The First Sign John 2:1-11


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John 2:1-11

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In his gospel, John records miracles that the Lord performed. He calls them “signs” because they demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah. These miracles are, as it were, another witness that gives testimony about Jesus. As he says in 20:30-31: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” This miracle at Cana is the first of these “signs.” And John makes the nature of this miracle as a sign very clear in his conclusion in v. 11. The miracle displayed Jesus’ glory and caused his disciples to believe in him, or to believe still more firmly in him.

It is widely thought that John included seven accounts of miracles or signs because seven is the perfect number, the number of completion. The sense would be then that seven miracles would provide complete demonstration that Jesus was the Son of God. But there is an argument as to how the number seven is reached. There are seven in the first part of the gospel, what has been called the “Book of Signs,” John 1:19 to the end of chapter 12, if we include the Lord’s walking on the water in 6:16-24. That miracle, however, is not presented as a sign in quite the way the others are. Some say that the resurrection itself is the seventh, which of course, would make good sense. In that case the greatest miracle of all would be the seventh, the one that fills out the perfect number. There is a miracle in the epilog, in John 21, that of the catch of fish. Is that part of the seven or an extra sign that is not to be numbered with the others? Interesting though not highly important questions.

v.3       “The Third Day” i.e. the third day after the incident with Nathanael. By the inclusive reckoning of days then common in Judaism, that would mean two days later. What is interesting about that is that it makes for a period of six days since John gave his testimony to Jesus in 1:32-34. Scholars debate the significance of that, but it is true that this is the only place where John gives us a careful sequence of days. Is he suggesting that in Christ there is a new creation after the pattern of the first creation that took a week? He mentioned Christ as the creator in 1:1-3. The creation took six days. Is this Christ beginning to create again? It is subtle, but not invisible to anyone who reads the text carefully, for you have one day, then the next day, then the next, then the next, then the third day after that. Surely John expects his readers, at least the second or third time through his gospel, to add up the days!

Clearly, too, the wedding couple was either related to Jesus or family friends. His mother is not only invited, but seems to have had more information than other guests about the catering arrangements; it may even be that she had some responsibility for them, which is why she both knows that they have run out of wine and turns to Jesus for some help in solving the problem. She clearly expected him to do something, as v. 5 indicates. It is doubtful that she expected a miracle, for v. 11 suggests that this was the Lord’s first miracle. But she had come to trust him in times of need. Was Joseph Mary’s husband already dead by this time? That seems to be the case.

In a culture such as that one, running out of wine, being unable to provide for one’s guests, was hugely embarrassing. There is even some evidence to suggest that a bridegroom’s family could be sued for inadequate provision for the wedding feast.

One last point. The word “wine” meant what it meant today, a fermented drink produced from grapes that had the potential to intoxicate. There have been teetotalers now for a long time who have sought to argue that the word “wine” in the Bible means only “grape juice.” They cannot believe that Jesus would approve of drinking something that was intoxicating. Their arguments are, at best, worthless; at worse they are positively deceitful. When, in v. 10, the steward speaks of people at such a feast having “too much to drink” he uses a word that refers to inebriation. Paul did not say, “Do not be drunk with grape juice.” On the other hand, let no one mistake the severity of the Bible’s condemnation of drunkenness. It is interesting that in biblical times wine was characteristically diluted, usually three parts water to one part wine. Undiluted wine was known as “strong drink.”

v.4       The Lord replies, “Woman…” The NIV’s translation is intended to indicate that “Woman” by itself was not as harsh a greeting as it might sound to us. And that is true. He addressed Mary, his mother, with the same word, “Woman” when he was hanging on the cross and commended her to the care of “the disciple whom he loved.” Used this way, it can very well be a term of respect and affection. However, it is not the way a son addressed his mother in those days. Clearly the Lord is putting a certain distance between himself and his mother. She may have naturally been thinking of him still in terms of their natural relation. As the public ministry begins, a new kind of relationship must now be formed. She must be more his disciple than his mother.

The NIV’s translation “why do you involve me?” is close enough, but it needs to be appreciated that the phrase amounts to a “measured rebuke”, however courteously expressed. The sense seems to be that the time has come when he must be free from “any kind of human advice, agenda, or manipulation.” [Carson, 171]

The Lord’s remark, “My time – literally my hour – is not yet come” is the first in a series of like remarks through the gospel. Here he says, “my hour is not yet.” He says the same thing again in 7:6. In 8:30 the Jews were not able to seize Jesus “because his hour had not yet come.” But, when the cross is immediately in prospect, we hear him say, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.” [12:23] And so, often after that. So, clearly it seems that when Jesus said to his mother that his hour had not yet come he meant the consummation of his ministry in the cross, the resurrection and the ascension to heaven. In other words, John gives us here a prolepsis, an anticipation of things to come. First readers of the gospel are to suppose to wonder at this point: “What does he mean when he says that his hour is not yet and when will his hour come?” All the subsequent references to his hour not yet having come or, after, to his hour having arrived will heighten the tension of the narrative and create still greater anticipation. Already we know that some great climax is ahead of us.

v.5       Remember the same language in Genesis 41:55 when the famine struck in Egypt. Pharaoh told the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph and do whatever he tells you.” It is, of course, a statement of Mary’s faith in her Son. We will see this pattern at other times in the gospel: Jesus at first refuses a request and then proceeds to help in his own way.

v.9       John does not tell us how or when the miracle occurred, he simply mentions that the water had become wine. He doesn’t precisely tell us how much water had been turned to wine, though the implication, surely, is that all the water in the jars had been turned to wine. In that case, of course, the Lord would not only have solved the immediate problem, but would have given a very substantial gift to the bridal couple.

v.11     Cana of Galilee serves as an inclusio, framing the account. Cana is mentioned in v. 1 and now again, with a sense almost of unnecessary repetition, here in v. 11. John has already said that he had seen Jesus’ glory, the glory of “one who came from the father, full of grace and truth.” Glory belongs to him as the Son of God and the miracles he performed accredited him as the Son of God. But not all saw the glory. The servants saw the miracle but we are not told they saw the glory. Only those who believed saw his glory! That will be John’s message. You must believe in Christ to see his glory.

I wondered about making such lengthy remarks during the reading of the text, but I want you, especially early in John, to get a sense of how the gospel writer is constructing his narrative, what he is seeking to prove and how. Only in this way can we come to know and appreciate this great book as a whole.

Now, what strikes the unbeliever here is the miracle itself. Water suddenly turned to wine? How could that be? Surely we have some legend here, some myth. Leslie Weatherhead was the most popular liberal preacher in London during the middle of the century, at the height of his popularity and influence when Lloyd-Jones began preaching in central London from a decidedly different spiritual standpoint. Weatherhead thought that, in fact, there was no miracle here at all. He imagined the scene this way:

“The wine runs out. Water is served. Why, that’s the best joke of all! They lift their wine-cups, as we do in fun when we shout, ‘Adam’s ale is the best of all.’ The bridegroom is congratulated by the master of ceremonies, who carries the joke farther still. ‘Why you’ve kept the best wine until now.’ Then he adds, ‘It requires only a servant going through the room into the kitchen for a wonderful rumour to start.’” [Cited in Morris, 175n]

But, no one reading this text can believe that John himself thought any such thing. And this is but the first of the miracles that Jesus will perform! A great miracle that demonstrated his glory, his divine sonship, that he was the Christ and the Savior of the world. John was there and that is what he saw and learned. Only supernatural power could explain what happened at the wedding feast in Cana. That is precisely why everyone must carefully consider Jesus of Nazareth!

However, for the believer, for the man or woman who has no problem believing that the incarnate Son of God, the creator of both water and of wine, can turn water into wine, wonderful as the miracle is in itself, the element in this account that is most striking to us is the Lord’s strange reply to his mother in v. 4. What does the fact that his hour had not yet come have to do with their hosts running out of wine?

Clearly, his mother is thinking about the immediate crisis at the wedding banquet. Jesus is thinking of larger things, his “hour” and its coming; which is to say, his cross, resurrection, and glorification.

It seems clear that when Jesus acts, he still has in view larger interests than just saving his hosts from embarrassment. He seizes the opportunity to reveal himself to his disciples. The prophets had long before predicted, you remember, that the Messianic age would be a time of wine flowing liberally. An abundance of wine was a picture of God’s blessing in great measure. Remember the blessing that Jacob pronounced over Judah 49:11. Judah’s royal descendant, Jacob said, would bring in an age in which wine would be so abundant that you could wash your clothes in it! Amos speaks of the great day of salvation as a day when “New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills” (9:13). Jeremiah looks forward to a day when “They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord – the grain, the new wine and the oil…They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more” (31:12). That same imagery was taken over into Jewish writings from the period of the Lord’s life and ministry and is found everywhere.

What we have in this miracle, therefore, is the Lord’s demonstration of himself as the Messiah who would bring to pass that day of bounty, of immeasurable blessing from God, the day of salvation.

You see it in the extravagance of the miracle itself. The Lord does not simply solve the immediate problem. He doesn’t simply provide enough wine to get the guests to the end of the banquet. He has the servants fill these enormous jars – do you realize how large a jar must be to hold thirty gallons of liquid? – and orders them to fill them right to the brim. There is going to be no skimping here! And then, if changing water to wine is not enough, he turns that water into the very finest wine, the kind of wine these folks could never have afforded themselves, the kind of wine the guests didn’t even get at the very beginning of the banquet when the best the hosts had to offer would have been served.

This is the revelation of the messianic age that the Lord Jesus would bring to pass. He took the occasion of a minor crisis at a wedding feast to display to his disciples the truth about himself and what he was to do.

He would do the same thing at other times. Later, for example, his feeding of the 5,000 becomes a demonstration not only of the bounty of the messianic age (as here not just a bit of wine and ordinary wine, so there not just a bit of food but after feeding 5,000 there were twelve large baskets of leftovers!), but also of how he himself is the food that sustains eternal life for those who believe in him.

Now, remember the entire context of the messianic age in the Bible. The before and after in view here in John 2 is not the Mosaic age superceded by the age of Christ and his apostles. The messianic age and its blessings had long before broken in upon the people of God in the ancient epoch. They had known the joy of the Lord and his salvation, the bounty of God’s blessing, even in the midst of the trials and hardships of life in this sinful, dying world. And, after Pentecost, Christians would know it in the same now-but-not-yet way. The messianic age in its fullness, in its completeness, the day of there being so much wine we can wash our clothes in it, has not yet dawned. It is still to come.

But Jesus Christ is the one who has, by his death and resurrection, guaranteed to all who believe in him, no matter when they live, that it will come. And by faith in Christ the blessings and benefits of that messianic age, that heavenly age, that age of consummation, of flowing wine, have already broken in to this world, in anticipation as it were. In Christ we enjoy many things that belong to that world of absolute bliss long before we actually enter that world to live there forever. And all of that wonderful fulfillment of life, that world of joy, that endless happiness, that unending succession of days filled up with radiant love, all of it is because of Jesus Christ, all of it comes from him, all of it is because of him and what he did for us.

Some of you may be in the same fix I am in this morning. You don’t like wine and you have a hard time entering into the symbolism. You are aware, as I am, that we are in a minority in the world. There are vast multitudes of folk who love wine, who take a sip and roll it around in their mouths and savor the layers of flavor. They talk about it as if it were a work of art, they compare one wine to another as if the bottles were people with different personalities. Now I could do that with a really good tall glass of iced tea, but I cannot with wine.

But wine is just one image of the messianic age and its beauty, bounty, and glorious perfection. There are many others that the prophets themselves use and, really, anything beautiful, pure, and good, would serve the same purpose.

It was many years ago now that I first came across this passage in Harry Blamires’ fine book on heaven. Blamires, you may remember, was first a student and then a friend of C.S. Lewis and writes with some of the same insight and sparkle. Here he is talking about the intimations of heaven, or what we might call the messianic age, that we are given already in this world.

“It is in fragmentary glimpses that the joys of the kingdom are flashed before our faces on our earthly pilgrimage. We all have our stores of memories that keep their power to blind us with the dazzle of the wonder and beauty they revealed. When you first took a hand that is now cold in the grave – when you first looked into eyes that imprinted their gaze forever on your mind – when you first caught sight of that remote village nestling in the elbow of a valley, all white and green in the sun – when you first saw your wife with your baby in her arms – when a lyric of Byron’s first throbbed through your brain in school days – when Toscanini revitalized the fabric of a Beethoven symphony – when Maria Callas released flooding waves of emotion upon a few syllables, ‘Alfin son tua,’ in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor: we all have our store of such particular memories. If we wanted a single adjective to characterize what was common to them all, we should say quite naturally, quite unaffectedly, ‘It was heavenly.’ We very often add those other words and say, ‘It was heavenly while it lasted.’” [Knowing the Truth about Heaven and Hell, 126]

Like the finest wine in immense quantity at the marriage feast in Cana, such things are images and signs and foretastes of the messianic age, the age that must come to pass because of what Jesus Christ has done and gained for all who trust in him. Soon after reading that from Blamires, I preached a sermon on  heaven, and mentioned some of my own “fragmentary glimpses” of that age of rivers of wine that lies ahead of us.

I thought of such things as these:

  1. That hour or two, many years ago, when I was still in school, when I was virtually carried up into the third heaven and literally could not contain myself for the joy of the Lord.
  2. Or that lovely warm summer eve, when I and two college friends unrolled our sleeping bags in the hayloft of a Swiss alpine barn, in a meadow above Zermatt, and slept before an open window that framed the Matterhorn in all of its evening glory.
  3. Or that charmed afternoon when I first entered and explored Ton Bolland’s antiquarian theological bookshop on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.
  4. Or that summer in Colorado years ago when I found myself fallen head over heals in love all over again with my wife, and found myself as happy as only a man can be who is desperately in love after ten years of marriage.
  5. Or the first visit to King’s College Chapel in Cambridge or to Mr. Tait’s home, Guessens, in Welwyn.
  6. Or those Sunday nights in Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, singing great hymns to the accompaniment of holy old Mr. Ross, playing that mighty organ. (That was before we had our own organ!)
  7. Or the time a woman professed her faith in Christ in my office, had her soul opened to the love of Christ in front of me and I could literally see the light dawn in her eyes.
  8. Or that moment in my graduate study at the University in Aberdeen when light dawned in my own mind touching a particular passage of God’s Word, an illumination that has remained with me to the present.
  9. Or that weekend with friends in Germany where we stayed over a bakery and ate food that was as close to perfection as I have ever eaten.

And, of course, now, some twelve years later, I have other such “glimpses” of the messianic kingdom to mention. For example, those days on the Greek island of Paros with Florence, tooling around on our motorbike, exploring ancient monasteries, eating magnificent food, and delighting in everything. And you can think of your own “fragmentary glimpses” of the messianic kingdom, of the future that Jesus Christ has made for you. You would do well today to think, even to write down some of those “glimpses” that you have had to remind you of that glory that someday you will open your eyes upon. What in your life has shown you the hundreds of gallons of the finest wine?

That is the idea, the same idea as the gallons and gallons of the very best wine which the Lord Jesus created in a moment at the wedding feast. It was an image of that world, that indescribably wonderful world, that he would create for us by his life, death, and resurrection. It was only a glimpse of his glory that the disciples saw, others saw and understood nothing at all. They just tasted the wine and were amazed, as when unbelievers taste true joy and see true beauty in this world but do not know where it comes from and do not see that world, that life of which such joy and beauty are but foretastes and anticipations.

We must wait for that world, of course. The Lord will bring it with him when he comes again. He will tell his disciples later in this gospel, “I go to prepare a place for you that where I am there you may be also.” But it makes, it must make all the difference in the world to know that that will be our future, the future of those who believe in Jesus. And it make must all the difference to know that that is what the Lord Jesus came to give us and accomplished for us by his great work, his incomparable work while he was in the world. “I have come,” he will say, “that they might have Life, and have it to the full!” And someone who can in an instant, change water to wine, will not fail to deliver what he has promised. With what gratitude and with what patience and with what appreciation you and I ought to live every day, so soon as we are to step into that world of running rivers of the finest wine. And how eagerly we ought always to be speaking to others of that place, that wonderful place, and how even sinners like us may go there.

Let us spend our days, you and I, doing all that the Savior tells us. Let us spend our time filling the water jars. From time to time the Lord will turn the water into wine, just to remind us of what is yet to come.