The old and the new
Last week we concluded the section of chapters 4 and 5 which sees Jesus performing miracles and calling his first disciples. We talked about the fact that by inviting his disciples to follow him, he was inviting them into a relationship with himself—he’s not setting up a kind of dictatorial authority over these men, but inviting them to follow him, to live their lives with him and learn to be like him. And we saw that the invitation to a relationship completely changes the nature of our relationship with Jesus—rather than seeing his commandments as religious duties, we see now they are really more like relational delights.
And we see a perfect picture of this in the verses which directly follow.
If you remember, Jesus came to a tax collector called Levi and asked him to follow him. Like we saw, tax collectors were hated men in the Jewish world—they took advantage of the job the Romans gave them in order to steal from their countrymen. And yet, Jesus calls Levi to follow him, and—even more surprising—Levi does it. We see in v. 27-28:
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
And we’re going to pick up again right after this encounter. Read with me, starting at v. 29.
Tax Collectors and Sinners (v. 29-32)
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them.
So Luke’s been painting a pretty surprising picture of Jesus up to this point—this man who isn’t a priest, who isn’t a religious leader of any kind, but who seems to be a simple carpenter from Nazareth, and yet who is walking around preaching the kingdom of God and healing people left and right. And here, he gets even weirder.
You’d think that if Jesus were trying to start some kind of religious revolution, he’d be spending his time with important people—he’d be trying to convince influential men, the religious leaders, to believe in him. Or that at least there’d be some kind of strategic method to his madness.
But instead of spending time with someone who makes sense, he goes to the tax collector’s house, where apparently he’s invited some friends to come eat. No one wants to spend time with a tax collector except for other tax collectors, or other people of disrepute. These are his friends. So what does Jesus do? He has dinner with these guys. These unimportant guys that even non-religious people hated.
So yeah—it ruffles some feathers.
30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
It’s a good question—we tend to snub our noses at these guys, but we do things like this all the time, don’t we? If you’re a parent, you understand this particularly well: you see your young teenager after school hanging out and laughing with a group of kids who are clearly up to no good (maybe they’re smoking weed, got tattoos and piercings all over their bodies, listening to really bad R&B), and you say to your kid, “Why are you hanging out with these kids? Can’t you see they’re bad kids?”
Now obviously it’s not quite the same—you’re asking that question because you love them and want to protect them—but still, you can see how it’s possible to simply look at a group of people and identify them as those of whom we should steer clear.
But Jesus isn’t steering clear: he’s having dinner with them. And the Pharisees and scribes—people who wouldn’t have gone within thirty feet of a group of tax collectors—ask his disciples why he’s doing it.
Jesus must have been within earshot though, for he answers their question—v. 31-32:
31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
A couple of things, quickly: Christians often use this passage to excuse sin. That is, they have a group of friends who are engaged in regular, habitual sin; they want to participate in the same activity; and they say, “Well, Jesus hung out with sinners,” and go and do the same things they’re friends are doing. (This is how some Christians end up getting drunk every week.)
That’s not what Jesus is doing—he very clearly calls these people “sinners;” he doesn’t sugar-coat it. So he’s not engaging in their sinful activity with them; rather, he has come, he says, to “call [them] to repentance.” He’s spending his time talking with them and eating with them, but he’s doing it to show them there is a better way: he’s calling them to repentance.
That sounds like a bit of a ploy—like he’s pretending to love them in order to convert them. That’s not what Jesus is doing either—we see he is acting out of compassion for them. They are “sick,” he says, and they need a “physician.” He’s like a doctor walking down the street who sees a man having a heart attack, and rushes to his aid.
Why Are You Changing Things? (v. 33-39)
So as is often the case, the scribes and Pharisees can’t really think of anything to say against what Jesus has just said, so they try changing tactics. V. 33:
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.”
As we’ll see, they’re not really concerned about fasting. What they really want to know is, “Why are you changing things?” Jesus is Jewish; he comes in seeming to be a kind of religious teacher; but the things he does go counter to what you would expect from a religious leader in Judaism. So why is he doing that? Why is he changing things? That’s the real question being asked here.
They bring up fasting to highlight their point because fasting was one of the more “pious” things a religious person could do. (Fasting is the practice of abstaining from food for a limited period of time.) In Judaism at the time, fasting was a sign of mourning, of longing for the fulfillment of God’s promises.
But for many people the practice of fasting had become twisted: it had become a kind of self-punishment thought to bring about greater holiness—basically, the better you managed to fast, the holier you were. Pharisees would fast twice a week, and they would make efforts to look emaciated and depressed when they did so. As one commentator put it, the idea was that “you could not be spiritual unless you were uncomfortable.”
So Jesus doesn’t debate the question—he fully admits that they’re right: for now, my disciples, don’t fast.
And as we’ll see, he begins in v. 34 a three-tiered answer to the real question they’re asking: “Why are you changing things?” To explain why he’s “changing things,” why he’s not doing what one would expect from a Jewish religious leader, he gives three different types of answers.
A Relational Answer
His first answer is relational in nature, and in it he addresses their comment that his disciples don’t fast. V. 34:
34 “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.”
Scripture is filled with language and images which complement and complete each other. In Jesus’s answer he uses the image of wedding guests with a bridegroom. A wedding is (ordinarily) a joyful occasion. The bridegroom is filled with happiness at the idea of being married to his bride, and the guests at the wedding—his friends—are happy to see their friend marrying his love! Fasting was a sign of mourning, of longing for something that wasn’t there; it would make no sense (under ordinary circumstances) to be mourning on your friend’s wedding day, because you’re happy for him!
Jesus’s point is that the bridegroom has come—the fulfillment of the promises is here.
God had promised to send his Messiah, to redeem his people from their sins. But when he sent Jesus, he did even better than what the people were expecting—he didn’t just send an ambassador; he came himself. He sent Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God himself, to become a man and dwell among his people. All the promises of the prophets were wrapped up in him; anyone, at any time, could now benefit from an actual relationship with God, could rejoice in his presence and learn from him directly, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Think of those soldiers who are away from home at Christmas; think of their families back home, looking forward to the day their husbands or wives or sons or daughters will come home, but deeply saddened that they’re not there. That’s the kind of longing the Old Testament fasting represented.
But we’ve all seen those videos of soldiers coming home unexpectedly and surprising their families at Christmastime—it’s the go-to solution if you want a quick cheering up. You don’t keep on mourning when your loved one comes home unexpectedly; people lose it! They shout for joy, they weep not out of sadness, but because they are so happy at that moment that they can’t contain it.
That’s the kind of joy he’s talking about. The guests at a wedding rejoice when the bridegroom makes his appearance. And if guests rejoice at a normal wedding when they see the groom’s joy at marrying his bride, how much greater will their joy be when the bridegroom is none other than the Son of God himself? And how much greater still with their joy be when they realize that he is indeed a bridegroom…which means that he has found his bride?
A “Parabolic” Answer
Now Jesus keeps going, and he further illustrates his point, first by telling them a parable. (It’s really two different images, but they both mean the same thing, so Luke puts them together as one parable.) V. 36:
36 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. 37 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. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.
So we have two pictures. The first is that of a patch—you tear your cloak, so you take a new piece of cloth and sew it into the old fabric. Even new patches—if you’ve ever tried them—don’t work that well: they’re a quick fix at best. Sooner or later, the patch will tear and you’ll be worse off than you were before. The point is, if you want your pants to stay together well, you need to buy new pants.
The second image is that of wine and wineskins. At the time, they didn’t have isothermic bottles; the closest thing they had were animal skins which were partly tanned, sewn into a pouch and filled with wine. These skins (usually goat skins) were elastic and quite strong, so as the wine fermented and expand, the skin would expand with them. But after a while the skins became brittle; if you tried to fill them again, the fermenting wine would cause the old skins to burst.
So we see the image: when the new comes, you don’t try to fit it into the old; you apply new structures to fit the new situation.
So the question is, what is this “new” he’s talking about?
In the Bible, God reveals himself in stages—it’s what we call “progressive revelation.” It’s something we all understand: when we meet someone, we never tell them absolutely everything about ourselves all at once: I still don’t know absolutely everything there is to know about my wife, and she’s my wife. We reveal ourselves to others little by little.
This is what God does in the Bible: he reveals himself little by little, and he does this mainly through covenants. He made a covenant with Adam, and Adam broke that covenant; then he made a covenant with the people of Israel.
God established his covenant with his people in stages: he did it first with Abraham, then with Moses, then with David, each time deepening and making more explicit his revelation of who he was. Now why did he do it like this? God has innumerable reasons for doing what he does, but I think at least in part, he did it to help us see Jesus as the gift that he is.
There’s a girl who started coming to the church a good while ago, who wasn’t a Christian, but who was curious about Christianity, almost on a sociological level. So she integrated a discipleship group. It was at the beginning of the year, and the ladies had just started their Bible reading plan. So rather than skipping over to one of the gospels to help her get a feel for the message, they just kept on reading. She went through the Law of Moses, through the historical books, through the wisdom books and the prophets. And by the time they got to the New Testament, this girl was dying for Jesus to come.
You see, she had walked through the various stages of the covenants; she had seen God’s grace in re-establishing covenants with his people when they failed, of always forgiving them when they returned to him. She was frustrated when they failed, because no matter how gracious God was to them, they could never stay faithful to him. And she was perceptive enough to notice that we are the same: we may get all our behavior right, but our hearts and desires still lean in the wrong direction.
So when they finally reached the New Testament and Jesus arrived, she felt all the monumental impact of his coming—he established a new covenant with his people through his life, death and resurrection, and the terms of that new covenant are wonderful news: in order for God to remain in covenant with his people, the only thing he requires of them now is faith in the finished work of Christ…and he gives them the faith that he requires. She was able to see—perhaps in a way those of us who have grown up in church have a really hard time seeing—what a monumental gift Jesus actually is.
So when Jesus says, “no one puts new wine into old wineskins,” he means that if a new covenant has come, you can’t keep on acting as if you’re living under the old covenant. You can’t keep on fasting as if the bridegroom hadn’t come. A new covenant brings with it new ways of relating to God.
Imagine a newly married couple—John and Anne. Both committed Chrsitians. How insane would it be—how weird and twisted—if after marrying Anne, John kept on relating to her as if she were merely a friend? To never be alone in a room with her, to never be physically intimate with her, to put up a kind of relational barrier with her, as if they weren’t really married ? We can see how sick that would be—because you can’t have a wife and behave as if she were something less than your wife!
When the new comes, it’s going to look different: it’s going to be characterized by different attitudes, different ways of relating to God. Our relationship with him is no longer characterized by the mournful longing which the old fasting represented, but by joyful gratitude and expectancy. We no longer need to simply hope that one day God will send the Messiah. The Messiah has come! The bridegroom is here! The character of our relationship with him is now radically different—it's no longer a longing for a distant God, but gratitude to a God whom we know, with whom we have intimacy through Christ.
This is what the disciples are experiencing; this is why they’re not fasting. I said that now, under the new covenant, our relationship with God is characterized by joyful gratitude and expectancy. I say that because of what Jesus says in v. 35:
The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.
There will be a time when Jesus will leave to go be with his Father, and then his disciples will fast. But even then, their fasting will be of an entirely different sort. It will no longer be fasting to express a longing for something that hasn’t come yet; their new fasting will express a longing for more of something they’ve already received. New wine is meant for new wineskins.
We can’t have the bridegroom with us and continue to act as if we were still waiting for him. We can’t have immediate and direct access to God and act as if he were still far away and waiting for us to get our act together before he’ll take us. Now, all he requires of us is faith, and he provides the faith that he requires!
A Proverbial Answer
But, Jesus knows, some people will never be able to accept that—not because they can’t understand it, but rather because for some reason, they prefer the old. He addresses this fact in the form of a proverb, in v. 39:
“And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’ ”
It would be tempting for us, with our culture, to see this as a comment on the best way to drink wine. “A fine wine gets better with age,” they say.
That’s is not what he is saying. What he means is that the Pharisees and the scribes like the old system under the law of Moses. They like it because it gives them a clear picture of what it means to be a good person and what it means to be a bad person. They can do all they need to do, they can check all the boxes, and so they can compartmentalize people: we are “over here,” in with the folks God really loves, and these other people—these tax collectors and sinners—go “over there,” in the reject pile.
But—as we know from the images Christ uses here—the new is better. If these men could see clearly, they’d see that their holiness is superficial and false—they do what they should, but their hearts are twisted. In the new covenant, they don’t need to go through rites and rituals to know God; they can know him directly, and know that David was right when he said that in his presence there is fullness of joy, at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16.11).
R.K. Hughes writes, “God still gives sinners an incredible offer: the presence of Christ—boundless joy—fullness of soul. The condition? The realization that their old life is not adequate, and the acceptance that Christ is everything.”
Under the Old Covenant, God’s people lived in a kind of perpetual mourning—a longing for promises that had not been fulfilled. But with Jesus came a New Covenant, and under the New Covenant, God’s people now experience the ever-growing and limitless joy of knowing that they have Christ, and that Christ is everything.
Why Are Christians So Joyless?
Now here’s what I want us to ask ourselves this morning: why do Christians today so seldom feel this enduring and ever-growing joy? Why do Christians so often tend to act as if God were still judging them according to their works? Why are Christians so often characterized by bitterness, by solemnity, by judgmentalism, by exclusivity, by sadness? It’s not just because of all the depressing images in Catholic churches of Sad Jesus hanging on the cross. There are several different reasons, which we actually see mirrored in our text.
Firstly, we want to stay in comfortable company. There is comfort in surrounding ourselves with people who are like us, who understand why we work the way we do, why we believe the things we do, why we think the way we do. But life under the New Covenant calls us to get out of our comfort zones and take the gift we’ve received toward people who haven’t yet heard about it.
And any Christian who genuinely loves his non-Christian friends and neighbors can tell you that speaking with them about the gospel, being honest about their own struggles and failures, and sharing with them how good Christ is despite them, is one of the most satisfying and joy-giving things we can do. This is what we do with anything we love and enjoy—if we find something we really love, we tell everyone we can about it, because our joy increases as we share it with others.
We want to keep things measurable. We want a checklist, because checklists are comforting. Like the Pharisees, we want a clear set of instructions that we can point to and say, “Done this, done that, resisted this, resisted that… So I must be good.” We love setting out an action plan, and taking steps to achieve that plan, and looking back with satisfaction at what we’ve accomplished.
There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but the fact is that the Christian life doesn’t work that way. The Christian life is messy. We’re dealing with things which are at least in part out of our control. For God to accept us, the only thing he requires of us is faith, and we can’t produce that. We can nurture it, we can put it to work, but we can’t make it happen—and even those things we do manage is laughably insufficient to satisfy God’s holiness.
God does call us to obey—but our obedience is the proof that we have the faith he requires, not the reason why God loves us. God doesn’t love us on the basis of what we do, but of who we are in Christ. And you can’t measure that—you can only see it and accept it and rejoice in it and respond to it.
We want to excuse our sin. We do all we can to avoid digging deep, to avoir putting to death our pride or lust or anger or judgment, because at least we don’t get drunk every weekend! Or okay, if we do, it’s because we’re “seeking opportunities to share the gospel with our unbelieving friends.” (That’s not what Jesus was doing, guys.) We modify our behavior to avoid letting the Spirit put our sin to death.
The Pharisees found comfort in the religious duties because as long as they checked the right boxes, they never had to go to work on their hearts. Sitting and eating with the Son of God means being honest with him and with everyone else about who we really are. It means recognizing that some things I love are not lovely, so I shouldn’t love them. It means exposing our hearts to deep change, and not just the kind of surface-level behavior-modification cheap Christianity is selling.
But if we do that—if we stop excusing our sin and accept to expose ourselves to Jesus, to expose ourselves to one another—the surprising thing we learn is that Jesus is better than the despicable things we still love. When we see Jesus as he is, suddenly those aspects of my former life that I miss aren’t so attractive anymore. Our joy increases as our appetite for sin decreases.
We don’t pursue the joy of knowing the Bridegroom. When the Holy Spirit gives us faith in Christ, we naturally receive the joy of knowing him as he is. But it’s important to remember that while God brings us joy, he also commands us to actively pursue joy. The most repeated command in the Bible is the command to rejoice. To be happy.
A simple word search is revealing: we are commanded to rejoice over 200 times in the Bible; to delight in God over a hundred times; to sing for joy 63 times; to shout for joy 60 times… And I’m just barely scratching the surface. We are commanded to rejoice in the Lord—not when things are going well, not when we have everything we want, but always (Phil. 4.4).
Do the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? Of course not. And guess what—no matter what is happening in our lives, the bridegroom is with us. Jesus has come; he lived our life and died our death and was raised for our justification; he sent us his Spirit and now his Spirit lives in us always.
And if we realize that, it changes everything.
It changes the way we read the Bible. It changes the way we pray. It changes the way we serve. It changes the way we sing. It changes the way we relate to one another—inside the church and out.
R.K. Hughes writes,
“This is why knowing Christ is a perpetual celebration, a perpetual feast, and why joy is the inevitable emotion of the fullness of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22). This is why the first Franciscans were reproved for laughing in the church. They couldn’t help it because they were so happy. This is why the first Methodists set the songs of Zion to dance music. This is why the early preacher Uke jumped for joy. This is why Charles Simeon was able to watch a converted prisoner stand on the gallows and for a half hour joyfully declare his faith, after which ‘He then commended his soul into the hands of Jesus and launched into eternity without a doubt, without a sigh.’ This is why Martin Luther said, ‘A Christian should and must be a cheerful person. If he isn’t, the devil is tempting him.’
“The bridegroom is with us, and we are the bride (cf. Ephesians 5:23–27)! Because he is the bridegroom of our soul, life is a celebration.”
Brothers and sisters, God calls us to see that, and to stop acting as if we didn’t have everything we need in him. Even when we fast, ours is a joyful fasting—a fasting which expresses our happiness and our thankfulness for all we have in Christ, and our ever-growing longing for more of him.