Stop Trying to Make Jesus Fit
Topic: Grace Pulpit Passage: Luke 5:33–4:39
Stop Trying to Make Jesus Fit
November 7, 2016
In Luke Chapter 5 this morning we have the joy of finishing out yet another chapter in this fascinating Gospel. We are actually finishing the account that we began last week, which started with the calling of Levi into discipleship and ended with Levi’s expression of joy—his gratitude to Jesus Christ for calling him—choosing a tax collector to become one of his disciples—joining Levi’s banquet which was attended by all kinds of tax collectors and what Luke calls “others” and the scribes call them “sinners.” Jesus attended all that and he stood up, as well, to defend his disciples in the face of religious critics. I love that section of Scripture because it shows how Jesus is the friend of sinners, and that brings me great, great comfort. And I know it does you as well. If you know the depth of your sin, as it says there, Jesus says that the healthy have no need of a physician, only the sick. “I haven’t come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Listen, if you know yourself to be sick, and you know yourself spiritually to need of the Great Physician, you know yourself to be a sinner, that is welcome news. He is a great Savior.
I want to begin by picking up with that first challenge that came from the Pharisees and the scribes, so let’s back up to verse 30 and start reading in Luke 5:30 and following:
And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you [plural—“Why do you disciples”] eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
What Jesus said there—just breaking the reading for a moment—what he said there is meant to prompt a bit of self-reflection as they considered whether or not they were in the righteous category or the sinner category. There’s a little bit of time, actually, that passes by between verses 32 and 33. Evidently, the time for reflection—self-reflection—didn’t yield what Jesus had offered it for. They regrouped; they came back to Jesus with a second challenge. That’s where we’ll pick it up in verse 33:
And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts in on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, “The old is good.”
That’s where the account ends, and we head into chapter six, into a new story. As it ends there, even the parables themselves may seem a bit strange to us at first glance. The joy over the bridegroom as a reason not to fast—that seems simple enough to us. But the other part of it is a bit perplexing; we’re scratching our heads a little bit. It would seem that Jesus had already answered their question, but then he added this parable, and we have to ask, was it to provide more clarity?
You may be scratching your head, as I said. If it’s to provide more clarity, what is he clarifying? What do sewing patches on old shirts and the best method for storing new wine have do with that opening question that they asked? How does the parable explain the differing behavior of Jesus’ disciples and the disciples of John and the Pharisees?
I hope to answer that question. But I want to start this morning by telling you the main point of the text—this section of Scripture. And I’d like to illustrate it for you, so turn back in your Bibles just a couple of books to Matthew chapter 17 and verse 1. And I’d like to show you something that happened at the Mount of Transfiguration just so we can see the main point of this parable illustrated clearly there.
While you’re turning there, listen carefully, because I’m going to tell you why Jesus was talking about sewing and wine containment on this occasion. He is laying down a principle here. You can’t make the new fit in with the old. The old must be set aside to embrace that which is new. That’s the principle. Many people don’t want to do that. They don’t like change. They’re comfortable with the way things are and so they reject the new. We see that all the time, don’t we? And Jesus’ acknowledgement of that fact of life really becomes a subtle warning to us not to make that same mistake. If we do, we miss out on all that Jesus wants to show us, to teach us, and also to do in us. When we learn from Christ, when we learn from his Word, we need to be careful not to find ways to make him conform to our expectations, but rather, that we are malleable, humble, and that we conform ourselves to him and to his expectations.
The writer to the Hebrews provides the very same caution. At the very beginning of the epistle to the Hebrews, it says: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” It may be a hard adjustment for some Hebrews used to the ways that God has spoken to the fathers, but they need to listen to the Son because God has appointed him, the one through whom he made the world, the one who is the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint or stamp of his nature. They need to listen to the Son because God has appointed him to be heir of all things. It was instinctive for the Hebrews, it was instinctive for the Jews, to keep on expecting God to perform the way they expected him to perform, to conform to their expectations. They wanted to fit Jesus Christ then, when he came, into the old structures that they had inherited from the traditions of their fathers, and even in the face of amazing displays of glory, and even from his closest disciples. Look at Matthew 17, starting in verse 1:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. [This is an inner circle of the twelve. This is the closest group; Peter, James and John. They were the first ones called by Jesus to full time discipleship and here they are for a special moment on this high mountain. Verse 2] And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. [Moses there represents the law. Elijah represents the prophets. Together they picture the revelatory summary of the entire Old Testament, upon which all the traditions of the fathers were built. The watching disciples are obviously in awe. And when they see Jesus standing there as the next great prophet in that line of prophetic glory, it’s an overwhelming moment. There’s Peter; he offered to do some quick construction, hoping they could sit and talk for a while. He said in verse 4] “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
God put a stop to that plan right away, didn’t he? Jesus is not the next in line of great prophets. He is the end of the line—full stop. God wanted Peter, James and John to recognize the superlative nature of his beloved Son. “Listen to him.” That’s not to diminish the importance of Moses or Elijah. The Law and the Prophets had served their purpose. But the whole testimony of Moses and the law and Elijah and all the prophets, the entire Old Testament, its entire purpose is to point to Jesus Christ. And when he comes, you don’t fit him into old structures. You listen to him. You let him define the structures that will put the substance of his ministry on full display in their own right. Listen, we may not make this same mistake in this same way, but we are susceptible to making this mistake, aren’t we?
You can turn back to Luke 5 now. But there are many of us who have grown up in church or have been in church for a very, very long time. We’ve been through all the Sunday schools. We’ve had all the cookies and punch at the social fellowships and we’ve done all the stuff. We’ve gone on the mission trips, and we’ve gone to camp and all that. We’ve grown up in church. We know the deal. Many have been serving faithfully in church for decades. And it is a danger that we face—maybe because of our age—maybe because of the many years we’ve been in the church—maybe because of our experience in ministry and even significant sacrificial service to the Lord and to his people—it is a danger that many professing Christians have stopped listening. They’ve stopped reflecting. They’ve long since stopped allowing the Word of God to do its penetrating, convicting work in their lives. There are many who think they really don’t have anything to learn anymore. They’ve heard it all before. Oh, maybe a sermon here or there provides an insight or two, something to kind of chew on, some fact they hadn’t known before; but, truth be told, it’s been a long time since they’ve been humbled by the text. It’s been a long time since they’ve truly bowed their hearts before God—since they’ve allowed his Spirit to do his convicting work.
Many Christians take great pride in having mastered the text—knowing their Bibles. And they have lost sight of the need to be mastered by the text. They make good sermon critics but very poor disciples. They smile smugly—feel self-assured in their knowledge and their experience—and rather than humbling themselves, they are more like the Pharisees—more interested in conforming the text to their pre-conceived notions and fitting Jesus into their own expectations.
And, beloved, we all face that danger. The more we learn, the more we’re deceived into thinking we know more than we really do; the less flexible we can be in letting the truth penetrate our hearts. We need to be soft. We need to be humble, meek people. We need to let Jesus set our expectations rather than constructing our own religious box of traditions and shoving him into it. We need to be on guard, don’t we? We don’t want to commit this same error of imposing our traditions on Christ and his Word; otherwise, we just become a church of Pharisees. And, look, Pharisees don’t have any fun at all. Look at that—they’re at the banquet and they can’t even eat and drink and rejoice; they just want to criticize. Do you want to be around people like that? No! We want to rejoice in Christ, right? And to do that we need to be humble people. So with that in mind let’s consider, as we get into our outline, let’s consider how we can be guilty of trying to make Jesus fit into our boxes as we walk through the text together. Maybe we can have a little box-burning party after the service out on the front lawn, all right?
But look at Luke 5:33. Here’s the first point for this morning; it’s The Challenge of Blind Religion. The Challenge of Blind Religion. The conversation with the scribes seems to have continued for quite some time because, as we look at verse 33 and when we compare this account to what we read in Matthew and Mark, we find there are others who have joined the scribes and the Pharisees to come and criticize Jesus. In verse 33 it says: “And they said to him” Who’s "? In seems to point back in our own context here to verse 30—the Pharisees and their scribes. And for Luke’s purpose that’s fine. He doesn’t need to get too specific here. He wants us to know that the challenge was coming from the religious establishment, and the challenge there was all of a piece. Whoever the “they” was, this is their critique. But there were others who had joined to offer criticism.
From Matthew 9:14 and Mark 2:18, we know that some of John’s disciples had joined in with this chorus of opposition. You think, “How could John’s disciples be there? I thought they were all fans.” Well, by this time, John had been arrested and he had been sitting in Herod’s dungeons for a number of months, and what was left of John’s disciples—those who had not left John when Jesus came—they had not left John to follow Jesus. When John was arrested, they had found close affinity and friendship with the Pharisees. They sort of joined together. You might wonder how that happened. But it actually makes sense because they tended to think alike. They were serious about the law. They were sober-minded. They were concerned about righteousness. And when Jesus said in Luke 7:33 that John came neither eating nor drinking, we can safely assume that there were some who were attracted to John’s ministry because it appeared to them to be a celebration of asceticism—harsh treatment of the body. They weren’t as much concerned about his prophetic piety or his prophetic message. They conformed outwardly, but they didn’t really share the same heart as John. They didn’t have the same spiritual devotion.
John himself had said, John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must [what?] decrease.” So those who shared John’s spirit for true piety—who were looking for the Messiah—they left him behind when he pointed that out, and they followed Jesus. That’s what John intended; that was the whole purpose of his life. But not all John’s disciples shared the same spirit. After all, here they are. And they’re joining the disciples of the Pharisees. And they’re still known as the disciples of John. Together, they came forward with this challenge. They said to him, verse 33: “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.”
Fasting, in the Old Testament—fasting in all of Scripture, with one notable exception— is a voluntary act of spiritual devotion. Not mandatory, voluntary. There’s only one prescribed fast in the Old Testament. It’s on one day, the Day of Atonement as it says in Leviticus 23:27:
The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall [this is the term that they interpreted “fasting”] you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord.” [So, they took that as afflicting yourselves and presenting a food offering as one and the same. You forego your own food and you give it to the Lord.] For whoever is not afflicted [verse 29] on that very day shall be cut off from his people.
Serious. God wanted, on the Day of Atonement, a sense of sobriety, holiness, clarity about the purpose of that day. And Israel interpreted that as foregoing food. They did it for a twenty-four-hour period. That’s what they practiced. But that is the only prescribed fast. It was intended to promote humility, sobriety, self-reflection, self-examination. No distraction with meal preparation and serving a house full of people, as the nation came together corporately to contemplate atonement, the offering that covered all of their sins. So, that was prescribed. The rest of them, though, were voluntary. And the Pharisees as well as other pious Israelites at this time, they decided it would be a good idea to increase and make more regular Israel’s sense of affliction. It’s a sign for them of national humility. They hoped to trigger God’s compassion by their external humility, ushering in the fulfillment of all his Messianic promises. As it says there in verse 33, they fasted often. In fact, twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays.
What was intended, again, as a private act of spiritual devotion, these religious people had turned into a public test of righteousness. “Are you doing it or are you not? Are you with us or are you outside of us?” Jesus affirmed the practice of fasting. He didn’t say it was a bad thing—going without food to focus on seeking God in prayer, devotion. Jesus fasted during his time in the wilderness. He consecrated himself to God for his messianic mission. But he also—very important—he corrected the false beliefs about fasting in Israel. Remember that in Matthew chapter six? He warned people about how not to use fasting—how not to use prayer or giving. Don’t use it as a means to impress people with your outward acts of piety. He said in Matthew 6:1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”
Look, if you’re trying to get noticed, well, then enjoy it—enjoy getting noticed because that’s all the reward you’re going to get. And it’s over in a moment. You have your reward in full and you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. So if you’re doing things in the church—if you’re doing things to minister—and you’re doing it merely for the praise and approval of other people, you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. And who wants that?
But Jesus fasted—he fasted properly. The book of Acts tells us that the early Christians fasted as well. There’s nothing wrong with fasting as long as it’s voluntary and not mandatory. Right fasting is generally private, not public, except in times of maybe a voluntary corporate repentance. It’s usually, though, very private. Fasting should be for the purpose of prayer—it should be for the purpose of spiritual devotion to God as when you’re mourning or grieving or maybe confessing great sin or perhaps when making special supplication for a certain thing you’re asking of God—some kind of clarity—some direction in your life.
The Antioch leaders fasted and prayed when they commissioned Paul and Barnabas for missionary service. And then Paul and Barnabas fasted and prayed when they commissioned elders for the churches that had been planted. That sounds like a good thing for us elders to do when we’re going to commission people into missionary or into church service if we were to fast and pray over that. Significant issues in the life of the church call for fasting. Whether it’s confession of sin, commissioning ministers, making significant decisions, fasting is appropriate for those things.
What’s not appropriate is what these guys were doing. That’s not appropriate. They were using acts of piety like fasting often and offering prayers—they were turning fasting into a litmus test of true religious piety. And in that sense, by mandating fasting, they’re trying to bind the conscience of other people. They’re enslaving the faithful to man-made traditions. That’s why you have to be very careful not to broadcast your 40-day fast. Okay? “Oh, just brother, pray for me. I’m just really out of energy because as you can see, I’m fasting.”
Look, don’t do that. The point of fasting is to draw near to God in prayer—to seek his face—to seek his will. These guys missed it big time, didn’t they? And you know how I can make that judgment that they missed it, because Jesus, the Messiah, is standing right in front of them and rather than falling on their faces before him, they’re criticizing him for not conforming to their practices. So much for spiritual clarity. He’s not conforming to their expectations, he’s not fitting into their box. How blind could they really be? Fasting for them obviously wasn’t producing any spiritual sensitivity. This wasn’t an aid to spiritual clarity for them. Their fasting seemed to actually be afflicting their eyesight big time. Maybe a little food and drink would have been helpful, sort of get the blood flowing a little bit.
That’s just one error—one error here. It wasn’t the most significant error, though. The most significant error is in failing to discern what is happening here at the banquet. And that gives us a second point here: The Corrective of Joyful Devotion. The Corrective of Joyful Devotion.
The religious leaders and their disciples had challenged Jesus because they’d failed to discern the reason for this occasion. What was it that prompted the eating and the drinking? Jesus had already told them the banquet was a joyful response of the sick made well—of sinners hearing Jesus’ call to repentance. The fact that they set that aside—that they ignored Jesus’ explanation—shows that these religious leaders are still unconverted. They’re still blind in their sin. Look, if they can’t rejoice over the sick finding the physician or over sinners being in the presence of the savior, that is an indictment on them, isn’t it? So, Jesus provides a corrective and he asks them a rhetorical question.
Let’s back up to verse 33 again, “And they said to him, ‘The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?’” You can almost imagine Jesus giving them this look of incredulity. “Gents, this is a wedding banquet. The groom has arrived. It’s time to rejoice and celebrate.” Not only would fasting be unfitting on such an occasion, it would be totally inappropriate. Fasting is so far out of place that it would be an insult in the presence of the bridegroom. When the bridegroom arrives, it’s time to rejoice and celebrate, not fast. Ecclesiastes 3:4: “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Yes, I said it, Baptists! A time to laugh and to dance. I don’t dance, but it’s not for religious reasons. If you saw me dance, you would tell me not to dance.
I like how the commentator James Edwards describes the atmosphere of wedding feasts. He says, “Friends and guests had no responsibility but to enjoy the festivities. There was an abundance of food and wine as well as song, dance, and fun. Both in the house and on the street. Rabbis, too, were expected to suspend Torah instruction and celebrate with their students. The guests of the bridegroom picture the gathering of the wedding party waiting impatiently to eat. On such an occasion, fasting is entirely out of the question.”
Jesus asks them a rhetorical question. It’s a question that he expects an answer to—“No.” Notice what it says. He doesn’t ask them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Look, this is not about the ability of the guests. He asks them, “Can you make them fast?” This is about their desire to stop the joy that’s in their heart. Jesus isn’t defending the feasting that’s going on in the presence of the bridegroom. It would be unthinkable that it would be otherwise. Jesus is here indicting anybody who would dare to force wedding guests to fast. You can’t make fasting obligatory in the presence of the groom. Don’t compel mourning on an occasion for joy. It’s immoral.
Who’s the bridegroom? Jesus, right? Who are the wedding guests? It’s the disciples, which include this recently added former tax collector, Levi—maybe some others who’ve come to know him at the time. But let’s ask a question. Would these critics who are coming forward on this particular occasion understand the allusion that Jesus is the bridegroom? That his people are the bride? Would they recognize that Levi’s banquet—thrown in honor of Jesus, the bridegroom—would they understand this to be a wedding feast? Would they get that? Should they hear in Jesus’ words an allusion to Messianic prophecy?
There are a couple of Old Testament references to God as the husband of Israel. One is in Isaiah 54:5, 6. Another one is in Isaiah 62:3-5. But if you have jotted those down and you read them, you’ll see that they don’t exactly fit what Jesus has said about a bridegroom and a wedding feast. Not a clear allusion at all. In fact, you really can’t find an Old Testament reference to Jesus as the bridegroom and his people as the bride. It’s common to us, the church, but not to Israel. Remember, from your reading maybe in Ephesian 2, the church is a mystery. It’s something that has been hidden by God’s sovereign design during the Old Testament age, but then it was revealed in Christ and unpacked fully in the New Testament.
So, on this occasion, these critics don’t have that knowledge, do they? That means that the clearest reference to Jesus as a bridegroom is actually much more recent than the written word. It does come from a prophet. It comes from the last Old Testament prophet, whom Jesus called the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets. It’s actually a reference that the disciples of John could not have missed. It would not have been lost of them. At the end of John 3—you can turn over there if you like—John the Baptist is there sorting out a bit of jealousy that arose among his disciples over the fact that Jesus was attracting more people to himself. And there in John 3 starting in verse 25, it says this:
Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. [Again, they’re caught up in those outward observances.] And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing and all are going to him.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Listen, when Jesus referred to himself—in the presence of John’s disciples who were criticizing him—when he referred to himself as the bridegroom, he was reminding John’s disciples of what John had told them. And this shows that they, John’s disciples, are the intended targets of Jesus’ corrective here. And yes, it’s a bit of an indictment against their criticism, but it’s also definitely corrective. He means to call them to think—to reflect—to correct their misunderstanding. It’s very gracious because Jesus is basically reminding them of John’s completed ministry—his fulfilled ministry—and the fulfillment of his joy in the arrival of the bridegroom.
So, there’s a sense here in which Jesus is inviting John’s disciples to join the party—to join the banquet—to discover their master’s joy. With that in mind, turn back to Luke 5. As Jesus invites these disciples of John to the banquet, there’s also a note of sorrow that shows up there in verse 35: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them [that is, from Jesus’ disciples], and then they will fast in those days.” That’s a hint of sadness. It’s the first time in Jesus’ ministry that he has spoken of his coming rejection by the nation. He’s here forecasting his death. And Jesus here tells John’s disciples, “Look, there will be an appropriate time for fasting. But it’s then, not now.”
A note of sorrow here at the wedding banquet. Really, it’s one that John’s disciples could sympathize with. It’s one they’re still actually living through. The sorrow that they feel because John had recently been arrested by Herod. He’d been thrown in prison and John, frankly, is never coming out of that prison. He’d soon have his head cut off to impress a room full of Herod’s guests. So John’s disciples are feeling an acute sense of sorrow at this very moment. Which made them—note this—it made them susceptible to wrong thinking. Be on guard, beloved, because sometimes your grief—your sorrow—can lead you to error in your thinking. You have to be careful that your grief doesn’t so overwhelm you that you start thinking unbiblically.
They’re sad here. They’re grieving in the separation from their own master, and Jesus seems to be reaching out in compassion to John’s disciples. He’s reminded them of John’s reference here to the bridegroom, which means John, the friend of the bridegroom, even John doesn’t want them to fast. He wants them to rejoice. If John were there right now, he would want them to join Jesus—to listen to him—and to join in rejoicing to hear the bridegroom’s voice.
So, Jesus here is calling them to accept in their hearts what John had accepted in his: that Jesus must increase and John must decrease. To help John’s disciples make the separation from their devotion to John and also to help whittle them away from their allegiance to these Pharisees—to help them join the bridegroom and give them a new sense of loyalty—Jesus gives them a series of parables meant to instruct—to illustrate—this is point three: The Corruption of Dead Tradition. The Corruption of Dead Tradition.
Take a look at verses 36-39:
He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
Three illustrations here. One is a principle of textile production. One is a principle of analogy to wine production. The last one is a principle of human nature.
They’re standing there at a banquet, after all; they’re looking at people wearing all kinds of garments, both old and new. Perhaps some of their garments were patched and some were in need of repair and some were brand new. There was also plenty of wine flowing. They’re watching people drinking wine being poured into cups from wineskins which, by the way, are animal skins that contained wine. One source says the wineskin was the skin bottle made of a single goat skin from which the skin—the flesh—the bones—all that is drawn out without ripping up the body, and the neck of the animal becomes the neck of the bottle.
I know. Sounds like kind of a gross receptacle for your wine. But have you looked at your food labels and your product labels lately? See what goes into that stuff you’re putting into your mouth and rubbing all over yourself. Animal collagens, all kinds of weird chemicals and dyes. Pharmaceutical companies are laughing at you while they make money. Everything in this world has a bit of a yuck factor to it. It’s a fallen world, right? You can’t help this. So, let’s not be too quick to be creeped out that they’re drinking wine out of old dead goats. But they are. Okay, are you recovered? Can we go on? Sorry.
So as I said, Jesus gives three illustrations here. But listen, it’s all just one parable. Just one parable. There’s just one thing Jesus wants to convey and one thing only. If we could put it simply, it’s this: leave the old, embrace the new. Leave the old and embrace the new, that’s it. That is the lesson, the point of this parable, and it’s unpacked in these three illustrations. Because in the end, Jesus wants them to remove the old garment and to put on the new. He wants them to abandon old wineskins, pick up new wineskins full of new wine, and he wants them to drink deeply to acquire a whole new taste for the wine that Jesus is pouring out through his ministry.
Just quickly, let’s take each illustration one by one and see how they develop the theme of the parable. First of all, the textile industry: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old.” That’s pretty straightforward, right? It’s one thing to sew a patch of new cloth onto an old garment to repair a hole; that would be a big mistake, because as the new cloth shrinks it’s going to tear free at the stitches, and it’s going to tear a new hole, and it’s going to require the need for further repair. You have to do it all over again.
Bur Jesus sets up the scenario to identify here a more fundamental flaw. It’s not just the tearing of the old, it’s even worse to tear the patch out of a perfectly good new garment that you just bought from Macy’s or wherever. You don’t tear that out and then patch the old sweater or the old blouse. Why tear the new out to patch an old, worn-out garment? It doesn’t make any sense. They won’t match—colors, patterns, fabric type—new versus old—the patch isn’t going to hold anyway. No, the solution is not to patch an old, worn-out garment. The solution is to wear the new garment and discard the old. Use the old for an oil rag, a dust cloth, whatever. But take the old and throw it away. When you have a new shirt, put it on and wear it.
The next illustration, verses 37-38, has to do with the wine they’re drinking at the banquet: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.” Even under the best of circumstances, with new wine there was a danger of its bursting out of its container. Job said even in Job 32:19: “Behold, my belly is like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins ready to burst.” So even new wineskins were known to burst when there was no vent for the gases. So, how much more when you pour new wine into old worn out wineskins? As new wine sits, a chemical process called fermentation takes place. Sugars are converted into alcohol, and in that metabolic process, gases are released. If those gases are held within a sealed wineskin, that skin has to be able to flex and expand. But if the skin is already at its full expansion capacity, like an old wineskin, it can’t expand any further, and that fermentation process of the new wine is going to cause that old wineskin to burst. As sure as anything.
So not only does that destroy an old wineskin, which is still useful to hold old wine, but you lose all that new wine. It’s a total waste. New wine represents the end of a long process of production, right? Growing grapes, picking grapes, sorting them out, then smashing, draining, gathering. It’s a very expensive and labor-intensive process. You need to make sure that your vessel for containment has the integrity to store your product. Verse 38: “New wine must be put into fresh wineskins.” It’s just a matter of common sense.
Now, what is the old garment and what are the old wineskins? What here is represented by the old? Some say that the old refers to Judaism, the religion that’s proscribed by the law and the prophets. But other say no, no the old refers to a Judaism that had been practiced among the Jews but one that was a perverted form of Old Testament religion and external forms of righteousness and all that. And in that sense, the old is actually a false religion of the traditions.
Here’s how I explain this here. The best way I think to look at this is that the old represents really the true religion of the Old Testament but one that has served its purpose. Jesus is not actually criticizing the old here. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an old garment or old wine. In fact, he acknowledges in verse 39 how people are going to prefer the flavor of old wine that they’ve been drinking. So it’s the same substance, this wine. It’s not poison, it’s wine. It’s just that the old has served its purpose. And in verse 38, Jesus has actually given us a clue in the language that he uses in that last sentence. He says, “New wine must be put into fresh wineskins.”
The word for new is nĕŏs, which refers to new in reference to time; it’s young as opposed to aged. The word fresh is the word kainŏs, which is here referring to quality. It’s fresh; it’s not worn out. So we might say young wine must put into fresh wineskins. That’s the idea in the prophetic sense. The purpose of the old was to point to the new. So now that the new has come, the older must give way to the younger. The old garment is not patched up by Jesus; it’s replaced by Jesus. The new wine that Christ is giving is not poured into old wineskins that can’t contain it. Those old structures were never intended to last forever. The new wine has to have new structures—a new pattern that can flex with its dynamic expanding power.
Again, it’s not that the old is bad. It’s just that it has served its purpose. Once Christ came, the old was no longer necessary. There’s no sense in trying to sew him into an old fabric. And there’s no sense in trying to force him into old containers that held old wine. To do so, that is, to continue holding on to what is old in preference for what is new when the old was always pointing to the new—well, that actually becomes sinful. In fact, as the writer to the Hebrews points out, once the new garment has been provided—once the new wine has been poured—to reject what is new out of comfort with what is old turns the old system into something that’s not just old—it’s now become toxic. It’s become corrupting. Because it actually turns people away from Christ.
Look, that was a perennial problem that the early church faced as it dealt with people who had been saved from the Pharisaic party. A number of those people who had become Christians and professed Christ came into churches, and they created a new party within the church called the Judaizers. We have the modern form of Judaizers in a number of different groups today. There are some who have been saved out of that in this very church.
Paul confronted that kind of group in Galatians. They so loved the old system that they kept trying to blend Christianity into Old Testament law-keeping. Things like circumcision, Sabbath Day observance, and all the rest. That was the same pressure the Hebrew Christians faced constantly and especially in the Letter to the Hebrews. Their Hebrew families had rejected Christ as the Messiah. They kept pressuring them to return to the Old Testament system, to come back to synagogue—to attend synagogue—to be involved, to leave the assemblies of Christian worship.
So listen, whether in part or whole—the part being represented by the patch of new cloth—the whole being represented by the whole batch of new wine—whether in part or in whole, Jesus and the Gospel he brings is a new thing. Do not try to shove it in to what’s old. It has continuity with the old—that is to say, it still a garment—it’s still wine—but there’s such a discontinuity that we must accept his religion on his terms, right? The old and the new are never going to mesh. They’re never going to fit together—never work together. There will always be a divide. In fact, that’s exactly what Judaism is today. Judaism is a rejection of Christ. It is the rejection of Trinitarian doctrine, and that means, theologically speaking, that Judaism today actually has more in common with Islam in that regard. Both reject Christ—both reject the Trinity. They’re fundamentally, theologically flawed. So they have nothing in common with Christianity. They define themselves by rejection of Christian theology. That’s why 1 John 2:22-23 says this:
Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
Listen, that’s why it’s a big, big, not just mistake, but sin for translation committees as they go into Muslim lands to deemphasize the sonship of Jesus, like translation committees are doing today in translating the Bible for Muslims. They try to deemphasize Christ’s sonship and make him just a son in the sense that we’re all sons and daughters of God. But not the Son of the Father. They want, in the Bible itself, to de-emphasize the divinity—the sonship—of Jesus Christ because it might offend a Muslim.
No, it’s a serious thing here—to prefer the old to the new. When Jesus said, verse 39, in the final illustration here in this parable, “No one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”—kind of a better way to look at that is that the old is good enough or the old is better. He’s acknowledging—Jesus is—that many who have tasted that old system—many who have become accustomed to drinking that old flavor—they’re going to want to stick with that brand. He’s not excusing it. He’s just acknowledging it. But it’s a very serious sin to reject Christ—to reject his religion in favor of our preferences, our expectations, the dictates of our comfort, our tastes, our reason, our experiences.
Listen, in humility, we need to let Jesus dictate the terms to us. He is someone who is utterly unique. The world has seen nothing like him. And he’s teaching us something we have never, ever known or heard before. That’s why it’s called “revelation.” And what we’re involved in here is a revealed religion coming down to us from heaven—from Christ himself. This is not something we thought up. It is something that involves things—according to 1 Corinthians 2:9-10: “’Which no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
Look, that passage is often referred to: “Oh, I can’t wait to get to heaven to see things eyes have not seen or ears have not heard.” Look, that’s a part of it—what’s revealed about heaven. But you know what that text is talking about? It’s talking about revealed religion. It’s talking about the truth that was given to the New Testament apostles and prophets, things that God has revealed to them, the apostles, through the Spirit. They are written down for our sakes here in the New Testament. We have the very mind of Christ.
So like little children who are learning things for the very first time from their parents—like new disciples—Galilean fishermen—former tax collectors—we, too, must sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him. We need to abandon all of our pre-conceived notions—no insistence upon our beloved traditions—no “This is the way we’ve always done it” mentality foisted upon a text. Like John’s disciples, we also have to choose which side we want to be on—the old or the new. We need to stop trying to make Jesus fit into our traditions—stop trying to make him conform to our expectations—fit our schedules, our lifestyles. He must increase and we must decrease. Amen?
Listen, when Jesus enters the life of every new believer, he doesn’t come into your life just to be added to your priorities. He demands to become the only priority. He demands to become the very center of your life and to do so permanently. And stand by, because when he does, that he is going to radically reshape your life around his plans—his will—and conform you to his expectations. And you’re going to rejoice. In return and to the very end—indeed for all of eternity—you are going to have the privilege of wearing a new garment woven together from the holy fabric of his spotless, shining, piercingly white righteousness. You’re going to have the joy and the satisfaction of drinking wine from his own cup as you recline in intimate fellowship with him at the wedding feast for all of eternity. All you have to do is admit that you also—like Levi, the tax collector, like the paralytic, like the leper—you must count yourself among the despised, the lame, the unclean. You’re not healthy; you’re sick and you need a doctor. You’re not the righteous; you’re the sinner coming for repentance. You leave behind yourself forever when you come to visit the Great Physician. But from him you will find complete spiritual healing. You’ll find full restoration to God through the forgiveness of your sins. Jesus will set you on your feet again. He will dress you in his robes of righteousness, and he will walk you hand-in-hand into the wedding banquet where you will enjoy his holy presence forever more.
Beloved, that is our Gospel. That is our hope. Let’s pray:
Father, what a story we’ve seen again in Luke’s Gospel! It just seems that the wonders never cease as we learn from you in your Word. As we learn from Jesus Christ, the one who really would explode old wineskins and tear apart old garments, we’re so grateful that you have brought us into this great salvation that we can rejoice with him—learn from him forever. We pray that everyone hearing this—for all of us—that we would have humble hearts; that we would come before you with a desire to repent and to learn and to grow and live a life of repentance, leaving the old behind and embracing the new in you. We love you and we thank you for this great Gospel and so great a salvation. In Jesus’ name, amen.