In the gospel passage for today, we read the account of the first of Jesus’ miracles - the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana. It is a very well known miracle. Even people who do not have much biblical teaching have often heard of it - perhaps because for the average beer and wine loving Australian this sounds like the ideal miracle! For these people the line of the hymn that goes “What a friend we have in Jesus” takes on a new meaning. J
But was this what it was all about? Did Jesus perform this miracle just to help out or ingratiate his host? Or was he saying something about drinking alcohol; or was there some other purpose to this miracle?
To find the answer we must first understand a general principle about miracles. As a young Christian, I often used to wonder why Jesus seemed to be selective with his miracles – why didn’t he, for example, cure all of the sick people that would have lived in the region where he lived. What I now understand is that miracles were not done for their own sake – rather they had a specific purpose which becomes evident when you go back to examine the original Greek word that John used.
John referred to them as semeia (say-mi-ah), which means ‘signs’; and this is because he understood that their purpose was to symbolically point beyond their supernatural nature to Jesus. These signs are special actions by Jesus which reveal his glory to those who believe, and which confront others with the need to decide about Jesus.
So, the general principle is that the miracles recorded in the gospels were always done to bring glory to Jesus. Whenever we come across accounts of miracles in the Bible, we should always ask ourselves, “What does this teach me about Jesus and his significance?”
Now, let us return to the wedding celebrations in the Galilean town of Cana. The scene that we have here is that the wedding celebrations had been going on for some time, as they traditionally did. Sometimes the Jewish wedding celebrations went on as long as a week. They had run out of wine, which was a serious social faux pas and would have reflected badly on the bridegroom. In fact, sometimes lawsuits arose out of these occasions. Jesus’ mother, who (we surmise had some catering role) was sufficiently concerned that she came to Jesus and told him about the problem.
Mary’s approach to Jesus is, by the way, seen as a helpful model for intercessory prayer. Note that she merely stated the problem – she didn’t actually ask him to do something about it.
Instead of dictating to God what should be done about the problem, as we often tend to do in intercessory prayer, Mary’s example indicates that we should simply lay the need before God, and then trust him to respond as he wills.
Well, at first glance, Jesus’ initial response appears to be rather abrupt and also a reluctance to get involved, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (v.4). Perhaps the Mums here today would suggest that the expected reply should have been something like, “Oh, okay Mum, I’ll fix it!”
Reading the original Greek, we realise that the term translated ‘woman’ is actually a term of respect and affection. But what about the rest of Jesus’ reply?
Well, it seems that Jesus knowing that he is about to carry out the first miracle to reveal that he is the Saviour who will die on the cross has a little preparation to do with his mother. To summarise the purpose of this exchange between Jesus and his mother, I like the statement provided by a commentator who wrote,
‘Mary approaches Jesus as his mother, and is reproached; … she responds as a believer, and her faith is honoured.’
We might link this with verse 11 where we read that when Jesus ‘… revealed his glory … his disciples believed in him.’
Anyway, it seems that Jesus took his mother’s statement as an imperative. She had an expectation that he would do something about it. This is what mothers are like!
As I read these verses, I had a vision of Linda standing at the door of our daughter’s bedroom and saying, “This room is a mess!” She only stated the problem; didn’t have to spell it out – our daughter knew what to do!
So, Jesus went ahead and sorted out the problem, albeit, I suspect, not for the purpose that motivated his mother. He asked for the stone water jars to be filled with water. And when the liquid was drawn out and presented to the chief steward for a taste test, the water was found to have miraculously turned into wine. Not only was it now wine, but it was declared by the chief steward to be a top quality wine that was far superior to the old wine that had been served earlier during the wedding feast. And it is in this that we can find the specific purpose of this miracle.
The water in the stone water jars was there for ceremonially washing or cleansing before the meal, as required by Jewish law. So, the water represents the previous means of purification from sin, ie through observance of the Law given by God to the ancient Israelites as guiding principles for them to live in obedience to God while they awaited the coming of the Messiah.
The miracle of changing this water into wine indicates that the Messiah has indeed come, in the form of Jesus Christ. The Gospel tells us that Jesus did this, ‘the first of his signs in Cana of Galilee’, to ‘reveal his glory’ (v.11) And the new wine represents what Jesus was bringing to the people as a new means of cleansing or purifying from sin – a means of purifying that would be far superior, and that would become available to all through Jesus’ death and resurrection when his hour comes.
So, at the start of his ministry, Jesus gave this miracle as a sign that he had come to change the ‘old wine of Judaism’, with its system of laws to be obeyed, into the far superior means of obtaining God’s grace through the ‘new wine of Christianity’, i.e. through belief in Jesus.
This new way of obtaining God’s grace is far superior to the old wine of Judaism with its Law for at least three reasons:
First of all, the purification from sin provided by obeying the Law was only a temporary outcome that had to be continually refreshed.
Despite their best efforts, the people kept failing to meet the standard. They knew the law but could not live up to it. And so there was the need for repeated rituals of cleansing.
But, Jesus through his ‘one sacrifice … has made perfect’ and is able to save completely those who come to God through him. His sacrifice on the cross was a once and for all event. We no longer have to make regular sacrifices to obtain forgiveness for our sin.
Secondly, the Law told the people how they should live; but it did not give them the power to achieve this perfect life. The Israelites had to try to live up to the Law in their own strength. Anyone who tries to live up to God’s standard by their own strength will quickly discover that we just cannot do it. This reality of fallen human nature meant that the ancient means of purification and cleansing, the constant sacrifices on the altars, had to be constantly on hand for the ancient Israelites.
But the Christian is able to share in Jesus’ defeat, on the cross, of the power of sin, and receives the power of the Holy Spirit to help us resist the temptations of the desires of our old self-indulgent-nature.
Thirdly, the Law commanded obedience – it was motivation from fear of God’s judgement if the commandment was not carried out.
Jesus, however, has given us a new motivation for obedience to God. It is a motivation of thankfulness and responding love. And this is a far more compelling stimulus to obedience than the sheer imperative of the commandment of the Law.
The Christian chooses to obey God, not so much because we are commanded to do so, but as a willing response of thanksgiving and love towards God for the immense love that he has shown us in sending Jesus to die on the cross for us. As John 4:19, says, ‘We love because God first loved us.’ And in John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’
Now, as we always should, we must ask ourselves how we today should respond as we read this account of Jesus’ first miracle – the changing of the water into wine at the Cana wedding.
Our response should be the same as the response of Jesus’ disciples who were there to witness this sign first hand. Their response is indicated in the second part of verse 11. Having observed this revelation of Jesus’ significance as the Son of God who came to provide a far better means of obtaining God’s grace, ‘his disciples believed in him’. Similarly, our response should be to believe in him, if we haven’t already done so; or, to deepen our belief if we have already accepted him as Saviour and Lord.
And when we do this, a miracle of change also happens in us. It is called the miracle of new birth. Just as Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana, when we believe in him and accept him as our Saviour and Lord, Jesus turns our old nature into a new nature by sending into us the Holy Spirit. And through believing in Jesus we are cleansed; not by a ceremonial washing of water, but through the cleansing that comes through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross.
In summary then, right at the very start of his ministry, a sign was given through the miracle of the turning of the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana that Jesus was the Messiah who was to replace the old covenant of the Law with a new covenant of promised forgiveness of sin through the love of God – a far better means of obtaining God’s grace then the old. Whilst his hour to do this had not yet come at the Cana wedding, this miracle was a sign that looked forward to when Jesus would do this through his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. Amen.
 D.A. Carson in Bruce Milne, The Message of John, Inter-Varsity, 2002, p.64.