10. A Degenerate Religion

Short Meditations in John 2:  10. A Degenerate Religion

Jn 2:14  In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.

Arriving in Jerusalem it is not surprising that Jesus made his way to the Temple. Now one would assume that he had come there many times before on pilgrimages to Jerusalem  and would have known what the state of the place was like. It was unlikely that it has just come about like this in the relatively short period since he had last been here for one of the ‘feasts’.

The ‘temple courts’ were likely to have been the outer area where any Gentiles who wished to worship God could pray, so it still was supposed to be a ‘worship/prayer’ area of the temple.

Now of course sacrifices were a large part of the ceremonial elements of the Law and so what we find is that the temple authorities, partly to make life easier for worshippers who wanted to conform to the requirements of the Law, but largely no doubt to make money, were providing beasts for sacrifice. How much easier not to have to herd a cow or sheep all the way from home, often many miles and many days travel away. How much easier to buy an animal there at the temple and then just had it over for sacrifice. How easy! No sacrifice on behalf of the worshipper.  The truth is that the Law did not specify that the animal had to come from your own flock or herd but what we find here is ‘managed religion’ that has become more of a business than a holy procedure before the Lord.

The temple also had its own money that was different from Roman coinage (and had no heathen embellishments) and so the authorities provided a means for people coming with Roman coinage to change it into the less idolatrous local money. Hence the presence of money changers in the temple courts.

One way or another, religion became a business and we’ll see that upset Jesus. However, as much as we might look down on such a time, honesty compels us to ask ourselves, are some modern expressions of church life as much a business-led activity? Do we rely on human wisdom, human rules, humans ways of working and planning and strategising and making money to run the church? How much of modern church life depends on human reasoning and planning and so on instead of Jesus-led, Holy Spirit inspired, God honouring good works that have their origins in heaven?

9. Following the Law

Short Meditations in John 2:  9. Following the Law

Jn 2:13  When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Of course when the feasts were first inaugurated in the Law, Jerusalem did not exist as the capital of Israel (as they had not yet even entered the land!). Yet within the Law we find, Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. No man should appear before the LORD empty-handed.” (Deut 16:16)  With the advent of kings of Israel and the taking of Jerusalem, it became usual for the various feasts to have their main focus at Jerusalem and for many this became a regular pilgrimage. Passover was one of the most important of the feasts.

Thus we now find that because it was the time for Passover Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Note John’s insertion of the word ‘Jewish’ because he is now writing for a world-wide audience and thus needs to spell out specific Jewish things. John mentions these feasts a number of time, e.g. 5:1(a feast), 6:4 (Passover), 7:2 (Tabernacles), 10:22 (Dedication – Hanukkah), 11:55 (Passover) and 13:1 (Passover). These feasts were firmly held by the Jews because they were one way that they held on to their identity under the yoke of Rome. It was also, of course, a way of keeping the Law.

For whatever the reason, Jesus appears to have faithfully attended the feasts in Jerusalem which, while he was fulfilling his ministry in the north in Galilee, was both an interruption and a threat. The Jews of Jerusalem clearly found him a threat and it was that which eventually caused the confrontation and his death. Nevertheless Jesus was confident in his safety and so continued to follow the Law and go to Jerusalem, perhaps also to be an example to his followers to remain good Jews.

Each time he appeared in Jerusalem something happened which perhaps just kept him before the attention of the powers in the city. Perhaps we might say, he just kept the kettle boiling over those three years until the crisis at the end of the third year. The feast of the Passover was particularly significant as it remembered the events of the Exodus and the deliverance from Egypt and God’s judgement on Pharaoh and his people, and also His means of saving His people from the destroying angel – the blood of a lamb. As John has recently declared Jesus to be the Lamb, this is perhaps especially significant.

8. Moving On

Short Meditations in John 2:  8. Moving on

Jn 2:12  After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.

Simple verses sometimes say so much but also provoke lots of questions because the Bible narrative never seeks to be complete – merely sufficient. From Cana in central Galilee, Jesus and his family now move to Capernaum. Note there are a whole group of them: Jesus, his mother, his brothers (?and sisters) and his disciples. Already it appears he is taking the role of leadership and the others come with him.

“There they stayed for a few days.” Soon, as we’ll see in the following verses he will go up to Jerusalem but for the moment they stay in Capernaum for a short time. We aren’t told anything that happened there, simply that they went there and stayed there a few days. Capernaum is going to feature often in the accounts of Jesus ministry, this town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It would appear to be outside Capernaum on the lakeside that Jesus called the first four fishermen before going back into the town (Mark 1:16-21). Perhaps this first trip was simply to establish a base there, perhaps rent a house there from which they could come and go. Frustratingly the account leaves us wondering.

Again and again we find this in the Gospels. They are full of very specific accounts and yet those accounts are really just the bare bones of what took place.  The fact is that Jesus moved on from Cana; that had been just a temporary stop before moving on elsewhere. That’s how it seems again and again with Jesus’ ministry – he keeps on moving on to the next place.

We like to establish ourselves in one place (and there’s nothing wrong with that) and we like what is familiar – but Jesus is constantly wanting to move life on, move on encountering people, move on to bring his Father’s love to more and more people. In our lives today he will be seeking to move us on. Perhaps we like sermons that are familiar and predictable, covering the basics of the Gospel over and over again, but Jesus wants us to change, to grow up in understanding, in character, in personality, in service. The writer to the Hebrews chided his readers: We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Heb 5:11,12) Jesus wants us to grow up!

7. Explanation – a Sign

Short Meditations in John 2:  7. Explanation – a sign

Jn 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.

Presumably they told the master of the banquet what happened but we aren’t told. John simply wraps up this first miracle in his Gospel in this brief declaration: it is a sign, it points to Jesus and it shows who he is. John sees such miracles as sign posts to Jesus so what does this first sign say about Jesus?

Well first, and most obviously, he can take that which is ordinary (water)  and turn it into something special (wine). Indeed isn’t that exactly at the very heart of all Jesus came to do? He came to transform lives, he came to take ordinary lives, lives living in the ways of the world, enslaved to sin, estranged  from God, lives that were helpless and hopeless, and utterly transforms them.

Any description of Christianity and the Gospel that does not emphasise and declare this falls short. The whole purpose of Jesus coming, revealing the Father and dying for our  sins, is so that our lives might be utterly transformed, cleansed of sin, forgiven by God and adopted as His Sons, empowered by the Holy Spirit and promised a place in heaven in eternity, so what more could one ask for?  That life on this earth be transformed as well!

And that is his intention, that the work of cleansing, forgiveness, adoption and empowering is not just for eternity after we die, it is also to transform our lives, here and now and for all the years of living that we have on this earth. As different is wine from water, so is the life in Christ from the life before we knew him, that is what this is all about.

There is a sense whereby one wonders if Jesus, when he took up the invitation to go to the wedding, knew exactly what was going to happen and so used it to declare (for those who had eyes to see) the purpose of his coming – life transformation – through the amazing picture of water being changed into wine.

But there should perhaps we something else says to us: whatever and whenever we get into a crisis, if Jesus is there he can transform the crisis. With his grace, his wisdom and his power, no crisis need ever stay the same. He has come to rescue us in more ways that one and it is very practical. Commit today’s difficulties to him!

6. Questions

Short Meditations in John 2:  6. Questions

Jn 2:9,10   the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

Wherever Jesus was and with whatever he was doing, there was always a consequence that we sometimes miss or take for granted – questions were raised. For example at the beginning of his ministry in the Nazareth synagogue, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.” (Lk 4:22)  Then when he went to the Capernaum synagogue and taught and cast out a demon, “All the people were amazed and said to each other, “What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!” (Lk 4:36) and then when he healed the paralysed man on a stretcher and proclaimed him forgiven, “The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Lk 5:21)

Again and again we find that the things Jesus said and did caused comment and raised questions. When God steps into life and changes life and circumstances, it is not surprising that people question and wonder. When God speaks it challenges people: “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” Lk 1:29) As with Mary, so with the birth of John the Baptist: “Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.” (Lk 1:66) As it happened in the New Testament, so it also happened in the Old: “But sir,” Gideon replied, “if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us?” (Jud 6:13)

When God speaks and acts our ideas are challenged and no more so than at this wedding. When the Steward or master of the Wedding Banquet was presented with the new wine that tasted old and good, he was perplexed. Most people used the good wine first and then when people had drunk a lot and probably didn’t care so much, they brought out the cheaper wine, but in this place the situation was reversed. The wine that was brought out now was best quality. What was this all about? Of course the bridegroom would not know – but we do. To the embarrassment of many, Jesus made the best quality wine!

5. Nothing is as it seems

Short Meditations in John 2:  5. Nothing is as it seems

Jn 2:6   Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons

We look at the world around us and we think we know and understand it. This is a brick wall and you can’t walk through brink walls. This is water and that is all it is. We know how things work. But that is just the material world that God made and what God made He can change. With God,. nothing is just as it seems. At one point in the Gospels Jesus, and then Peter, walked on water, but you can’t do that because water is liquid and liquid won’t hold a man – but it did. Here is a blind man and blind me stay blind – except not when they encounter Jesus. Here is a dead man and dead men stay dead – except not when they encounter Jesus. No, when God and Jesus step into the equation, everything is not as it seems, everything is up for grabs!

So John gives us some simple information about the ‘material conditions’: Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.” (v.6) They are empty jars and so, “Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.” (v.7) So here we have big stone jars full of water. No questions and no doubt about it. If any clown tries to explain it away by saying Jesus imported good wine, a) where would he have got such wine from at such short notice and b) wouldn’t the steward of the wedding have done it if it was possible, and c) how could that volume be got into the house without others seeing and knowing. No, stone jars – and water!

So there it is. Nothing strange or unusual so far – except Jesus getting the servants to fill jars with water. Why would he want to do that?  Incidentally, in passing, note that Jesus has become involved and is doing something, though it is a strange something. Note also there are no prayers, no speaking special words over these jars, nothing out of the ordinary happening!  But watch!

“Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.” (v.8,9) What? Where did that come from, that last little reference to wine? Was the water changed into wine in the jars or was it as they drew some off? Were the servants aware of this and if so, why weren’t they making a big fuss about what had just happened?  Whatever it was, it was a miracle!

4. Good Advice

Short Meditations in John 2:  4. Good Advice

Jn 2:5    His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

There are times when a verse or piece of Scripture almost seems too simple to heed. Mary has brought to Jesus’ attention the fact that the wedding party has run out of wine. We might wonder, in retrospect, if the son of God ever needed anything drawing to his attention! Nevertheless she has done so and he has declined to do anything about it, but perhaps she knows her son and has faith in him that he will not see a need and not do something about it. Whatever is in her thinking she simply says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now this suggests she has a relationship with the wedding party whereby she could give orders to the servants and they would obey, or was she simply someone of such stature in the community that she was used to giving orders. The possibilities are interesting but we aren’t given any background.  Whatever is the truth, she instructs them accordingly with an instruction which of itself is so simple and, in the light of all that we know of Jesus, must act as the summary of all that is required of a Christian: do what Jesus tells you.

What she thought Jesus might do again is merely a matter of speculation. What Jesus might tell me to do today again is purely a matter for conjecture because until it happens I won’t know. It must have been like that being a disciple of Jesus, wandering around Galilee, following him wherever he went, not knowing what the day would bring, never knowing who they would meet and what Jesus would do.

When the apostle Paul wrote, “We live by faith not by sight,” (2 Cor 5:7) his intent must have been something like this. Where Jesus leads, we follow, what Jesus says, we do, or at least that is how it is supposed to be.  The fact that today we have his word as general guidance and his Spirit for specific daily guidance – and the latter is not always easy to hear – it may be that we sometimes miss it. Yet that surely must be our intention – to do what he says because putting it most simply, the Son of God knows best. His knowledge is unlimited and his wisdom is unlimited and he knows everything there is to know about us, and he knows what is best for us.

I wonder if, in reality, that is how we live our lives as Christians, with the knowledge that Jesus knows best and we need to learn to hear him and then do what he says, whatever area or aspect of our lives it covers, for that surely is what being a disciple is all about.

3. Jesus’ Timetable

Short Meditations in John 2:  3. Jesus’ Timetable

Jn 2:3-5   When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

As John’s Gospel appears to be the recollections of one man, John (as distinct from a collection as in say Luke), it is interesting to speculate that John was one of the ones at the wedding and how, in old age, he mused over the things he can still remember. He sees in his mind’s eye Mary turning to Jesus and quietly saying, “They have no more wine.” At this point John has no great expectations of Jesus and so is slightly surprised at Jesus’ slightly abrupt, “Why do you involve me?” Well, John might have thought, because she looks to you as the man of the house now your father has gone (no mention of Joseph in Jesus’ latter days – we assumed he has died).

But then Jesus adds something that might have had John wondering: “My time has not come.”  At the time John might have been a bit perplexed by that but perhaps later on he came to realise that Jesus had a timetable that he was working to, Jesus’ timing is not accidental. We find similar things later in the Gospel, e.g. Jesus told them, “The right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right…. You go to the Feast. I am not yet going up to this Feast, because for me the right time has not yet come,” (Jn  7:6 & 8) and then, “At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come,” (Jn 7:30) and then, “He spoke these words while teaching in the temple area near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his time had not yet come.” (Jn 8:20)

There are a number of other time references in John that indicate Jesus was aware of what was yet to happen, e.g. “Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem….Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,” (Jn 4:21 & 23) and “I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” (Jn 5:25) and “Jesus said, “I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the one who sent me.” (Jn 7:33) and “Jesus said…”Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (Jn 12:30-32)  The message is clear: throughout Jesus is aware of a timetable of things to achieve.

2. An Expectant Mother

Short Meditations in John 2:  2. An Expectant Mother

Jn 2:3-5   When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Life has its little problems and sometimes they are not so little. It is traditional for a celebration to be accompanied by drink and in this culture it was wine and now we find the wedding people have drunk dry the supplies laid in. Problem! Big Problem! We don’t often think about this aspect of it but this could have become the talking point of Cana for the next six months: “Do you remember when old (whoever) didn’t get enough wine in and they ran out and how the whole celebration went flat! How could someone be that short sighted? Whatever you do, you get in enough drink for this sort of do!”

As yet it doesn’t appear to have become a big issue but somehow Mary has heard about it. Perhaps she is close to members of this family, perhaps she was helping out as the women friends might do. Whatever it was, she finds out that they are in trouble. Now here’s where it gets interesting: she turns to Jesus and simply tells him “They have no more wine.”  She isn’t going to tell him what to do but clearly there is implied in this simple statement an invitation for him to do something.

Now of course, knowing all that followed, we assume that Mary is inviting Jesus to do something miraculous but unless some of the weird and wonderful non-canonical stories about Jesus’ childhood are true, and he had been known for doing strange miraculous things, even if she thought highly of him she would not be expecting that – but she clearly expects something, otherwise it is pure gossip. Jesus clearly thinks she is putting pressure on him by his response which we’ll see in the next meditation, so what is she expecting. Well I suppose it is possible that she expects the miraculous from her son but it may be that she is simply inviting him to go out to neighbours or friends and try and obtain more wine. It could be that simple. It could be that she is about to be surprised, because John tells us this is the first of the miraculous signs that Jesus performed (v.11).

The obvious application question that must flow out of this is, when we start running into difficulties in life, do we turn to Jesus for help (especially as we now know who he is) and is our expectation of him on a par with him being the all-powerful and all-wise Son of God? Mary didn’t tell him what to do, only invited his help. Is that how we pray?

1. A Wedding

Short Meditations in John 2:   1. A Wedding

Jn 2:1,2    On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.

The third day? The third day after the last mentioned incident with Nathaniel? Whenever it was what follows happened back in the north  in Galilee in the town of Cana. Jesus, presumably with the first of the disciples who had followed him, has gone back north and there is a wedding taking place that both Jesus’ mother and Jesus and his disciples (all local Galileans?) have been invited to.

As we often comment, there are those who say these accounts are made up but each of them has a reality feel about them. This is about an ordinary wedding taking place in this community and Jesus and those with him are there. There appears nothing special about this; it is very ordinary, it is just one of those things that occur and go to make up life. A young couple are being married.  The only this is that this is a story about Jesus and so the wedding is the background for what was to follow. It was this ordinary event that provided the background for the first of what John is going to call a sign.

This wedding account doesn’t appear in the other Gospels and various things in them don’t appear here. The reality was that so many things happened in Jesus ministry that there was no way they could all be written down but as John, in his old age, reflected back on those incredible years of his younger life, he remembers this particular incident that the others hadn’t recorded and he sees within it a significance missed by the others. Remember, this is the Gospel of significance.  John thinking back over many years, realises some of the significance of the things that were happening and he determines to record these in his Gospel.

He’s recorded, briefly, some of the preliminary encounters that drew disciples to Jesus and now he records one of the earlier miracles that clearly pointed to who Jesus really was. That is what the miracles in John are – ‘signs’ pointing to Jesus, revealing who he really was. But here in the opening verses of this chapter we see that this revelation of the Son of God took place in the midst of ordinary events of life. There is nothing ‘super-spiritual’ about this, it is very down to earth. But that is the wonder, that God stepped down to earth and interacted with ordinary human beings in ordinary situations – just like He continues to do today. You have an ordinary life? Watch out for Jesus in it!