John 2:1-12 (Grape Expectations, Part Two)

Yesterday, we saw Jesus interrupt his plans to help out some of his mother’s friends. Facing the shame of running out of wine at a wedding, Jesus intervened, miraculously turning some water into wine of the highest quality. And in doing so, he showed his compassion for our everyday needs.

But, in true Jesus-style, he managed to turn this simple meeting of human need into a meaning-filled sign about his identity and his mission. How? Let’s look at some of the parts of the story we skipped over yesterday.

Firstly, let’s look at the source of the water he used:

John 2:6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Not only does this tell us that Jesus made a lot of wine. But it symbolises his transformation of the old. This was the water used by the Jews for purification rituals, under the old covenant that came through Moses (remember 1:17?) And there are six of them, perhaps suggesting the results of work (since we work six days). But Jesus transforms the old into something new – something appropriate for a joyful Sabbath (the seventh day) to celebrate God creating something new.

(Why is a Sabbath the appropriate time to celebrate God’s creation? If you look at the two times in Scripture the ten commandments are given, there are two different reasons provided for the Sabbath:

Exodus 20:11 “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

Deuteronomy 5:15 “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”

Both of these are connected with God’s creation: firstly, of his world; secondly, of his people. The third great creative act of God is about to happen – when Jesus creates his church – which is an appropriate time for a Sabbath to celebrate. With wine, perhaps.)

So God transforms a symbol of the old covenant (water for purification rituals) into something new. That would be wine. But is there anything significant about the wine? You bet.

The Jews expected that the coming of the Messiah would be a time of great abundance, involving way too much food (catered by Mediterranean mums, no doubt) and wine. We see this in the prophecy of Isaiah, in the context of the coming reign of God:

Isaiah 25:6 On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.

(That this is to be thought of as a wedding banquet is derived from texts like Isaiah 54:4-8 and 62:4-5.)

Other prophets like Joel use this kind of imagery to describe the coming reign of God, when Israel would truly return from her exile:

Joel 2:24,26 The threshing floors will be filled with grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and oil. 26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you.

Joel 3:18 In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk…

We also see it in some of the Jewish writings in the centuries before Jesus, showing how the Jews were associating the Messiah with abundant food and wine:

2 Baruch 29:3-8 When all is accomplished that was to come to pass in those parts, that the Messiah shall then begin to be revealed… 5 The earth also shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold and on each vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a cor of wine. 6 And those who have hungered shall rejoice: moreover, also, they shall behold marvels every day….8 at that same time that the treasury of manna shall again descend from on high, and they will eat of it in those years…

1 Enoch 62:14 And the Lord of Spirits will abide over them, and with that Son of Man shall they eat and lie down and rise up for ever and ever.

And this expectation of a wedding banquet (with wine) finds its way into the Gospels:

Matthew 22:2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.”

Matthew 26:29 “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

And even into Revelation:

Rev 19:9a And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

The point is – and yes, you’ll be pleased to know there is a point to all of this – the point is that by turning water into wine as his first miracle, Jesus is making a subtle but important claim about his identity as the Messiah. The one whose mission it was to bring in the reign of God, which would be a time of abundant food (and wine) – a joyous Sabbath celebration.

So it wasn’t just a case of Jesus solving a wedding catering problem. The way in which he does it – and the prominence which John gives it, right at the start of Jesus’ public ministry – points to it being a sign that Jesus was the Messiah, and an announcement that in him the kingdom of God had drawn near.

(And if you’ve been following along in our studies in the other three Gospels earlier in the year, you might remember that this is how Jesus’ public ministry begins in each of them:

  • A simple claim in Mark’s Gospel  “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (1:15);
  • An allusion to the expectations of the kingdom found in Isaiah and the Psalms, in the Beatitudes, which open his first speech in Matthew’s Gospel (5:3-6);
  • A reading of Isaiah’s prophecy about the kingdom at the synagogue in Nazareth, after which Luke records Jesus saying “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).

Despite the different setting, John’s Gospel essentially begins the same way.)

This wasn’t entirely lost on the disciples:

John 2:11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs* through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

I don’t think it was just the cool party trick of turning water into wine that caused them to believe; at some level, they also got the symbolism. This was the Messiah they’d found. They had come, and were beginning to see this new thing that God was doing.

And this is what John’s Gospel invites us to do, too.

Next week, we look at Jesus’ showdown with the Temple authorities – this is his first truly public act in John’s Gospel, and is not a miraculous sign to inspire belief, but a sign of judgement on a corrupt institution. 

* John records seven signs that reveal Jesus’ identity/glory:

  1. John 2:1–11             Turning water into wine
  2. John 4: 43–54         Healing of a boy in Cana
  3. John 5:1–15             Healing a paralytic on the Sabbath
  4. John 6:1–15             Feeding of the 5000
  5. John 6:16–21           Walking on the water
  6. John 9:1–41             Healing the man born blind
  7. John 11:1–57           Raising Lazarus from the dead


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