Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Water into Wine: The Significance of the Sign in John 2:1–11

The turning of the water into wine is one of Jesus’ most famous miracles. The narrator of John’s Gospel calls this ἀρχὴν τῶν σημείων the first of the signs that Jesus performed during his public ministry (John 2:11; compare with John 20:30–31; 21:25). If this miracle is a sign, it is appropriate to ask what its significance is.

The detail that Jesus created the wine in six stone jars that were used for Jewish ceremonial washing is important (John 2:6). Each jar could hold about 75–115 liters, which means that together they could have held enough water to fill a Jewish ceremonial immersion pool. It can also be implied from Jesus’ instruction to the servants to fill the jars with water (see John 2:7) that these jars were originally empty or close to such. This is also an important detail.

Jesus filling the jars with water, and subsequently transforming this water into good-quality wine, points to the truth that Jesus is the full-fill-ment of Judaism. The empty state of the jars, and the fact that there were six jars, symbolizes the dryness, barrenness, and incompleteness of the old covenant age. The Old Testament was a time when the work of the Holy Spirit was limited. But Jesus has come to give the Spirit and life and joy in abundance; and as a result, the old covenant age of emptiness and thirst has been replaced by the new covenant age of abundance. This fulfills Yahweh’s promise in Isa 44:3: “I will pour out water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.” The time of the new covenant would be a time when the thirsty were invited to come and drink, to “buy wine and milk without money and without price” from the Davidic leader and commander of the peoples (Isa 55:1–4). John’s Gospel presents Jesus of Nazareth as being the fulfillment of this Old Testament hope, and the miracle at Cana points to the fact that Jesus has come to change old covenant curse into new covenant blessing (Ezek 34:26; Zech 8:13; Gal 3:13–14).

In addition, the fact that this miracle involved Jesus making wine signifies that Jesus has come in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies that describe the new covenant age in terms of an abundance of new wine. For example, in Isa 25:6 it is prophesied: “On this mountain [i.e., Jerusalem] Yahweh 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.” This divine provision of wine occurs as part of an eschatological feast, which is connected with the abolition of sadness and death on a universal scale: “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 Yahweh will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth” (Isa 25:7–8). The Old Testament often associates divine blessing with an abundance of wine (see Deut 33:28; Jer 31:11–12; Joel 2:19–27; Zech 9:16–17).

On a deeper level, the sign performed by Jesus at Cana stands as a witness to God’s plan for the world. In terms of the bigger picture, world history involves a movement from curse to blessing, from sadness to joy, from death to life, corresponding in large part to the movement from the old covenant to the new, wherein God saves the best till last.

This idea about God saving the best till last is emphasized through the way in which the episode in John 2:1–11 finishes. When the servants took some of the water that had been turned into wine to the master of the banquet, the master of the banquet was amazed, not just at the quality of the wine, but also because of the late timing of its serving:

“When the master of the banquet tasted the water which had become wine and did not know where it was from … [he] called the bridegroom, and said to him, ‘Everyone sets the good wine first; and when they have had too much to drink, the inferior. But you have kept the good wine until now’” (John 2:10).

The master of the banquet was presumably unaware of the deeper significance of his statement, but it captures brilliantly God’s way of working in history, and that is exactly why it is recorded here in John’s Gospel. The statement of the master of the banquet that “you have kept the good wine until now” is statement about God’s way of acting in world history through Jesus. By entering the world in the person of Jesus near the end of world history, God has kept the good wine until the end. God has saved the best till last!

Understanding that God is saving the best till last affords us a profound insight into the purpose of the cosmos. God could have arranged for sin never to have entered our world, but he chose not to structure world history that way. God could have sent Jesus and unleashed the full power of his Spirit shortly after Adam and Eve had sinned, but he chose not to structure world history that way. Rather, God would take his time. This is consistent with the fact that God took six long days to create and order the world before it was “completed” and “very good” (Gen 1:31–2:1). The time frame of creation itself points to the idea that God’s plan for human history would get worked out over time. And as part of this process, God was saving the best till last.

But why would God act in this way? Why take his time? We can frequently become impatient with God and his timetable. At times we are unwilling to accept that suffering continues. We sometimes question God as to why he is not seemingly doing anything. Even Mary wanted Jesus to act before his time had come (John 2:3–4). But God is taking his time, and saving the best till last, because that is the process that is most conducive from God’s perspective for his overarching purpose of self-revelation. History is his story; and like with any story, it takes time to tell it. You cannot appreciate the ending of a story without knowing the preceding narrative. Our experience of the negative helps us to appreciate the positive. That is simply the way that God in his infinite wisdom has chosen to structure things.

God’s saving of the best till last is connected with the revelation of Jesus’ miraculous power and his divine glory (John 2:11). The miracle of turning the water into wine was “the beginning of [Jesus’] signs” because it signifies how the best has come with Jesus. This sign tells us that Jesus has come to complete God’s plan of salvation. Jesus is the one who changes emptiness into fullness, sadness into joy, and death into life. In this way, Jesus is the full-fill-ment of the Old Testament hope of life and salvation. In Jesus, the best has been saved till last, and has “now” been revealed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Seven Day Structure of John 1:29–2:11

The four pericopes that make up John 1:29–2:11 have been given a particular setting in time by the author of John’s Gospel. The first three pericopes are each introduced by the phrase τῇ ἐπαύριον on the next day (John 1:29, 35, 43), and the final pericope is introduced with the words καὶ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ and on the third day (John 2:1). The presence of these adverbials of time forces the reader to question why they are present.

All in all, when taken sequentially, it seems like John 1:19–2:11 has been deliberately structured according to a seven day pattern:

Day 1  John 1:19–28
Day 2“on the next day”  John 1:29–34
Day 3“on the next day”John 1:35–42
Day 4“on the next day”John 1:43–51
Day 7“on the third day”John 2:1–11

Given the author’s obvious concern with Gen 1 in John 1:1–5 (as seen in the phrase in the beginning, which is a quotation of the first phrase of the Bible in Gen 1:1; and also in John’s concern with the concepts of creation, life, light, darkness, which are key themes in Gen 1), it makes sense to take the seven day structure of John 1:19–2:11 as presenting the first seven days of Jesus’ ministry after his baptism. If creation week back in the beginning involved a seven day time period, then the suggestion seems to be that Jesus’ ministry involves a kind of re-creation. This seven day sequence serves to remind the reader that, through Jesus, a new beginning has arrived for creation. Jesus’ entrance into the world is a new episode in which God’s creative and life-giving power, mediated through the Spirit, is going to be made manifest in the cosmos. The climax of this new creation week is Jesus’ first recorded miracle, the turning of the water into wine.

Concerning the final episode in this sequence, the phrase on the third day in John 2:1 is most likely meant to be taken as indicating that the miracle of turning the water into wine took place three days after the previous episode, i.e., on the seventh day. Given Jesus’ habit of performing miracles on the Sabbath (John 5:9; 9:14; see also Matt 12:9–13; Mark 3:1–5; Luke 6:6–10; 13:10–16), we are probably meant to understand that the day when this miracle took place was not just the seventh day of Jesus’ ministry after his baptism, but also literally the seventh day of the week, that is, the Sabbath. The fact that Jesus seems to have performed the sign of turning the water into wine on a Sabbath day helps in understanding the significance of this miracle and the seven day structure in John 1:19–2:11. Jesus has come to usher in the eternal Sabbath rest, which will be a time of joy and celebration amidst the fullness of God’s new covenant provision and blessing.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Eureka Theme of John 1

One of the interesting minor themes of John 1 is the eureka theme. The word eureka occurs in the English language as an exclamation that is used upon finding or discovering something important. It is a classic expression that is used, for example, when miners find gold. The word eureka is a transliteration of the Greek word εὕρηκα, which means I have found.

The word εὕρηκα does not occur in John 1, but on five occasions in two adjacent pericopes the verb εὑρίσκω find is employed. The relevant pericopes are John 1:35–42 and John 1:43–51.

It is recorded in John 1:41 that Andrew first finds (εὑρίσκει) his brother, Simon. He then told Simon, “We have found (εὑρήκαμεν) the Messiah.” John 1:35–42, therefore, contains a double eureka. Andrew found his brother, and then told him about what they had found regarding Jesus being the Messiah. When a person finds something precious or important, it is natural to want to share that news with others.

In John 1:43–51 we have a triple eureka. Jesus finds (εὑρίσκει) Philip, and asks him to follow him (John 1:43). Jesus’ mission on earth can be thought of as involving Jesus going out and finding disciples. Philip then finds (εὑρίσκει) Nathanael, and tells him, “We have found (εὑρήκαμεν) the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and the prophets, Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Nazareth” (John 1:46). Once again, having found Jesus, Jesus’ disciples go out to find others to share with them what they have found regarding Jesus Christ.

By way of summary, in the two pericopes of John 1:35–42 and John 1:43–51, εὑρίσκει he finds occurs three times (in vv. 41, 43, 45), and εὑρήκαμεν we have found twice (in vv. 41, 45). The effect of this is to create a finding or eureka theme. Jesus finds disciples; his disciples then find others, and tell them what they have found in Jesus.

From this it is possible to speak about a triple eureka purpose to life. Having been created to know God, our job is to find and to follow the Messiah, Jesus. Following Jesus then involves us finding others, and telling them what we have found regarding Jesus. If we have found Jesus, and if we are convinced that he is the God-appointed Savior of the world, then going out and telling others about this should be natural. Evangelism is not about bashing people over the head with the Christian religion; but as opportunity presents itself, it should be natural for Christians to share what they know about Jesus with others. Evangelism is not about selling an idea or a product. According to John 1, evangelism is sharing with others our eureka experience regarding the messianic status of Jesus of Nazareth.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Confession of John the Baptist in John 1:20

John 1:20 records John the Baptist’s testimony that he was not the Christ. To some readers, the narrator’s comment that John the Baptist “did not deny” that he was the Christ seems a little strange because saying or I am not Z sounds to us like a denial. The narrator of John’s Gospel at this point says that John the Baptist “confessed and did not deny, but confessed” that he was not the Christ. The narrator portrays John the Baptist’s statement in John 1:20—particularly through the repetition of the word ὡμολόγησεν he confessed—as being a confession rather than a denial.

In order to understand the way in which John the Baptist’s statement was a confession rather than a denial, it should be noted that the delegation that had been sent from Jerusalem to interrogate him (see John 1:19) did not ask John the Baptist if he was the Christ. Up till that point in time, all that they had asked him was: “Who are you?” (John 1:19). John the Baptist’s statement that he was not the Christ is called a confession instead of a denial because he came out immediately with the statement that he was not the Christ even though he had not been asked previously by the delegation if he was the Christ. John would have known that the Jewish leaders might have been wondering if he was claiming to be a messianic figure. Other historical persons had sought to pass themselves off previously as messianic figures (in order to gain a following); but John was keen for the Jewish leaders, and for people in general, to understand very clearly that he was not the Christ. So the first thing that John the Baptist said to the delegation was his (negative) confession: “I am not the Christ.”

This confession on the lips of John the Baptist develops one of the prominent themes of John 1, that John the Baptist is not the Christ but has come in order to testify about (i.e., to identify) the Christ (see John 1:7–8, 15, 29, 31, 33, 36).