How should interpret the six stone water jars at Cana in John2?

The Sunday lectionary gospel in Year C for Epiphany 3 is John 2.1–11, the ‘sign’ of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. (In the Church of England version of the lectionary, it was also the reading on Epiphany 3 in Year B, though the ecumenical lectionary had a reading for Mark last year; if anyone can explain this, do comment below.)

It offers us a good example of John’s remarkable ability in story-telling, where he combines an intense attention to realistic detail with powerful evocation of the scene. In 11 short verses, we are taken into both the reality and the emotion of the event, so it is no wonder that the story is so well known that the phrase ‘turning water into wine’ (like ‘walking on water’) has become something of a cultural trope.

We have become used to reading John’s gospel on two levels, the literal and the symbolic, and so it is not surprising that we should be alert to anything that might suggest symbolic significance in this story. Already John the Baptist has proclaimed Jesus as the symbolic ‘lamb of God’ (so we are not surprised when we later read that Jesus dies in John’s chronology at the time of the sacrifice of the Passover lambs), and the first disciples ask Jesus ‘Where are you staying?’ (John 1.38) using the word later translated ‘abiding’, which becomes a symbolic term for the incorporation of the faithful disciple in the presence of God through Jesus in John 15.4. The Cana episode is introduced with one of John’s characteristic temporal markers: ‘on the third day…’ (John 2.1). Mark Stibbe and C K Barrett disagree on whether this implies the wedding takes place on the sixth or seventh day of the narrative so far, as indicated by the cumulation of temporal markers:

Day 1John 1.19John’s testimony to the Jewish leaders
Day 2John 1.29‘the next day’John’s declaration of Jesus as lamb of God
Day 3John 1.35‘the next day’The disciples seek Jesus
Day 4John 1.43‘the next day’Jesus leaves for Galilee
Day 5The Sabbath?
Day 6John 2.1‘on the third day’The first day of the week?

(If ‘the third day’ implies an interval of two days between this and the previous event, then we are on to Day Seven in this ‘week’ of Jesus’ ministry. Jo-Ann Bryant, Paideia p 55 and other recent commentators agree with Stibbe, that this is indeed Day Seven.) But Stibbe and Barrett do agree on the significance of the phrase ‘on the third day’, anticipating the day of resurrection, the first day of the week and the first day of the new creation brought about by Jesus’ dying and rising again. Stibbe takes this further, and sees the wedding itself as presaging the eschatological wedding banquet of God with his people (compare Rev 19.7–9). We find this double meaning repeatedly as the gospel unfolds: Nicodemus, dimly grasping Jesus’ teaching, meets him in the twilight in chapter 3, the usual time for a meeting in a hot climate, whilst the woman by the well sees the light of the world by the light of the noonday sun in chapter 4, an unusual time demonstrating she is outcast; in John 9.7 the man born blind in chapter 9 is sent to the Pool of Siloam (which means ‘sent’, of course!); and when Judas goes out to betray Jesus ‘it was night!’ (John 13.30) which it was both literally and metaphorically.

So it is not surprising that many readers interpret the six stone water jars symbolically. Barrett comments:

It is possible although by no means certain that the number six is symbolic. Six, being less by one and seven, the number of completeness and perfection, would indicate that the Jewish dispensation, typified by its ceremonial water, was partial and imperfect. (p 191)

Augustine goes much further, connecting the six jars with the six ages of the world up to the time of Jesus:

But observe what Himself says, The things which were written in the law, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning me. And we know that the law extends from the time of which we have record, that is, from the beginning of the world: In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. Genesis 1:1 Thence down to the time in which we are now living are six ages, this being the sixth, as you have often heard and know. The first age is reckoned from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; and, as Matthew the evangelist duly follows and distinguishes, the third, from Abraham to David; the fourth, from David to the carrying away into Babylon; the fifth, from the carrying away into Babylon to John the Baptist; Matthew 1:17 the sixth, from John the Baptist to the end of the world. Moreover, God made man after His own image on the sixth day, because in this sixth age is manifested the renewing of our mind through the gospel, after the image of Him who created us; Colossians 3:10 and the water is turned into wine, that we may taste of Christ, now manifested in the law and the prophets. Hence there were there six water-pots, which He bade be filled with water. Now the six water-pots signify the six ages, which were not without prophecy. And those six periods, divided and separated as it were by joints, would be as empty vessels unless they were filled by Christ. Why did I say, the periods which would run fruitlessly on, unless the Lord Jesus were preached in them? Prophecies are fulfilled, the water-pots are full; but that the water may be turned into wine, Christ must be understood in that whole prophecy. (Tractates on John 9.6)

And in popular preaching, this symbolic number is hard to resist. The Jewish system of the law is all about ritual; it separates people into the clean and the unclean, and so dehumanises them; and Jesus comes to do away with the lot.

There are multiple problems with this kind of reading. Theologically, we need to reflect on the origin of ‘the law’. In the OT, it is clearly seen as a gift from God—so in this reading we must believe that Jesus is doing away with a nasty, dehumanising system which originated with God himself. Canonically, there is a difficulty posed by Jesus’ insistence that he ‘has not come to do away with the law, but to fulfil it’ (Matt 5.17), and by Matthew and Paul’s insistence (strongly implied by all the other gospels) that Jesus’ life and ministry ‘fulfilled’ or was ‘according to’ the Scriptures (1 Cor 15.3–4)—a belief that marks out canonical from non-canonical texts. Within John’s gospel, despite the language of ‘the Jews’ (John 2.6), we find a very Jewish message which insists on the primacy of Jewish understanding (‘salvation is from the Jews’ John 4.22) and which centres around the Jewish pilgrim feasts. And in this narrative, absolutely nothing whatever is made of the number six—most notably, Jesus changes the water into wine within the six jars, and does not add a seventh. If we are to take the six as symbolising the apparent ‘incompleteness’ of Jewish belief prior to Jesus, then Jesus’ completion of it involves using what is already there—and not adding anything to it! Reading carefully, we also notice that the climax of the story is not the contrast between water and wine—but that the best wine has been kept until last. Just as John 1.16 (now rightly translated in modern versions) talks of Jesus bringing grace (the grace of the gospel) in place of (Gk: anti) grace (the grace of the law)—and not grace in place of legalism—so this miracle compares Jesus with the law as the best wine following good wine.

In his fascinating paper given at a recent Tyndale New Testament Study Group, Richard Bauckham brought two other factors into play in reading this story historically. The first relates to the stone water jars themselves, about which much has been written in scholarship in recent years. There are several things to note.

First, the importance of stone vessels is that they are not subject to the impurity laws in Lev 11.32–35 which demand that clay vessels which become unclean must be smashed. So though they are much more expensive to make in the first place, in the long term they are more economic because they can be used repeatedly, even if they come into contact with things which are ceremonially unclean. So their presence indicates either that we are in a priestly household, or at least a household concerned with purity.

Second, these very large vessels are very difficult to make, since they must be carved from a single piece of stone. A quarry and workshop producing stone vessels was recently discovered not far from Cana in lower Galilee. But the technology to produce large vessels needed the kind of lathes that were used by the Romans in making stone columns—so these large stone vessels indicate quite a specific time period of the Roman occupation of Judea and Samaria. Thus John’s mention of them is pointing to a particular and limited historical period.

Thirdly, because these items were expensive, it was thought that they might be ostentatious luxuries which were put on display—and in fact you can see from the examples in the picture above that they were finely made, with a consistent and sophisticated design around the rims, for example. But archaeological evidence, particularly from the Burnt House in Jerusalem (a first century dwelling destroyed in the Roman siege of 70 AD) shows that the large stone jars (qalal in Hebrew) were in the working areas of the house. In other words, they had a practical importance, rather than being for display.

But Richard added another dimension to this discussion. In 1 Chron 24.7–18 are listed the 24 ‘priestly courses’ or divisions (Hebrew mishmar) which set out the pattern of duties of the priests through the year, with each ‘course’ doing duty for two weeks each. Although there is some doubt in scholarship as to whether this was a historical reality in the time of the first temple, or an idealised reconstruction by the writer of Chronicles after the destruction of the temple and the exile, the pattern became important in the Second Temple period—and in fact allows us to determine the approximate date when Jesus was born. But why would such a schedule be so important if all the priests lived in Jerusalem? In fact they didn’t, and so this schedule allowed them to know when to travel to the city to complete their duty. A number of inscriptions have been found in synagogues from the period (and later) which list these divisions, include the names of the towns related to each division, and include an additional column of names, which Richard argues are the particular families within the divisions who lived in the various towns listed, and so were the ones actually travelling to perform their duties.

Why are these lists so important? Firstly, because they have a good claim to indicating actual historical practice at the time of Jesus, not least because no towns established after 70AD are included. They all date from the Hasmonean period, when priestly families settled throughout the country. Secondly (something I pointed out and Richard agreed with), these lists show the connections between Galilee and Jerusalem, with the priestly families settled in the region providing a link with the temple. This is important given John’s focus on Jerusalem—and Richard’s argument that John’s gospel was not written by John the apostle, brother of James, but by someone based in Jerusalem, which accounts for the focus on Jerusalem throughout the gospels, in contrast to the focus on Galilee in Mark, and the importance of the pilgrim festivals. Thirdly, Cana is listed as one of the 24 towns in which priestly families lived.

Put together with the role of stone jars, it looks quite likely (though of course not provable) that the wedding in Cana was taking place in the house of this priestly family, which accounts for the presence of jars themselves because of the family’s concern for ritual purity. And why, then, does John record that there were six? Because, as in the picture of the Burnt House above, that is how many there happened to be!

Although there is much symbolism in John’s gospel, we are increasingly realising that there is also much history. Why does John note (in John 5.2) that the Pool of Bethesda has five stoa (colonnades or porticos)? Until the 19th century, there was no evidence outside of John’s Gospel for the existence of this pool; therefore, scholars argued that the gospel was written later, probably by someone without first-hand knowledge of the city of Jerusalem, and that the ‘pool’ had only a metaphorical, rather than historical, significance. But when the site was excavated, it was discovered that it did indeed have five colonnades—not in a pentagon, but as a rectangle with one colonnade crossing the middle. (See to the right my photograph of the scale model in Jerusalem taken last year, with the Antonia Fortress behind the Pool of Bethesda.) And why does John note (John 5.5) that the man had been there for 38 years? Probably simply because he had.

When reading John, and the other gospels, we need to be alert to their symbolism. But we also need to take them with their full historical seriousness too—as previous generations have often failed to do.

There are a number of other things to note about the passage.

Having introduced the episode by careful temporal and geographical markers, the writer introduces the characters in a way which anticipates the following action. The mother of Jesus is mentioned first; there is no particular significance in the omission of her name, and it would be appropriate to refer to her in relation to Jesus, since he is the principle focus here. It places her in a role of importance, but not central to either the narrative or the gospel; she makes a significant contribution, but there are limits to her understanding of the situation.

Jesus is introduced next, and it is he who has been invited to the wedding as a guest (the verb is singular) whilst the disciples as tagged on, almost as an afterthought. As often happens in this gospel, the disciples are largely by-standers rather than major actors; their function here is to witness what has happened, and ‘believe’. As in the episodes in chapter 1, we find here a close juxtaposition between the ‘mundane’ reality of kinship obligation (as Jesus attends the wedding, most likely of a relative) and the cosmic significance of the action that manifests his ‘glory’, that which he has shared with his Father in John 1.14 and which will be made fully manifest (paradoxically) when Jesus is lifted up on the cross (John 17.5).

The wine fails; the term here, hustereo, can have a sense of lack of quantity or lack of quality. Mary’s statement to Jesus suggests the former, whilst the final response of the steward suggests the latter. Within the first-century honour/shame culture, it would not be appropriate for a mother to make a demand of her adult son, so Mary’s comment is a statement, though clearly with the expectation of some response.

Typical of the Fourth Gospel’s realistic speech, Jesus’ reply is expressed in a semitic metaphor: ‘What to me and to you?’, an expression we find in exactly the same form in Hebrew in Judges 11.12, 1 Kings 17.18 and 2 Kings 3.13, all with the sense of ‘What is there between us?’ Given the context of these examples, we would be right to interpret Jesus’ address to her as ‘woman’ in a negative way; he is resisting her suggestion, since she does not fully understand what the coming of ‘his hour’ will involve. Nevertheless she clearly expects him to do something dramatic, hence her instruction to the servants.

Although there are no particular linguistic connections, the volume of the jars and the action of the servants in filling them ‘to the very top’, beyond the point where you would normally fill them, points to the later language of ‘life in abundance’ (John 10.10).

Once again, the honour/shame dynamic plays its part. The steward does not know where this best wine has come from, and credits its supply to the bridegroom, whose honour is thereby left intact since the humiliating failure is not made public. And there is an inversion of revelation, in that it is the servants who really know the truth. But Jesus himself does not accrue honour in the social sense. Instead, he reveals his ‘glory’ to the disciples (who presumably have also observed the action). This first sign points forward to the time when Jesus will be shamed rather than honoured in human terms, but the glory of God’s grace in the life and forgiveness that flow from Jesus’ crucified body—another juxtaposition of ‘blood and water’—will be fully revealed.

In a previous posting of this piece, Colin Hamer (who has published a fascinating study of marital imagery in the Bible ) offered this further observation about symbolism in the episode:

When asked to make up the shortfall of wine Jesus is said to declare that ‘My hour is not yet come—Jesus is nonetheless recorded as performing the miracle and when the wine is produced the master of the feast comments on its quality and assumes it is the bridegroom who has made the provision (vv. 9–10). Brant Pitre (Jesus the Bridegroom, 35–39; also: McWhirter, The Bridegroom Messiah and the People of God, 57) suggests that this was in accord with the Jewish wedding tradition where it was the bridegroom’s responsibility to provide the wine (as inferred in v. 9). It follows that Mary had been, in effect, asking Jesus to act as if he was on that day the bridegroom—such an analysis would explain his enigmatic reply to her. Pitre further suggests Mary’s reference to the lack of wine is an echo of Isaiah 24:7, 9, 11—Isaiah subsequently describing a future restoration of Israel when Yahweh will ensure wine will be in abundance (Isa 25:6–8). Thus Pitre sees that the writer of the fourth Gospel, in recounting such an extravagant supply of wine, is employing contemporary Jewish marriage traditions to portray Jesus as the divine bridegroom self-consciously taking the role occupied by Yahweh in the Old Testament imagery.

I think that that is a plausible observation, but with one qualification: why should we see this symbolism only as the creation of the gospel writer, rather than as something in the mind of Jesus to which the gospel writer is alert? I always find it odd when we ascribe theological sophistication to later characters rather than to Jesus himself! (See also Colin’s own volume The Bridegroom Messiah which offers his PhD research in a popular format.)

How do we make sense of ‘end times’ language in the New Testament? Should we be looking for ‘signs’ or predicting dates—or is there a better way to think about these things?

Join me for a Zoom teaching afternoon on Thursday February 3rd, or come for a relaxing break and think about these issues at Lee Abbey in Devon on May 2nd to 6th.

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64 thoughts on “How should interpret the six stone water jars at Cana in John2?”

  1. Thanks… Bit of relief as I’ve long thought it was six jars… because there was six jars…

    I encountered large stone jars at Ugarit in Syria. They were huge and marvelously made. Certainly not cheap throw aways (no pun intended!)

      • Is there a seep over from the way that parables are sometimes handled (and more frequently so in the 19th century? ) or the over easiness which turns straightforward (imo) scripture into metaphor? I distinctly remember a sermon suggesting that we should be like the donkey that carried Jesus…

        Admittedly the line between “clear meaning” and “let the reader work it out” can be difficult to discern. But I lean towards not adding layers if scripture isn’t at least a tad obvious that there is more to be said. Analysis of my sermons may not support me over the decades!

        More information, if it’s uncertain, isn’t always usefully more for following Jesus ?

  2. Perhaps His mother picked up on the consternation in the faces of the chief steward and the servant’s body language. Then seeing that Jesus had come to the wedding, not alone but with His motley entourage of freeloaders, decided in her mind to help the situation by getting Jesus to send His disciples off to town to purchase more wine. They could start by taking with them all the used wineskins littering the place. At least for a while there would be twelve less boozy oafs lolling about, the place would look a lot tidier and what drink remained would last a bit longer.

    Six jars? Six is a human number.
    Question: What did they use for cleansing now that all the ritual vessels had been filled with wine? What were the implications?

    • Steve – you know, I’d like to hear a good Salvation Army sermon on this passage, because I do remember (from the place where my parents came from, when I was very young) that the general idea was that a Christian was someone who did not smoke, did not drink and did not go to the cinema; in the case of women there was the additional constraint that they did not wear make-up. People who abided by these rules (and, in addition, went to church on Sunday – and had no other Sunday activity – of extreme importance was to not play golf on Sunday) were Christians; people who deviated from these rules weren’t.

      I never did understand how they reconciled this with the Cana wedding in John 2.

      I haven’t heard any Salvation Army person giving a sermon on this, but my father recounted for me of one sermon that he had heard from a Salvation Army person, which he heard when he was a boy. The preacher had two glasses in front of him, one containing whisky and the other containing water. The preacher took two earth worms and put one in each glass. The one in the water wriggled about and looked lively, while the one in the whisky died. The preacher asked the congregation, `And what do we learn from this, my brethern?’ and someone in the crowd shouted out, `if you’ve got the worms, drink plenty of whisky!’

          • As soon as the Arch Angel blows the trumpet. John will rise in front of all gathered, clear his throat and begin .
            At the same moment the great doors at the back
            close, the echoes of the trumpet fade, the distant sound of wailing drains away…
            “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…”
            A ripple of laughter grows to a great shout of applause…

      • Steve Chalke tells a story about this from his earliest days working as a Baptist minister. By the by, the strong stance of Baptists and Salvation Army against alcohol is not only the fruit of their history but was highly necessary and justified within that history.

        He was at Tonbridge Baptist Church where his superior minister was David Beer (!) whose father in law was Harry Cork[e] (!!) both of whom were strongly anti alcohol (!!!).

        When SC protested that the water into wine story did not square with this, one of the two pleaded that Jesus was ‘very young at the time’.

    • Where does it say ALL the water became wine other than the water that was drawn off?
      Raymond Brown, in his “conservative ” days, assumed all the water was changed (in his c.1966 commentary) but does a close reading support this?
      Ian: a different problem. If the Fourth Gospel is not to be associated with John becsuse of its Jerusalem material, why is the Second Gospel, with its “Galilee focus” associated with Mark if he is the John Matk of Jerusalem (Acts 12.12)?

      • Yes, after a second reading it may be that only the water drawn off had become wine. It rings a bit like the widow’s oil. Perhaps the wine kept coming until the guests had had enough and then the last dip sampled was once again, only water.
        Thanks for that, it makes the whole scenario a lot more civilised!

        • Steve – yeah right. Only the water that was drawn off tasted like wine. So – in other words the one drink that the master of the feast got was wine, but everybody else only got water.

          Well, I suppose we’re converging on a Salvation Army interpretation of the passage after all – where they’re basically drinking flavoured water.

          I’m intrigued by the fact that the jars were made out of stone – which isn’t the sort of container that people use for wine. Could these jars, by any chance, have been tea pots? Could the wine simply be a metaphor for a nice cup of tea?

          • Hi Jock
            Hahaha . V funny. I made the connection with the widow’s oil because I think it has merit. She kept pouring oil into pots until she ran out. Only then did the oil stop. Mebbe likewise the wine kept coming until the people-pots were full. Then the wine stopped. A fanciful connection. Perhaps someone can draw out of this stone metaphors some more theological wine?
            My great grandfather was a temperance preacher. We are 100 years apart almost exactly. He died in 1923. I’ll pop over and see if he’s turning in his grave.

  3. Regarding John 2 v4, the word ‘woman’ is translated as ‘my dear lady’ by Dr Anne Nyland, the Classical Greek scholar.
    In ‘The Source’ p. 167 footnote 2 she writes
    “ ‘gunai’, vocative, common as a form of polite address in Greek, eg. Aristophanes, ‘Acharniand, 262 Dikaiopolos says “Dear wife, you watch us from the roof. Let’s go!” (Trans. J. Henderson) Dawe also translates ‘gune’, in Sophocles, AO.T.,928, as “lady”: R. D. Dave, (Ed.) Sophocles: ‘Oedipus Rex’”
    It resonates with me that Jesus should say ‘my dear lady’ rather than ‘woman’.

  4. If priests didn’t always live in Jerusalem (which was news to me) do we have any evidence as to where Zechariah and Elizabeth were living when Mary visited them? I’ve always wondered whether Mary actually travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Joseph or whether Joseph picked her up from Elizabeth’s as he passed through Jersualem.

  5. I have read a fairly recent comment from Jeff Lucas about the wedding being on the Tuesday, the third day, as also with the third day of creation as in Gen ch1 this day is mentioned twice with “God saw it was good”. The view goes that the Jewish viewed Tuesday or third day being doubly blessed. Does this fit with your analysis? If I am mangling Lucas’s comment that is my fault not his.

    • i think Lucas is wrong here. The pattern is that the Sabbath is missed out, so that the wedding marks the beginning of a new week. It is on the third day rather than on the next day whereas the former stretch has had directly succeeding days. This mirrors the way that on the macro-scale the resurrection takes place on the third day after the Sabbath rest.

      • This article serves, usefully I might say, only to further the ‘mystique’ of professional ‘theologians’, who manage to disagree among themselves as to the provenance of different stories from the Bible. The very prolific variations in interpretation can only confuse the person in the pew. HOWEVER, it helps the dilletantes to spar with one another on some irrelevant detail, but without adding one iota to the innate tenor of the underlying Good News the world needs to hear. However, it probably provides a steady income for the practitioners, but at the risk of undermining the fragile faith of those who wonder at the contentious arguments going on.

        • It is only the things where there is any discussion to be had that we need to discuss.

          By definition, the things that are clear and agreed upon will generate no discussion.

          How could things be different?

        • Fathe Ron Smith – I’m inclined to agree with you to some extent – a deep theological discussion over the significance of the fact that there were exactly 6 jars is clearly a joke.

          But you’re dead wrong about `undermining the fragile faith’ – when the Holy Spirit performs the miracle of salvation in a person’s heart and mind, it really takes an awful lot more than the work of dilettante theologians to destroy that faith.

          Note that this rubbish about the Holy significance of the number 6, in this context, actually goes back to Augustine – as Ian Paul notes in his article. You’re right – Augustine does come across as a pompous dilettante (read the piece by Augustine that Ian Paul quoted in his article), but it only goes to show that this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.

          • …. actually, it probably goes back much further than Augustine. In fact, no sooner was the first edition of John’s gospel hot off the press than speculative theologians started finding holy significance in every single number and every single detail ….. I wonder if anybody has written a comprehensive history of the speculators and their understanding of the holy significance of the number 6. Now, that is something that really would enable academics to publish in top ranking theology journals.

          • As John is a logic-problem book and a logic-problem writer, successful grasp of one detail has knock-on effects throughout the gospel. But it is the same in most branches of study.

          • Christopher – I don’t see John as a `logic problem book’ in that sense. If the fact that the number of jars is 6 really does symbolise something important, then we can be sure that (a) Jesus was the ultimate author of the symbolism and John is simply communicating this and (b) the symbolism will be made clear (as it is – for example – when Jesus explains the parables).

            I don’t see any such explanation being given here. Furthermore, my lack-of-understanding of any symbolism in the number 6 has not prevented me from understanding the saving message of John’s gospel. The purpose of John’s gospel is given in John 20:30.

            To enable us to believe, John has to prove that Jesus existed as a real live character, who was the Messiah and that the `once for all’ event was a real event in human history. I’d therefore take the eyewitness details (such as 6 jars, 5 colonnades, etc …) which are not explained as intentional symbolism, as those corroborative elements which make the narrative look as if someone has witnessed these real live events – so that the life and death of Jesus were real and not some sort of metaphor.

            I’ll take the number 6 in this way until someone shows me that Jesus (or John) explicitly intended this number to have some deeper symbolism.

            John isn’t intended as a logic-problem book – its intention is expressed in John 20:30.

          • It’s been my marked experience in a 30 year period that it yields its secrets best when one pursues the hypothesis that it is a logic problem book. The same hypothesis is the one that works best for Revelation in my experience; it also works well for important aspects of the other gospels. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.

            That does not mean that a logic problem book is all it is, far from it. It means that that is the angle from which to solve contested issues: that it is an interrelated and internally consistent book to the nth degree, and its precise little details that otherwise defy explanation become clearer in the light of whole-of-John exegesis. Over and above that, this perspective is the only one that gets close to one’s being able to predict what John had to have written rather than wading through the things that he had written that one could never have predicted.

          • Further, historicity and symbolism are not the only two options. Nor are they mutually exclusive. A third central option is that John might have a special interest in numbers per se and have interrelated systems of numbers.

            It is certainly not the case that John has to prove Jesus’s existence, nor is it the case that giving numbers would in any way do so. If someone died only 50 years earlier, and was famous, then no-one is going to have doubted their existence. And thirdly, existence by itself will not get one very far – millions of people successfully exist.

          • Christopher – necessary, but (as you point out) not sufficient.

            Jesus had to exist as a real person, be crucified (many succeeded in this) and rise again (only one person has done that).

            We could take the view that John, just like Claudius, was writing for remote posterity.

            Emil Brunner (The Mediator) pointed out, with great clarity, the difference between general revelation (God is the author of the laws of nature; general revelation is when God reveals himself through nature and His natural laws. Any recurrent event -for example `miraculous healing’ if it is repetitive and part of the general order – is, by definition governed by laws of nature and falls into the category of general revelation. Brunner also points out that there are many religions whereby god meets man, even takes human form and dies, but the important distinction between these religions and Christianity is that these events are (a) mythological (i.e. not pinpointed at a specific time point in history, which can be investigated by historians and (b) in some sense recurrent, so they fall into category of `general revelation’, governed by `laws of nature’ – and therefore categorically different from the special revelation, the once-for-all event, that is fundamental to Christianity.

            If the author of John was any theologian at all, then he understood this full well – special revelation, unique once-for-all historical event (the Word became flesh, a real man – Jesus – was crucified and on the third day rose again) and he was aware that, for remote posterity, he had to supply enough forensic detail so that readers 2000 years later knew that they weren’t dealing with a metaphor and they weren’t dealing with a parable; they were dealing with the real once-for-all event.

            I do basically agree with what you say about the logic-problem aspect. But I don’t see it here in the significance of the number 6 – and I’d say that John was well aware that he had to prove for remote posterity that the Word becoming flesh living among us, being crucified and rising again was a real historical event.

  6. Symbolism is clearly at work in John’s gospel and although Judaism and the Mosaic covenant has some ambivalence nevertheless it is about to be superseded. It was a shadow. A burden. And it led to people trusting in their own righteousness rather than the righteousness of God. It seems likely that this first miracle in Cana points to the arrival of the kingdom (eternal life) and the joy it brings in contrast to the failure of Judaism. This is the theme Jesus will develop throughout the rest of the gospel. Nicodemus needs to learn of heavenly things. Worship would not be limited to Jerusalem but they who worship the Father will worship in Spirit and in truth . Jesus is the true bread. To those who thirst he gives the eschatological living water. He gives the light of life while opposed by the representatives of Judaism. He is the true vine (not Israel). The law gave no power for ice but abiding in the vine does.

    The reference to ‘his hour’ suggests he has the eschatological moment before him. His mother sort of forces his hand and he gently rebukes her. He sets the pace and not her.

    I wonder, if this is his first miracle, how his mother knew of his abilities. Knowing his identity has she grasped the nature of his mission from the OT and anticipates his abilities?

    • John
      Is it being so cheerful that keeps you going?
      I’m reading Jesus on every Page by David Murray. I recommend it to you.

    • Thank you, John. Here, at least, we have something substantial to work on. No doubt Mary, the mother of Christ, had some idea of what was going on – from the beginning of Jesus conception. Biologically, at least, she has been the closest human being to Christ in this world’s history. She stores up a lot of wisdom – but seldom boasts of it – a theologian par excellence! I guess the BVM’s knowledge was more heart that head. Head ‘knowledge’ can be heady: “Where are your wise men now…..” (Jesus)

  7. Hi Steve

    Sorry. I wasn’t aware i was being morose. I rejoice at the wine of gladness that Christ introduced. . See – a happy smile.

    • It was the bit about …superceded….shadow.. burden
      To me it is fulfilled …
      What to us looks like a shadow was to them a presentiment and promise.
      It became a burden to the recalcitrant but it was a joy to the faithful who understood by faith the love of God.
      And even today the new Covenant is viewed as a burden.
      But not to you or me I hope.

  8. ,i> I think that that is a plausible observation, but with one qualification: why should we see this symbolism only as the creation of the gospel writer, rather than as something in the mind of Jesus to which the gospel writer is alert?

    Silly Dr Paul! The symbolism must have been in created by the gospel writer because the gospels aren’t records of things that actually happened. They are salvation history. Heilsgeschichte. That is a German word that means the events in them were made up by the gospel writers to express and expound their (usually mistaken) opinions about God’s interactions with humanity. So the symbolism must have come from the mind of the gospel writer, in order to express what they (wrongly) think is the truth about the outworking of salvation.

    I mean, where on Earth else could the symbolism have come from?

  9. E TTThis article serves, usefully I might say, only to further the ‘mystique’ of professional ‘theologians, who manage to disagree among themselves as to the provenance of different stories from the Bible. The very prolific variations in interpretation can only confuse the person in the pew. HOWEVER, it helps the dilletantes to spar with one another on some irrelevant detail, but without adding one iota to the innate tenor of the underlying Good News the world needs to hear. However, it probably provides a steady income for the practitioners, but at the risk of undermining the fragile faith of those who wonder at the contnious arguments going on.

    • Ron, you should remember what St Gregory the Great said about Scripture: it has shallows where an infant can safely paddle but depths where an elephant (or a blue whale, he might have said) can swim without touching the bottom.
      Some will be happy to stay by the shore, that is fine. Others will wa t to venture further out, that is fine provided they don’t “get out of their depth”, so to speak.
      I myself heard Raymond Brown give a lecture not long before his death in 1998 and did wonder if he managed to “keep it all together” as he tried to be a faithful Catholic but increasingly use liberal Protestant biblical methods. I don’t know if he ever squared that circle: how do you stop becoming another Bart Ehrman? Or another Richard Holloway? – who is admittedly not a biblical scholar but has certainly abandoned the Christian faith.
      Or what about your old colleague from St Michael’s and All Angels, Father Jonathan Kilpatrick? How would you have advised him when he began to push the boundaries?

      • It is not possible to interpret Scripture as a Catholic or Protestant as that is eisegesis, the cardinal sin. In round table scholarly discussions no-one has or should have any idea of commitments, which are always provisional dependent on evidence anyway.

  10. Quite why people read the six stone jars as somehow representing a “bad” Judaism I don’t know. It’s not as if Jesus destroys the six jars and replaces them with a seventh wine-filled one!

    Perhaps a better way of taking this reading would be one of fulfilment, Jesus taking the six jars and completing them, bringing them to their fulness, much like how the seventh day completes and fulfils the creation week in Genesis 1. In bringing the wine, Jesus brings true rest, true sabbath. The “six” in this sense would represent incompleteness on their own, but that is no bad thing – anymore than a great story awaiting its final chapter would be a bad thing.

    • Chris Wooldridge: that is pretty much how I have long undrstood Jesus’s action:
      By ordering the vessels for purification to be filled to the brim, Jesus signifies that he has come to fulfil the true meaning of this sign: not to disparage it but to show that he fulfils what the old ordinances foreshadow: the true vine, the true manna and the true washing (a theme reprised at the Last Supper, whee no eucharist is recorded).
      The “best wine” is surely an eschatological sign of thd new life Christ brings to those in relationship with him.

    • The law was good and holy and just (Roms 7). However it was powerless to change lives The principle of law was ‘this do and live’ and so its effect was to condemn. It presented a life that none could keep and those who broke it were under its curse. Peter argues against imposing the law on gentiles not simply because the new age had dawned but because it was a burden that Israel had found to heavy to bear. (Acts 15). Paul goes as far as identifying it with ‘weak and beggarly elements’ (Gals 3,4) and calls it ‘a yoke of slavery’ (Gals 5). Christ came not simply to fulfil the law but to free us from the law. Paul speaks of it as that which held us captive and bound us (Roms 7).

      No doubt these texts are addressed to Jewish believers for it is they who knew the burden of the law. They knew only too well the wretchedness of failure before the law and the many rituals it required. Christ called the nation to him to find rest from the burden of law. His yoke by comparison was easy and his burden light (Matt 11).

      I agree Chris it is a story of fulfilment but fulfilment in my view is construed as a contrast between the empty (failed) jars of Judaism with the wine of the gospel. Perhaps if we were Jews we would be less positive about Judaism.

      • John,

        The problem is not the Law – the Law itself was not difficult to keep per se. As Moses says in Deut 30:11-14…

        “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

        Acts 15 is not saying that obedience to the Law is a burden, it’s saying that treating the Law *as necessary for salvation* is a burden. Although Peter does speak of “a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” in v10, he goes on to say in v11 “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” In other words, it’s an issue of salvation. The Law cannot save – only Christ can do that – but it can show you how to live, and in fact the four requirements which Peter mentions for his Gentile audience are taken from Lev 17-18 – a passage from the Law!

        I’m not going to go into all of the passages you cite, but I think there’s a combination of things going on, including the Law’s inability to save, but also things like problems with the oral traditions of the Pharisees and the relative immaturity/incompleteness of the Law in light of the coming of Christ.

        In short, I think there are a number of ways that the new testament speaks about the Law, and on balance I tend to consider its evaluation to be more positive than negative. We also shouldn’t construct a theology of the Law from the new testament alone, but should study it from the perspective of the old testament as well and incorporate both into our thinking.

  11. Hi Chris

    I did say the law was holy etc. I agree in part, great part, the problem lay with Israel. However, i would take issue with you on a few points. Part of the problem of the law as i mentioned is that it was in itself a covenant of works. It did not start from life and ask for obedience, it required obedience to gain life. Its premise as Paul points out was ‘this do and live’’. If law was taken on its own terms it could only curse. It is a letter that kills and leads to cries of despair (Rom 7)

    In Acts 15 the context Peter is countering any attempt to make the law a rule of life for new gentile converts. It is not the law necessary for justification that is the issue but the law and sanctification or even more precisely the law as a lifestyle. James and those at Jerusalem agree not to impose law-keeping but mention a few matters where tensions may arise. This is precisely what Paul is countering in Galatians 5. Galatians 5 is not principally about justification but sanctification. However, Paul believes that any who place themselves under the law as a lifestyle will soon find it attacks their justification. Law-keeping is intrinsically about justification by works and so to adopt it is to fall away from grace. The law was not of faith.

    The passage you cite from Deut 30 is an interesting one for it is not really a law text at all but a gospel one. In vv1-10 Moses anticipates a time of salvation when God will circumcise their hearts. In Romans 10 Paul takes up the passage you cite and sees its fulfilment not in law-keeping but in faith in Christ.

    I agree we should consider OT perspectives on the law. Stephen Dempster in his book Dominion and Dynasty shows how the covenant of law increased God’s judgement on the people. And of course it was the weakness of the law that led to Jeremiah prophesying a new covenant. In Christ all that the law aspired to finds fulfilment in life through the Spirit.

    For Paul, the main positive feature of the law was to act as a disciplinarian to guard the nation like children until Christ came. But as I maintain this was burdensome. It is of course also rich in types.

    The one exception is psalm 119 and some other similar Psalms. Unlike you, however, I think the law is largely viewed negatively. Sinai was thundering, darkness and fear. That is law. We have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the New Jerusalem. I think a reading of the law shows just how difficult life would be under its authority.

    • Hi John,

      The issues around Christians and the Law have been debated since the early days of Christianity and the Biblical teaching on the matter is varied, complex and rarely reducible to one simple maxim or rule. I suspect we would both agree on that.

      But I do want to pick you up on one crucial point, which is your reading of Deut 30. I think you’re wrong to read it as a prophecy of the Gospel. In context, that just doesn’t work. There is no way that the Israelite audience would have understood “this commandment that I command you today” to mean anything other than the Law restated throughout the book of Deuteronomy.

      What Paul is doing in Romans 10 is to view the Law as typologically pointing to Christ – as he says in v4 – “For Christ is the end of the Law”. In other words, the Law was on one level a symbol of the coming Messiah, a type of Christ. This is similar to what Paul does elsewhere in his letters, for instance seeing the rock struck by Moses as pointing to Christ as well (1 Cor 10:4).

      So in citing Deut 30, Paul applies it in a typological fashion to Christ in v6-10. That doesn’t mean the original passage is about Christ and the Gospel, Paul is simply drawing an analogy between the Law and Christ rooted in a particular understanding of the relationship between them. We mustn’t allow particular interpretations of a new testament passage such as Romans 10 to steamroll over the historical/contextual meaning of an old testament passage like Deut 30. Instead we should try to understand both passages in their original context and then (hopefully) we will have a deeper understanding of how they harmonise.

      Other points on which I would disagree:

      @ Acts 15 – see the very first verse of the passage. There we note that the false teachers were saying “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”. So this is an issue of salvation, not merely of sanctification (growth in holiness). The Law cannot save – it can serve as a witness to the salvation of Christ though. If this passage is about sanctification, why mention “salvation”? Seems pretty clearly about justification.

      @ Galatians 3 – Paul’s argument is not simply that the Law is an impossible standard to obey. Paul is speaking of the power of the Law to save. The Law cannot save because it does not have the power of salvation, but rather points to the one who is able to save (Christ). When he says “the Law is not of faith” he means that the Law is not premised on faith (the Gospel), but rather faith (the Gospel) is premised on the Law – the Law had to come first *before* the Messiah could come and fulfil it. He’s making a redemptive-historical argument, as suggested by vs 13-14, that the Messiah would one day come and become a typological fulfilment of the Law. There is a progression in the passage from relative immaturity under the Law to maturity in Christ – this doesn’t mean the Law was inherently bad, any more than childhood is bad. But once adulthood has come, you don’t revert back to childish patterns of behaviour.

      @ Galatians 5 – Paul’s argument here is that now Christ has come, to revert back to the old types of the Law is to deny the fulfilment that Christ has brought. A Law-abiding Israelite was never a bad thing! But to fall back on the type once the antitype has arrived is a denial of the significance of what Christ accomplished through his life, death and resurrection.

      @ “It did not start from life and ask for obedience, it required obedience to gain life” – This is simply not true. God had already rescued Israel from Egypt, established his covenant with them and promised them life and blessing before the Law was given. The Law was given to a people who had already been given life. I will agree insofar as the Law was necessary to keep and be established in that life, but it wasn’t required to gain it in the first place. And the life and blessing promised by the Law are certainly inferior to the life and blessing which Christ brings us by the Spirit under the new covenant. But inferior does not mean bad – this goes back to the childhood/adulthood issue.

  12. Chris , I couldn’t agree more with the summation (final sentence) in your previous post. Likewise your employment of such terms as *redemptive /historical* and historical/ contextual serve to clarify the underlying presuppositional standpoints that condition the ongoing debate, not only re the law/gospel relationship but,more to the point, our understanding of the relationsip between the two Testaments.
    The tendency in some quarters to reduce the historical nature of the OT by superimposing * Christian doctrine* on to its substance and text, or the more contemporary absorption with highlighting “purple passages” to the virtual exclusion of everything else, may provide some succour but at the expense of historical truth and reality.
    For example, Exodus 20 opens with an affirmation of the Ten commandments as God’s words, followed by verse 2: a clear statement that the summary of (and obedience to) the Law is clearly founded on the Lord’s redemptive activity!
    Conversely, how often have I listented to the necessity of “preaching the law” in order to bring people to Christ , based upon Galatians 3: 24 :” Wherefore the law was our *schoolmaster* to bring us to Christ” that *we* might be justified .by faith”[KJV].
    As with other parts of Galatians (and Romans) the “we” has been reinterpreted through the lens of the priority of “the Church”. Historical – Old Testament considerations have all too often received scant consideration. The *New Perspective* does have much to contribute here!

    • Thanks Colin, I completely agree. We are too often tempted to read the Bible as though it were all about us, allegorising away any passages which don’t seem to fit with that assumption. The new perspective is certainly a helpful corrective in this regard.

  13. Hi Chris

    I wrote a fairly long response to you and then foolishly closed the page by mistake. I haven’t the heart to begin again at the moment. When I summon up the drive I will.


  14. Here goes again. I think I will write my reply in stages.

    I think the overriding hermeneutic for a Christian reading the OT is the NT perspective. We read the OT through NT eyes. This does not distort the OT but enables us to see it as God intended.

    Deut 30. This is a good example of the above hermeneutic. We are confronted with a text that jars (30:11-14). Everything in the OT and NT teaches us the law is impossible to keep. It is not easy. Fallen nature means that law excites sin and exposes sin (Roms 7; Roms 3). Even for a regenerate man who delights in the law in his inner being the law is a source of frustration and death. The law is not easy; it kills (Roms 7). This is why a couple of chapters later the Lord tells Moses the nation will be banished from the land. It is why he as mediator of the law does not enter the promised land. The law kills. I ask you Chris, do you think you would find the law easy (or not hard) and remember you have the indwelling Spirit which was not given at that time? How would your unsaved friends fair living by the mosaic code?

    When confronted with the unexpected we need to look a little more closely. As I said, the context of Ch 30 is new covenant conditions. The nation has circumcised hearts. We might immediately see the law as more accessible for it is now written on their hearts. However, this still does not do justice to the text. We find that Paul cites it in Roms 10. How is he using it. In my view his use goes beyond analogy. He uses it in its ‘redemptive-historical’ sense. In Roms 10 the question is why have Israel not trusted in Messiah? The answer at this point is that they have pursued righteousness by self effort in law-keeping rather than through faith in Messiah. They had not grasped that Christ brought the law to an end. I don’t think he sees the law as a type of Christ (pars were but not the covenant). I don’t think here he sees Christ as a find of fulfilment of the law. I think he views Christ here as the end of the law, its terminus in a redemptive history sense. He has a similar approach in Galatians where he speaks of the law as given until the offspring comes. It had a job to do (a disciplinarian) until Christ arrived.

    Israel was not saved because they rejected the way of faith and chose the way of law works. Christ has arrived. The new covenant has arrived and they have not seen it. And so Paul takes them back to Moses, back to the book of the law itself. He shows that in that book of the Old Covenant was a message about the new covenant. The way that righteousness and life becomes ‘easy’ and at hand is through faith in Christ. He has done the impossible. It is ours to believe. Deut 30 would not be fully understood until the coming of Christ and the redemptive-historical arrival of faith (faith is of course present in the OT but not in a redemptive historical sense – the law as I said, is not of faith. In Galatians he is not referring to the chronology of covenants but the principle or nature of the covenant. He says that in terms: the law is not of faith but rather , ‘the one who does them shall live by them. ‘. (Gals 3:12; Lev 18:5).

    Contrary to your view Chris, I think both the NT and the OT make clear that the principle undergirding law is ‘this do and live’ (Roms 10:5) Israel were formally redeemed from Egypt but they were not spiritually redeemed. Many if not most had uncircumcised hearts and died in the wilderness. They built a golden calf before the law was even given. The law was a covenant which promised life upon obedience. It was a covenant of works and so says Paul an administration of death (2 Cor 4). Paul says in Roms 7 ‘the commandment which promised life led to death’. By the NT the ‘life’ promised is understood to be eternal life (Lk 10:28. Matt 19:17 Cf. Lev 18:5; Ezek 20:11. Only by dying to the law is it possible to bear fruit for God (Roms 7).

    In the OT when Israel sinned only two things could dig her out and neither was the law. The first was the promises made in the covenants to the patriarchs. Neither Moses nor the prophets appeal to the covenant of law for God’s blessing on a sinful people. They appeal to the covenants that were more unilateral. They appeal to promises God made and underwrote himself. Secondly they appeal to the heart of God; they appeal to his heart of love for Israel. This dynamic is especially clear in Ex 33,34 . Israel had built a golden calf. Even a s the law was being written on tablets of stone on the mountain Israel was being idolatrous on the plain below. According ton the stipulations of the covenant Israel should be wiped out. The full covenant curse was her due. Yet God despite being tempted did not enact the covenant curses. Instead he takes refuge in his own heart and his sovereign rights. He says ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and compassion on who me I will have compassion’’. God’s heart overrides the covenant claims. It is of course the heart of the gospel that will be fully revealed in Christ.

    Can we say there is a sense in which ‘this is not too hard’ was intended to apply to the mosaic covenant? I’m not sure. I doubt it because OT history and NT commentary show the law was anything but easy. What I do know is that within the book nor the OC God was revealing the NC for those with eyes to see.

    I’ll sign out and address a few other issues in a subsequent comment.

    Incidentally, I think you’ll find that my views are in keeping with most commentaries. And *I think* NT Wright says something similar about Deut 30 possibly on his little commentary on Romans. I can’t be certain of this.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your response.

      I’ll keep this brief and respond to what I think is the central issue, namely, should we allow our interpretation of the new testament to override the original, contextual meaning of the old testament? I would suggest no, for the simple reason that it makes the old testament unintelligible to the original audience to whom it was given. If the expression “this commandment that I command you today” in Deut 30:11 can mean something like “the future hope of the Gospel realized through the coming Messiah”, then we can only conclude that the choice of language in the bible bears no resemblance to the meaning and there is no hope for any of us in interpreting what the bible means.

      The other, related issue is that your take on the Law goes completely against the grain of what at least 3/4 of the Bible teaches about the Law. You argue that the Law was “a covenant of works” which “did not start from life and ask for obedience, it required obedience to gain life”. But this gets it wrong for a couple of key reasons:

      1) The giving of the Law to Israel was premised on the fact that God had already saved and redeemed Israel from Egypt and established his covenant with her. As the preface to the ten commandments states: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God had already redeemed Israel and made her his people! The Law was an expression of God’s Grace to Israel.

      2) The Law didn’t expect perfect obedience, on the contrary – it offered a means by which people could be restored to the covenant community following transgression (sin offerings and guilt offerings – Lev 4-5). The Law was thus gracious in an ongoing sense, offering a continual means to re-establish covenant with God and with fellow Israelites following sin. A person could remain in good standing before the Law if they confessed their sins to God and made offerings. The Law may have lacked the power to change people’s hearts so that they would do this (and change their ways accordingly), but this isn’t a fault of the Law itself, but of the power of sin.

      Anyway, I’ll leave it there. Those points would, I think, summarize the main reasons why I would disagree with your approach. I think it would cause considerable problems for Christians trying to learn how to read the bible, as they would be constantly trying to fit every passage into a predetermined systematic doctrine of Law and Grace, instead of taking each passage on its own terms and listening carefully to what God is saying.

      • Chris – what is your take on Ezekiel 18? Take verses 5 to 9

        “If a man is righteous and does what is just and right, if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.

        I’d say that if anyone has difficulties in understanding what is meant by the term `law’, then Ezekiel has done a pretty good job of explaining it.

        Verses 21 – 24 expand on repentance:

        “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.
        This whole chapter is very important. The NT does not `the original, contextual meaning of the old testament’ except for a person who has misunderstood either the OT or the NT or both.

        Ezekiel 18 makes it clear that if you really do obey the law then you really do gain life – and if you treat the law with contempt then you really die (and, by die, we mean eternal death here – eternal separation from God).

        I’m not completely clear on what you mean by `covenant community’. Is this simply a fancy way of saying those who are within the number of the Saviour’s family – those who see life? Or are you restricting this to Israel or Judah?

        In Ezekiel 18, there is no mention of any redeemer; clearly and plainly, if you do obey the law then you do see life – no redeemer necessary. But the work of the Redeemer in turning hearts and minds towards God, so that people are willing to obey the law, permeates the whole of the OT – you find it in Job, in the Psalms, in Isaiah …….

        • Hi Jock,

          Ezekiel 18 is not about “eternal death”. It’s about regular old death. As v13 says: “he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head”. There is nothing in the context to indicate that the passage is about eternal judgement.

          When I mentioned “covenant community” in my response to John, I was referring to Israel, because I was talking about the old covenant Law.

          • Hello Chris,

            Oh well, it looks like death of the soul (i.e. eternal death) to me – it doesn’t make much sense otherwise. It certainly doesn’t make sense in terms of the Levitical law, where people weren’t put to death for the misdemeanours listed.

            By the time of Ezekiel, there wasn’t much of a `covenant community’. One or two believers, who were scattered and persecuted, but the `community’ itself at that stage (in the sense of a group of people who were church goers and nominal believers) was fundamentally rotten and not something any believer would want to be restored to.

        • Jock,

          How does “his blood will be on his own head” make sense if it’s referring to a “death of the soul”? Blood is physical stuff.

          In terms of the Levitical Law, there is a combination of things going on. Only some of the offences listed were punishable by death at the hands of the Israelites. However, many of them (including oppressing the poor) were grounds for God himself to take the life of the wicked. So in a divine retributive sense, all of them could be grounds for death, even if not all of them at the hands of Israelite judges.

          • Chris – so you agree that the death referred to is an act of God – not something decreed by a judge and carried out by an executioner. Yet you still think that, after such a death, following such a judgement by God, the soul still sees life? (i.e. communion with God).

            I’m reading Ezekiel 18 in the context of the rest of Ezekiel. The whole point is that the whole of Judah had become utterly corrupt – people who transgressed the law were not being judged and were not being found guilty.

            I’ve heard the term `covenant community’ before (won’t go into details), but – as I indicated – looking at the state of Judah during the time of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel shows that every single true believer, every single person of faith, was, just like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, standing up in opposition to the `covenant community’.

            The `covenant community’ had rejected God and so God had rejected the `covenant community’; believers no longer belonged to the `covenant community’ and witnessed against it.

        • Yes, potentially an act of God, I think that’s at least a consistent way to read it. Such temporal divine judgements did happen from time to time under the old covenant.

          What implications does this have for the individual’s eternal fate? It’s not clear and the passage doesn’t go into detail about it. That just isn’t what the passage is about, and to spiritualise it in such a way would be to read into the text something which isn’t there.

          • Chris – yes – you are of course correct that the text does not have to be taken like that, but Mark 12:26-27 indicates to us what Scripture means by death – and Jesus here is pointing out the traditional way that `dead’ has been understood.

            And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”

            As far as I’m concerned, this seems to fit the context here – in the whole of the book of Ezekiel (and also the book of Jeremiah) the prophet is concerned with souls. The idea that Jeremiah and Ezekiel are in such anguish over people whose earthly bodies die, but whose souls are ultimately in communion with God, doesn’t make sense (at least not to me).

        • Jock,

          I’ll make this my last reply as I don’t feel we’re really getting anywhere with this discussion. But do feel free to follow up and I will read your response if so.

          My argument was not that the wicked individuals in Ezekiel 18 are in communion with God in heaven, nor suffering anguish in hell, or anywhere else for that matter. My argument is that the text tells us *nothing* about that one way or another and to read it as such is to read something into the text which isn’t there. I see no evidence whatsoever that Ezekiel has “spiritual death” or “the death of the soul” in view. He’s talking about ordinary death.

          And why shouldn’t the prophets be concerned about matters of life and death? Why shouldn’t they be in anguish over those who might die? This seems to me to be a perfectly human response to death.

  15. Ah, yes John,
    “They appeal to they promises God made and underwrote himself”.
    Abraham played no part in God’s unilateral covenant with him.

    So were the OT covenants unconditional or conditional?
    Yes. And they were carried out by Christ, as Adam, Israel and God, in his unilateral New covenant.

    How do we understand the person of Jesus, from this passage, as it fits within the the first chapter and last chapter, bookends of John?

    • Hi Jock and Geoff

      Thanks for comments. Chris has opened up some good areas for discussion. We live with the balance that the righteousness of God is revealed apart from law yet the law and the prophets bear witness to it (Roms 3:21). He’s right in saying the issues are complex and can’t be reduced to a comment box. I had a quick glance at Michael Bird’s commentary on Romans 10 and was pleased to see he said substantially what I was trying to say (except he was inclined to see Christ as the culmination of the law which I have some diffidence about). He cites NT Wright saying something similar on Deut 30 though Bird’s own view is closer to where I’m coming from.

      Geoff, I think the salvation covenants with Abraham and David and the new covenant were essentially unilateral and unconditional. The stipulation was faith. They function as the gospel (the new covenant) functions. God has done all and we embrace this by faith (learning later that even faith is God’s work).

      I’m not sure if you are meaning Roms 10 and the confession Jesus is Lord. It is in its fullest understanding a confession that Jesus is Yahweh as the text a verse or two further on makes clear ‘ whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved’; an OT text referring to Yahweh now used of Christ. Fits well into John’s gospel. Steven’s semi-arianism has provoked me to read a bit more about the trinity.

  16. Chris, please excuse some typos above. I read it over but clearly missed them. I hope they don’t obscure too much what I tried to say.

    Acts 15. It is a salvation issue. I agree. That’s what comes of not checking sufficiently. However, i don’t think it changes the substantive point that the law was a yoke that neither the fathers nor the Jewish followers of Christ were able to bear. It is not a positive image of the law. Moreover, I think we must remember salvation is an umbrella term involving various aspects of the gospel (justification, sanctification. Etc).

    Gals 3 . I’m not sure that you have the argument of Gals 3 right, Paul’s overarching argument is that the law, which is intrinsically about ‘works’ cannot save. Righteousness is by the hearing of faith and not the works of the law; law and gospel are opposing principles. As. I point out in my previous comment the principle of the law ‘this do and live’ reveals the law is not based on the principle of faith (3:12). Chris, I can see nothing here about Christ coming to fulfil the law. He came to bear the curse of the law. He came to fulfil the promise of the Abrahamic covenant (and new covenant) not the mosaic covenant, Law and promise are opposed. The law was added as an interim covenant ‘because of transgressions’ , that is to reveal them(3:19). Law was a prison warden (v23). It was a ‘custodian’ or ‘disciplinarian’ such as children had. None of this is intended as a pleasant or even neutral image of law. In Ch 4 we are told that Jews under law were ‘enslaved to the elementary principles of the world’ (v3). For gentile believers to embrace the law was to return to ‘the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world’ that they had left behind in paganism (v9). It was to embrace slavery (v9). None of this is a positive affirmation of law. It is not four legs good two legs better. Rather law was existentially bad. While good in itself because of the human heart it was in reality slavery.

    Incidentally note who the law is addressed to. It is addressed to man in the flesh and can only produce flesh (4:21-31; Roms 7). This harks back to my point about ‘this do and live’. Law assumes the absence of life. It offers life upon obedience. It is not life offering more life. Law and gospel are opposites. Law says… do this and live: gospel says… live and do this.

    Gals 5 continues the freedom from law that is in Christ. Note again the language used to describe law ‘it is a yoke of slavery’. Paul has forbidden even the apparently modest requests of the judaisers (circumcision and eating restrictions). His point is simple. If you accept you have responsibility to keep even one aspect of the law then you must keep it all (5:3). Law is a unity. It is indivisible. It is a covenant which must be accepted completely or not at all. Paul is opposed to imposed law-keeping not simply because he objected to the cultural impositions involved though imposing these no doubt did concern him but because law was opposed to gospel. It was a covenant of works. Accept the law as a cultural necessity and you are accepting it as a salvation necessity; by accepting salvation by works you are cut off from grace (2:16; 3:10). It is here I think the new perspective is mistaken. The issue of Law for Paul was not a social and cultural one but a salvation one. The law was ‘another gospel’. The Judaisers accepted the need for Christ but they insisted on Christ plus Jewish boundary markers. Paul says this is actually embracing a covenant of works. It is not a regression to lesser grace but a falling away from grace entirely and a severing from Christ.

    Christianity is ‘faith working through love’. Love is its root ethic. Love is the social expression of faith. And love is a fulfilling of the law. Christians do not keep the law they fulfil it by walking in love and so fulfilling the law of Christ. In my view the aspect of salvation that is more to the fore in Ch 5/6 is sanctification. His focus is on the power of the gospel to sanctify (5:16-26). Law addressed humanity in the flesh; Christians are not in the flesh, they are ‘new creation’.

    Finally, the life and blessing promised to the law-keeper was a good thing but not one person achieved it by law-keeping. We in the gospel age receive its blessings as by the Spirit we live by faith. We have been crucified with Christ. We have died to the law that we may live to God. (Gals 2). We need to grasp the law was given to man ‘in the flesh’ (Roms 7) and alive in this world, the old creation. To live to God we must die to this world which removes us from the sphere where law is active; we must die to the law. Only then can we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old hopeless way of the written code. (Roms 7). Once again the dramatic differences in position is seen in bold relief.

    In my understanding those who had circumcised hearts in the OT had them through belief in the promises to the patriarchs. They had also no doubt learned that the mosaic code condemned them and so the response of faith was a meek and contrite spirit. This is an area to further explore. Ps 119 includes the mosaic covenant but I think also looks at the Pentateuch as a whole. Were other books available?

    Chris, no doubt I’ll have more errors. I’ve written this rather hurriedly. I hope it is substantially correct. Can i finish where I began. I do think we must allow the NT to control our understanding of the OT. That is not to say we do not give diligence to the message of the OT in its own right but it does mean our thinking about it will be shaped by the NT. Often OT writers wrote, according to Peter, about a salvation they could not fully understand. The room that is the OT requires the light of the NT to properly illuminate it.

  17. A couple of very belated comments.

    Jesus is introduced next, and it is he who has been invited to the wedding as a guest (the verb is singular) whilst the disciples as tagged on, almost as an afterthought.

    In my online Hebrew class last night we were looking at Gen 33:7. In that we have Leah and her children, and then Joseph and Rachel drawing near (to Esau and Jacob) and then bowing down. In both cases the verb to draw near agrees with the first subject, is singular and agrees in gender for the first named subject. This pattern is quite common in the Hebrew. So, perhaps this pattern has leaked into John’s Greek.

    The invitation itself might have an interesting side. We know that Mary had a relative, Elizabeth who was married to a priest, although living in the hill country of Judea. It is possible that this means that Mary herself had a connection to a priestly family in Galilee – who had these jars. In that case it is logical that Mary and her son should be invited, and also that Mary should feel some responsibility to avert the shame of running out of wine.

    More theologically, then for Jesus in addition to the royal line through Joseph, we have the priestly connection through Mary.

  18. It has been interesting reading Ian’s article and the many comments flowing from it, but so much of it has strayed far from the actual narrative. John tells us as a sort of postscript that this was the first time Jesus revealed His glory, which we celebrate at Epiphany. That surely is the main point.
    Surely the subsidiary points are these:-
    Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding, but the wine ran out. In other words, the party was in danger of falling flat. All parties – ancient or modern – fall flat without booze!
    So clearly Jesus didn’t want to see the party spoilt.
    Mary told the servants to do whatever Jesus told them to do – exactly as she had agreed to do God’s will when the angel Gabriel came to visit her.
    You’ve kept the best wine until now – Jesus always has something better for us.
    Sorry if that’s too simplistic, but some of us are greatly helped by reading and reflecting on the Gospel narratives themselves.


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