Sunday, 30 July 2017

New Wine in New Wineskins (Matthew 9:14-17)

It seems that this conversation between the disciples of John followed on from the meal in the home of Matthew rather than happening sometime later. Mark tells us that the disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting (Mark 2:8), so maybe the meal that Matthew gave for Jesus and his disciples was held on one of the two days each week that the Pharisees fasted (Mondays and Thursdays). If that was the case, we can see why people would have been curious at why the disciples of Jesus were not fasting.

Doing the right thing
It is common to say that today the presence of many different churches, each saying different things, creates confusion for people. No doubt that is true, but we can see from this incident that religious groups experiencing confusion has been around for a long time. What seems to have caused part of the confusion here is that Jesus and his disciples were not part of the conservative religious movements in Israel. The two groups mentioned here – the followers of the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist – would have been included among the more traditional groups as opposed to the liberal Sadducees and the political Herodians.

The disciples of John observed one difference at that time between them and the Pharisees on the one hand and the disciples of Jesus on the other – the practice of fasting. On this occasion, the disciples of John did what the Pharisees had failed to do in the previous incident. Initially in Matthew’s house, the Pharisees had tried to get information from the disciples of Jesus and they probably were unable at that time to answer the question. Here the disciples of John take their question to Jesus, which was them doing the right thing, even although their motives may have been confused. They went to him to get answers because they wanted to know why he did things differently.

In doing this, they give us a good example. While we cannot ask Jesus physically, we can ask him prayerfully to show to us whether our practices are valid. When we do, it is incredible the way that his Word will show us the right path. These disciples of John were a bit like the people in Berea who searched the scriptures to see if the things Paul said were true. After all, the Bible alone is our guide.

Doing the right thing at the right time
As mentioned, the matter that concerned the disciples of John was the issue of fasting. It is important to remember that the only fast required by God in Israel was on the Day of Atonement, although it was permissible to engage in voluntary fasting if desired. As mentioned earlier, in the religious customs of the time, people fasted twice a week and it is probably to that practice that the disciples of John are referring here.

The only recorded occasion of Jesus engaging in fasting is during the forty days of temptation in the desert after he was baptised. He would have fasted on the Day of Atonement, but it is obvious that he did not follow the methods of the religious regarding fasting. Of course, he may have chosen to fast at different times.

There is something sad about the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees joining together against the disciples of Jesus. By this time, John was in prison and it may have been the case that some of his followers, now that their leader was not there to guide them, had drifted into company with the Pharisees. After all, they were the conservatives. One thing is obvious and that is that they had not heeded the message of John when he declared that the Messiah had come. And when people reject the gospel, who knows what company they will end up with?

Earlier, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had instructed his disciples to fast secretly and not to let others know that they were engaged in this spiritual discipline. This may have been why the disciples of John and others assumed that the disciples of Jesus did not fast. In his previous teaching, Jesus had instructed his disciples how to fast; now, in this reply, Jesus informed the disciples of John when they should fast.

His illustration of a bridegroom points out that fasting is very unsuitable on happy occasions, but is very appropriate on sad occasions, such as when a bridegroom dies. Some people say that Jesus here is referring to his death because he uses a violent term to describe the removal of the bridegroom, but I am not convinced that he is because he says that those with the bridegroom will fast when he dies and we are not told that the disciples of Jesus fasted at that time. Indeed, the two downcast disciples from Emmaus invited the risen Jesus in for a meal. Others suggest that he is referring to his departure to heaven, but if that was the case, then the disciples should be fasting regularly over this separation, and there is no hint in the New Testament that they did for that reason.

Instead I would say that Jesus is using an illustration from everyday life and we are meant to take it and think of sad occasions that would require fasting as part of the process of dealing with it. So here are a few examples – when our prayers don’t seem to be heard by God; when the gospel is not being blessed in conversions outside the church; when sins are tolerated in society; when churches are divided; when our commitment levels are low. Regarding them, fasting is a suitable response to engage in along with prayer and confession.

What happens when we do the wrong thing?
Jesus then gave two illustrations to show the danger of continuing to do the wrong thing. He points out what happens if the wrong material is used to mend a hole in an old garment and if new wine is put into old wineskins. Instead of sorting out the problem, the selected actions make the situation worse.

What is Jesus referring to here when he says that something is old and something is new? I suspect he is saying that he has come to replace the old way of doing things with a new way. And he says that it is not possible for the old to be retained. The Pharisees believed that their religious behaviour earned them salvation. They had a religion of works rather than a religion of grace. They had mixed up the requirements given by Moses with their own ideas and formed a new religion. It looks as if the disciples of John had a similar outlook.

The disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees had failed to see that what was happening with the coming of Jesus was not a patching up of old ways that had gone wrong, but that another way of doing things should be followed. They wanted to do the Jewish method better by trying to be diligent about external religious rites whereas Jesus was teaching his disciples that something better was available. If they stayed with the old, they would miss out on the new, and we can see from the Book of Acts that this took place with both groups because the apostles had to correct them.

Religion without grace makes the person proud of what he does and leads him to depend on what he does rather than looking to God for grace. They look down on others, as seems to have been the case here with how they questioned the religious commitment of the disciples of Jesus. Because their fasting could not be seen, they were regarded as less zealous.

The disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees, in their zeal for returning to more devotion to their practices, were going in the wrong direction, away from the new way that was going to be introduced by Jesus. And he did not want the disciples of John to do that, which is why he told them these illustrations.

Those rituals connected to Judaism were the old wineskins and they could not be used as containers for the new wine. Whenever someone insisted on using those old wineskins, as some did over the issue of circumcision, all that happened was that the new society of Jesus lost its spiritual freedom and unity. Are we in danger of going back to the old wineskins of legalism and dependence on our religious activities? I would say that it is a question we should always be asking ourselves. It is the case that the early church, imitating the practices of Judaism, decided that Wednesdays and Fridays should be days of fasting. There is no command in the New Testament that they should have done this.

Doing the right thing with new wine
No doubt, we need to ask why Jesus referred to wine. I would suggest that there are two reasons. One is that frequently in the Old Testament wine was used to describe the joy that would mark the kingdom when the Messiah came. After all, Jesus is the Messiah and it would be expected that he would refer to what the Old Testament said about his kingdom. The other reason would be that everyone knew that wine was linked to celebrations and described situations in which people were happy at what was taking place. We can ask what are the new things that are going to give such joy.

Jesus spoke about this new way to the woman of Samaria. In their discussion, she wanted his opinion about whether Jerusalem was better than Gerizim where the Samaritans offered their sacrifices. If she had asked the question a few years earlier, the answer would have been that Jerusalem was more important because they did what God had stipulated concerning sacrifices. But now, says Jesus, the question is not relevant because a new time has arrived in which people can worship the Father anywhere without focussing on rituals. They would be able to worship the Father because Jesus would open the door for them to do so.

The new wine is the gospel, the good news of salvation. In the gospel, we discover the great love of God for sinners and the steps he took in order for them to drink the new wine. We are familiar, most of us, with great Bible texts that summarise the gospel, that tell us clearly what Jesus did for sinners. Those verses encourage us to come to Jesus and rest upon him for salvation, to cease trying to work our way into God’s favour but instead to trust in Jesus alone for pardon. They bring us to the cross and open to our gaze the cross of Calvary where salvation was procured for sinners.

What are some of the blessings connected to the gospel that we can receive freely from God? There is forgiveness of all our sins, there is reconciliation with the God against who we had sinned, there is adoption into his family, there is the working of the Spirit in our hearts to sanctify us, there is fellowship with Jesus, there is the community of saints, there is access to God’s presence, and there is the promise of heaven. All these blessings are wonderful and they are given to everyone who believes in the Saviour.

What are the new wineskins that we are to use to be able to drink the new wine? I would suggest that by a new wineskin Jesus was referring to a new heart. Where else can the blessings of the gospel dwell but in hearts that have been made new by the Holy Spirit? The problem with the disciples of the Pharisees and the disciples of John was that they were religious people with old hearts. They may have had minor differences between them, but both were very different to the disciples of Jesus. It is only a new heart that can hold the new wine of the gospel.

It may be the case that some of us are like the disciples of John. You see the difference between what you do and what the disciples of Jesus do. The best thing to do is speak to Jesus about it. We don’t know if they asked Jesus for a new heart, but you should ask him for one.

And those of us who have new hearts, always ask yourself ‘why’ when you find yourselves drawn to legalism. After all, why would you want to depart from the gospel way and make up rules of your own?

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