According to John’s Gospel, Jesus performs the first miracle of his ministry when he turns water to wine. After the wine runs out at a wedding in Cana, Yeshua has stone jars filled with water, which he transforms into the best wine at the banquet. But of all the wonders that the Messiah could have wrought, why does he begin with this one? Jesus’ first sign validates his own messianic identity and recalls the prophetic vision of a time when the blessings of water and wine would flow in abundance.
Jesus’ sign of turning water into wine alludes to divine cleansing for Israel. The transformed water comes from “six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding two or three metretas” (2:6). A metretes was an ancient measure of about ten gallons, so Jesus makes somewhere around 150 gallons of wine! More important are John’s exact numbers: six jars with two or three metretas each. Six multiplied by two is 12; six times three is 18. These numbers had symbolic resonance in first-century Judaism: twelve signifies the tribes of Israel (cf. Matt 19:28; Rev 21:12) and eighteen alludes to God’s gift of renewed life or prosperity (e.g., Lk 13:11-16; 1 Esd 1:21-22; SibOr 11:80-102; in the later rabbinic numerical system of gematria, in which each Hebrew letter also represents a number, the word for “life” [חי; chai] equals 18). Thus, Jesus’ sign shows that he has come to purify all Israel and offer the gift of eternal life to the whole world.
Jesus’ use of water to produce wine also echoes the prophecy of Joel, which details an abundance of wine and purifying waters in the messianic age: “In that day, the mountains shall drip with wine (עסיס; asis)… and all the stream beds of Judah shall flow with water (מים; mayim); a spring shall come forth from the House of the Lord” (Joel 3:18 [Hebrew 4:18]; cf. Amos 9:13). The fact that John’s Gospel is particularly interested in Jesus’ offer of life-giving water supports the likelihood that his first miracle alludes to Joel’s prophetic words (cf. John 3:23; 4:7-15, 46; 5:7; 7:38). The expansive world of Jewish Scripture and tradition provides Gospel readers with a deeper theological understanding of Jesus’ first sign. These ancient contexts underscore Jesus’ role as a heavenly savior whose activity signals the divine desire to lavish life.