52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #8. Water into Wine
by Travis Bookout
The first sign that Jesus preformed in Cana of Galilee was turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). When reading the signs, we must remember not only to see what literally happened, but to search for the spiritual message behind it (cf. Reflection #7). This message might be overtly stated or it may be left intentionally ambiguous as a challenge for the insightful reader to ponder, ruminate, and meditate over. There are usually clues in the text that help guide our thoughts and control our Scriptural imagination to point us in the proper direction. This can admittedly get subjective and perhaps shouldn’t be pushed too far, but it can also be a useful exercise, as those who have been born of God, in opening our spiritual eyes to see the deeper meaning of the signs. The Gospel of John specifically invites this kind of reflection.
Take, for example, the first sign in John. If you see the “water into wine” sign, and solely think about a doctrinal study on the use of alcohol, you have missed the sign. That’s an irrelevant question for understanding the text or sign. Or if you focus only on the miracle and how it saved a family from social disaster and embarrassment, you perhaps have properly seen the sign post, but missed the spiritual destination. We certainly want to see the physical demonstration, but then also ponder how this spiritually points to the identity of Jesus.
Water into Wine:
This is where the fun really starts when studying John; digging into the signs and searching for clues. What could this be pointing towards? What could the spiritual message be? This is when you scour every word and ask yourself: “Why add that detail?” “Why word it this way?”
I believe the true spiritual meaning of this sign is in the final phrase: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). This breach of social protocol is significant; it’s the whole point. And in it, the sign somehow “manifest His glory, and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). So let’s think. How could turning water into wine manifest the glory of Jesus?
Certainly, it was miraculous. That’s one way. But looking deeper, notice that small, innocuous detail about the waterpots: “there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification” (John 2:6). These waterpots are for Jewish customs and purity regulations; the very issues that Jesus regularly ran into conflict for ignoring. These Jewish pots were filled with unsatisfactory water. It’s only after this Jewish purification water comes into contact with Jesus that it becomes “good wine” (John 2:10).
Wine as a Blessing from God:
In the Bible wine is often a symbol of God’s blessing, a gift to mankind. God brings “forth food from the earth, And wine which makes man’s heart glad” (Psalm 104:14-15). Abundance of new wine was one of the blessings of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; 33:28).
In Joel, God demonstrates His wrath through a locust plague (Joel 1:4). The “drunkards” and “wind drinkers” (Joel 1:5) mourn because the locusts destroy all the vines (Joel 1:7) and “the new wine dries up” (Joel 1:10). But after a call to repentance, God promises to “make up to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25). God restores the “new wine, and oil…the fig tree and the vine have yielded in full…And the vats will overflow with the new wine” (Joel 2:19, 22, 24).
Wine was part Jewish celebrations (Deuteronomy 14:23-26). If you couldn’t bring the tithe of your produce to Jerusalem because the journey was too long, you could sell your produce, and “spend the money for whatever your heart desires; for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice” (Deuteronomy 14:26). In fact, one of God’s curses for disobedience, like in Joel, would be the removal of wine from the land (Deuteronomy 28:39, 51; Hosea 9:2; Amos 5:11; Zephaniah 1:13).
Wine was also a symbol of the Messianic age (Mark 2:22). The book of Amos demonstrates the outpouring of God’s wrath on unfaithful Israel. But it ends on a rare positive note, looking for future blessings from God for “all the nations called by my name” (Amos 9:12; quoted in Acts 15:16-18). In this hopeful passage, God promises to bless His people so that “the mountains will drip with sweet wine…They will plant vineyards and drink their wine” (Amos 9:13-14).
Meaning of the Sign:
Against that backdrop, perhaps this sign is meant to symbolize the time has come for God to bless His people. These waterpots, meant for Jewish purification, were filled with water. Apart from Jesus, this would not have saved the wedding feast; the celebration is over. But with Jesus, “the good wine” comes and saves the day!
Jewish customs apart from Jesus do not bring about God’s presence and blessing. But with the coming of Jesus, a new and glorious age has arrived; a time of rejoicing and blessing from God. Perhaps that is the significance of that breach of custom, “you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). Jesus did not come at the beginning. He came, as the very presence of God, to bless His people and to turn their water into good wine. In this, the glory of Jesus is made known (John 2:11).
Is this the precise meaning of the first sign in Cana of Galilee? Maybe not. But the manner of Jesus’ teaching and signs invite this kind of thinking. In John 6, Jesus performed the sign of miraculously multiplying bread. The crowds only focused on the “meal” and forgot to look for the spiritual “sign” behind it (John 6:26). In that case, Jesus explained the sign: “I am the bread of life…He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day…” (John 6:35, 54-56). In this case, we are left to examine for ourselves, to open our eyes to see the spiritual possibilities. Perhaps in the way that Jesus is “the bread of life,” He is also “the good wine” who comes along, just in the nick of time, to usher in God’s blessings and Messianic Age. Like new wine that bursts old wineskins, Jesus brings God’s new age bursting on to the scene. What a great first message for an introductory sign.