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Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

21. Water into Wine (John 2:1-11)*


The apostle John is careful to specify both the time and place of the first miracle of Jesus. One is left wondering why there is no mention of it in Mark’s gospel, for Mark’s pen was really Peter’s and Peter was certainly present at the marriage at Cana.

It was appropriate enough that the beginning of the ministry of Jesus should be associated with a wedding (3: 29); but is it possible to imagine this joyful incident during the last year of the ministry? And Cana was in “the land of the shadow of death”(ls.9: 2), but it was there the light shined, it was there where Jesus “manifested forth his glory” (cp.also ls.40: 5).

John’s way of indicating the time is unusual - it was “the third day” from Jesus’ departure to “go forth into Galilee” (1: 43). The sequence of the days is so carefully picked out by John as to make it certain that he intends particular attention to be given to these facts;

The announcement of Messiah to the authorities
Day 1
1: 27,28
“Jesus the Lamb of God”
Day 2
1: 29
John’s disciples directed to Jesus
Day 3
1: 35
Andrew brings Simon
Day 4
1: 40,41
Jesus finds Philip
Day 5
1: 43
“The third day”, at Cana
Day 7
2: 1

The symbolic mind of John is already at work on these facts. (Was it not at the beginning of the seventh day that God gave Adam his bride; Gen. 2:2?) It soon becomes evident that the entire story of this wedding (or, more probably, betrothal? Study 7) at Cana – and indeed the entire gospel – is shot through with this interpretative attitude. Bald facts are not mentioned just for their own sake but for the meaning to be discerned in them. This becomes the more evident when there is an effort of imagination to consider also what the narrative omits.

It seems likely that Jesus was related to one of the two who were being married, for not only was he invited as a guest, and also his disciples (James and John were his cousins, let it be remembered), but also Mary, who is not mentioned by name in this gospel, “was there”, staying in the house, evidently helping beforehand with the preparations. This conclusion is made the more likely by the fact of her knowledge that the supply of wine was giving out. Her somewhat authoritative: “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it”, carries the same suggestion.

A further likelihood is that the bridegroom was Nathanael. When called to Christ he was sitting under a fig-tree thinking about how Jacob left home to seek a wife, and how he returned with a new name also. Is it coincidence that Cana suggests the meaning “surname”, and that this Hebrew word comes in what may be a very relevant passage in Isaiah? “One shall say, I am the Lord’s; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob) and another shall write on his hand “The Lord’s”, and surname himself by the name of Israel ... I will pour water upon him that is thirsty ... I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessings upon thine offspring” (Is. 44: 5,3).

The sudden shortage of wine for the feast tells clearly enough that it was only a humble home in which resources were strained to the limit by the festive occasion. It is important to remember this fact, for otherwise certain aspects of the miracle are not easy to understand. “Cana” also resembles Hebrew words for “vineyard” (Ps.80: 15 only) and “humble”.

Mary’s part in the Miracle

Mary, aware that difficulties had arisen, and evidently used to depending on Jesus, promptly appealed to her son, although the record does not say so explicitly. It may be that already the Lord’s miraculous powers were expected by some in his more intimate circle. Certainly Mary knew that John the Baptist was filling the role of Elijah-forerunner to one greater than himself. Then of course Jesus, like Elisha, would have a double endowment of the Spirit. Already at his baptism this bestowal of divine power had been witnessed. Was there not John’s testimony to this fact? So Mary’s hopes that day were singularly correct inferences of a mind with exceptional spiritual insight. John’s record takes her appeal for granted (cp. 11: 3).

Alford has a good comment here: “There certainly seems beneath this narrative to lie some incident which is not told us. For not only is Mary not repelled by the answer just given, but she is convinced that the miracle will be wrought, and she is not without anticipation of the method of working it: for how should He require the aid of the servants, except the miracle were to take place according to the form here related?”

Could it be that at the meal-table Jesus had been talking about ls.55:l? “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, break (bread), and eat; yea, come, buy wine and fatness without money and without price” - water and bread are changed into the wine and fatness of the Messianic feast (ls.25: 6). Or, possibly, the wedding poem in the Song of Songs, where the Bridegroom greets his Bride as “a well of living waters”, yet immediately goes on to rejoice in “my wine and my fatness” (4:15; 5:1).

However, Jesus discouraged his mother’s sanguine expectation that in some remarkable fashion he would make good the shortage of wine. The record seems to imply that Jesus said something further, as: “I want to help, but can’t decide what’s the best way.” It may be that he was held back by a natural inclination to let Jerusalem witness the beginning of his signs. Hence: “Mine hour is not yet come”.

There is nothing untoward about his addressing Mary as “Woman”. He used the same mode of speech again when speaking to her from the cross (19: 26). And the general implication of “What have I to do with thee?” appears to be: “Why do you bother me? Don’t trouble me about this” (2 Sam. 16: 10; 19: 22; 1 Kgs. 17: 18). That there is a suggestion of rebuke about the words can hardly be doubted. The days of subjection to his parents (Lk. 2: 51) were now ended.

It was noted earlier that when Jesus as a boy of twelve was found in the temple among the doctors of the law, Mary was unable to restrain a certain expression of pride in the fact that this remarkable lad was her son. And now at the wedding feast, how natural it was that she should take pride, by anticipation, in his ability to help in so marvellous and gracious a fashion. So Jesus had to resist gently the pressure she brought to bear on him, the more so since to work any marvel before the crowd of guests would mean that he would be immediately plunged into a maelstrom of excited popularity which would make difficult his intentions as teacher and prophet among the people.

A Clash of Inclinations

It was the second temptation over again, to use the powers of the Holy Spirit to create some sensation which would arrest attention and present him with an eager audience of listeners. So he shrugged off the challenge: “Mine hour is not yet come.” In retrospect, with the symbolic meaning of the miracle in mind,it becomes possible to see further meaning here: it was not yet an appropriate time for him to seize the initiative and take the limelight from John the Baptist (4: 1).

Yet Jesus was by natural disposition so kind that he could neither disappoint his mother nor contemplate unmoved the mortification of the young couple at having their wedding celebration marred by lack of wine. So with a compromise he saved the situation.

The Lord had observed six large stone water jars just outside the house. They each had a capacity of at least twenty gallons. A traveller in Palestine early last century commented on seeing massive water jars of this sort lying around at Cana. Clearly they were not regarded as holy relics, but two of them, still surviving, have now achieved that dignity, and it is not utterly out of question that they deserve it. These water pots at the wedding had domestic or rabbinic (v. 6) uses (but not Mosaic).

A Miracle for His Disciples.

A careful reading of the details reveals that the water with which the large water-pots were filled up only became wine when it was carried to the table. “The servants which drew the water knew.” Thus the only persons who witnessed the change were the servants who poured out the water and carried it as wine to the guests. Apparently inconsistent with this is the emphatic declaration with which John rounds off the story: “he manifested forth his glory, and his disciples believed on him” (2: 11). But how could they appreciate the fact of the miracle and so be confirmed in their belief in Jesus unless they witnessed it?

The Greek word for “servants” smooths out this difficulty. It is not the word normally used for “servants”. It means “helpers, ministers.” This, (together with the indications, already touched on, which suggest poor people and a humble home) points to the probability that, just as at a Christadelphian Fraternal Gathering volunteers wait on the others at fable, so also here, the six disciples of Jesus took it on themselves to wait on the rest. It would be a man’s job to handle those massive water jars. Thus, as volunteer water-pourers they knew that water was poured into the jugs and decanters carried to the table, but that it was wine which came out of them. The glory of Christ — in this case, his miraculous power — was manifested to his disciples, and to no one else, and they believed on him.

The finest last.

In more ways than one the situation was saved that day. For not only was there wine enough for all, and the very finest, too, but also the bride and bridegroom were kept from embarrassment; instead there was added jollity when the “ruler of the feast’ — the best man or one of the leading guests — threw in his facetious comments about the serious unconventionality in arranging to keep the best wine till, as he somewhat crudely put it, those at the feast “have been got drunk”. It is, as everyone knows, a well-entrenched principle of human behaviour to seek always to show the best first.

But not so with God: “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him”(Ps.126:6); “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps 30: 5).

Did Jesus change into wine all the water in the stone jars? The commentators (that is, except the modernists who confidently question whether there was any miracle) almost all assume that he did. In that case what a wedding gift this was! — something like 120 gallons of wine of the finest quality. But wine can be a mocker. It is hard to believe that Jesus would put temptation in the way of any whom he sought to bless. Far more likely, and with special harmony for the spiritual principles behind this acted parable, it was only the water which was poured out as needed which became wine.

Cana in Zebulun

The place where this wonder was experienced lay in the territory of the tribe of Zebulun. Centuries before, Moses had prophesied: “Rejoice, O Zebulun, in that which cometh forth forthee” (Dt. 33: 18). And centuries earlier than that, prophetess Leah had gloried in the birth of her sixth son: “God hath dowried me with a good dowry; now will my husband dwell (zabal) with me, for I have born six sons: and she called his name Zebulun” (Gen.30: 20). The word “dowry” was a strange one to use about a marriage already so long established, but there is appropriateness to Cana of Galilee, for the Hebrew word iszabad, Zebedee, whose sons were two of the six whom Jesus had gathered around him (and taken with him to Cana) at this time.

An Acted Parable

“This beginning of signs did Jesus in Cana of Galilee.” John never refers to the miracles of Jesus by any other word. To him they are exercises of divine power full of special meaning for those who appreciated the symbolism of ordinary detail in the way in which John himself evidently did. Thus the eight signs in John’s gospel are eight acted parables. Water especially plays a big part in the symbolism of this unique record (see Notes).

The wine that failed is apt enough as a symbol of the sacrifices under the Law of Moses which had failed to unite Israel to God as a bride to her husband. The six waterpots “filled to the brim” almost demand to be equated with the six disciples whom Jesus had with him, all of them men who had felt the influence of John the Baptist “after the manner of the purifying of the Jews.” But now it required faith in Christ and obedience in his service to change the teaching they had received into a yet more satisfying theme, convincing men that what God now provided was better than the first. The good wine kept until now” was like blood poured out, yet gladdening the heart of men with its pungent sweetness.

Various other details harmonize with an interpretative reading such as this. For instance, the “betrothal” symbolized the present union of the redeemed with Christ (as also in Mt. 22: 2). “What he saith to you, do it” now has special meaning. Those who are the Lord’s ministers must first be “filled to the brim”. And some hold more of the teaching than others. The water becomes wine only when it is wanted, and when there is ready obedience to the Lord’s instructions. The ruler of the feast (as though in the place of John the Baptist?) gives all the credit for the wine’s fine quality to the Bridegroom.

It was, truly, a manifestation of his glory (ls.40: 5). At Sinai God had promised that the glory associated with Moses (Ex.l9:9) would constrain the people to “believe thee for ever”. Now that was in abeyance, for “grace and truth were come by Jesus Christ.” Here was the beginning of his signs — from which emphatic statement the reader may learn that the garish childhood miracles described in the apocryphal gospels are utterly false.

The six disciples had believed in Jesus before they got to Cana, but now they believed more firmly than ever. This fourth gospel never uses the word “faith” (pistis), but “believe” (pisteuo)comes no less the 110 times. This is pre-eminently the gospel of faith.

Until after the resurrection of Jesus this is the first and last time that John’s record tells of a whole-hearted belief in their Leader by these men whom he had attracted to himself. In the days ahead there was to be many an occasion of doubt and questioning, many a night when the flame of faith would be but dim, guttering, smoky, well nigh useless. Yet it never went out, but survived the winds of adversity to burn with a strong clear light which no power on earth could quench.

Notes: John 2:1-11

4.
There were times when Jesus had to speak bluntly; e.g. 4: 48; Mk.3: 32-35; Mt.8: 21,22; and of course in some of his encounters with the Pharisees.

Not yet come. Practically every occurrence of this verb implies divine action.
5.
Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. These are the last recorded words of Mary. She quoted Gen. 41: 55 — the obscure Servant now coming forward to full prominence and authority.
6.
The purifying of the Jews. This gospel is dotted with explanatory notes of this character: 1: 38,41,42; 2: 13; 4: 9; 5: 2; 6: 1,4; 9: 7; 11: 55; 20: 16. They suggest that John was writing for a readership outside Palestine.
7.
Water. In John’s gospel always important, and always symbolic: 1: 25-33; 2: 1-11; 3: 5,22; 4: 1-15; 5: 1-9; 7: 37; 9: 7; 13: 5-17; 19: 34.
9.
Water that was made wine. Moses had turned water to blood; Ex.7: 20 He also made bitter water sweet, but this was by means of The Tree (15: 23).

Called the bridegroom. He called out as though to make sure that everybody heard him.

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