Turning Water to Wine

Have you ever secretly thought that Jesus’ first miracle is a bit of a letdown? The audience is small, the master of the feast does not even know something supernatural has taken place, and it seems the main takeaway from the guests is the quality of wine. Many people fixate on ancillary details of this miracle— the way Jesus speaks to His mother, the alcoholic nature of the wine— and it’s easy to miss the glory wrapped up in this passage as Jesus bursts onto the scene as the initiator of the new covenant.

To understand the overlapping symbolism of this miracle, we have to start not with the empty cups of wine at Cana, but with the shriveled vine of Israel. Israel had long been disobedient and rebellious against the covenant commands of the Lord. Because of their covenant unfaithfulness, the Lord once said to Isaiah, “I will make [my vineyard] a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.”[1] Israel was not thriving. The wine of God’s blessing and favor had run out.

Israel was also many times portrayed as a bride who is beloved by her husband, but unfaithful to Him. The Lord continually calls her back, pleading with her to reject the idolatry of the other nations and return to covenant faithfulness, yet she continues in her adulterous ways (Jeremiah 31:32). The pattern of harlotry continued for years, and resulted in Israel’s captivity by pagan nations, including the occupation by the Romans in Jesus’ lifetime. Despite their sin, Yahweh promises that one day, “You shall no more be termed Forsaken….as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:4-5).

So the stage is set with Israel, an adulterous bride whose wine has run out, with no other hope than the promised Messiah. This is more than a social disaster, it’s a spiritual crisis. It is against this backdrop that Jesus attends a wedding with His disciples. John makes the point to observe that this miracle occurs on the third day. When we hear “third day” our minds are automatically taken to the resurrection, but the Jewish readers may have thought of other third days of Scripture where Abraham was prevented from sacrificing Isaac, Yahweh delivered the commands of the covenant from Mt. Sinai, and Jonah was spat up on the shore. The third day signifies a threshold of death to life— we can anticipate that something life-altering was about to take place at Cana.

And it does. When Jesus turns the water to wine at the wedding, He manifests His glory as the Son of God, the true vine, and the faithful bridegroom of Israel. Up until this point, Israel had relied on stone jars filled with water for outward purification, but on this day, Jesus introduced the inward cleansing and purification that would come from the true drink, which is His own blood that brings eternal life (John 6:54).

After tasting the wine, the master of the feast praises the bridegroom for saving the best for last. The irony of this moment is that although the praise is misplaced, it is not incorrect, for the wine has been provided by the true bridegroom. We are reminded of this connection in other places in the Gospels. In Luke 5:33-39, the Pharisees ask Jesus why His disciples eat and drink when others, including John the Baptist, fasted. Jesus responded to them by saying, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” Jesus intentionally explains His ministry in the context of a wedding. He plays the part of the loving groom, His disciples are the celebrating guests, and we, the church, are His bride.

This first sign of John's Gospel is more than a story of God’s abundant provision; it is a microcosm of the rest of Jesus’ ministry. As the fruitful vine and the faithful bridegroom, Jesus did that which we could never do to not only bring us back into fellowship with Him again, but ultimately to provide us with a seat at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The One who turned water into wine drank the cup of His Father’s wrath to make our cup overflow with the new wine of the gospel.

Megan K. Taylor earned her MA in Theological Studies from Westminster Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Joel, live in Sanford, Fl where she works for Ligonier Ministries.

 



[1] Isaiah 5:6