Jesus—His Life and Message: Wedding and Wine

April 21, 2015

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

Having told us about Jesus’ first followers, the Gospel of John goes on to describe how Jesus attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Cana, a town about fourteen kilometers north of Nazareth,1 was the hometown of Nathanael (one of the first disciples of Jesus).2

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples.3

The custom of the day was for wedding celebrations to ideally last seven days, and many friends of the bride and groom remained for the full period. Well in advance of the wedding celebration, the couple would have been betrothed—a legally binding commitment that could only be broken through actual divorce proceedings. The wedding day was the day the groom took the bride to his home or his parents’ home. On the evening of the first day, the bridal party gathered at her father’s house and the bridegroom’s party at his. Under the direction of the “friend of the bridegroom”4 or best man,5 the groom and his friends fetched his betrothed from her father’s house and proceeded to his or his parents’ house, where the wedding feast was held. That night the bride retired to her own room. The next day was a celebration, and at the end of the day, a festive meal was eaten. On that night, the couple consummated their marriage in the bridal chamber.6

Jewish writings spoke of the importance of wine at festive occasions, including Sabbath meals and weddings. People in the ancient Mediterranean would always mix water with the wine served with meals, often two to four parts water per every part wine.7 Wedding guests often drank late into the night, and having sufficient wine on hand over a seven-day period was important. To run out of wine would have been a social stigma, something people would have gossiped about for years to come.8 Yet that is exactly what happened at the wedding Jesus attended.

When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, They have no wine.9

Some commentators write that Mary’s words can be seen as an accusation, that because Jesus brought His disciples with Him, they were the cause of the wine running out. While this suggestion is textually considered possible, it’s not certain. It could just as well have been that the groom was poor and provided what wine he could, hoping it would be sufficient. Either way, it was socially unacceptable to not fully discharge the duties of hospitality by supplying sufficient food and drink for the festivities.

Upon hearing His mother’s statement, Jesus said to her:

Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.10

This could be seen as a mild rebuff, similar to the rebuff He gave to the official whose son was at the point of death. In that case, Jesus said: Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.11 He went on to heal the child. Likewise, Jesus’ response to His mother was not a refusal to act. Keener writes:

The primary reason for the rebuff must be that his mother does not understand what this sign will cost Jesus; it starts him on the road to his hour, the cross.12 Yancey wrote: A clock would start ticking that would not stop until Calvary.13

Jesus’ referring to His mother as woman was not normal, but was not disrespectful. He addressed women at other times with the same word, and it was always in a respectful manner.14 This usage was probably meant to indicate Jesus putting a little distance between Himself and His mother,15 stating that their relationship was changing as He entered His public ministry. It’s somewhat similar to when He said: For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.16

Jesus saying that “His hour” has not yet come most likely refers to the time of His death, His messianic function, as it does in most of the seventeen times He speaks of His death or of matters in relation to His death.17 Here at the beginning of His ministry, He looks ahead to its consummation.18

After Jesus spoke to Mary, she said to the servants: Do whatever he tells you.19 She showed expectation that Jesus would act, that He would do something to help remedy the situation. Telling the servants to do whatever her son instructed them indicated that she recognized that Jesus might answer her request in an unexpected way. Mary acted in faith, and in doing so modeled the proper act of prayer by presenting the need and trusting God to respond as He wills.20

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, Fill the jars with water. And they filled them up to the brim.21

The purpose of the water jars was for the rites of purification. We can see an example of some of what these rites entail in the Gospel of Mark:

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)22

The jars were large containers used to hold the water needed for the regular cleansing required for individuals to be ritually clean. Both the water and the jars had to be ritually clean. If either became contaminated in some way, it made both the water and the jar ritually unclean. When this happened, if the jar was made of clay, it had to be destroyed. If the jars were stone, it wasn’t necessary to destroy them. They could just be cleaned and used again.23 Generally a home would have one or two such water jars, so on an occasion like this, some of the jars were probably borrowed from others in the village.

As we’ll see throughout the Gospels, Jesus, who normally kept the Jewish law, often gave priority to someone’s needs over the keeping of the law.24 This is one of those occasions. Jesus clearly felt that in this case it was more important to spare the bridegroom the humiliation, and the guests the dissatisfaction, than it was to keep the tradition of purification by water.25

Jesus’ instructions to fill the jars was easier said than done. Six jars each holding 20 or 30 gallons (75–113 liters) of water means 120 to 180 gallons (454–682 liters) of water altogether, weighing 1000–1500 pounds (454–682 kilos). Presumably all the jars weren’t completely empty, but nevertheless, whatever water was needed to completely fill them likely had to be drawn and carried from the village well. The task might have taken a few hours. When the task was completed, the miracle took place, in a manner that drew no attention.

Jesus said to the servants: Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast. So they took it.26 The master of the feast likely would have been the best man or someone close to the bridegroom who would have the responsibility to preside over the entertainment and music, and as a part of his duties, would determine the degree to which the wine would be diluted. This banquet master would have been watching the guests drinking and would know that guests tend to drink more at the beginning of the feast and that their senses would be somewhat dulled as the evening went on, meaning that inferior wine could then be served without the lowering of the quality being noticed.27

When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.28

Unbeknownst to the banquet master, he is verifying the miracle. He has no idea that the wine was drawn from the water jars; he only knows that its quality is better than the wine that’s been served until this point. The servants who drew the water would by this time know that it was a miracle, but there’s no indication that others were aware, with perhaps the exception of Mary. We find out later that the disciples became aware of it.

Jesus’ miracle saved the bridegroom from humiliation, in a big way. In today’s terms, Jesus supplied between 605 and 910 bottles of good wine. Quite the wedding gift! He miraculously and generously supplied when there was a need, as we will see Him do again when He feeds the multitudes.

The Gospel writer ends with:

This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.29

John’s Gospel refers to the acts or miracles Jesus did as “signs.” The Greek word translated as sign is sēmeion (say my on), which in this context means a sign of “miracles and wonders by which God authenticates the men sent by Him, or by which men prove that the cause they are pleading is God’s.” It comes from the root word sēmainō (say mine o), which means to signify, to make known.

Another example of how Jesus’ signs were seen as authentication from God was when Nicodemus said: Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.30 Another example is seen later in John’s gospel: Some of the Pharisees said, This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath. But others said, How can a man who is a sinner do such signs? And there was a division among them.31 Jesus’ signs pointed to the fact that God was working through Him; that the signs came from God and pointed to God and therefore resulted in faith. In this instance, the disciples who were with Him believed in him.

The signs also manifested Jesus’ glory. Earlier in this Gospel we’re told that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.32 John’s account of Jesus’ first sign speaks of manifesting glory, as does the last miracle recorded in his gospel—the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus said to her, Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?33

Earlier, Jesus had told His disciples that He was Jacob’s ladder, the link between God and the world.34 With this first miracle, we get a glimpse of what He meant when He said: Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.35 This is just the beginning.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:19:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:5124:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the Word. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:2716:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

France R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

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Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

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Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1996.

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Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

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Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

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1 There are two ancient towns that scholars have favored as being Cana: Kefar-Kenna, about 6.5 kilometers from Nazareth, and Khirbet-Quanah. Historical evidence tends to support Khirbet-Quanah. Keener, The Gospel of John, 496.

2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together (John 21:2).

3 John 2:1–2.

4 John 3:29.

5 Judges 14:20.

6 D. J. Williams in Green and McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 87.

7 Keener, The Gospel of John, 501.

8 Ibid., 502.

9 John 2:3.

10 John 2:4.

11 John 4:48.

12 Keener, The Gospel of John, 504.

13 Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 168.

14 John 4:21, 20:13–15; Matthew 15:28; Luke 13:12.

15 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 158.

16 Mark 3:34–35.

17 John 2:4; 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20; 12:7, 23, 27; 13:1; 16:2, 21, 25, 32; 17:1.

18 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 160.

19 John 2:5.

20 Milne, The Message of John, 63.

21 John 2:6–7.

22 Mark 7:1–4.

23 Leviticus 11:32.

24 Matthew 12:1–8; Mark 3:1–5; Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6; John 5:1–18; 7:22–24.

25 Keener, The Gospel of John, 513.

26 John 2:8.

27 Keener, The Gospel of John, 514.

28 John 2:9–10.

29 John 2:11.

30 John 3:2.

31 John 9:16.

32 John 1:14.

33 John 11:40.

35 John 1:51.