Sunday, 3 April 2011

The 'seventh wine jar' in John's Gospel

The scene from John 2, where Jesus turns water into wine, is familiar to many Bible-readers, and has been trawled over many times for the inherent symbolism of every word and action.
Usually, and not inappropriately, the comment of the steward of the feast is treated as a kind of ‘punch line’: “you have saved the best til now.” And clearly there is something in the other features of the narrative — the fact that the wine came from water jars ‘of the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing’, for example, or even the number six.
Yet there is one feature of the account which has always struck me as slightly awkward — as not being resolved by the usual interpretations — and that is Jesus’ comment to Mary right at the outset: “Why do you involved me — my time has not yet come?”
This seems particularly awkward when we consider the very last line in the narrative secion: “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (2:11). Was this a premature revelation? Was Jesus’ hand in some way forced? The narrative seems to suggest both a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to these questions.
In John’s gospel, however, the notion of Jesus’ time which ‘comes’ is a running theme. In John 7:6, for example, he does not go up to the temple because his time has not come. In 7:30 his opponents cannot seize him because his time has not come. The same is true in 8:20. But then in 12:23 we read, “Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come ...’”
And from then on everything revolves around this ‘hour’ or ‘time’, as exemplified in the ‘High Priestly Prayer’: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.”
The time that had not come at Cana, comes at last.
And so we proceed to the arrest, trial and crucifixion, where in John 19:28-30, after all is said and done, we read this:
Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (NIV)
The first striking thing about this is the way John presents it as Jesus’ last action. But it is more than just a moment of thirst and a desire for it to be slaked. We read, “so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said ...”
Jesus, and John, are making a point here. Of course, one point is that all this is the fulfilment of Scripture, and so here, as with the casting of lots earlier, there is a relevant Psalm: “They ... gave me vinegar for my thirst” (Ps 69:21), though in this case John does not quote the reference.
But is that all?
We are told throughout John’s gospel that his ‘hour’ when it ‘comes’ will reveal his ‘glory’ and ‘glorify’ the Father. And at Cana in Galilee, though the hour had not come, Jesus filled six stones jars — the kind the Jews used for cleansing rituals — with wine, revealing his glory.
Now, on the cross, the hour has come, the glory of the Son is being revealed and the Father is being glorified. And as a last action, Jesus requests and receives wine from a nearby ‘vessel’ (Gk skeuos).
Are we reading too much into this to see a link between this moment and the first revelation of his glory in Cana? Perhaps, except for something John records Jesus saying in the garden at his arrest:
Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (Jn 18:11)
The answer, of course, is that he will drink the cup, which is surely meant to be understood as the cup of God’s wrath (Isa 15:16-22).
And that being the case, do we not also have an implicit lesson here in this deliberate act on Jesus’ part? Instead of the six stone jars of water for ritual cleansing, filled with ‘the best wine’ served at a wedding banquet to gladden further the hearts of already-merry guests, we have sour wine from a simple vessel, given to the one who is drinking ‘the cup the Father has given’ him.
Yet surely, here, the words of the steward at the wedding banquet finally come true: “You have saved the best wine until last.”
His hour has come. Jesus drinks from the seventh jar and,
When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (Jn 19:30)

(Thanks are due to my Thursday Bible-study group where we discussed all this.)

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  1. And many would say (although I've never discovered on what authority) that seven is the number of completion...

    Definitely something worth thinking about, and perhaps a great example of how much trouble John took to make his written account as satisfying as possible on as many levels as possible. Thank you and your class.

  2. Philip, just a couple of suggestions:

    "And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made" (Genesis 2:2)

    "in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished" (Revelation 10:7)

    Dan Baynes
    Barton Seagrave

  3. How should we interpret Matt 26.29 and 27.48 together?

    Mark B.

  4. Mark B, that came up in the Bible study, and we have to remember that the 'words from the cross' are an amalgamation from all four gospels - none of which records all of them, though as with the resurrection, there is general agreement as to the 'big picture'. (So only Mark records the refusing of the wine mixed with myrrh.)

    I suggest that either (a) the drinking to which Jesus referred is the banquet of the kingdom, and therefore looks for to the Lord's Supper in the short term and the parousia in the long (in which case the incidents in the crucifixion simply are not in view as that type of 'drinking') or (b) the cross is the coming into the kingdom, highlighted by John's scriptural reference.

    Best I can do - let others comment.

  5. Another question, tangential, but has been niggling at me for a while: the 'cup of wrath' is it to be understood as an immediate and direct wrath from God or a mediated wrath through men?

    I ask because in the OT God's wrath on Israel is mediated through the (gentile) nations and here the same (gentile) nations attack the true Israel?

    It's not a view I am attracted to but one I find somewhat compelling. Any help would be appreciated.