“You have saved the best till now!”

Posted: October 29, 2012 in Sunday school
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A Wedding in Cana  (2:1-12) – Chapter Two opens with one of the best known – and least understood – stories about Jesus in the bible. Here we have one of the clearest illustrations of the need to read Scripture with a mind toward the times and culture of the original audience; knowledge of certain conventions of Jewish society and religious practices are entirely relevant to understanding the comparisons that the Apostle John is making between traditional interpretations of the Law, and their fulfillment in Christ. As we read through the passage, notice how this entire episode can be seen as a live-action parable, using a significant social event – a wedding feast – to challenge Jewish ideas about purification.

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and His disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to Him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?”  Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

(v.1-5) – John includes a time reference, “the third day”,  to help build a structural parallel for the later half of his Gospel: when added to the “four days” recounted in Chapter 1, we see a representative “first week” of Jesus’ ministry;  just as Ch.13-21 covers the last week of Jesus’ life before His appointment with the cross. John is not at all picky about “time management” when it comes to getting to the parts of the story that express the divine nature of Jesus.

So why is Mary at a wedding, and why is Jesus there, with His disciples? We need to recall what weddings were like among first century Jews; the ceremony would be the culmination of an extended betrothal, and a highly anticipated social event in the community. Invitations would be issued to extended family and close friends, and in these small villages, that would involve sometimes dozens of guests. It is most likely that Mary was either related to or a very dear friend of the groom’s family; Jesus would be included as family member, and since He was living out the role of rabbi, it would be natural for His followers to be allowed to accompany Him wherever He went. It is likely that His desire to return to Galilee (1:43) was spurred by His wish to attend this very event. The idea that Mary was somehow related to the groom is supported by her reaction to the wine running out. Given the importance of the event, and the underlying cultural responsibilities of hospitality, such a faux pas would be terribly embarrassing to the hosts, and Mary looks to Jesus to do something about it.

Jesus sounds uncharacteristically rude in the way He responds to Mary’s request, but this is not actually the case: the “woman” Jesus uses to address her is the same word He uses in speaking to Mary Magdalene, to the Samaritan woman, and to the woman accused of adultery… a general term of formal respect, but not the term normally used by a son for his mother. Jesus is making a declaration: He is no longer just the good Jewish boy doing as His mother says; He is “on mission”, with a different set of priorities than before. This helps explain His question about becoming involved…He is already starting to draw distinctions between the concerns of this world and the interests of the Kingdom. It is significant to note how he refers to His future role…the NIV’s rendering of “My time has not come,” is somewhat inaccurate, as the Greek word “hora” is better understood as representing a natural season, or a preordained point in time, when a specific event or activity is supposed to occur. With this simple phrase, Jesus is making three distinct claims: 1) there IS a specific purpose for His being here; 2) this moment has not happened yet; 3) we can be sure that it is going to come to pass. (We will in fact see this moment when it occurs – Jesus calls it out as it happens to be sure we don’t miss it.) However, He apparently gives some sign of consent, because Mary turns to the servants and orders them to assist. Here is another hint that Mary has some intimacy with the host family, that she can give orders to them and they obey, as well as an implicit statement of her faith that Jesus is willing and able to do meet this need.

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water” ; so they filled them to the brim. Then He told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”   They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

(v.6-11) – John wants us to pay special attention here to the purpose of the water jars – they are not the normal clay pots for household use, but stone vessels. Mosaic law was very specific about the containers used for religious purposes – they needed to be ritually clean, free from impurities (stone jars could be burned in a fire and re-purified, if necessary) to hold the water, drawn from a flowing source, that would be used in the required cleansing rituals that would naturally accompany both the marriage ceremony and the many meals that would take place over the course of the festivities. The text makes no mention of what the servants were thinking as they drew water and filled the jars, then drew back out what they took to the emcee…but the reaction of the master to this “new wine” reveals much. His statement about the this being “the best” indicates that the Jews’ water of purification had been replaced with something far superior – the wine represents the blood He has come to shed on our behalf, when His hour finally comes. Notice also the enormous quantity He has provided…not just enough to get by, but an abundance, filled to the brim – reminiscent of both Psalm 23 and Amos 9.

What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which He revealed His glory; and His disciples believed in Him. After this He went down to Capernaum with His mother and brothers and His disciples. There they stayed for a few days.

(v.11-12) – The Apostle John closes out this account with a brief commentary, asserting that this miracle, this sign as he prefers to name it,  is a revelation of the glory of Jesus, and  is the cause of the belief by the disciples. This is one of John’s recurring themes: when it comes to Jesus, seeing IS believing! (There are a total of seven signs which John will showcase in his effort to display the glory of Christ.) John ends the scene by having Jesus return to Capernaum, which, being on the main north-south trade road from the coast, made a better base of operations than remote Nazareth for His ministry in Galilee. (Matthew’s Gospel reveals another possible reason for Jesus working from another town.) Jesus and His natural and adopted families would travel home for now, but much work remains.

Next week we will see a different side of Jesus – and learn a lesson in righteous anger, and the proper way it should be used.

On Mondays I present short versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

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