Faith, Religion & Scripture, Notes & Essays by David Rodeback

Reading the New Testament (Week 6)

Carl Bloch - Jesus Turning Water to Wine

This week’s reading is John 2-4. Jesus attends a wedding at Cana in Galilee, goes briefly to Capernaum, then heads south to Jerusalem for Passover, after which he preaches in Judea and briefly in Samaria on his way back to Galilee to preach.

Chronologically this period comes after Jesus returns to Galilee after his baptism and temptations, and ends as he preaches throughout Galilee, of which we read last week in Luke 4-5.

Geographically these chapters span most of the length of the Holy Land, from north to south. Now’s a good time to spend a few moments with the map below. (See the whole map here.) Note the relative positions of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, and find Cana and Capernaum in Galilee, Sychar in Samaria, and Jerusalem in Judea.


The Miracle at Cana

John 2:1-11

John does not say whose marriage provides the setting for Jesus’ “beginning of miracles,” but we know that he and his disciples are invited, and that Mary, his mother, is also present, apparently in a role of some authority. So it is likely the marriage of an immediate or extended family member.

We read that at the wedding they “wanted wine.” This is more than simply deciding they were thirsty, and wouldn’t wine be nice? There would have been wine at the wedding, as we can gather from subsequent verses. “Wanted” here means that the wine has run out — a less common use of the word in modern English, though we still see in it in the phrase “found wanting.”

Carl Bloch - Jesus Turning Water to Wine

Mary goes to Jesus about the problem, which is the first indication that she formally has or at least feels some responsibility for the event. To the modern ear Jesus’ answer sounds disrespectful: “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.”

Remember that this account is crossing both languages and cultures. Scholars have noted that “Woman” (technically, its Aramaic or Hebrew equivalent) was a respectful form of address. As to the rest of Jesus’ reply, which in the King James Version (KJV) sounds less than helpful, the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) offers this variant: “Woman, what wilt thou have me to do for thee? that will I do; for mine hour is not yet come” (JST John 2:4).

We have typically assumed, based on the KJV, that “mine hour is not yet come” means that he has not yet begun his ministry; it is early yet for miracles. The JST casts it in a different light; it seems to mean — though to me this seems trivial, and I hope for further insight — that it’s not time for him to leave (the wedding?) yet, so he has time to help.

I wonder, is Mary asking Jesus for a miracle here? If so, does this mean she has seen him work miracles before, in private, of which we have no account? (Again, I’d love to read Mary’s memoir.) This is speculation, of course.

In any case, Mary directs the servants to do what Jesus says. This is the strongest indication that she has some authority at this wedding.

The servants fill several large pots with water. (A firkin is about nine gallons, so they hold approximately 18 to 27 gallons each. This must be a large gathering.) When they draw liquid from the pots, they find that it has turned to wine.

Jesus sends servants with wine to the governor of the feast. (While the bridegroom is officially the host, the governor of the feast is a guest of honor, a friend or relative who acts as master of ceremonies.) When he tastes the wine, not knowing its source, he is surprised. Rather than serving the best wine first, as he says to the bridegroom, then serving cheaper wine when the guests are already well lubricated, “Thou has kept the good wine until now.”

No doubt an explanation ensues; the miracle does not remain secret. In response to it, John says, “His disciples believed on him.”

Much has been made of this first miracle. It is taken as Jesus’ tacit approval of marriage and social occasions generally. Some find symbolism in it, such as the wine of the new gospel replacing the water of the old Law.

I find two points striking.

First, this miracle doesn’t solve a life-or-death problem; it prevents a social embarrassment on the part of the groom, his family, and the governor of the feast. It is a small thing, relatively, but Jesus is happy to help — especially to help his mother, one thinks.

Second, if Jesus is going to make wine by miraculous means, it will be excellent wine, not just good enough to get by. There may be a lesson here in pursuing excellence, even in the small things.

About Miracles

Like many believers, I accept Jesus’ miracles at face value. Many other people deny them — even to the point of suggesting that the miracle stories were fabricated and added to the Gospels later, as part of an effort to strengthen the claim that Jesus is the Son of God.

A common argument reduces to this: These wonders, which are beyond the limits of human power and knowledge, cannot have occurred — because such things cannot occur. It is a circular argument, but it satisfies those who do not wish to believe in a God whose knowledge and power exceed their own. (I don’t know what would be the point of believing in a God whose knowledge and power are so limited.)

Elder James E. Talmage wrote:

In the contemplation of the miracles wrought by Christ, we must of necessity recognize the operation of a power transcending our present human understanding. In this field, science has not yet advanced far enough to analyze and explain. To deny the actuality of miracles on the ground that, because we cannot comprehend the means, the reported results are fictitious, is to arrogate to the human mind the attribute of omniscience, by implying that what man cannot comprehend cannot be, and that therefore he is able to comprehend all that is. The miracles of record in the Gospels are as fully supported by evidence as are many of the historical events which call forth neither protest nor demand for further proof. To the believer in the divinity of Christ, the miracles are sufficiently attested; to the unbeliever they appear but as myths and fables. (Jesus the Christ, Chapter 11)

At Jerusalem for Passover

John 2:13-25

Thirty Years Old

After a brief stay in Capernaum — some have wondered if it is to visit John’s home, since the author thought it worth recording at all — Jesus goes to Jerusalem for Passover. (Only John reports this trip.) It’s likely not Jesus’ first Passover in Jerusalem since he was twelve and stayed behind at the temple, but we have no record either way.

In any case, this stay in Jerusalem marks the beginning of his public ministry. According to the Law (Numbers 4:3), at age thirty a Levite (which Jesus is not) could and would begin his priestly service. Talmage writes:

Jesus may possibly have had regard for what had become a custom of the time, in waiting until He had attained that age before entering publicly on the labors of a Teacher among the people…. To have taught in public at an earlier age would have been to arouse criticism, and objection, which might have resulted in serious handicap or hindrance at the outset. (Jesus the Christ, Chapter 12, Note 3)

It is difficult to imagine Jesus waiting longer — past age thirty — to begin his public ministry. And Luke says that Jesus “began to be about thirty years of age” at the time of his baptism (Luke 3:23). So we may suppose that he is thirty years of age when he appears in Jerusalem for this Passover.

Jesus Clears the Temple

Jesus does not begin his public ministry quietly in a corner. He goes to the central city of Judaism at the time of Judaism’s greatest feast, when many thousands of Jews from other cities and regions gather to them temple … and he clears the temple of money changers, and “the sellers of oxen and sheep and doves.”

Carl Bloch - Jesus Clearing the Temple

“Make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise,” he says.

He drives out the larger animals with a small whip he makes on the scene, but to the sellers of doves he simply says, “Take these things hence.” We might find in this detail evidence that Jesus has not simply lost his temper; he is sufficiently under control to be gentle with the doves.

Talmage writes:

The law of Moses had been supplemented by a cumulative array of rules, and the rigidly enforced requirements as to sacrifices and tribute had given rise to a system of sale and barter within the sacred precincts of the House of the Lord. In the outer courts were stalls of oxen, pens of sheep, cages of doves and pigeons; and the ceremonial fitness of these sacrificial victims was cried aloud by the sellers, and charged for in full measure. It was the custom also to pay the yearly poll tribute of the sanctuary at this season—the ransom offering required of every male in Israel, and amounting to half a shekel for each, irrespective of his relative poverty or wealth. This was to be paid “after the shekel of the sanctuary,” which limitation, as rabbis had ruled, meant payment in temple coin. Ordinary money, varieties of which bore effigies and inscriptions of heathen import, was not acceptable, and as a result, money-changers plied a thriving trade on the temple grounds. (Jesus the Christ, Chapter 12.)

By John’s account the Jewish leaders’ immediate response to this offense to their authority is mild. (Talmage supposes that they were aware of the problem and convicted by their consciences for not having resolved it themselves.) They ask him for a sign of his authority to do such things.

They take his response for nonsense, understandably not realizing that he has foretold his death and resurrection — the ultimate sign of his authority and his identity.

19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
20 Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?
21 But he spake of the temple of his body.

At the end of his mortal ministry, these words will be used to taunt and accuse him — again by people who miss his meaning.

Miracles at Jerusalem

Without giving details, John notes that, while Jesus is at Jerusalem for Passover, many see him work miracles and believe. (See verse 23; note that the feast “day” is actually a week.)

John writes rather cryptically that Jesus does not commit (in the Greek, entrust) himself to these followers, because he knows their hearts — possibly suggesting that theirs is the shallow conversion born of seeing miracles, or that they look to him for political salvation, not in his actual, far larger role. (Perhaps this vaguely foreshadows John 6:15.)

Conversation with Nicodemus

John 3:1-21

While Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover, a Jewish ruler, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, comes to him by night — apparently not wanting to be seen. We may infer that John was present.

Nicodemus praises Jesus as “a teacher come from God,” citing the miracles. While others will say similar things to ingratiate themselves, or outright cynically, this man seems sincere, given the tone and substance of what Jesus says to him.

What ensues is a famous discussion of the need to be born again, of water and the Spirit. Why would Nicodemus marvel at this doctrine (verse 3)? Because, as a pious and orthodox Jew, he is living his religion well. Why should even he require a change so dramatic that it could be called rebirth, in order to be saved?

The bottom line for him and for us seems to be that, however good we may think we are — or actually be — we require rebirth in Christ, if we wish to dwell with him eternally. We need to be changed, born into a new life in and through Jesus Christ. We cannot do it ourselves.

When Nicodemus asks how these things can be, Jesus replies, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” Either Jesus is simply highlighting the gulf between this man’s knowledge and his own, which I doubt, or there is some reasonable expectation that a man in Nicodemus’ position should know these things. Jesus expands on this in verse 18, but only in the JST. In the KJV the verse says that those who do not believe “in the name of the only begotten Son of God” are condemned for their unbelief, and the verse ends there. Joseph Smith added, “… which before was preached by the mouth of the holy prophets; for they testified of me” (JST John 3:18).

From this discussion also comes one of the most (and deservedly) beloved passages in all of Christian scripture:

16 ¶ For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)

Could there be a plainer statement of the Father’s merciful motive and inclinations in sending Jesus into the world? He sent his Son, that you and I might be saved.

Note — per a footnote — that there is some indication in the Greek that verses 11-21 are a quotation of prior testimony given to a member of the Sanhedrin, which helps us make better sense of verse 11.

Overall, Jesus speaks candidly to Nicodemus about his divine role and nature as the Messiah whom the prophets foretold, and whose death Moses foreshadowed in the wilderness. (For the latter event itself see Numbers 21:6-9. In the Book of Mormon see also 2 Nephi 25:20 and Alma 33:19-22 for further discussion.)

Two Prophets Who Baptize

John 3:22-36

Jesus then goes with his disciples to Judea (near Jerusalem) to teach and baptize. Meanwhile, John the Baptist is still baptizing, and people are still flocking to him. His ministry may overlap Jesus’ ministry by months; in any case, John notes that “John [the Baptist] was not yet cast into prison.”

Some of John’s disciples turn to him with a question that has arisen in discussions with the Jews (probably Jewish leaders) “about purifying.” Perhaps they are asking about the relative merits of John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism.

John reminds them that they heard him attest that he was not the Christ, but a forerunner, and he says that he (John) must decrease, while Jesus increases. He explains that Jesus “cometh from above,” and that the Father “hath given all things” into Jesus’ hands. Then he adds his own witness: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” The JST adds: “… and shall receive of his fulness” (JST John 3:36).

John also foretells a much less desirable outcome for those who do not believe in Christ. I wonder if he was emphasizing to his own followers that believing in him, John the Baptist, was not sufficient.

An Apparent Contradiction – John 4:1-4

We just read in John 3:22 that Jesus baptized in Judea. In John 4:2 we read that he himself did not baptize, but his disciples did. It’s one of the simplest, most proximate contradictions in the Bible — at least in the KJV. In the JST we read both a correction and a clearer explanation of why Jesus found it prudent to leave Judea:

1 When therefore the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John,

2 They sought more diligently some means that they might put him to death; for many received John as a prophet, but they believed not on Jesus.

3 Now the Lord knew this, though he himself baptized not so many as his disciples;

4 For he suffered them for an example, preferring one another. (JST John 4:1-4)

Resolving the contradiction is interesting enough and certainly helpful, but note also the early determination on the part of some Jewish leaders to kill Jesus, and also John’s statement that many of those leaders believed in John but not Jesus.

Among the Samaritans

The Woman at the Well – John 4:4-26

To reach Galilee from Judea, the Lord chose a more direct route than many Jews preferred. He went through Samaria, which other Jews preferred to bypass, even if it meant a longer journey.

Here is Talmage’s explanation of the Jewish attitude toward Samaritans:

The direct route from Judea to Galilee lay through Samaria; but many Jews, particularly Galileans, chose to follow an indirect though longer way rather than traverse the country of a people so despised by them as were the Samaritans. The ill-feeling between Jews and Samaritans had been growing for centuries, and at the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry had developed into most intense hatred. The inhabitants of Samaria were a mixed people, in whom the blood of Israel was mingled with that of the Assyrians and other nations; and one cause of the animosity existing between them and their neighbors both on the north and the south was the Samaritans’ claim for recognition as Israelites; it was their boast that Jacob was their father; but this the Jews denied. The Samaritans had a version of the Pentateuch, which they revered as the law, but they rejected all the prophetical writings of what is now the Old Testament, because they considered themselves treated with insufficient respect therein.

To the orthodox Jew of the time a Samaritan was more unclean than a Gentile of any other nationality. It is interesting to note the extreme and even absurd restrictions then in force in the matter of regulating unavoidable relations between the two peoples. The testimony of a Samaritan could not be heard before a Jewish tribunal. For a Jew to eat food prepared by a Samaritan was at one time regarded by rabbinical authority as an offense as great as that of eating the flesh of swine. While it was admitted that produce from a field in Samaria was not unclean, inasmuch as it sprang directly from the soil, such produce became unclean if subjected to any treatment at Samaritan hands. Thus, grapes and grain might be purchased from Samaritans, but neither wine nor flour manufactured therefrom by Samaritan labor. On one occasion the epithet “Samaritan” was hurled at Christ as an intended insult. “Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?” The Samaritan conception of the mission of the expected Messiah was somewhat better founded than was that of the Jews, for the Samaritans gave greater prominence to the spiritual kingdom the Messiah would establish, and were less exclusive in their views as to whom the Messianic blessings would be extended. (Jesus the Christ, Chapter 13)

Jesus and his disciples stop at an ancient, honored well outside Sychar. The others go into town to find food, while Jesus stays at the well. There he asks a Samaritan woman for a drink — because, as she notes later, he has no way to draw water himself.

Carl Bloch - Samaritan Woman at the Well

This is an entirely conventional request, which etiquette demands be fulfilled — but it leads to a remarkable conversation, in which Jesus displays a somewhat detailed knowledge of the woman’s less-than-ideal marital history: she has had five husbands, and the man with whom she currently lives is not her husband.

Yet Jesus does not chastise her, and when she says she knows that, when the Messiah comes, he will “tell us all things,” he answers her small profession of faith plainly: “I that speak unto thee am he.”

A few quick notes:

  • The sixth hour was either noon or 6 p.m. — and given how much happened afterward, probably noon.
  • The woman was surprised that Jesus, obviously a Jew, would even speak to a Samaritan, but Jesus seems not to have shared the common prejudice.
  • When she says, “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain,” she might easily have pointed to nearby Mount Gerizim, the site of a Samaritan temple.
  • Where the KJV has Jesus saying, “God is a spirit,” the JST says, “For unto such hath God promised his Spirit” (JST John 4:26).

The Disciples at the Well – John 4:27-38

Unlikely as she may seem in such a role, the woman becomes an effective missionary among the people of the city, telling them of her conversation with Jesus and asking, “Is this not the Christ?”

Meanwhile, the disciples have brought food, and they bid Jesus eat. He takes the opportunity to emphasize his devotion to the Father’s work. He has food of which they do not know, he says. They wonder at this, thinking as literally as the woman did earlier, when Jesus spoke of living water and never thirsting again, and she thought in purely temporal terms. “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work,” he explains.

He tells them the fields “are white already to harvest,” that they will reap and be rewarded for their labors, and that he sends them “to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labor: other men labored, and ye are entered into their labours.”

We might in some overarching sense read this last thought as referring to Christ himself, who labors over that which they will reap. But in any case it is well for us to remember in any number of contexts that we reap blessings others have sown before us.

Jesus Teaches the Samaritans – John 4:39-42

Many Samaritans believe the woman’s account and gather to hear Jesus. They beg him to stay, and he tarries for two days. John’s account of the results speaks for itself:

41 And many more believed because of his own word;
42 And said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.

Lessons and examples for us in this episode might include these:

  • Jesus ignores popular prejudices.
  • He would rather teach than condemn.
  • He rewards her small declaration of faith in a coming Messiah with a clear statement of who he is.
  • Even those whose lives are not perfect can help to bring souls to Christ.
  • We ought not get too full of ourselves when we succeed, inasmuch as we are often reaping what others have sown.

A Miracle in Galilee

John 4:43-54

After two days, Jesus leaves for Galilee, where he is well received by people who were in Jerusalem for Passover and saw what he did there.

He goes to Cana again. While he is there, a nobleman comes from Capernaum and pleads for the life of his ailing son, begging Jesus to come and heal him. Jesus seems to chide him, saying the man will not believe, unless he sees signs and wonders. The man is undaunted and again begs Jesus to come. Jesus tells the nobleman to go home; “thy son liveth.”

“The man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him,” John writes, “and he went his way.”

Talmage writes:

Capernaum, where his son lay, was about twenty miles away; had he been still solicitous and doubtful he would probably have tried to return home that day, for it was one o’clock in the afternoon when Jesus spoke the words that had given him such relief; but he journeyed leisurely, for on the following day he was still on the road, and was met by some of his servants who had been sent to cheer him with the glad word of his son’s recovery. He inquired when the boy had begun to amend, and was told that at the seventh hour on the yesterday the fever had left him. That was the time at which Christ had said, “Thy son liveth.” The man’s belief ripened fast, and both he and his household accepted the gospel.

This miracle does not require Jesus physical presence or proximity, which makes it a noteworthy additional demonstration of his power.

Perhaps the lesson for us here is almost too obvious to notice: Jesus’ word heals — in many respects.

Next Week

Next week we begin to examine the Sermon on the Mount. The readings are Matthew 5 and Luke 6.

A Later Note

I thoroughly enjoyed creating the first several posts of this series which I envisioned, but life has intervened in ways which make continuing impractical for now. Another time, perhaps. Another year. Apologies to my readers.

David Rodeback

Thanks for reading!

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