An awkward start
I’ve been to a fair few weddings; I guess it’s a fairly common experience for a summer weekend for many in their twenties and thirties. And, though never having planned one, it’s immediately apparent that the whole occasion requires an immense amount of planning. I have, on more than one occasion, had the privilege of being an usher at a wedding that was so meticulously planned that there was a minute-by-minute handout stretching to several pages that was distributed among those involved in the special day.
So imagine the embarrassment of reaching that moment half way through the evening when, just as the toasts are about to begin, there’s a tap on the shoulder of the groom as the head waiter explains the wine has run out. The father of the bride is about to stand up, and everyone is looking around for a top up to their glass … but nothing. The one responsibility left to the groom, and he’s messed up.
It sounds awkward, but that’s exactly what happened to the poor groom of the wedding recorded in John 2:1-11. Jesus, attending a wedding with his mother and his disciples, is told that the wine has run out (v3). More gently than our translations imply, Jesus simply responds with a fairly enigmatic allusion to a future hour (v4) which hasn’t yet come.
His mother, however, knows that more is to come. Indeed, just as we’d been hoping, we get to see the events unfold as if through the eyes of the witnesses – Jesus’ disciples. He calls for some of the stone water jars which are lying around, normally used for a religious rite of purification but this afternoon useful as an oversized tankard. Having been filled with water, a small amount is then extracted and given to the MC. It doesn’t sound like much of a solution…
… Except that the MC responds with an expression of great excitement. The wine problem has been solved – they’ve uncovered the store of good wine! In fact, he’s frankly surprised that they didn’t serve this wine first – it’s much better than what they’d been putting up with so far.
Face saved. Crisis averted. Everyone’s happy.
Yet John wants to push us further. Notice how he concludes the episode in v11:
This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him.
Manifested His glory
Even on face value the miracle is impressive. In some respects is so subtle the MC hasn’t even realised it was a miracle. But even a cursory reading shows that something amazing has happened. Two features seem to be pulled out for us:
- The wine was of good quality – notice the way that it is contrasted from the wine which was served first. Given that the groom hadn’t originally planned for a miracle, he presumably did serve the good wine first. But this wine is even better
- The wine was abundant – with six jars each containing 20-30 gallons, you’re talking about the equivalent of around 900 bottles of wine. Even with a huge wedding party, that should be plenty!
But glory? Really? It’s a great miracle, but we were hoping for something spectacular1 and this hasn’t quite fit the bill!
Turn, then, to Isaiah 25 to see why this is especially incredible. The writer, John, has a good knowledge of the Old Testament – so he will have been well aware of this promise made 700 years before:
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the LORD; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
It’s a passage flowing with praise and celebration because an age of salvation has dawned. But did you notice a particular mark of that age? A feast laid with “well aged wine”, of “aged wine well refined”.
So Jesus was performing a miracle – a real miracle, which any of us could have seen if we were there in Cana 2000 years ago. And yet he was completing the miracle in fulfilment of an extraordinary prophecy – a prophecy that an age would come when God’s new kingdom would be established: a kingdom characterised by an amazing feast, by death being swallowed up … a kingdom characterised by salvation.
It might seem like a bit of a stretch, but see how much the language of these 4 verses crops up again through John 2-42. It was no accident that John picked out this miracle as the first of Jesus’ signs.
Does your language reflect the rich tapestry of the Bible?
John has much more to say, but it is striking that even at the beginning of his account, with a story that is fairly familiar to many Christians, he has given us a wonderfully three-dimensional picture of what Jesus came to offer. The language of ‘grace’, ‘salvation’ and ‘justification’ – wonderfully specific and necessary as they are – do not reflect the full complement of imagery that the Bible uses to explain what we have in Jesus.
Perhaps you wouldn’t consider this familiar – maybe you’re not even sure what to make of Jesus. I hope you can see that the claim of this eyewitness is that Jesus was much greater than a man – even greater than a miracle worker. John’s claim is that Jesus is nothing less than the One bringing salvation.
There, 2000 years ago, in a village somewhere in the Middle East, a man miraculously produced 900 bottles of top quality vintage out of some water from a well, to show something of that amazing age which is dawning – the age Jesus’ new kingdom. The kingdom we are drawn into isn’t a dry, boring kingdom. It is a kingdom pictured as a feast.
The Bible paints a much richer tapestry than I do. And John is about to challenge my limited view again…
- The King arrives … but not as you expect
- John 1:51, immediately preceding these verses, said ‘And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”‘ ↩
- There are other Old Testament passages that speak of this coming kingdom, and also use the image of wine. Consider for example Amos 9:11-15, which is probably also in view in these chapters of John’s gospel. ↩