Gospel of Matthew
The Significance of the First Sign in John's Gospel
Stanley D. Toussaint
The Book of MATTHEW
The Significance of the First Sign in John's Gospel
Stanley D. Toussaint
The miracle of Christ's turning water to wine, recorded in John 2:1-11, tells much about the Lord. It indicates, for instance, that the Lord hallowed marriage and family life. The well-known words of The Book of Common Prayer refer to marriage as a "holy estate" which "Christ adorned and beautified with his presence and first miracle that He wrought in Cana of Galilee. . . ." This miracle also manifests the fact that Christ approved of festivities. More than once this aspect of the Lord's ministry is seen and misunderstood (Matt. 9:14; 11:19; Luke 15:2). This miracle is commonly viewed as a sign which reveals the Lord Jesus as the Creator. In this miracle He "created" wine — the whole process of growth, bearing fruit, harvest, and production of wine is compressed into a minuscule fragment of time.
While all of the above are true, do any or all of them reveal the real significance of the miracle?
Of course there are many attendant difficulties and problems that must be answered. Did Jesus make actual wine? Why did Jesus speak to His mother as He did? Why is this the first miracle? Interestingly, all these attendant questions are answered when the basic problem is solved: What is the significance of this first miracle?
The fact that John calls attention to this miracle as being first is enough to indicate its primacy among the wonders Christ performed. That he should describe it as a sign also indicates its importance and consequence. The word σημβίον looks at a miracle as proof of a point or as a means of teaching something. The crucial thing is not the miracle, as genuine and important as it is, but the lesson to be learned from the miracle. The fact that John uses only σιημβίον in his Gospel to refer to Christ's miracles does not detract from the purpose of the miracles to teach something about the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact it enhances this truth.
The situation is described in John 2:1-2. The time is the third day. It is obvious John is emphasizing the first week of Christ's ministry. Just as the last days were crucial, so also the initial hours of the Lord's earthly work were important. The first day is referred to in John 1:35; the second is mentioned in 1:43; and the third day is seen in 2:1.
The place is Cana. It was evidently a relatively unknown village because every time John refers to it he describes it as being "of Galilee" (2:1, 11; 4:46; 21:2). No other New Testament writer alludes to it. The location of Cana is not definitely known; however, all the possible sites are located near Nazareth. The most probable site is nine miles to the north.
A wedding and its attendant wedding feast provided the occasion for the miracle. Evidently the marriage had already been contracted; the groom had gone to the bride's home to acquire his wife; the wedding procession to the groom's house had taken place; and now the wedding festivities had begun. This celebration could last for days, possibly even a week.
The presence of the Lord's mother, the Lord Jesus, and His disciples is described in verses 1 and 2. John assumes the reader knows the basic Gospel narrative; this is attested by his referring to Mary simply as "the mother of Jesus." It is of interest to observe the absence of any reference to Joseph. It may be assumed he had died before Christ began His public ministry.
The Lord Jesus must have been an intimate friend of the family. He was personally invited and so were His disciples; He was told of the embarrassing lapse in the supply of wine; the servants were put into submission to Him. Obviously Jesus was no stranger! It is interesting to observe in this connection the contrast in the verb tenses between verses 1 and 2. The verb in verse 1 is imperfect, implying Mary had been there for some time. The aorist in verse 2 may imply Christ had been invited later, on His return to Nazareth from the Jordan. At any rate the presence of the disciples was certainly something of a surprise. They were invited as an afterthought only because they were with Jesus. (The verb εκλήθη is singular.) After all, the five disciples who were with Jesus had only been called during the preceding two days! Could it be that their presence contributed to the shortage of the wine?
THE COUNSEL OF MARY
In connection with John 2:3-5 the question is often raised, Was the wine Jesus made actual wine? It is very difficult to answer this in the negative; the text refers to actual wine for several reasons. First, the word used here is οίνος which simply means "wine." That this is its meaning is difficult to dispute. Second, the word μβθνω used in verse 10 means "to be drunk" (cf. Matt. 24:29; Acts 2:15; 1 Cor. 11:21; 1 Thess. 5:7; Rev. 17:2, 6).
While it is difficult to dispute the fact that the Lord made wine, two mitigating factors must be brought into the discussion. First, drunkenness was a despised sin and was severely reprobated. No passage of Scripture teaches total abstinence, but drunkenness is clearly classified as sin (Hab. 2:15; Luke 21:34; Rom. 13:13; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:18; etc.). To say the Lord made wine by no means indicates He condoned drunkenness. Second, wine was normally diluted. The ratio could be as high as twenty parts of water to one of wine or as low as one to one. Even the apocryphal 2 Maccabees refers to this custom of diluting wine with water. The writer of this book concludes his work with these words in 2 Maccabees 15:38-39:
And if I have written well and to the point in my story, this is what I myself desired; but if meanly and indifferently, this is all I could attain unto. For as it is distasteful to drink wine alone and in like manner again to drink water alone, while the mingling of wine with water at once giveth full pleasantness to the flavour; so also the fashioning of the language delighteth the ears of them that read the story.
The conclusion then appears to be irrefutable: the wine at the wedding of Cana was not simply grape juice; it was wine diluted with water. The exact ratio is unknown but a low amount of water would have left the wine intoxicating (John 2:10; Eph. 5:18). At any rate, drunkenness was looked on as a sin and a grave social error. Inebriation was detested and severely censured.
When the supply of wine lapsed, the Lord's mother informed Christ of this most embarrassing situation. This was a social faux pas of the first order. It could even result in a lawsuit by the bride's parents against the family of the groom!
What is the significance of Mary informing the Lord that the supply of wine had been depleted? Certainly she was not doing this to ask the Lord and His disciples to leave. Perhaps their presence contributed to this disconcerting plight; but this explanation of her words, "They have no wine," does not fit the remainder of the narrative. In verse 5 Mary tells the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it."
It is quite clear Mary was expecting a miracle. It is true the Lord had not as yet performed any miracles, but she certainly had many evidences of His supernatural character — His conception, the events surrounding His birth and presentation in the Temple (cf. Luke 2:8-38), and the incident in the Temple area when He was only twelve years old. Now His appearance with the disciples whom He had called would point to the beginning of His public ministry. Mary informed the Lord of the problem so He could super-naturally solve it.
The Lord's answer recorded in verse 4 has perplexed many. "Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come." The vocative yvvai is a term not of reproach but of respect (cf. John 19:26-27). Liddell and Scott say the vocative was used to express respect or affection. A modern equivalent would be "ma'am" or more properly "madam."
"What do I have to do with you?" is more literally translated, "What to me and to you?" It means, "What do we have in common?" Godet says, "This formula signifies that the community of feeling to which one of the interlocutors appeals is rejected by the other, at least in the particular point which is in question." The Lord is very positively saying they are no longer on common ground. Up to this time their relationship had been purely domestic; now He is entering into public ministry.
When the Lord Jesus states, "My hour has not yet come," He uses an expression that occurs several times in John's Gospel (7:30; 8:20; cf. 7:6, 8). Contrariwise, the coming of the Lord's hour is also referred to in the later sections of this Gospel ((12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1). A study of these passages indicates that it points to the process of the Lord's glorification. It describes the Lord's "hour" from His crucifixion to His coming reign on earth. Evidently Mary expected Christ to manifest Himself supernaturally in such a way as to bring about the kingdom age. This explains the Lord's response. Mary's command to the servants indicates she still expected a miracle. She now also saw a new relationship with her son and she recognized His authority.
THE COMMANDS OF THE LORD
The presence of six large stone waterpots each capable of holding twenty to thirty gallons of liquid sets the stage for what is about to happen. The total amount of wine involved in the miracle was between 120 and 150 gallons! Normally the pots were employed for holding water in the various rites of purification.
Verse 7 indicates the servants filled the empty and partially filled waterpots to the brim. This was important because it left no room for the addition of any solutions. Furthermore, these waterpots had been used for water so there would not have been any residue of grapes in them. There was no way, humanly speaking, in which the water could have been made to taste like wine.
The word άρχιτρίκλινος used in verse 8 actually means "ruler of a room with three couches." This person who was the first to taste the wine had the combined responsibilities of head waiter and master of ceremonies. He was to be the objective but unwitting witness and testimony as to the reality of the miracle. Of all people he would be the most qualified to judge the quality of the wine.
THE COMMENT OF THE HEAD WAITER
The remark of the head waiter in verse 10 expresses his surprise that the best wine had been withheld so long. It was normal to serve the inferior wine after the guests' tastes had been dulled.
As noted earlier, the verb μζθνω simply means "to be drunk."
Certainly the comment of the head waiter does not mean the guests were drunk nor does it imply that Jesus condoned drunkenness. The words of the head waiter — the master of ceremonies — simply express the modus operandi at most wedding feasts. The text is only recording the words of an astonished professional. The point of the remark is the high quality of the wine; the best available had been served earlier, but the miraculous wine far surpassed it.
John designates this miracle as the Lord's first sign. The fact that this is said to be the first does away with the apocryphal miracles recorded in the apocryphal Gospels. That it is a sign indicates there is a truth behind the miracle, a truth greater than the miracle itself. The first message by way of a miracle in John's Gospel and the Lord's ministry is this sign.
THE SIGNIFICANCE FOR ISRAEL
There is significance in the miracle first for Israel, especially the Israel of Christ's day. The wedding feast with its new wine portrays the coming of the kingdom. By this sign the Lord declares He is the Messiah of Israel who is capable of bringing the predicted kingdom into its glorious existence. There are a number of factors that show this is the point of the miracle: (1) The kingdom is often portrayed in terms of a banquet, especially a wedding feast (Matt. 8:11; 22:1-14; Luke 13:29; 14:15-24; Rev. 19:7-9). The presence of the Lord at these marriage festivities at Cana graphically pictures the coming of the kingdom. (2) A number of references in the Old Testament picture the kingdom age in terms of wine. For instance, Isaiah 25:6 joins the figures of a banquet and wine together to illustrate the joys of the future kingdom age. In Isaiah 27:2-6 the prophet describes Israel as God's vineyard in the millennium. An abundance of wine was a description often used in the Old Testament of the time when Abraham's promises would be fulfilled (Gen. 49:11-12; Jer. 31:12; Hos. 2:22; 14:7; Joel 2:19, 24; 3:18; Amos 9:13-14; Zech. 9:15-17; 10:7).
This gives significance to the lapse of wine. Not only was this a gross social error; it was also a picture of the obsolescence of Judaism. The old wine had run out and Christ the Messiah was here to bring the new. As Paul put it, "the fullness of time" had come (Gal. 4:4). The Lord used the same kind of a figure in the parable of the wineskins (Matt. 9:17; Luke 5:37-38). The Apostle John beautifully prepared for this miracle in John 1:17: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ" (NASB). The miracle shows the old order had run its course; now was the time for a new one.
THE SIGNIFICANCE FOR CHRISTIANS
The significance of this miracle is not for Jews only; it is obviously for the church as well. The basic truth for Christians is found in the joy of salvation. Wine and joy are also associated together. The psalmist praises God for His generous providence in giving man "wine which makes man's heart glad" (Ps. 104:15). In a classic case of personification the vine of Judges 9:13 objects, "Shall I leave my new wine, which cheers God and men, and go to wave over the trees?" Although Westcott fails to see this miracle as an illustration of God's provision of joy for the Christian he does remark, "There is a Jewish saying, 'Without wine there is no joy' "
This miracle portrays not only the joy Christ brings into a person's life but also the abundance of joy. The Lord made between 120 and 150 gallons of wine! Not only do believers have access to a peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:7) and grace unbounding (Rom. 5:20), but also joy unspeakable and full of glory (1 Pet. 1:8). Surely the vast supply of wine portrays both the abundance of the kingdom age and the fullness of joy in the individual Christian's experience. Hymn writers have caught this aspect of the spiritual life in various phrases and clauses — "Come we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known . . ."; "He brings a poor lost sinner into His house of wine . . ."; "Rejoice, give thanks, and sing . . ."; and a myriad more.
Finally, for the Christian there is a new life in Christ. The old is passed away and there is a whole new life and perspective in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
This miracle, then, was a sign, a sign to prompt faith in Jesus as the Messiah and to provide new life through Him, just as John states in the declaration of the purpose of his Gospel (John 20:31).
Also - please see:
Addendum 011, The Seraphim and Cherubim
Addendum 012, The Miracles of Jesus
Addendum 013, The Kingdoms of God
 Robert H. Stein, "Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times," Christianity Today, June 20, 1975, p. 19. Cf. Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 179, footnote.
 Morris, The Gospel according to John, p. 179.
 Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), p. 363.
 Frederick Louis Godet, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2 vols. (1893; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), 1:347.
 William Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 500.
 B. F. Westcott, The Gospel according to St. John (1881; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), p. 36.