John’s Gospel has been described as a sea in which a child can paddle and an elephant can swim. It is both very simple and full of hidden depths. In these posts my aim is to explore some of the hidden depths of the account of the wedding at Cana in Galilee.
The opening words “On the third day” exemplify both the simplicity and the depth. At one level they merely mark the passage of time. At a deeper level they point to the resurrection message at the heart of the gospel, which is acted out in concrete, visible form in Jesus’ transformation of water into wine.
At a level deeper still, “on the third day” echoes one of the most shocking stories in the Bible: the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. God commands Abraham to sacrifice “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love”.
Abraham travels with Isaac to the land of Moriah, where he has been told to perform the sacrifice:
On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away (Genesis 22.4).
Paul tells the Corinthians:
… I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures… (1 Corinthians 15.3-4)
The foundational gospel events of the death and resurrection of Jesus take place “in accordance with the scriptures”, that is, in conformity with the pattern of the Old Testament. In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus fulfils the story of Israel. He lives out the story of the people of God; except that, where they messed up and failed, Jesus is completely faithful. Israel was God’s vine, but it was unfruitful. Jesus, however, is the true and fruitful vine (see John 15). He takes on himself the fulfilment and the restoration of Israel’s vocation. After his resurrection he explains to the disciples (read Luke 24) that the scriptures are about him.
When John begins his account of the wedding at Cana with “on the third day” he is alluding to that whole framework of understanding. He is hinting that the love of God will lead the Son of God to the ultimate sacrifice. Check out “on the third day” in a concordance and you find that the first occurrence of this phrase is in the passage I’ve quoted from Genesis 22. For the rest of the Bible the words are coloured by that association.
The New Testament reinforces the connection between the binding of Isaac and the vocation of Jesus. At his baptism (the moment he is launched on his vocation) the voice from heaven speaks of him as “the beloved Son”. The voice of the angel preventing Abraham from going through with the sacrifice says:
Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me (Genesis 22.12).
Writing to the Romans about the death of Jesus, Paul deliberately echoes the key word “withheld”:
He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? (Romans 8.32)
The command to sacrifice Isaac is appalling – both inexplicable and unthinkable.
It is inexplicable. How can Abraham sacrifice the child of promise, the one given specially to him and Sarah in their late old age to fulfil the purpose of God to bless all the families of the earth? Sacrificing Isaac would undo the whole plan. It is also unthinkable. Child sacrifice was, and is, an abomination, to the covenant people of God in the Old Testament and to us today. What is God doing?
The New Testament accounts of the crucifixion are sparing in the amount of detail they devote to the suffering of Jesus. Nor is there much about the suffering of the Father. The story of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac, which is otherwise inexplicable, is given to us – I suggest – for reasons to do with the sacrifice of Christ:
- It casts light on the cost to the Trinity of achieving the salvation of the world.
- It demonstrates (this is Paul’s point in Romans 8) that, if God is prepared to go through with the horror of his Son’s sacrifice, we can trust him with everything and for everything.
- It suggests that some of the experiences we may have as those seeking to be faithful to God may be very hard to understand. But one day, in God’s time, they will make sense.