In first-century villages around Palestine, weddings were significant events. Often they were the most significant local celebrations people experienced all year. They were so important that they became the go-to symbol of joy and community. And when Jesus needed a metaphor to explain elements of the kingdom of God, He would often invoke wedding celebrations.
The wedding at Cana is the location for Jesus’ first miracle—and it’s only appropriate that it would be. John wants his readers to associate Jesus’ inaugural miracle at this wedding banquet with a celebration of the revealed Messiah.
So let’s look deeper at this story by examining some of the traditions around first-century weddings and what John hoped his readers would take away from this story.
The Wedding at Cana
The first chapter of John’s Gospel begins with a theological examination of Jesus as God’s Word (logos), John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus and the Lord’s baptism, and the disciples that begin to follow Him.
After establishing Jesus’ arrival as an adult in Judea with some broad flourishes, John tells us this story:
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. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
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.”
What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days (John 2:1–12, New International Version*).
Understanding Cana’s wedding crisis
To really grasp what’s happening in this story, it’s helpful to get some background into first-century Jewish weddings. These weren’t small affairs with a carefully tailored guest list. Instead, they were essential community events.
Families would often arrange for a match when children were quite young. At some point in their early teens, the couple would enter into a year-long betrothal period. During this year, they lived separately while the groom built and prepared a home under his father’s supervision.
It’s easy to think of this as the equivalent of an engagement. And there are some similarities. The two are personally committed to one another in this process, but they’re also legally committed to one another. This is why Matthew tells us that when Joseph found out about Mary’s pregnancy, he planned to divorce her quietly to save her from humiliation (Matthew 1:18–19).
The whole village is invested in this betrothal and excited about the upcoming ceremony. Lavish celebrations were planned that could last for an entire week that would be kicked off when the groom’s party would make a nighttime procession through town to collect the bride and her party and lead her back to his home. (It’s this tradition that Jesus addresses in the Parable of the Ten Virgins.)
This was a joyous party that the town had looked forward to for a year, and the fact that this family ran out of wine for this celebration is critical. It’s not simply embarrassing; it’s a breach of custom. The inability of the family to honor the guests with wine for the duration of this celebration would bring shame on the couple and their family—shame that would follow them for years.
“Woman, why do you involve me?”
English-speaking readers often question the way Jesus addresses Mary. She comes to Jesus to let Him know that the family has run out of wine, and His response is, “Woman, why do you involve me?” This comes across to Western readers as a bit sharp and dismissive. The Greek word γύναι doesn’t translate well to English. It’s a gendered word that denotes respect, and John has Jesus using it often:
- With the Samaritan woman
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (John 4:21).
- With the woman caught in adultery
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you” (John 8:10).
- With Mary at the cross
When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son” (John 19:26).
- Mary Magdalene at the tomb
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for” (John 20:15a)?
Jesus’ response indicates a hesitance to get publicly involved at this moment. Still, He must indicate some agreement to His mother because she immediately instructs the servants to heed Jesus’ words and do what He tells them.
Six stone water jars for ceremonial washing
The details that John offers next hint at the meaning he wants readers to take away from this event. Stone jars were used to hold water for ceremonial cleansing because they were nonporous and less likely to lead to ritual contamination. They could hold water safely for more extended periods, unlike clay pots and jars, which would typically be used for holding liquids for short periods—as serving vessels.
In a very real way, these six stone pots represent what the law had become. We can see this in a passage from Mark’s Gospel:
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:1–8).
Over time, the laws intended to keep priests purified when approaching the altar or the tabernacle (Exodus 30:17–21) had been elaborated upon and universally applied. Now you couldn’t be a Jew in good standing unless you purified yourself after being in public or purified your serving items.
The miracle Jesus was about to perform would draw from these stone pots associated with human tradition and religious ritualism.
You saved the best wine until now
Jesus has the servants fill the stone pots with water, which is drawn and taken to the master of the banquet. When the master tastes it, he’s overjoyed. Then, he makes the obvious statement that usually celebrations like this start with the best wine, and as people are distracted and enjoying themselves, they start dipping into the cheaper, lower-quality wine. “But you,” the banquet master says, “have saved the best wine until now.”
It’s critical to recognize that John writes his gospel with the benefit of retrospection. And when he looks back on these events, he sees their importance in the light of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. He recognizes how they fit into the bigger context.
Jesus’ entire ministry is summed up in the banquet master’s words. The Law had been given to Moses, and it was important, beautiful and meaningful. But the best wine had been saved until this moment. God’s plan to redeem and reconcile His creation was about to be revealed.
The first of Jesus’ signs
It’s worth noting that, unlike the other Gospel writers, John tends to avoid using the Greek term δύναμιν, which is typically translated as “works” or “miracles.” Instead, he leans on the word σημεῖον, which English translators usually render as “sign” (for example, see John 2:18, 3:2, 4:48, 6:14, 12:37, 20:30).
These weren’t simply miracles that generated awe and wonder in witnesses; they were revelations of Jesus’ true nature and origin. They revealed something that was previously hidden from view. In this story, John informs us that this was the first of Jesus’ signs that revealed His glory.
And John ties this revelatory sign to belief, pointing out that the disciples saw this miracle and put their faith in Jesus. If you’re interested in learning more about Jesus’ signs, check out the article “The Miracles of Jesus.”
Watch Life of Jesus (Gospel of John)
The Messiah didn’t come into the world to eradicate the Law, but to fulfill it. Or, as the writer of Hebrews says it, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (Hebrews 10:1a).
If you want to learn more about the goodness that Jesus brought into the world, the redemption that He brought through His sacrifice, and the life that can be ours because He conquered death, watch Life of Jesus (Gospel of John).
This adaptation of John’s Gospel is about three hours long and will help you understand Jesus better. Watch it alone or gather family and friends to make a night of it. It’s also available in 23 languages, so share it with those you know who may be unfamiliar with the gospel story and might appreciate experiencing it in their own heart language.
*All Scripture taken from the New International Version