JESUS CHANGED WATER INTO WINE
John 2:1-11, Key Verse: 10
“…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.’”
In this passage we see Jesus’ first miraculous sign. John’s gospel is unique in that it only records seven miracles performed by Jesus—eight if you count his own resurrection. And this miracle we study today, the changing of water into wine, does not appear in any of the other gospels. If you think about it, this miracle, does have a kind of unique flavor. It’s not about healing a disease or showing compassion to a disabled person—it’s about livening up a wedding party! Very interesting. I hope we can see the unique importance of this miracle and what it says about Jesus’ ministry as a whole.
Two weeks ago, we saw how Jesus called his first disciples from the region of Galilee: Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, Nathanael, and one unnamed disciple of John the Baptist, who seems to be John, the author of this gospel. They spent the day with him and came to the conclusion that he was indeed the Messiah, the one Moses and the prophets wrote about, and even the Son of God.
What is the first thing Jesus and his new disciples did together? Look at chapter 2 verses 1 and 2. “On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.” This phrase “on the third day” indicates that these things happened the very day after the events of the last passage. So the first thing Jesus did with his new disciples was attend a wedding with them!
I have heard that Jewish weddings of those days were huge affairs, involving one’s extended family and community members, lasting through several days of feasting and drinking. Weddings are one of the most joyful occasions of human life. A wedding is a celebration of one of the best possible expressions of love—namely, a man and a woman making an unconditional lifetime commitment to each other. To marry successfully is one of the great achievements of life, with a promise of great fruitfulness.
Is there any significance to the fact that Jesus’ first public appearance of his ministry is at a wedding? I think so. I think it expresses the tone of Jesus’ ministry right from the beginning. Jesus’ coming into the world is not a sorrowful event, but good news of great joy. Of course, Jesus suffered a lot and is even known as the man of sorrows. But the result of his coming and his work is absolutely supposed to be joy. A wedding celebration is a very appropriate place for Jesus to start his ministry, because the gospel is the expression of God’s unconditional love toward us to wash away all our sins and save us eternally. Jesus even called himself the bridegroom of the church. Jesus came to give life the joy of a wedding feast.
However, not everything was perfect at this wedding. It almost became a significantly gloomier wedding. Look at verse 3. “When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’” In that culture, and maybe in ours also, to run out of wine before the wedding feast was over would be a serious problem. It would dampen the mood of the entire rest of the wedding. It would be humiliating for the bride and groom to not be able to serve their guests to the end, and it could be seen as a bad omen for the new family. The families of the bride and groom had probably spent as much as they could afford and even more for food and drink, but still it turned out to not be enough.
Why did Jesus’ mother Mary tell Jesus about the wine problem? Mary was not the host of this wedding. It didn’t need to be her problem. But she had compassion for the host family and made their problem her own. More importantly, she believed that Jesus could do something about this problem. Of course, Jesus’ mother knew from before his conception that he was special. Jesus had now taken actions to begin his ministry, calling his first disciples. Maybe Mary thought now was as good a time as any for Jesus to use his power to bless this new family.
But Jesus’ answer to his mother looks quite negative. Look at verse 4: “‘Woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My hour has not yet come.’” It’s not that Jesus resented being interrupted by his mother or that he disapproved of her concern for the wedding guests. Rather, Jesus’ response teaches Mary (and us) that he hadn’t just come to solve people’s problems according to their felt needs; he was on a mission with a definite timeline from God. He had come to fulfill God’s will in God’s appointed time, and when that time had not yet come, he could not just act as he pleased. This will be a theme that is repeated throughout John’s gospel; in the upcoming passages, be on the watch for when Jesus speaks about his time or his “hour” that is coming.
Of course, at this time Mary could not have understood the schedule Jesus was on. Mary told Jesus about the wine simply out of her own sense of problem, and out of her faith that he could do something about it. That was an admirable act. It was like a prayer, in the same way that we would pray to Jesus for some concern we see around us.
What’s even more impressive about Mary is her response to Jesus’ negative reply. After Jesus’ response, she did not say anything else to him. Rather, she went to the servants who were attending at the wedding. Let’s read verse 5. “His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’” What is the meaning of this action?
First of all, it shows that once she had told Jesus her concern, Mary did not keep bothering him for a clearer answer. It was enough for her that Jesus knew about her concern. This reminds me of what Jesus said in Matthew 6:7-8: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Secondly, once she had told Jesus about the wine problem, Mary proceeded to take action, doing what she herself could do to help. What could Mary do about the wine running out at the wedding? Seemingly, not much. It was not her wedding to take charge of. She probably didn’t have money or time to go buy wine herself, certainly not enough to satisfy all the wedding guests. But she found one thing she could do: she could make the servants ready to obey Jesus. “Do whatever he tells you.”
This was a very great thing, because by putting the servants at Jesus’ disposal, she empowered Jesus to work. She put the tools Jesus needed most in his hands—namely, obedient servants. She did not put any limit on what Jesus would do with them; she said, “Do whatever he tells you.” She herself didn’t know what Jesus might do with the servants; the important thing was that she got them ready to obey.
This action of Mary to prepare the servants can be seen as an analogue of discipleship ministry. We cannot make something great happen in ourselves. But what we can do is help get others ready to obey Jesus. It’s not that we already know exactly what Jesus will do with the students we help; we don’t need a fixed idea about that. But we can be sure that when they are ready to do whatever Jesus says, Jesus will do something great with them.
More broadly, what Mary did can be seen as an instance of “making an environment” for Jesus to work. What that means is that if we really pray for Jesus to do something, a powerful expression of our faith is that we begin to practically set things up as if he will do what we asked. A very simple example is how we pray for students to come and attend this worship service. But then what do we do about it? Of course, we invite them. We rent this room. Some come early and bring hymnals and a stand and straighten the chairs. It looks like such small things. We don’t actually have power to make people show up. But we can make an environment into which Jesus can send students, believing not only that they will come, but that they will be blessed when they do. Preparing the environment is a very practical application of Jesus’ direction, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mk 11:24)
Look at verses 6 and 7. “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water’; so they filled them to the brim.” Despite what Jesus had told his mother, he now began to work, instructing the servants at the feast to fill some large ceremonial washing jars with water. Why did Jesus perform this miracle anyway, despite saying to Mary “My time has not yet come”? Well, he didn’t explicitly say that he wouldn’t do anything. Had Jesus’ time now come, in those brief seconds since Mary spoke to him? Maybe. Some even said that Mary’s prayer had power to change God’s schedule. That’s an incredible thought. At any rate, the point is that we should not doubt the effectiveness of prayer, though it is quite mysterious how it works. One thing is undeniable: Jesus changed the water into wine because Mary asked him.
Also remarkable here is the attitude of the servants. There seems to be nothing lacking in their obedience. Filling washing jars with water seems at best unrelated to the problem of the wine. The servants might have said, “Jesus, maybe you don’t understand, we’re not having a water problem, but a wine problem. And as a wedding-festival beverage, water is a rather poor substitute for wine.” But they didn’t say that. By all indications, at Jesus’ word the servants immediately obeyed. I used to have a picture in my head of these servants dragging these 30 gallon jars to a river or something. But in our Bible study someone pointed out that more likely they would take smaller water jars to a well and fill them up and carry them back and forth. Either way, it was a lot of work. Notably, it says the servants filled the water jars “to the brim”. That’s a small detail, but those three little words indicate a lot. It shows that the servants followed Jesus’ directions willingly and wholeheartedly.
What made the servants obey so well? Perhaps they were just very well-trained servants, accustomed to following orders without questioning. That kind of obedience is not really spiritually significant to us. The obedience we’re interested in, and the kind of obedience that we want to look to as an example for us to imitate, is the obedience of faith. Was the servants’ obedience the obedience of faith?
I think it was, and the reason is that their obedience was produced by Mary’s faith in Jesus. Wasn’t it? Mary’s words, “Do whatever he tells you,” were an expression of confidence in Jesus. It means, “Whatever Jesus says is right.” Mary’s faith in Jesus was so strong that the servants also trusted that Jesus knew what he was doing. Her faith, we can say, was contagious. Therefore, the servants obeyed by faith in Jesus.
Is your faith contagious? Does it produce obedience in others? For us also, other people can sense whether we have confident faith or not. Attitude is an invisible thing, but it affects our environment so strongly. An attitude of confident faith spreads through an environment and changes it from an environment of unbelief to an environment of obedient faith.
After the servants had fetched 120 to 180 gallons of water, Jesus gave them another command. Look at verse 8. “Then he told them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.’” Now, depending on the exact moment at which the water turned into wine, here is a command could be even harder to obey than the first one. The banquet master was also the master of these servants, at least for the duration of the wedding feast. Offering their boss a drink of such an unusual origin could be very risky for them. But once again, the servants are exemplary. Verse 8 ends with just 3 words. “They did so…”
Because of Mary, and because of the servants, now all the necessary ingredients for a miracle had come together. The result is described briefly but very memorably in verses 9 and 10. “…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 10 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.’”
Actually, there are many things this passage doesn’t tell us that we might be curious about: At what point did the water the servants were carrying change into wine? Did the change happen instantly or gradually? What did it look like? etc., etc. But the purpose of this passage is not to satisfy that kind of curiosity. It only records what the banquet master said when he tasted it. He 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.” His words are an objective testimony to the quality of the wine Jesus made. He is what we call a blind taste-tester, like they used to do in the Pepsi commercials. Without knowing it, the banquet master certified that the wine Jesus made is the best. So the joy of the wedding was restored. The banquet master, and guests at the wedding banquet, all enjoyed the fine new wine without any idea about how it had been made. I think it’s also true for us as we live in the environment of our lives, that we are ignorant of the true origin of many of the blessings that we enjoy.
The significance of this miracle is summarized in verse 11. Let’s read it together. “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” This was the beginning of Jesus revealing his divine glory to the world, which we read about in chapter 1: the glory of the Only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. Verse 11 particularly emphasizes that Jesus’ glory was revealed to his disciples, with the result that they put their faith in him. We never heard from the disciples once in this passage; they didn’t play any role in this miracle; they were still at the stage of just hanging out with Jesus. But they witnessed everything that happened, and without a doubt it made a deep impression on them. In all that he did, Jesus kept in mind the goal of planting faith in his disciples. They were the ones who stuck with Jesus when wedding guests and all kinds of needy people came and went, and surely enough they learned faith. In fact, the disciples were more blessed than the other wedding guests, because they knew how the wine had been made. They got a much greater gift than good-tasting wine; their spiritual eyes were opened to see the glory of Jesus. But maybe this time the servants were the most blessed of all, because they got to participate in this miracle. They got to see their own labor used to do something incredible. I pray that each of us will see the same fruit of our labor.
To conclude, I want to think once more about the banquet master’s comment, “you have saved the best till now.” Many years ago, there was a hit pop song called “Save the Best for Last.” It was very mushy and romantic, but it had a nice line that goes “Just when I thought our chance had passed, you go and save the best for last.” The point is, “saving the best till now” or “saving the best for last” is about the hope of restoring joy to life.
That brings us to the spiritual or metaphorical significance of this miraculous sign. As we mentioned, it’s a bit different from Jesus’ other miracles, which were mostly acts of compassion. The wine in this passage can be metaphorically understood as a source of joy in the wedding feast. That’s not to say literally that we need alcohol to have a good time. But, when the passage is understood this way, the wine running out represents joy running out. We can apply this to our lives. I think, in one way or another, we have all experienced, or begun to experience, the joy of life running out. Do you know what I mean? It might be because, sadly, we wasted our youth in sin. By its very nature, sin is something that promises to bring joy to life but actually drains it away. The result of sin is looking back over our life and saying, “It’s gone.” “I blew it.” “I can never achieve what I hoped for.” “The wine has run out.”
If that’s the case, how can we be restored? Is it too late to get back what we’ve lost? Is there any hope for us to still taste new wine that’s better that what we had before? This miraculous sign gives a hint as to how that can be possible. The water that Jesus turned into wine was held, as we saw, in stone jars. There is another place in the New Testament that refers to jars. In 2 Corinthians 4:6-7, Paul writes about the work of spiritual transformation that happens in believers. It says, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Here, “jars of clay” are used to symbolize our earthly bodies. Like jars of clay, we are weak, definitely breakable, and not so noble or glorious-looking on the outside. But Paul says that in Christ, God stores most precious treasure inside this jar of clay.
So the water jars in this miracle are like us. The treasure inside is like the wine. The water’s change into fine wine is an allegory of the inner transformation that Jesus brings to our lives. We are like a jar that can be full of water or perhaps nothing at all. But when Jesus comes into our lives, enlightening our hearts, we are changed to have the wine of true joy inside us, from the Holy Spirit. Just as top-quality wine was miraculously produced in humble wash-water jars, our humble lives can be filled with joy and new life.
Isn’t that a great hope? Too many people waste their lives looking backwards because they nostalgically see their youth or maybe a previous generation as a kind of “glory days” that can never be recaptured. But this passage shows us that the later part of our life can be the best part, as much as spiritual joy is superior to physical joy. May God bless you to find out what that joy is. May the best still be saved for you in your life.