Signs Foreshadowing the Cross in John’s Gospel
When the disciples come to understand Jesus’s words and actions after his resurrection, it is because they understand that Scripture prophesied Jesus’s death and resurrection as the climax of redemptive history. John expressly tells us this: “When, therefore, he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22). His point is that this retrospective illumination comes through the Spirit, whom the Father sends to instruct and remind them concerning all Jesus’s deeds and words (John 14:26).
Scripture as Mystery
We all enjoy well-written novels entailing a mystery. Novelists imitate their Creator, who permeates his created order with mystery: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Prov. 25:2). Likewise, mystery saturates the biblical storyline. With the resurrection of Jesus Christ, this reality dawned upon individuals he called as his witnesses. Hence, the word “mystery” frequently occurs in the New Testament, mainly in Paul’s letters, and once in each of the Synoptic Gospels. Though the word is never used in John’s Gospel, the concept is present, as is often the case. But before we turn there, how exactly is the word “mystery” used in the Bible?
The closing of Paul’s Letter to the Romans captures the essential meaning: in times past, the gospel of Christ Jesus was simultaneously hidden and disclosed through the Law and the Prophets; now that Christ Jesus has come, by God’s command, the gospel has been made known to people everywhere through those same concealing-revealing prophetic Scriptures (Rom. 16:25–27).
The Bible’s storyline is a mystery; it’s the true story of the whole world, from creation to restoration. This story’s unfolding and transcription within history establishes the paradigm that every human story resembles, with renowned authors testifying to and replicating the Bible’s story in their masterpieces. Their human stories underscore the reality that the Creator situated every one of us within the biblical storyline. Scripture’s storyline is fully written, so we read how the story’s climax in the advent of the Lord Christ already anticipates the not-yet final resolution. Consequently, we who enter as participants in the biblical storyline in the Last Days await the story’s prophesied consummation.
The concept of mystery aptly describes how the Old Testament prophetically presages the One who is to come and how Jesus reveals he is the Coming One, fulfilling Scripture’s prophecies concerning Israel’s Messiah. In the Four Gospels, we see Jesus revealing his identity through deeds and words that reenact events and reiterate prophecies from the Old Testament. Indeed, this is how the mystery is revealed.
Decades after the events took place, the four Evangelists masterfully replicate in literary form the unfolding drama of Jesus’s self-disclosure. He incrementally reveals himself before the eyes of the Twelve and other first witnesses whose sin-induced impaired vision and hearing encountered Jesus’s revelatory concealments with misunderstanding. With awakened senses, they patiently retrace the unfolding mystery of Jesus’s veiled identity by recounting episodes selected from thousands of experiences (cf. John 21:25; 20:30–31). By judiciously refusing to superimpose their mature, post-resurrection faith and understanding onto their narratives, they achieve historically realistic and climactic developing self-disclosure concerning how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies of the promised Messiah.
For our consideration, John faithfully reproduces in a literary form a sequence of Jesus’s signs, teachings, and prophetic actions, all designed to prompt belief that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus of Nazareth (John 20:30–31). Jesus’s acts and words foreshadow his sacrificial death and bodily resurrection. This article focuses on Jesus’s first sign as instructive for how we must read all of Jesus’s signs and discourse throughout John’s gospel.
John’s Gospel as Mystery as Seen in Jesus’s First Sign
“On the third day,” Jesus performs his first sign at a wedding in Cana (John 2:1–11) at the end of his first week of ministry (see the day markers in John 1:19, 29, 35, 40, 43; 2:1). A brief conversation with seeming cross-purposes unfolds between Jesus and his mother, who at this point in John’s gospel is unnamed. She tells him, “They do not have wine.” He responds, “What does this have to do with you and me, woman? My hour has not yet come.” Undaunted, his mother gives an expectant directive to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:3–5).
Jesus directs the servants to fill with water six large stone jars, which were now empty after having cleansed guests’ hands and serving utensils in keeping with the Mosaic Law. The servants fill each jar with water “to the brim,” a significant detail John reports to eliminate any notion of sleight-of-hand trickery. “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast” (John 2:8), Jesus instructs the servants. The master of the feast tastes what is in his cup, and only by his astonished reaction do we learn that the six jars are full not of water but of wine—the best wine: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). He confirms the miracle, though he has no knowledge of what took place. He speaks better than he understands. His praise for the speechless bridegroom unwittingly credits Jesus, who unobtrusively fulfills the role at which the silent bridegroom fails.