Meditating on Great Themes in John: 4. The Life Transformer
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.
So far, John has given us light-bulb revelations, knowledge of Jesus that comes in quick bursts through the mouths of others. Suddenly that all changes. As we move into chapter 2 John recounts an incident, early in Jesus’ ministry, that he calls the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs. John is big on signs; he sees the miracles of Jesus as signs that reveal him for what he is. We find the phrase ‘miraculous signs’ appear in 2:1, 2:23, 3:2, 4:48, 6:2, 6:26, 7:31, 9:16, 11:47, 12:37 and 20:30, i.e. 11 times! The words ‘miraculous sign’ appear in 2:18, 4:54, 6:14 , 6:30, 10:41 and 12:18 i.e. another 6 times. So seventeen times John refers to Jesus’ miraculous activities as signs pointing to himself. We will also see later the number of times John uses the word ‘testify’. The two things go together as ways things point to Jesus to reveal who he is.
So here we find Jesus and his first followers a few days later at a wedding in Cana back in Galilee. They are there because Jesus’ mother is a guest and so Jesus has been included and he simply brings along his few followers. It’s an ordinary wedding but soon things go wrong: the wine runs out. Some Christians are a little sensitive about drinking alcohol but whether this was full blown wine or watered down wine, the fact is that wine was the drink to have at a celebration because it tasted good and it lightened people up. Don’t forget that latter part. Yes the apostle Paul did teach, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” (Eph 5:18) The thrust of his teaching was don’t lose self control.
So the wine runs out which would be both a cause of shame to those organizing the wedding celebrations and a dampener on the remainder of the party. To cut the story short for emphasis, Jesus gets large jars filled with water and then turns that water into what turns out to be very good quality wine. Now we sometimes so focus on the nuts and bolts of a story that we miss the big picture, the things being revealed in the wider sense.
First, this is a miracle, of that there can be no doubt. If Jesus had leant on a neighbour or nearby friend who had a large source of top quality wine, the logistics of ferrying it all in without anyone knowing would have made that impossible. Similarly if this story got out afterwards and it had not been true, the servants would have said so. Likewise there is no possibility that the person running the celebration would have held back a secret store of top quality wine because a) that would have reflected badly on him when the news of no more wine leaked out, and b) the practice was to use the best wine first and then bring out the poorer quality wine when every had had too much to drink (v.10) and were less discerning!
Second, this is about transformation. At the heart of it is water being transformed into wine, the ordinary being transformed into the special. Water simply slakes thirst, wine blesses the palate and releases the heart: “wine makes life merry.” (Eccles 10:19) There is no doubt about it that alcohol in small measure lifts the spirits (sorry for the pun!). Yes, in excess it causes unpleasantness, but winegrowing was a particular characteristic of the Promised Land. Remember the spies came back bringing bunches of grapes from Canaan (see Num 13:23). It had already got Lot to act without knowledge there for drinking too much of the produce! (see Gen 19:32-35)
But this is a major issue in this particular incident. Jesus isn’t simply helping out, he is revealing his purpose in life to bring life transformation, from the humdrum to the boosted joyfulness. Do you remember when the Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost the effect on the disciples was to have some to accuse them of being drunk (Acts 2:13). Joy is a normal response to being filled with the Holy Spirit.
When Luke was recording the early events of Jesus’ ministry, he used the incident of Jesus reading the scroll in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19 quoting Isa 61) That also is all about life transformation. Luke’s record had been around many years so John didn’t need to repeat it. Instead he conveys the same thing but through the first of the acts of Jesus, the miraculous signs.
Jesus in his teaching conveyed this, speaking indirectly of what he was doing as ‘new wine’: “Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Mt 9:17) The message is clear, Jesus came to bring an effervescent life to replace the gloom and darkness of the sin-laden life. As Jesus’ ministry developed and crowds were healed, joy must have been the primary characteristic of what was going on. That is what Jesus had come to bring and John conveys it through this miracle.