Word Study
Gospel of John--High Christology

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2:1 - 11--Water Into Wine


Theological Reflections


This narrative sets off a section in John's Gospel on Signs and Discourses. John refers to the miracles of Jesus as "signs," noting that a purpose of the miracles was to provide evidence of Jesus as Messiah. Intermixed with the seven signs are seven discourses, always in groups of two. This first sign, however, was not the grand affair one might expect to announce the coming of the Messiah; apparently, only a few disciples, Mary, and the servants knew what had happened. The Gospel gives no indication that the wedding guests were even aware that the wine had run out; when it reappears on the scene, the master of the banquet assumes it came from the bridegroom's stores.


A quick word about wine: this passage is often one of some frustration to teetotalers (those who advocate complete abstinence from alcohol). Back in my own childhood a friend tried to make the case to me, "Jesus may have turned the water into wine, but He didn't drink it!" Yet it seems highly unlikely Jesus would enable an activity He considered sinful! That Jesus chose to drink wine takes nothing away from those who choose to abstain; as Paul writes in Romans 14:6b, "…and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God." It is also important to note that the wine of Jesus' day was far more diluted than today; sometimes as much as one-third.


As we noted last week, most people are at least vaguely familiar with this initial narrative (if nothing else than by the common vernacular "turning water into wine"), though not as many people may be aware that this was Jesus' first miracle. Even fewer understand the underlying meaning to it, because the underlying meaning is much debated.


On the surface, this almost comes across as an incidental miracle. Jesus happens to be attending a marriage ceremony in which the wine runs short; He is initially resistant to His mother's plea for help, but soon gives in and produces an unimportant (in a Kingdom context, at least) miracle.


If we were reading the story in one of the Synoptics, where miracles almost seem to abound, then this might be the case. But John's use of miracles is highly selective (he tells us only seven), and each miracle account is highly significant. It seems likely that John's inclusion of this particular miracle points to a broader theme.


Craig Blomberg suggests that the changing of water into wine points to a "new joy" of the Kingdom of God that Jesus ushers in. This would seem to have merit, as the story begins a sub-section of "new" things: the new temple (2:12 - 25), new birth (3:1 - 36), a new worship or new universalism (depending on how one exegetes the pertinent passage, 4:1 - 54). As wedding banquets and wine are generally associated with joy, it is not out of the bounds of reasonableness to come to this conclusion.


It is also interesting that John specifically makes the following observation about the water jars: "the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing." Mark 7:3 - 4 likewise mentions this in a parenthetical comment:


The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.


Ritual cleanliness and purity was important to the Jews of the time. Much of this stemmed from laws of purity and cleanliness found in the Old Testament, but Mark's narrative gives us an additional insight, found in verse 5:


So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"


Note specifically the phrase, "according to the tradition of the elders…" For centuries, the Pharisees had developed an "oral law" expositing the proper living-out of Old Testament law. This began innocently enough. After returning from the exile in the late sixth century, Jews began asking themselves, "How did we lose the Promised Land?" The answer was that they had not been obedient to God's commands. Therefore, the way to make sure they never again lost the Promised Land would be to live out, as obediently as possible, the Law--and to apply the Law to every area of life. Yet this then gave rise to another dilemma: the Law of Moses had been written centuries previous; how to live out those laws in a new era? Thus began a long tradition of judgments explaining what the various Mosaic laws meant, and how they were to be applied in any situation a Jew might confront.


This spirit of interpretation and exposition exists today and is the foundation for all Christian preaching. One of the daily journeys of faith is to live our lives in accordance to God's will; one of the greatest questions Christians struggle with is, simply, what does that look like? How do I apply biblical principles to my daily life? And indeed, to that end, a new sort of "oral law" exists today--Christian pastors and scholars trying to determine how to live a biblical life 2,000 years after the Bible was written. Where we must be careful is in not making the mistake of the Pharisees, and taking this to a legalistic extreme. Jesus finely points out the Pharisaical failure in Mark 2:27. The question had long been asked (and is still asked today!), "What does it mean to honor the Sabbath?" To answer that, biblical scholars of the age had created a long list of prohibitions--things not to do on the Sabbath. When Jesus' disciples broke one of those prohibitions, and was criticized by the Pharisees, Jesus responded: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." In their attempts to define the Sabbath, the Pharisees had lost the spirit of the Sabbath. In other words, the oral law had gone too far and missed the point.


Return now to the stone jars holding water for ceremonial washing. These jars represented the old order of Jewish law and custom. Why did Jesus order that these be the jars filled with water? For convenience sake--or to symbolically make a point? By transforming water in these particular jars, it is possible that Jesus is making a theological statement: the old way of things is being transformed by the coming of the Messiah. A new way of expressing, practicing, and celebrating our faith has come. 


See you next week!


In Christ,


--Pastor Dan


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