I love the story of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2). What a completely extravagant and joyful miracle to begin the work of his earthly ministry! But he is acting out a greater truth here; just as Jesus’ parables were always simplistic stories with deeper theological meanings, he shows us in this miracle so much about himself and what he’s all about.
Let’s lay our scene. Jesus and his friends are kicking it at the wedding feast, which would have lasted anywhere from five to seven days. Since the wine has run out, we’re somewhere near the end of the long festivities. We assume the wedding party members were close friends of Jesus and his disciples, maybe even family members, as we see that Jesus’ mother Mary has the inside scoop on the wine situation, and we see her later giving orders to the servants.
There’s so much we could unpack about the interaction between Mary and Jesus, but we’ll fast-forward to the miracle for now. Jesus jumps into action. He takes six stone water jars that were designated for water used in Jewish rites of purification. The ancient Jews had very explicit laws regarding purification, everything from rinsing the hands to washing the clothes and immersing the whole body. They would do this before or after certain events, such as before and after meals, after rising from sleep, and before prayer or worship. These vessels were therefore hugely important to the people’s legalistic religious practices, which developed from the laws given to God’s people under the leadership of Moses several thousand years earlier.
Let’s rewind the tape, because this warrants a closer look. God’s people are still in bondage in Egypt. They are longing for a savior to rescue them. God sends them an unlikely one: a former Egyptian prince who is wanted for murder and who can’t string together a coherent sentence (Exodus 4:10). But God is never interested in our notions of how things should be done. So Moses manages to secure the Egyptian pharaoh’s agreement to set God’s people free by inflicting a series of plagues upon the nation of Egypt, the first of which, please note, was turning water into blood. (Check out Exodus 7 for the whole crazy story.) Moses later gives the people a whole slew of laws regarding cleanliness, holiness, and morality. We call this the Mosaic Law. This leads us all the way to the time of Jesus, when people kept 180 gallons of water in their houses for washing up, so they could follow the law and be kept clean and holy.
Enter Jesus, who is the better Moses (Hebrews 9:11). He turns the water into wine, which was a symbol of the blood that would ultimately wash everyone of all our sin, making us clean and holy for all time (1 John 1:7). Whereas Moses set the people free but was not allowed into the promised land because of his unbelief in God, Jesus sets us free and is now seated at the right hand of the Father in perfect oneness and obedience (Hebrews 8:1). And whereas Moses gave the people laws to follow, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17).
Jesus is showing himself here in the very crossroads of redemptive history, the already but not yet. His miracle simultaneously points us back to the historical event of Moses leading God’s people out of Egypt and also forward to the ultimate marriage of Christ to his bride, the church. The first sign of Moses was intended all along to point us forward to Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana, which in turn leads us to another marriage feast that we read about in Revelation 19, the one of the Lamb and his bride. From the waters of the Nile turned to blood, to the water of purification turned to wine, to the wine pointing to the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood, to the bride herself clothed in fine linen, bright and pure. And here I thought Jesus just liked to party!
What I love most about this miracle is that Jesus doesn’t just zap some Franzia into those water pitchers; even people who have been drinking nonstop for a week can tell that they are suddenly drinking the good stuff. Jesus is like that: he turns social convention on its head, for one thing, and for another, he is always raising the bar. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 that it’s not enough just to toe the line anymore, it’s not enough just to not murder someone or not commit adultery and call it good. Now he’s calling us to not even be angry at anyone, not even to look lustfully. Jesus calls us to a standard of perfection that he has already upheld for us. No amount of washing with water — or religiosity or good works or white-knuckling or morality — can save us. Only Jesus can do that.
The Bible can be delightfully understated at times. John tells us that in doing this miracle, Jesus “manifested his glory” (John 2:11). This is the very same glory mentioned in John 1:14, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” That is to say, Jesus showed himself to be God. John goes on: “And his disciples believed in him.” They have no idea what’s in store for them, but they have seen the glory of God and they believe. We too have seen the glory of the Word become flesh. Oh, that we all would believe, so we can lift our voices and cry out with the multitude at the wedding of the Lamb, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!”
Written By: Jess Upshaw Glass