John 2 – The fire of God spreading

Erkki Koskenniemi
Olli Huhtinen

The Wedding at Cana 2:1-12

The first miracle story told by John is not found in the other Gospels. The story takes place in the city of Galilee, the location of which is unknown to us. The events unfold during a Middle-Eastern wedding which included a solid meal. The wine runs out, but Jesus salvages the young couple’s wedding by changing 600 liters of water into exceptional wine. John describes that the disciples had seen Jesus’ glory and believed in him.

What does the story teach us? In the Old Testament wine had a symbolic meaning. Part of the wonderful salvation granted to us by God involves abundance and feast (Genesis 49:8-12). When Jesus rescues the wedding feast, John probably points towards this: there is now a mighty savior amongst God’s people.

Another point – often undiscussed – is Jesus’s attitude towards the young couple and their wedding celebration. Even though he called several other people to leave everything behind and to follow Him, he does not by any means disdain family. Quite the opposite, a normal family life receives His blessing.

We should also discuss the Bible’s outlook on wine. Drunkenness is a grave sin, but the Bible does not demand absolutism. Absolutism, much like other types of discipline, is a good and a recommended lifestyle, but it should not be demanded from anyone. The gate posts of the narrow path have been set in this fashion – everyone in their conscience weighs which side of the path they are walking. It is wrong and pernicious to act against one’s conscience.

An additional remark: John and the synoptics

At times the Gospel of John is difficult to fit together with the other three Gospels. This comes out for example in the following story: the three first evangelists tell about Jesus’ work in Galilee, his journey towards Jerusalem, and his death and resurrection. In their descriptions, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple is situated in the last days of Jesus’ life. John provides a different timeline. Jesus visits Jerusalem many times, and also during the Passover, thus working publicly for numerous years. The cleansing of the temple is placed at the early stages of Jesus’ public life by John.

Scholars differ in their opinions on whether John is historically more trustworthy than the synoptics. It is possible that Jesus taught his smaller group of disciples for a longer time than others and only later stepped into public. On the other hand, John may have purposely placed the event to the early stages of Jesus’ public work. In that case nobody could mistake Jesus for a political leader.

We have to be satisfied with the larger picture without dwelling too deeply into the details, however interesting they may be. Only an attentive reader of the Bible notices the difference between John and the synoptics. All four evangelists describe the cleansing of the temple as well as Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. The Gospels are not biographies, even though they have recorded a lot of historically accurate information. They have been written so that we may believe in Christ. The testimonial of the four evangelists, despite their tensions, is a richer and a more abundant description than one written by a single author.

Jesus cleanses the temple 2:13-25

In the ancient times as well as today, the group of people swarming around the temples established a suitable market. The beggars took an area of their own. The Jews only had a single temple where they could sacrifice to God. Those who came to sacrifice needed accommodation and food as well as lot of sacrificial animals, abundantly on offer. The temple tax could only be paid by a specific Jewish currency, hence the exchange system had a marketing whirl of its own. The dug up graves of the high priests indicate that the priestly nobility, who provided all these services, had a considerably rich lifestyle. It is no wonder that the actual purpose of the temple might have been forgotten.

The cleansing of the temple was a radical act, and the events are described by John and the synoptics fairly consistently. Jesus drove away all of the market people from the temple, because they had made the holy place into a trading emporium. The Jews who knew the Old Testament had in their minds the word of prophet Malachi:

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years”
(Mal. 3:1-4).

Another important Old Testament scripture is found in psalm 69:10, which the disciples only later realized to be a prophecy about Jesus.

Jesus’ response to the Jews, in a typical fashion to the fourth Gospel, is deliberately enigmatic. Each listener imagined that he was talking about a magnificent temple building, but in reality he was talking about his own body. In this way Christ’s death and resurrection come to view already at this stage of the Gospel. We observe a similarity with Mark’s messianic mystery: Christ describes his sovereignty openly, but the people do not understand his words.

The time of the events recorded by John – 46 years after the beginning of the building of the temple – is surprisingly detailed and with its aid we may discern the year of the Passover. The building of the temple begun in 20/19 BC. If the information is accurate, the year would be 29 or 30.

In the last verses of the chapter we are again faced with the question of the purpose of the miracles. Jesus does miracles, which lead people to believe in him. In this way the miracles in John’s Gospel have an important significance. Yet at the same time, the evangelist adds Jesus’ own assessment which places human faith in its proper place: Jesus did not confide to people, because he knew human faith to be weak.