The Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry

The First Disciples (John 1:35-51)

            On the day following John’s testimony that Jesus was the Christ, John was standing with two disciples when Jesus walked by. John pointed him out and said, “Behold the Lamb of God.” This was sufficient for these two. John had been announcing the coming of one greater than he and this person had now arrived. They immediately began to follow Jesus.

            Perhaps knowing the greatest of Jesus from John they did not speak to him, but simply followed him. Jesus eventually turns and ask what it was that they sought. Though they had yet to met Jesus personally, they addressed him as teacher. With this, they are humbly asking Jesus to instruct them and they wished to know where they might go and receive that instruction. [As a side note: the fact that John interprets the Hebrew word rabbi, shows that John’s target audience might not be familiar with Hebrew.]

            It was late in the day, being about four o’clock in the afternoon, so Jesus invites them to follow him and see where he is staying. They remain the rest of the day with him, though little of it was left.

            We learn that one of the two who came to Jesus was named Andrew, which of course leaves us wondering who was the other one. The most likely answer is John who rarely names himself (see John 20:2-3, 8 as an example). However, his presence is implied in his detailed knowledge of the events (even recalling the hour of the day).

            Andrew’s conversation with Jesus, combined with John’s testimony, convinced him that the Messiah had truly come. He went to his brother Simon, told him of his find, and brought him to Jesus, probably that same evening. Simon’s name means unloved or hated (Genesis 29:33) others translate the name as meaning fearful or timid, but Jesus said he would be called Cephas (Syriac) or Peter (Greek) which means a stone or rock. Here Jesus demonstrates power beyond men. He knew both Simon’s name, his father’s name, and greater he gave him a name which would be more suitable for him in later life. In other words, at their meeting Jesus knew Simon’s current and future character. Notice that Simon accepts and begins using his new name immediately.

            On the following day, began journeying toward Galilee and met Philip. Philip was from Bethsaida, the same home town of Andrew and Peter. Bethsaida is on the north edge of the Sea of Galilee. Since people travel together for safety, it is logical that others from the Galilee area would join together for a long journey.

            Philip in turn found Nathanael. Nathanael’s other name appears to be Bartholomew (which means “son of Ptolomy”). John consistently calls him Nathanael while the other writers call him Bartholomew. Due to the way Luke records the names of the apostles later in Luke 6:14, it is likely that Philip and Nathanael are related or are close friends. While Philip is from Bethsaida, Nathanael is from Cana (John 21:2). Philip is also convinced that Jesus is the one prophesied by the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 18:18). He excitedly tells Nathanael that Jesus of Nazareth is the one for whom the nation of Israel has been long looking. Nathanael is not particularly impressed. Nazareth is not a town from where you would expect a great king to hail. Nathanael, being from a neighboring town, was particularly unimpressed by some who calls Nazareth home. However, Philip insists he must see for himself. Notice how often people are not asked to accept another’s statement, but to come and see for themselves whether the statement is true.

            Jesus greets Nathanael in a very unusual way. He declares to those around him that here was an honest man. Jesus calls him “an Israelite indeed,” or here was a man who actually deserves to be called an Israelite (Psalm 32:2; Romans 2:28-29; 9:6). Nathanael doesn’t deny the assessment; instead, he is puzzled how a man he doesn’t recall meeting knows his character. Jesus tells him that before Philip found him Jesus saw him under the fig tree. By saying he saw him, Jesus is not claiming to have physically seen him, but had seen him as God sees all (Psalms 139:1-2). The wording is a bit odd. It is common for people to sit under the dense foliage of the fig tree for shade, but Jesus didn’t say he saw Nathanael under a fig tree but under the fig tree. Something notable happened under that particular fig tree of which we are not made aware, but Nathanael is startled that Jesus knew what he was certain no one else could have known. Nathanael jumps to the logical conclusion that this man must be deity. He must be the long awaited king.

            Evidently Jesus found it amusing how easily Nathanael reached the right conclusion, but he assures him that greater things would be seen that would confirm what Nathanael now knows. In particular, Jesus states that they would see into heaven and see God’s angels coming to and going from Jesus. This is an allusion to Jacob’s vision (Genesis 28:12). Angels are God’s ministering spirits (Hebrews 1:14). Thus, Jesus is stating that Nathanael would witness God’s care for His Son.

The Wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11)

            Three days after leaving Bethany beyond the Jordan, Jesus and his disciples arrived in Cana in time for a wedding feast. Jesus, his mother, and the five disciples were all invited to attend. Weddings were big celebrations in those days, typically lasting a week (see Judges 14:12, 17-18). It is likely that Mary was related to the couple being married, which would explain her coming from Nazareth. Since Joseph is not mentioned and Mary is simply referred to as the mother of Jesus, it is likely that Joseph had died prior to Jesus’ ministry at the age of thirty.

            Even with the best of plans, things typically go amiss. Before the feast ended, they ran out of wine for the guests. Mary must have been involved with the catering of the feast, for when they ran out, she brought it to the attention of her son. Why she told Jesus and what she expected of Jesus to do about the situation, if anything, is a topic of endless speculation. There is not enough information in the account to draw a conclusion. We only know that she knew he would do something to help because she told the servants to do as he asked.

            Jesus’ response to Mary is not one of disrespect. He frequently addressed those of the female gender as “woman;” see Matthew 15:28; John 4:21; John 19:26; 20:13. Though it sounds harsh in the English language, Jesus is gently reproving his mother for attempting to direct what he would or would not do. What Jesus would do would come at its own time. It is a hard lesson that most parents must face when their children are grown that they can no longer be directed as the parent wishes. Technically, the matter of food supplies is not a concern of guests such as Mary or himself. Nor was it time for Jesus’ claim to being the Messiah to be publicly demonstrated. Here then we learn that Mary’s request was more than it seems on the surface. Perhaps she was wanting him to declare himself, but Jesus rebukes her and says “not yet.” Still, Mary understood that Jesus was indicating that he would take some action in this matter. And Jesus, while giving aid, did so in an unobtrusive manner.

            Jesus had the servants fetch water to fill six stone water pots. These pots were placed in the feast so that guests could wash their hands before eating (Mark 7:3). They were large pots holding about 20 to 30 gallons apiece. Jesus then told the servants to draw a portion back out of the pots and bring it to the governor of the feast. Notice that Jesus did not physically participate in the process, nor were people aware of what was happening beyond the servants, Mary, and we find later that the disciples became aware of what happened as well.

            By Jewish custom, a man was given the job of running the feast. He made sure that food and drink was available and that the Jewish dietary laws were being met. He coordinated who ate when and were as well as scheduling the entertainment. It would be a part of his duties to sample the food being brought out to see that it was fit for the guests.

            Because the word “wine” is used in our English translations, many people assume that the drink Jesus provided was alcoholic. However, the Greek word oinos is a generic term that refers to any product derived from grapes. Fresh squeezed grape juice and fermented wine would both fall under the category of oinos. Therefore, the context must determine the meaning of oinos.

            A simple reading indicates that Jesus made between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. This is a large quantity of wine, even for a wedding feast in a small town. Nor was the wine made at the start of the feast; they ran out some time into the feast.

            Drunkenness was condemned under the Old Testament law (Proverbs 23:21). Jesus did not violate the law, nor did he cause others to violate the law. Therefore, the only conclusion to reach is that the wine created was not alcoholic.

            A common objection is to point out that the governor of the feast complemented the groom for the quality of the wine. Normally people bring out the best at the beginning, and after everyone is satisfied, the lesser quality items are brought out. However, note that the alcoholic content is not mentioned. Those citing this assume that a stronger alcoholic content is better. But we know from history that in the days prior to refrigeration, the freshness of a product was more valued. For example, Plutarch, who lived between 46 and 120 A.D. said, "Wine is rendered feeble in strength when it is frequently filtered. The strength or spirit thus being excluded, the wine neither inflames the brain nor infests the mind and passions, and is much more pleasant to drink." Pliny, who lived between 62 and 113 A.D., said, "The most useful wine was all its force or strength broken by the filter." Notice that non-alcoholic beverages were valued more than the alcoholic variety.

            John tells us that this miracle was the first Jesus performed which demonstrated his power. The demonstration reinforced the disciples’ confidence that they had found the Messiah. Some wonder about Jesus’ childhood and speculate on the miracles that he might have done while a child. This statement in John proves that these speculations are false. If there were earlier miracles then this one in Cana would not be the first. 

Cleansing the Temple (John 2:12-25)

            From Cana, Jesus, Mary, and the disciples went to Capernaum. Even though they went north, the Bible mentions that they went down because in elevation, Capernaum is 600 feet lower than Cana. It is these subtle references which demonstrate the care and accuracy of the biblical record.

            They did not remain very long in Capernaum before the time of the Passover came and Jesus traveled with his disciples to Jerusalem. The account that is here recorded should not be confused with a similar incident recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The one in the other three gospel accounts occurred near the end of Jesus’ ministry. The one recorded here in John took place near the beginning.

            Approaching the temple, Jesus found people selling livestock for sacrifices and exchanging money. People traveling from distant lands could not easily bring livestock for sacrifices. The Old Law allowed for an exchange to take place (Deuteronomy 14:23-26). For a similar reason, people traveling from foreign countries would have foreign coins. The Jews took Exodus 30:13 to mean that only Temple currency could be used, thus requiring that foreign coins be exchanged before contributions could be given.

            The Old Law did not imply that these exchanges were to take place at the Temple. Of course, merchants granted the right to make trades right in the Temple courts would be guaranteed good business and it is likely that they were charging premiums. The purpose of God’s laws was to remove a burden from the worshiper; the Jews were using the law as a means of making a profit from the worship of God.

            Jesus made a whip from cords and drove out the merchants as well as the livestock. He told them that God’s house is not a place for making profit (Isaiah 56:11; Jeremiah 7:11). Such remains a concern (I Timothy 6:5). The fact that the merchants so readily gave place to Jesus indicates that they knew what they were doing was dishonest.

            The disciples found Jesus’ action as further proof that he was the Messiah. They recalled the words of David in Psalms 69:9 and found that they well described what Jesus was doing. But others demanded that Jesus show evidence that he had the right to determine who should or should not be in the Temple area. To their way of thinking, only a divine directive could permit such action. Past reformers of religion, such as Elijah, demonstrated their authority by miraculous signs showing that they were acting on behalf of God. The Jews demanded the same from Jesus.

            The proof, Jesus stated, would be seen in his resurrection three days after his death. He chose not to state it clearly to these people who were demanding that he prove what they already knew was proper. John makes sure that his readers understood what Jesus meant, but even the disciples did not understand at the time. His words were not clear to them until after Jesus’ resurrection. They also recalled statements from the Old Testament that hinted at the same evidence, such as Psalm 16:10.

            The Jews present, however, thought that Jesus was referring to the Temple, a structure that in its current form took 46 years to build. How, they scoffed, could anyone claim to be able to rebuild the Temple in three days? It was a point that annoyed them for years. They even brought it up at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:40).

            Jesus remained in Jerusalem for the Passover feast. We will be taking note of these yearly attendance of the Passover as they serve as markers of the passing years. Since this Passover came shortly after Jesus’ baptism, it marks the beginning of Jesus’s first year of teaching.

            While in Jerusalem, Jesus began to gives signs, meaning that he performed several miracles in the presence of people. These signs caused people to believe that he was the Messiah (John 20:30-31). While people put their confidence in Jesus (John 2:23), Jesus did not put his confidence in the people (John 2:24). [The word “commit” in verse 24 is the same word translated “believe” in verse 23.] Jesus knew the hearts of men and understood how fickle men could be. He didn’t need for anyone to explain this to him because he was God and knew the hearts of men since he was their Creator (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Thus Jesus did not discuss any of his plans with his new followers. In fact, Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3 illustrates this reluctance to be forthright early in his ministry.

Questions for this Lesson