Commentary on John 2:1-11
When we think of Jesus’ miracles, we usually think of him helping those in desperate need—feeding the hungry, healing the blind and the lame, delivering the demon-possessed, or even raising the dead. These account for most of Jesus’ miracles narrated in the Gospels; they are acts which relieve suffering, which restore life, health, and wholeness.
It is perhaps a bit surprising, then, that the first miracle of Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel is one that seems almost frivolous. There is no desperate, life-threatening need in this story, no crisis of hunger or illness. Rather, the crisis in this story is that the wine has run out at a wedding banquet. It is a problem which threatens to cut a wedding celebration short and to cause considerable embarrassment to the hosts, but certainly poses no immediate danger to anyone’s life or health.
When Jesus’ mother tells him about the situation, Jesus himself seems to dismiss it at first as not worthy of his concern. “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). The “hour” of which Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel is the event of his death, resurrection, and ascension to the Father. Certainly Jesus has more important things about which to be concerned than a shortage of wine. But his mother seems to know better, as mothers often do. “Do whatever he tells you,” she tells the servants (John 2:5). She seems to know that despite Jesus’ dismissive response, he will do something to resolve the problem.
What is it that Jesus’ mother (she is not named in John’s Gospel) knows about her son? Why does Jesus perform a miracle after all? And why such an extravagant one at that? John tells us that there were six stone water jars which held 20-30 gallons each. Each of these was filled with water which Jesus then turned to wine, for a total of 120-180 gallons.
Not only was this wine great in quantity, but it was also high in quality. The chief steward comments to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk, but you have saved the good wine until now” (2:10). The chief steward does not know that it is Jesus who is responsible for this abundant supply of good wine, but Mary knows, the servants know, and we the readers know. Still, our question remains: why such an extravagant miracle?
In fact, John doesn’t call this act a miracle, but a sign (semeion in Greek). It is the first of seven such signs in John’s Gospel. Signs point us to something beyond themselves, as road signs alert us to something that lies ahead of us or before us. The sign of Jesus changing the water into wine at the Cana wedding points us to something far more valuable than the wine itself, as fine as the wine may be. It points us to the source of all life and joy.
The image of the wedding banquet is used frequently in Scripture as a picture of the restoration of Israel, and wine is frequently used as a symbol of the joy and celebration associated with salvation. Amos speaks of the day when “the mountains shall drip sweet wine. and all the hills shall flow with it,” for example (Amos 9:13). Isaiah speaks of the feast that God will prepare for all peoples, “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines … of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6). The abundance of fine wine is a symbol of the abundance of joy that awaits not only Israel, but all peoples on the day of God’s salvation.
Jesus’ extravagant miracle of changing the water into wine is a sign that in him, life, joy, and salvation have arrived. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, the narrator told us that “in him was life, and that life was the light of all people” (1:4). And later in the Gospel, Jesus will tell us, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10).
Abundant life is more than mere existence or survival, and certainly more than an abundance of material things. Abundant life is to know and be known by the One through whom all life came into being (John 1:3; see also John 17:3). It is to have an intimate relationship with the One who loves us so much that he doesn’t know how to stop giving. It is the kind of life depicted by the abundance of fine wine in this story.
Of course, abundant life does not mean a life of ease, comfort, and luxury or an absence of sorrow and suffering. But it does mean that in Jesus we have an abundant, extravagant source of grace to sustain us, grace that is more than sufficient to provide where we fall short and to give us joy even amid sorrow and struggle. Abundant life means that in Christ we are joined to the source of true life, life that is rich and full and eternal, life that neither sorrow, nor suffering, nor death itself can destroy.
The Gospel of John does not use the synoptic expression “reign of God” (basileia tou theou) very often, but it certainly shows us what the reign of God is like. It is like a village wedding celebration to which everyone is invited and at which the guests are surprised by the abundance and quality of the wine. This first of Jesus’ signs in John’s Gospel shows us that the true bridegroom has arrived (John 1:29), and he is truly the life of the party!