. . . and Became the Life of the Party
Since the Bible’s great story of redemption begins with a wedding (Genesis 2:22-24) and ends with a wedding (Revelation 19:6-9), it makes sense that Christ would commence his public ministry at a wedding. Marriage becomes a dominant image representing God’s love for his people, and thus the image of the groom finally joining his bride becomes emblematic of Christ’s coming for his church and even the kingdom’s joyous (re)union with creation. It is perhaps this latter image that John has most in mind in his Gospel, as he begins with a glorious echo of creation:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
John 1:10 tells us that the world was created through the Son of God, that he was present and active long before his incarnation and therefore eternally co-existent with the Father, that he is God as the Father and the Spirit are God. John has made explicit what is more implicit in the synoptic Gospels—the Word of the Old Testament’s creation story is the Jesus of the New Testament’s new creation story. The Gospels, in fact, are chronicling the coming of the kingdom of God in and through Jesus Christ as the dawning of the renewal of all things (Revelation 21:5). And just as Genesis 3:9-13 records the setting aside of the waters and the bringing forth of fruit on the third day, John records the following in John 2:1-11.
On the third day 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. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
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.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
Last things first. John tells us the purpose of this miracle, which happens to be the purpose of all Jesus’ miracles. Jesus’ purpose is this: to manifest his glory. We identify this purpose first to help prevent us from fanciful understandings of the miracle that would take us far afield from the substance of the gospel. It would be a dangerous mistake, in fact, to behold the miracle while failing to behold Christ. As D.A. Carson reminds us, “The servants saw the sign, but not the glory; the disciples by faith perceived Jesus’ glory behind the sign, and they put their faith in him . . .”
But what does this miracle reveal about Jesus? What of his glory is to be seen in it?
We certainly see Jesus’ power. He can make something exist that did not exist. The jars were filled with water and Jesus made them filled with wine. With a word or a movement, we don’t know. The text doesn’t say. All we are left with is the understanding that the servants had poured in water and ladled out wine. Jesus’ creative power is astounding.
Many teachers at this point highlight that Jesus was at a party, so he must have been a, you know, party animal or something. He liked to hang out at parties and drink, they remind us.
This is maybe one of the dullest observations about Jesus possible.
In reality, we have no indication from the text that he’s even glad to be there. Or perhaps he is perfectly happy to be part of the celebration, but at the very least he at first seems reluctant to get involved in the reception planning. I remember being at a friend’s wedding reception when they ran out of punch. People were getting grumpy and this included the helpless bystanders who were “volunteered into” solving the problem. In any event, we don’t see Jesus at this party “living it up.” There is no lampshade on his head.
And yet, wherever Jesus went, happy or angry, he was always the life of the party.
He could not help changing the climate of any room. His very presence electrified the atmosphere. The spirit of any space always adjusted to his demeanor, and not vice versa. And in this instance, his “manifested glory” enhances the occasion.
Jesus could have very easily provided some watered down drink. Hosts always save the poor wine for last (2:10). Or he could have provided them nothing at all. But one thing Jesus cannot do is mediocrity. If it is wine you must have, he figures, you must have the finest vintage.
But the exchange with his mother prior to the miracle is curious. Was he not planning to manifest his glory at this time? Was he coerced? Did he jump the gun on his ministerial debut? His response to her request for assistance prompts us to go deeper than the silly “Jesus the party animal” trope.
Mama Said Knock You Out
Mary makes the wedding’s problem Jesus’ problem. Jesus replies, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (2:4). In the original context, Jesus referring to his mother as “woman” is not quite as rude as it sounds to our modern ears, and yet, no matter how you slice it, these are hard words. Calvin says the Son is not rebuking his mother so much as making it explicit that his mother is not his commander. “[S]he was not sinning knowingly and willingly,” he writes, “but Christ just meets the danger of his mother’s words being misconstrued, as if it were at her behest that he afterwards performed the miracle.”
This is likely true. From his adolescence (Luke 2:49) into the commencement of his ministry (Matthew 12:48), Jesus has repeatedly found it necessary to assert the primacy of his heavenly Father over his earthly family. Jesus loves his mother very much. He is an excellent son. But he will not be a mama’s boy. Mary will not be the boss of him.
But depth remains to be explored in this exchange. If Jesus is making it clear that he’s nobody’s magic trick, what specific resonance might this disavowal to his own mother have for the wedding party? For Jesus’ mission field? For us today?
This exchange takes us right to the substance of the gospel, helping us see the glory manifested by Jesus in this miracle event, even before the miracle is performed! By reminding Mary of the limits of her dominion over his behavior, he is reminding us of the limits of his dominion over salvation, or rather, the lack thereof. Jesus will not be beholden to his family, be it biological or ethnic, and neither will his kingdom. “The pathway into favor is faith,” says John Piper. The disciples in John 2:11 traced this line. And thus his rebuke of his mother means a good word for us, because it means that our inheritance in grace is not contingent upon our family ties, our race, our ethnicity, our social status, or any other arbitrary earthly thing but instead upon the favor of God himself. It is our faith that is credited to us as righteousness, not our pedigree.
There is something else, though, in Jesus’ response to his mother, something that encapsulates rhetorically a significant occurrence theologically. He says to her, “My hour has not yet come” (2:4). This cannot mean, as some may suppose, that it is not his time to “debut,” because he does precisely that. No, when Jesus refers to “my hour” or “my time” he typically refers to one of two things: the time to commence going to the cross or the full revelation of his transcendent glory. This decisive moment is not either of those moments. But it is a decisive moment, nevertheless. And we should envision that word nevertheless marking the shift from Jesus’ response to his mother in word and Jesus’ response to his mother in deed. Essentially, what transpires subsequently can be paraphrased like this: “Mother, it is not the time to fully unveil my redemptive purpose in the world. Nevertheless, I will provide a partial service at present that points to that fullness in the future.”
Mary obediently submits to her son, then, stepping aside to entrust the party to his miraculous power—although we have no textual indication this is even what she’s requesting from him—or his clever resourcefulness. “Do whatever he says,” she tells the servants. “My son will take care of it.” And he does.
Jesus loves his mother. He wants to please her. He knows she’s asking for more than she realizes. But very often Jesus is eager to give those who submit to his authority more than they could ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20, John 1:16). The event that follows reveals a subtle reflection of the truth of the Incarnation, Jesus showing himself both Mary’s sovereign Lord and her obedient son.
There is more glory to be seen in the miracle, however. Mary wants her son to save the wedding host from the scandal of running out of wine, and Jesus uses the opportunity to signify a salvation that is a scandal.
The Promise Made Present
“Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons” (John 2:6). Do you suppose that the jars Jesus used were connected to Jewish religious rites by happenstance? Blomberg tells us bluntly that this miracle is a “vivid illustration of the transformation of the old ‘water’ of Mosaic religion into the new ‘wine’ of the kingdom."
Jesus later gives a teaching on weddings and wine (and its containers) that serves as an important explication of what is taking place in this miracle:
And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:19-22)
All along his way inaugurating the new covenant, Jesus will be ushering in the new creation. The wine of the old covenant was maintained well enough in the old structures—the temple system with its sacrifices and rituals. But the wine of the new covenant needs newness. The presence of God once localized in the holy of holies is now on foot. He will soon be present everywhere in Spirit, dwelling in his people, whose bodies are each the temple (1 Corinthians 6:19), in the midst of whom is the kingdom (Luke 17:21).
The old way is defunct, expired, kaput. “You can fill up your jars to brimming with the water of your old time religion,” Jesus says, “and I will replace it with the new wine of the gospel.” In doing this, Jesus is not inventing something new, but simply presenting what has been promised in the old religion itself.
Wine throughout the Old Testament has a variegated resonance. Wine represents joy (Psalm 104:15, Ecclesiastes 10:19), victory (Isaiah 62:8-9), vindication (Hosea 14:7), satisfaction (Joel 2:19), abundance (Joel 2:24, 3:18), and restoration (Amos 9:13-14). In Isaiah 55:1, we find this foretaste of free grace:
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Something for nothing? That is the exchange offered in the gospel of Jesus. Bring your nothingness, and he will give you his everything. It’s the only exchange Christ will make. Should we seek to fill our spiritual piggy banks with the currency of our religious effort—should we fill them to brimming—it would not be merit enough. We proffer the water from our brow. It is the best we can afford. But Jesus brings the good stuff.
All the old covenant freight is loaded into the wine Jesus has just created. They say the best wine is wine that is well-aged. So Jesus’ new wine has all the depth and flavor of the best vintage. He has just proclaimed it into existence, but it comes loaded with all the flavor of fine wine aged for years and years. The new wine at this wedding was created ex nihilo but it does not come, as it were, from “out of nowhere.” It comes from the vast ages of promise and expectation and is fraught with all the hopes and joys and exultation of the patriarchs and the prophets. This wine comes from the vault of heaven and is seeped through with all the tannins wrought there.
Jesus has not performed a neat trick. He hasn’t just supplied a need. He has signaled the immediate presence of the ancient promise. John Pryor says, “It is the wine of the eschaton.” The kingdom has come. We see it in this wine, and if we find it appealing to the senses, we are bid to come and partake through repentance and belief. We are bid, in fact — teetotallers included — to come drink of the wine of Christ himself, imbibing his blood as the source of our very life and surpassing joy. Of this wine, Ridderbos writes, “For now there is wine as plentiful as water, indeed as plentiful as all the water of purification, which has flowed continually but cannot take away the sin of the world . . .”
And yet, in this moment of festivity his hour has not come. Even this provision of abundance is just a foretaste. (It is just like Jesus to make a feast an appetizer.) There is much more to come. In the miracle at Cana we receive a micro view of the inauguration of God’s kingdom through Christ. Witnessing the water transformed to wine begs us to press still further into the greater manifestation of Christ’s glory. For at Cana we see through a glass darkly. But when we are face to face? J.C. Ryle reflects:
Happy are those who, like the disciples, believe on Him by whom this miracle was wrought. A greater marriage feast than that of Cana will one day be held, when Christ Himself will be the bridegroom and believers will be the bride. A greater glory will one day be manifested, when Jesus shall take to Himself His great power and reign. Blessed will they be in that day who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb! (Rev. 19:9)
This is a slightly edited excerpt from The Wonder-Working God