EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
Following His baptism, Jesus officially got to work in His public ministry, starting with His own testing. His temptation in the wilderness is covered by the Synoptics (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13). Scholars note the similarities between this event and ancient Israel’s years of wandering the wilderness after the Exodus from Pharaoh, suggesting it might be a “new Moses” reenactment (see Deuteronomy 6–8).
First, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. The skeptical response to this—that such a fast would be physically impossible—is easily refuted by the fact that Jesus was led by and filled with the Spirit, which enabled Him accomplish such a feat; in other words, He was sustained by supernatural authority (Luke 4:1), just as Moses and his people had been sustained in the wilderness for the same amount of time (Exodus 34:28).
Second, Satan’s words cause some to misunderstand a Greek clause here. The tempter said, “If you are the Son of God…” (Matthew 4:3; Luke 4:3), then followed it with a challenge. The context of this passage, by itself, seems to suggest Jesus might not be the Son of God, based on Satan’s “if.” This, too, can be dismissed easily by understanding that the words of the father of lies would be provoking anyway, but in addition, “if” in biblical context elsewhere can mean “because.” For instance, “Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 6:4). There is no question of whether God clothes the grass in this verse. We know this teaching to be saying “because He clothes the grass, He will take care of your need as well.” This is the same treatment of the clause in Satan’s “if.” So we should not see these words as bringing into question the validity of Jesus’ Sonship (though it wouldn’t matter anyway, since Jesus won this game in the end, proving He was who He said He was).
The initial temptation challenged Jesus to turn rocks into bread. The innate sin of this, should He submit to the temptation, would be Jesus using His power to feed the needs of His flesh, which would wreck everything. He answered with a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Seeing that Jesus wasn’t as superficial as Satan had hoped, Satan ramped it up.
The next two temptations, appearing in opposite order in Matthew and Luke (to show their differing emphases), were: 1) to throw Himself off the edge of the Temple and call for the angels to save Him; 2) to bow down to Satan just once and receive dominion over all the earth—all that had been placed under Satan’s supervision. If Jesus had appeared atop the Temple, the holy place of the Jews, He could have called out to the angels in front of all who were gathered there and immediately identified Himself as the Son of God. He could have thrown in a miracle to prove it, landing gently and gracefully to the ground—having been lowered there in the arms of angels—to greet the throng of instant believers. If He had bowed to Satan, He would have had instant charge over all the earth and could have spared Himself the trial, moving immediately into His role as King of all kings, reigning from a throne in a literal fulfillment of the Jewish expectation of the Davidic Messiah. (We can see that these were very real temptations for Christ. Even though He is the Son of God, He was human as we are, and He was tempted in every way we are [Hebrews 4:15]. Being able to escape the destruction of the flesh and fulfill messianic prophecy at the same time probably looked very good to Jesus in that moment.)
There are parallels among the temptations, the condemnation, and the victory. If Jesus hadn’t been able to endure the hunger at His temptation, He never would have been able to endure the torture of what was to come. Had He worshipped Satan, He would have traded His Kingdom (one not of this world) for a less authoritative one (one of this world). If He had called angels to save Him by jumping over the edge of the Temple, surely they would have when He was on the cross, which would have destroyed the purpose of His appearance.
The Devil brought a game to Jesus in the hopes of swaying Him from His mission, but through His resistance, He had strength to endure not only what He was facing in that moment, but much more in His future:
- He resisted the temptation to create bread from rocks to survive. Later on, He was condemned by the silence and the cooperation of the regular citizens who were also just trying to survive on daily bread. They didn’t yet know that He came to be their Bread of Life and to give them Life abundantly, but they someday would, and His resistance to the stones temptation amplifies that link.
- He resisted the temptation to exploit the forces of heaven by tempting God and calling for angels. Later on, He was condemned to death (in part) by a Jewish system that claimed to be established by God. His death brought about a more direct connection between God and humanity, which included even the most religious of men.
- He resisted the temptation to receive the earthly kingdom. Later on, He was condemned (in part) by the earthly kingdom. His ministry proclaimed and brought in His own Kingdom.
Christ was tempted by and condemned in each of these temptations, but then he defeated each one as well. This showed His supreme authority over all of secular and religious society. Jesus proved to the enemy that He needed none of those things—not sustenance, earthly dominion, or displaying His supernatural power—to conquer and hold sovereignty over all of creation. The pure majesty of how Jesus handled Himself in this situation proves, by itself (at least to these authors) He was the Messiah. Any regular, human mind would be overwhelmed by the lure of giving in to any of these temptations, but especially the last two.
He could have also spared His brethren from their horrifying deaths when they later became martyrs.
Many films depicting Christ frequently portray Him as being constantly somber and sad, bowing His head all the time and refusing to laugh along with His peers because He knew His end was near. He no doubt knew what was coming, but nowhere in the Bible does it suggest our Savior didn’t know how to have a good time. He likely enjoyed a lot of good jokes and gave and received many warm hugs—and His laughter probably bubbled up from His belly with the best of them. This kind of camaraderie would have led to close relationships with His disciples and ministerial partners. So, it’s hard to imagine a greater temptation than being tempted by the opportunity to save all of them from certain death and anguish and gain the chance to instead promote them to positions as royal advisors and council members of His throne while He spends the rest of His days in the presence of their friendship and love. Jesus is love! How He would have loved to immediately bring about brotherly affection and concern in every region the eye could see. He could have enacted healthy reforms not only for His people, but for all people everywhere, sanctioning the very kind of global peace and end to hunger and oppression this world is still desperately struggling to find!
Who wouldn’t take advantage of this offer? Oh, the things He could have done with this kind of power!
But Jesus knew on an innate and internal level, in His perfect perspective joined together with the Father’s, something Satan—and humans everywhere—could not see: the true “power” behind this offer would have, in the beginning and forever, been demonic in origin; it would have stripped faith from the picture. No human would ever have to exercise free will to come to God by faith if the Person they were following was as obvious as this, and the satanic energy that perpetuated the universal inauguration of Christ’s “kingdom” would have grown stronger in this deal with the devil. Christ and Satan would have been working together for this potential rule, cancelling out the work the alternative cross actually completed in its formidable and permanent defeat over the powers of hell. This is the insight the Son of God had on an eternal level with His Father.
In addition, since the Father is only holy and cannot coexist with evil, Jesus, who was “one with” the Father (John 17), knew this submission to Satan’s plans would also sever His relationship with the Father and the Spirit within Him.
What a tragic loss it would have been after all…
Thus, Jesus outwitted Satan—praise the Lord!—ending the temptations with the statement, “Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve’” (Luke 4:8).
In hindsight, we can only be thankful for the personified Wisdom’s decisions in these episodes.
Wedding at Cana
Between the temptation in the wilderness and the wedding at Cana, Jesus began to collect a following of disciples. These are the ones who, along with the wedding servants, witnessed the “beginning of [His] miracles” (John 2:11).
Weddings today don’t match up to what Jewish weddings of Jesus’ day, which were celebratory feasts that often lasted seven days. The wine was an important element in the festivities, so running out of it could force the feast to an early close. It has been speculated that Jesus’ extra guests may have been the reason the wine ran out early, which is why Mary thought to ask Him to fix the problem. It has also been suggested that Mary was a coordinator for the wedding and the responsibility to find more wine fell upon her, which led her to run to Him for help. Either way, there is an often-misunderstood moment in Scripture here, where Jesus, confronted with the last drop of wine, responded, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come” (John 2:4). This is interpreted as if Jesus said, “Woman! What do you want Me to do about it!? It ain’t My time yet!”
Actually, this verse might often be misjudged based on our culture’s perspective of this wording. We hear “woman” at the beginning of a sentence today and assume it will be followed by, “bring me a beer!” But far from the Al Bundy (a character on the sitcom Married with Children) tone, this expression—based on its Greek translation—conveys a tone of gentleness and respect. It was an endearing way to address an elder, much like “Madame” in recent history or “Dear Lady” now: “Addressing his mother simply as ‘woman,’ though abrupt to modern readers’ ears, does not imply lack of affection. Jesus addressed his mother in this way from the cross when making loving provision for her care after his death ([John] 19:26).”[i]
Furthermore, what are not recorded in this exchange are the facial expressions of Mary and Jesus, which could reveal a lot of information about their feelings. We don’t know how long the time gap was between their words. For all we know, Jesus’ comment that it wasn’t His time to begin performing miracles may have been a question, as some scholars believe: “My hour has not yet come…has it?” The question wouldn’t need to be spoken aloud for it to “linger between them” through eye contact. That’s one possibility. Another is that Jesus was bluntly telling her, possibly in a rebuking tone, the timing wasn’t right but He would do it anyway because she was His mother. This is unlikely, as the Messiah’s “oneness” with God naturally would not lead Him to any waffling about His actions.
But the most probable (and most theologically sound) interpretation of this passage centers not on Jesus’ response, but on Mary’s implied request. If we imagine that Mary, who had known His true identity from His conception, was hoping to kick-start public acknowledgment of who He was, suddenly it is her words, and not His, that can be critiqued. The invisible exchange involving undescribed expressions may have communicated something like this:
Mary: “Hey Jesus, we’re out of wine… Think you can, uh, you know, do something about this? You and I both know you’re the Son of God. Don’t you think it’s about time they knew who You really are?”
Jesus: “Dear woman, it’s yet not time for Me to let everyone know that I’m the Messiah. I’m keeping that revelation on the down-low while I gather My disciples. But I will see to your wine problem.” (Jesus knew this wouldn’t be the “great reveal” of His messianic status, but it would be an evidence of it that would help build His case later on.)
Then, Mary, having had no idea what Jesus’ soft smile (or whatever it was) may have implied, might have turned to the wedding servants and said, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
This interpretation has been championed by commentators almost since the first circulation of the book of John. One commentary by Holman Publishers states:
Mary had carried the stigma of Jesus’ miraculous birth for thirty years. It was only natural she would want some public revelation that her son was the Messiah. Jesus seemed to be saying, however, “What you expect out of this will not occur yet. I’m on a divine timetable and the revelation of my purpose will not happen today.” But God’s timetable for the Lamb did allow him to begin giving evidence of his calling by performing this local miracle.[ii]
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This possibility has been massively overlooked in the modern era and replaced with the concept of rebuke, sometimes by those who view Jesus’ “woman” reference to His mother as insolent. After viewing numerous scholarly sources and comparing commentaries, the most reasonable explanation is that Mary, though every bit the innocent and sweet woman the Father chose to bear His Son, was simply human in her understanding of how the Son would be recognized as the prophesied Messiah. She was hoping the wedding could be the moment when He would stand up, arms outstretched, and make the glorious announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am the Messiah, and I am about to prove it by snapping my fingers and making more wine appear—right in front of your eyes!” (or something to that effect). But Jesus knew miracles wouldn’t prove anything to the crowd because sorcerers in the land, like Simon of Acts 8:9, were already performing miracles by the powers of darkness (at least they had been, until some or all of their powers were “broken” by the arrival of the star at His birth; see the section “Unbelievable Political Implications of the Magi”). No, just performing a miracle wouldn’t have been enough to convince folks of His identity as their Messiah. Perhaps He even knew that, in the future, when He would heal the possessed, blind, and dumb man in front of the Pharisees, they would say He had done so by the powers of “Beelzebub the prince of devils” (Matthew 12:22–37). Maybe Jesus’ thoughts included the “miracle” that occurred when Pharaoh’s men had also turned the water into blood as Moses had done (Exodus 7:14–25). In order for Jesus to establish Himself as the embodiment of the Messiah, His hour was not yet at hand. He would help with the wine issue, but discreetly, in such a way that “the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was [didn’t know where it came from],” perhaps assuming the bridegroom had produced wine—and had saved the best for last (John 2:9–10).
But while most people weren’t aware of Jesus’ subtle and inconspicuous act, the disciples definitely noticed: “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). This plays into a striking parallel: Both wine (Isaiah 25:6; 55:1; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13) and feasts (Matthew 8:11; 22:1–14; Lk 13:29; 14:15–24; Revelation 19:7–9) are signs of the coming Kingdom, which will be better than the old Kingdom (Mark 2:21–22).
One last issue must be addressed maturely in regard to the nature of the “wine.” (It is one of the most highly debated subjects in recent history among believers, and if we can help some by sharing what we feel is going on here, then we’d like to take a moment now to do so.) A number of folks argue that Jesus didn’t create an alcoholic beverage, but unfermented grape juice. This claim is based on a) the immediacy in which the beverage was consumed (it therefore hadn’t been given ample time to ferment), and b) the Greek translation of the word “wine” used here, oinos (John 2:9–10) which could refer either a fermented or non-fermented drink. This approach greatly reassures those who see any consumption of alcohol as a sin, based on the many warnings in the Word against being a drunkard. To them, it’s puzzling that God in the flesh would make, then serve, a substance that could cause a partygoer to become intoxicated.
The first statement we wish to make on this subject is that any people who make their conclusions responsibly, meaning by studying the languages and context, should be commended, regardless of what they deduce. Far too many Christians, even those who are well-meaning, hear one teaching on the subject and, without consulting the Bible or attempting to exegete the Scriptures properly, repeat that teaching to others in a way that either endorses or condemns the consumption of alcohol. This can be dangerous, as it may encourage someone who struggles with alcohol abuse to find justification for continuing to do so, or it might unnecessarily come across as judgmental to someone who uses it in moderation. Scholars, too, have at times found this particular issue such a worthy and provocative topic that they’ve set aside their professionalism by slandering those who don’t agree with their stance. So, no matter what we personally believe about this miracle at Cana, it’s important to maintain loving tact in discussions. Remember that, if trusted academics, historians, researchers, and lingual experts can’t even agree, then we likely won’t know the “right” answer on this side of eternity. In this matter, as in all matters that leave room for various interpretations, we should be willing to admit when there’s something we simply don’t know.
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That said, here are a few facts that may help with your studies:
The issue of how soon the beverage was consumed is, in our respectful opinion, a non-issue. Yes, party guests with empty cups might have immediately depleted the wine barrel, but if Jesus was powerful enough to turn water into grape juice, He would have been powerful enough to turn it into wine without having to create something and then stave off the feasters for several months for it to be fully prepared.
As for the translation matter, it’s true the Greek word oinos—which derives from the Hebrew yayin—can refer to either fermented or nonfermented beverages. In some places in Scripture, the context is perfectly clear. For example, in the first book of the Bible, we read: “And he drank of the wine [yayin], and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent” (Genesis 9:21). Obviously, the context of this verse, which describes a very drunk and stumbling man, shows that yayin can certainly refer to juice from the vine that has been fermented and therefore potentially intoxicating. And in the New Testament, we see oinos also used this way: “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak” (Romans 14:21). Again, the context of someone being caused by a fellow believer to sin could only be referring to alcoholic wine, as “grape juice” would not cause anyone to “stumble.”
Also, we do have a Greek word in use that refers specifically to new wine: “Others mocking said, ‘These men are full of new wine [Greek gleukos]’” (Acts 2:13). Those who believe the water was turned to wine, not grape juice defend their position with reasoning that goes something like this: “If Jesus merely created nonalcoholic ‘grape-ade,’ why wouldn’t the Word say He turned water into gleukos [“sweet wine”]?”
Actually, as Acts 2:13 stipulates (that drinking this could still cause drunkenness), the Greek word also refers to a kind of wine with intoxicating properties. The difference is not in which one contains more alcohol, but in how this drink is made. “New wine” —gleukos—is more literally translated as “sweet wine.” In fact, it’s from this Greek term that the English word “glucose” is derived (meaning a form of naturally produced sugar in fruit and in the human bloodstream that’s later transformed into energy.) The Greeks and Romans had a practice of covering a jar with pitch (a tar-like substance) and placing grapes within it that had not yet been completely trampled or pressed. This airtight container was then either submerged in water or buried in the sand for as little as six weeks or as long as several months. The end product was therefore believed to be just as alcoholic as standard table wines, but it had preserved more of the sweetness and flavor of the original grape. This beverage, too, appeared in the Old Testament (Isaiah 49:26; Amos 9:13), although its process may not have been the same as that of those in the Greco-Roman era. So, either way, the existence of this word fails to prove anything on either side of the debate.
The answer may not be found in the study of a single word, as is often the case in the Bible…but it may be found in the context of the whole passage. Read the following and note that the term is the same in every instance:
And when they wanted wine [oinos], the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine [oinos].…
Jesus saith unto them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, “Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast.” And they bare it.
When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine [oinos]…the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, “Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine [oinos]; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine [oinos] until now.” (John 2:3. 7–10)
The key to this passage is not in what the servants handed the ruler of the feast, it’s in his response: At the beginning of a feast, everyone sets out the good stuff, and when everyone’s had plenty, they set out the cheap stuff. But this bridegroom (the ruler of the feast thought it was the groom who replenished the wine supply) saved the best for last. In other words, whatever they were consuming at the beginning of the festivities is the same as what they were consuming on this round, with one difference: this stuff was better; it was “good.” We have little choice but to accept that Jesus turned the water into whatever was served the guests early on.
With that in mind, the only way we can deduce that Jesus made grape juice is to reason that grape juice was what they had been drinking from the onset of the feast. But again, context cancels that conclusion. Here’s why: The very reason someone (the groom or anyone else) would serve the best stuff first and switch to “that which is worse” later is because, after having consumed so much alcohol by that point, the guests wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between what was in their cups at first and the substandard refill later. (This can happen early on. It doesn’t mean anyone would have to be drunk not to recognize the quality of the beverage handed to them.)
Moreover, much can be said about what a “ruler of the feast” was. In other translations, the phrase is rendered “master of the feast,” which is a more literal wording. Far from where our imagination might go with a term as grand as “master,” this doesn’t indicate a hoity-toity, wealthy man who makes it his business to frequent all the best local parties in the New Testament. As the cup-bearers to the kings of the Old Testament were those who tasted the wine before the kings did to spare them of potential poisoning, the master over the feasts in the New Testament tasted the food and drink to ensure quality. Consider it against today’s phrase, “master of ceremonies.” That doesn’t denote a true “master” of anything; it simply means a supervisor or planner. Wedding celebrations in the times of the New Testament, for generally all people groups in that culture (Jewish or otherwise), included regular table wine that did contain alcohol. So, in light of the context, this fermented wine is likely what was served.
But that’s not to say any of those attending the Cana wedding was getting drunk, either. Those who prefer to believe Jesus created grape juice find it tough to imagine Jesus being surrounded by wild partygoers; surely He wouldn’t be a part of or contribute (wine) to such an inebriated group of revelers. The truth is, He didn’t, and that, too, can be proven by understanding the master of the feast also served as somewhat of a room monitor. If someone at one of the shindigs was to become intoxicated, it was the master’s duty to cut that person off from imbibing further. If anyone was getting out of hand, the master would even go as far as breaking a glass. As this narrative describes nothing more than the master’s approval of the miraculously supplied beverage, we can breathe a sigh of relief that none of these guests were drunk, but instead were drinking in polite moderation. (In case you’re wondering, there were absolutely stronger drinks in that day, wine being mild in comparison. Note that Jesus didn’t turn water into one of those alternatives.)
Furthermore, this isn’t the only time God’s holy and authoritative Word presents the balanced consumption of wine in a positive light. Ecclesiastes 9:7 says, “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.” Elsewhere, the Bible says the natural growth of the grape of the ground was specifically created for our enjoyment: “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man” (Psalm 104:14–15a). Amos 9:14, a prophecy linked to the context of God’s future blessings for the righteous, states: “And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel…and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof.” In Paul’s first Pastoral Epistle, 1 Timothy (5:23), the apostle instructed Timothy to take some wine in addition to his water to soothe a chronic illness he suffered: “Drink no longer [just] water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” In strong language, Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown believe “God hereby commands believers to use all due means for preserving health, and condemns by anticipation the human traditions which among various sects have denied the use of wine to the faithful.”[iii]
Those who believe drinking past the point of moderation is wrong are, however, correct, as our focus should be on the work of the Spirit more than on partying: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). The bottom line of the lesson we can take from the wedding narrative is this: If, for you, that means abstaining from all intoxicating liquids, we thank you for your obedience. If you studied this issue on your own and conclude it’s okay to drink alcohol, we likewise thank you—both for your temperance and your self-control. Either way, all of us would benefit from being delicate in how we discuss these issues with members of our family of believers. We don’t have to always agree in order to be united in the same Gospel work.
This brings us to the real purpose of Jesus’ miracles. Believe it or not, though His miraculous works did benefit the recipients, Jesus’ ultimate goal was not only to show mercy to the lucky ones bestowed with His grace. Once we understand this principle, it may explain why we don’t see many miracles in today’s time!
UP NEXT: Miracles of Jesus
[i] Kruse, C. G., John: An Introduction and Commentary: Volume 4 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2003), 94.
[ii] Gangel, K. O., John: Volume 4 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers; 2000), 30.
[iii] Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, 416.