We are exploring the Gospel of John by looking at the signs he records that Jesus performed (there are 7 plus His Resurrection, the ultimate sign). John’s purpose in writing, as we have discussed, was to present Jesus as the Messiah, not to provide a complete timeline of His activities. One of the ways John pursues this goal is by the sequence of signs he introduces.
While some of these are mentioned in the synoptics, John almost always has a twist or a different slant on them. He seems to be showing us, through the lens of the signs, how the Disciples came to know who Jesus really was and to invite us to follow along.
First a word about signs. In the best possible sense, no sign is about itself, it has as its subject something else, and the best signs are those that do the best job conveying the message of their object. The object could be:
- A command, like a stop sign.
- Warning, like a sign for icy conditions.
- Admonishment, like buckle up.
And just like they don’t point to themselves, they don’t read or understand themselves for us. It is up to us not just to see the signs, but to understand what they mean. It would be a very foolish sign maker that made signs that were too obscure or small to be seen, or so complicated that they could not be understood. Jesus gave His disciples these signs because he wanted them to understand who he was, not because he wished to remain unknown.
The word John always uses when he discussed these signs is the Greek word used has as its primary meaning “the distinguishing mark by which something is know”. So each one of these signs reveals something of the distinguishing nature or character of Jesus.
John 2:1-11 tells the story of the Wedding Feast. You know it well. Mary, Jesus and his first 5 disciples are invited to a wedding feast. This implies that Mary and Jesus were either related to or close friends of the Groom’s family. I say that because it appears that Mary was more than just a casual attendee. He instructions to the servants indicate she was an important participant in the wedding either as an organizer or a very close relative.
In any event Mary, Jesus and the others are at the feast and Mary informs Jesus that the wine in running short. To suggest that this was a mere faux pas is to understate the crisis. This was a social crisis of major proportion, the kind that could haunt the groom’s family for a generation something not to be done.
When Mary tells Jesus he reacts in a seemingly curt manner calling her Woman (as opposed to Mother) and asking what this had to do with him. He uses the same word for Woman when referring to her from the cross in John 19. The term he uses in saying “Why do you involve me?”, or “What is this to me” carries a sense of distancing himself from his mother. Why would he do this.
The best explanation I have seen notes that scripture says Jesus submitted to the authority of his parents, but that at this time, as part of the sign, Jesus wanted his mother to know that things had changed between them. That he now did only his heavenly father’s bidding and not necessarily hers.Nonetheless, Mary seems confident Jesus will do something and instructs the servants to do whatever he says.
At the wedding feast there were six stone jars of the kind used to hold water for ritual purifications. Since the wedding was a ritual, there was surely a lot of purification going on so the 120 to 180 gallons of water was needed. Now this was water for ritual was required to be naturally pure, to not have been used previously and not be discolored. It must also have been poured in another vessel by a human act prior to being used for the cleansing. So into the jars is goes, its transferred to a bowl or ewer and its ready for the ritual wash.
Scripture does not say how empty the jars were, we only know they were not full and Jesus asked the servants to fill them. At 8.33 pounds per the gallon he had asked them to move at least 1000 lbs (ok, 996) of stuff from out of a rain collection cistern or well to the jars if they were all empty, not a small task, which they did.
In addition to Mary’s apparent faith that Jesus would act, the actions of the servants, who obeyed Jesus without obvious reason stand out. Why did they do it? I don’t know, but they did obey and all around them were blessed.
And they obeyed not just in filling the jars, but in taking the sample to the master of the banquet. Can you see this, the master of the banquet and the groom are worried about running out of wine and this guy is telling the servants to take him water out of the ritual jars. A complete non sequitur. A total disconnect. What did one have to do with the other?
But when the master of the banquet drank, it was not just not water, it was wine, and it was not just any wine, it was the best wine, and it was not just the best it was a super abundance. Consider that last. If all the water was changed in 6 20 gallon jars that is 456 liters. A standard bottle of wine today is 750ml so that’s 608 bottles of wine or about 51 cases.
And, at least initially, nobody but the Mary, Jesus, and the servants knew. The Disciples and the rest at the party found out later, and the word probably spread. But probably not very far and not very loud. Although he would later give grander and more public signs, this one was done on the QT.
But why, and what does it mean. Why is easy, it was the kickoff, it was the first just for those close to him, so they would have reason for confidence. It was to announce a change in relationship to his mother and signal to his disciples that he was different in kind from John and others they might have chosen to follow. It was the first step in convincing them, and us that he was and is the Son of God.
Secondarily, like everything he did, he met a direct human need. This wasn’t a life or death thing, but it would have been really bad for the wedding to “fail”. God cares for our little failures and small hurts as much as for the large ones.
As for symbolic meanings, like changing something worthless into something that brings joy and happiness, or redeeming the day (which he surely did), I’ll leave those to you.
As for symbolism