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Jesus Begins His Public Ministry with Signs and Teachings
Jesus changes water to wine
John Chapter 2, verses 1-5
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
“Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Three days after he called his first disciples, Jesus arrived with them at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, in the north-central part of the region, midway between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus may have had six disciples with him: Andrew, Peter, John, James, Philip, and Nathanael. Jesus’ mother was also at the wedding. We don’t know what connection they had with the wedding except that Jesus’ mother was close enough to the bride and groom to be involved with the serving and to assume some authority over the servants.
An unusual thing happened during the wedding celebration. The wine ran out. It is difficult to know exactly when the shortage occurred. Usually at a Jewish wedding the entertaining continued for a full week at the groom’s home, following a procession from the bride’s home to his. Since wine was a staple for meals, it would be a major embarrassment to be without it. Some think the wine ran out early, which may indicate the newly married couple was poor. Others have speculated that Jesus and his disciples were unexpected guests and used up the tightly rationed supplies.
All that really matters, however, is that the stage was set for the first miracle of Jesus’ ministry. His mother came to him. “They have no more wine,” she said. She told Jesus of the shortage, fully expecting him to do something about it. But do what? We aren’t told, so any answer involves some guesswork. We cannot rule out that she hoped for a miracle. Remember, this was the virgin mother who had learned from an angel that she would bear the Savior. This was Mary, who pondered the things about Jesus in her heart. She believed in him as the One sent from God.
Jesus’ response indicates that he knew she wanted him to work a miracle, if necessary. Otherwise he would have had no reason for putting her off as he did. “‘Dear woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My time [hour] has not yet come.’”
Jesus’ answer literally meant something more than it seems. He was really asking, “What common interest do we have in my activity here?” Mary wanted to fill an immediate need and avoid embarrassment, and she spoke as his mother. Jesus needed to reveal himself as the Messiah to strengthen the faith of his disciples, and he spoke as her Savior. Their purposes were essentially different, although his would also satisfy hers. Their timetables differed too, by a little. He was bound to act at the hour set for him by the Father in heaven. In the Father’s time Jesus would work a miracle. Also in the Father’s time, three years later, Jesus would lay down his life for lost sinners.
Mary believed and trusted Jesus. She ordered the servants of the feast, “Do whatever he tells you.” We pause at these words, thinking how important they are for everyone to this day.
John Chapter 2, verses 6-10
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
Mary’s faith was well placed, and the scene was set. “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing.” For purification the Jews washed their hands before and after eating, and they washed the cups, pitchers, and kettles for the dinner (Mark 7:3,4). Although the actual size of the measure used for the jars here is uncertain, they were ample enough to accommodate all the wedding guests. The 20 to 30 gallons per jar is probably accurate, a total of 120 to 180 gallons. (Even the most conservative estimate allows for a total of 60 gallons.)
Knowing the size of the jars, we also know the bounteousness of Jesus’ gift to come. Jesus ordered the servants to fill the jars, and they did—“to the brim.” Jesus would turn all those gallons of freshly drawn water to wine for the wedding.
Wine in such ample supply! Some can hardly imagine Jesus doing it. Could he condone and promote such a use of alcohol? He could, and he did, in keeping with the needs of the banquet and his divine generosity. The wine was to last perhaps several more days, and we can only guess how many people would drink it. Scripture warns us not to drink too much wine (Proverbs 23:20,29-35) but does not warn against drinking alcohol in general. As the master of the banquet soon attested, Jesus gave ample supply of quality wine for its proper use.
Jesus had the servants draw from the stone jars and bring the water turned to wine to the master of the banquet. The master had organized the banquet and oversaw the serving of the food and drink. The servants knew Jesus had worked a miracle, but their master did not. He tasted the wine first, as he did all the food served at the banquet, and he marveled that such choice wine was coming so late in the celebration.
Usually, he exclaimed to the bridegroom, wedding celebrations take a different turn than this one. People have plenty of good wine to drink at first. Then, when their sense of taste has been blunted by plenty of drinking, even drunkenness, they get cheaper wine. Not so with this wedding! Here the choice wine had been held back until later.
The expression “after the guests have had too much to drink” troubles some readers. No one wants to envision Jesus at a wedding with drunken guests. Some scholars, therefore, translate the verb “have drunk freely,” which is a possibility. But when we realize the master of the banquet was emphasizing how refreshingly different the wedding at Cana was from what he was describing, the problem disappears.
John Chapter 2, verse 11
This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.
Christians frequently cite this account to show how Jesus honors marriage and gives lavish gifts when they are least expected. Those are good thoughts. John, however, has told it to show how Jesus began using signs to reveal his glory. The miracle had a purpose for which the wedding was only a setting. It was a sign.
A sign points to something. This sign provided a physical way to point to a spiritual truth, namely, the glory of the one and only Son of God. This act of turning water to wine proved Jesus’ divine authority and majesty.
Jesus’ first sign took place in the obscure village of Cana in Galilee. We might have expected him to begin in Jerusalem. At the time, the sign was meant primarily for his disciples. Apparently only they, the servants, and Jesus’ mother knew Jesus did it. We might have expected a huge crowd of witnesses led by important dignitaries of the day. Instead, without fanfare, Jesus did what God had set before him to do.
It worked. “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” They had new evidence that Jesus was the promised Messiah. They saw the glory of God (1:14) through his miracle. They believed more firmly in Jesus than they had before.
The disciples had already come to faith when they joined Jesus earlier. But now began the process of building up that faith, instructing it, and confirming it. The same thing happens for us today when we learn about Jesus’ signs.
Jesus predicts his death and resurrection
John Chapter 2, verses 12-13
After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days. When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Following the wedding, Jesus went down to Capernaum, accompanied by his family and his disciples. He probably visited the home of Peter and Andrew (Mark 1:21,29; Matthew 8:5,14) or James and John, who carried on a fishing business in the area. Later Jesus moved to Capernaum himself. The trip was literally downward since it began in the hill country and ended down at the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. There Jesus stayed a few days until it was time to leave for the Passover in Jerusalem.
Jesus’ brothers were with him. Since early times the church has speculated about how these brothers of Jesus were related to him. Some say they were sons of Joseph by a previous marriage. Others say they were probably cousins because the Greek word for brothers can also mean cousins. Finally, some assume naturally that the brothers were sons born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus’ birth. Any of the three are possible. Without compelling reasons otherwise, it seems reasonable to think of natural-born children of Mary and Joseph. (See Mark 6:3, where four brothers are named and sisters are included. The conspicuous absence of Joseph here and later may suggest that he had died already.)
Jesus soon left Capernaum for the Jewish Passover in Jerusalem. All Jewish males 12 years old or older customarily made this pilgrimage at the Passover. They came to commemorate the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 12). The celebration lasted seven days and included the killing of a year-old male lamb, without blemish, for the feast. The participants recalled how the blood of the lamb at the first Passover had spared the firstborn Israelites from the angel of death. Now the very Lamb of God was attending that feast.
John Chapter 2, verses 14-16
In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
When Jesus arrived at the temple in Jerusalem, he found serious distractions from the sacred festival. It was like opening day at the county fair. Some were selling animals and birds for the sacrifices. Others were changing money for the foreign visitors, who needed to pay their temple tax with a specified Jewish coin (Exodus 30:13-16).
The noise and confusion were distractions enough. However, the whole business was liable to gross abuses as well. The sellers had a corner on the market much like vendors in a theater or stadium today. From every indication, they exploited the people. Greed gathered wealth. Reverence played the pauper. The practice subverted the worship purpose of the temple. Many surely came with sacrifices not pleasing to God because their hearts were not with God (Isaiah 1:11-17; Hosea 8:13; Psalm 51:16).
Jesus reacted with uncharacteristic indignation and took corrective action. He made a whip from cords and used it to drive out the cattle and sheep along with the marketers. He scattered the coins, overturned the tables, and ordered those who sold the doves: “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
John Chapter 2, verse 17
His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
The Lord came to his temple. He came as a “refiner and purifier” in the spirit of Malachi 3:1-4. He declared himself the Son of the heavenly Father. His disciples watched, no doubt frightened and awestruck. Being well-versed in Scripture, they recalled one of David’s psalms that spoke of the Messiah and applied it to Jesus: “Zeal for your house consumes me” (Psalm 69:9). Significantly, that same psalm predicted some of the rejection and suffering that lay ahead for Christ. For now, it gave the disciples another sign that Jesus was the Christ, and maybe it left some fear of what was to come.
Jesus had taken his stand against turning his Father’s house into a marketplace. What can we learn from this episode for today? The Word does not say that all selling by the church is sinful. From what is described, we might rather conclude that whatever detracts from worship, whatever distorts the church’s mission, whatever cheats God’s children should be driven from the church like the cattle from the temple.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke also record a cleansing of the temple by Jesus. They, however, report a cleansing near the end, not the beginning, of Jesus’ ministry. Some who feel the event is the same as John’s account are quick to suggest a contradiction. But why? To begin with, as Luther also notes here, the gospel writers do not always follow the same chronological order. The accounts do not always claim to give a strict historical sequence. Even more likely, however, Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and again, three years later, at the end.
John Chapter 2, verses 18-19
Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
The Jewish leaders reacted in a guarded way to Jesus’ actions. They did not try to arrest him, perhaps because they knew of the excesses and unpopularity of the market. But they missed the point. Instead of addressing the faults Jesus had exposed, they asked Jesus for a sign to prove his authority to clear the temple. They implied that if he did a miracle, they might recognize him as the Messiah, but likely only as someone to lead them against the Roman oppression.
They asked for a sign. He offered one. But, as we shall see, it wasn’t the kind of sign they wanted. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus said, “and I will raise it again in three days.”
John Chapter 2, verses 20-22
The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
The Jews then became argumentative. The reader might visualize them sneering as they responded: “This temple has been 46 years in the building, and you are going to raise it in three days?” They were incredulous. Jesus, however, was not talking about the temple he had just emptied of sellers. He was talking about the temple of his body. He was saying he would die and rise again.
The image of the temple for Jesus’ body was significant. Just as the presence of God was manifest in the temple for God’s people, so in the Word become flesh was God manifest among the people. He fulfilled in person what the temple only foreshadowed. To destroy Jesus was virtually to destroy the temple.
Unbelief does not recognize a true sign when it’s pointed out; instead, it becomes a sign of judgment. So these Jews later tried to use Jesus’ words against him at his trial (Matthew 26:61). Even when Jesus rose from the dead to fulfill this sign, these Jews hardened their unbelieving hearts to the truth. The disciples, on the other hand, “recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.”
Notice how a disciple’s faith grows. There is no hint here that the disciples understood what Jesus was saying any more than the unbelieving Jews did. They remembered Jesus’ words, however, and looked to Scripture for understanding and confirmation. They found Scripture that fit. Perhaps it was Psalm 16:10: “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” Then when they saw the risen Jesus, they believed.
Similarly, we today don’t always readily understand God’s Word to us. But following the disciples’ example, we remember his words and search the rest of Scripture for understanding and confirmation. In that way, the Lord reveals his signs to us, and we believe and live.
John Chapter 2, verses 23-25
Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.
Jesus did other miraculous signs while he was in Jerusalem for the Passover, and many people believed in his name. What they knew about Jesus, that is, his name, led them to trust him. The signs had an effect. People began to trust in Jesus as a great prophet or even the Messiah.
Jesus, however, saw more here than any of the others, and all was not as favorable as it seemed. He did not simply give himself over to those professing faith in him. For now at least, he remained aloof because he knew the hearts of the people. Jeremiah once observed: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (17:9). And the Lord responded, “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind” (verse 10).
That Lord now looked into the hearts of the many who believed on his name. He saw weak faith, fickle faith, misapplied faith. He saw people impressed primarily with his miracles. He saw people who wanted him to give them a better life on earth but did not see him as the Son who came to prepare heaven for them. It did not matter if others came to Jesus and said, “Here is a pious person” or “Here is someone who wants to follow you.” Jesus knew their hearts.
To this day, some who profess trust in Jesus have reservations or misdirected expectations. There are hypocrites in our churches. Now, as then, other people cannot adequately judge who they are. But Jesus knows their hearts.