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?
1. Well-written mystery novels include the following elements: Characters—the protagonist and antagonists; Settings—the period and places; Plot—the designed conflict around which a story coheres; Clues—hints that assist readers in anticipating the mystery’s resolution; Distractions—interruptions, and diversions that lead to dead ends; Structure—progression from setup, through confrontation, to resolution.
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.
2. Of course, the Bible’s storyline, with these features, is more complex than mystery novels.
3. Consider C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
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.
4. D. A. Carson is helpful on this point; see “Understanding Misunderstandings in the Fourth Gospel,” Tyndale Bulletin 33 (1982): 59–89.
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.
5. Traditionally, Christians have identified seven signs, all miraculous, presented in John’s Gospel: (1) Water becomes wine (2:1–11); (2) Jesus heals an official’s son in Galilee (4:46–54); (3) Jesus heals a lame man by the pool in Jerusalem (5:1–15); (4) Jesus feeds 5,000 in Galilee (6:1–15); (5) Jesus walks on the sea and rescues the Twelve (6:16–21); (6) Jesus heals the man born blind (9:1–41); and (7) Jesus raises Lazarus from death (11:1–44). See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 30–31.
6. Some regard the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’s walking on the sea as one because of their close proximity. See Andreas Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 324.
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.
As an eyewitness, John straightforwardly recounts Jesus’s first miracle as an acted parable, but from his post-resurrection insight, he does not decipher the sign’s symbolism, including the discourse between Jesus and his mother. Though John does not provide any direct clue as with other signs, he expressly states that the miracle revealed Jesus’s glory, affirming that it is symbolically laden. We learn its explanation only by continuing to read. Verbal and literary links emerge, and discourses linked with Jesus’s other signs offer insights for interpreting his first sign.
Jesus’s announcement, “My hour has not yet come,” at the close of his first week of ministry, activates the countdown to that “hour”—not a literal sixty minutes, but a climactic moment in time. As this hour draws nearer due to escalating conflict with the Jewish authorities, John reminds us, “his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30; 8:20). The impending “hour” arrives after Jesus performs his last sign, raising Lazarus from the dead, on the first day of the final week of his Father’s mission (John 12:23; 13:1; & 17:1). When some Greeks who arrived in Jerusalem for Passover request to see Jesus (John 12:20–22), then Jesus announces, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). He is exalted and “lifted up” for palpable, public exposure, stripped of dignity, and crucified on the cross (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34). His humiliation on the cross, which his zealous opponents suppose is their victory, is in fact Jesus’s hour of glory, the fulfillment of his divine mission. Without the cross, Jesus is not glorified (John 8:28; 12:32, 34).
Jesus’s acted parable signifies that he has kept the good wine of the coming messianic age “until now” at a wedding feast where he quietly presents himself as the true bridegroom (cf. John 3:29; Mark 2:19–20; Isa. 62:4–5). He repurposes the six large stone water jars for purification rites, representing incompleteness, signifying that the time for ceremonial purification prescribed by the law covenant reaches its fulfillment when his hour of glorification arrives. Thus, Jesus fills the six jars to the brim with profuse wine, representing the extravagant abundance of Messiah’s provisions foretold by prophets, signifying the dawn of the new order and the passing of the old (cf. Gen. 49:11–12; Isa. 25:6; 55:1–3; Jer. 31:12–14; Hos. 14:4–7; Joel 2:19, 22–24; 3:18; Amos 9:13–14). John’s prologue foreshadows this: “Out of his fullness, we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16; NIV).
7. D. A. Carson rightly states, “The fulfillment of the typological function of ceremonial purification is not dependent on fulfillment wording. In John 2:7, the word for “filling” is gemizō, used twice—first in Jesus’ directive (gemisate) and then to report the servants’ act (egemisan)” (John, 174).
The Revelatory Primacy of Jesus’s First Sign
John begins and closes his account of Jesus’s first sign miracle by stating that it occurred “in Cana in Galilee” (John 2:11) This repetition signals a smaller (2:1–11) and a larger bracket (2:1–4:54), where John says that Jesus “came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine” (John 4:46). For our concern, in 2:1–11 John emphasizes, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” John’s word for “first” (archē instead of the expected prōtos) bears the meaning “beginning” or “initial.” It echoes the double use of “in the beginning” (en archē) in John 1:1–2. With this word, John is likely saying that Jesus’s first sign, occurring on the seventh day, signifies the end of the old order by initiating the dawn of the new creation, represented by the abundance of wine. As the initial week of the creation climaxed with a marriage (Gen. 2:23–25), so the initial week of the new creation culminates with a wedding where the true bridegroom is Jesus.
With his signs, Jesus is not interested in impressing the masses with naked exhibitions of power or illusions that trick the mind. His actions, sometimes miraculous, signify by pointing beyond themselves to greater realities perceived only with eyes of faith. This initial dramatized parable in John’s Gospel functions like the spoken Parable of the Sower in the Synoptic Gospels, where Jesus asks the Twelve, “Do you not understand this parable? How, then, will you understand all the parables” (Mark 4:13)? Thus, if we do not understand Jesus’s turning water into wine, how will we understand all the other signs John narrates? Jesus’s turning water into wine and raising Lazarus from the dead correlate all the signs with the disclosure of his glory. So, John links his accounts of Jesus’s signs with the purpose statement of his Gospel (20:30–31), connecting the beginning with the end. Thus, when John states that Jesus “revealed his glory” (2:11), he means that this sign is the beginning of the revelation foreshadowing Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.
The symbolism with which Jesus imbued his sign at the wedding in Cana prepares readers to anticipate his actions and words throughout his ministry, including all his prophetic actions (e.g., in the temple [John 2:13–22]; riding a donkey into Jerusalem [John 12:12–19]; hiding himself [John 12:36b–43]) and each of his other miraculous signs—healing the official’s son (John 4:46–54), healing the lame man (John 5:1–17), feeding the 5,000 (John 6:1–15), walking on water (John 6:16–21), giving sight (John 9:1–41), and raising Lazarus (John 12:1–44). To illustrate this, consider how Jesus’s first sign and his parabolic prophetic act of overturning tables in the Temple during Passover and his spoken riddle about his body mutually explain one another. That his first sign takes place “on the third day” plausibly connects forward with Jesus’s announcement: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days” (2:19). Nowhere else in John’s Gospel does “third” or “three” occur with “day.” Also, when Jesus announces to his mother, “My hour has not yet come,” he has in view his death and resurrection. This is another foreshadowing of Jesus’s riddle in the Temple. It is reasonable, then, to say that Jesus’s initial sign and his enigmatic actions and prophecy against the Temple interpret one another. Both accounts not only point forward to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection but play an important role in bringing him closer to “his hour.”
Conclusion: John’s Gospel Instructs Us How to Read the Old Testament
John’s Gospel provides a model for how we are to read the Old Testament. Just as John’s account concerning Jesus preserves within his actions and discourses clues concerning his true identity as God’s Anointed One, so clues concerning the Messiah are embedded within the texts of the Law and the Prophets.
We are mistaken to think that Jesus’s resurrection authorizes his disciples to retrofit the Old Testament to mean something new and different from what it meant from its beginning, before his coming. This is clear in how John, like the other Evangelists, carefully avoids interjecting his post-resurrection faith and understanding into his recounting of Jesus’s signs, prophetic actions, and discourses. Occasionally he offers explanations for readers, particularly to highlight how the disciples misunderstand Jesus’s actions and words, as with his aggressive actions in the Temple (John 2:17). 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). The Word, enfleshed as Jesus, replicates Scripture by concealing himself even in the act of revealing himself. To believe with understanding Jesus’s deeds and words is to believe and understand Scripture itself.