Water to Wine – Old vs. New?

The following post was written by my good friend Matt Holst:

Like Nick, I recently preached a sermon on John 2:1-11, the account of the first miracle of our Lord. It was a fascinating and rewarding experience for me. One thing in particular struck me with regard to John’s intention in gospel-writing. He wants his reader to believe that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and believing Him you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). He demonstrates this point by a selective (20:30) record of Christ’s signs (and teachings). John tells us that Christ manifests his glory (2:11) in His performance of signs and wonders.

In John 2:1-11 we have the first demonstration of Christ’s glory being made manifest. This was done, in part, by a demonstration of the old being replaced by the new. Yet within the gospels there is a fine line between that which was “by right and requirement old”, and that which was “by perversion old”. By this distinction I mean that which was objectively to do with the Mosaic law (as given by God) and that which the law became at the hands of the Jews. It seems to me that many in the church are moving, fudging or unclear where that line is drawn.

First, Christ himself observed all things which “by right and requirement” were part of the law of Moses. In Mk 1:44 our Lord tells the leper to offer a gift according to the law of Moses. Again in Matt 7:12 Christ tells his listeners that the to observe the standard of the Law and Prophets by doing to men what you would have them do to you. It is clear that Christ had the highest regard for God’s law, and we are eternally thankful he did!

Our Lord also speaks of the sufficiency of the Law and Prophets for salvation (SHOCK HORROR!). When telling the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Christ tells us that the rich man wanted Lazarus to return from the dead to witness to his five brothers of the reality of heaven and hell. Abraham, yes ABRAHAM (interesting choice of representative!) rejects the request of the rich man on the basis that “they have Moses and the prophets” (Lk 16:19-31).

How then are the Law and Prophets sufficient for salvation? Because “by right and requirement” the Law of God is an aspect of His gracious relationship with his people, and though while not able to save a man itself (it was never intended to – Gal 3:21), it is part of the covenant by which Christ is apprehended by old covenant saints. Yes! Old Covenant saints were enabled to enjoy soteriological realities, even in the Old Covenant era! Here’s how:

Our Lord tells us the sum of the Law and Prophets “to love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matt 22:37) – the same law as given to the old covenant saints in Deut 6:4. In Matt 5:17 our Lord states that he came not to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them. This, it seems to me, is an important distinction. He has not come to annul, destroy or diminish the law as if it were something contrary to man or promise (Gal 3:21). He was not in opposition to the Law as God gave it. He came to fulfill the righteous requirement of that law.Observance of the Law, according to our Lord was always a matter of an internal relationship of love and faith, not a matter of keeping externals alone. That is why old covenant saints could enjoy the realities of being saved, by Christ, under the Old Covenant.

Additionally John tells us, that Phillip wanted Nathanael to meet the one “of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote” (1:45) Furthermore Christ himself cited Moses and the Prophets to show his disciples how HE was the one to whom the Scriptures pointed and of whom they spoke! That is why the Law “by right and requirement” was sufficient for salvation – not by the observance of its works or ceremonies (NEVER its intention), but because it pointed to the perfect worker (active obedience) – the 2nd Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ.

But some want to stop at the law pointing to Christ’s as the one who kept the law perfectly. He was also our sacrifice (passive obedience), satisfying the wrath of God. He was the fulfillment of all the gracious sacrificial and access-to-God laws of the old covenant. We need to remember both aspects of Christ’s work and their corresponding types in the Old Covenant! The old covenant was one of physical types and shadows behind which lay a real, but somewhat hidden experience of the spiritual realities. With the advent of Christ and the establishing of the new covenant, we see many of those physical elements disappear, and their spiritual realities become evident for the people of God.

But Christ also differentiates between the “by right and requirement” law of Moses and the “perversion”. And this is important. To read all of the references to “Moses” or “law” in the New Testament through the lens of “law by right and requirement” will only lead to pastoral chaos, doctrinal confusion and a demeaning of the “by right” Law of God.

Here’s where we work our way back to John. Was our Lord destroying the “by right” Law of God when he changed the water to wine – was he setting in opposition this law to His activity and life? Certainly he was signifying the concept of newness in Him – cleansing, perfect cleansing is found in him alone (John 13). Indeed John is about to give a series of events that represent the “newness” of the New Covenant: the New Temple (2:19); the new birth (3:3); new water (life) (4:14) and new or true worship (4:22). So clearly John is emphasising the issue of newness. But new compared to what?

Again the answer is somewhat nuanced and not monolithic as some would have us believe. The newness of the water to wine miracle is found in the replacing of the “perversion of the law” rather than the “law by right”. For nowhere in the law of Moses is found the requirement to ceremonially wash prior to eating. No! This was according to the “purification of the Jews” not according to the “Law by right”. Mark makes this abundantly clear in his gospel in Ch 7:3 “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, according to the tradition of the elders” THERE WAS SIMPLY NO REQUIRMENT TO WASH BEFORE EATING IN THE MOSAIC COVENANT! Furthermore Christ affirms the continuance in the law of Moses in the same passage, Mk 7:10 where he sets Moses and the Pharisees in opposition! Here then is evidence that we need to read the references to the righteous Law of Moses and the many perversions of it with a much more discerning eye!

So Christ, though he fulfills the righteous requirement of the law of cleansings (which is better seen in his act of John 13), does not do it in John 2! He demonstrates that the old of John 2 :1-11 was not the old “by right” but the old “by perversion”. Christ treats the perversion of the law with contempt “Hypocrites … ‘this people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me, and in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’ ”. (Mk 7:6)

The perversion is not the reality. Let’s not make it so. To equate the two is a grave misreading of God’s Word and does great injury to God, His Law and our understanding of the duty God requires of us. This distinction is true in both the gospels AND the epistles.

5 Responses

  1. Joseph Randall


    How are the law and the prophets sufficient for salvation, yet not able to save a man itself? You make both these claims in your essay?


  2. Matt Holst


    I make it clear that in and of themsleves acts of law keeping are insufficient – mere external usage of it. Apart from a prelapsarian state, and in the case of our Lord, works of the law were not intended to justify or save (Gal 3:21).

    However is it not interesting that in the parable Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers have Moses and the Law to deliver them from the hell that the rich man is experiencing. So we need to understand that in a certain way – that the law as given at Sinai, (not a perversion of it) finds itself in the covenant of grace. It is to this covenant and the law contained therin, as it POINTS US TO CHRIST, that the rich man’s brothers are directed. All aspects of the law point to the Savior – that is how the brothers were to find salvation. Law keeping was never simply an external exercise – Deut 6:4 and our Lord’s summary of the Law make that clear. Law should never be divroced, (save as a means of jsutification, but salvation is bigger than justification) from faith.

    Hope this helps


  3. Joseph Randall


    Yes, that’s helpful. I guess I understand Jesus’ words in Luke 16 as not saying Moses and the Prophets are sufficient, in and of themselves, to save from hell, but that because they point to Him Who will (and has) risen from the dead, they are the only testimony needed. They are not sufficient saviors, but they are sufficient witnesses that point to Him Who is the only sufficient Savior: Jesus Christ.

    Would you agree with that summary?

    Much love,

  4. You wrote: “observance of the Law, according to our Lord was always a matter of an internal relationship of love and faith, not a matter of keeping externals alone. That is why old covenant saints could enjoy the realities of being saved, by Christ, under the Old Covenant.”

    I want to comment about atonement.

    (le-havdil) The same that is outlined in Tan”kh (the Jewish Bible) about kipur – atonement – was taught by first century Ribi Yehoshua (the Messiah) from Nazareth. Read this essential teachings here: http://www.netzarim.co.il

    Anders Branderud

  5. Matt Holst


    Something like that yes. I want to preserve the “spirituality” and “goodness” of the law as God gave it, rather than situate my understanding of law in an unbiblical perversion. I think that is happening too much at the moment.

    If anyone argues that law is justified they need to re-read Scriputre! But understanding law in its redemptive historical context, especially as it is given at Sinai, one must see that grace is the background for all of Sinai. Law is not the instrument of salvation, but adherence to it (sanctification) is a necessary qualification of salvation.

    Also I find it interesting that many want to set old and new, Abraham and Moses in opposition. Interesting that Abraham here points to Moses and says “they have enough there!”


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