Second Sunday after the Epiphany: The Wedding at Cana
While our society’s wedding customs are closer to ancient Roman than to ancient Jewish practices, there are still similarities between Jewish weddings of the time of Jesus and our own. Among these were the importance of the event in the life of a family and in society, and the mistakes that can occur by missing a detail or not being fully prepared for the unexpected at such a large social gathering. In today's gospel reading we are going to look at a very important Jewish wedding. It was not important because of who was getting married, for we do not even know the names of bride, groom or families involved. It is important because an error was made which allowed Jesus to perform a miracle.
Before we look at our passage in John 2, I want to give you some background on Jewish weddings of that time so that you will have a greater understanding of the events that take place in our text.
Jewish Weddings at the Time of Christ
Weddings were extremely important in Jewish society not only as a great social event, but also because of their understanding of God’s betrothal relationship with Israel. Marriage was a reflection of that relationship and therefore a central focus for celebration.
Alfred Edersheim records the ancient Jewish marriage customs in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. A man and woman were legally bound in marriage at their betrothal, but they would not enjoy the physical benefits of the marriage until after the wedding ceremony, which could be up to a year later. The betrothal was similar to our engagements, but it was legally binding. It could not be broken except by death or divorce. The betrothal period allowed the man time to prepare for the taking on the responsibilities of having a wife.
On the evening of the wedding, usually a Wednesday for a maid, the bride was led by a procession from her parents home to the home of her betrothed. The procession would be preceded by merry music and those who would give gifts of wine and oil to the people and nuts to the children. The bride followed surrounded by her friends. She was covered in a bridal veil with her long hair flowing. The bridal party was accompanied by those that carried torches or lamps on poles and by others that who carried myrtle-branches and flowers. As the procession wound through the streets, everyone would rise to salute the procession or even join in it. This was deemed almost a religious duty to call out greetings to the bride and praise her beauty, modesty and virtues.
When she arrived at the home of her betrothed, she would be led to him and some formula such as, Take her according to the Law of Moses and of Israel, would be pronounced and the bride and groom would then be crowned with garlands. A legal document called a Kethubah, which contained all the promises being made, would be signed. A ceremonial washing of the hands would be followed by a solemn prayer and then the wedding feast would begin. This might last more than a day and up to seven days in which there would be much merriment. The bride and groom would finally be led to the bridal chamber and the marriage would be consummated.
You can easily conclude from all this that there was great planning and preparation made for a Jewish wedding. Depending on the wealth available, their might be servants hired to help with the planning, preparation and the serving at the feast, or you might get your family and friends to help. Those of you who have been involved with weddings know that the same is true today. Some are able to hire people to make sure everything is in proper order, while most of the rest of us have to rely on the goodwill of friends and family to help. And the reality is that volunteer help may not have the experience or be as diligent as hired help. That can easily lead to some details not getting the attention they need resulting in oversights and mistakes. Such appears to be the case in our gospel text, and yet God uses the error to the glory of His son.
The Setting – John 2:1-2
And the third day, there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee: and the mother of Jesus was there. And Jesus also was invited, and his disciples, to the marriage.
The reference to the third day here goes back to the day that Jesus found and called Philip and Nathanael to follow Him (John 1:43). Jesus had purposed to return to Galilee when He found and called them to also be His disciples in addition to Andrew, Peter and John. While we do not know the exact location of either Bethany beyond the Jordan (John 1:28) or Cana of Galilee, we can make some reasonable assumptions about where they may have been. Cana was about 9 miles Northeast of Nazareth and Bethany was in the middle region of the Jordan valley. The two cities would have been a traveling distance of 25-30 miles from each other which is a reasonable distance for a journey from one to the other within three days.
There is a wedding in Cana of Galilee. We are not told what relationship Jesus or His mother had with the couple being married, but we find that Mary is there and Jesus is an invited guest along with His disciples. It is interesting to note that the grammar of the text makes emphasis on Jesus being an invited guest as compared to His mother who was also there. As we shall see in few moments, Mary seems to have some responsibility in helping with the wedding celebration rather than just enjoying it. She may have been a friend of one of the families involved in the marriage and so was there to help as well enjoy the festivities. Verse 12 indicates that, what we southerners call “Kin Folk”, of Jesus were also there for after the wedding they went with Jesus and His disciples along with their mother to Capernaum for a few days. This lends additional evidence that the wedding included a relative or friend of the family. This may be the reason for the invitation to Jesus, or perhaps he was invited as a special guest because He was already known as a wise teacher of the Law, or perhaps it was a mixture of both or some other unknown reason. In any case, Jesus is invited to come to this wedding along with His disciples.
The text does not specifically state how many of Jesus’ disciples are with Him, but it would seem safe to assume that all those mentioned in chapter 1, which includes Andrew, John, Peter, Philip & Nathanael, were there since it would seem ridiculous for Jesus to call them to follow Him and then leave them alone just a couple of days after meeting. It is also possible that James, John’s brother, was also part of the group. Also keep in mind that Nathanael was from Cana of Galilee (John 21:2) and so probably also knew the couple getting married.
The Problem (John 2:3)
And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to him: “They have no wine.”
A problem arises at the wedding. The wedding feast is being celebrated and they run out of wine. We are not told why they run out of wine, only that they have. Many have speculated on the cause, but like any error that occurs at any wedding or feast,
the reason for the lack is not important. Correcting the problem is what is important.
While we may not understand this at first glance, this is not a minor inconvenience. It is a serious problem. While there are many American Christians that might view the running out of wine as a blessing rather a tragedy, we must understand it from the Jewish perspective. For the Jews, wine was a symbol of God’s blessing and was part of any joyous celebration.
Proverbs 3:9-10 instructs the godly Jew in how to gain God’s blessing. Honour the Lord with thy substance, and give him of the first of all thy fruits: And thy barns shall be filled with abundance, and thy presses shall run over with wine.
They understood wine to be something that God Himself provided for them as a blessing. Psalm 104:14-15 states, He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart.
Isaiah 55:1, All you that thirst, come to the waters: and you that have no money make haste, buy, and eat: come ye, buy wine and milk without money, and without any price. They viewed wine as an important and joyful element in celebrating. This is also in the description in Isaiah 25:6 of the banquet the Lord will prepare in the millennium, And the Lord of hosts shall make unto all people in this mountain, a feast of fat things, a feast of wine, of fat things full of marrow, of wine purified from the lees.
To the people at this Jewish wedding feast, wine was an essential element for the celebration. To run out of wine would be a supreme embarrassment that would not only diminish the dreams of a beautiful wedding, but would have been considered very rude to the guests.
The Solution (John 2:3b-8)
Mary’s Statement (John 2:3b)
Mary, referred to in verse 3 as the mother of Jesus as she is throughout John’s gospel, seeks to find a solution to the problem. Again, we do not know her exact role in the wedding, but she has some role in helping in the feast as seen in her action to resolve this problem of running out of wine and her authority over the servants in verse 5. When she becomes aware that there is no more wine, she goes to Jesus to inform Him. Her statement is straightforward and factual. They have no wine. She does not tell Jesus what to do nor does she even ask Him to do something. She simply informs Him of the problem. Jesus is her son, but He is an adult, not a child. Mary treats Him with the respect due an adult and in this case also a respected Rabbi. She presumes upon Him, but she does not tell Him what to do. She simply tells Him of the need and trusts Him for the rest.
We would do well to do likewise, yet how often do we want to tell God what to do. We worry and fret and then expect God to solve our problems in a certain way or provide some miracle for a solution.
Our petitions are also usually centered on ourselves instead of God’s glory. We need to come to God and simply present the need. Matthew 6:32, among many other verses, tells us that God knows our needs and He will meet them. Our focus is to be first on His kingdom and righteousness. Our lives are to be about His glory, not our own.
Jesus’ Response (John 2:4)
Now Jesus responds to her by saying, "Woman, what's that to you and to me?" (literally, in the Greek) Some translations are a little strong here with this, "What do you have to do with me?” It makes it sound like the opposition is between Mary and Jesus, but actually, the Greek is a little different. "What to you and to me?" In other words, "how does this situation concern us?" But Jesus says something else, he says, "My hour has not yet come."
So, in John's gospel, that points forward to his passion and death, the hour of the cross, the hour of his passion. And so, mysteriously, somehow Mary's words, “they have no wine,” Jesus has taken them not just to refer to the problem of the practical loss of wine, but somehow to refer to the hour of his passion and his death. Why does he go there? How does he get from "A" to "Z"? How does he get from "running out of wine" to "the hour of the cross"? I think the answer lies in the messianic banquet tradition of ancient Judaism. If you go back to the Old Testament in the book of Isaiah, for example, chapter 25, Isaiah says that when the age of salvation comes, there will be a feast of fine wine, of wine on the lees well-refined, and that all the nations will come to this feast, and that when they drink of this wine and eat of this sacrificial banquet, they will swallow up death forever and their sins will be forgiven.
In Jewish tradition it came to become called the "messianic banquet", the banquet of the messiah, which would be particularly characterized by super abundant wine. So when Mary says "they have no wine" and invites Jesus, as a guest, to solve the problem, in a first century Jewish context, and in the context of Mary's knowledge of who Jesus is, right, Jesus also perceives there an implicit request to reveal his identity as the Messiah, and to, in a sense, inaugurate the messianic banquet. And what Jesus says to Mary, effectively, is "it's not time for that banquet just yet. My hour has not yet come." But, as a good Jew, who is obedient to his mother, he solves the problem at the wedding at Cana, and in doing so, performs a sign that points forward to what he will accomplish when his hour finally does come.
Mary’s Directive (John 2:5)
Verse 5 indicates that Mary took Jesus’ reply as a statement that He would solve the problem. His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” Mary has some authority at the banquet and gives directions to the servants. The servants here are not slaves (douloV / doulos), but either hired or volunteer table waiters (diakonoV / diakonos). This directive would be needed for otherwise it would seem strange for a waiter to receive such orders from a guest. It also would require their obedience to Jesus even if what He told them to do seemed foolish to them.
Jesus’ Action (John 2:6-8)
John was probably a first hand witness because in verses 6-8 he states the situation and what occurs in a very matter of fact and detailed manner. Verse 6, Now there were set there six water pots of stone, according to the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three measures apiece.
These particular water pots were there for the purpose of purification, that is, for washing. The custom of the Jews was to wash their hands before eating (Mark 7:3). The water was there for that purpose as well as for cleaning the dishes. The pots were fairly large and of different sizes. The text says they were two or three measures each. A measure would have been about 8 or 9 gallons, so each pot would have been between 17 and 27 gallons. The total would have been between 102 and 162 gallons. Why so much water? Because of the many guests present.
Jesus gives directions to the servants in verse 7, Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. The servants went out to the nearest fresh water supply and proceeded to fill up the jars to the very brim. This detail eliminates any possibility of something being added to the pots before or after they were filled with water. They were filled to the brim with no room for anything to be added. Remember as well that they are all watching and would have noticed anything being added. You can imagine these servants wondering at what Jesus was having them do. Was Jesus going to have them serve water instead of wine?
In verse 8, Jesus gives further direction to the servants who had filled the jars with water, “And Jesus saith to them: Draw out now, and carry to the chief steward of the feast. And they carried it. The results of Jesus’ solution to the problem are recorded in verses 9 & 10.
The Result (John 2:9-10)
And when the chief steward had tasted the water made wine, and knew not whence it was, but the waiters knew who had drawn the water; the chief steward calleth the bridegroom,
And saith to him: Every man at first setteth forth good wine, and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse. But thou hast kept the good wine until now.
The headwaiter, or more properly the ruler of the feast, was surprised by the good wine he was given. He did not know where the wine had come from, but he is very impressed by it. John gives us the detail about the servants who had drawn the water which had become wine because they are the first hand witnesses of the miracle. They had put water in the pots, but when they gave it to the master of the feast, it had turned into wine. It matters not whether the all the water was turned to wine in the pots or if it turned into wine as it was drawn out. Jesus had performed a miracle.
The superb quality of the wine is attested to by the comments the ruler of the feast makes to the bridegroom. It is important to note that it is the ruler of the feast that is making these comments and not just some guest at random. He would know the quality of good wine and poor wine, and this wine is so good that he has to comment on it to the bridegroom. The normal practice was that the best wine would be served first when people’s taste buds were fresh. The inferior wine would be served after people had plenty to drink. This is not a statement that such people were intoxicated and would then not care what was served, for the scriptures give many warnings about the sinfulness of drunkenness such as Proverbs 20:1, Wine is a luxurious thing, and drunkenness riotous: whosoever is delighted therewith shall not be wise. and Proverbs 23:21, Because they that give themselves to drinking, and that club together shall be consumed; and drowsiness shall be clothed with rags. This practice simply considered that the sensitivity of the taste buds would decline as the feast progressed and so a poorer quality wine, which would be less expensive, would not be noticed.
Before I go on to Verse 11 and the significance of what Jesus did here, let me comment a moment about the idea advocated by some that Jesus turned the water into non-intoxicating grape juice instead of wine. There is a legitimate concern about the danger of drunkenness caused by alcoholic beverages, however, that is not an excuse for deliberately distorting the Scriptures. The word for wine here is oinoV /oinos. It is the common Greek word for fermented grape juice, otherwise known as wine. It is the same word as used in Ephesians 5:18, And be not drunk with wine, [oinos] wherein is excess; but be ye filled with the holy Spirit, There was not a means to keep the grape juice from fermenting at that time and especially so in the warm climate of Israel. Even the new wine, which is gleukoV /gleukos in Greek, could cause intoxication as indicated in Acts 2:13.
The Bible gives many strong warnings about the sin of drunkenness and the dangers of wine as already briefly noted, but the Scriptures do not condemn wine as evil. Those who say that Jesus turned the water into non-alcoholic grape juice are either ignorant or guilty of twisting the Scriptures to fit their own pre-conceived ideas. That is a serious sin (Matthew 15:9; 1 Timothy 4:1-5; etc.). Jesus turned the water into wine. Jesus also drank wine according to Matthew 11:19 & Luke 7:34, and He will drink it again in His kingdom according to Matthew 26:29 with reference to Isaiah 25:6. You cannot use Jesus’ use of wine as an excuse for you to abuse wine and get drunk, but it is Biblical truth.
The Significance (John 2:11)
John points out in vs 11, This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee; and manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
This was a sign miracle that demonstrated Jesus’ glory as the Son of God that strengthened their faith in Him. Some have tried to lessen the significance of this miracle in various ways, but this is a miracle of the first order. It takes a grape vine many months to use the energy of the Sun to synthesize a grape from water, air and soil nutrients. Jesus did this in an instant. Even more significant is that it was not just a rearranging of elements already present as a plant does as it grows or a chemist might do in a laboratory. This miracle required the creation of elements as well as the instantaneous rearranging of them into the various molecules contained in wine. Water is made up of just hydrogen and oxygen. While wine is 70-80% water, it also contains organic acids, phenolic compounds, nitrogenous compounds, aroma compounds, minerals and pectic substances. In other words, in addition to the elements of hydrogen and oxygen that make up water, wine also contains carbon, nitrogen, potassium, sodium, iron, sulfur, chlorine and phosphorus. Only God can create the additional elements needed for the water to become wine, and so this miracle attests to Jesus’ power to create as the Son of God.
Jesus told Nathaniel a few days earlier he would see greater things than Jesus’ foreknowledge about him. This was the first of those greater signs. The miracle points to Jesus. Everything else falls to the background. Who was getting married in unimportant. Why Mary was there and her exact role in the wedding is inconsequential. Why Jesus was invited along with His disciples and how many were there is insignificant. Like a Rembrandt painting, everything else falls to the background as John describes this miracle to focus the attention on Jesus and who He is. And who is He? He is the Son of God.