Did Jesus Really Turn Water Into Wine?

Michael A. Rydelnik
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I once heard famed atheist Richard Dawkins interviewed on a secular radio program, and he was shocked to discover that his interviewer actually believed in Jesus. His response was to ask whether the host of the program sincerely believed that Jesus turned water into wine. He was stunned when the answer was, “Yes.” Dawkins’s attitude reflects the approach taken by many skeptics—they question how anyone could believe it possible for Jesus to have carried out this miracle.

Some followers of Jesus ask the same question, but with a very different intent. They find it hard to believe, in light of all the damage caused by alcohol abuse, that the Lord Jesus would actually turn water into wine with genuine alcohol content. To them, it’s inconceivable that the Lord Jesus would provide real wine, and, by doing so, condone social alcohol consumption or possibly even partake of it Himself. So, it’s vital to address these questions, posed both by the skeptic and the teetotaler, in that order.

The Reality of the Miracle

The denial of miracles presupposes a naturalistic point of view. Skeptics argue that Jesus could not have turned water into wine because it’s simply not scientifically possible for a miracle to have taken place. This approach is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, it has the wrong premise, confusing naturalism with scientific fact. Naturalism states that only nature exists and there is nothing transcendent beyond it. By contrast, a truly scientific person would accept the evidence that there is a Creator who established the laws of nature and who then could transcend those laws. That’s why famed former atheist Anthony Flew came to believe that “a super-intelligence is the only good explanation of the origin of life and of the complexity of nature.”[1] If God does exist, then miracles are not only possible but absolutely necessary in order to explain the historical record.

Pure naturalism denies the historical record of events like turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. But critics should consider the number of people who were present at the wedding of Cana. All of those in attendance attested to the remarkable miracle of Jesus turning water into wine. John declared that his purpose for including these miraculous signs in his gospel was to convince people to “believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God [deity], and by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30–31 HCSB). The miracle at Cana was well known and gave evidence of the deity of Jesus. Denial of the miracle not only rejects the testimony of John but of every other person present at that time. The critic, by denying these first-person validations, is saying, “My mind is made up—don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Josh McDowell compares the rejection of eyewitness testimony to explorers going to Australia and discovering an animal that seemed to deny all the zoological categories previously known. It was a semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal with webbed feet, a broad, flat tail, and a flat bill similar to a duck. At first, people rejected the eyewitness report of this discovery and considered it a hoax because it didn’t fit their previously conceived notions. When the explorers returned from Australia a second time, carrying the hide of a duckbilled platypus, they were again accused of fabricating a fraud.[2] This modern-day example demonstrates the danger of only trusting our preconceived ideas rather than believing reliable firsthand testimony.

John’s purpose for including this miracle was to prove the deity of Jesus. Only God could turn water molecules into wine molecules. Those who are followers of Jesus fully accept the ability of Jesus to do this and much more! Many, though, have a different issue related to the suitability of that miraculous wine.

The Question of the Grapes

The wisdom writer states categorically, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1). He also gave an extended description of the woes, sorrows, contentions, complaints, and wounds of those “who linger long over wine” (Prov. 23:29–35). The danger of alcohol abuse has caused many to question why the Lord Jesus would actually turn water into wine with alcoholic content. It seems to them that this would be contrary to His love and concern for people. They try to explain away this miracle. Yet all the biblical evidence seems to indicate that Jesus did indeed create wine out of water.

The Lexical Evidence

When the wine ran out at the wedding in Cana, Jesus had the pots filled with water. Afterwards, the headwaiter tasted the liquid in the pots and the water “had become wine” (John 2:9). The Greek language has perfectly good words for both juice and wine. In this paragraph, the word oinos plainly means wine. Southern Baptist Greek scholar A. T. Robertson has written, “It is real wine that is meant by oinos here. Unlike [John] the Baptist, Jesus mingled in the social life of the time, was even abused for it (Matt. 11:19 = Luke 7:34).”[3] The plain sense of the word used here is actual, real wine.

The Contextual Evidence

It’s not only the word used in John 2:9 that points to real wine, but also the very next verse. The headwaiter who had tasted the wine told the bridegroom, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). These words indicate what was (and maybe still is) standard operating procedure at weddings. In particular, it was normal to serve the better wine first. Then, when people became drunk (the literal translation of “drunk freely;” cf. NET Bible), they would offer the lesser quality wine. However, in this case, clearly the best wine had been made available late in the celebration.

This verse is not saying anyone had yet become drunk— only what was normally done at weddings. The important detail to note is that the sort of wine offered at weddings was the kind that could cause drunkenness. Imagine the headwaiter saying, “Normally, the name brand grape juice is brought out first, and then, when the senses are dulled, the store brand quality is released.” This would make no sense. The only way to understand the headwaiter’s words would be if he were talking about real wine.

The Cultural Evidence

We must consider that the miracle took place at a first century Jewish wedding. All Jewish festivals and weddings at that time were consecrated and celebrated with real wine. It would make no sense for Jesus to go against the cultural tradition and turn water into grape juice. Clearly the miracle involved Jesus turning the water into actual wine with alcoholic content.

The Historical Evidence

Prior to the modern era, there was no question that this was a miracle with real wine. It was only in nineteenth-century America, with its rampant abuse of wine and other alcohol, that followers of Jesus began to reject drinking wine whatsoever. This in turn led many to question the alcoholic content in the miraculously made wine of Jesus. However, to deny the alcoholic content of the wine in this miracle and in this setting is to read the Bible through the lens of our modern-day culture and emotions.

So What?

What should we make of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana? To begin, the passage shows that Jesus approved of drinking wine. Master educator Gilbert Highet, in a book about methods of instruction, pointed out that Jesus taught in ways other than by lecturing. He states, “The first miracle told of him in John’s gospel was the creation of wine to help the festivities at a wedding. He could not have said more plainly that he approved of both marriage and [wine]drinking.”[4] Bishop Ryle similarly comments, “If our Lord Jesus Christ actually worked a miracle in order to supply wine at a marriage feast, it seems to me impossible, by any ingenuity, to prove that drinking wine is sinful.”[5]

Second, the Bible includes clear warnings about the danger and destruction of drunkenness. The book of Proverbs (cited previously) warns about the abuse of alcohol. The Bible teaches that the damage caused by drinking alcohol should be a caution against ever imbibing too much. Moreover, the abuse of alcohol by many in our culture should give us pause. We can agree that if we never took a drink of wine or any other sort of alcohol, we would never be able to abuse it. Certainly, this could be the wisest course for many of us.

Third, we are cautioned by Paul to consider the effect of our alcohol consumption on others. Paul’s teaching about meat sacrificed to idols can easily apply to the drinking of wine. Even if we are able to drink wine temperately without abusing it, Paul taught believers to limit our liberty in doubtful things, so as not to cause “a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9–10). To cause someone to stumble does not mean we are annoying a legalist. Rather, it refers to causing others to behave in a way that is contrary to their conscience. If a believer drinks wine, and by doing so causes someone else who is struggling with resisting wine to drink it, then we “sin against Christ” (1 Cor. 8:12).

Final Thoughts

What can we conclude? We need balance when it comes to our attitude and behavior toward wine and other types of alcohol. While we do not want to become legalists, condemning brothers and sisters in the faith who have the freedom and control to drink wine, we must also not behave so carelessly that we cause a stumbling block for brothers and sisters “for whose sake Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11). Remember the words of Paul: “Therefore, if food [or drink] causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat [or drink wine] again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble” (1 Cor. 8:13).

[1] John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford, Eng- land: Lion, 2009), 10.

[2] Josh McDowell, A Ready Defense, comp., Bill Wilson (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1990), 125.

[3] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. V (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1932), 37.

[4] Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching (London: Methuen & Co., 1951), 174.

[5] John Charles Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. John, vol. 1 (London: James Clarke & Co., 1957), 101.

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