III. Early Ministry and Signs (John 2:1–4:54)
III. Early Ministry and Signs (2:1–4:54)
2:1-3 Jesus, his mother, and his disciples were invited to a wedding in Cana of Galilee (2:1-2). But as the festivities were proceeding, his mother informed him that they had run out of wine (2:3). Wedding celebrations often lasted for several days, so this was indeed an embarrassing problem. Though the Old Testament condemns drunkenness (e.g., Deut 21:20-21; Prov 20:1; 23:19-21; 31:4-5), wine is often spoken of in terms of celebration, blessing, and joy (e.g., Ps 4:7; 104:15; Prov 3:9-10; Songs 1:2; Isa 25:6; 55:1).
2:4-8 Mary knew Jesus was able to solve the problem. But Jesus said, What does that have to do with you and me? . . . My hour has not yet come (2:4). Apparently she thought this was the perfect opportunity for him to publicly reveal his identity, but Jesus didn’t agree. It was not yet the time to publicly manifest his supernatural activity for all to see. Nevertheless, he solved the dilemma without advertising his identity. His mother told the servants, Do whatever he tells you (2:5). Jesus had the servants fill six stone water jars (able to hold twenty or thirty gallons each) with water, and then draw some out and take it to the headwaiter (2:6-8).
Mary’s words ought to ring in our ears. The Lord wants us to “do whatever he tells” us. He often doesn’t describe the path that he’s taking us on. He doesn’t explain how he intends to deal with our problems. He simply calls us to obey his revealed Word. Only after we’ve obeyed will we have the opportunity to experience him at a deeper level.
2:9-10 The headwaiter . . . did not know where [the wine] came from, but he knew it was good stuff. The practice in those days was to supply guests with fine wine followed by wine of inferior quality. But the headwaiter praised the groom for unexpectedly providing them with excellent wine at that point in the celebration (2:10). This was a miracle of transformation that illustrates the change in people’s lives that takes place when they believe in Jesus and obey his Word.
What does that tell us about Jesus? Well, when he moves in your life, you can count on it being the best thing for you. If you position yourself rightly through obedient submission to his agenda, he can flip the script and give you his best—even when you thought his best was a thing of the past. Jesus is the new wine, and some of his best work comes in the midst of our emptiness.
2:11-12 This was the first of his miracles—or signs as John refers to them (see, e.g., 4:54; 6:2, 14). While Jesus was not yet ready to manifest his identity to the crowd (see 2:4-8), who had no idea where the wine came from, he performed this sign to reveal his glory to his disciples so that their faith would be strengthened (2:11).
2:13-14 During the Passover celebration, Jesus went up to Jerusalem (2:13), as did many Jewish pilgrims. When Jesus saw what was happening in the temple, he was infuriated. There were people selling animals. In and of itself, this was fine. After all, those who had traveled from far away would need to purchase animals to offer as sacrifices. But sales were taking place in the outermost court of the temple—the court of the Gentiles. Thus, non-Jews who came to worship the God of Israel were prevented from doing so. Moreover, the Synoptic Gospels make clear that the sellers were charging an exorbitant amount because Jesus said they had turned it into a “den of thieves.” They were lining their pockets at the expense of the worshipers (cf. Matt 21:12-13). The prophet Malachi also predicted that one would come to purify the temple (see Mal 3:1-5).
2:15-17 So Jesus made a whip and drove all of them out of the temple (2:15). Legitimate business is one thing. But these people had taken a place intended for worship and turned it into a marketplace (2:16). His disciples saw in Jesus’s deeds the fulfillment of Psalm 69:9: Zeal for your house will consume me (2:17).
2:18-22 When the Jews saw the ruckus he had caused, they demanded, What sign will you show us for doing these things? (2:18). In other words, “Who died and left you in charge? What right do you have to do this?” Jesus replied, Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days (2:19). They assumed he was talking about the temple complex; this one was constructed by Herod the Great and had taken forty-six years to build (2:20). They thought he was crazy, but he was speaking about the temple of his body (2:21). And though they couldn’t understand him, he was right. The Jewish leaders would deliver Jesus over to the Romans to be put to death. Then, in three days, he would rise from the grave. His resurrection would indeed demonstrate his authority for cleansing the temple. Interestingly, the disciples didn’t comprehend everything he said either. It would require Jesus’s resurrection for them to grow in their faith and understanding (2:22).
2:23-25 Though many people believed in him (were converted) when they saw [his] signs, Jesus would not entrust himself to them (2:23-24)—that is, he wasn’t ready to reveal more of himself to them because of their spiritual immaturity. They were not yet ready for full commitment to discipleship and public identification with him. Jesus knew what was in man (2:25). He could see into their hearts. And he can see into yours too. So don’t miss this truth: Spiritual growth is important because it expands our capacity to experience more of God. Jesus does not relate to all believers the same way.
3:1-2 The Pharisees were a group of conservative Jews devoted to keeping the law (and often adding to it). One of them, a man named Nicodemus, approached Jesus at night. Why at night? After all, Nicodemus clearly thought well of Jesus. He called him Rabbi and considered him a teacher who [had] come from God, who was able to perform miraculous signs because God [was] with him. But we’ll see that most of his colleagues didn’t feel the same way. They would grow in their opposition and hatred of Jesus (see, e.g., 7:32, 47-48; 8:3-6; 11:45-57). Therefore, Nicodemus went to Jesus under cover of darkness so that he could avoid the scorn of his fellow Pharisees—especially in light of Jesus’s cleansing of the temple. He didn’t want to admit to his admiration of Jesus during the daytime!
3:3 Jesus prefaced his response with Truly I tell you. Some translations render it, “Truly, truly.” He frequently began important statements with this phrase, emphasizing the spiritual significance of what he was about to say.
Nicodemus had just paid Jesus a compliment. But Jesus didn’t beat around the bush. He told him, Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. So though essentially Nicodemus had come to tell Jesus, “I approve of you,” Jesus, rather than being flattered, told this Jewish teacher, “You need to be born again.” The Greek word translated “again” can also mean “from above.” Probably both ideas are intended. Indeed, we need to be born again (to have a spiritual birth in contrast to our physical birth), and that new birth comes only from heaven above.
All of the Jews were longing for the kingdom of God, for that day when the Messiah would come, vanquish Israel’s enemies, and bless God’s people. Jesus’s first disciples recognized him as the “Messiah” and the “King of Israel” (1:41, 49), but Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand that entering into the kingdom required an individual to be spiritually reborn. As the apostle Paul explains it, all people are dead in their trespasses and sins, and only God can give us spiritual life (Eph 2:1-5). Nicodemus needed a spiritual rebirth; simply being a religious leader wouldn’t cut it.
3:4-8 Nicodemus was confused. How could he climb back into his mother’s womb for a second birth (3:4)? But Jesus was speaking spiritually. He told him that it was necessary for a person to be born of water (a reference to physical birth) and the Spirit to enter the kingdom (3:5). Since Nicodemus’s question involved the issue of human birth (3:4) and since the contrast was between flesh and Spirit (3:6), Jesus was contrasting physical birth with spiritual birth. To enter God’s kingdom, you must not only be born physically (of water and flesh) but also supernaturally (of the Spirit). Human birth and physical ancestry are insufficient for obtaining eternal life.
The only way to experience spiritual life is to be born of the Spirit (3:6). It’s like the wind. You hear it, but you don’t see it. You can’t control it; all you can do is see its effects. It’s the same way with being born of the Spirit (3:8) God’s Spirit invisibly does its work inside the human heart. We can’t see it happening. All we see are the results.
3:9-13 Nicodemus was perplexed: How can these things be? (3:9). Jesus’s reply probably stung: Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things? (3:10). The concept that Nicodemus couldn’t understand concerning the new kingdom age of the working of the Spirit was clearly taught in the Old Testament (see Isa 32:15; Ezek 36:25-27; Joel 2:28-29). As a teacher and leader, Nicodemus should have known that. If he could not grasp earthly things that were plainly taught in the Scriptures, how could he grasp the heavenly things that only Jesus could reveal (3:12)—that is, that God in grace can give people a new heart (see 1 Sam 10:6; Jer 31:33)? Jesus could truly reveal deep heavenly truths since only he had descended from heaven (3:13).
3:14-15 The mention of Moses [lifting] up the snake in the wilderness is a reference to an incident recorded in the book of Numbers (3:14; see Num 21:4-9). On one occasion, when the people of Israel were complaining that God and Moses had only brought them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, the Lord sent venomous snakes that bit and killed many. But God provided a means of deliverance. He had Moses make a bronze snake and tell the people to look at it. If anyone bitten trusted God and looked at the bronze snake, he would be healed. Similarly, the Son of Man would also be lifted up (on a cross), so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Trusting Christ and his substitutionary atonement is God’s provision for addressing his righteous judgment on sin.
3:16 Here we have perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bible. God loved the world of people, and his love was not merely sentimental. Rather, it prompted him to take action. God the Father gave his one and only Son as a substitute for sinful human beings. He would die in their place, bearing their sins. But salvation from sin through the Son requires faith: Everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. When you trust in Jesus alone as your personal sin-bearer, divine judgment is removed and eternal life is freely given.
3:17-18 The Father’s purpose in sending his Son into the world was to bring salvation, not condemnation (3:17). Motivated by love (3:16), God acted to save the world (3:17). Condemnation only comes to the one who does not believe in the one and only Son of God (3:18). Salvation from sin and judgment is free for the taking. But if you reject the miracle cure that the doctor offers you, don’t blame him when you succumb to your fatal illness.
3:19-21 Those who love darkness rather than the light, so that they can try (in vain) to hide their sinful deeds (3:19-20), will experience eternal judgment for rejecting the free gift of God. Those who receive the truth and live their lives in accordance with it come to the light in order to show that their good works have been accomplished by God (3:21). Unbelievers are responsible for their evil deeds, but believers know that God gets the glory for their good ones. Nicodemus was being challenged to come out of the darkness and into the light (see 3:1-2).
3:22-26 At this time both Jesus and John the Baptist were engaged in ministry (3:22-23). John (the apostle and author) notes that John (the Baptist) had not yet been thrown into prison (3:24; on John’s imprisonment and execution, see Matt 14:3-12; Mark 6:17-29; Luke 3:18-20). John’s disciples had become concerned because everyone [was] going to Jesus (3:25-26). Thus, they essentially told their master, “Wait a minute, this Jesus fella is moving in on your ministry. Now fewer people are coming to you.”
3:27-30 But John’s pride was not wounded like his disciples’ was. First, he acknowledged that no one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven (3:27). John knew that his job had been assigned to him by God; therefore, he was content to receive no more than what God wanted him to have. Second, John confessed his secondary role in relationship to Jesus. John was not the Messiah. Rather, he had been sent ahead of him to prepare his way (3:28). He wasn’t the groom but the groom’s friend. The groom gets the bride, and the groom’s friend is glad for him (3:29). Third, John said, He must increase, but I must decrease (3:30). John was simply the opening act, expected to warm up the crowd and then get off the stage. Jesus was the main event, the star attraction.
John’s job was to point to and glorify the Messiah. And that’s our job too. John was content with and grateful for his role. Are you?
3:31-36 Jesus has superiority. He comes from above . . . from heaven. He is no mere man speaking from an earthly viewpoint (3:31). He is the Son of God speaking from a heavenly perspective. His testimony is true, whether someone accepts it or not (3:32-33). To reject the Son’s testimony is to call God a liar since the Son speaks the very words of God and the Father . . . has given all things into his hands (3:34-35). He will one day rule the world as King. Thus, the matter is simple. Believe in the Son to receive eternal life. Reject him and experience divine wrath (3:36).
4:1-4 The Pharisees had heard about the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Now that Jesus was making more disciples than John, the Jewish leaders focused their attention on him (4:1). So Jesus left Judea in the south and went to Galilee in the north (4:3). But to get there, he had to travel through Samaria (4:4).
The Jews disliked the Samaritans, considering them an unclean race. Originally, the name Samaria applied to the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel, which was founded by King Omri (see 1 Kgs 16:23-24). But eventually the entire northern kingdom was referred to by this name. When the Assyrians conquered it, they deported many Israelites, but left others in the land. Then the Assyrians settled other conquered peoples there, who intermarried with the remaining Israelites. This mixture of peoples also involved the worship of various false gods (see 2 Kgs 17:24-41). The Samaritans of Jesus’s day were their descendants, a people of mixed ancestry and syncretistic religious practices. Thus, the Jews despised them.
It is also important to note that Jesus had to go through Samaria (4:4). This would not be the normal route for orthodox Jews, who sought to avoid contact with Samaritans. Thus, Jesus prioritized meeting spiritual needs over facilitating, endorsing, and practicing ungodly social and racial divisions.
4:5-6 Jesus stopped at a Samaritan town where Jacob’s well was. The well is not mentioned in the Old Testament, but the property that Jacob purchased and had given his son Joseph was in Shechem (see Gen 33:18-19; Josh 24:32). Jesus sat down to rest because he was worn out from his journey (4:6).
Notice that John emphasizes the full deity (“the Word was God,” 1:1) and the full humanity (he was “worn out,” 4:6) of Jesus. In theological terminology, the uniting of two distinct natures (divine and human) in one person (Jesus Christ) is known as the hypostatic union. Jesus Christ was, is, and ever will be the God-Man (see Phil 2:6-11). It is also important to note that Jacob’s well represents common ground, since both Jews and Samaritans revered Jacob.
4:7-10 Jesus was alone because his disciples had gone into town to buy groceries (4:8). Their absence implies that Jesus knew he couldn’t effectively minister to the woman with the presence of the racial and gender biases of the disciples. He sat down at the well at “about noon” (4:6) when a Samaritan woman . . . came to draw water (4:7). Typically people wouldn’t draw water during the heat of the day. So, why would she arrive at a time when no one would be around? We’ll soon see that she was a woman of questionable character.
The woman was shocked when Jesus asked her for a drink, since Jews [did] not associate with Samaritans (4:7, 9; see commentary on 4:1-4). Jesus told her that if she understood who he was, she would have been asking him for a drink of living water—that is, spiritual life (4:10). Thus, he used a conversation about something physical to introduce her to a spiritual reality. Notice too that Jesus did not give up his cultural and racial identity to minister to someone of a different race and culture. His willingness to engage her socially by drinking water from her cup opened the door for him to reach her spiritually. We should never ignore or reject the humanity of different people as we seek to share with them the good news of the gospel.
4:11-14 But she didn’t grasp the transition. She was still stuck thinking about physical water, wondering where and how Jesus was going to get it. This well was good enough for Jacob (4:11-12). Did this strange Jew think he was better than his own patriarch? So Jesus proceeded further down the spiritual road. Anyone who drinks from this water would be thirsty again, he told her, but anyone who drinks the water that only he could provide would have a well within, springing up . . . for eternal life (4:13-14). If you receive a drink from Jesus, you don’t have to come back for another. His living water becomes its own everlasting well. Thirst no more.
4:15-18 Apparently still not grasping the point, the woman smugly asked for some of this water so that she’d no longer get thirsty and have to keep coming out to draw water every day (4:15). So Jesus made the conversation a little more personal: Go call your husband (4:16). Her testimony that she had no husband was only half true, and Jesus knew it (4:17). She’d been married five times, and the man she currently lived with was not her husband (4:18). Because Jesus was willing to drink from her cup, he could now address her sin.
4:19-21 The Samaritan woman acknowledged Jesus’s divine insight by calling him a prophet since he accurately pinpointed her unrighteous lifestyle (4:19). Then (perhaps since his comments hit a little too close to home!) she changed the subject to the topic of worship. The Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerizim, while the Jews worshiped at the temple in Jerusalem (4:20). So who was right? Jesus explained that an hour was coming when true worship of the Father wouldn’t involve a specific location (4:21). In John’s Gospel, Jesus’s “hour” is usually associated with his crucifixion and resurrection (see 2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:32; 17:1). So through his death on the cross and resurrection from the grave, Jesus would transform worship for God’s people.
4:22-24 Jesus insisted that her ancestral understanding of worship was flawed and that salvation is from the Jews (4:22) because the Messiah would be of Jewish lineage, descended from the tribe of Judah. Jesus made it clear that truth trumps race and culture. An hour is coming (after his resurrection) and is now here (because the Messiah was present with her at that moment) when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth (4:23). To “worship the Father in Spirit” is to have a heart that is in pursuit of an intimate spiritual relationship with the God who is Spirit (4:24). To worship God “in truth” is to worship him in a biblically accurate way—through the one who is the truth (see 14:6). The Father wants such people to worship him (4:23). God is on the hunt for those who will worship him spiritually through Jesus Christ based on the truth of his Word.
4:25-26 The woman was in an immoral relationship and theologically confused. Nevertheless, she had a genuine messianic expectation: when the Messiah . . . comes, he will explain everything to us (4:25). Their conversation, then, had reached the destination Jesus had intended. He introduced himself: I, the one speaking to you, am he (4:26).
Jesus can deal with your sin (that’s why he came), and he can straighten out your confusion. What’s needed is an openness to receive him.
4:27-30 At that moment, the disciples returned from their food run (see 4:8) and were bewildered that Jesus was talking with a woman (4:27)—in particular with a Samaritan one (see commentary on 4:1-4). But the woman went into town, told everyone about Jesus, and asked, Could this be the Messiah? (4:28-29). Her testimony was so effective that the locals turned out in droves to see Jesus (4:30).
Notice this: The woman hadn’t attended seminary; she’d had no theological training. She had simply met Jesus. In fact, she’d only just met him. But she knew enough to want to share him with others. New believers should be encouraged to share their faith as soon as possible.
4:31-34 Having returned with lunch, the disciples urged Jesus to eat something (4:31). But he had food to eat that they knew nothing about (4:32). For Jesus, the spiritual trumped the physical: My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work (4:34). His greatest satisfaction and fulfillment, then, was not in filling his belly but in obeying God. To him, doing the will of God was not drudgery but joy. For us too, the spiritual must always take precedence over the physical (see Matt 4:3-4; 6:31-33).
4:35 Jesus repeated a proverb that was probably well known in such an agrarian society: There are still four months, and then comes the harvest. Crops take time to grow. But Jesus had a ministry harvest ready for them to reap. As he pointed to the crowd of Samaritan men who had heard the woman’s testimony and who were coming to see him, Jesus said, Open your eyes and look at the fields, because they are ready for harvest.
How often do we postpone sharing the gospel with others? How often do we put God’s kingdom second, when Jesus commands us to seek it first (see Matt 6:33)? If we pay close attention, we will see God at work all around us and discover ministry opportunities right before our eyes—if we have spiritual sight to see them.
4:36-38 Jesus compared gospel ministry to sowing seeds and reaping a harvest. Sometimes one sows and another reaps (4:37)—that is, it may take several encounters with the gospel delivered through more than one messenger before a person believes it. One Christian explains the gospel to an unbeliever, and later another Christian eventually leads that unbeliever to Christ. Seeds are sown by one believer, and a harvest is reaped by another (4:38). Such shared ministry allows us to share in the blessings of God’s kingdom with one another.
4:39-42 Though her faith in Jesus was brand new, the Samaritan woman testified, and many Samaritans from that town believed in Jesus (4:39). They came to Jesus because of the woman’s witness; they stayed because they encountered Jesus personally (4:42). There’s no telling what God can do with your passionate, genuine testimony about how the grace of God transformed your life.
John indicated earlier that “Jews [did] not associate with Samaritans” (4:9; see commentary on 4:1-4). Nevertheless, the Samaritans . . . asked [Jesus] to stay with them. So he and his disciples hung out with them for two days (4:40). So, is racial reconciliation possible? If you’re operating spiritually and united in Jesus, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” And it doesn’t take long when people are right with Jesus.
4:43-45 After his brief sojourn in Samaria, Jesus went to Galilee, the region where he had grown up (4:43). The Galileans welcomed him because they had seen everything he did in Jerusalem (4:45); nevertheless, John lets the reader know that rejection is coming because Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country (4:44). Not only would those from his hometown reject him, but they’d even seek to kill him (see Luke 4:16-30).
4:46-50 Jesus went to Cana of Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine (see 2:1-2). There a royal official begged Jesus to heal his dying son (4:46-47). But Jesus rebuked him and the other people who had gathered. Apparently, though they wanted to see and experience the benefits of Jesus’s miraculous signs and wonders, they were unwilling to believe that he was the Messiah based on his word, as the Samaritans did (4:48). In spite of this, Jesus mercifully healed the official’s son from a distance and told him, Go . . . your son will live. At that moment, the man believed. How do we know? Because his faith went into action: He obeyed Jesus and departed for his home (4:50).
4:51-54 As the official was on his way, his servants met him and said that his son had recovered—at the very hour that Jesus had spoken to him (4:51-53). (When Jesus is ready to move, don’t blink, or you may miss his work.) As a result, the official shared what happened with his whole household, and they all believed in Jesus as the Messiah and not just as a miracle worker (4:53).