The First Sign: Water Into Wine

The First Sign:
Water Into Wine

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas.

This is the first of his series of studies on the seven signs of the Lord Jesus Christ recorded in John’s Gospel (see John 20:30-31).

Scripture Reading; John 2:1-11


Webster has defined joy as, “The emotion excited by the acquisition of good.” It is one of the things that we all desire. It is also one of the things that the New Testament commands believers to possess. For example, Paul the Apostle writes in the Philippian Letter these words, “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord” (3:1). And, as if that is not enough exhortation on the subject, in the very next chapter he doubles the appeal with, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice” (4:4).

The incident before us in the exposition of the Gospel of John, the first of the signs John has recorded in his book, the turning of the water into wine at Cana of Galilee, has been called by some teachers, “Joy in Cana.” Well, that is not surprising since the incident at which the miracle took place was a wedding in that village, the village of Nathaniel, and weddings are notable for the atmosphere of joy that pervades them. The conviviality that characterized the wedding in Cana was immeasurably enhanced and eternally emblazoned in the annals of human history by the mighty work that Jesus did for the feast. By His miracle the joy of the occasion was enlarged, for His wine was the best of that which was drunk at the wedding feast, and it was also the means for the prolonging of the celebration.

If the incident may, indeed, be called, “Joy in Cana,” it also reveals the way that joy is obtained, namely, by the activity of the omnipotent Lord, who is worthy of our personal trust. It is He who ultimately is the secret of all joy, especially spiritual joy, for eternal redemption is found in Him and in His saving work. And when men find Him a new song of joy becomes theirs. The psalmist speaks of this when he writes, “I waited patiently for the Lord, and He inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God; many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord” (40:1-3).

The futility of the world’s hopes, ideas, and principles to provide such joy indicates the superior nature of the truth of God.

The critics have sometimes been unkind to this account, calling it a “luxury” miracle, since it cannot be said to be a miracle of mercy to men, such as the works of healing and restoration that He performed continually. What was there that made it necessary for Him to supply a wedding party with wine? What lasting benefits were conferred upon those present? I think that Tasker is right, however, when he comments, “But these are the wrong questions to ask; for none of the miracles of Jesus were kind actions to alleviate human distress and nothing more. They were, as this Gospel invariably calls them, signs displaying the glory of Jesus and the wonder of His redeeming love.”1

Since this is the first of the signs of the book, it is proper to ask, particularly of this one, what its purpose is, or what is the symbolism of the water turned into wine. There are several things that may well have been in the minds of the Spirit and of the apostle in using it in his book. In the first place, the reference to the six waterpots of stone, used by the Jews in purifying of hands and vessels, may be designed to show the inadequacy of Judaism as a means of salvation. They were empty, but Jesus filled them with that which satisfied the celebrants. What Judaism cannot do, the Son of God can.

In the second place, the wine, called in the Old Testament “the blood of grapes” (cf. Gen. 49:11), is a fitting symbol of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, who shed His blood for the salvation of the world, of both Jews and Gentiles.

And, third, the wine is also that which “makes glad the heart of man” (Psa. 104:15}, and it is a fitting symbol of the joy that accompanies the salvation won by the sufferings of the Son of God.

But, let us now turn to the description that the Apostle John gives us of the occasion.

The Situation

John’s account of the wedding feast is given in verses one and two, “And the third day there was a marriage in Cana, of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there. And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.” The wedding was in the town of Nathaniel, and he may have been responsible for the invitation that was given to our Lord and His company. There evidently were seven in His party, if the disciples of chapter one are intended by the word “disciples” in verse two of chapter two. Someone has suggested that the seven in the Lord’s party may have been one of the reasons why there came to be a lack of wine at the feast. That, of course, is speculative.

The Sign

Mary’s request (John 2:3). The apostle continues in his account, writing, “And when they lacked wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto Him, They have no wine.” Why she turned to Him is not explained by John, and we can only guess what led her to turn to Him. Possibly it was the reports of the disciples on the recent events, described in John 1:19-51, particularly the incident in which He demonstrated such supernatural knowledge in telling Nathaniel that He saw him under the fig tree when He was not in his presence. Possibly, too, the Baptist had told the disciples of the strange thing that happened at the baptism of the Lord, when the Spirit of God descended like a dove from heaven and abode on Him.

Further, Mary had clear knowledge of the supernatural birth of the Lord Jesus, both from the words of the angel to her (cf. Luke 1:31-35) and from her own experience. She has gone through many years now with her life under suspicion, for few believed her story of the birth of her Son. One can appreciate what the years of suspicion would have done to a lesser person, and one can also appreciate how much she must have yearned for vindication, both for herself and for Joseph, and then for her Son.

Thus Mary’s words to the Lord, “They have no wine,” were full of unexpressed yearning. We might translate between the lines and come up with, “They have no wine; therefore this is a beautiful occasion for you to prove yourself to be the promised Messiah, as I know you are.”

The Lord’s reply (John 2:4). The Lord’s reply is abrupt, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.” A great deal of discussion has taken place over the proper rendering of the word translated by “woman” in the King James Version. “Woman” seems almost too harsh to us, and the tendency is to soften it in translation. But “lady” will not do either. That word may have been all right in the Middle Ages, but it is used primarily by tramps now. The word as used by the Lord is a word that does connote a slight rebuke, but it is not a personal one. It suggests that Mary does not fully understand yet the purpose of the work that He is doing, nor the timetable by which He is working. It is part of Mary’s painful education, alluded to by Simeon years before, when in the temple he finally saw the Lord’s Messiah, for whom he had been looking, and said to the mother of our Lord, “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (cf. Luke 2:35). Mary, then, is told by the Lord that the natural relation does not hold any ground upon which to ask him to perform the sign. That time is pre-cross time. Afterwards she may call upon Him as Lord to perform mighty tasks for her and for the saints. The “hour,” of course, is the time of the cross, with the mighty change of age that shall take place then (cf. 8:20; 17:1; 20:17). At that time the saints are invited to call upon Him (cf. 14:13-14) .

Mary’s response (John 2:5). Mary urges the servants, “Whatever he saith unto you, do it,” evidently undisturbed by our Lord’s sharp comment to her. Incidentally, one notices that Mary, the virgin mother, says, “Whatever HE saith to you, do it,” not, “Whatever I say unto you, do it.” One gains the impression that Mary would hardly agree with the claims put forward concerning her as co-remptrix with Christ.

The Lord’s reaction (John 2:6-10). The description of the size of the waterpots indicates the greatness of the gift of the wine. The waterpots together contained from sixty to one hundred and fifty gallons in all, enough for 2400 servings.

The actions of our Lord are very impressive, for there were no actions at all. Everything is accomplished by His creative word (cf. 1:1, 14). It is a visible. and contemporary reminder of the, “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light” (cf. Gen. 1:3). Mary had said, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it,” and now we see why (cf. v. 5).

The words of the governor of the feast, when he tasted the wine, are a testimony to the quality of the wine created by the Lord, “Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine and, when men have well drunk, then that which is worse; but thou halt kept the good wine until now” (cf. v. 10). There is a bit of emphasis on the words, “Every man,” at the beginning of his statement, affording a perhaps unconscious acknowledgment of the fact that He is more than a man.

The Significance of the Sign

The natural significance. John concludes his account with the words, “This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana, of Galilee, and manifested forth His glory; and His disciples believed on Him” (v. 10). The word “glory” reminds us of the statement of 1:14, the miracle at Cana being one of the steps in the total manifestation that led to the conviction that He was “the only begotten of the Father.” The hour of glorification that climaxed the manifestation was the cross (cf. 17:1).

John calls the miracle a “sign,” and it is important to understand something of the sense of the term. The word used draws attention from the deed done to the doer of the deed. It is the word used for a miracle that reminds the reader that the important aspect of it is not only the manifestation of power, but also its significance in the spiritual sphere of things. A sign in John’s mind appears to be a work of power in the sphere of the creation that points to a truth in the sphere of the new creation, the sphere of redemption (cf. 6:14, 35; 9:16, 5; 12:18; 11:23-27, etc.). It is a miracle as a proof of His divine power and majesty, according to William Hendriksen.2

Now that this was a story that pointed beyond the mere physical and local aspects of things is indicated by its omissions. Who was the bridegroom? Who was the bride? What relation did Jesus have with the wedding? And what is it that accounts for the presence of Mary at the feast? Was Nathaniel the best man, and is that why they were all there? Cf. 21:2. Many questions might be put to the author, but for him everything gathers around the ministry of our Lord there. He is the important figure at the wedding. As Hendriksen puts it, “In the full light of day stands Christ; all the rest is shadow.”3

As I see it, the miracle has a natural significance, as well as what might be called a typical significance. The very first thing it sets forth, as its most obvious meaning, is the creative power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Written over the sign is the “signature of divinity,” as someone has said. George Reith has cited the ancient saying, “The conscious water saw its Lord and blushed!”4

And, secondly, in the natural sphere one can note with interest that the sign is an indication of our Lord’s hallowing of family life (cf. Gen. 2:18; 1 Tim. 4:3). The sacred interpenetrates the secular. The Lord participates in the festivities of human life and experience; He was truly one of us and blessed the event of the marriage with His presence and gracious power. God is pleased in the ceremonies which He has given us.

His general approval of festive times may be deduced from the event (cf. Gen. 24:27; Jud. 14:17). He is not, as some say, the “pale Galilean,” a view of Christ that has done great damage to Christianity. He is not to be likened to a monk, but to a vital, living, working citizen of the community.

The typical significance. There are several things that set out the typical significance of the sign. In the first place, it seems to me that the sign is one of the inauguration of the new age. It is to be noted that, contrary to a number of the signs that follow, there is no accompanying discourse that gives the meaning of the sign. I, therefore, think that one must interpret it in the light of the gospel as a whole. Its aim is to show the inadequacy of Judaism as it existed in the time of our Lord. “They have no wine” is a vivid reminder of the status of the religion at that day.

Our Lord’s reply to Mary, in which He mentions His “hour” is no whim of fancy. He wishes to make it clear that what He does has relationship to the cross, where He will pour out the wine of His blood for the salvation of the lost. It was the first miracle done in four hundred years, and it is, thus, a kind of frontispiece of the gospel. It says that the best wine is that of the new age, provided by the Lord Jesus in His saving sacrificial work. Ultimately what He is to do will be celebrated in the Lord’s Supper as His people eat the bread and drink the wine.

There is also here an illustration of the new birth, in that there is a miraculous transformation of the water into wine and, further, the great majority of the guests, like the governor of the feast “knew not from whence it was,” that is, the wine. But it is perhaps wise not to make too much of this, since we do not have any definite evidence that this was the intent of the sign.

There is certainly a suggestion of the fact that the Lord Jesus in His life and ministry shall give a new joy to those who partake of His provision of life (cf. Psa. 104:15; Jud. 9:13). The prophet Isaiah has spoken of Him as a “man of sorrows,” and that is true, but He is also a man of joy, as this gospel plainly testifies (cf. 17:13). The world’s banquet always runs out, but our Lord’s gifs have the note of infinity about them. His gifts of spiritual blessing become better every day, and the very best is saved for last. In heaven itself I am sure that all of His people shall in beautiful chorus exclaim, “Thou hast kept the best wine for now.” As for the world all its pleasures and occupations remind one of the words of the Book of Proverbs, spoken as a warning against drunkenness, “At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder” (Prov. 23:32).

The personal significance. There is a personal significance that emerges from the incident, too. It is set out in verse eleven, “This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana, of Galilee, and manifested forth His glory; and His disciples believed on Him” (v. 11). One is reminded at this point of the statement of the purpose of the gospel in 20:30-31.

What happened to the other guests at the wedding feast is veiled in silence, with the silence itself perhaps indicating that the impression of the miracle left no profound or lasting impression upon them.5 Godet’s words are useful here, “What passed in the minds of the other witnesses of this scene? John’s silence leads us to suppose that the impression produced was neither profound nor lasting. And this because the miracle, in order to act efficaciously, must be understood as a sign (vi. 26), and because to this end certain moral predispostions are necessary. The impression of amazement which the guests experienced, not connecting itself with any spiritual need or any struggle of conscience, was soon effaced by the distractions of life.”6 On the other hand, perhaps they never even knew what had happened, an even more pitiful possibility.

The disciples “Believed on Him.” That is the proper result of the miracle. It touched His people. Like Sir James Simpson, the famous Edinburgh physician, who discovered chloroform’s use as an anesthetic, and who, when asked what he considered to be his greatest discovery, answered, “That I have a Savior,” these, too, made the great discovery, that they had a Savior. My prayer for the reader is that they as well may make the greatest discovery of all, that there is a Savior from sin. His name is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Come to Him and receive the forgiveness of sins!

1 Tasker, p. 55.

2 Hendriksen, I, 117-18.

3 Ibid., I, 118.

4 George Reith, The Gospel According to St. John (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1889), I, 38.

5 Godet, II, 14.

6 Ibid.