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to give the Spirit and life and joy in abundance; and as a result, the old covenant age of emptiness and thirst has been replaced by the new covenant age of abundance.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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I am in the process of thinking through how the stories of Jesus fulfill OT stories, not necessarily 'prophesies' and although you haven't connected to any OT story, I still sensed a Holy Spirit teaching moment happening. Thank you. Our cleansing is through the blood, not through water washing ceremony, thank you Jesus.