THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FIRST SIGN:
TURNING WATER INTO WINE
Taylor E. Terzek
Of all the possible miracles Christ had performed, why did he begin with this water turning into wine? What unique qualities of this miracle cause it to cement the rest of Christ’s ministry? Examination of the first sign and its significance is found in its contextual and Johannine background whereby it is used to manifest the glory of Christ through Jesus’ replacement of Jewish rite and foreshadowing of messianic fulfillment.
The wedding at Cana is only found in the gospel of John, chapter two, verses one through eleven:
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; and both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” Now there were six stone water pots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. Jesus said to them, “Fill the water pots with water.” So they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it to him. When the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom, and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him. (John 2:1-11)
Before addressing the text of concern, it is important to note that directly prior to this passage, one sees Jesus’ calling of John’s two disciples (1:35-42), Simon Peter, as well as Philip and Nathanael (1:43-51). As a result, the Cana story becomes a good sequel to John 1:50, illustrating the “greater things” that Jesus claims Nathanael would see. Furthermore, Nathanael was from Cana, which makes the flow into the wedding feast quite seamless. Although the specificity of Jesus’ claim is not fulfilled in Cana, the general promise of ‘seeing’ the glory of Christ is evident. Therefore it would be right to assume that the disciples were set with an expectation to see miraculous wonders performed by Christ.
Jesus’ foremost sign takes place at a wedding. “Village weddings were major social events” and “they often involved the entire community.” These celebrations were major communal assemblies, and could last for as long as a week. Furthermore, wedding ceremonies did not occur “in a ‘place of worship,’ except in so far as the Jew regarded ‘home’ as a place of worship” and no religious ceremonies took place. Rather than analyzing this sign through the context of a religious practice, one must study this sign through its the valued context as an immense social gathering. This lens provides an interesting depiction of the persona of Jesus. Remarkably, Jesus is a religious man who is not perceived as an authoritative untouchable. He is social and actually interacts among the peasants as one of their own. In contrast to popular religious leaders of his era, Jesus “ate and drank with the common people.” Whereas John the Baptist was seen as a social recluse retreating to the desert, “Jesus was a public person” engaging “with the common people.” The Son of God is not a mere lifeless, strict and stern prude; He enjoys Himself. He engages in festivities. To see Christianity by its true Christology, one must learn that human feeling – happiness, laughter, joy, etc. – are not signs of weakness, but an effectuate and complete manifestation of humanity.
Moreover, a major item of Judaic culture represented in this sign is the prominence of wine. Because water was relatively scarce and often polluted in biblical times, wine was used much more extensively than it is today. For Jews, wine was one of the necessities of life, expressions derived from its production and consumption is commonly used in biblical imagery. Knowing wine’s vital role in Jewish wedding festivities, its running out was evidently problematic. Seeing that wedding feasts were such a communal event (as previously noted) – “the precise number of those attending was not exactly known beforehand” – it is certainly understandable why the wine ran out. Although it was understandable, that most certainly does not imply that it was not frowned upon in Judaic culture. The wine was the crux image of festivities; thus without the wine, the celebration would take a serious turn downhill.
Beyond the context of the narrative, one must look at the literary construction of the evangelist’s gospel account. The structure of John’s gospel provides some much needed clarity to Jesus and his signs (σημεῖον). D. A. Carson notes that the first half of John’s gospel is “often called the ‘book of signs’” and their major intention is expressing how “Jesus reveals his glory.” The second half represents how Jesus receives glory, which culminates at his death and resurrection. His turning water into wine is the first of these signs, therefore setting the tone and aim for the remaining six. These ‘signs’ are not merely Christ’s miracles. There are necessary characteristics that aid in their distinction: they are public, simply identified as such, and are purposed in the manifestation of Jesus’ glory and authority. Therefore, provided with the contextual background and narrative placement, one can now advance towards the true purpose of the sign.
THE PURPOSE OF THE SIGN
John explicitly states the purpose of this passage. Brown notes, “the main import of the story is spelled out for us in vs. 11” in that it was the first sign. For John to describe the water into wine as a sign “also indicates its importance and consequence.” Moreover, John proceeds to give the primary function of the sign: “Jesus revealed his glory and the disciples believed in him.” Though the disciples’ belief is not stated in the narrative at the initial miracle, “it is implied” and later confirmed by John that they indeed believed. One will find that all of the signs meet this aim throughout John’s gospel – revelation about the person of Jesus. It is a great relief to hermeneutical endeavor that John provides the passage’s meaning. It allows for interpreters to take John at his word, and not search out any extraneous or over-complicated exegesis. Insofar as the observation of the significance of the sign goes, interpretation must be rooted and return to the author’s noted intention.
The affirmation of faith to the disciples is inseparable to the manifestation of Jesus’ glory at the wedding in Cana. John forms discipleship throughout his whole gospel account around faith being generated by Jesus’ signs. Being that the evangelist is foundationally concerned with the revealed glory of the Son of God, the Cana sign provides this theme specifically to his new disciples. Therefore, it is easily noted that the purpose of this sign is twofold: 1) to reveal the glory of Jesus 2) specifically to affirm the faith of his new disciples.
Jesus says, as John notes in verse four, that his hour for true glory “has not yet come.” However, John then reveals that Jesus did indeed reveal his glory through turning the water into wine. The reconciliation of this surfaced contradiction is found in John’s tension of the already and not yet – “a time is coming and has now come” (4:23; 5:25; 16:32). John 7:39 clearly states that during his earthly ministry, Christ had not yet been glorified. Therefore, verse eleven is to be read as either “referring to a partial manifestation of glory, or as being part of the capsulizing of the training of the disciples.” “Manifestations of doxa during the incarnate life are exceptional” and the “hour had not come for manifesting his glory,” but indeed “a partial and preliminary manifestation” was given to the disciples to preface their trust and faith in Jesus’ person. This introductory revelation includes a foreshadowing of their viewing of Jesus’ most glorious action. “Rhetoric would call this sort of reference an internal prolepsis” which Carson explains as “a reference to a theme that will be developed later” or a later developed event. Those who have read John in its entirety know this later theme to be structured as the glorification of Christ at his resurrection. The disciples were only receiving a portion of the overwhelming glory that Jesus would reveal to them during his earthly ministry and training. In summation, John uses this sign to reveal the glory of Christ, and his glory takes precedence over all other aspects of this miracle. Above the joyful refilling of the wine, beyond the satisfied wedding guests, and above, yet in harmony with, the faith of the disciples, Jesus’ person is exalted and glorified.
Having then established the purpose of the sign at Cana, then arises the questions on the emphatic particulars of how precisely the glorification of Jesus manifests itself in this miracle.
Fulfillment of Jewish Rite
Firstly is Jesus’ revealed fulfillment of Jewish rite. John makes a point to describe the amount of water that was present, as well as the reason for it being there: six stone water pots, containing up to thirty gallons, purposed for the Jewish custom of cleansing. The water that fills these typical cleansing pots is what Jesus uses to accomplish his miracle. Jesus could have conducted this miracle any other way, yet he chooses to use these Jewish ritualistically tainted pots. He takes the water of cleansing and turns it into the wine of joy. Despite commentators extravagant interpretations regarding the mystical symbolism of the wine in this sign, it is more cohesive with the scriptures and hermeneutically humbling to assume the simplest interpretation: the water almost certainly represents Judaic ritualism and the wine, Jesus’ fulfillment. Looking at Jesus’ instruction in the gospels, he continually uses the wine to symbolize a new teaching, which is his fulfillment of Jewish ritual (Lk. 5:37-39, Mk. 2:20, Mt. 5:17). In root, Jesus is ‘completing’ Jewish religious practice (cf. Matt. 5:17) by replacing the water of cleansing with a superior wine of joy and celebration. “The sign of the water into wine clearly means, “God is present.” Amidst the presence of God, the Lord does not desire cleansing apart from Christ; He seeks celebration and joy in Christ. In Him, they can now lay down their religious yearning through procedure, and pick up the cup of wine and find the fullness of joy in Christ. Jesus is revealing that he marks the beginning of the messianic age, and that in the time of need, Jesus is the mediated way to God.
Foreshadowing of the Messianic Feast
Additionally, Jesus depicts a foreshadowing of the messianic feast. “The setting of a wedding feast is clearly symbolic.” A normative “motif in Jewish messianic” fulfillment was this idea of an abundant “messianic banquet”(Isa. 25:6-8). The imagery was that of great wine, joyful celebration, and deliverance. “The prophets characterized the messianic age as a time when wine would flow liberally” (cf. Jer. 31:12; Hos. 14:7; Am. 9:13-14; cf. 2 Baruch 29:5; 1 Enoch 10:19). Carson notes, “The sheer quantity of water turned into wine then becomes symbolic of the lavish provision of the new age.” Jesus used Old Testament prophecy of the messiah and its prevalent Jewish symbol to reveal that he was indeed the messiah. Jesus illustriously utilized wine to expose to the Jews who he was. The Jewish mindset was undoubtedly prone to make this connection. It is not fanciful to think that those at the wedding feast were in awe of the prophetic overtones of the miracle Jesus had performed. In full, Brown says Jesus showed “Messianic replacement and abundance.”
The answers to the questions first proposed of the wedding at Cana’s prominence as the first sign now take a more visible form. The wedding at Cana’s provided picture of the messianic person of Jesus lays the foundation for answering those questions of its unique significance as the first sign. There is no better way for Jesus to begin his ministry than by engaging one of the greatest social events of the culture. Further, it represents the culture of Jesus’ future ministry – as one among the culture, extending beyond the religious norm of Judaic expectations. The miracle at Cana provides exemplary fulfillment motifs of the person of Jesus, which is a thread underlined in the whole book of John: Jesus as the messiah and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The water turned into wine is paradigmatic of John as the book of signs, whereby it sets the stage for the rest of John’s signs in its characteristics and purpose.
PRACTICAL TRUTHS TO THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Nevertheless, biblical study must not end with mere academic observation. Christians are called to study for the sake of heart-felt worship and practical obedience. Divine knowledge is structured as to generate divine passion. A theology of the almighty, all-powerful, and loving God that is not set on fire, is not a worthy theology to have. Therefore, as to complete the study, one must take note of what Jesus’ actions entail for the functional follower of Christ.
Jesus’ proclamation that “his time has not yet come” is to comfort the believer that although God “keeps us in suspense and delays his help, it does not mean that he is inactive.” Moreover, God hesitates as to regulate his work and act in his perfect timing. God works, though not strictly, outside of his children’s desired timeline. He often does
this that they may realize their true need for him, and in return depend on him. One of the utmost, if not the greatest, virtues necessary to the Christian life is that of humility. Many times God allows his people to wander in confusion until they, realizing their diluted independence, cry out to him, so that he can turn their cries into songs, praising His name as the great provider.
Saving the Good Wine
The headwaiter is surprised at how good this miraculous wine of Jesus tastes, and therefore notes how it would have been customary to serve this wine first. It was Jewish custom to serve the best wine first, and then once the guests were mildly inebriated and unperceptive, they would serve the cheap and watered-down wine. Practically seen, Christ is not a deceiver. Jesus “at the very outset” proposes things that may bitter and hard” (Matthew 7:14, 10:37, 16:24, 24:9). He does not flatter those, and then once they are somewhat intoxicated on the amazement of his miracles, serve cheap wine and belittle their fellowship. In Christ, the best is always yet to come. His glory is able to be eternally unraveled, and he will not lead his followers into disappointment. He will glorify those whom he has given this new wine unto completion and perfection (Romans 8:30; Philippians 1:6; Hebrews 12:2).
Mechanics of the Miracle
There is no mention of Christ’s mechanical work of this miracle. In the telling of the narrative there is “no indication that John was interested in its mechanism.” It is most certain the Jesus was the provider of the wine, but not one knows the precise process by which Jesus conducted the transformation. Better said, John does not specifically note a work of Christ – only the efficient transformation that takes place. Regenerate grace works in a similar manner in that there is no particular evidence of Christ’s work beyond the fruit of his grace, which is the presence of the Spirit. It is when one tastes the joy of transformation that the work of Christ is truly beheld.
Religiosity and Ritualism
Jesus fulfills all of humanity’s ‘good intentions’ of religiosity. In the midst of their external acts of obedience, they cannot forsake that Jesus is amongst them, and therein is the fullness of joy and delight. “All previous religious institutions, customs and feasts lose meaning in his presence.” Rituals by fallen human beings will not in and of themselves fulfill the demands of perfection by God. However, the sinless life of Jesus can fulfill the demands of God because He is God. Therefore, the knowledge and taking upon the drink of Jesus exceeds any efforts of one’s self to be made clean. Joy, a celebratory affection of the heart, expresses Jesus’ concern with the heart and not the hands – it is not merely the external action, it is the inner transformation
Aquinas, St. Thomas. Commentary On the Gospel of John. Translated by Fabian Larcher and James A. Weisheipl. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010.
Argyle, A W. “Wedding customs at the time of Jesus.” Expository Times 86, no. 7 (April 1, 1975): 214-215.
Barrett, C.K. The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes On the Greek Text. London: S.P.C.K., 1955.
Brown, Raymond E. S.S. In The Gospel According to John. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966.
Calvin, John. John. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994.
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Leicester, England: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.
Meyer, F.B. Gospel of John: The Life and Light of Men Love to the Uttermost. 33 Ludgate Hill, London, E.C.4: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, LTD., 1950.
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Edited by George A. Buttrick. 1962 ed. S. v. “Wine” by J.F. Ross, pp. 845-851.
Toussaint, Stanley D. “Significance of the first sign in John’s gospel.” Bibliotheca Sacra 134, no. 533 (January 1, 1977): 45-51.
Utley, Bob. The Beloved Disciple’s Memoirs and Letters:: I John, the Gospel of John, II and III John. Marshall, TX: Kindred Productions, 1999.
Vincent, Arthur M. “Water Into Wine: A Sign for the Modern Ministry.” Concordia Theological Monthly 32, no. 1 (January 1, 1961): 28-38.
 D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), 168.
 Bob Utley, The Beloved Disciple’s Memoirs and Letters: I John, the Gospel of John, II and III John (Marshall, TX: Kindred Productions, 1999), 24.
 Carson, 169
 A W. Argyle, 1975. “Wedding customs at the time of Jesus.” Expository Times 86, no. 7: 214-215. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 24, 2012), 214.
 F.B. Meyer, Gospel of John: The Life and Light of Men Love to the Uttermost (33 Ludgate Hill, London, E.C.4: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, LTD., 1950), 50.
 Ibid, 50.
 Ibid, 50.
 The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick, s. v. “Wine” by J.F. Ross, 851.
 Ibid, 851.
 Argyle, 215.
 Carson, 166.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary On the Gospel of John (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 132. Thomas proposes that John centers the book on the “divinity” of Christ. The first half shows what Christ did to show his divinity; the second half “Christ showed his divinity while dying.” Although the use of terminology is different (partially due to vast cultural era differences), the scholastic community agrees with the structure in principle.
 Raymond E. Brown S.S., “(i-xii),” in The Gospel According to John (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966), 103.
 Stanley D. Toussaint, “Significance of the First Sign in John’s Gospel.” Bibliotheca Sacra 134, no. 533 (1977): 45.
 Brown, 103.
 C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes On the Greek Text (London: S.P.C.K., 1955), 161.
 Brown, 101.
 Barrett, 161.
 Carson, 171.
 Aquinas extends his interpretation of the wine far beyond scriptural evidence. He does this with several items of analysis in this pericope (cf. the role of the mother of Jesus, the use of six jars, the very name of the city, etc. and so forth – all of which he categorizes full systems of thought around nothing found in the scriptures to birth his claims). Furthermore, Thomas assumes that “there were three wines running out” – “of wisdom, of justice, and of charity or grace” – before the incarnation of Jesus, and therein is the symbolical aim of the use of wine.
 Carson, 173. He states that, “the water represents the old order of Jewish law and custom, which Jesus was to replace with something better”
 Arthur M. Vincent, “Water Into Wine : A Sign for the Modern Ministry.” Concordia Theological Monthly 32, no. 1 (1961): 29.
 Carson, 172.
 Ibid, 174.
 Brown, 104.
 John Calvin, John (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994), 51.
 Aquinas, 142.
 Barrett, 161.
 Brown, 104.