Beyond the sign



Background Scripture: John 2:1-12.

Devotional Reading: John 17:1-50.

In the last few weeks, we saw that the first chapter of the gospel according to John set forth some of the main themes of the Fourth Gospel: the Word, grace, truth, darkness, light, acceptance, rejection, and the Lamb of God. John 2 is an introduction into the ways in which those themes will be presented throughout John’s gospel. The wedding at Cana, recounted in John 2:1-12, is meant to help us with interpreting the rest of the gospel.

John demonstrates here that, in considering his narratives about Jesus, there are always several layers of meaning: the obvious event in itself and the different levels of meaning to which the event points. At the conclusion of the story of the wedding at Cana, John writes: “This the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory…” (2:11).

Note that, although John tells us that the water was turned to wine, he does not use the word “miracle.” In fact, in most translations of the Bible, the word “miracle” appears only a few times and it is generally agreed that the term “miracle” is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew or Greek. “Signs,” “wonders,” and “marvels” are much closer to what the writer is saying to us. John stretches our understanding of these events by calling them “signs.” (“Sign” and “signs” appear 17 times in John’s gospel.)

Why is “miracles” an inadequate translation? Because it is a fairly modern concept and generally sig- nifies that an event is a “miracle” – meaning that it defies or breaks the laws of nature. But even the term “miracle” today is archaic, because the present and emerging theories of physics provide possible room for events that violate, not nature itself, but the ways in which we normally experience nature. The signs and wonders of Jesus are better thought of as paranormal – something beyond our normal experience – rather than supernatural (contrary to nature itself ).


Unfortunately, some people never get beyond Jesus’ turning of the water to wine. That act by Jesus is a “sign” in that it points, not to itself, but to something beyond the obvious. When you come to a STOP SIGN while driving, we need to concentrate, not on the sign itself, but what it’s pointing to. Focusing on the sign alone can be very dangerous. So the “sign” in John 2 is turning the water to wine, but the sign points to something far more important. Look at the “sign” for a moment. It begins with Mary, Jesus’s mother coming to him with a very pedestrian problem: in the middle of the great wedding feast, the demand for wine is greater than the supply. Knowing her son has strange powers, she says to him, “They have no wine!” (2:3). In Jesus’ day – and probably today in our time – running out of wine at the wedding celebration was a social faux pas. A wedding was one of the top social events of any village, often lasting a whole week. No couple wanted to start their life together getting the wedding feast “wrong.”

So, in John 2 we see the obvious level: Jesus’ mother attending a marriage feast in Cana, a town near Nazareth and the home of the recently-called disciple, Nathaniel; Mary turning to Jesus when the marital family is about to be embarrassed because there is not enough wine; and Jesus responding to his mother, turning the water to wine.


Some people think that Jesus spoke harshly to his mother’s request: “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (2:9), but Bible scholars tell us that this is a translation problem, for “Woman” was an address of respect, not disdain. That Jesus responded to her request to “do something,” indicates that, although he was reluctant to intervene, out of respect for his mother and the marital family, he succeeded to the need. John assures us that the compassion of Jesus is extended to each of us in even the everyday activities of life. All of us need to heed Mary’s advice to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5). Sometimes that can be a very tall order!

So what does this passage mean beyond the events described in John 2:1-11? If turning the water to wine is a “sign,” to what is this sign pointing at a deeper level? The answer lies in the water jars. They contain water used for the Jewish rite of purification: the ritual washing of hands at meals. Note that there were six stone jars, not seven. The Jews regarded seven as the complete and perfect number, so six jars suggests that the supply of water for purification is imperfect and unfinished, suggesting that the Jewish laws are imperfect and incomplete. But the water transformed into wine represents the superiority of the gospel to the law.

As the six pots totaled approximately 180 gallons they would be more than enough for the wedding feast. So the sign indicates that the superior revelation of the presence and power of God is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And as William Barclay puts it, John “wants us to see that whenever Jesus comes into a person’s life, there comes a new quality which is like turning water to wine.” John calls us to look beyond the sign to understand that the power of Jesus Christ comes to us in abundance.