When Religion Runs Out of Wine

When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

…Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine….and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

…When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”

His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:3, 7-10, 13-22)

The miracles of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John were historical events. They are not mere legends or symbols, but they happened at definite times and places, and produced the effects described by the text. That is, when miracles of healing are reported, those individuals had actual ailments and defects, and these were cured by the power of Christ, so that they no longer had these ailments and defects. When it is reported that Jesus commanded a storm to cease, there really was such a storm – the winds really blew, and the waters really moved – and the dangers and fears associated with it were actual and historical. But at Christ’s command, the winds and waters became still. This is a rather elementary principle to a proper reading of the Gospels, and indeed all of Scripture. It is not up for discussion, and anyone who disagrees with this should be regarded as an enemy of the Christian faith.

When we read that Jesus turned water into wine, that was what happened. By an act of divine power, he changed one physical substance into a different physical substance. The event involved a number of things that were not subject to human control. They were not playing games – it was a serious situation that could lead to great embarrassment for the hosts. If they had more wine, they would have brought it out, and the matter would have never been raised. Then, the servants were the ones who brought the water and who filled the jars. And they were the ones who brought out the water that had been turned into wine to the master of the banquet, who tasted this wine and commented on its superior quality. There was no trickery, and no elaborate showmanship.

Thus the miracle “revealed his glory.” It was a demonstration of his power, that he could do such a thing. The manner in which he performed the feat also demonstrated his spiritual confidence or assurance. The Gospel would go on to stress this a number of times, showing that Jesus always knew what he would do. He was never at a loss, never in a panic, never thrown into a state of turmoil or desperation. There were flaws in all the prophets, albeit not in their inspired words. Abraham produced Ishmael, Moses struck the rock in anger, Samson betrayed his vow, David committed murder and adultery, Isaiah had to be cleansed, but in Jesus we see one who had no flaw. In him was more than a disposition to holiness, as we see in the prophets, but the very definition of holiness, as we see in God.

These remarks lead us to the next point, namely, in the Gospel of John the greatest aspect of a miracle is not in its evidentiary power, but in its revelatory power. In other words, the significance of the fact that Jesus turned water into wine was not only in showing that he could do it, but when explained and considered in a proper theological context, it serves as an illustration about God and his relation to his creatures and his creation. Since John devotes much attention to this aspect of the miracles of Jesus, and selects and arranges his materials with this in mind, he prefers to designate these acts of power as “signs.” They are historical events that convey spiritual meaning. Now, John selects and arranges his materials with purpose, and there is a definite progression of thought. The Cana episode is best read together with what comes immediately after, or the temple episode. Like John 1, other than what they convey by themselves, these passages continue to set the tone for the rest of the Gospel.

The Jewish religion had run out of wine. I am not referring to the system of doctrine and worship prescribed in the Old Testament. The Old Testament religion was a revelation from God, and it was right for its purpose. But the Jews of Jesus’ time did not follow the Old Testament. Instead, as Jesus said elsewhere, they had invented their own traditions by which they pretended to follow God’s commands, but that in reality served to subvert or to work around them. The religion of the Jews was not the religion of the Old Testament.

There are some Christians who think that the Jews rejected Jesus because they were too attached to the Old Testament, too hung up on the law, but this is entirely false. The Jews did not believe Moses, and did not obey the laws that he delivered. They followed their own traditions, invented by men for men, and practiced to impress men and to gain the approval of men. Despite the appearance that they tried to maintain, it had little to do with the worship that God commanded through the prophets. If they had believed and followed Moses, they would have recognized Jesus for who he was (John 5:46).

Although the temple was the focal point of their religion, since they were not serious about the worship of God in the first place, the Jews had turned it into a marketplace. Jesus came to put an end to this. He used a whip to chase the sheep and cattle out of the temple, scattered the coins of the money changers, and even overturned their tables. This was a remarkable and daring display for a number of reasons. Among these we must note that although the text does not say that he struck anyone, this was nevertheless a physically violent act. There is no way around it, and we should not find a way to put it otherwise. Jesus invaded the merchants’ businesses, and disturbed properties that, humanly speaking, did not belong to him.

This is the Jesus I know. This is the Jesus that I have always known since I first read the Scripture as a child, and human traditions have not been able to take him away from me. Those who hold to a false concept of Christ would have disapproved of him, and even now they show their disapproval by presenting a Christ that has been tamed and caged. We would expect to find this false Christ among the liberal theologians, but almost as often he is also preached by the Reformed and the Evangelicals. They claim to uphold the Christ of Scripture, but theirs is in fact the Christ of their tradition or denomination. This is Jesus Christ – the one who turned over tables. He did not behave this way all of the time, but he did at least some of the time. Either take all of him, or none of him. They say that they take all of him, but their hypocrisy shows in how they react to those who come in his name and follow his example.

Jesus came to destroy the Jewish religion, and to set his people free from the burden that it placed upon men’s conscience. Of course, he could have cleared the temple a hundred times and it would not have effected a permanent change. What he did at the temple foreshadowed the destruction of Jerusalem that would occur within one generation of his earthly ministry. He was committed to the permanent conclusion of the Jewish religion and he came in AD 70 through the Roman army, which slaughtered thousands of Jews and destroyed their temple. The Jews that survived were dispersed, and their system of worship was dismantled. As Jesus says in one of his parables, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Mark 12:9). Jesus in his human body overturned the Jews’ tables. Jesus in his divine power overturned the Jews’ nation and religion.

However, what really put an end to the Jewish religion was not its destruction, but the fulfillment of what the temple signified in the person of Jesus Christ. When Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The way to God was now open to everyone through Jesus Christ, apart from the Jewish temple, and apart from all Jewish rituals and traditions. Then, within one generation of this event, the Jews were slaughtered, Jerusalem was burned, and the temple was destroyed. The Jewish religion would never be restored as anything that has real significance. Of course, men can make a building and implement a religion, just like I can use popsicle sticks to construct a temple on my desk and call my room Israel. But all that would have no spiritual significance, and it would not be a religious system that God accepts. There is no legitimate Jewish worship today, and there never will be again. The only true worship is Christian worship. Just like anyone else, a Jewish person can become a Christian and offer true worship through Jesus Christ. But just like anyone else, a Jewish person can never be righteous before God or offer him true worship unless he becomes a Christian. The Jewish person has no special standing with God just because he is a Jew, and he never will on that basis. Anyone who comes to God must come through Jesus Christ, or he cannot come at all.

The Jewish religion had no reality and no power, only a long list of self-serving traditions designed to excuse themselves from obeying the commands of God. Those who offered genuine worship did so through faith, and in spite of the human traditions that stood in their way. Jesus, on the other hand, came and brought reality, truth, power, salvation – wine superior to all that went before. He did not effect this change through economics or politics, or the methods of men, but by truth that came from heaven, and a divine power that was beyond a mere form of religion, but that could change water to wine, and that could bring the dead to back to life. It is through him that people can find reality and power in religion, and worship God in spirit and in truth. The Gospel tells us about this reality and power, and how we can sit at the wedding feast of Christ.

Alas, sinful human nature has remained the same, and many churches today have run out of wine. This is not because Christ has run out of wine – he makes wine by his inexhaustible power – but because these churches have very little to do with him. They have strayed from a simple and sincere devotion to Christ, and have turned to a religion of their own making.

They have turned to follow their own desires and traditions, both in matters of doctrines and ethics. Examples are too numerous for me to compile a balanced collection – one could easily name several hundred things – so I will mention only several that come to mind.

Churches have redefined compassion in order to justify divorce and remarriage, when the former is forbidden by Scripture, and the latter is permitted only after the death of the spouse. Denominations have redefined love in order to permit homosexuals to marry, and to even become ministers in their churches. But Paul writes that the wrath of God is poured out against the likes of these – both the homosexuals and those who approve of them. Some have abused the doctrine of the goodness of creation and the so-called “cultural mandate” to justify worldly pursuits, political ambitions, and personal expressions. The cumulative effect of hundreds or even thousands of traditions, each designed to subvert biblical teaching, is the almost total loss of truth, reality, life, and power in the churches.

They have turned the Christian faith into a marketplace. They use gimmicks to draw crowds, and they have commercialized the propagation of Christian doctrine and culture. Jesus has become a product for them to sell. They hit upon a marketable idea – a special prayer or fast, a novel series, a catchy slogan or song – and then comes the calendars, workbooks, seminars, jewelry, and movies to profit from that idea. The world has awards shows, so we will have them too. The world has concerts, so we will have them too. The church should gather to worship, but very often it has become a place for social gatherings to please men, and to facilitate business and personal relationships.

If even genuine signs effected by divine power did not in themselves produce true believers, then still less can worldly gimmicks and a commercialized Christianity lead people to faith in Christ. The Gospel tells us that Jesus did not need men to tell him about men, that they would appear to believe in him but do not in fact believe. The contemporary church either lacks this basic insight into human nature, or it really does not care about making true progress for the gospel at all. Like the Jews, they have subverted divine revelation by human tradition. Their religion is a way of life and thought made by men for men, to advance men’s desires and ambitions, to approve one another, and to indulge their lusts.

We deceive ourselves if we think that Jesus does not judge his churches. As Paul writes, “For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off” (Romans 11:21-22). As the body of Christ, the church will remain forever. God will always reserve for himself a remnant of faithful believers, and he will never destroy the church as he did the Jewish nation. However, we cannot say the same about individual congregations and individual believers.

Revelation 2 and 3 show us that Jesus scrutinizes every community of Christians with a penetrating gaze, and that the fate of each church rests in his power. He dispatches messages to seven congregations. His remarks reveal that his standards are high, but they are also very clear. In sum, he is pleased with those who maintain sound doctrines and ethics with zealousness even in the face of temptation and persecution, and he disapproves of those who fail to do so. Today, most churches fall far short of this. Do they – the leaders and the members of these communities – really think that no calamity will befall them? Is there a proper basis for this complacent attitude? What does the Scripture say? Does it show us a pattern of perpetual immunity or a pattern of eventual reckoning? We must not mistake God’s patience for a lack of concern or even an inability to punish.

There is no fear of God in the churches. They do not believe that God will act. They say, “We are the Church of the Lord, the Church of the Lord, the Church of the Lord. No evil will befall us. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.” But if they have departed from Christ in their doctrines, in their ethics, and in their practices, will the bare banner of Christ save them? Surely what was true of the Jews is now also true of them, that they draw close to God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him. Will God spare ones such as these? Surely Christ walks among his churches to judge and to punish. Paul told the Corinthians that because of their irreverence toward the body of the Lord, many of them were weak, sick, or even dead. And he said that they were judged by the Lord so that they would not be condemned with the world. If Jesus Christ would inflict sickness on unruly believers and even kill some of them, how much more will he torment those who reject the gospel?

Many Christians lean toward a deistic faith because of their unbelief, so what I say here is not stressed often. The Lord killed Ananias and Sapphira in a dramatic and apparently instant manner, in a way that comes under extraordinary providence. He also killed some of the Corinthians, but most likely in less spectacular ways, through ordinary providence, so that Paul had to indicate the reason to them. This thought ought to dawn on us: whenever he sees fit, the Lord kills the people who displease him. For Christians, this is discipline, so that they will not be condemned like unbelievers. For non-Christians, this is the beginning of everlasting punishment in hellfire. The point is that God kills people, even today, even in our churches. Sometimes he does this by extraordinary providence, but rarely, thus it is called extraordinary. But ordinary providence is still effected by his decree and power, and one who dies this way is just as dead as the one who dies under extraordinary providence. He watches. He acts.

No one should think that Christ does not see or that he does not act among his people and in the world. He is not waiting to sort everything out only after people die. He exacts punishments even in this life. But Christians do not think about this, do not believe this, or they are so blind that they do not even notice when it is happening. Paul wrote that God cannot be mocked, but whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. The churches have been reaping – reaping in sicknesses, in bankruptcies, in loss of attendance and membership, in an absence of spiritual fruit and theological aptitude, in ethical and financial scandals, and in a myriad of ways. They face oppositions from without, and implosions from within. They have sown to the indulgence of the flesh, and now Christ punishes them, and their own children – entire generations of them – forsake them.

Nevertheless, it is during times like this that God’s remnant is revealed. In Exodus 32, Moses saw that Aaron had allowed the Israelites to get out of control, to worship a golden calf, so that they had “become a laughingstock to their enemies” (v. 25). So he said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me,” and the Levites rallied to him. Then he ordered them to slaughter their own people. The Levites complied, and killed about three thousand of them. Thus Moses said to them, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day” (v. 29). God-centered religion produces a true zeal that enables one to condemn his own people for their defiance against the doctrines of the Lord. And this zeal is one sign of genuine faith. As John 2 also points out, it was zeal for his Father’s house that moved Jesus to overturn the merchants’ tables in the temple (v. 17). The Lord will use the disobedience and faithlessness of his churches to sift out the true from the false. His remnant will be those who are willing to separate themselves and denounce apostate churches and denominations.

In other words, it is to be expected that the true disciples of Jesus Christ will also turn over some tables. There are tens of thousands of pastors and professors who undermine or even deny biblical inerrancy, the deity of Christ, the atonement for sin by blood, and other basic and essential doctrines. They should be removed from their positions right away. If necessary, they should be physically (but legally) thrown out of the premises by authorized personnel. As it is written, “Expel the evil man from among you.” What are they doing in our midst in the first place?

Churches, seminaries, and even entire denominations that tolerate heretics should be confronted, and if necessary, overthrown and destroyed. A pastor or professor who, say, denies biblical inerrancy or approves of homosexuality, sends the world a mixed or a false message, and cause believers to stumble. Those who tolerate, defend, or endorse such a person share in his guilt. This also applies to individual Christians, who have long tolerated and even kowtowed to heretics. If you are loyal to Christ, why do you call a person “doctor” this or that in a church or seminary setting, when he rejects biblical inerrancy or shows himself a heretic in some other way? Why should I respect someone just because he studied very hard to become a heretic? Why should I stand in awe of his academic and ecclesiastical credentials when they only signify that other evil men approve of him?

The Gospel says that Jesus acted the way he did because of his zeal for God. Do we have any zeal of God? Some say they do, but what a bunch of cowards and hypocrites they are, if even when they purport to stand up for God and lambaste unbelief, they do it with an air of academic courtesy. Where was Jesus’ sense of courtesy when he chased away the merchants’ sheep and cattle, and when he turned over their tables, and scattered their money all over the temple? May their social propriety perish with them, “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin” (Micah 3:8). They refuse to do the same, and even criticize those who do, because they do not have the Spirit of God.

The Jews demanded Jesus to prove his authority (2:18). If Christ was challenged on this matter, and if you are his disciple, then you will also be challenged by the religious establishment. Their idea of authority is based on human approval, so that if we are to initiate reform, we must not appeal to mere human approval as our license to speak and to act even if we have it. As Donald Guthrie observes, Jesus “did not have official sanction for his mission. The Jewish hearers entirely missed the sanction of God himself in the mission of Jesus.” There is a perverted understanding of spiritual authority among denominations, seminaries, churches, and believers – it is based on men’s approval of one another. But as long as their concept of divine authority is defined by human approval, there is no basis for thinking that they have divine authority or approval for what they say and do. So what gives them the right to oppose other people, to oppose those who oppose them? Where does their authority come from?

Reformers will always be persecuted because they lack human approval, since if they have human approval, they would not be reformers. It also means that reformers will be in the minority, and sometimes they even have to stand alone. Jeremiah, for example, stood alone against the whole nation. He was considered a troublemaker, even a traitor to his people. But he was indeed sent from God. He was right, and everyone else was wrong. His words were vindicated by fulfillment, but even before that, he was supported by the Law.

So I do not say that a reformer is accountable to no one (he is accountable to God), and that he cannot be judged as false until it is too late (he is judged by the word of God). No, I only say that a man’s calling cannot be vindicated by an appeal to human approval, and neither can it be challenged because he does not appeal to it. On the other hand, those who appeal to human approval to assert themselves or to challenge others can be safely ignored. Now, we refer to reformers only to stress a point, but reformers, at least in the sense intended here, are needed only when the norm must be overturned. But the principle stated about divine authority and human approval applies to all ministers of God.

Many churches have run out of wine, and they are dying, if not already dead. But Jesus Christ can turn water into wine, and even bring the dead back to life. To revive the churches, we must return to a simple and sincere devotion to Christ, not the Christ that has been tamed, caged, or altered, but the one that this Gospel testifies about. But this means that many traditions must die – doctrinal, ecclesiastical, social, cultural, academic, and all kinds of unbiblical traditions invented by men. We must bring people to know and to adore this Jesus as he really was and as he really is. This is not done through gimmicks, but by simply telling people to “come and see” – that is, by providing reliable testimony about him, so that the Spirit of God may also grant our hearers the understanding that he who came from heaven was indeed the Christ, the Son of God, that he had died, but was raised from the dead, so that all who believe in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.