Why Water into Wine?

I find it interesting that the gospel of John records Jesus’ very first public miracle as occurring at a wedding celebration. Further, the miracle doesn’t really fit the usual mold for such events. There is no physical healing—the blind being made to see or the sick made well. Nor is there spectacular deliverance or protection—like the parting of a sea or safety in a fiery furnace. Instead, John 2 records, of all things, Jesus turning water into wine. Here’s the story:

2:1 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.

The story naturally leads to a question: what’s the point? Why did Jesus do this particular miracle? True, it would have been bad form for those responsible for the feast to run out of wine in what was often a “shame” culture. But there doesn’t appear to be any deep and obvious need like in so many other instances of Jesus’ ministry.

We can begin to answer the question with a clue from the passage itself. John writes that this, the “first of [Jesus’] signs…manifested his glory.” One important rule of thumb when considering not only this episode, but any of Jesus’ miracles: they’re never meant to be the equivalent of impressive magic tricks. Rather, Jesus miracles always have a theological point. They’re always reflective of who Jesus is and what he came to do. That’s why, at the end of his gospel, John can write,

20:30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 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.

So that’s the general framework. But we still need to think about what Jesus is communicating about himself and/or his mission in this specific circumstance. And for that, it’s helpful to consider what kind of connotations wine has elsewhere in the Bible. While the Scriptures often use the imagery of a cup of judgment and the like (e.g., Isa. 51:17), it also associates wine with abundance, blessing, and celebration (e.g., Deut. 7:13, Psa. 104:15). Given the present context of a wedding feast—what is normally a joyful celebration—the latter direction is much more likely here.

Also notable this is just how Jesus went about changing the water into wine. Notice what he directs the servants to fill with water: “stone water jars…for the Jewish rites of purification.” If wine carried connotations of blessing and abundance, these stone jars were representative of the Jewish system of ritual cleanliness, a system that apparently fostered moralism with its various man-made additions to Old Testament law (see Mark 7:1-12).

With these things in mind, Jesus’ purpose becomes more clear. To put it simply, his transformation of water into wine points to the fact that, in the form of his person and ministry, something new and transformative has begun. The old, dead way of futile self-striving to warrant God’s approval is to be left behind. Something better has dawned, something of abundant grace and blessing.

All this is further drawn out by subsequent events in Jesus’ ministry. In his final Passover meal, Jesus not only associates a cup of wine with a new covenant and the forgiveness purchased by his atoning blood, but he also promises his disciples that he will not drink of it again until he partakes with them in the consummated kingdom (Mat. 26:29). So also the Book of Revelation looks forward to the blessing of those invited to “the great marriage supper of the Lamb” (20:6-9).

Jesus, then, isn’t merely trying to keep a party going. He’s announcing a far better one is on its way.

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