The Beginning of Signs
Topic: Gospels Passage: John 2:1–2:11
“THE BEGINNING OF SIGNS”
1 On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
“Signs” are all around us, so much so that they are a natural part of our everyday life. They are where they are for a reason...to provide information and to give direction. Because we are exposed to so many types of “signs” in our everyday life, it isn’t unusual for us to become oblivious to them or to ignore them altogether.
Have you ever run a “stop sign” or driven the wrong way down a one-way street because you were not paying attention to the “signs”? And when was the last time you bothered to notice the name on the “street sign” unless you were unsure of where you were?
“Signs” have significance because they point beyond themselves to something else. “Stop signs” are bright red with large white reflective letters...not so that we would admire their octagonal artistic character, but so that they would grab our attention and get us to “stop!”
The Gospel of John is a book of “signs.” In fact, he repeatedly uses the word, “sign,” to describe the miracles of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all write about the miracles of Jesus, but it is John who best speaks of their significance. Only he calls them “signs.” Referring to the specific Greek term that the writer employs (“σημειον”), William Hendriksen tells us that it was...
...used more often by John than by the other Gospel-writers. It indicates a miracle viewed as proof of divine authority and majesty. Hence, it leads the attention of the spectator away from the deed itself to the divine Doer. Often, too, the sign, a work of power in the physical realm, illustrates a principle that is operative in the spiritual ream; that which takes place in the sphere of creation points away from itself to the sphere of redemption.
That is an important statement. “Signs’ serve no other purpose than to evoke an appropriate response. It is with that understanding that we take a look at what John refers to as “the first (or beginning) of (Jesus’) signs” this morning. Referencing again the time-markers that the writer began laying out for us in chapter 1, we appear to have come to the end of a seven-day period. The ministry of John the Baptist has effectively ended with the arrival of the Messiah. Jesus has begun His public ministry with a small band of five followers, and as chapter 2 opens they find themselves in the Galilean region of northern Palestine. So, as we consider this “first of (Jesus’) signs,” let’s begin by looking at...
The setting (2:1-2).
It was three days following Jesus’ fascinating conversation with Nathanael (cf. John 1:45-51) that “There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples.”
Most of us are aware of this story, and we all tend to picture the scene in our own way. The Gospel of John has been likened to one of the paintings of Rembrandt, who was known for hiding veiled clues within a masterpiece to hint at its interpretation. In a literary way, John waits until the very last chapter of the book to tell was that Cana was Nathanael’s hometown (cf. John 21:2).
Cana was a small village believed to have been located less than ten miles from Nazareth, where Jesus was raised. Both would have been well acquainted with the area, and perhaps knew many of the same people...including, quite possibly, the bride and the bridegroom. The fact that Jesus had been “invited” to the wedding and that His mother was already there when He and His disciples arrived hints that it may have been the wedding of a close family member...perhaps one of Jesus’ own brothers or sisters. As the scene unfolds, Mary’s involvement appears to have been more than that of a guest. If she was not the mother of the bride or the groom, then perhaps she had been asked to help coordinate the serving of guests at the reception. How else would she have known that they had run out of wine?
We may at times be tempted to depict Jesus as someone who lived an ascetic life much on the order of John the Baptist. That is probably a misrepresentation of our Savior. We find an interesting passage in Matthew 19(:18-19) that contrasts His penchant for enjoying life with the lifestyle His forerunner. In speaking to a crowd one day, Jesus said, “John came neither eating nor drinking...The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” The true Bridegroom, who would one day take for Himself a Bride, here blesses the marital union with His presence. No doubt, He delighted in being a part of and a witness to the festivities.
In order to better picture the scene, we need to familiarize ourselves with the wedding customs of that day. Leon Morris has helped us with this decsription:
Marriage was preceded by a betrothal which was a much more serious matter than is an engagement with us. It meant the solemn pledging of the couple, each to the other, and was so binding that to break it divorce proceedings were necessary. At the conclusion of the betrothal period the marriage took place... The bridegroom and his friends made their way in procession to the bride’s house. This was often done at night, when there could be a spectacular torchlight procession. There were doubtless speeches of goodwill before the bride and groom went in procession to the groom’s house, where the wedding banquet was held. It is probable that there was a religious ceremony...The feast was prolonged, and might last as long as a week.
Exactly when Jesus and His disciples arrived is unclear, but we might surmise that it was near the conclusion of the celebration because the guests were well into the festivities and the servers were running out of wine.
The situation (2:3-5)
...that created would have been a social embarrassment to the hosts. Much shame would have been associated with it, and it would have been the subject of gossip for weeks and months to come.
Verse 3 says that “When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’” I find it interesting that John never mentions Mary by name, referring to her only in terms of her relationship with Jesus. Remember that John wrote his Gospel near the end of the 1st-century, and there is historic evidence suggesting that Mary was already beginning to be venerated (if not worshiped) by certain groups professing to be Christian. John’s intentional omission of her name may very well have been a deliberate attempt to keep the focus on Christ.
When Mary informed Jesus that there was no more wine to serve the wedding guests, His response to her has been misunderstood by many to have been curt and critical: “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” The initial criticism is of the manner of address toward His mother, calling her “Woman” and not “Mother.” Some go so far as to charge Him with being disrespectful...something we know, given the character of our Lord, that he would never have been.
Precise translations are at times impossible, but every conservative commentator I have read is of the opinion that the word itself (“γυνη”) carries no negative connotation whatsoever. It was, in fact, the word used respectfully when addressing females in every circumstance. Some of us grew up being taught by our parents to say, “Yes, M’am” or “No, M’am” when asked a question by an adult. I believe something of that sort is implied in Jesus’ use of the word here: “M’am, why do you tell me about this?” Later on, as He hung dying upon the cross, Jesus would again address Mary in the same way (cf. John 19:26). There is not a hint of disrespect in the use of that title.
Still, some would argue beyond Jesus’ manner of address to say that His response to His mother seemed unduly harsh: “What does this have to do with me?” Again, a clear translation is difficult. Literally, the text reads, “What to me and to you, Woman?” Rather than censuring her, I believe that Jesus was drawing out her faith.
Although the Son of God, He was also her first-born Son. She had given birth to Him as a virgin, she had nursed Him and cared for Him, He had grown up in her home, and she had known His identity from the moment of His conception. Thirty years had passed and, although it would have been impossible to have fully cloaked His unique character, He had yet to manifest His Deity.
But the moment had arrived for Him to do so...a moment that would mark a “turning point” not only in their relationship as Mother and Son, but in the unveiling of the Son of God to the world. This mother sensed that her Son was embarking upon the mission for which He had been sent. With the look and the tone of voice that only a mother can give and a Son can understand, she had simply said, “They have no wine.” I believe she anticipated that a miracle was about to take place.
Jesus added, “My hour has not yet come.” That two-word phrase—“my hour”—will repeatedly appear throughout the book to mark Jesus’ steps to the cross...the “hour” of His crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation. Five times He will declare that the time “has not yet come” (cf. John 2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20), and three times He will say that the time “has come” (cf. John 12:23, 13:1, 17:1).
Here at the wedding was not the appropriate hour for His glory to be fully manifested, but it was time for the rays of that glory to begin to shine forth...and as they did, Mary’s faith would be confirmed. Her response in verse 5 indicates that she took no offense at her Son’s statement. In fact, I believe it was with a smile of contentment and a heart of trust that she turned to the servants and said, “Do whatever he tells you.”
That brings us to...
The sign (2:6-10)
...itself, which we read of in verses 6 through 10. Here is the heart of this passage. John describes it for us in this way:
Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
If you grew up in church like me, then you probably heard this story repeated so often that it became like those “road signs” that you have grown oblivious to. If you have become insensitive to this miracle, or even been tempted to think that it must have been a “parlor trick” or some “sleight of hand,” then you miss the less-obvious meaning behind this, “the first of his signs.”
The six large water jars that are mentioned were not there to hold wine, the for the purpose of “ceremonial cleansing” according to “the Jewish rites of purification.” We read about this ritual in Mark 7:3. They had been put in place so that the celebrants at the wedding feast might not be defiled in failing to observe the religious “law and traditions” of their day. But their ultimate reason for their being there was to be instruments through which a miracle would take place.
Although we are not directly told that the water jars were completely empty, they certainly represented the emptiness and the fallacy of the prevailing Jewish religious system that had been “hijacked” by the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus had arrived in order to introduce something better, something of greater quality.
Our Lord simply said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they did, filling them up “to the brim.” When they returned—and one can only imagine the difficulty of lugging already large and heavy “stone water pots” now filled with water—Jesus next told them to “Now draw some and take it the master of the feast.” And so they did.
Who this “master of the feast” was we do not know, but that title (“αρχιτρικλινοs”) is mentioned three times in verses 8 and 9. He would have served the important role of “chief steward” or “headwaiter.” He would have been the one most responsible to assure that the festivities proceeded just as planned. No doubt he experienced a rush of panic at hearing that the wine had run out. But his fears were about to relieved in a most unexpected manner.
We read in verses 9 and 10, “When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
Astonishing! Describing this sudden transformation, one early English cleric wrote poetically, “The conscious water saw its God and blushed.” Though men with unbelieving hearts may offer alternative explanations, no natural account will suffice. A miracle had taken place that one must either accept or deny. And it was all accomplished by means of the spoken Word: “Fill the jars...draw some out.”
The passing mention of the “bridegroom” in this story pales in comparison to the One who is the true Bridegroom. And in this one act, He signaled the arrival of a new day of free grace in the place of binding law and tradition. In contrast to Moses having turned water into blood as a sign of God’s judgment upon the Egyptians (cf. Exodus 7:14-24), Jesus—the “new Moses”—turned water into wine as a sign of God’s blessing upon His people. The old was in the process of passing away because the new had come (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17).
Discussions have at times centered upon whether the water had become wine while it was in the water pots or if it turned to wine only when it was drawn. One could use the text to argue both positions. Verse 9 simply says that “the water (had) become wine”...but it also does not say that it did until it had been “drawn.” Certainly, by way of application, the latter option would appear to be the most logical. After all, in the words of the psalmist, one must “Taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Psalm 34:8).
The word “significance” grows out of the word “sign.” “Signs” have “significance”...they have meaning are where they are for a reason...to bring about a response. Therefore, as we arrive at verse 11, we are given...
The significance (2:11)
...of this particular sign. We read that “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and (there He) manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”
Until now, Jesus’ small band of followers had only heard Him teach. And while it was said of Him that “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46), Jesus had not yet demonstrated His supernatural power. No longer could that be said to be true. The evidence of His Divine nature was on display and those who were intended to see did see. And by seeing, a verdict was required. We are, therefore, told, “And his disciples believed.” “Believing” Jesus is what disciples do.
Many liberal theologians dare call this miracle a “parable.” They argue that the events didn’t really happen as John has recorded them. To them, this is but a fictitious story intended to present a moral object lesson. Charles Erdman is among those who vehemently disagree. Writing in his small but helpful commentary, he argues,
As a result of this miracle, “his disciples believed on him.” They had believed on him before; at least they had believed him. By this miracle their faith was strengthened and confirmed. They now trusted in him, their doubts were removed, they committed themselves to him without question or reserve.
By merely speaking the word, Jesus visibly illustrated how He and He alone is able to transform “the thirst-creating water of the Old Covenant” into “the bountiful and fulfilling wine of the New Covenant.” And metaphorically speaking, He is still doing that in people’s lives today.
Charles Spurgeon’s comments in summarizing and applying this text are worth taking the time to read and reflect upon. He writes at some length,
This beginning of miracles was worked at a wedding to show great generosity. Marriage was the last relic of paradise left among us, and Jesus sought to honor it with his first miracle. Our Lord’s miracles were in each case to meet a need. The wine had failed at the wedding feast, and our Lord had come in at the time of the need, when the bridegroom was fearful of being made ashamed. That need was a great blessing. If there had been sufficient wine for the feast, Jesus would not have worked this miracle, and they would not have tasted this purest and best of wine. It is a blessed need that makes room for Jesus to come in with miracles of love. It is good to run short that we may be driven to the Lord by our necessity, for he will more than supply it. If we have no need, Christ will not come to us. But if we are in dire necessity, his hands will stretch out to us. If our needs stand before us like huge empty water pots, or if our souls are full of grief as those same pots were filled with water up to the brim, Jesus can, by his sweet will, turn all the water into wine—the sighing into singing. We should be glad to be weak so the power of God may rest on us.
By this first sign, Jesus revealed His glory, “glory as of the (one and) only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). His glory would be revealed in greatest measure in His cross, resurrection, and exaltation, but every step along the course of His ministry was a preview—a prefiguring—of that “glory.” The “glory” was not recognizable to everyone who had witnessed the miracle, only to those who understood its significance. The servants, the master of the feast, and the bridegroom all saw the “sign,” but not the “glory.” Only the disciples—and they by faith—saw the “glory” behind the sign...and they “believed in him.”
“Signs” play a significant role in the Gospel of John. All told, there are thirty-five miracles of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, but John selects seven that attest to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and Son of God. Furthermore, he tells us that this miracle at the wedding in Cana was the “first of his sigs.” As with all the “signs,” it served to meet an immediate need, but it pointed to mankind’s greatest need and to the only One able to meet it.
You and I will never see the “glory” of Jesus until we turn from our sin and trust Him. But once we have seen it, we cannot help but tell others about it. And that is just what John is doing throughout his record of Jesus’ “signs.”
I have tried to imagine what it must have been like to have lived in the day when Jesus’ physical presence graced this earth, and in particular at the very start of His public ministry. Other than the unusual circumstances surrounding His birth and His remarkably obedient behavior while growing up, there would have been relatively little reason to assume that this Man was the embodiment and fulfillment of God’s eternal plan for saving lost sinners. After His encounter with John the Baptist at the River Jordan and His forerunner’s announcement that He was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), He began His ministry by calling others to “come and see” (cf. John 1:39 and 46) that He was indeed that very One.
But how did they “see”? They were able to “see” through the “signs” that He performed. It was the “signs” that demonstrated who He was. And as remarkable as those “signs” were, each of us must be able to look beyond the “signs” and realize to what they are pointing.
“Signs, by their very nature, point to something beyond themselves. They are designed to get our attention and to get us to take the proper course of action. We may ignore “signs,” but we do so to our own peril...as well as the peril of others as well.
One of the “cardinal sins” in baseball is “missing a sign.” If you are familiar with the sport, then you know that managers and coaches are constantly relaying “signs” to players either at bat or on the field. At critical points during a game, those “signs’ become all the more important. At times a player may “miss a sign” and cost his team the game. The higher the stakes, the greater the loss.
Understanding Jesus’ “signs” is far more important, because their significance goes beyond a game, a day, or even a lifetime. The miracles of our Lord are intended to evoke faith and trust in Him. We dare not miss them. Hear once again John’s “purpose-statement” as it is recorded near the end of this book:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).
A recent Internet infomercial touted the invention of a “miracle machine that literally is able to turn water into wine.” For a mere $500, the inventors purported to make available a device that could sit upon one’s kitchen countertop, and by adding water and few ingredients produce a wine comparable to that which came from California’s finest vineyards. Well, it turns out that the invention was a hoax...and was later admitted to be so by the inventors who were attempting to generate publicity (and funds) for their favorite charity. A follow-up article even admitted, that “such ideas are best left to the pages of the Bible when Jesus managed to turn water into wine with just the wave of his hand.”
We’re not told in Scripture that Jesus “waved His hand.” He probably didn’t, unless it was to point to the water jars. There was no “trick” to what Jesus did that day, and the result was certainly no “hoax.” It was a “sign” that revealed His identity and demonstrated His ability to transform chaos into order and bring fulfillment to lives that are empty. Are you able to testify that He has done that for you?
As we will see throughout this book, the Jews repeatedly ask Jesus to show them a “sign.” And repeatedly He responded—just as He has in this passage—by demonstrating His “glory”...“glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
I strongly urge you to not presume upon the grace of God. The miracles throughout this book will become harder and harder to believe unless they are united with faith. Stop pretending to be in His embrace when you are actually keeping Him at arm’s distance. Acknowledge and pay attention to the “signs,” and respond in faith to the “Lamb of God” who has come to take “away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
If you have not yet recognized Him as your sin-bearer, then let me pray this prayer with you now...