New Wine and Old Wineskins

by Spiros Zodhiates

Spiros ZodhiatesDr. Zodhiates continues his exegesis of the Gospel of Matthew.

[14] The disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees had one thing in common: They both fasted (from ne steo  [3522], a total or partial abstinence from food). In Israel, public fasts were common, such as the one appointed for the Day of Atonement that lasted through the month of October (Acts 27:9) and to which great merit was attached. The Pharisees fasted frequently, sometimes twice a week (Luke 18:12). The fasts mentioned in the New Testament were usually private (Matt. 6:16-18; 9:14; Mark 2:18, 19; Luke 5:33; 18:12; Acts 10:30; 13:2, 3) and were connected with sorrow and mourning (penthéo  [3996], Matt. 9:15).

The question in this verse was probably occasioned by the different lifestyles of Jesus and John the Baptist. John's disciples asked why they and the Pharisees fasted frequently, whereas the Messiah, to whom John the Baptist pointed, and His disciples did not.

Earlier in this Gospel, we noted that the Pharisees were motivated to fast by human praise, but Jesus cautioned His disciples against this hypocrisy: "Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward" (Matt. 6:16).

[15] Jesus' answer set the matter at rest. Using the analogy of marriage, He said that fasting was an expression of grief over the absence of the bridegroom. As long as the bridegroom was present, his friends did not need to fast. "And Jesus said unto them, The children of the bridechamber are not able (from dnamai [1410], to be able) to mourn, as long as the bridegroom (numphos [3566]) is with them, are they? But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken (aparthe , the aorist passive subjunctive of aparo  [522], to take away) from them, and then they will fast" (a.t.).

The "groom" had come in the incarnation of the Word (John 1:1, 14), and this was a time of rejoicing (Matt. 25:1). However, the time would come when this Bridegroom would be "taken away," the aorist tense more likely specifying the event of Christ's ascension (Acts 1:9-11) rather than His physical death. It's true that the disciples grieved for Jesus after His death, but the resurrection three days later was a time of great, overcompensating joy.

The separation of the Lord from His people following His ascension into heaven, however, has been much longer, and we find several references to the early church fasting and mourning for His presence (see Acts 14:23; 1 Cor. 7:5). How we, too, long for the return of the Lord-"Come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20)! To not see this happen for a time is grievous.

Yet even though the bridegroom would ascend to His Father in heaven, He promised His disciples (His bride) that He would not leave them as orphans (from orphans [3737], bereaved, parentless, comfortless; John 14:18), but He would be with them until the consummation of the age in the Person of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:20; John 14:16-18: note the change in subject from the third person Holy Spirit, "Him," to the first person, "I will come to you"). When the present age is consummated, the bridegroom will return to wed His bride (Rev. 19:7; 21:2).

[16, 17] Jesus resumed His attack on the legalism of the Pharisees:

"No man (oudes [3762], no one) puts a piece (epble ma [1915], patch) of new (from gnaphos [46], unshrunk) cloth (from rhkos [4470]) on an old garment, because that which is put in to fill it up takes from the garment, and the rent (schsma [4978], tear, divide) is made worse. Neither (oudé [3761] from ou [3756], "not"; and [1161], even; "not even," "nor") do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runs out (from ekchéo  [1632], to pour out), and the bottles perish: but they put new (from néos [3501], younger) wine into new (from kains [2537], qualitatively new) bottles, and both are preserved" (a.t.).

Jesus used illustrations from the natural world to display the irrationality of hypocrisy. These hypocrites layered legalistic, external conformity to the Law over their wicked hearts and, from the analogy, their hearts were "made worse." The irony was that they did not do such foolish things to cloth nor wine because they knew better. Apparently, they were more concerned with preserving worldly things than their own souls.

In general, cottons and wools used to shrink considerably with the first washing. (First century people did not have the preshrunken synthetics we have today.) Applying the metaphor, trying to patch up an old, sinful life by adding something new is useless. It only makes matters worse. What is needed is a qualitatively new garment (note the contrast above between the "chronologically new" [from néos] wine and the "qualitatively new" [from kains] bottles, as well as "the robe of righteousness" and "the garments of salvation"; Isa. 61:10). "If any man is in Christ," Paul told us, "he is a new (from kains) creation (ktsis [2937])" (2 Cor. 5:17; a.t.).

Similarly, wineskins dry out and harden with age and use. As new wine ferments and expands, new skins expand with it but not old, inflexible ones. They split, the wine is lost, and the flask is "destroyed" (from apllumi [622], to perish, a word that speaks figuratively of eternal perdition, the judgment on persevering unbelief; John 3:36).

Jesus did not come to add new commands to the old Jewish religion. He came to pour out His Spirit to create faith, a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), in the hearts of His people whom He came to save (Matt. 1:21). The Jews could not accept this. Their religion was "old wineskins" that could neither expand nor accept new wine. Salvation is not a patch on something old, like bad behavior; it involves a new nature. Consequently, Jesus became a "rock of offense" to the Jews (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:8).

Dr. Zodhiates is president emeritus of AMG International and publisher emeritus of Pulpit Helps.

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