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John 2:1-11 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 2 & 15. GOOD WINE & TRUE VINE
There appears to be an inclusio (a bracketing of stories) between the wine imagery of the Cana story at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, where he is revealed as the good wine, and the wine imagery of the“I am the true vine” discourse at the very end of his ministry, where he identifies himself as the true vine (15:1).
In the “true vine” context, Jesus says,“Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (15:4-5).
Jesus then talks about keeping his commandments, saying,“This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you” (15:12; see also 13:31-35). He said,“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35).
At Cana, Jesus is revealed both in the good wine and as the good wine—revealing his glory (v. 11). In the “true vine” discourse, Jesus is revealed as we “bear fruit” (15:4) and as we love one another (15:5).
JOHN 2-12. THE BOOK OF SIGNS
Jesus told Nathanael,“Most certainly, I tell you, hereafter you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (1:51). The fulfillment of that promise begins immediately with “the beginning of his signs” at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee that reveals Jesus’ glory and causes his disciples to believe in him (v. 11).
Chapters 2-12 are often called the Book of Signs, because in them Jesus performs signs that reveal his glory (v. 11). John refers to miracles as signs (2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:54; 6:2, 14; 11:47; 12:18, 37; 20:30), and Jesus refers to them as works (5:20, 36; 9:3-4; 10:25, 32, 37-38; 14:10-12; 15:24).
A sign is more than a demonstration of power. A sign reveals something—points to something beyond itself. At Cana, the sign points to Jesus’ glory (v. 11). Signs, however, unlike miracles that are done openly, are hidden from some. Not everyone understands their significance. The disciples believe (v. 11) and many believe (v. 23), but “the Jews” (v. 18) are skeptical. Even the chief steward has no clue about the real meaning of this sign (v. 10).
This Gospel records these signs “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
Chapters 13 ff. are often called the Book of Glory, and have to do with Jesus’ “glorification”—a code word in this Gospel for Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation.
JOHN 1-4. THE OLD AND THE NEW
Set in a society that treasures ancient truths and venerates old age, the common theme of chapters 1-4 is the replacement of the inferior old with the superior new:
• In the Prologue (1:1-18), we find wording that evokes the first creation even as it tells about the new creation (read John 1:1-5 alongside Genesis 1:1-5):
• In Genesis we read about creation taking place at the word of God (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). In John we read about the Word that was with God—was God—and was present at the creation and active in it (1:1-4). In Genesis 1 we read about God creating light. In John we read, “The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world” (1:9). We also read, “For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (1:17). In chapter 2, we find “the replacement of the old purifications by the wine of the kingdom of God” (2:1-11) (Dodd, 297).
• In chapter 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus of the necessity of new birth (3:1-21).
• In chapter 4, Jesus contrasts “the water of Jacob’s well and the living water from Christ” (4:1-15) and then contrasts worship in Jerusalem and in Gerizim. Also in chapter 4, Jesus returns to Cana to heal a royal official’s son—his second sign (4:46-54).
JOHN 2:1-11. A WEDDING IN CANA
This is Jesus’ first act of ministry in this Gospel. In Mark, his first act is an exorcism; in Matthew, it is the Sermon on the Mount; in Luke, it is a sermon in the synagogue. Each of these points to a particular emphasis of each Gospel. The wedding at Cana is not just an interesting story included at random, but provides clues to the meaning of the rest of this Gospel.
It is an odd beginning, however. We would expect this Gospel’s first miracle to be more significant. In this Gospel, Jesus heals an official’s son (4:46-54) and a sick man (5:1-9), feeds the five thousand (6:1-14); walks on water (6:15-21), heals a man born blind (9:1-34), and raises Lazarus from the dead (12:1-11, 18). Why would his first sign be wine for a party? Why not one of the more significant miracles?
Keep in mind that, in this Gospel, Jesus speaks and acts on more than one level. It is only on a surface level that this story is about wine for a party.
This story establishes a pattern that we will see repeated in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus (3:1-21), the Samaritan woman (4:1-30) and other occasions. A person speaks (Mary, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman), and Jesus responds with unusual words/deeds that can be understood either on an obvious, superficial level or on a less obvious, spiritual level.
Therefore, in the Cana story, we can understand the wine that Jesus provides as a face-saving gift to the groom and his family or we can look for a deeper meaning. On some occasions, Jesus gives a discourse (a speech) that explains his signs/works, but not at Cana. The lack of a discourse means that interpretations of the sign at Cana are more diverse than they might otherwise be. We might understand the steward’s comment in verse 10 to refer to the “inferior wine” of Jewish law and the “good wine” of Christ’s grace—or we might understand the abundance of the wine that Jesus provides to reflect the abundance of his grace—or both.
JOHN 2:1-5. MY HOUR HAS NOT YET COME
1The third day, there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there. 2Jesus also was invited, with his disciples, to the marriage. 3When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no wine.” 4Jesus said to her, “Woman (Greek: gunai), what does that have to do with you and me? (Greek: ti emoi kai soi gunai—literally, “What to me and to you?) My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Whatever he says to you, do it.”
“The third day” (v. 1a). This would be the third day after Jesus’ encounter with Nathanael (1:45-51). The first two stories of this Gospel, the wedding (vv. 1-11) and the cleansing of the temple (vv. 13-22) are both “third day” stories. The author specifically links the temple story to Jesus’ death and resurrection (vv. 19-21), but there is no such linkage in the Cana story.
“in Cana of Galilee” (v. 1b). The location of Cana is uncertain. We believe it to be near Nazareth. Cana is mentioned in the Bible only in the Gospel of John. It is Nathanael’s home (21:2).
The significance of Cana is its insignificance. Just as God regularly chooses unlikely candidates to do his work (Moses, David, Gideon, etc.), so also he chooses unlikely places to reveal his glory (Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana).
Jesus will return to Cana after visiting Jerusalem and cleansing the temple, and will also perform his second sign there—the healing of the son of a royal official from Capernaum (4:46-54). Thus Jesus gives his first and second signs in this small, obscure town far from the Jerusalem temple—an example of ministry at the margins.
“Jesus’ mother was there” (v. 1c). Jesus and his disciples were also invited (v. 2), thus giving the lie to the theory that the shortage of wine resulted from Jesus and his disciples unexpectedly swelling the guest list.
We don’t know which disciples are present. Four were previously named—Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael (1:40-48) and there seems to be a fifth unnamed disciple, probably the author of this Gospel (1:35-40). It seems likely that these five are the ones present at Cana. The twelve are mentioned in 6:67, but we have no idea when the other disciples arrive on the scene.
Jesus mother appears in this Gospel only here and at the cross (19:25-27). Her name is not mentioned on either occasion.
Jesus and his mother surely know people in Cana, or they would not be invited to this wedding. This is friendly country. The people of Galilee are receptive to Jesus, in contrast to Judea, where he will face determined opposition.
“When the wine ran out” (v. 3a). These people live plain lives, but they are expected to provide plentiful food and wine for weddings. The wine in question would be fermented wine, diluted with water.
Weddings are celebrated for seven days, and are a community celebration. To run short of wine would be a serious embarrassment for the host parents and newlyweds. A community would long remember the shame of a family that failed to provide adequate wine for a wedding.
“Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no wine’ “ (v. 3b). It is unlikely that the bridal party would run out of wine on the first or second day, so we can assume that the wedding party has been in progress for some time.
It is not clear what Jesus’ mother has in mind. Her comments in verse 5 indicate that she expects Jesus to do something. There is a strong possibility that she has been widowed for a number of years, and has leaned on Jesus for support. She has seen him handle problems, and is confident that he can handle this one. Perhaps she expects him to take a collection from his disciples to purchase additional wine. Perhaps she senses that he is capable of a miracle.
“Woman, what does that have to do with you and me?” (literally, “What to me and to you?”) (v. 4a). This question expects the answer, “Nothing!” “What to me and to you?” is a Semitic expression that can mean (1) What have I done to deserve this? or (2) What is my involvement in this?
Jesus’ response sounds uncaring and even disrespectful to our ears. However, “woman” (gunai) suggests distance rather than disrespect. Jesus uses the word as a form of address on several occasions (Matthew 15:28; Luke 13:12; John 8:10; 19:26; 20:15)—and never uses it disrespectfully.
Jesus’ response is most likely a gentle, distancing rebuke—a way of telling Mary that she can no longer presume upon their mother/son relationship. Since Jesus left home to begin his work, he has received the Holy Spirit and has embarked on his mission to bring salvation to the world. While under obligation to honor his father and mother (Exodus 20:12), Jesus’ priority must be honoring his heavenly Father and the work the Father has sent him to do (5:19ff.).
“My hour has not yet come” (v. 4b). As will be revealed to us later (12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1), Jesus’ hour in this Gospel is the hour of his glorification—the hour of his death, resurrection, and ascension. But in this Cana context Jesus’ hour probably has more to do with the beginning rather than the end of his ministry—when will he begin to reveal his glory? Jesus is living by God’s timetable (Ridderbos, 106).
“His mother said to the servants, ‘Whatever he says to you, do it'” (v. 5). Her response is modeled after Pharaoh’s instruction to the Egyptians during the famine (Genesis 41:55), where Pharaoh showed his confidence in Joseph by putting him in charge of managing the crisis. Jesus’ mother demonstrates the same confidence that Jesus can and will do something to remedy crisis at this wedding.
JOHN 2:6-8. POTS FOR THE JEW’S WAY OF PURIFICATION
6Now there were six water pots of stone set there after the Jews’ way of purifying, containing two or three metretes (Greek: metretas duo e treis—two or three measures) apiece. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the water pots with water.” They filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw (Greek: antlesate) some out, and take it to the ruler of the feast.” So they took it.
“Now there were six water pots of stone set there after the Jews’ way of purifying” (v. 6a). Stone jars are used for ritual-purification water, because non-porous stone is less subject to impurity than porous clay.
Barclay notes that the Jews regard seven as a perfect or complete number, and six is incomplete. Barclay believes that the six jars “stand for all the imperfections of the Jewish law” (Barclay, 89).
The amount of water held by each jar is literally “two or three measures” (v. 6b) or “twenty or thirty gallons” (NRSV). The total amount of water, 120-180 gallons, is far more than the amount required to purify this crowd. Willimon notes that one cup of water would purify a hundred people, so these jars contain water enough to purify the whole world. The water thus symbolizes the overwhelming grace available through Jesus, who has come “so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:16).
“Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the water pots with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim” (v. 7). The servants (vv. 5, 9) obey Jesus, filling the jars completely. They don’t just go through the motions, but instead respond with full-measure obedience. This is commendable for two reasons. First, they don’t know why Jesus has issued this command. Second, hauling and pouring nearly 200 gallons of water is no small task.
“Now draw (antlesate) some out, and take it to the ruler of the feast” (v. 8). The chief steward is in charge of the wine, and would share the embarrassment of the shortage. He is responsible, not only for the quantity of wine, but for its quality and distribution.
There is some question whether antlesate refers to drawing water from a well or a cask, but the evidence is inconclusive. The story in this Gospel gives the clear impression that the wine is drawn from the jars, and that is the way that we should tell it.
JOHN 2:9-10. YOU HAVE KEPT THE GOOD WINE UNTIL NOW
9When the ruler of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and didn’t know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the ruler of the feast called the bridegroom, 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when the guests have drunk freely, then that which is worse. You have kept the good wine until now!”
“When the ruler of the feast tasted the water now become wine” (v. 9a). This story never tells us exactly when the water becomes wine. The servants pour water into the jars. When the steward tastes it, he discovers that it is wine.
“and didn’t know where it came from” (v. 9b). Jesus worked this miracle quietly. Only his mother, his disciples, and the servants know what he has done. The steward knew that there was a problem, but doesn’t know how it was solved. We don’t know if the groom or the guests were ever aware that there was a problem.
“and didn’t know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew)” (v. 9b). There is also much confusion about where Jesus comes from. Jesus’ origin is one of the concerns of this Gospel (6:46; 7:27; 8:14; 19:9) and that suggests a clue to the meaning of this passage. Some people know where the wine/grace comes from, but others do not. As is often true in the Gospels, there is a reversal here. The steward should be the one to know the wine’s origins, but it is the servants who know. In like manner, the religious leaders should understand Jesus’ signs, but it is the disciples, more ordinary folk, who believe.
“Everyone serves the good wine first, and when the guests have drunk freely, then that which is worse” (v. 10a). Guests can be expected to have more discriminating palates when they first begin to sip the wine. Later, when their senses have become dulled, they would not care whether they were drinking good or mediocre wine.
The steward says to the bridegroom, “You have kept the good wine until now” (v. 10b). Bauckham regards this as the punch line—the key to understanding this story. The steward intends to comment on the odd behavior of the host for keeping the best wine until last. However, in this Gospel, people often say things that have a deeper meaning, having no idea that they have done so. In this instance, the deeper meaning is: “God has done a very surprising thing. He has saved up till last his very best gift to Israel and the world. His best gift was not in Israel’s past, when he gave Moses the law and Israel the land. He has kept the best wine until the coming of Jesus” (Bauckham, 490). This, then, becomes a story about moving from the water of the law and prophets to the wine of Jesus’ grace.
JOHN 2:11. AND HIS DISCIPLES BELIEVED IN HIM
11This beginning of his signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
“This beginning of his signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee” (v. 11a). We might have called this a “miracle,” but John takes it one more step by using the word “signs.” A sign is something that points to a reality beyond itself. In both Old and New Testaments, “signs” or “signs and wonders” crack open heaven just a bit to give earth-bound people a glimpse of Godly truths.
• In the creation story, God put lights in the sky to serve as signs (Genesis 1:14).
• Following the great flood, God put a rainbow in the sky to serve as sign of the covenant that he would not again use a flood to destroy all life (Genesis 9:13-17).
• The plagues were signs that Yahweh intended to free Israel from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 7:3; Deuteronomy 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 26:8; 34:11; Jeremiah 32:20-21).
• While the word “sign” isn’t used in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the idea of a sign is implied in Elijah’s prayer, “Yahweh, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Hear me, Yahweh, hear me, that this people may know that you, Yahweh, are God” (1 Kings 18:36-37).
Shortly after Jesus changed water into wine at Cana, an official asked Jesus to heal the official’s son, who was at the point of death. Jesus responded with this gentle rebuke: “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will in no way believe” (4:48). Then in answer to the official’s repeated entreaties, Jesus said, “Go your way. Your son lives” (4:50). The official “believed the word that Jesus spoke to him, and went his way” (4:50)—and later learned that his son was healed at the very moment that Jesus had said, “Your son lives” (4:51-54). This was Jesus’ second sign.
Note that after Jesus’ first sign at Cana, “his disciples believed in him” (2:11). In the story of the healing of the official’s son—Jesus’ second sign—we also see a connection between signs and belief. While belief might not be the purpose of every sign, every sign does have some sort of divine purpose.
Most scholars believe that Jesus works seven signs in this Gospel. While the Gospel does not specify that number, seven is a “complete” number in the Jewish schema, and therefore reasonable. The usual listing of signs includes:
1. The wine at Cana (2:1-11).
2. The healing of an official’s son, also performed at Cana (4:46-54).
3. The healing of a sick man (5:1-9).
4. The feeding of the five thousand (6:1-14).
5. Walking on the sea (6:15-21).
6. The healing of the man born blind (9:1-34).
7. The resurrection of Lazarus (11:38-44)
Some scholars combine the feeding of the five thousand and walking on the sea as one sign so that the resurrection of Jesus (20:1-18) becomes the seventh and final sign (Carson, 175).
“and revealed his glory” (v. 11b). This phrase reminds us of the Prologue, where we were told, “The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14).
In the Old Testament, the word “glory” (Hebrew: kabod) is most frequently associated with God (Exodus 14:4, 17; 16:7, 10; 24:16-17; 29:43; 33:18, 22; 40:34; Leviticus 9:6, 23, etc., etc., etc.). When Jesus reveals his glory through these signs, he is revealing his divinity. The purpose of the signs is to reveal Jesus as the Son of the Father. It is not enough to acknowledge him only as a worker of miracles (2:23-25. 4:48; 6:26).
“and his disciples believed in him” (v. 11c). This is the point of the story (Brown, 103). The purpose of Jesus’ signs is to inspire belief. Indeed, the stated purpose of this Gospel is “that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
Not everyone who witnesses these signs will believe in Jesus (5:10-18; 9:13-34; 11:45-57). This Gospel characterizes those who fail to believe as “the Jews” (5:10, 18; 9:18), by which it means Jewish authorities—the religious and political establishment—those who have incentive to maintain the status quo. However, some of “the Jews” will believe (11:45). In some instances, this Gospel names the chief priests and Pharisees as those who witness the signs but respond by opposing rather than believing in Jesus (9:15; 11:47, 57).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, “The Gospel of John,” Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955)
Bauckman, Richard, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Beasley-Murray, George R., Word Biblical Commentary: John (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999)
Borchert, Gerald L., New American Commentary: John 1-11, Vol, 25A (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1996)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Bruner, Frederick Dale, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012)
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994)
Dodd, C.H., The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge University Press, 1953)
Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary: John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953)
Keener, Craig S., The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume I (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003)
Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming the Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (New York: Maryknoll, 1994).
Kostenberger, Andreas J., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004)
Kruse, Colin G., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: John, Vol. 4 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
Lincoln, Andrew T., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John (London: Continuum, 2005)
Moloney, Francis J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995)
O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Pfeiffer, Charles F., Baker’s Bible Atlas (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 1961—revised 2003)
Ridderbos, Herman (translated by John Vriend), The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Williamson, Lamar, Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)
Willimon, William, “Some Saw Glory,” a sermon preached Jan. 18, 1998 at the Duke University Chapel.
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Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan