The book of John (chapter 2) records an event that isn’t found anywhere else. It’s the story of Jesus’ first miracle where he and his disciples are invited to a wedding in Cana in the region of Gallilee.
Jesus grew up in Galilee so he and his mother were likely close to the wedding party. During the festivities they run out of wine and we all know the rest of the story… Jesus first miracle is essentially a clean up job for a catering disaster.
Or is it?
Why does John record this story? There are countless interpretations ranging from practical to really symbolic. Perhaps John’s goal was to free our minds with this story. To play with it, contemplate it, and mine it for its many treasures.
The illuminated gem within my sight is not the actual miracle. There are diamonds in Jesus’ seemingly curt response to his mother, the clear endorsement of high quality wine, and the backstory of the betrothed, but I keep coming back to the stone jars (v.6).
For me, this story is all about the containers and the subversive subplot that he is inaugurating.
Jesus could have miraculously filled empty wine containers as he did later when loaves and fish spontaneously filled the empty baskets (Luke 9:10-17).
Jesus deliberately picked six, 20-30 gallon stone water jars. Verse 6 tells us these containers were used for the Jewish rites (ritual) of purification. Since they were empty, or at least in need of filling, we determine that these were used by many of the guests and the wedding host.
In Jewish culture, the ritual of washing is a big deal. Historians say this rite preserved the Jews in times where diseases had regionally spread. In fact, Jesus and his disciples are chastised later by the religious elite in Mark 7:14 because they aren’t practicing in this ceremony. In that passage, Jesus teaches that we are not defiled (made unclean) by things on the outside, but things on the inside.
Jesus is sending a message. “We won’t be needing these anymore… I’m bringing in a kingdom where purification is inside out, not outside in… all wedding guests are free to enter the festival joy.” This is a miracle, yes, but the big story is essentially; “out with the old, in with the new.” The best wine comes last. If you want the good stuff, you must first consume the old stuff.
The jars essentially divided people between clean and defiled, valid and invalid, in or out as all religion does. Jesus redeems the tools of division to unite everyone in joy. Ritual cleansing creates a false separation between people. Jesus isn’t having this, he offers an open bar for all comers.
Consider the setting of this story. What is more joyful than a wedding? The wedding is fitting because Jesus’ ministry is about joining all people and God. Weddings are what God’s work is all about. Uniting. Committing. Loving covenant.
Jeremiah 31 prophesies about the NEW way in which God will be joined or wedded to humanity. No more ritual and ceremony for the elite, but all people will know him based on what God does in the heart of everyone (v33-34). Earlier in that chapter, (v12) Jeremiah tells us that “over wine… our lives will be like a watered garden and we will languish no more.” The miracle is not so much the wine as it is the new covenant (marriage).
This is the significance of the stone jars: ritual is replaced with festival joy. Ceremonial water no longer cleanses us, flowing red does this now. We are not “wed” by our efforts to scrub ourselves, rather all guests are made clean by the most costly wine, offered freely, in abundance to all.
The wedding or joining has begun. The repurposed jars tell us that the means of finding God is not religion. This might be a hard one to swallow, but there is no purification process; we’re already clean. Our process is learning how to believe it. The old stone containers entombed an angry God who required separation from unholy defilement. Now Jesus is repurposing the heart of stone with a heart that flows red which cleanses all (Ezekiel 36:25-26).
“…I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Jesus told Peter “the one who is bathed need not wash” (John 13:10). The wine in the washing jars means the washing is not necessary. For many this will be a huge sticking point especially those whose faith is trapped in sin-washing and appeasement.
This gets interesting as we consider those who came late to the party. Where are the newly arriving guests to wash ceremonially? The implied answer is: “You’re clean, come join the party.” The latecomer has no means of ceremony. They are not to remain outside undefiled, but simply enter the festival joy? These only get the best wine. Just as the vineyard laborers in Jesus’ parable, the “last shall be first”(Matthew 20:1-16). This is theme is repeated in Jesus ministry, the religious cannot get over this (Luke 15:28).
Jesus “hour” had not yet come (v.4) meaning that this wasn’t his wedding. Nontheless, he honors the master and the bridegroom’s family by ensuring the festival continued successfully. He made the catering disaster his problem when clearly it wasn’t- ”What does this have to do with me?” (v.4). He knows covering the gap like this is costly, he fulfills (Exodus 4:25) and foreshadows the upper room (Mark 4:24) in a crypto description as the bridegroom of blood. The wine that cleans and covers the gap is symbolic of his blood.
The wedding at Cana is called the first miracle, but its really the only story in scripture. God is making a New covenant with all of humanity. It’s not based in religion, ceremony, or human effort, but solely upon the love and grace of God. All are invited and able to enter joy. Under the old covenant, we all run out of wine and are disgraced, but now the Best Wine removes our disgrace and puts us in the center of festival joy.
Come to the festival, the wine is amazing.