Unfortunately the second chapter of John is used and interpreted for all the wrong reasons. This text is frequently used as a battleground over whether Christians are able to drink alcohol. The apostle John did not include this story about Jesus turning water to wine so that we could argue over the Christian use of alcohol. Rather, the next three chapters of this gospel, beginning in chapter 2, will show Jesus fulfilling and surpassing Judaism. This is critically important for understanding this section of John’s gospel properly.
As we examine the whole of the story please observe three key points that the apostle John makes about this event. (1) This is the first sign that Jesus performed. John does not call this a miracle, but a sign. A sign is different from a miracle in that the supernatural event performed is to be a distinguishing mark or indication for something. Signs represent something. Think about how traffic signs represent various actions: from no parking, to yielding, to stopping. A green traffic light is a sign telling the driver to proceed through the intersection. So John is telling us to examine this event. This is an event with a deeper meaning. There is a message to the sign. This is the first sign that Jesus performs. (2) Verse 11 tells us that this sign revealed Jesus’ glory. This sign unveils Jesus to our eyes so that we may believe that he is the Christ, the Son of God. (3) The sign had its intended effect. Verse 11 records that Jesus’ disciples believed in him. The disciples saw the sign, the glory of Jesus as the Son of God was revealed, and the disciples believed. With these things in mind, let us proceed with a closer examination of the sign.
The Place and the Problem (2:1-3)
Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding in Cana. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also at this wedding. It is believed that Cana of Galilee was about 9 miles north from Nazareth. The problem is clearly stated in verse 3: the wine ran out. For us, we probably do not see the big deal about this. Today a wedding with reception lasts a few hours at most. Running out of a drink would be embarrassing but not that big of a problem. However, a wedding and reception typically lasted a week. The wedding banquets were prepared for many guests, and the week would be spent celebrating the new life of the married couple. Often the whole town would be invited and it was considered an insult to refuse an invitation to a wedding. Further, wine was a primary drink at that time. It was not only an enormous social disgrace to not provide wine, but wine was an important staple beverage. We should not read the problem as a mild inconvenience. People do not get in cars and go home early. They are staying for the week and have come from various distances. This is a big problem.
The Discussion (2:4-5)
Mary, the mother of Jesus, brings the problem to Jesus. Jesus’ response seems harsh and is very startling to our ears. “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” (John 2:4 ESV) However, Mary’s response indicates that Jesus is giving a positive response. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. So it is imperative on our part to take great care in how we understand what Jesus is teaching.
First, calling a person “Woman” is not harsh (cf. Matt 15:28, Luke 13:12; John 4:21; 8:10; 19:26; 20:15). It was a normal, polite way of addressing a woman. It would be something similar to us using the word “madam” or “miss” today. What is unusual, however, is that Jesus said this to his mother. It is not that the word is harsh, but that Jesus used that word for his mother rather than calling her, “mother.” There must be a reason for this, which needs to be considered.
Second, the response Jesus gives is an idiom, making translation into English a bit difficult. If you pick up a number of translations you will notice that they have different readings from each other. When you see the major translations having different rendering of a sentence then you know it is a translation challenge. Literally, the phrase is: “Woman, what to me and to you?” So the question is, what does this mean? The idiomatic expression asks rhetorically what the two parties in question have in common, and has the effect of distancing them. Some translations see the two parties as Jesus and the wedding, giving a meaning that this problem is no concern for Jesus. But this does not fit Mary’s response to the servants. If Jesus is saying that this is not my problem or concern, then why does Mary think that Jesus is going to act? Some translations see the two parties as Jesus and Mary, giving a meaning that Jesus and Mary do not have anything in common on this issue. This meaning makes the most sense within the context. Mary tells Jesus that they have no wine. Jesus response is, “Woman,” thus distancing himself from her. Then, literally, “What to me and to you?” That is, we do not have a joint effort in this matter. Are we working together, you a woman and me as God? What do we have in common in this situation? This is my concern, not yours. When my hour has come, then I will act. Jesus is bound to the will of the Father. This phrase, “My hour has not yet come” occurs frequently in John’s gospel. Ten times Jesus speaks about “his hour” in this gospel. Jesus is saying that this is not the time for him to reveal his full Messianic glory. Jesus described his death on the cross as his hour when he would be glorified. Therefore, notice in the story that no one knows that Jesus performed this miracle except his own disciples and the servants who brought the wine. The groom does not know. The wedding party does not know. The town does not know. The invited do not know. Jesus is operating on God’s timetable, and not according to any human schedules.
The Sign (2:6-10)
Now we come to the sign that Jesus performs. Verse 6 is the key piece of information. There are six stone water jars that had the purpose of Jewish purification. This water was not for drinking. These are large jars so that the people could perform ceremonial washings. According to the Jews’ ceremonial laws, people became ritually unclean by touching objects of everyday life. Before eat, according to their traditions, they would pour water over their hands to cleanse themselves of any defiling. The Jews would also wash their cups, pitchers, and utensils with this water (cf. Mark 7:4). Jesus orders to the servants to fill these large stone jars to the brim. Then Jesus tells the servants to draw some water out of the jars and take it to the master of the feast. The master of the feast tastes the wine and recognizes that the wine is better than what they had before.
Now think about what has happened so that you can see the sign so that you may believe as the disciples did. First, the wine for the wedding has run out. Wine has a symbolic meaning for joy and the blessings of God (cf. Psalm 104:15; Proverbs 3:10; Jeremiah 48:33). Listen to how God used the image of wine as a prophetic symbolism of God dwelling with his people, blessing them and restoring them.
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. (Isaiah 25:6 ESV)
“So you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who dwells in Zion, my holy mountain. And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it. 18 “And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water; and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD and water the Valley of Shittim. (Joel 3:17–18 ESV)
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. 14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. 15 I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the LORD your God. (Amos 9:13–15 ESV)
The wedding has no wine. First century Judaism is pictured as being separated from God and no longer receiving God’s blessings and favor. The wine has run out. The Jewish nation is spiritually barren.
Second, Jesus eliminated the purification jars. The people could no longer ceremonially wash themselves because the jars which previously contained water now contain wine. The time for ritual cleansing is over. Jesus brings purification. Cleansing comes through Jesus. Purification is found in the Lamb of God, not in these washings.
Third, Jesus has brought the blessings of God. The wine has run out. The Jewish nation is spiritually barren, pictured as separated from God. Jesus restores the blessings to the nation. Jesus is the fountain of wine flowing to the people.
Fourth, Jesus brings wine that is better than what the people had before. This is superior wine. The blessings that have come with Jesus are greater and better than the blessings ever experienced before. What Jesus offers is better than what the people ever had.
Fifth, Jesus brings the wine in abundance. Everyone points out the staggering amount of wine that was produced, 120-180 gallons, which is far too much for a wedding feast, even that lasted a week. Jesus offers abundant, overflowing grace of the kingdom, more than ever was before. “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (1:16).
The old ways are challenged by the coming of Jesus. Jesus did not come to tidy up the old system or put a bandage on the Law of Moses. Jesus provides new wine that vastly surpasses anything that contemporary Judaism could afford, and renders obsolete the stone jars of purification. The Messiah, God’s greatest blessing, had arrived. Jesus came with a new way and a new system. Jesus came to change people, offering radical change, pouring out abundant grace.