[K:NWTS 11/1 (May 1996) 3-13]

John 2: Structure and Biblical Theology

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Kerux V11N1A1

The second chapter of John's gospel is a composite narrative: the miracle at the wedding in Cana; and the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. The two incidents are linked by the movement of Jesus, his mother, brothers and disciples. The two incidents undergo closure by the lack of movement on the part of Jesus. I will elaborate on these narrative elements after some remarks about the structure of the section.

Micro- and Macrostructure: John 2-4

John 2:1-11 contains an inclusio. You will notice the phrase "in Cana of Galilee" (Greek, en Kana tes Galilias), vv. 1, 11. In addition, the phrase "his disciples" (Greek, hoi mathetai autou) also appears at the beginning and end of the pericope (vv. 2, 11). Finally, the name of the chief character in the drama, Jesus (Greek, Iesous) also appears in vv. 2 and 11. The Cana narrative begins and ends in the same way. The story of the wedding at Cana is enclosed within distinctive literary markers, thus setting the incident apart as its own narrative unit. Within the brackets of the literary inclusio is a particular Johannine theological emphasis. When the inclusio marker has been identified, a narrative unit has been isolated. But this literary and narrative analysis is but the prelude to the biblical-theological query. What is the theological purpose of the material within the inclusio? Structure is not an aesthetic device, nor is it an end in itself. Structure is unto theological insight. If the reader correctly identifies literary structure, his work has only begun. The literary and narrative structure is part of the writer's theological purpose. 

Verse 12 sets the miracle at Cana apart from the cleansing of the Jerusalem temple. The verse begins with "after" (Greek, meta). A verb of movement or journeying follows ("descended" = Greek, katebe). Finally a place name is joined to the verb indicating the direction of movement ("to Capernaum" = Greek, eis Kapharnaoum). 

Now verse 13 significantly begins as did verse 1, e.g., "and" (Greek, kai). In fact, verse 13 contains a double kai sequence—even as verse one, e.g., "and . . . and." Furthermore, verse 13 contains a place designation ("to Jerusalem" = Greek, eis Ierosolyma) as did v. 1 (i.e., "Cana"). And verse 13 contains the name "Jesus" (Greek, Iesous) as per verse 2 (cf. also Iesou, v. 1). In other words, verse 13 inaugurates another narrative section of the fourth gospel and it does so in parallel to the narrative of the miracle at Cana. The closure of the Jerusalem temple incident in verse 22 is similar to the pattern of closure in the previous narrative section (i.e., the miracle at Cana, witness v. 11). Notice the duplicate phrase in verse 22 ("his disciples" = Greek, hoi mathetoi autou) and the duplicate appearance of the name of Jesus (Greek, Iesous). 

The parallel inception and conclusion of the Cana narrative and the Jerusalem narrative in John 2 is not coincidental. Something drastic is occurring in these two incidents. It is so dramatic that the apostle replicates the narrative structure. The dramatic thread is suggested by the recurrence of the key phrase "his disciples" (Greek, hoi mathetai autou), vv. 2, 12, 22. Verse 12 is indeed a link between Jesus' activity in Cana of Galilee and Jerusalem. Mlakuzhyil calls verse 12 a "bridge section." But as I shall attempt to show below, verse 12 is more than a narrative bridge; it is a keystone to the theological drama of the emerging new and eschatological Israel. John 2:12 is the centerpiece in an arch binding Cana and Jerusalem.

Verse 23 breaks the pattern—or at least interrupts the pattern emerging from the relationship of 2:1-11 to 2:12 to 2:13-22. John 2:23 begins with the adverb "when" (Greek, hos). While it contains a duplication of location and festival (Jerusalem and Passover) a la verse 13, it breaks the narrative flow and caps the thematic development of chapter 2 with its own duplication of irony, i.e., "believed"/"entrusted" (Greek, episteusan, v. 23) and "was [not] entrusting" (Greek, episteuen, v. 24). Those who "entrusted" themselves to sign-faith, to them Jesus "was not entrusting" himself. The key phrase "his disciples" does not appear in verses 23-25. Hence Mlakuzhyil is incorrect in regarding these verses as a mere second "bridge section" linking the cleansing of the temple with the nocturnal interview with Nicodemus (3:1ff). Verses 23-25 are a cap (a break—a full stop) in Johannine irony upon these incidents of Jesus' manifestation to his disciples. Verses 23-25 do not link chapter 2 with chapters; they do not parallel the bridge verse 2:12. In fact, verses 23-25 form a well constructed contrast to verse 12 as an indication of genuine versus superficial discipleship. The persons in verse 12 who go down to Capernaum with Jesus following the display of his first glory-sign—these persons (his mother, his disciples, his brothers) remain/stay with him. The verb is emeinan (Greek). These ones who have beheld his "glory" (Greek, doxa, v. 11) are content to commit themselves, to entrust themselves to Jesus by abiding/staying/remaining with him.

Was this not the pattern of discipleship we discovered in chapter 1 (cf. Kerux 9/2 [1994]: 23-29)? The two unnamed disciples in 1:38 ask Jesus, "Rabbi, where are you staying (Greek, meneis)?" Jesus replies, "Come and see." And they stayed/remained (Greek, emeinan—the same word in 2:12) with him. True disciples stay with Jesus—abide with Jesus—have the desire to remain with him. Such followers indeed are his "mother" and his "brothers." But those who only believe the signs (2:23-25), Jesus knows have no root—are only superficial followers. They will form the vanguard of those in 6:15 who will attempt to take Jesus by force and make him king because he fed them with loaves and fishes. Jesus does not entrust himself to these, for he knows what is in them. Even as he knows that Peter is in truth Cephas ("the Rock," 1:42); even as he knows that Nathanael is an Israelite in whom there is no guile (1:47), so Jesus knows that this miracle-believing crowd will not remain with him. He knows his sheep and is known of them (Jn. 10:14), and those who will not abide with him are not of his sheep. This crowd at the end of John 2 is like the crowd in John 6. They provide a stark contrast with the true disciples who are not of the world, for the world has not known the Father. But these have known the Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. Indeed they have known that the Father has sent the Son to abide/remain/stay with them.

John 2 is a further development of discipleship, a motif inaugurated in chapter 1 (the calling of the new and eschatological Israel); a motif destined to reach its climax in chapter 20 when Jesus will breathe the spirit of resurrection-life into this nuclear Israel; a motif which will find its continuing expression in the commission of the disciples in chapter 21 to feed, tend, pastor the new Israel of God. John 2 is a further development of discipleship by way of contrast and irony. The abiding witness of his glory and his resurrection contrasted with the superficiality of sign-faith which can be fickle and transient.

Verse 1 of chapter 3 begins a fresh narrative—a narrative which will focus on discipleship via birth from above. The conversation with Nicodemus begins with the Greek word en ("there was," v. 1). This word is duplicated in verse 23 ("he [John the Baptist] was"). Verse 22 divides the narrative of Nicodemus and the narrative of John the Baptist and the bridegroom with the word "after" (Greek, meta), followed by a verb of movement or journeying ("came" = Greek, elthen) and a place designation ("Judea" = Greek, Ioudian). In parallel to the bridge verse 2:12, so 3:22 is abridge linking the Nicodemus visitation with the Baptist's valedictory. As the miracle at Cana displays Christ's glory to those abiding with him; as the cleansing of the temple foreshadows Christ's resurrection-glory to those who abide with him; so the conversation with Nicodemus sanctions the heavenly/eschatological birth occurring in those who abide in him, while the Baptist's joy underscores the mystical union of those who abide in him. The bridge verses in 2:12 and 3:22 are a progressive unfolding of the nature of what it means to be born of God (1:13). It means that you experience the eschatological wedding; you experience the eschatological resurrection; you experience the eschatological birth; you experience the eschatological ecstasy of the bridegroom.

Continuing my remarks on the structure of John 2-4, 4:1 again begins with the adverb "when" (Greek, hos)—even as 2:23 did. We have, therefore, a marker which breaks the narrative, closing off the two incidents in chapter 3 while preparing us for an altogether new form of discipleship in chapter 4— the discipleship of a Gentile adulterer and a Gentile official. You will note that 4:6 contains the Greek word en again ("it was"). The three sections, all beginning with the verb en (3:1; 3:23; 4:6), form a litany of witnesses to the Son of Man (3:13, 14), the bridegroom (3:29), the fountain of living water (4:10, 14). Each narrative will develop the relationship with Christ in a deeper Christological, soteriological and eschatological dimension.

Chapter 4:43 replicates the pattern of the previous bridge sections: 2:12, 3:22. The opening word is "after" (Greek, meta) followed by a verb of movement or journeying ("went down," "came," "went forth") and a place name ("Capernaum," "Judea," "Galilee"). 4:46-54 concludes by framing everything from chapter 2-4. In other words, 4:46-54 contains an inclusio which envelops John 2-4 in its entirety. Chapter 4 ends in Cana of Galilee, even as chapter 2 began. Chapter 4 contains the second miracle-sign that Jesus performed in Cana even as chapter 2 contains the first. In chapter 4, the father "believes" in Jesus, even as his disciples "believed" on him in chapter 2.

John 2-4 is a bracket, an envelope, an inclusio—from Cana to Cana— from one spectacular miracle to another—from one group of believers to another. Within the brackets, inside the inclusio, discipleship is exploding in all its redemptive-historical richness. Thus John 2-4 is a unit. Within that unit, the new order of redemption in the Son of God is breaking into history.

Narrative Analysis and Beyond

But there is more. A narrative analysis of the miracle at Cana will note: the setting, the occasion, the dramatic personae ("persons of the drama"), i.e., the mother of Jesus, Jesus himself, the disciples, the servants, the bridegroom. The plot of this wedding narrative will focus on the crisis involved when the wine runs out. The narrative will develop via dialogue—Mary with Jesus, Jesus with Mary, Mary with the servants, Jesus with the servants (twice), the headwaiter/steward with the groom. Characterization within the narrative will demonstrate: a pushy Mary tragically out of her proper role; a Jesus firmly in control; a headwaiter who witnesses and testifies to the miracle.

But there is more. Geerhardus Vos has taught us that eschatology is prior to soteriology. And in the history of redemption, eschatology intrudes into the temporal arena. In other words, the breaking in of the new aeon—the new order—is fundamental to a Reformed biblical-theological approach to revelation. In John 2, that eschatological intrusion breaks in miraculously and somatically. Jesus comes to a wedding at Cana of Galilee and the new age in the history of redemption is revealed. Jesus comes to the temple at Jerusalem and the new era in the history of redemption is manifest. What water is transformed at Cana? What temple is to be transformed at Jersusalem? The answer to these questions focuses on the beloved apostle's theology of the history of redemption.

The Sign at Cana

The inaugural Johannine sign (2:1-11) stands in vivid contrast with the inaugural sign of the age of the law. As the church fathers pointed out, the first miracle-sign of Moses was turning water to blood. But this better age—this era of grace-truth (1:17)—is inaugurated by one greater than Moses. And he turns water into wine—benediction, not malediction! Moses and the law cannot be absolutized; Moses and the law must be eschatologized. The history of redemption does not cease with Sinai and the theocracy; the history of redemption progresses to incarnation and fulfillment. We have not come to a mountain blazing fire, to darkness and gloom; rather we have come to Mt. Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, the church of the first-born enrolled in heaven (cf. Heb. 12:18, 22).

Water in Jewish waterpots—Jewish ritual cleansing waterpots. Jewish ritual, Jewish pots—that water ritual is transformed, displaced, replaced. The Jewish age is over, finished, transformed, replaced. Better things have come! Jesus says at Cana, "I bring you the taste of the age to come; the wine of the gospel; the celebration of the feast of gospel joy. Not blood; not the curse— wine! The blessing of the best wine of all. And I bring it lavishly, abundantly— more than 120 gallons of the best wine you have ever tasted." Jesus says at Cana, "I have given you a sign of my glory—the glory I have brought into this present age. It is the wine-glory of the age to come in your very midst. Oh taste and see that this wine is the best of all. Only heaven's cup itself shall be sweeter. But I have given you a taste—a foretaste even now of that heavenly wine. This era will grow sweeter and sweeter as you drink more and more deeply from the wine of the gospel age."

John 2 is the "beginning of signs" (v. 11)—a beginning which marks a new beginning. It is a semeion not a dynamis. John never uses the Greek word dynamis, a word used by the synoptic writers to describe Jesus' miracles. In the synoptic gospels, the miracles of Jesus are dynamite (dynamis)—explosions of the in-breaking and irruption of the kingdom of God ("if I by the finger of God cast out Satan, you know the kingdom of God has come upon you," Lk. 11:20). The miracles of Jesus in the fourth gospel are semaphores—signals of identification, transformation and anticipation. The semeia of John's gospel are "signs" of who Jesus is (identification), "signs" of what he brings (transformation), "signs" of what lies ahead (anticipation). The signs in the gospel of John are Christological (identification), soteriological (transformation) and eschatological (anticipation).

All the gospel miracles—synoptic as well as Johannine—may be summarized by the following paradigm: apologetic (identification), Messianic (transformation), eschatological (anticipation). The apologetic aspect of the miracles of Jesus (what I call the "Nicodemus connection" and John Locke called "the credit of the proposer") is featured in John 3:2: "we know that you have come from God as a teacher, for no one can do these signs (Greek, semeia) that you do unless God is with him." Nicodemus knows. He knows because the evidence of the miracles attests that Jesus is a teacher sent from God. Jesus has not been sent from Satan; he is not a son of Beelzebub (cf. Lk. 11). Only one "from God" can do miracles. Nicodemus knows that miracles identify the messenger as God-sent. Moses was identified as God-sent by his miracles. The Egyptian magicians and charlatans confess that Moses is out of their league: "this is the finger of God" (Ex. 8:19). The widow of Zarephath acknowledges that the miracle-working Elijah is God-sent: "now I know that you are a man of God" (1 Kgs. 17:24). But this God-sent gospel miracle worker does what no Moses, no Elijah, no other miracle worker does. He claims to be God! In the cause of this miracle worker, the apologetic becomes the Christological: "I am that I am" (cf. Jn. 8:58). The Christological claim of Jesus of Nazareth is apologetically authenticated by the miracle-signs he performs. These Johannine signs are apologies for who Jesus is. His identity is attested. He is the Christ (1:41), the Son of God (1:49)!

At Cana of Galilee, Jesus gives us a sign—a sign of who he is. He is God, the Lord of creation; able to do what only God the Creator can do—change water into wine! At Cana of Galilee, the Son of God evidences his identity through an act of creation: "the water recognized its Creator and blushed" (Richard Crashaw).

In the second place, the miracle-signs of Jesus display the presence of the Messianic era. They are fulfillment aspects of Old Testament Messianic prophecy. The prophets project an era in which the blind will see and the deaf will hear (cf. Is. 35:5). Jesus miraculously signifies that the Messianic era has arrived. He is the bringer of a new creation. In him, the blind see and the deaf hear. At Cana of Galilee, Jesus gives a sign that he is the Messianic Lord of the new creation. Joel (3:18), Amos (9:13, 14) and Jeremiah (31:12) longed for the Messianic age in which wine would flow in abundance; an era in which new wine would drip from the mountains. At Cana of Galilee, Jesus gives a sign that the age projected by the prophets has arrived. The Messianic age of gospel-wine—abundant, brim-full, gospel (not Jewish ritual) wine—is here! 

In the third place, the miracles of Jesus are anticipatory revelations of the glory yet to come. There is a day coming when there will be no more blindness, no more deafness, no more sickness—for these former things will have perfectly passed away. The miracles of Jesus are signs that he is Lord of coming/eschatological glory. No more curse forever in that kingdom of glory. And at Cana of Galilee, the eschatological vector of the sign is the wedding— the eschatological wedding feast—the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7, 9)

We are being summoned to the faith by which the disciples beheld his glory and believed on his name (Jn. 2:11). The miracle at Cana is not a text to be applied to our own charismatic performance of signs and wonders. The miracle at Cana is a sign of who Jesus is. We believe on him as God—God the Son, the Lord of Creation. The miracle at Cana is a sign of what Jesus brings us. He has made us a part of the new creation—the Messianic age of fulfillment is ours through this one who is revealed as the Lord of the New Creation. And the miracle at Cana is a sign of what Jesus will yet bring us. We believe that he has prepared a wedding banquet in glory, that we have been invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb, that the Lord of Glory will not be a guest at that wedding feast (as he was in Cana)—rather he will be the host—the eschatological Bridegroom. And we will be his Bride!

The Cleansing of the Temple

The incident of the cleansing of the temple is set off by literary markers which distinguish the section as a unit of its own. The location (Jerusalem) and the festival (Passover) form an inclusio to Christ's inaugural appearance in the capital (2:13, 23). Within the boundaries of the narrative inclusio is another dramatic displacement/replacement motif.

The temple which Jesus "cleansed" was the Herodian addition to the second Jewish temple. Solomon's temple having been leveled by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in 586 B. C., the returning exiles under Zerubbabel had erected a second temple after prodding by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (516/515 B.C.). As a political sop to the Jews, Herod had begun the expansion of this post-exilic structure about 20/19 B.C. When Jesus entered it (Jn. 2:14), the expansion had been underway for 46 years (i.e., ca. 27/28 A.D.; cf. Jn. 2:20). Although the main temple structure was completed by 9 B.C., the surrounding temple complex was never finished. By 64 A.D., it had reached one and a half million square feet (more than three football fields in length). When Titus leveled the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Herod's magnificent temple complex suffered like fate.

Jesus enters the Solomonic/Zerubbabel/Herodian temple as the Lord of the Temple. His authority over this "sacred space" is sovereignly displayed. Driving out the money changers (no Mahatma Gandhi act!) with whips, Jesus is possessed of the "zeal of the Lord" (Jn. 2:17). The temple had become a business, a corporate enterprise, a money-making complex with management experts at the helm. These crooks, thieves and robbers were cheating the people of God, robbing them of their substance and diverting their attention from the Lord to the gold, from the transcendent, to the imminent, from the heavenly, to the earthly. Church growth managers of evangelical mega-churches are nothing new. Their predecessors, who first fleeced the people of God, are found in John 2:14-16.

More significant than the non-pacifist Jesus is the Jesus who is the temple. That which the apostle has signalled in the prologue (1:14) is more fully developed here (2:18-22). The temples erected by Solomon, Zerubbabel and (expanded by) Herod were incarnational loci. God himself condescended to identify with his people in a place where his people gathered under the mediation of a priesthood. In this meeting place, God further humbled himself to enter into communion with his people. And it was to this most holy place that Israel of old looked for the dwelling of God in the midst of men. The temple was the sign of God's coming down, God's communion, God's abiding with his people. Now, in John 2, in the fullness of time, God the Son comes to the type and declares himself the glorious antitype. In Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God has once and for all condescended to come to us; in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God has once and for all come to meet with us and commune with us in our very nature; in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God has once and for all come to dwell among us. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the temple (2:19). Every aspect of the meaning of the Old Testament temple is fulfilled in Christ. The temple now becomes superfluous. After Christ, a temple is needed no longer. Jesus is the eschatological temple! When his temple-body is raised on the third day, the locus of the temple is shifted to where he is—at the right hand of the glory on high. Our temple is in heaven (cf. Rev. 21:3, 22), not on the earth. Our temple is in the Jerusalem above, not in the Jerusalem below. The Old Testament temple has been displaced, replaced, annulled via fulfillment because Jesus Christ, the Son of God is all the temple we need. He has come down to us; he is the one in whom God and man meet; he is the one who abides with us. Indeed, a greater than the Jerusalem temple is here!

The discipleship to which John 2 summons the Israel of God of the end of the age is a discipleship of the wedding banquet—a discipleship of the tabernacling of Emmanuel. Dear Christian reader, the fourth evangelist wants you to find your life in this drama—the life of a guest at the wedding feast tasting the wine of eschatological joy—the life of being raised up together with the eschatological temple—Emmanuel. May it please God that you find your story within the structure of John's story of Jesus!

Escondido, California

Suggestions for Further Reading

James T. Dennison, Jr., "Understanding the Miracles of Jesus." Banner of Truth 135 (December 1974): 16-19.

George Mlakuzhyil, The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel. Rome: Pontifical Institute, 1987.