MythBusters has been a favorite show on the Discovery Channel since 2003.
The weekly documentary features Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, two Hollywood special effects experts, who attempt to debunk urban legends by directly testing them. I wonder if this twenty-first century program was available in the first century if the pair would have targeted the alleged miracles of Jesus of Nazareth for their show?
Down through the years some skeptics have had no place for miracles, and for them any account of a supernatural event must by definition be discarded. The Smithsonian Museum in Washington displays a leather-bound book in which Thomas Jefferson pasted all the passages from the Gospels that contain no miraculous element. This so-called “Jefferson Bible” was the Bible he read every day toward the end of his life, a more palatable gospel of Jesus the teacher but not the miracle worker.1
A recent publication by National Geographic, Inside the Biblical World, reflects this skeptical perspective: “Some scholars distinguish between the healing miracles and the so-called ‘nature miracles,’ suggesting that the latter should be seen in a more allegorical sense. Jesus’ listeners did not draw as sharp a distinction between factual and allegorical narratives as we would.”2 In other words, don’t take these “miracles” too seriously, folks!
Most Christians find this skeptical approach to the supernatural unacceptable, yet there is another mindset—on the opposite end of the spectrum—that is prevalent among many who accept the validity of miracles. Philip Yancey shares from his background:
The atmosphere I grew up in was humid with miracles. Most Sundays people in our church would testify about marvelous answers to prayer they had received the preceding week. God found parking places for mothers who drove their children to the doctor. Lost fountain pens mysteriously reappeared. Tumors shrank away the day before scheduled surgery….
Even the “answers to prayer” confused me. Sometimes, after all, parking places did not open up and fountain pens stayed lost. Sometimes church people lost their jobs. Sometimes they died. A great shadow darkened my own life: my father had died of polio just after my first birthday, despite a round-the-clock prayer vigil involving hundreds of dedicated Christians. Where was God then?
I have spent much of my adult life coming to terms with questions first stirred up during my youth. Prayer, I have found, does not work like a vending machine: insert request, receive answer. Miracles are just that, miracles, not “ordinaries” common to daily experience. My view of Jesus too has changed. As I now reflect on his life, miracles play a less prominent role than what I had imagined as a child. Superman, he was not.3 Let’s begin by defining the term. Webster defines miracle in two ways:
“an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs” and
“an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment”4
We hear the second definition in the world often, such as the “Miracle Mets” who unexpectedly won the 1969 World Series, or the “Miracle on Ice” when the USA hockey team shocked the heavily-favored Soviet squad in the 1980 Winter Olympics. These were unexpected, unlikely, hence, outstanding when they occurred.
It is the first definition, though, that provides insight into the biblical meaning of a miracle. Chuck Swindoll describes a miracle this way: “Sometimes God dramatically defies the laws of nature in order to validate an event as divinely ordered.”5 Throughout Scripture we read of God working miracles: He parts the waters of a sea to make a dry path from one side to the other (Exodus 14:22). He causes a donkey to speak like a human (Numbers 22:28). He causes an axe head to float (2 Kings 6:6). He allows three young men to enter a blazing fire and emerge without singeing a hair (Daniel 3:23-27). These are authentic miracles—dramatic, undeniable acts of God in which He demonstrates indisputable authority over the universe He created and continues to rule. And they usually remedy problems that are “impossible” within the normal framework of life. Miracles remind us—as the angel reminded Mary—”Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).6
As we read through the Gospels, we find that Jesus performed miracles—around three dozen, depending on how you count them—but the Bible seems to downplay them. Often Jesus asked those who had seen a miracle not to tell anyone else. Some miracles, such as the Transfiguration or the raising of a twelve-year-old dead girl, He let only his closest disciples watch, with strict orders to keep things quiet. Though He never denied someone who asked for physical healing, He turned down requests for a demonstration to amaze the crowds and impress important people. Jesus recognized early on that the excitement generated by miracles did not readily convert into life-changing faith.7
Indeed in John 10:37-38 Jesus told the crowds following Him, “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” In John 14:11 He told the disciples in the Upper Room, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” Miracles do not automatically produce faith, as John 15:24 clearly states: “But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father.”
So why did Jesus even perform miracles? Our text today gives us the answer.
A Distressing Incident
The second chapter of John introduces us to a delightful invitation: “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.” The “third day” refers back to the end of chapter one, either the third day from when Jesus decided to go to Galilee (John 1:43) or the third day after His arrival there.8 The Jewish tradition of the time required that virgins be married on a Wednesday, while widows were married on a Thursday.9
Cana was the hometown of Nathanael and possibly of Simon the Zealot (also called “Simon the Canaanite” or “Cananite” by Matthew and Mark).10 Two archaeological sites have been identified as Cana: Kefr Kenna, about four miles northeast of Nazareth; and Khirbet Kana, about nine miles north of Nazareth, agreed by most scholars as the more likely location of ancient Cana.11
John records that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was already there (according to the Greek verb tense) and that Jesus and His disciples had been invited to attend, leading one writer to surmise, “The Lord Jesus must have been an intimate friend of the family.”12 Given Mary’s role in the account, some early traditions claim that she was the sister to the bridegroom’s mother (or the groom’s aunt), perhaps even Salome, the mother of John, who may have been the groom at this wedding!13 Another tradition claims that Simon the Zealot was the bridegroom at that wedding, and his witness to the miracle persuaded him to follow Jesus.14 While these stories are certainly romantic, they are also apocryphal.
This does, however, provide an insight as to the personality of Jesus. In the words of Donald Grey Barnhouse, He “was no recluse nor killjoy.” He goes on to write,
We sometimes think of Him as only “the man of sorrows.” He was that in the light of the incalculable burden He bore as the world’s Redeemer. Yet, our Lord must also have been a popular dinner guest, who loved to mingle with people and enjoy their fellowship. That He was so often invited into homes, that young children seemed to love to be near Him, indicates His pleasant personality. He was no gloomy, morose person. His presence at this wedding at Cana points to His warm, friendly humanity. For, although Jesus Christ was God, He was also man. Here we see Him as Lord of relaxation as well as Lord of work. It is but another example of the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us.15
At any rate, verse three tells how this delightful invitation turned into a distressing incident: during the reception, they ran out of wine. We may not think this is a crisis—just have someone run to the store and buy more, or let the guests drink something else. What’s the big deal?
In those days, a wedding was a great celebration, no little twenty-minute affair. The ceremony itself usually took place late in the evening. Then there was a procession to the home of the groom, a joyous, noisy parade, with an open house and entertainment that went on up to a week.16 One scholar points out that the groom and his family could have been sued by the guests for failing to provide properly for the reception!17 So, yes, this was a big deal!
If, as it seems in the text, Mary was responsible (or at least assisting) in serving the feast, we can understand why she got involved. She found Jesus and told Him, “They have no more wine.”
Jesus’ response to her—“Dear woman, why do you involve me?”—has perplexed Bible scholars and readers for centuries, especially when you consider how it sounds in the original Greek: “Woman, what have I to do with you?” (I’m pretty sure I would have been slapped if I had ever spoken like that to my mother!) Commentators concur that Jesus meant no disrespect in saying, “Woman”—it would be the equivalent today of “My lady” or “Ma’am”—but even that is hardly customary when speaking to one’s mother.18 It is generally agreed that by this term Jesus is reminding Mary that their relationship had changed, now that He was no longer living under her maternal supervision.19
The question, “Why do you involve me?” may lead us to think that Jesus was not intending to intervene in this situation…but then later He changed His mind and did. But I don’t think that is correct. I think Barnhouse got it right when he wrote,
Jesus fully intended to take action, but He wanted it clearly understood by Mary that she was not to assume the role of mediatrix or intercessor with Him. “You are never to presume upon your earthly relationship.” From this moment forward, Mary was to bear in mind her new role as completely subservient to Christ.20
I believe Jesus is asking Mary, “Are you telling Me as your son to act, or are you asking Me as your Lord to act?” We can understand how Mary could have confused the two, given her unique relationship to Jesus, but we must beware that we do not take on the same attitude toward God in prayer. I read this past week of a rough old sailor who said, “Yes, I believe in prayer. But my old mother once heard me praying and told me: ‘Son, don’t bother to give God instructions; just report for duty.’”21
The final phrase of Jesus, “My time has not yet come,” also sounds strange to our ears. This is a common phrase throughout the gospel of John, though, and always refers to the time (or sometimes the “hour”) of Christ’s glory being manifested to the world. In this regard Jesus is telling Mary, “The time is not right to publicly display My glory.” In fact, His response clarified three misconceptions. First, the Messiah’s glory would come at the expense of His death, not as the result of a dazzling show of power. Second, the Messiah’s glory would come from God, not from people. And third, the Messiah’s glory would take place on the Father’s timetable, not anyone else’s.22
How did Mary react to Jesus’ words? She did not fight back or say, “How dare you speak to me that way!” No, according to verse five she said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” She did not take the response of her Son to mean that He would not act, nor did she presume to know what action He would take. But she did believe that He would do something, and she left the course of action in His hands. That’s faith!
A Divine Intervention
Jesus did, in fact, act to solve the problem by means of a divine intervention, as recorded in verses 6-10,
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.”
Swindoll notes, “The fact that Jesus did act by supernatural means tells us that He didn’t object to His mother’s request. Having addressed her misguided motivation, He delighted to help the host family.”23
Jesus noticed six large stone water jars nearby. These were used for ceremonial washings done by conscientious Jews of that day, and the amount of water they held all together—between 120-150 gallons—either indicates how many people were anticipated or how often they washed their hands!24
Given that these water jars were designated to hold water for cleansing, nothing else would have ever been put in them for fear of contamination. Furthermore, Jesus instructs the servants to fill the pots, which they did “to the brim,” allowing for nothing else to be added to them.25 Then He told them to take some to the master of the banquet. Sometime between the filling of the pots and the taking to the master, the water was turned into wine. And not just any wine! The master of the banquet is so impressed that he said to the groom, “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.”
I wonder what the groom thought when he heard that!
Two issues arise from this, the first we alluded to earlier—the challenge by the skeptics. It has been suggested that this miracle is not actual, but that, when the wine ran out, Jesus commanded water to be used. Leslie D. Weatherhead in his book, It Happened in Palestine, imagines the scene: “The wine runs out. Water is served. Why, that’s the best joke of all! They lift their wine-cups, as we do in fun when we shout, ‘Adam’s ale is the best of all.’ The bridegroom is congratulated by the master of ceremonies, who carries the joke farther still. ‘Why you’ve kept the best wine until now.’ It requires only a servant going through the room into the kitchen for a wonderful rumour to start.”26
The problem with such a view is the rest of the passage. In verse nine John states that the water became wine. This is a miracle, not someone putting the best face on an embarassing situation. Furthermore, verse eleven records that this miracle had profound effects on those who had begun to follow Jesus. It is impossible to maintain that “His disciples put their faith in Him,” and that He “thus revealed his glory,” on the basis of nothing more than a good joke.27
The second issue usually arises from the ranks of the saved: “Was the wine Jesus created real wine?” Related queries then arise: “If so, did that encourage drunkenness? Isn’t drinking alcohol a sin?” Based on the original language of the Bible and the specific terms used by John here, there is no doubt that what Jesus created was real, alcoholic wine. (The word rendered “too much to drink” in verse ten means “drunk.” Period.) I like what Dave O’Brien writes on the subject:
I’ve read all the arguments about unfermented grape juice and how fermentation doesn’t take place naturally in the climate of Palestine, and I have to tell you—they’re based more on wishful thinking than on linguistic study or scientific understanding. Jesus turned the water into real wine.
I know this makes some believers nervous. I know it makes some hostile. “How can I counsel alcoholics not to drink if you’re telling them drinking isn’t a sin?” they ask. I wish the Bible did teach that drinking is a sin, but it doesn’t. It contains numerous warnings against the abuse of alcohol, but nowhere does it say it’s a sin. And we are not free to make the Bible say what it doesn’t say just to make our decisions easier. For me there’s a very profound principle at work here: Don’t bend and twist the meaning of the biblical text to avoidan unpleasant conclusion.28 There is plenty of Scripture condemning drunkenness. If you choose to totally abstain from alcohol, you are free to do so, according to Romans 14. But don’t try to twist Scripture into teaching something it doesn’t. Let God’s Word stand on its own!
A Deliberate Intention
What happened that day was truly a miracle—no slight-of-hand, no illusion, but a real divine intervention. We don’t know all the specifics as how it happened, but the more important question is why it happened. Why did Jesus perform this miracle?
John provides the answer in verse eleven: “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 speaks of this as the first of Jesus’ miraculous “signs.” That word is significant. Three different words are used in the New Testament to describe what we call miracles, evidence of the supernatural. Peter used all three on the day of Pentecost when he reminded the Jews of the marvelous ministry of Jesus (Acts 2:22). He was “a man approved of God among you by miracles [dunamis] and wonders [teras] and signs [semeion].” Dunamis means “powers” or “mighty works”; this word is not used in John’s gospel at all. Teras means a “wonder” and is used by John only in John 4:48. Semeion means a “sign” and is used by John seventeen times, though in the King James Version is wrongly translated “miracle” thirteen of those times. Of all the miracles wrought by the Lord Jesus, John records only eight and all of them are signs.29
You see, the miracle stories as recorded in the Bible are always for a deliberate intention and never to show off. There is always a logical reason for them. The miracles of Jesus were performed out of love and compassion to those who were afflicted. They were also meant to be objective signs to the people that He was the promised Messiah, since one of the credentials of the Messiah would be signs and miracles.30
Many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:30-31).
The main purpose for miracles was not only to display divine power interrupting the laws of nature, but to validate the person performing the miracle as divinely sent. In the case of Jesus, His miracles were to demonstrate that He was God the Son come in human form, having power over all creation—natural laws and demonic powers.
One final application for us today comes from Swindoll:
Jesus came to earth so that sin will not have the last word in the cosmic conflict between good and evil. God became one of us, and now we have an advocate. We now have hope to carry us through and beyond our afflictions. That hope can transform our mindset. Because of Jesus, we can view life as a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.31 We can trust God to do what only He can do. Will you?