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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Behold! the Bridegroom Cometh

My extended family has celebrated quite a few weddings in the past few months, so I've been thinking a lot about the topic, obviously. I was thinking about it again, even though I'd planned to talk about prophecy today, and suddenly God reminded me of some research I did on Jesus' first miracle, some months ago.  Oddly enough, it ties the two topics together.  I just love it when God makes it work out that way, don't you?

The Significance of the Wedding at Cana

Months ago, I was rereading the story of the Wedding at Cana, which most readers know is the first documented miracle Christ performed during His earthly ministry.  I found myself thinking, "Why is this significant, compared to all the other miracles?  Why would the disciples think it was important to write this particular miracle down, since they also noted that many other miracles weren't written down?"

So many people had read this story to me and came up with a rather vague understanding that the wine was significant as a symbol of God's spirit being poured out on earth.  I think this interpretation is partly right, but it overlooks a lot.  For one thing, why did it have to happen at a wedding?

It is clear that there was a lot of symbolism in Jesus' decision to turn water into wine.  I see that it was not lost on the audience (although it may have taken a few years to really sink in), although it seems to have been lost on its modern, non-Jewish audience.  What was going on?  Verse 6 is the often-overlooked key to the mystery:
Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
Ceremonial washing.  When I've read about ceremonial washing in the Old Testament, it usually involved curing a disease, purification after a disease, or preparation for a priest to enter the temple.  Why were there ceremonial washing jars standing right there, in the middle of a wedding ceremony?  Wouldn't they have put them up before the guests arrived? Out of curiosity, I googled ceremonial washing and the Jewish wedding ceremony.

There are a lot of variations in the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony (I'm talking about the modern one, though the practices are ancient).  One thing that always takes place early in the wedding week (the ceremony is a week of festivities) is the ceremonial bathing of the bride to be, called the mikvah bath.

The mikvah is usually an indoor pool filled with a mixture of natural water (rainwater or water from a spring) and purified water (like tap water).  The mikvah has common origins with the concept of baptism.  We call it baptism, from the Greek, baptismo, to dip, because early Christians didn't want it to be confused with bath, meaning to wash, a word associated with the pagan bathing house used by secular Greeks.

Jewish women always bathe before going into the mikvah.  Most modern mikvah pools have showers provided for use before going into the pool.  The water in the pool is not meant to actually soap up and wash off in; it is to symbolically remove impurity of a spiritual nature, so real dirt must be removed first.  The bride ceremonially dips herself in this water, making sure that her whole body, including her hair, is submerged, and says a series of prayers.  This is to make her ceremonially pure for her wedding (such things as her period, contact with a dead body, or sexually immoral behaviors make her ceremonially impure).  This ritual purification ceremony precedes the day the wedding party of the bride and the wedding party of the groom actually come together.

So the ceremonial jars that Christ used to make the wine were not just jars for drinking water or watering cattle.  The servants had to have thought it strange that Jesus would tell them to fill those jars, of all the jars and containers in the house!  They were special, ceremonially pure jars that had symbolically purified the bride earlier that week, and were not normally used in contact with food.

What Jesus Meant

At the last supper, Jesus told His disciples that the wine they were drinking was symbolic of His blood, which was going to be shed to take away their sins before God.  It is interesting to review that statement in light of the Wedding at Cana.  Could it be that He was thinking about His mission on earth while sitting there at that wedding banquet? Yes, I think so.
"Dear woman, why do you involve me?" Jesus replied [to Mary], "My time has not yet come." ( John 2: 4 NIV)
This miracle, then, is a prophecy of what Jesus was planning to do--that is, purify His bride, the church, with His sacrifice.  But before Jesus presented the disciples with the wine, symbolic of the spiritual purification His death would bring, Jesus recognized that His time had come (John 13: 1), and that it was time to wash His disciples' feet (see also earlier reference to Psalm 24: 3-5).  He did this saying, "Unless I wash you, you have no part in me," (John 13: 8 NIV).  So they were bathed before they were ritually purified, according to Jewish tradition.

Back at the wedding at Cana, the master in charge of the ceremony didn't know where the wine came from, although the servants who helped Jesus did, and assumed that the bridegroom was somehow behind it.
"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." (John 2: 10 NIV).
One side note here is that it is possible it was non-alcoholic "wine" that Jesus made, since it was so sweet; sometimes the word for wine in Hebrew can mean grape juice, though I can't confirm it here. What is more important to notice here is that the bridegroom was in charge of bringing the wine, and the real bridegroom, Christ, did just that.  He didn't take the job lightly, either, but was extravagant with the gift, bringing only the best.  It didn't matter to Christ whether we were actually alert enough to recognize or value the gift He brought.  He brought it anyway.

There is another thing to draw from this story.  If Jesus has purified His church for the wedding, it surely means that the bridegroom's party is coming soon.  Are we ready?  Are we staying pure, as He has made us pure, looking forward to that day in the near future when He comes to take us away with Him? 


Anonymous said...

Wow, I had never thought of it that way! I had assumed that Jesus was just being generous to His newly wedded friends, when He really was also illustrating His gift to all who will believe.