One preacher says, “Weddings are accidents waiting to happen. Something almost always goes wrong at a service of holy matrimony.”
That doesn’t match my experience with weddings, but there is something quite wrong at the wedding in Cana, in Galilee (John 2:1-11): they’ve run out of wine.
So maybe there’s no better place for Jesus to show up, his first week of public ministry, than at a well-attended, days-long wedding.
Jesus turns water into wine—“the first of his miraculous signs,” John says.
The Seven Signs of Jesus in John
Jesus performed more than just seven signs, but John uses seven signs, or miracles, to organize the first part of his Gospel.
1. Jesus changes water into wine (John 2:1-11)
2. Jesus heals the official’s son (John 4:46-54)
3. Jesus heals the man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9)
4. Jesus feeds the 5,000 (John 6:1-13)
5. Jesus walks on water (John 6:16-21)
6. Jesus heals the man born blind (John 9:1-12)
7. Jesus raises Lazarus (John 11:1-44)
(via The New Testament in Antiquity, by Burge, Cohick, and Green)
What is a sign?
A translator’s handbook, intended especially for those who are taking to Bible into new languages for the first time, talks about it this way:
[A] “sign” is a means of revealing a greater reality to which the “sign” itself merely points. The Gospel of John speaks of seven “signs” of Jesus, and these are “signs,” not necessarily because they are miracles, but because they point to a truth beyond themselves, to a truth regarding God’s salvation.
Signs are good, even powerful, in and of themselves, but they point to a “greater reality.”
A sign is deeper than itself.
The signs of Jesus, in particular, are meant to tell us something about Jesus. The “signs” and wonders Jesus performs are witnesses to his glory. They’re each a vignette, a window into Christ’s revealing himself to anyone who would receive him.
Sign #1: Water Into Wine
Jesus, his mother, and his disciples have all gotten invitations to this wedding. It’s Jesus’ first week of public ministry, as John tells it, and it’s a huge event. It would not be unexpected for just about the whole town of Cana to be there. The local shops and businesses probably all put a “Closed for wedding” sign on their doors. Will be back in seven days. It was likely a week-long event.
But, even if not all weddings are “accidents waiting to happen,” this one was. The guests drank the wine down to the last drop.
It would be pointless (but fun) to speculate as to whether or not this was poor planning on the family’s part, or too much drinking on the guests’ part.
Either way, this family is about to go down in history as “the ones who ran out of wine at their wedding.” You sort of hope for them, at this point, that they don’t have any other kids to marry off, ‘cause no one’s coming.
Verse 3 says, “When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
One early theologian said, “Perhaps his mother, as mothers do, incited him to perform a miracle, wishing that the greatness of her son would be revealed—and thinking that the lack of wine offered the right occasion for the miracle.”
The (1984) NIV gives us the reply: “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”
There is a sense in which Jesus isn’t ready to fully reveal all his glory. But he whips into action. It’s a good way of honoring his mother.
Because… not only is the reputation of the family at stake, but the festive spirit of the wedding is in jeopardy. The Talmud, a text of Rabbinic Judaism from a couple centuries after this, bluntly says, “There is no rejoicing [without] wine.”
Jesus is on it. He performs the miracle, in kind of a subtle and smooth way. Maybe this is because his “time had not yet come,” as he said to mother Mary.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
Just to be clear, we are talking about anywhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine.
This doesn’t mean that a bunch of wedding guests are going to get toasted. If you think of a whole town of people celebrating for a week, a lot of wine is needed.
Here’s the town today that might have been 1st-century Cana:
Imagine the effect of 180 gallons of wine!
This picture is probably 30 gallons or a little more:
So if my calculations are correct, here’s a visual on how much wine Jesus made:
The result of this sign, besides a happy wedding, is in John 2:11:
This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee.
He thus revealed his glory,
and his disciples put their faith in him.
Or, in another translation, “There Jesus showed how wonderful he was.”
It was looking back and thinking of moments like this that John could write in his Prologue, in chapter 1: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” We have seen how wonderful Jesus is.
What Does the Sign Show?
N.T. Wright says, “The whole point of the ‘signs’ is that they are moments when heaven and earth intersect with each other.”
From these signs of Jesus, we on earth learn more about ultimate, heavenly realities: who Jesus really is, what sorts of things God is capable of, what kind of intervention is possible in the problems of the world today.
Especially with this first sign, when Jesus is fresh on the scene, we get a portrait of who our Savior is.
—Jesus likes to have fun—
“Eat, drink, and be merry” is not just a mindset that the Bible shoots down. Jesus wants us to eat, drink, and be merry—so long as we’re not neglecting important things.
Jesus upset the religious elite of his day by all the feasting he and his disciples did. In Luke some angry leaders say to him,
John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink. Jesus said to them, “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. (Luke 5:33-35)
As long as you’ve got me, Jesus says, party on.
And did you catch this nice touch from John: these jars, where the chemical miracle happened, were ones “used… for ceremonial washing.” There’s nothing wrong with religious ritual, per se—I quite like it myself. But these jars for ritual cleansing—Jesus turned them into party favors. That’s kind of like co-opting the baptismal font for a punch bowl.
This family made good choice in inviting Jesus to the wedding. Maybe he already had a reputation as a fun guy—someone you wanted to celebrate with.
—Jesus is generous—
This sign also shows Jesus to be generous. Under his command, the servants “filled [the jars with water] to the brim.” There’s no skimping with Jesus.
Next chapter Jesus will say, “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.”
God does not withhold his good gifts and his love from us. He wants us coming to him with open hands, even empty cups, so he can fill us with good things.
Also, just a geographical note here: we know the stories of Jesus, so we take it for granted, but Cana was 70 miles north of Jerusalem. This is pretty far outside the city of the religious power brokers.
But being a religious insider or expert, so to speak, has never been a requirement for receiving Christ’s love.
Jesus does not withhold his presence from the ones who have never known power, wealth, or the comfort of living in the mainstream of society. Jesus is generous.
—Jesus is accommodating—
Jesus is accommodating. He says his “time has not yet come,” but then he does the miracle. He seems to be flexible on timing. You’ll see in other places in John where Jesus says “his time has not yet come.”
We know the frustration of when God’s timetable or timing in the world does not match ours. But God is not impassable. God is not unaffected by our needs and desperation.
If God has a massive planner on his desk, with dates and times and places, it’s written in pencil. God can change the future. God can even accommodate our requests when he maybe otherwise wasn’t planning to. Jesus is accommodating.
How Shall We Respond?
Having seen this intersection of the heavenly and earthly, having caught a glimpse of a God who changes reality, a Jesus who is fun, and generous, and accommodating… how shall we respond?
John models a response for us in verse 11: “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.”
We can eat, drink, be merry, trusting that our God is a God of celebration… assured that he’s generous… and confident that he’s flexible to respond in real time to our needs and intercessions.
Look at Mary’s response in verse 5 to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”
I think we can safely assume, 30 years in, that she’s onto the whole divinity thing. She doesn’t know what he’s going to do or how, but she expects something, when she comes to him with a need: “They have no more wine.” Her words to the servants model an admirable submission to the Son of God: “Do whatever he tells you.”
Do the good you know to do. Act in love, in the ways that you see it within your reach to do. “Do whatever he tells you.”
John, by showing Mary and the disciples’ response to Jesus’ first sign, calls us, too, to submission and faith and trust in Christ.
I think another response this passage can call forth from us is just… relief.
Jesus isn’t boring or a killjoy. He liked to celebrate, to enjoy parties and good wine and food with others.
Jesus says of his mission, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus wants disciples to live life to the fullest, and one implication of this is that we enjoy the good things on earth.
We read in the Psalms:
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
Jesus wants us to enjoy the abundance of his creation. He is not stingy. He’s not inflexible.
This passage can offer us relief because it reminds us that prayers regarding needs do affect God. We can invite him into broken and unresolved places in our life.
An Even Greater Wedding Feast
The wedding at Cana, in fact, serves as a foreshadowing of a great heavenly banquet, where Jesus is the groom. And he invites everyone, not just in one whole town, but across many nations. It’s not just a weeklong wedding celebration, but an eternal one, with Jesus as host.
The prophets saw this day and were relieved. Amos rejoiced, “New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills.” Joel saw a day when “the mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk.” (And that milk—it accounts for those who don’t drink wine… so God’s got everyone covered.)
We, like Mary and the disciples, have seen the glory of Jesus. Witnesses to this and many other signs of Jesus, may we put our trust in him. May we hope in him. May we present our needs and lacks to him, asking for his help. May we place our confidence in him. And may we give ourselves over to him, and keep our hands open for the good things he has to give us.