1. Misuse of the Bible
Have you ever been told that something written in the Bible has a particular purpose or meaning, only to find out later that that’s not what it’s about at all? Has anyone ever tried to convince you of something—tried desperately to prove their point—and used a passage of scripture to make their case, only for you to discover that they have twisted the whole purpose and meaning of the passage?
Does that sound familiar? I’m sure it does. Because it seems today that some people love the things that they do and engage themselves in the world so much, that they will desperately argue anything, even from the Bible, to prove that they are right.
And one of the things that has been misused, in recent times, is the biblical view of weddings and marriage. And not just from one side of the same-sex marriage debate either—but from both sides.
And that’s sad, because when we read a story like the Wedding at Cana—one of the stories that has been used and abused—it’s clear that it’s not a story of a wedding ceremony. Indeed, it’s not really a story about a wedding at all.
B. THE WEDDING AT CANA
And the first clue that this it is not really a story of a wedding, is that we are told in John 2:1 that that the wedding began on “the third day.” And to understand that reference, we need to go back in John’s Gospel a few days.
Because, in chapter 1 we are told that John the Baptist was quizzed about whether he was the Messiah or not (John 1:19-28). Then, the very next day, we are told that Jesus came to John, and John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” (John 1:29-34).
The day after that, however—day one in Jesus’s ministry—Jesus was baptised by John, and some of John’s disciples came over to Jesus (John 1:35-42). And the day after that—day two—Jesus called Philip and Nathanael to be his disciples (John 1:43-51).
Day three, then, is a reference to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. At this stage, he hadn’t had a chance to establish himself with his disciples, let alone speak to the public. Is it any wonder, then, that he would expressed reluctance, when approached by his mother to perform a miracle (v4).
Having said that, we shouldn’t be surprised to find Jesus at a wedding.
A wedding feast was a great social occasion. And it was considered a serious offence not to go. So, Jesus, at this very early stage in his ministry, would not have wanted to cause offence. He would not have wanted to put people offside. And he certainly would not have wanted to be the cause of any social embarrassment.
Which is ironic, really. Because what his mother, Mary, effectively asked him to do, was to save someone else from social embarrassment. Because it was a definite no-no to run out of wine.
Now running out of wine might seem a bit of an odd thing to happen—a bit of bad planning. However, wedding celebrations sometimes continued for a whole week, and supplying sufficient wine would certainly have been a drain on the resources of those concerned. So here we have Jesus responding with compassion.
There were some stone jars, which were used for ceremonial washing. And rather large stone jars too. But then they needed to be. Jews became ceremonially defiled by ordinary life, through the normal course of the day. So, with a large crowd, they would have needed large jars, and particularly so if the celebrations were to continue for a week. The jars were also not full, indicating that at this point they were probably some way through the celebration.
So Jesus told the servants to fill them with water. Which they did, and the water turned into wine—indeed, the best wine of the wedding celebration.
And with that, John concludes the story with a comment—the miracle was not so much a miracle, but a “sign,”—a “sign” pointing to Jesus. In other words, for John, it’s not what happened that was important. It’s not where it happened, or what Jesus did. It was to whom the miracle was pointing—that was what was important for John.
The Wedding at Cana, which began on day three of Jesus’s ministry, then, is not a story of a wedding. The wedding was merely the backdrop to something much greater. It was Jesus that John wanted to point his readers to. The wedding just happened to be the location in which the story took place.
C. THE STRUCTURE OF JOHN’S GOSPEL
And we can confirm that by examining the structure of John’s Gospel. Because, John’s Gospel—one of the four Gospels—is very different to the other three.
All four gospels were written from different perspectives, as you’d expect. And they each had access to different eye witnesses. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke also borrowed material from a common source—which is why there is so much similarity between the three.
John’s Gospel, however, is very different. Because, yes, John “the disciple whom Jesus loved” included his own personal eye witness account. But he also wrote his Gospel in a very different and structured way. John was not interested in detailing everything that Jesus did from birth to death to resurrection. The sequence of events was not important. Nor was listing everything that Jesus did. What John wanted to do was to simply point people to Jesus.
As a consequence, he structured his whole gospel around seven “signs”—of which the Wedding at Cana is the first. (He also used seven sayings, all beginning “I am”—I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the good shepherd, etc.) In regard to the signs, however, what was important to John, was not the signs themselves, but who those signs were pointing to—Jesus.
And if you look at the seven signs—in the order that John presents them—you will notice that there is a something of a progression—from changing water into wine, to healing two individuals—the first who was sick, and the next who was disabled. Jesus then feds five thousand (plus) people. He defies nature by walking on water. He heals a man born blind (something which was believed only the Messiah could do). And then he raises Lazarus from the dead. As the Gospel progresses John’s signs get bigger and bigger and bigger.
Now sadly, this is the sort of perspective that you miss out on, if you only read the Bible in short bursts—which is the modern tendency, even in church. But John structured his whole gospel to make his point. And his point is that everything that Jesus did and said pointed to him being the Messiah.
It’s not the miracles that were important, or even the circumstances in which they were performed—it’s the person who did them. And that is what the Wedding at Cana, and the whole of John’s Gospel is all about.
D. WEDDINGS AND THE CHURCH
So, if John’s whole focus was on pointing people to Jesus, where does that leave us today? And more specifically where does that leave us in the whole wedding and marriage debate? After all, with the recent changes to the Marriage Act, the Anglican Church in Tasmania is now embarking on the debate: “Should the church continue to be involved in marriage ceremonies? And if so, what is the extent to which they should be involved?”
It’s a very controversial topic, particularly as wedding ceremonies are part of the church’s current practice that some people so love. And some would argue that it’s one of the reasons for the need for the church’s continuing existence today.
1. The Wedding at Cana
So much so, that the story of the Wedding at Cana, has been used to argue the case for the continuing role of the church in the conduct of weddings.
Indeed, I have heard the passage used as an example of the importance of wedding ceremonies. I’ve heard it used as an example of the importance of such ceremonies having religious content. And I’ve heard it used to suggest the need for the church’s continuing involvement.
And yet, the story of the Wedding at Cana says none of those things. The story provides no information about any marriage ceremony—only the reception. And there is no indication that there was any overt religious content to the celebration—only that Jesus was present.
The story of the Wedding at Cana, is about pointing people to Jesus, not about defending current church practice.
2. Old Testament Practice
So if the Wedding at Cana, doesn’t really help, what about the references to weddings and marriage in the Bible?
Well if we add in all the other references to weddings and marriages in the Bible, all we can see is what a big hole the church has dug for itself.
After all, in Genesis 2:24 we have a comment on the universal gift of God of marriage. However, there is no comment of any the need for a ceremony of any description.
In Genesis 24:67 we have a description of Isaac bringing Rebekah into his deceased mother’s tent, where he “married” her, without any indication that anyone else was present.
And in Genesis 29:22-23 we are told of a pre-wedding feast. However, reading between the lines it would appear that Laban wanted to get Jacob so drunk, that he couldn’t tell which of two sisters he was taking to bed. As a result, Jacob woke up the next morning only to discover that he had married the wrong sister—Leah not Rachel.
3. New Testament Practice
When we come to the wedding at Cana, then, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised to discover that there had been a development in terms of wedding celebrations—from nothing (in the case of Isaac) into something far more formal—and in the case of Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) into something quite elaborate. But there is no biblical evidence to support any history of any kind of ceremony at all.
It’s like the community had grown to like having a big party to celebrate the occasion. After which, the couple would then go off and marry each other, with no other person being present. No paperwork. No ceremony.
So where did all the pledges, rings, dowries, joining of hands and kissing come from—the things that people love? Well even Ignatius later in the first century only seemed to know about them in the context of becoming engaged. Because he too is remarkably silent in terms of any marriage ceremony.
In the great wedding debate, then—whatever solution the church comes up with—pointing people to Jesus should be our priority. That’s the point of the story of the Wedding at Cana. Whatever our views on weddings and marriage, whether we think the church should be involved in ceremonies or not, our priority should always be, to point people to Jesus.
But how do we do that, in terms of the current wedding debate?
Well some would suggest that we should be involved. Because conducting weddings of people outside of the church provides a perfect opportunity to share the Gospel. And there is great merit in that argument.
However, others would argue that the church has no place in administering a Marriage Act on behalf of the Commonwealth Government. Particularly when it conflicts with the principles behind God’s gift of marriage, and the practice encourages the belief that conducting weddings is a fundamental reason for the church’s existence.
Furthermore, some could also legitimately add, that the Marriage Act conflicts with Christian belief on the grounds of prohibited relationships. It allows relationships that the Bible excludes. And it excludes relationships that the Bible allows. And that was true, even before the same-sex marriage debate.
The current practice of the church, then, sends out some very mixed messages. But then that’s what happens when the church becomes part of a culture that insists on requiring couples to do things that are not required by God, and were not even part of biblical practice.
The church and state, weddings and marriages … As you can see, the whole thing is a mess. It’s a minefield. On the one side there are twenty-first-century expectations—with the pressure to keep doing the things that people love. On the other side, there is the biblical issue of doing things God’s way and, in particular, the need to point people to Jesus.
The recent same-sex marriage debate has opened a can of worms. And one side of the debate is just as guilty of abusing the Bible as the other.
But where does that leave the church, and its involvement in weddings. today?
Because if God gave marriage as a gift to all mankind, and it was unencumbered from the need of any ceremony, where does that leave us? If, in the Bible, the idea of some sort of community celebration grew, but there was still no ceremony—how should we respond? And if, there is a conflict, beyond the same-sex marriage debate, with the list of prohibited relationships—how then do we view our involvement in wedding ceremonies today?
Well, where it leaves us, and where our whole focus should always be, is to do only those things that point people to Jesus. Whatever the situation, that should be the focal point of everything we do.
How, then, do we hold on to the things that we love? The things that we like to do?
Well we can’t. It doesn’t work that way.
Because, if we start from the things that we love, we so easily get off track. Our customs—the things we love—can be a real trap. Instead, we have to start from the perspective of being people pointing others to Jesus. And we have to run with that, and see where God takes us.
The story of the Wedding at Cana is not about a wedding—although many people have used and abused it for that purpose. It’s about a “sign” pointing people to Jesus.
But are all our sign posts clear? Do our beliefs and practices point to Jesus at every turn? Or are we lost in the confusion of church and state, and the things we love, in our practices?
Because, that is what we need to review.
Posted: 16th January 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis