John’s Gospel: 2:1 – 11 (The wedding feast at Cana)

Well, this should be fun. Everyone knows, of course, that the Spirit inspired this account in order to stimulate Bible classes to debate whether it’s okay to drink alcoholic beverages.

But then, given that drinking wine was not even a little controversial in the First Century, the author must have had something else in mind. And so, rather than delving into the alcohol question, I’ll refer the reader to the excellent work of Tim Archer over at “The Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts,” where he’s written a thoughtful series of posts on the Christian and alcohol founded on an in-depth study of the scriptures.

The Christian and Alcohol (Alcohol abuse)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 2 (Alcohol in the history of the U.S.)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 3 (Seeing what the Bible says about alcohol)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 4 (What the Pentateuch says about alcohol)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 5 (What the rest of the Old Testament says about alcohol)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 6 (What Proverbs and Ecclesiastes say about alcohol)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 7 (What the gospels say about alcohol)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 8 (What the rest of the New Testament says about alcohol)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 9 (Additional passages to consider)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 10 (Additional passages to consider)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 11 (Modern concepts forced onto an ancient text)
The Christian and Alcohol, Part 12 (Tim’s conclusions)
Bloggers and others discuss alcohol and the Christian

He covers the topic far more thoroughly than I’d want to in Bible class, but a solid decision on any controversial doctrine requires and deserves diligent study. The opposing views are well articulated in the comments to Tim’s posts.

Note particularly the article by Wayne Jackson in the Christian Courier that Tim refers to. Wayne is very much a conservative author, and highly influential among the more conservative Churches of Christ. Nonetheless, he finds himself unable to conclude that that “fruit of the vine” served at the Last Supper was unfermented. There’s just too much evidence to the contrary. (Kudos for his honesty.)

We now turn to the text of John 2 —

(John 2:1-3 ESV) 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.”

Cana was the home of Nathanael (John 21:2), and it’s possible that this was a feast held for a friend of his, who’d invited his entire entourage as a matter of hospitality. But Mary was also invited — presumably for independent reasons. Verses 1 and 2 make clear that Mary wasn’t invited as part of Jesus’ group of followers.

The statement “They have no wine” clearly indicates an expectation that wine would be served until the feast was over, and that Mary considered the shortage of wine a serious problem. Indeed, it was surely a social embarrassment for the family, who were hosting their friends — and even strangers — to celebrate the wedding. They’d appear to be either poor or stingy — or idiots for inviting more people than they could manage to take care of.

(John 2:4 ESV) 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”

To American ears, “Woman” sounds like a very rude way to address one’s mother. The NIV softens the language —

(John 2:4 NIV)  “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”

The NET Bible translators comment —

The term Woman is Jesus’ normal, polite way of addressing women (Mat 15:28, Luk 13:12; John 4:21; John 8:10; John 19:26; John 20:15). But it is unusual for a son to address his mother with this term. The custom in both Hebrew (or Aramaic) and Greek would be for a son to use a qualifying adjective or title. Is there significance in Jesus’ use here? It probably indicates that a new relationship existed between Jesus and his mother once he had embarked on his public ministry. He was no longer or primarily only her son, but the “Son of Man.” This is also suggested by the use of the same term in John 19:26 in the scene at the cross, where the beloved disciple is “given” to Mary as her “new” son.

I love the next line —

(John 2:5 ESV) His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

That means she knows Jesus will honor her request. Only a mother could be so presumptuous of the Messiah to assume a “yes” when he clearly seems to say “no.” But moms can get away with that.

It also means that she has great confidence in him, because she can instruct the servants to honor Jesus’ instructions without reservation.

There is a hint that Mary had taken up residence in Cana. She was “there” (John 2:1) whereas Jesus and the disciples were “invited” (John 2:2). She has authority (or the audacity) to command the servants. After all, in those women might well have authority over the servants, but this was not Mary’s home. She had some relationship with the hosts — presumably the groom’s parents — that allowed her to command their servants. Indeed, she may have been the Jewish equivalent of the local wedding planner, which might also explain the invitation to Jesus and his disciples.

V. 11 says that this is the first of the “signs” done by Jesus, usually taken to mean the first miracle. But Jesus had already done a miracle in telling Nathanael where he was when he was told about Jesus.

Not all miracles are signs. Signs are only those miracles done to prove something, in this case, the Messiahship of Jesus. It’s possible he’d done miracles before in a private setting with Mary. And, of course, she’d known he was going to be the Messiah before he was even conceived.

After all, it’s hard to imagine Mary presuming that Jesus could create wine from water if he’d never done a miracle before — even if he’d told her about his power to do so. (What mother do you know who would believe her son could change water into wine if he’d never done a miracle before?) No, Mary revealed great confidence both in Jesus’ ability to create wine and Jesus’ willingness to save the hosts embarrassment or else to honor her request.

The Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah don’t really say he’d do miracles, but by the First Century, it was generally assumed that the Messiah would be a miracle worker. After all, he’d be anointed with the Spirit, and they considered the greatest rabbis to be capable of miracles. And if Elijah was to come as a sign of the Messiah, surely the Messiah would be a greater miracle worker than Elijah.

So it’s possible that, based on tradition, and knowing Jesus to be the Messiah, she merely deduced his ability to do miracles, but I just don’t think that’s human nature. Most people, even mothers, want to see the proof before they will credit someone with the ability to change water into wine — something no Old Testament miracle worker is ever said to have done.

(John 2:6-10 ESV) 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.”

The point of mentioning the large vessels and large quantity of wine is surely to avoid any suspicion that Jesus had slipped a little wine in under his robe. This was a LOT of wine. He’d have needed a forklift to sneak so much in.

Remember: Jews are not stupid people, and First Century Jews were no less intelligent. They were great students and writers and they had plenty of common sense. These were not ignorant primitives who’d be easily fooled. Therefore, the author makes a point of the bigness of the miracle to avoid the natural skepticism of any intelligent reader. This was no parlor trick!

V. 10, of course, clearly indicates that this “wine” was not mere grape juice. The wine Jesus made was the sort of wine that was normally served first and normally caused the guests to have “drunk freely.” Really? That doesn’t make much sense in context.

The NET Bible translates,

(John 2:10 NET) and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine when the guests are drunk. You have kept the good wine until now!”

The NIV is a little more delicate —

(John 2:10 NIV)  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.”

The Greek is μεθυσθῶσιν, methysthosin (a distant root of “methyl” as in methyl alcohol). In every other New Testament use, it’s translated “get drunk” or the like. Every major Greek dictionary translates the Greek word as meaning to become intoxicated.

In context, the wine master’s point is that the cheap wine is served only after the guests have lost enough of their sensibilities to no longer be able to distinguish expensive wine from cheap. There’s no avoiding the conclusion that Jesus’ wine was both alcoholic and alcoholic enough to produce drunkenness if someone chose to drink enough of it.

But to the author, that’s not a particularly interesting point. The point being made is that Jesus not only made wine, but he made really good wine — making things not only better but as good as possible. His generosity knew no bounds because he has more than enough to give away. He is not a tight-fisted Messiah. He is a Messiah who gives generously, indeed, more than is necessary or asked — solely because someone asked.

The author is teaching us about the character and personality of Jesus, ultimately to show us how we should be. The lesson is to be more generous than is necessary — to overwhelm those who ask with your generosity, because that’s the nature of our rabbi — and we desperately want to be just like our rabbi.

(John 2:11 ESV) 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

The sign was amazing to his disciples. Evidently, the miracle was not revealed to the guests (just the servants — and the disciples, who were presumably near their rabbi when this happened). Jesus did not want to draw attention away from the bride and groom and their celebration. Thus, it was a sign mainly for the benefit of the disciples — generating a deeper faith in him as Messiah.

Again, Jesus could have easily made himself the center of attention, and by all rights, the Son of God deserved to be the center of attention, even at someone else’s wedding. But he generously chose to delay his public announcement to avoid spoiling the celebration of the married couple.

What is the character of Jesus? He doesn’t insist on his rights. He is courteous and thoughtful of others. And he’s willing to not get credit for his amazing accomplishments if necessary to serve others — even a married couple he’d likely never met.

One last point. This Gospel appears to have its origins in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and there was a strong cult there worshiping Dionysius, the Greek god of wine. This shows the First Century Greeks that Jesus has power over wine, not the drunken, fornicating Dionysius.

Thus, wine can be enjoyed by Christ followers, as Jesus is God over wine (along with everything else, of course). But Jesus is honored with wine consumption in very different ways than Dionysius. Jesus is more powerful than Dionysius, and therefore his means of celebrating the gift of wine is better, too.

Here, wine is a gift from God to celebrate marriage, not for a Bacchanalia, that is, a drunken orgy. To the Greek world, the contrast would have been plain.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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