It is sometimes difficult to understand this wedding in a first-century context. Much of what people think they know about Jewish weddings comes from relatively contemporary sources. People see Fiddler on the Roof and assume that Jewish weddings are more or less happen as we see it in the movie. (Do people watch “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and thing that Socrates got married the same way?)
With this warning, we can be confident that a wedding celebration was the social highlight of the year for a small village in Galilee. If the family hosting the wedding was one of the more wealthy families, then the banquet was even more memorable. Weddings were occasions for great feasting and joy for whole communities. Food and wine was provided in abundance, perhaps the best meal that an ordinary villager in Cana would expect to enjoy. Music and dancing would have been common as well. The cost of such an event could be high, and the groom was responsible for paying for the wedding feast. In Matt 22 it is the father the of groom who “makes the feast,” so it is possible to think of this as a responsibility of the groom’s family.
Because weddings were common events in the life of a community, Jesus uses wedding imagery in several parables (Mat 22:1-12, 25:1-14). In both wedding parables in Matthew, Jesus is describing an invitation to enter into the Kingdom of God. In Matthew 22, the Jewish nation has been invited to participate, but the ones invited (the Pharisees, etc.) have refused the kings invitation so the wedding banquet was filled with “the rabble,” likely referring to Jesus’ disciples and other followers. In Matthew 25 those invited to accompany the bridegroom into the wedding banquet were unprepared for his delay and some did not enter as a result.
In other texts Jesus refers to himself as a bridegroom, drawing on the rich tradition of the Hebrew Bible which describes Israel as God’s bride (Mark 2:18-20). Jesus is not the bridegroom in the sign in John 2:1-12, but that the announcement that Jesus will begin his ministry takes place at a wedding is an important hint at who Jesus claims to be.
Understanding the point of the wine in this first sign is critical. Wine was certainly a part of the culture of the first century, especially so at a wedding banquet. Over-drinking was common enough, and usually it was not considered disgraceful.
The over-abundance of wine in this sign is important. The Old Testament prophecies of the messianic age predict an abundance of wine, an image of the celebration expected at the time of the Messiah (Gen 49:10-11, Amos 9:13-14, Isa 25:6-8). The mountains will drip with new wine in the coming messianic age! The reason that wine and abundant food are used as a metaphor for the coming age is that it takes a significant time to cultivate a vineyard and even longer before it can be used to produce an excellent wine. The messianic age is therefore a time when vineyards can be cultivated because it is an age of peace and prosperity.
Abundance of food and drink accompanied by joyous music and dancing at a wedding make the occasion an excellent metaphor for the coming messianic age. The mourning of the exile will be over, revered into the joy of a wedding as God’s marriage to his bride Israel is restored.
Jesus therefore intentionally chose to “reveal his glory” to his disciples at this wedding to highlight the messianic nature of his ministry.