I recently preached on the first miracle of our Lord in John 2:1-11. It was a fascinating and rewarding experience for me. Commonly known as the miracle of the “water to wine”, we encounter our Lord, his mother and some disciples at a wedding feast in Cana. Running out of wine at the wedding, our Lord turns the water contained in six large water pots into wine. As I studied this passage, one thing in particular struck me with regard to John’s intention in gospel-writing. He wants his reader to believe that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and believing Him you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). He demonstrates this point by a selective (20:30) record of Christ’s signs (and teachings). John tells us (2:11) that Christ manifests his glory in His performance of signs and wonders.
In John 2:1-11 we have the first demonstration of Christ’s glory. This was done, in part, by a demonstration of the old being replaced by the new. What do I mean by this? In the prologue to the Gospel, John emphasizes the newness of the age of Christ, found in the idea of “fullness” – “we beheld his glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). John tells us that with the coming of Christ, there is a progression of revelation and experience of grace and truth – from partial to full in Christ. Again in 1:16 John writes “and of his fullness we have received grace for grace”. So John wants us to read his gospel in the light of this idea that with Christ there is a “fullness” in covenant blessings. This fullness is to be contrasted with the typological and shadowy grace found under the Old Covenant – grace that was shown forth in law, promise, prophecies, sacrifices etc. Some argue that in this miracle Jesus is replacing the “older order of Jewish law and custom” with new covenant law. But this is not the picture John is painting, at least not in this passage.
Within the gospels there is a fine line between the old covenant (often called “Law” in the New Testament) and what the old covenant or “Law” had become at the time of Christ. Perhaps we could think of what the law was by “right and requirement” and what the law became as a “perversion” of what was given. By this distinction, I mean that which was objectively to do with the Mosaic Law (as given by God) and that which the Law became, at the hands of the Jews. It seems to me that many in the church are moving, fudging or unclear where that line is drawn. Perhaps we could ask, what was Christ’s perspective on the Law?
First, Christ himself observed all things which by “right and requirement” were part of the Law of Moses. In Mk. 1:44 our Lord tells the cleansed leper to offer a gift according to the Law of Moses. Again in Matt. 7:12 Christ tells his listeners to observe the standard of the Law and Prophets by doing to men what you would have them do to you. It is clear that Christ had the highest regard for God’s law.
Second, our Lord also speaks of the sufficiency of the Law and Prophets in the history of salvation. When telling the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Christ tells us that the rich man wanted Lazarus to return from the dead to witness to his five brothers of the reality of heaven and hell. Abraham, yes ABRAHAM (interesting choice of representative!) rejects the request of the rich man on the basis that “they have Moses and the prophets” (Lk. 16:19-31). Abraham directs the rich man to the Law of Moses. How then are the Law and Prophets sufficient for the brothers’ needs? Because by the Law of God is an aspect of His gracious relationship with his people, and though while not able to save a man itself (it was never intended to – Gal 3:21), it is part of the covenant by which Christ is apprehended by old covenant saints. The law of God should not primarily be seen as some punitive, mean-spirited works-based agreement! Rather it should chiefly be viewed as gracious – that which showed forth Christ in type and shadow. Under the law, and by faith, old covenant saints enjoyed old covenant benefits of salvation (Ps 19:7ff; 32:1-2; 46:1).
Third, our Lord tells us that the sum of the Law and Prophets is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matt 22:37) – the same law as given to the old covenant saints in Deut 6:4. In Matt 5:17 our Lord states that he came not to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfil them. This is an important distinction. He has not come to annul, destroy or diminish the law as if it were something contrary to man or promise (Gal 3:21). He was not in opposition to the Law as God gave it. He came to fulfil the righteous requirement of that law. Observance of the Law, according to our Lord, was always a matter of an internal relationship of love and faith, not a matter of keeping externals alone. That is why old covenant saints could enjoy the realities of being saved, by Christ, under the Old Covenant.
John also shows us that an important purpose of the law is to point towards Christ. He records for us that Phillip wanted Nathanael to meet the one “of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote” (1:45). Furthermore, Christ himself cited Moses and the prophets to show his disciples that HE was the one to whom the Scriptures pointed and of whom they spoke! That is why the Law was sufficient in salvation – not by the observance of its works or ceremonies (NEVER its intention), but because it pointed to the 2nd Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ. This is how the old covenant believer should have understood the law of God (and many did).
Christ, on our behalf, was not just a perfect law keeper. He was also our sacrifice satisfying the wrath of God (Gal 3:10-14). He was the fulfilment of all the gracious sacrificial and access-to-God laws of the old covenant. We need to remember both aspects of Christ’s work and their corresponding types in the Old Covenant! The old covenant was one of physical types and shadows behind which lay a real, but somewhat hidden experience of spiritual realities. With the advent of Christ and the establishing of the new covenant, we see many of those physical elements disappear, and their spiritual realities become evident for the people of God – hence the idea of “fullness” in John’s gospel.
But Christ also differentiates between the Law of Moses and the perversion of the Law by the Jews. This is important. To read all of the references to “Moses” or “Law” in the New Testament as referring to the legitimate demands of the Law is not only inaccurate, but will lead to pastoral chaos, doctrinal confusion and a demeaning of the Law of God.
Here’s where we work our way back to John. In changing the water to wine what was our Lord doing in relation to the old covenant? Certainly he was signalling the concept of newness in Him – cleansing, perfect cleansing is found in him alone (John 13). Indeed John is about to give a series of “newnesses” of the New Covenant: the new Temple (2:19); the new birth (3:3); new water (life) (4:14) and new or true worship (4:22). (All these teachings and signs, witnessed to who Christ was and displayed his glory.) Clearly then, John is emphasising the issue of newness. But new compared to what?
Again the answer is somewhat nuanced and not entirely straightforward. The newness of the water to wine miracle is found in replacing a perversion rather than the Law itself. For nowhere in the Law of Moses is found the requirement to ceremonially wash prior to eating. No! This was according to the “purification of the Jews” not according to the Law of Moses. Mark makes this abundantly clear in his gospel in Ch 7:3. “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, according to the tradition of the elders”. THERE WAS SIMPLY NO REQUIRMENT IN THE MOSAIC COVENANT TO WASH BEFORE EATING! Furthermore Christ affirms the continuance of the Law of Moses in the same passage, Mk. 7:10 where he sets Moses and the Pharisees in opposition! Here then is evidence that we need to read the references to the righteous Law of Moses and the many perversions of it with a much more discerning eye!
So Christ, though he fulfils the righteous requirement of the law of cleansings (which is better seen in his act of John 13), does not do it in John 2! He demonstrates that the old of John 2:1-11 was not the Law of Moses but a perversion of the old. In doing so he shows himself to be the only way of purification, not contrasted to the old covenant stipulations, but rather the traditions of men. He sets himself against the traditions of men, but never does so with the Law of God – rather he shows he is the fulfilment of such Law. Christ treats the perversion of the law with contempt “Hypocrites … ‘this people honours me with their lips but their hearts are far from me, and in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Mk 7:6). Yet on the contrary, he has the utmost regard for the Law of God
The perversion is not the reality. Let’s not make it so. This distinction is true in both the gospels and the epistles. To equate the two is a grave misreading of God’s Word and does great injury to God, His Law and our understanding of the duty God requires of us.