First Things First: Jesus’ Miracle at Cana

Miracle at Cana

Turning Water into Wine at the Wedding at Cana / Fernando Gallego, 1480s

Are you ever offended at Jesus? He upset people from the very beginning. Some of us in the church haven’t liked everything he did for 2,000 years–least of all his sense of timing.

Jesus’ first miracle took place at a party, much to the consternation of those who think religion ought to be dignified and serious.

He brought the wine, much to the consternation of Christians who believe that anything alcoholic is evil. What was Jesus doing there in the first place, and what does it all mean?

According to John 2:1-11, Mary was at a wedding in Cana. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited, apparently some time later than Mary. Either the bride or groom may have been Jesus’ and Mary’s relatives.

In any case, Mary must have been an important enough person to them that when a problem arose, she knew about it and took responsibility for doing something about it.

They ran out of wine. Perhaps they were too poor to buy as much as their guests wanted to drink. Perhaps they extended their hospitality to Jesus and the disciples some time after they had made their preparations and had already ordered wine. Perhaps they had simply miscalculated. But they ran out of wine, potentially a very embarrassing situation.

Mary told Jesus. Clearly she expected him to act. Just as clearly, he did not want to do what she expected of him, but he worked his first miracle anyway.

What Mary understood—and didn’t understand

Mary knew from the time Gabriel spoke to her that Jesus was the promised Messiah. After the angel left, the gospels record conversations with Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna that obviously remained vivid in her memory.

She had also raised him. Scripture is almost silent about the time between the family’s settling in Nazareth and the time Jesus began to prepare for his ministry. But Mary watched him grow, learn a trade, and begin to work at it.

She knew he had been to see John and the Jordan River and then disappeared into the wilderness for more than a month. She knew he was gathering disciples for his career change into public ministry. She knew his character better than anyone else. She had years to observe his compassion, for instance.

Like many mothers before and since, she attempted to exercise motherly authority over her adult son, and not for the last time. He was no longer a common carpenter. He was preparing to announce himself as Messiah. Surely the Messiah had miraculous powers.

So she told him that the hosts of the wedding had no more wine. Something in her tone of voice may have indicated that she did not intend merely to convey information. She addressed her son, forgetting that he was Lord of the universe, forgetting his earlier word to her that he had to be about the Father’s business.

Like many people over the course of Jesus’ ministry, she had a clear picture of how the Messiah ought to act. She didn’t expect him to restore the kingdom at that time, but it must have seemed a very good opportunity for him to show himself. Like the rest of the disciples, she thought she knew him, but was totally clueless until after the resurrection.

What Jesus chose—and didn’t choose

The Marriage at Cana / Marten de Vos, ca. 1596

The Marriage at Cana / Marten de Vos, ca. 1596

Jesus worked many of his miracles while he intended to do something else.

Think of the woman with the issue of blood, who interrupted him on the way to minister to Jairus’ daughter. He gave her his undivided attention, never forgetting Jairus.

Jairus himself had interrupted Jesus. Jesus never let his schedule take precedence over showing compassion to someone in need.

So he was enjoying the wedding when his mother informed him that there was no more wine. Jesus rebuked her gently. She had nothing to do with his business and he was under no obligation to obey her implicit command. The Father had not yet authorized the Son to show himself as a miracle worker.

But for the first time recorded in Scripture, Jesus let himself be interrupted. There was no doubt in Mary’s mind that he would do something. She knew his compassion. So she told the servants to do exactly what he told them.

Jesus pointed to six stone water jars, the kind used for the ritual hand washing and foot washing. They were vessels of honor. He told the servants to fill them with water, and they filled them to the brim.

When they returned with the water, Jesus told them to draw some out into a smaller container and take it to the master of the feast. A strange instruction. For all they knew, they were carrying nothing but water. When the master of the feast tasted it, it was not only wine, but very good wine.

And no one knew what had happened except Jesus, Mary, a few disciples, and a few servants. Jesus’ first open miracle would come at the time of the Father’s choosing, not Mary’s.

The significance of the wine

How unusual to save the best wine until the end of the party!

Usually, the best and strongest wine was put out first. After everyone had had several drinks, they were ready for something a little less potent. But God does not act according to human wisdom. Saving the best until last is part of the divine pattern.

In the miracle at Cana, the wine represents the coming of the Gospel.

From Abraham until Jesus, the prophets had been given hints of the glory to come. Abraham had known personal fellowship with God. Moses and his people saw God’s glory, although much diluted. At the consecration of the temple, the priests could not stand in the presence of the glory. The writing prophets received glimpses of a glorious future even as they denounce the wickedness all around them.

Now Jesus, the Messiah, had come on the scene. As the writer of Hebrews makes clear, he ushered in a new and superior covenant that surpassed the old one in glory. But that’s not all. The wine, the glory of the next life will be more glorious still.

But the good wine represents even more than glory.

Some of the water pots held “two firkins” and some three. European Christendom has long since forgotten the volume of the ancient Greek measurement, but the smaller of the jars held at least nine gallons and maybe as many as twenty. Six such pots filled to the brim? That’s a lot of wine. For a wedding in such a small, insignificant village that we no longer know quite were it was.

The sheer abundance of Jesus’ provision of wine for that wedding illustrates another attribute of God. What he provides is always more than enough, “far more abundantly than all we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).

In times of stress, it’s difficult to remember God’s glory and abundant provision. Especially if God chooses not to work out in an obvious way. The story of Jesus’ first miracle has a constant reminder for us: remember anyway.

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