What’s Your Problem?

What’s Your Problem?

John 2:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: We should give our needs to Jesus as Mary did—

in simple faith and obedience

In the summer of 1994 the Associated Press reported a robbery which ended in a very unusual way. In Conway, Arkansas, Cindy Hartman was awakened by the telephone. As she started to answer it, she was stopped by a burglar. The burglar tore the phone cord from the wall and told her to get in the closet.

Cindy dropped to her knees to pray. She then turned to the robber and asked if she could pray for him. She told him that God loved him and so did she. She told the man that she forgave him for what he was doing.

How did this hardened criminal react? He fell to his knees beside her in prayer, and asked her forgiveness. He told the other burglar with him that they could not steal from a Christian family, so they unloaded everything they had taken He borrowed a shirt from Cindy and removed his fingerprints. He then removed the bullets from his gun and gave it to Cindy. Not that she wanted it—she had all the protection she needed.

Webster defines a “miracle” as “an event or action that apparently contradicts known scientific laws and is hence thought to be due to supernatural causes, especially to an act of God.” Cindy Hartman would agree. How can we receive such help in our lives?

We begin a study of the miracles of Jesus as found in the Gospel of John. Our purpose will not be a theoretical investigation of the miraculous, but a practical study of ways people like us experienced the miraculous power of God in their daily lives. We all need the help Cindy Hartman found. Perhaps, for you or someone in your class, the burglar is in your house right now.

Where do you need the miraculous power of God in your life today? Keep that problem or burden in mind as we study together. It may be that at the end of our story, it will include you.

Invite Jesus to your home

The first miracle performed by the Son of God began in a most inauspicious place: “On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee” (John 2:1). Cana was a village so insignificant that its location has not been determined with absolute certainty. Most archaeologists identify it as Kefr Kenna, 3.5 miles from Nazareth, though other locations are also possible (Robertson 33). It is mentioned twice more in John’s Gospel: Jesus performed a second miracle there (4:46, the event we’ll study next); and the disciple Nathaniel is identified as being from this tiny village (21:2). Cana of Galilee is found nowhere else in the word of God. If Jesus would begin his ministry there, he will continue it where you live today.

Our story unfolds on a Wednesday afternoon, the fourth day of the Jewish week, at a wedding. This was the day for the marriage of virgins, as prescribed in the Jewish law (Morris 178; Brown 98; Robertson 33).

When we trace the events of the week leading to the wedding, we learn that Jesus has been busy. He called James and John to be his first followers on the previous Sabbath (our Saturday) in John 1:39. Andrew and Simon joined him the following day (John 1:40-42). On Monday he called Philip and Nathaniel to discipleship, and “decided to leave for Galilee” (John 1:43). His fledgling group traveled on Tuesday, arriving late that evening or Wednesday morning (cf. Brown 98). This chronology will become important to our story momentarily.

Jesus’ group has come to a wedding, “one of the supreme occasions” of common life in ancient Palestine (Barclay 97). The marriage ceremony was celebrated late Wednesday evening, following an all-day feast. Then the couple was led to their new home under the light of flaming torches, with a canopy held over their heads. For a week they wore crowns, dressed in bridal robes, and were treated and even addressed as a king and queen. In lives filled with poverty and hard work, this was a joyous celebration for the entire village (Barclay 96-7).

Why did Jesus come? Later in our study we will explore the wonderful spiritual lessons found in the fact that Jesus chose to begin his public ministry at such a party. For now, let’s focus on the practical: “Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding” (John 2:1b-2). Our Lord came because he was invited.

So, why was he invited? We have no knowledge of any previous relationship between Jesus and this village. Cana was likely close to Nazareth, so Jesus could simply have known the wedding party or their friends and thus been included in their party. But Mary was already at the wedding, acting in a somewhat official capacity, when her Son arrived. As we will observe in a moment, she felt responsibility for the fact that the wedding wine had run out, had the authority to order the servants to obey Jesus’ instructions, and assumed that he would give them. Not a typical role for a typical guest.

So twenty centuries of commentators have speculated as to Mary’s purpose at this wedding, and have connected Jesus’ invitation to her role there. Her husband Joseph is not mentioned in the story, and was apparently already dead. And so it is possible that Mary was serving the wedding in some professional capacity, as a means to self-support; we might call her the “caterer” today. But it is much more likely that she was a relative of someone in the wedding party (David Brown 1085; Barnes 191).

The text gives us nothing beyond this possibility. But legend proceeds where biblical exposition will not go. Some ancient traditions suggested that Simon the Zealot, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, was the bridegroom in question, and even that he was the son of Mary’s sister. Others made the bridegroom none other than John himself, the author of this Gospel, and claimed that he was the son of Mary’s sister (cf. Barclay 96). No one can, or should, say.

All we need to know is that Jesus chose to attend a wedding with his mother. Perhaps this is the very reason he chose to leave for Galilee (John 1:43). He could have begun his public ministry in any way he chose. If you possessed his miraculous, divine powers, how would you first tell the world? Would you raise a Lazarus from his grave? Would you feed a multitude of 5,000 with a small boy’s lunch? Would you walk on the sea? Would you open blind eyes? Would you reveal your powers to Herod in Caesarea or Caesar in Rome? Jesus began in an obscure, rural village, by blessing a peasant wedding.

One commentator notes: “His work awaited him, a work full of intense strife, hazard, and pain; yet in a mind occupied with these things the marriage joy of a country couple finds a fit home” (Bruce 706). Barclay adds: “When John told this story he was remembering what life with Jesus was like; and he said, ‘Wherever Jesus went and whenever he came into life it was like water turning into wine'” (105). Jesus cared about the simple problems of simple people. He thrilled to fill their lives with his joy. He still does.

Call to mind that place where you need the touch of God for your life, your work, your family, your marriage today. Then make this simple decision: invite Jesus into your home. Ask him to join you at that place of need. He is waiting to come. In fact, he’s already standing at the door (Revelation 3.20).

Ask Jesus for help

Hospitality in the Middle and Far East was and is a sacred duty. When serving as a missionary in East Malaysia I was often privileged to be welcomed into the simplest of village huts. The mother would always set food before me. It might be goat’s milk or bean curd, but it was her best and I was obligated to eat it. (Fish eyes were the greatest test of faith I encountered.) No one in the Palestine of Jesus’ day would think of inviting a guest to their home without providing them a meal. And if the wine or food ran out, such would be a social catastrophe.

Nowhere was such hospitality more mandatory than at one’s wedding. The entire village was there. Families saved for years to provide for the occasion. To run out of wine would be a nightmare beyond contemplation. It simply wasn’t done. Such a failure could not be tolerated. If you invited friends and family to Christmas dinner but ran out of food to feed them, you would be embarrassed. If you were a bride or groom in Jesus’ day and ran out of wine, you would be humiliated for the rest of your life.

But this is precisely the catastrophe that occurred: during the feast preceding the marriage ceremony, “the wine was gone” (John 2:3a). Who failed? What could have gone wrong? We find a clue: “Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine'” (John 2:3b). Given that she was perhaps related to the wedding party, we understand her concern. But why would she involve Jesus? The more proper and expected action would have been to alert the groom’s family, or to ask others living in Cana for help (Lenski 187). Why go to her Son?

It is of course possible that she was simply calling on his divine powers. She had witnessed the statements made about her Son when he was a newborn infant (Luke 2:25-38), and had “treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). But Jesus has performed no miracle to this point in his recorded life. And he had no obligation to work one here.

That is, unless the shortage of wine was somewhat his fault. Remember that Jesus left Judea for Galilee only four days earlier, with six new disciples as part of his procession. Mary and her Son had likely been invited much earlier. While verse 2 specifies that his disciples had been invited as well, it is possible that the wedding planners did not know that six adults would be joining him. If so, their presence could explain the shortage of wine. And make the pending social tragedy in a way his concern as well as hers (cf. Robertson 34, Bruce 703).

We have no way of knowing whether or not the shortage of wine was related to the presence of Jesus’ six disciples at the wedding. But we do know that he cared about the problem these peasants faced. As he does yours and mine. He was extremely clear on this subject: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:31-34).

Mary somehow knew that her Son would help. And so she asked, with the simplest prayer in all the Bible: “They have no more wine.” She quietly and simply put this problem into Jesus’ hands. As we should: “”We all have a tendency to use prayer to dictate to God. Our part is to lay the need before him, and then trust him to respond as he wills” (Milne 63). Mary’s recorded words in Scripture are few; these guide us as we use our own to speak to her Son (cf. Carson 173). We can give him our every need, with the assurance that he wants to hear and help.

But Jesus’ response didn’t seem to agree: “‘Dear woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My time has not yet come'” (John 2:4). His words seem harsh until we step behind the English into the Greek used by John, and then the light comes on.

“Woman” is the literal translation of Jesus’ Greek word. Most translations carry it just this way; the NIV tries to soften it by adding “Dear,” a word not found in the original text. But such an attempt is well founded. For Jesus’ word was a great title of respect and courtesy. Augustus used it to address Cleopatra (Bruce 703), and Odysseus used it for Penelope, his much-loved wife (Barclay 98). Jesus made it his typical way of addressing women (Matthew 15:28; Luke 13:12; John 4:21; 8:10; 20:13). His title for her conveyed his respect.

As did his reply. “Why do you involve me?” was a Jewish figure of speech (Brown 99) and meant here something like, “We are looking at this problem in different ways” or “we stand on different grounds” (cf. Bruce 703). It can be rendered so positively as to say, “The problem is taken care of” (Rienecker 222).

This phrase makes even more sense when combined with what follows: “My time has not yet come.” Jesus’ “time” refers here to the hour for public manifestation of his Messiahship (Robertson 35). Later it will relate to his death and resurrection (John 7:30; 8:20; 12:23; 13:1; 17:1). In this setting Jesus means something like, “The time has not yet come for me to show the world my power, but I will solve this problem another way.” Barclay catches the meaning best: “Don’t worry; you don’t quite understand what is going on; leave things to me, and I will settle them in my own way” (98). And he would.

Answering questions about the Christian faith and word of God is one of my favorite things to do in ministry. Over the years, Sunday school classes and other groups have often invited me to such sessions. A staff member once termed these events “stump the chump,” and now the title is official. At such gatherings, I am often asked the question: why doesn’t God still work miracles today? We read of remarkable events in the Bible, but not in the newspaper. Why don’t we see his power at work more in our lives?

James has the answer: “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you do ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3). When did you last ask Jesus to change your “water” into “wine” for his glory? When did you last trust him as fully as Mary did in our story? She didn’t tell her Son what to do or how to do it—she simply stated her problem and trusted him to solve it. And he did.

Jesus always gives us what we ask, or something better. He meets our need, in his own time and way. His answers may not come when we want them, or in the way we expect them. But our Father promises to meet all our needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19).

Here’s the simple condition: we must ask. Define that place where you need the help of God most. Are you waiting on God, or is he waiting on you?

Then do as he says

Mary is the overlooked hero of this story. It is appropriate that she is called “Jesus’ mother” (v. 1) or “his mother” (v. 5) and never by her given name, for such was the way people in Jesus’ world spoke of a mother with reverent respect. To refer to her as the mother of God’s Son reminded the reader of her crucial role in world history and human salvation. Thus John never uses her name in his Gospel (Morris 177, Brown 98).

We have seen already her vital role in her Son’s first miracle. Mary was apparently the first to recognize the problem at hand, or at least the first to do something about it. She came to the right Person, in the right way. Now she responded to her prayer with the right action: “His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Mary had authority to order the servants, but none to order her Son. And she knew it.

So should we. Hers is exactly the right kind of faith: do whatever Jesus says. For he will always give us something to do. Our Lord has created a kind of divine-human partnership with his creation. As we work, he works. Our partnership began at the beginning: God created the Garden of Eden, but expected man to till and work it. If our Creator made the fields, he could certainly have made them produce. But he did what only he could do, and called mankind to do what we could do.

See this partnership at the parting of the Red Sea: Moses raised his rod, and God raised the waters. Find it at the crossing of the Jordan River: the priests stepped into the raging flood, and God stopped its flow. Watch it with the feeding of 5,000: a boy gave his lunch, and Jesus made lunch for them all. At the raising of Lazarus: the servants removed the stone, and Jesus removed the chains of death. Then he instructed Mary and Martha to unwrap the corpse he had returned to life.

When we act in faith first, our Father responds in power. Our faith does not earn his power—it positions us to receive what God already wants to give. But no one can put a gift into a clenched fist, not even the Almighty Lord of the universe. We must trust him enough to be willing to receive the grace he wants to give. Such faith does not earn but receive the miracle of God.

So it is here: Jesus will turn their water to wine, but they must fill the jars first. “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons” (John 2:6). “Ceremonial washing” was vitally important to the Jews of Jesus’ day (see 2 Kings 3:11; Mark 7:3; John 13:4-10; John 3:25). It was the physical means by which they ensured that they were spiritually clean while living in this fallen world.

Before eating or entering into religious activity, they would wash their hands as carefully as any surgeon today: the hand was held upright, the water poured over it so that it ran down to the wrist. Then the hand was pointed down and water poured so that it ran from the wrist to the fingertips. Each hand was washed in this way, then each palm cleansed by rubbing it with the fist of the other hand (Barclay 98-9). No Jew would think of eating without this ritual; thus the water-pots at the wedding feast.

The pots themselves were made of stone, which was used because it could not contract “uncleanness” (Rienecker 222). The Law specified that if an unclean animal died and fell into a clay pot, the pot must be broken (Leviticus 11:29-39). But stone jars were considered immune from such possibility (Brown 100, citing Mishnah Betsah 2.3). Such water-pots are still used in Israel today, and are a common sight to tourists.

The water-pots each held two or three “measures,” an amount approximating nine gallons (Howard 492; Josephus, Antiq. 8.2.9). Each pot thus contained about 20 gallons. By transforming this much water, Jesus created 2,000 four-ounce glasses of wine (Tenney 42). Using the customary dilution of two parts wine with three parts water (Barclay 97), Jesus provided enough wine to last the entire wedding week.

How did he do it? “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” (John 2:7-9a). When they worked, he worked. They did what they could do, and he did what only he could do.

To experience the touch and power of God, first we invite him to join us at the place of our need. Next, we give that need to him in simple faith. Now we listen for his instructions. He will guide us into the next step we are to take. He will lead us as we study his word, worship him, pray to him, and experience daily life. He will show us what we are to do, so that he can then do what only he can do.

His instructions may make no sense to us at the time. Providing wine for a wedding feast by filling ceremonial pots with water would not have been logical for anyone watching these servants or their Master. Faith is required to experience the power of God. Will you trust your greatest need to Jesus, and allow him to ask anything of you in obedience? Until we come to that place, we may not see his power. When we do, we will.

Expect the best

The servants took their water made into wine to the “master of the banquet,” the superintendent whose duty it was to arrange the tables and food (Rienecker 222); we might call him the head waiter (Barclay 99). His official title was “triclinarch,” so named from the “triclina,” couches for three persons each which were placed around low tables for the guests to use (Lenski 195-6). This position is found only here in all the New Testament (Morris 183), but it is crucial to the miracle.

This wine taster “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 the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now'” (John 2:9b-10). And both men were astonished.

Now we are in position to assemble the facts which prove our story a miracle:

Jesus used ordinary pots of water which were in clear view of all. He or his disciples could not have exchanged the water for wine before this miracle, as would have been possible if the pots were in a closed and hidden room.

The pots were large and six in number, so that they could not have been brought to the wedding by the disciples without the notice of the crowd.

The pots were filled to the brim with water, so that no wine could have been added later.

Jesus never touched the water turned into wine, but only the servants.

The servants took this water directly to the master of the feast, not to an intermediary who could have switched it for wine.

The master of the feast, the resident expert on wine, pronounced it excellent.

Neither he nor the groom were drunk, and thus would know the quality of the wine.

Jesus did what his mother asked, and even more. She would have been happy with enough wine of normal quality to continue the wedding feast. He gave the wedding party enough wine for the entire week, and of excellent quality as well. When we give our need to Jesus, we must expect him to give us his very best, always.

What is that place of need in your life today? Know that God knows your hurt, and is working to help. Do as he asks, then expect him to do what only he can. According to his purpose, in his time, and for his glory, he will.

A side note

I cannot conclude these notes without stating that Jesus’ miracle should not be construed as condoning alcohol abuse or alcoholism. In his day water, wine, and a kind of beer were the only beverages available. Wine, with its fermentation, was typically the healthiest drink. It was commonly diluted, as we have seen, so that alcoholism occurred very seldom. And drunkenness was strongly condemned by the culture of the day: “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). The Bible warned: “Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper” (Proverbs 23:31-32).

Alcohol abuse in the first century could not lead to drug abuse, or to the death of innocents. Drunk driving was of course impossible. Alcoholism was far less common, and much less disastrous for society at large. Teenage drinking was not allowed. And so Jesus’ creation of wine is in no way parallel to the alcohol industry or alcohol use in our day.

Believe in the power of God

Here is how John summarized Jesus’ first miracle: “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (John 2:11). We have witnessed “the inaugural event of Jesus’ ministry” (O’Day 536).

This was a “sign,” an act or miracle “designed to lead to belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God” (Rienecker 222). Each time John shows us such a “sign,” he also describes the spiritual results it produced (cf. 2:18, 2:23, 3:2, 6:2, 7:31-32, 12:37-38). This statement summarizes: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31).

Here his first “sign” helped his disciples “put their faith in him.” He came to Cana of Galilee “to bring about conversion: water to wine, sinners to saints” (Tenney 43). With this result: “This particular miracle signifies that there is a transforming power associated with Jesus. He changes the water of Judaism into the wine of Christianity, the water of Christlessness into the wine of the richness and the fullness of eternal life in Christ, the water of the law into the wine of the gospel” (Morris 176).

One day he will do the same miracle for us all, for “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son” (Matthew 22:1; cf. 25:1, Luke 12:36-37). The Old Testament consistently pictured the final kingdom of God as a banquet with abundant wine (Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 31:12). (Interestingly, the non-biblical book of 2 Baruch, written almost at the same time as John’s Gospel, predicted that God’s final kingdom would produce such grape vines that each grape would make 120 gallons of water, the exact amount Jesus produced in our miracle; cf. Boring 249-50; Brown 105, quoting Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. v 33.3-4).

One day God will turn all water into spiritual joy: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. / I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21.1-2, emphasis added). On that day we will drink from that cup which is “the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20; cf. v. 17). On that day we will receive the Lord’s Supper from the Lord himself, as the bride of our Groom. And that day will be joy indeed.

Meanwhile, we can trust God to turn our water into the “wine” we need, whenever we need it. Jesus “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). What he did for the peasant wedding at Cana of Galilee, he waits to do for you and for me.

When next you have trouble believing that it is so, remember the words of St. Augustine: “I never have any difficulty believing in miracles, since I experienced the miracle of a change in my own heart.” If he could turn your sinful heart into his Spirit’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16) and save your soul from hell for heaven, what can’t he do?

Our Father created the entire universe. Imagine yourself on a rocket ship, preparing to travel across this spectrum of existence. Thanks to a remarkable technological breakthrough, you’ll travel at the speed of light, 186,282 miles per second. You blast off. One second later, the earth drops away to the size of a balloon. In two seconds you shoot past the moon. Eight and one-half minutes later, you pass the sun. Earth is a tiny speck, 93 million miles behind you.

Five hours later you leave our solar system. For four years you travel at the speed of light, until you reach Alpha Centauri, the star nearest to Earth. You continue for 100,000 years until you leave the Milky Way, our galaxy. How far must you travel at the speed of light to reach the edge of the universe we cannot see today with our telescopes? 4,500,000,000 years. And who knows what lies beyond?

Yet our God measures all this with the palm of his hand (Isaiah 40:12). Now, what’s your problem?