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Water Into Wine: The Meaning of Jesus' First Miracle

September 8, 2005
Ophir Gold Corporation

The second chapter of John's Gospel offers a most interesting account of the beginning of Jesus's ministry of miracles and teaching. Yet, where is John going with this, and why did he include it? But before we undertake to solve this mystery, let us first read the text in question.

John 2:1-11 [with comments in brackets] reads:

And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee and the mother of Jesus was there: And both Jesus was called [i.e. invited], and his disciples [also], to the marriage. And when they wanted [i.e. ran out of] wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, "They have no wine." Jesus saith unto her, "Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come." His mother saith unto the servants, "Whatsoever he saith [commands] unto you, do it." And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins [of water] apiece. Jesus saith unto them, "Fill the waterpots with water." And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now [what is in the waterpots], and bear [bring it] unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory and his disciples believed on him."

Now, to understand the books of the Bible, you must always start your investigation by reading the end of the book first. Although this will at the first seem out of order, it actually provides the best approach. The author has the end of the book in mind when he lifts his pen to write the first letter. He has a plan and a goal, and he holds this goal -- the end of the story -- fixed firmly in mind from the very beginning. So he writes every account within the gospel with one eye on the end of the matter. By taking this approach then, we mimic the author's own mindset. So let's start at the end of the gospel to look for clue #1.

Now John tells us at the end of his gospel that "....there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen" (John 21:25). John knows of a great many "things Jesus did" (i.e. miracles and astonishing teachings) which "showed forth his glory," meaning that these clearly pointed to Him as "the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus' miracles point to resurrection glory. But also note John's lament -- his inability to tell us all that he knows of Christ (for lack of time, space and ink). This shows us that's John writes with an Evangelist's heart, with the buring desire to tell anyone who will listen everything Jesus ever did and said. The greatness of the Lord has overtaken John, and John overflows with joy to tell of it. Or in his own symbolism, John was a startling waterpot, filled to the brim with new wine.

John's problem -- too much to say, and not enough ink, pens, parchment or world -- will come to profit us. For John has thus indicated by the Holy Spirit that he has chosen this material carefully and selectively. The fact that this account made it into the gospel, when there were thousands of other accounts about Jesus he could have included instead, tells us that this is extremely important.

Clue #1. John has included only what he deems MOST important about Jesus, to show us the Greatness of God in Christ. This greatness, John calls "showing forth his glory." At the end of the gospel, this glory shines from the Resurrected Messiah literally, as radiant light. Just as the gospel's beginning calls him "The light of men." But John has here told us that we could and should have seen all along that Jesus was the Messiah. For this radiant light shot forth into public view -- so to speak -- now and again during the ministry of Christ.

Now let's move onto Clue #2. In chapter 21, John has told us he is interested primarily in the miracles that Jesus did, and the things he taught. The Bible often dubs a teachers words his "deeds," for, as the proverbs tell us, the power of life and death is in the tongue...". By a cursory reading of the verses 1-11, we notice that most of the words in this account belong to persons other than the Lord Jesus. He does not say much here. This tells us that John wishes to focus on the deeds of Jesus in the more strict sense. So John highlights the particular water-into-wine miracle of Jesus, and then the testimony about this miracle from the other actors in the narrative.

Any good detective must ask "the big five" questions: who, what, when, where, and why? Now each of the answers to these may not be equally important. In this case, it turns out that "where" forms one of the most important questions because the answer turns out to be something other than what one -- especially if one were a first-century Jew -- would expect. Where did the wedding take place? In Galilee. That is, in the north, somewhat removed from Jerusalem (which then was "the Holy City"), and Galilee was associated with a high percentage of Gentile inhabitants.

How did the Jews view Gentiles? Let's just say that to pronounce correctly the word "Gentiles" in first-century Hebrew, you must spit at the saying of the final syllable to say it correctly. Gentiles, also known as "pigs" and "dogs," to them resembled "unclean animals."

Conspicuous clue #3: Jesus had honored those of Gentile territory -- even though the guests were likely all Jews -- in his first miracle. And note that Jesus Himself seemed to consider this miracle premature, and likely assumed that his first miracle would occur later, perhaps in Judaea. But in keeping the fifth commandment, "Honour thy father and THY MOTHER," the Lord saved the wedding from disaster. To run out of wine would have left a shameful blot on the reputation of the hosts.

The second time we ask "where?" -- this time meaning "more exactly where" did the miracle take place -- we answer "in the waterpots." Now THIS gets interesting. These were no ordinary stone pots. They formed a necessary part of the purification ritual commanded in the Older Testament for Jews to maintain ritual purity. In other words, they form the centerpiece of this story as the symbol of cleanness before God.

Clue #4: Cleanness before God forms a central theme in this narrative.

Clue #5. Since we know that the waterpots are not incidental, but central, to John's point, we must zoom in on any detail given about them. Jesus had commanded "Fill them." And John then notes that they obeyed by "filling them TO THE BRIM." This connotes a sense of overflowing, where "filled to the brim" means nearly spilling out the sides.

Clue #6. What follows next? The interchange between the "ruler of the [wedding] feast and the bridegroom. Notice that the complaint came from the ruler (wedding supervisor) to the bridegroom. Now the ruler of the feast would have been responsible for supervising the whole wedding to see that it went smoothly. His complaint to the bridegroom shows that he had delegated certain tasks to others to help out, and that the bridegroom specifically held the duty to keep the wine flowing freely.

But Jesus had done the faltering bridegroom's job for him, and the ruler of the wedding feast did not know this. But the servants did. Jesus, in effect, then IS the responsible bridegroom, who took upon Himself the groom's task and succeeded where the groom had failed.

Clue #7. John's own punchline comes from the mouth of the feast supervisor as a complaint: "Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now."

His complaint is this. When people first show up to the wedding, you must give them the best wine to drink. The California Pinot Noir's come first. After the guests have had a few marvelous glasses, the wine has dulled their pallets and made them happy (or as we might say, "tipsy.") When they cannot now distinguish the flavor of wine very well (dulled pallet), they do not care what the wine tastes like. So then you break out the second-string wine -- Here come the Merlots -- and no one cares. But the bridegroom -- actually Jesus -- had reversed the order!! The ruler complained, "You didn't do it the way we expected." But he didn't know it was Jesus, the True Bridegroom, that had done it in the unsuspected order.

Clue #8. Thus, says John, Jesus showed forth his glory as the Messiah, long before his Resurrection into glory. Glory bespeaks resurrection. The Lord had hereby granted us a preview of his glory to come -- even though his hour had not yet come. Later, John will tell us, that Jesus died with the placard above his head, "King of the Jews." But in his resurrection, Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and earth is given me..." (Matthew 28:18). This makes Jesus king, not only of the Jews, but of all nations. That is what "ALL authority IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH" means. In his death, God reveals Christ as Lord of the Jews, but in Christ's resurrection glory, God has revealed him as "King of the Gentiles" too.

For it was in His resurrection that God the Father swore an oath to Christ, "Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek." And said to Him, "Ask of me and I shall give thee the nations for thine inheritance" (Psalm 2).

Now let us put it all together. Any good sleuth must put his pool of relevant data together and draw the intended conclusion from them. Clue #1. John had something very important, even urgent, to say [clue #2] about the miraculous work of Jesus [C3] on behalf of the Gentiles [C4] by which he would purify them and make them clean [C5] as it were, filling them to the brim with His Spirit and overflowing joy ("New wine") [C6] and replacing the intended bridegroom (i.e. the Jewish rulers which would irrepsonsibly fail before God to bring His "wine" to the wedding guests). God would then supplant the failures -- scribes, Pharisees and Saducees --with Jesus (and his apostles), who fulfilled the duty of the bridegroom and saved the wedding guests from a ruined celebration. Now God would also accomplish this in a way that offended the Jewish leaders (remember the complaint against the Bridegroom), and in a way that people did not expect, a way which seemed out of order to them. So when the complaint [C7] of the Jewish rulers grew to become something far more sinister -- the execution of the Son -- God would indeed raise Him to life [C8] in vindication of Christ against the false charges that led to his demise. Thus, by resurrection God had reversed a tragic situation and would bring joy (like that of a wedding) to the world -- to Jew and Gentile alike by filled-to-the-brim "purified waterpots" like John, like Paul, and like Peter.

Finally, what does it mean, "You have saved the best wine til last?" This is a marvelous punchline. John revels throughout his Gospel in showing how those who oppose the Lord often say far more than they know. Here John offers just such an example.

First came the patriarchs, then Moses and Samuel, and great men like David, Solomon the Wise, and Josiah the king, and also many great prophets besides -- who brought the word of the Lord by His Spirit -- God's wine -- to teach and to rescue his people. But, at the very last, God sent His very Best -- when the Jewish nation had lost its taste for good wine -- Jesus came "in the fullness of time." "In past times, God spoke to our forefathers in many ways and at various times but IN THESE LAST DAYS hath He spoken to us BY HIS SON..." (Hebrews 1:1). God sent His obedient Son at the last to replace the failed Jewish leaders. God had saved the best for last.

Jesus, the greatest of the prophets -- and oh-SO-much-more -- had come at the end of the Older Covenant, at the "last days." Well said Solomon, "The end of a matter is better than its beginning." But this was only Christ's FIRST miracle. See how great a story THIS preview of Christ's glory is?, says John. Wait til I tell the rest!! John was saving the best for last too.

Carson Day has written approximately 1.3 gazillion articles and essays, many with very insightful, if alternative, viewpoints. He presently writes for Ophir Gold Corporation, and specialized in the history of ideas in college. He has been quoted in the past as saying "What box?" and remains at large despite the best efforts of the civil authorities.

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