stronger body, and better flavor, than ordinary wine. The master of the banquet points this out to the bridegroom, with an air of pleasantness. I wonder why John records these words.

Was it merely to show that Jesus makes good wine? No, I think it is reported because it has symbolic significance. The Jews were people who had been drinking wine (performing ritual washings) so long that they could not recognize when something better came along. When Mary said, “They have no more wine” (v. 3), it symbolized the fact that the Jews had no spiritual meaning left in their ceremonies. Jesus was bringing something new; something better. In the Old Testament wine was often seen as a gift and symbol of God’s blessing to the people of Israel.

Why did Jesus turn water to wine? I think Jesus turned water into wine to prove that He’s the source of life. Changing the water to wine offered a symbol of the new spiritual life Jesus brings. Jesus turned water into wine because changing one element into another symbolized marriage. The change represented Israel’s relationship with God. He betrothed her to Himself in Egypt, married her to Himself at Sinai, and repeatedly called her to be a faithful spiritual spouse. When she proved endlessly faithless, He called her a spiritual harlot. Ezekiel 16:1-63 is a brilliant allegory but one of many references to that relationship. Jesus turned water into wine to prove that the old covenant lacked the resources to meet Israel’s spiritual needs. Since the water pots were used for ceremonial washing of people and utensils, Jesus had them filled to prove that He fulfilled and overfilled ceremonial cleansing; then had the servants draw water turned into wine from the well to illustrate that God’s new life came from a different source; Christ Himself. Wherever the Old Covenant failed to meet the spiritual needs of God’s people, Christ’s resources flourished energetically, dynamically, and satisfyingly. And finally, Jesus turned water into wine to prove His real nature to the disciples. The ultimate purpose was to reveal His Glory, with the result being faith in Him.

John gives the point of the story, as far as he is concerned, in 2:11. John 2:11 says, “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.” John tells us what the sign accomplished: through it Jesus revealed his “glory” and his disciples believed in him. Thus, the first sign has the same purpose that all the following signs will have: revelation about the person of Jesus. Scholarly interpretations to the contrary, John does not put primary emphasis on the replacing of the water for Jewish purification, or on the change from water to wine, or even on the resulting wine. John does not focus on Mary and her intercession, or on why she made the request or whether she pursued it further after Jesus’ initial response. John does not focus on the reaction of the master of the banquet or the bridegroom. The primary focus, as for all the Johannine stories, is on Jesus as the One sent by the Father to bring salvation to the world. The only reaction emphasized is that of his disciples when they believed in him.

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