EXPLORING THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]
St. Peter’s Anglican Church
A Wedding, As Sign and Glory
1. In John 1:43-51, Nathanael is amazed at Jesus’ knowledge of him: knowledge that he interprets to be supernatural (1:49). Jesus tells him, “You will see greater things than these” (1:50) [and it appears that what happens here is intended.]
2. The time reference in 2:1 (“On the third day”) is a bit vague -–third day counting from when? This could be a reference to Exodus 19:11, where God comes down on Mt. Sinai on “the third day” and reveals his glory. In this Gospel, Jesus’ actions are often presented as being parallel to significant Old Testament events. In light of 2:11, the connection with Exodus 19:11 seems to fit since, in Exodus 19, God reveals himself for the first time to his liberated people and, in 2.11, Jesus performs his first sign for his disciples.
3. The context of this first sign is important – a wedding. The opportunity for the sign comes at a moment of crisis: the wedding guests have exhausted the supply of wine. Weddings were not simply private affairs but often involved an entire village and could last for several days. Running out of wine would have exposed the groom to a loss of honor and this was a very serious matter, in a culture bound together by reciprocal obligations. What for us might be a failure of planning would be, for this culture, a shaming of the guests, bringing dishonor upon the host. This is no mere faux pax.
4. The text does not tell us why Jesus’ mother (this Gospel does not mention her name) brings this to the attention of Jesus. Does she have some responsibility at the wedding or does she believe that he is capable of resolving the crisis? Her instructions to the servants in 2:5 are open to either — or both — possibilities. Certainly, her command shows her to be a model of belief – she trustfully places everything under her Son’s authority.
5. We are surprised at Jesus’ brusque response to Mary in 2:4. It is not disrespectful but it is distancing and the phrase, “My hour has not yet come” explains the distance. In this Gospel, Jesus’ “hour” is his glorification, which takes place in his Crucifixion and Resurrection (7:30; 8:20; 12:27-28; 13:1; 16:32; 17:1). The point is that the heavenly Father dictates Jesus’ actions — not human requests (not even the request of his mother). As in the case of Lazarus’ illness and death in John 11, Jesus responds to situations but he responds in his own terms. Mary’s instructions to the servants seem to indicate that she does not expect to control her Son.
6. Jesus says, in 2:4, that his “hour” has not yet come — yet in 2:7, he takes action to solve the wine dilemma. Has something changed? Has Jesus’ “hour” now come? We should probably see Jesus’ actions, not as a delayed response to Mary’s request, but as a proleptic manifestation of his “hour”– here, the “hour” is prefigured.
7. The number and purpose of the water jars in 2:6 is significant: Six is a number indicating insufficiency or incompleteness (thus, in Genesis 1, Creation takes place over seven days). The jars hold water for the various rites of purification. The fact that these jars are filled with water and then transformed into wine clearly carries with it both the notion of abundance and the notion of the transformation of the old. Jesus will bring in abundance what the Jewish rites of purification now only hint at. In the Old Testament, the abundance of wine (always associated with God’s goodness and generosity in Judaism) is associated with the Messianic time (Amos 9:13-14; Isaiah 25:6; Jeremiah 31:12: Joel 3:18). This is a sign in advance of what Jesus “hour” will bring about, the abundant cleansing and restoration, which is the time of the Messiah, the pouring out of God’s generous gifts. The theme of Jesus replacing various Jewish institutions and feasts is a significant one in this Gospel. In 2:13-22, for example, we see how Jesus fulfills and replaces the Temple. For John, Jesus gathers together all the various threads of Judaism into a unity and brings them to their fulfillment.
8. One can read, on several levels, the response of the steward of the feast, to the miraculous wine in 2:10 (as one can read a great deal of this Gospel on several levels). At one level, the text makes clear that Jesus had not only saved the bridegroom’s honor but has actually enhanced it. The best wine is served at this wedding at a time when – how shall we say it? – the faculties of the guests are impaired. What generosity! The best has come last! On another level, this underscores the sequence of salvation: The best has not come first (Moses) but has been saved for the end (Jesus). Much of the Gospel of John is devoted to getting this sequence right.
9. The context of this sign is rich with symbolism -– a wedding. The wedding is a favored image, describing Israel’s eschatological fulfillment. One day, God will rejoice over Israel, as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (Isaiah 62:4-5). Jesus also uses the image of a wedding feast to depict the coming of the Messiah in Matthew 8:11, Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 22:16-18. Note the same imagery in Revelation 19, where we find the wedding feast of the Lamb.
10. This was the first of Jesus’ signs. This is this Gospel’s technical term for Jesus’ deeds. Not coincidently, the Gospel uses the same Greek word as the Septuagint uses in Exodus 4:8, to designate the three actions that God authorizes Moses to perform, to convince Israel of his role. The purpose of these signs is authorize or confirm belief in Moses’ vocation.
11. Jesus will perform six other signs in this gospel (making a perfect series of seven). But these signs do not compel belief on the part of those who witness them. This becomes clear in John 11, after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. In John 11:45-53, some of the witnesses of this sign inform the authorities in Jerusalem. Neither the witnesses nor the authorities appear to doubt what Jesus has done — but this only has the effect of moving them to plot Jesus’ death. Signs apparently have three possible effects, all of which John portrays: Signs can deepen belief (as they do here), they can be met with indifference or unbelief (as in 7:1-5), or they can arouse opposition.
12. Two texts from Luke provide some illumination to this passage. In Luke 5:34, when asked why John’s disciples fast but his do not, Jesus says, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” The bridegroom at the eschatological wedding is the Messiah and can one be expected to fast, when God’s salvation is being realized, in one’s presence? In Luke 5:36-39, Jesus tells a parable about how new wine cannot be poured into old wine skins. While some will not recognize it (5:39), the new wine surpasses the old -– the best has been kept until the last.
13. The meaning of this incident is not hidden but is rather made explicit in 2:11: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory.” The glory of Jesus is the glory of the Incarnate Word (1:14), a glory now glimpsed by the abundant replacement of water for purification by eschatological wine. In a real sense, Jesus not only fulfills Old Testament expectations but also surpasses them.
“The Temple of His Body”
1. “The Passover of the Jews” (2:13) is [intended] not as a snipe at “the Jews” but has the function of distancing the reader of the Gospel from Passover, a feast that this Gospel understands Jesus to have fulfilled (see 19:31-37).
2. This event is recorded in all four gospels (Mark 11:15-17; Matthew 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-46). John is unique in placing this event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than at the end, and his account is more detailed than those of the other three gospels.
3. One of our most significant decisions, with regard to this passage, is that of determining [toward] what Jesus’ actions in the Temple are aimed. The presence of animals and birds in the Temple precincts was necessary, in order to fulfill the sacrifices appointed in Leviticus 1-8. The presence of the money-changers was, likewise, necessary, in that the Temple precincts did not allow Roman coinage, which bore the image of the emperor, since the Jews understood it to violate the prohibition [against] making idols. The money changers were a necessary presence, if Jews were to be able to buy sacrificial animals and to pay the Temple tax levied on all adult male Jews. In light of these facts, it is difficult to see Jesus’ actions as aiming at a “cleansing of the Temple” from “commercial abuse.”
4. Jesus’ actions in the Temple appear to be “sign act,” a symbolic action familiar to the Old Testament prophets. An example is Jeremiah 19 where, in order to announce God’s coming judgment on Israel, Jeremiah takes an earthenware jar and smashes it in public. The smashing of the jar is a sign act, which promises what it enacts. By interrupting the sale of sacrificial animals, Jesus is symbolically bringing the Temple’s existence to a halt and announcing its coming destruction/replacement.
5. What Jesus says in 2:16 echoes Zechariah 14:21: “And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” In Zechariah 14, what is announced is a new order in which “the Lord will be king over all the earth” (14:9) and even Gentiles will go up to Jerusalem “to worship the King, the Lord of hosts” (14:17). In this radically transformed situation, “every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the Lord of hosts” (14:21). The traders in the Temple will no longer be necessary — because God’s presence in Jerusalem will be such as to render everything holy and so inaugurate a new pattern of worship. As becomes clear, Jesus’ Death and Resurrection establishes this new order of worship.
6. 2:17 informs us that the disciples “remembered” this connection [to] Psalm 69:9. The remembering here, as 2:22 makes clear, occurs after Jesus’ Resurrection. This is to say that the Resurrection renders the memory of the disciples into a coherent whole: in the light of the resurrection, their memory of Jesus’ actions took on a new significance. Psalm 69:9 (which John converts from the past to the future tense) identifies Jesus, not merely as one who detested the Temple and its sacrifices, but as one who saw their replacement/fulfillment by a new temple and a new sacrifice. It is zeal for God’s real temple that will cause his death.
7. In 2:18, “the Jews” (which refers to the chief priests who have charge of the Temple) demand a sign, which will show that Jesus is authorized to do what he has done. 2:20 indicates that “the Jews” understand Jesus to be making a literal claim about the Temple as a building. This is part of a pattern, in which someone understands Jesus in a literal/worldly way and so misunderstands his meaning completely (see 3:1-15). Jesus is not talking about the Temple as a building but rather a temple of an entirely different order: the Temple of his Crucified and Risen Body. The presence of God will no longer be found in the Temple for, as Zechariah 14 clearly sees, this presence will come in a new way. The notion of Jesus’ Crucified and Risen Body as the Temple of God has a deep impact on New Testament writings (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:20-22; 1 Peter 2:4-5).
8. We see an indication of what this theology looks like as Hebrews 8-9 develops it. Here, Jesus recapitulates, fulfills, and transcends the core of Judaism as Temple, sacrifice, and priesthood. The point to grasp, about both John and Hebrews, is that we can understand Jesus only within the matrix of the Old Testament narrative. John and Hebrews understand that Jesus transcends the core of Judaism [Temple, sacrifice, and priesthood] not because they are Jewish but, rather, Jesus transcends them God intended them to have a provisional value (note especially Hebrews 9:23-28).
9. To say that Christ’s Risen Body replaces the Temple is to say several things: Just as Israel understood the Temple to be the locus of God’s presence in the world (not in the sense that God was confined to it but that, by covenant, God caused his Name to dwell there), so now the body of the risen Christ becomes the locus of God’s presence. This is why there is no ‘promised land’ in the new covenant: God’s temple is now co-extensive with creation (note Revelation 21:22-27). This notion of Christ as the new Temple also serves as the foundation of Christian holiness. If the Christian life is life “in Christ,” this means that we live all of life within the Temple and that there is no sacred/secular distinction (note Romans 12:1-2). Thinking along these lines causes a radical re-thinking of the significance of human life, as becomes clear in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.