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New Wine in Old Wineskins (Luke 5:33-39)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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 They said to him, "John's disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking."
 Jesus answered, "Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?  But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast."
 He told them this parable: "No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old.  And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.  No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.  And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.' "
Jesus has called Levi to be a disciple (5:27-28) and Levi has responded by holding a banquet attended by his tax collector friends (5:29). By this time in Jesus' ministry, the Pharisees and scribes are watching him carefully, seeking ways to criticize him -- fairly or not -- much like presidential candidates pick at an opponent trying for an advantage in the public eye. When they object to Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus responds that he had come as a doctor to heal the sin-sick; no wonder he spent time with sinners. This week's passage continues the Pharisees' criticism: "John's disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking" (5:33). The implication is that Jesus and his followers aren't as spiritual as John the Baptist and the Pharisees.
Fasting in the Bible and Jesus' Day (5:33)
So Jesus doesn't fast enough, the Pharisees say?
We see fasting throughout the Bible as a minor theme. Moses, Elijah, Daniel, and Jesus all went through prolonged fasts as they sought God. Times of national calamity and personal bereavement sometimes called for fasting as a means of humbling oneself, mourning, and seeking God's mercy (Deuteronomy 9:18; Nehemiah 9:1; Esther 4:16; 1 Samuel 7:6; 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12; 3:35; 12:16, 21-23; Psalm 35:13; Jeremiah 36:6; Daniel 6:18; 9:1-3). At least once a year on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the Jews would fast, or "afflict their souls." (Leviticus 16:29-31; 23:27-29; Numbers 29:7). The would also fast at the New Year, Rosh Hashanah.
Some people would fast regularly week by week. We learn from this passage that regular fasting was the practice of John's disciples (5:33). The Prophetess Anna fasted regularly (Luke 2:37), as did Cornelius the Gentile Centurion in Antioch (Acts 10:30 in some texts). Paul, too, may have practiced regular fasting, though this isn't entirely clear (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27).
But the Pharisees certainly DID practice fasting, often proudly (Matthew 6:16-18). They fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays (Luke 18:12). We're conditioned to think of all Pharisees as hypocrites, but that's certainly an overstatement. Of course, many Pharisees WERE hypocrites, with exterior practices that masked a selfish heart. But doubtless there were many sincere Pharisees that fasted and obeyed the oral law as unto the Lord, such as Nicodemus. They were sincere, but encumbered by a great weight of legal minutiae which composed much of their religious practice.
The Bridegroom and His Guests (5:34-35)
The Pharisees who contrasted Jesus' and his disciples "eating and drinking" with John the Baptist's and the Pharisees practice of fasting, however, were more interested in putting Jesus down rather than making a sincere inquiry.
Jesus answers with a word picture. "Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?" (5:34). For the wedding in Jesus' day, the bridegroom and his family were expected to put on the celebration (John 2:9-10), not the bride's family as in our American custom. The groom would go to the bride's home to fetch her and her attendants and friends, and the couple would lead them in a procession to the groom's house (reflected in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Matthew 25:1-13) where the celebration would take place. Though the consummation would take place that night, the party might go on for as long as a week with friends and family who had traveled some distance to attend.
Jesus is saying, though not openly, just as you don't fast while the bridegroom's hosts the wedding celebration, neither should my disciples fast while I am ushering in the Kingdom of God. It is a time for celebration, not for mourning. Then he adds, darkly, "But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast" (5:35). Jesus knew that his crucifixion and death lay ahead and refers to it here.
The Biblical Imagery of Wife and Bride
But was Jesus trying to say something deeper as he refers to himself as the bridegroom?
Throughout the Old and New Testaments runs the theme of Israel as the wife of Yahweh (Isaiah 54:5; 62:4-5; Jeremiah 2:2; 3:14; 31:32; Ezekiel 16:8; Hosea 2:19-20), and later, of the Church as the Bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-32; Revelation 19:7-8; 21:2; 21:9; 22:17). The long period of betrothal finally culminates in the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-9), "for his bride has made herself ready."
As attractive as it might be for "deep" teachers to explore, I don't think Jesus is referring to this theme of the Bridegroom and the Bride. "Nowhere else, either in the Old Testament or in the later literature to the time of Jesus, is the Messiah represented as the bridegroom. In Jesus' day, the term "bridegroom" wasn't laden with Messianic connotations. I think he is just using an analogy to explain why this wasn't to be a time of fasting but of rejoicing and celebration at the Good News of the Kingdom breaking into and intervening in the troubles and heartache and oppression of mankind.
Patched Garments (5:36)
Now, as he often did, Jesus uses an incident of the Pharisees' criticism as the occasion for teaching. The Pharisees and scribes are insisting that Jesus conform to their traditions. Jesus speaks in parables to explain -- especially for his disciples benefit, I believe -- why it is important that he doesn't fit his new teaching into their mold. First, he uses the metaphor of patched garments:
"No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old." (5:36)
Notice the deliberate contrast here between the old and the new? That's the point of the parable. Matthew and Mark make explicit the "unshrunk (Greek agnaphos) cloth" that is implied by Luke's "new (Greek kainos) garment" (Matthew 9:16; Mark 2:21). Jesus is saying that to try to attach the new to the old not only results in destruction of the new ("he will have torn the new garment"), but also the old, which won't look right and will eventually tear again. He makes the same point with a parable about new wine and old.
Winemaking and Wineskins
The image of wineskins that Jesus uses in his parable is foreign to our culture. The only leather wine container we can imagine is the tear-shaped leather bota that Spaniards use to carry wine and squirt it into their mouth. But that is very unlike the wineskin Jesus refers to.
Wine was made by treading barefoot on the grapes in a wine press, a square or circular pit hewn out of the rock, or dug out and lined with rocks and sealed with plaster. (See Isaiah 63:2-3; Job 24:11b; Lamentations 1:15; Joel 3:13; Matthew 21:33; Revelation 14:19-20; 19:15, where treading the winepress was a symbol of judgment.) The juice then flowed through a channel into a lower vessel, a winevat which functioned as a collecting and fermenting container for the grape juice or must.
In the warm climate of Palestine, grape juice began to ferment very quickly and there was no easy way to prevent fermentation. After the first state of fermentation had taken place in the winevat, the wine was separated from the lees (that is, sediment of dead yeast, tartar crystals, small fragments of grape skins, etc.) and strained through a sieve or piece of cloth (cf. Matthew 23:24). After four to six days it was poured into clay jars lined with pitch (called amphorae in Greece, e.g. Jeremiah 48:11) or animal skins for storage and further fermentation.
Wineskins were made of whole tanned goatskins where the legs and tail were cut off and had been sealed (1 Samuel 1:24; 10:3; 16:20; 25:18; 2 Samuel 16:1). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word nebel, "skin-bottle, skin," is translated by the KJV as "bottle" which gives us images of glass wine bottles. But these were rather whole goatskins, with nubbins bulging out where the legs once were, the neck tied off where the wine has been poured in, the whole large skin bulging almost to bursting as the carbon dioxide gas generated by the fermentation process stretches it to its limit. This image is well described by Job:
"For I am full of words,
and the spirit within me compels me;
inside I am like bottled-up wine,
like new wineskins ready to burst." (Job 32:18-19)
Fermentation in the wineskin might continue for another two to four months until the process slows down and stops. By that time the skin has been stretched to its limit. The alcohol is probably about 12%, and the collagen protein that gives the leather its stretching ability has been stretched out, and probably denatured by the alcohol, destroying its natural resiliency. The skin's ability to contract and stretch again has been lost.
New Wine in Old Wineskins (5:37-38)
While we aren't familiar with the details of wineskins, Jesus' hearers are. He didn't have to explain fermentation and the aging of leather. They know what he means.
"And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins." (5:37-38)
Here's the same contrast of old and new that we saw in the parable of the patched garment. His point is the same: you can't join the new to the old or you'll ruin both the new wine and the old skin. The gas pressure from the fermentation is eventually so great that the inflexible old skin ruptures, and the new wine gushes out onto the ground and is wasted. His hearers all know not to use old skins with new wine. They understand.
The Old Is Better (5:39)
But why talk about the contrast between old and new? What is new that would be ruined by being attached to the old? What's he getting at?
Jesus has come with a radical gospel of Good News to the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the sick, the brokenhearted (4:18-19). He speaks with authority, rather than the casuistry of the scribes of his day. Their man-made rules of who he can eat with and how he should fast would just get in the way. They are externals, that is all. Jesus, on the other hand, is aiming to expose afresh the heart of the ancient faith. He helps them to return anew to love for God and for one's neighbor, to do mercy and love justice and walk humbly with their God. These are the core of the Hebrew faith -- its life, not the dead Pharisaical external traditions that offer an appearance of piety but don't change the heart (see Colossians 2:23).
You may think that this is a dead issue, but it has a way of raising its head again and again. Paul, trained as a strict Pharisee, grasps the radical nature of salvation by grace through faith, and goes preaching it boldly throughout the Mediterranean. Soon he is called on the carpet to explain why he isn't imposing the familiar Jewish regulations on his Gentile converts (Acts 15). Again and again he has to insist that we are free in Christ, so we must not become entangled again in a legalistic religion trying to pass itself off as Christianity (see Galatians 5, for example). The Judaizers try to infect church after church with their legalism; the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews are tempted to turn again to the regulations of Judaism. Yes, legalism and an external faith are problems of every generation.
Why is that so? At the close of his parable of the wineskins, Jesus puts it this way: "And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better' " (5:39). It is easier to fall back to what is familiar and comfortable, and justify that, rather than launch out into a life guided not by laws and regulations but led by the Voice of the Spirit of God. The two are opposites, the old and the new. You cannot combine them without destroying both.
No, Jesus, insists, the Gospel of the Kingdom must not be hindered by the man-made rules of the Pharisees' religion. It must be free to work its power unfettered. The New Wine may not be as smooth to the tongue, and finely aged as old wine. It may be a bit sharp and unrefined. But it is alive. You can't contain it in old structures. You must find new wineskins for it or none at all.
Integrating the New with the Old
That is not to say that Jesus' threw out the Old Covenant. He makes it very clear in the Sermon on the Mount that he comes to fulfill the Law, not to abrogate it:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-20)
He doesn't come to set aside the law, but to strip away the Pharisees' precious oral tradition so people can see the power and spirit of the Law, and repent, preparing for the coming of the Kingdom. The Spirit Jesus sends now fulfills the law within us (Romans 8:1-4; Galatians 5:16-23).
Neither was Jesus always critical of the old. He tells his disciples, "Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old." (Matthew 13:52)
Pouring the Life of the Spirit into Your Life
Having put Jesus' teaching in perspective, however, we must pause to grapple personally with the power of his words: "And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins" (5:37-38).
What are the structures of our own age and culture that cannot coexist with the new wine of the Spirit. What have we tried to sew Christianity onto that will cause a greater tear and undermine the faith itself. In Jesus' day it was the legalistic spirit of Pharaiseism. What is it in your own life? What is it in your work, your community, your school, your environment?
"New wine must be poured into new wineskins," not accommodated to those comfortable things in our lives with which it is basically incompatible. The message for disciples is to be uncompromising about our faith and the work of the Spirit in our lives. If our honored customs and habits, and the structures of our society must adjust to that, then so be it.
Lord, fill us full again with your New Wine. This time help us to contain it and grow with it, rather than lose it through out stubbornness and inflexibility. Help me, Lord, to recognize the powerful new ways you want to work in my own life and not miss it. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins" (Luke 5:37-38).
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- Does Jesus speak against fasting in this passage? What does he teach about fasting, if anything, in this passage?
- What are the structures in our lives and society that are incompatible with the Life of the Spirit in our lives?
- Please share a struggle you had with trying to contain the Life of Christ in an "old wineskin"? Some of your brothers and sisters may understand the concept better if you'll share personally in your discussion group.
(If you aren't in a discussion group and would like to be send a blank e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and you'll be added.)
Common abbreviations http://www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm
- An early Second Century document, the Didache, sometimes called the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, instructs,. "Be careful not to schedule your fasts at the times when the hypocrites fast. They fast on the second (Monday) and fifth (Thursday) day of the week, therefore make your fast on the fourth (Wednesday) day and the Preparation day (Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath-Saturday)." (Didache 8:1)
- D.J. Williams, "Bride, Bridegroom," DJG 87, citing Jeremias "numphe, numphios," TDNT 4:1099-1106.
- Barry L. Bandstra, "Wine Press, Winevat," ISBE 4:1072; and Duane F. Watson, "Wine," DJG 870-873.
- Watson, DJG 871.
Copyright © 1985-2016, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastorjoyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.
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