Early in John’s Gospel, Jesus attends a wedding at Cana of Galilee, where he turns water to wine. John calls it Jesus’s first sign, an epiphany of his glory. How does it show the glory of the Word? Of what is it a sign?
We get an initial clue from the fact that the wedding takes place on the “third day” (John 2:1). On the third day of creation, God summoned earth to produce grain and fruit trees, and throughout the Bible a third day is a day of new birth. Jesus’s resurrection is the great third-day event of the Gospel. His first sign anticipates his final sign. In the first chapter, moreover, John lays out a sequence of “days” (1:29, 35, 43), continuing the Genesis motif with which he begins his Gospel. When we add up the days, the “third day” of the wedding is the “seventh day” of the Gospel. Jesus’s sign points beyond his third-day resurrection to the festivity of the eternal Sabbath.
Jesus uses water from stone containers. Elsewhere in John, “stones” close tombs. As Jesus brings wine from stone pots, so he later brings life from the grave, Lazarus’s (11:38-39, 41) and his own (20:1). Once again, the first sign foreshadows the last: The wine of Cana is already the wine of Easter. Water is offered at the wedding for “the Jewish custom of purification” (John 2:6). By turning that water to wine, Jesus reveals that he comes to transform the old order, with its purity rules, into a new order of joyful celebration. A better Moses, Jesus doesn’t change water to defiling blood, but to festive wine. He draws wine, not water, from the rock.
The wine theme is carried further in Revelation. Babylon the harlot city drinks wine (Rev. 14:8, 10; 16:19; 17:2), which is the blood of the saints (17:6), pressed from harvested grapes (14:17-20). Jesus himself produces this wine-blood as he treads the wine-press of God (19:5). John and Revelation are linked: In his first sign, Jesus produces wine from stone pots at a wedding feast. In his climactic sign, the heavenly Bridegroom bursts through the stone door of the tomb to begin his wedding feast. In Revelation, Easter wine flows as the blood of earthen martyrs, which brings wrath to the harlot but joy and life to the world. By sharing the suffering of Jesus, martyrs manifest the glory of the Word.
The wedding at Cana is also an epiphany of the Bridal church. As Max Thurian pointed out, Mary doesn’t come to the wedding with Jesus and his disciples. She has her own independent role. But her relationship to her Son is about to change, a change signaled by Jesus’s use of “woman” instead of “mother” and by the apparently rude question “What is between you and me?” That changed relationship, Thurian noted, is realized at the end of the episode when “the persons who had come separately from two different directions go out together as one.” After Jesus reveals his glory, “Jesus, his Mother, his brethren, and his disciples form a united group in which particular members will no longer be distinguished.” Cana is the first sign of the kind of family Jesus is gathering, in which his mother and brothers are those who do the will of the Father (Matt. 12:46-50).
When the wine is served, the guests praise the bridegroom for reserving the best wine for last. Jesus doesn’t intervene to take credit but stands aside to let the bridegroom bathe in undeserved praise. This too is a sign. From the first, Jesus bestows glory (cf. John 17:22). From the first, his glory is the glory of humility, the glory of the cross.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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