I think I’m going to struggle over the next few posts – I find John’s gospel to be so overwhelmingly full of wonderful things that I’m not going to be able to focus on a short passage each time and write something coherent.
After all, John 1:1-18 is the foundation of my worldview, and 2:1-12 has layer upon layer of meaning. So there’s quite a bit to say.
John is clearly different in style and focus from the other three gospels. I believe that it’s at least mostly the work of the apostle John, in exile in his old age, writing out of years of reflection on what the events and words of the life of Jesus mean , more than on giving an account like those he must have known were already in circulation. So he includes fewer events and miracles, but explores them more fully and deeply.
John starts in style. His gospel takes us right back to the reality of God before creation, as the Word is already with God, is God. John brings together two great strands of thought in one concept – the Word. In the Old Testament, the Word of God is the action of God towards the creation. Genesis 1 has the repeated ‘God said, “Let there be…” and there was… When the Word of the LORD comes to the prophets, they must speak, and their words don’t just describe the future – they shape and create it.
So to the Jewish mind, the Word is the life of God reaching into the world to make things happen.
On the other hand, the Stoic philosophers also used the language of the Word. To them, the Word was the underlying principle of rationality, order and beauty below the surface of the world and of life. In modern terms, all of science, art, philosophy, truth depend on the Word. We can only make sense of life at all because it is underpinned by the Word.
And John tells us that it was this Word – the creative power of God, the underlying reality of all that is, which became flesh and dwelt among us. Wow.
Jesus is the human face of God; and Jesus is the human face of the universe at its deepest being. Whether we honour him through justice and charity, through academic study (theology, physics, economics, philosophy), through creativity, through love, through appreciating beauty – it’s all the same Christ.
And all of this cosmic reality comes into focus when ‘there was a man sent from God, whose name was John.’ (1:6) Eternity enters history, and the whole of John’s gospel will deal with the shockwaves of that collision.
There will be conflict – John sets out at the beginning of his gospel in 1:10-13 that many will not receive him – but that to those who receive him he gives power to become children of God.
If I could have only one passage of Scripture to remember or read for the rest of my life, it would be those eighteen verses.
Please read them, and read them again!
Water turned to wine
I’ll skip over the next bits, to come to the first of the ‘Signs of Glory’ of which John tells us, as Jesus turns water into wine. (2:1-12) Like much of what will come, it’s a story which tells truth on several levels.
- The first Sign of Glory is done as quietly as possible, without fanfare, to save a young couple from embarrassment and to bless the day of their great celebration. Jesus doesn’t draw attention to himself. That’s not what glory is about. Only those who need to know realise what has happened – the other guests just enjoy the wine (and probably take a few jugs home for later, given how much there is!)
- This Sign is also an indication that the Kingdom of God is coming into the present. More than the other gospel writers, John brings the whole themes of judgement, resurrection and new life into the present as Jesus lives among his people. Part of the hope of heaven is the great banquet to which we are all invited – and this miracle starts that banquet now, in a village in Galilee. We don’t need to wait for an unknown future date to see the Kingdom – we need to be where Jesus is.
- I don’t think John mentions details accidentally. The water jars which Jesus uses to hold the water as it becomes wine are specifically those ‘for the Jewish rites of purification’. At a formal meal, there were many ritual hand-washings, to make sure that the guests were kept from defilement by anything unclean. Water was measured out in specified amounts, to wash away the uncleanness of the world. It’s this water, measured out in small cups to keep us from defilement, that Jesus turns into the best wine the guests have ever tasted, in quantities such that they’ll never be able to drink it. Jesus is marking out a new day for ‘religion’. It’s no longer to be about careful rules to keep the world at a safe distance. It’s about the celebration of life and of the love that God brings – celebration in all the quality and quantity that only God himself can give.
So a quiet intervention in a village wedding holds within it the announcement that the Kingdom of God is here and now. And it holds up a sign to the Pharisees that a new way of knowing God is here.
Once again – Wow.