The Life of Jesus Christ: Jesus, Water, Wine and Whips

In our series on the Life of Jesus Christ, we have seen his genealogy, birth, childhood, baptism, temptation by Satan and the beginning of His public ministry with the calling of disciples. Today we come to the Gospel of John and two separate but related events that reveal Jesus’ ministry mission. In John, the “book of signs” (John 20:30-31), these are called Jesus’ first sign and His greatest sign.

The first event is a wedding, a context that is filled with Old Testament expectation and imagery. A Jewish wedding festival was quite the spectacle. It lasted seven days and was an apt illustration for many of the prophets writing about the coming Messiah.

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness and speak kindly to her. Then I will give her her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.
“It will come about in that day,” declares the Lord, “That you will call Me Ishi (my husband) And will no longer call Me Baali (my master). For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, So that they will be mentioned by their names no more. In that day I will also make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land, and will make them lie down in safety.
“I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion, and I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness. Then you will know the Lord.
“It will come about in that day that I will respond,” declares the Lord. “I will respond to the heavens, and they will respond to the earth, and the earth will respond to the grain, to the new wine and to the oil, and they will respond to Jezreel (God sows).I will sow her for Myself in the land. I will also have compassion on her who had not obtained compassion, and I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ And they will say, ‘You are my God!’”

—Hosea 2:14-23

Not only OT texts like Hosea 2, but Jesus often referred to the Jewish wedding as the setting for many of his parables and the context for many of his statements about His second coming. Consider the beginning of Matthew 22 and 25.

“Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’
—Matthew 22:1-4

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.”

—Matthew 25:1-7

So it is perfectly fitting and intentionally symbolic that the “first” or “primary” sign of Jesus, in the first year of His public ministry, after just acquiring the first disciples, would be at a Jewish wedding.

“The result is the first of Jesus’ signs. The phrase “first sign” could mean a primary sign, as the symbolism here is foundational. In other words, the point is more than a mere numbering of the sign. Jesus is also said to have manifested his glory, a reference to his power even over creation.”

—Darrell Bock

It is perhaps equally as symbolic and powerful that Jesus turns water meant for “the Jewish custom of purification,” that is the washing of hands before a meal, into the best wine at the whole celebration. Jews often spoke and wrote about the end-time glory of the Messiah with imagery of celebratory wine. It’s all almost too beautiful to comprehend.

Jesus came to fill the empty cup of ceremony with the joy of restoration.

The second image is connected by John, not necessarily time. Jesus, His mother (who is never named in the Gospel of John) and His disciples return to Capernaum, their home-base on the Sea of Galilee, and remain there a few days. Sometime thereafter, Jesus and His disciples travel to Jerusalem for the annual, mandatory feast of Passover.

Just like the intentionally symbolic context of a Jewish wedding, this second event in Jesus’ ministry occurs at Passover. There are several important factors in this placement. First, the regular meager population of Jerusalem would have blossomed astronomically for Passover. Those offering regular sacrifices in the Temple courts, and those preparing for the intricate Passover meal, would have been trading “illegal” coins that had unholy images on them for “legal” coins to make offerings. They would have also been purchasing or trading animals of all kinds of sacrifice. There was quite a business to be had, and, of course, there were undoubtedly many hucksters and con-artists eager to help pilgrims with their exchanges or purchases.

Only later did Jesus’ disciples connect a phrase from Psalm 69:9 to what Jesus did when He saw this blasphemous rabble. Zealous passion for His Father’s house did consume Him, and He made a cord of whips, probably out of branches, drove out animals and overturned the tables of money changers. It would have been quite the scandal and scene. Can you imagine what His mother and disciples thought?

“Jesus’ act is seen in messianic terms as a purifying act to get the temple ready for the new era. It might be better to say, if one takes the early placement of this event as key, that the act was an eschatological purification whose exact force would not be initially clear to those who experienced it. They might have seen such a cleansing initially as a king of prophetic challenge, which it was as well. …It was the belief in Judaism that the new era would come with a purity of worship, including a righteousness that the Messiah would bring about. …Needless to say, this aggressive deed raised the question of Jesus’ authority to perform such a prophetic-messianic act. The Jewish request for a sign is a call to authenticate the right to act as a prophet or a purifying eschatological figure. The expectation is for some cosmic sign from heaven. Instead, Jesus points to what for John will be the great sign that glorifies the Father and the Son: his death and resurrection.”

Jesus came to resurrect the purity of worship out of the grave of religion and commerce.

Jesus the Messiah had come to redeem and restore. Redemption would be costly, pictured in the “great sign” of death and resurrection. Restoration would be challenging. For four centuries before the arrival of Jesus, divine prophets had gone silent. The waiting had rusted over true, biblical messianic expectations. When the Messiah did arrive, He had to first address the rust. This was not easy.

Restoration always involves disruption. And Jesus came to restore. He is still present to restore.

Family Discussion Questions for John 2:
1. What’s your favorite part about weddings? Least favorite part? Why?
2. What do you think Jesus would have been like at a party? He went to many parties and big dinners, by the way.
3. If a king had been gone from his kingdom for a very long time, what do you think he would do when he first came back? How is this similar or different than what Jesus does in the two stories in John 2?
4. Why do you think Jesus was so frustrated and angry (not a sinful anger, but righteous zeal/anger) at all of the business happening in temple?
5. How would Jesus perfectly and finally clean the temple and all His people? (HINT: His death and resurrection was the final payment for sin - rehearse and share the GOSPEL with your family).

Small Group Discussion Questions:
1. Why would prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea illustrate the works of the coming Messiah in the image of a wedding? What was the point of the illustration?
2. When and how did Jesus use the image of a wedding celebration? How did Paul and the Apostles continue the image into the age of the church?
3. What was the connection between the stone jars for Jewish purification and the new, magnificent quality wine in Jesus’ Cana sign? Why did John point these details out?
4. Read Luke 5:33-39. What is Jesus saying about new and old wineskins? What is the meaning and application?
5. At the time of Jesus, the Jews had been waiting for the Messiah to come for over 1000 years (since the Scriptures began to specifically reveal the Messiah’s work and role). Discuss with your group the great difficulty that can come with waiting for something so important for so long. Do you see any of these difficulties in the Gospel accounts?
6. Discuss the statement: Jesus came to fill the empty cup of ceremony with the joy of restoration.
7. Can you recall the story, purpose and atmosphere of the original Passover? What was a Passover meal like in the time of Jesus? Why is this context powerful for the second story in John 2?
8. Compare and contrast the story of Jesus “cleansing the temple” found at the end of Matthew, Mark and Luke to the story in the second chapter of John. Some scholars suggest there was only one “cleansing,” which John moves up in time for specific purposes of his gospel. Others suggest there were two separate events, one at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and one in the last week of His passion. Which do you think? Discuss with your group.
9. Discuss the statement: Jesus came to resurrect the purity of worship from the grave of religion and commerce.
10. Discuss the statements: Restoration always involves disruption. Jesus came to restore.
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