Through the Bible in One Year

Day 123

John 2:1-12

Yesterday we finished the second section of John’s Gospel that dealt with John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus and the accounts of some of Jesus’ first disciples.  Today we move into the third section of John’s Gospel that is much longer and takes us into the heart of John’s Gospel, because the section that we starting today runs from 2:1 through 4:54.  The opening story of this section takes place in Cana, where Jesus performed his first sign, and the final story in this section takes place in Cana, where Jesus performed a second sign.  These are the only two signs in John’s Gospel that are numbered.  It is evident Jesus performed other miracles between these two events, but John does not describe them.  The opening chapter in this larger section contains two major events: Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus clearing the temple.  And it is Jesus turning water into wine that we going to be dealing with today.

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. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”—2:1-3

Jesus began his public ministry at a wedding.  Weddings were important community events in the lives of first-century Jewish people.  In Isaiah, the Messianic age is described as a wedding (Isaiah 54:4-8 and 62:4-5).  Jesus used the same imagery when he referred to himself as the bridegroom.  The Messianic age was to be characterized by abundant wine as well.  This sign (miracle) announced the arrival of God’s kingdom.  The wedding took place a few days after Jesus’ conversation with Nathanael.  Running out of wine was more than a minor social embarrassment since the family had an obligation to provide for their guests.  At a deeper level, the lack of wine may also refer to the spiritual emptiness of first-century Judaism.  And Mary’s involvement implies she had some sort of important role at the wedding.

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”—2:4-5

Jesus’ response to his mother appears impolite; however, it was not to be taken as an insult; the Greek word for “woman” does not imply disrespect.  The wording instead suggests a change in the relationship as Jesus began his Messianic ministry.  Mary is not referred to by name in this Gospel but is called simply Jesus’ “mother.”  It is not likely that Mary expected Jesus to perform a miracle since this was his first one.  She knew him to be a resourceful person, and if anyone could help, he could.  Jesus’ comment that his “hour” had not yet arrived is important.  Jesus’ “hour” refers to the events associated with his death.  The cross was the culmination of God’s redemptive plan.  Mary told the servants to do whatever Jesus said—which is still good instruction for today!

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

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”—2:6-8

The water jars were for the Jewish ritual of ceremonial purification.  People often became ceremonially unclean by coming into contact with impure items or people.  Before eating, they poured water over their hands to cleanse themselves from whatever may have defiled them.  The six stone jars were capable of holding 20-30 gallons each.  Jesus commanded the servants to fill them to the top and then take some to the master of the banquet.  The fact that they were filled to the brim suggests the profusion of Jesus’ Messianic provision.

They did so, and 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.”

What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.—2:8-12

The master of the banquet was surprised that the best wine was not served first (when people’s taste buds would be more discriminating) and the cheaper wine served last.  The concluding comment says that Jesus’ disciples saw his glory and believed in him.  The term “signs” emphasizes the significance of the action rather than the miracle itself.  Jesus’ signs were not mere displays of supernatural power but conveyed spiritual truth.  John describes seven signs in Jesus’ public ministry.  The first was changing the water into wine.  The second was healing the ruler’s son.  The third was healing a disabled man.  The fourth was feeding over 5,000 people.  The fifth was walking on water.  The sixth was healing a man born blind.  And the seventh was raising Lazarus from the dead.

While the servants were aware of the transformation of the water to wine, only the disciples believed and saw Jesus’ glory.  The passage concludes with a reference to Jesus, his disciples and his family going down to Capernaum.  Capernaum was approximately 16 miles northeast of Cana on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Capernaum became Jesus’ base of operation for his Galilean ministry.

Now that we have dealt with the context of this passage.  We can deal with the big question that I am sure every person who has ever read this passage wants to ask.  And that question is really a two part question.  Part one is: What exactly does John mean by wine?  And part two is: Was this wine alcoholic or non-alcoholic?  And to answer those two questions we needed to go through all of the information that we just went through.

The answer to the question of what exactly does John mean when he uses the word is best answered in this way.  The word translated as “wine” in the New Testament is a generic term and can refer to many types of grape beverage, either fermented (alcoholic and potentially intoxicating) or unfermented wine.  And the type of wine is to be determined by the context.  And thankfully we are given a clue in today’s text as to what kind of wine Jesus turned the water into.  We are told that Jesus turned the water into “choice wine.”  It is significant that the Greek adjective translated “choice” and “best” is not “agathos,” meaning “good,” but “kalos,” meaning “morally excellent and benefitting.”  Even secular writers of the time confirm the notion that the best “wines” were sweet and unfermented.  The Roman writer, Pliny, stated that “good wine,” called “sapa,” was not fermented.  “Sapa” was grape juice boiled down to one-third of its original volume to increase its sweet flavor (IV.13).  He also wrote that “wines are most beneficial when all their potency has been removed by the strainer” (Pliny, Natural History, XIV.23-24).  Pliny, Plutarch and Horace all suggest that the best wine was the type that was “harmless and innocent.”

So the answer to part 2 of our question is that the wine Jesus turned the water into was non-alcoholic.  But yet despite the all the information out their about the non-alcoholic nature of the wine Jesus created and the wine that was served at the beginning of this feast, there are still those who would think that Jesus first sign as the promised Messiah was to turn water into a intoxicating substance.  And in order to hold to that view they must explain the following probabilities.

  1. A number of guests at the wedding would likely be drunk or nearly drunk by the time Jesus is asked to provide more wine, since the guests had already drunk so freely that the host had run out of wine.
  2. Mary, the mother of Jesus, would be showing regret that the intoxicating drink had run out and would be asking Jesus to supply people who may have already had too much to drink with even more alcoholic wine.
  3. In order to respond to his mother’s wishes, Jesus would be making 120-180 gallons of intoxicating wine, more than enough to cause extreme drunkenness.
  4. Jesus would be making this intoxicating beverage as the very first of his “miraculous signs” by which he “revealed his glory” and showed that he is the Son of God and spiritual Savior of humankind.

To propose that Jesus made alcoholic wine would certainly seem to contradict the moral principles stated in other parts of God’s Word.  In light of God’s holy nature (the fact that he is completely pure, perfect, and separated from evil), Christ’s loving concern for humanity and Mary’s good character, it is reasonable to conclude that the choice new wine Jesus created was pure, sweet and unfermented.  These were characteristics associated with “new wine” at the time (as opposed to aged and fermented wine).  In addition, the wine Jesus made was described as even better than usual.  So the answer to our questions about the wine Jesus made can be answered very simply in this way: Jesus made an unfermented grape beverage that was better than anything anyone had ever tasted before.  And we will pick up with the cleansing of the temple tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:

Judges 19-20, John 3:22-4:3, Psalm 104:24-35 and Proverbs 14:22-24

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