For years my old friend Paul has made his own wine. You put all the ingredients of juice and sugar and water and yeast into a big jar called a demi-john. Then when the wine has finished fermenting you transfer it into bottles to store it. Paul managed to persuade his wife Suzanne that the best place to keep these bottles would be at the top of their airing cupboard. So it was that some time later, coincidentally after Suzanne had filled the airing cupboard with freshly ironed clothes, in the middle of the night, they were awakened by mysterious noises coming from the airing cupboard. Pop, glug, glug, glug. Pop, glug, glug, glug. But thinking nothing of it Paul and Suzanne got up the next morning to find a dozen empty bottles and nothing to wear of all the freshly ironed clothes which had not been drenched or perfumed with Chateau Cooper 1984.
Since he was not a chemist, Paul didn’t realise that wine keeps fermenting and producing carbon dioxide until all the sugar is used up or until the alcohol deactivates the yeast. But as a fine upstanding Paul he should have known and taken to heart Jesus’s parable about never, ever, putting new wine into old wineskins. But he had not.
That parable is the third in a series of parable Jesus taught about the new life he came to bring. Jesus offers to all who follow Him life in the Kingdom of God, life in the Spirit, life in all its fullness. This new life was complete mystery to the people who chose not to follow Jesus, completely different from the religion of the Jews and from the practices of those who were still following the example John the Baptist. So people asked the question,
Mark 2:18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”
Jesus answered in the form of three short parables, explaining what the new life of the Kingdom of God was like.
The New Life is like a Wedding Party
John the Baptist’s followers would have known who Jesus was referring to as “the bridegroom” because John himself had used the same picture.
John 3: 27 John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.
John’s message was very clear – he was only the best man, preparing the way for the Bridegroom. The one John had prepared the way for was no less than Jesus Himself.
And the Pharisees would also have known who Jesus was referring to as the Bridegroom, because that was a picture from the Old Testament about the Messiah who was to come.
Isaiah 54: 5 For your Maker is your husband— the LORD Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. 6 The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.
Hosea 2: 16“In that day,” declares the LORD, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ 19I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. 20I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD.
In the Old Testament the Bridegroom was God Himself, bringing love and forgiveness, joy and peace to His Bride, His chosen people, the nation of Israel. But Jesus uses this picture of the Bridegroom and applies it to Himself. He was the fulfillment of those Old Testament promises. Jesus was clearly claiming to be God – the tragedy was that neither the Pharisees nor John’s followers recognized Jesus for who he really was, the Bridegroom of Israel.
The good news of God’s Kingdom is that the Bridegroom has arrived! And that is why Jesus’s followers weren’t fasting. They were too busy for the legalistic demands of the Pharisees or the austerity of John the Baptist. Jesus’s disciples were too busy celebrating the arrival of the Bridegroom and the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life which Jesus was bringing to everybody who had recognized Him, even to the sick and the paralysed and the lepers and the demonized and the tax collectors and the sinners. Jesus slips in one solemn note here – the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, even as John the Baptist had already been taken away and put into prison. Maybe that was the reason John’s disciples were fasting. One day even the bridegroom will be taken away from them.
Jesus uses a very unusual Greek word there for “taken away”. You won’t find it anywhere else in the New Testament, but it is in the Greek version of the Old Testament, In Isaiah 53
7He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Just as Isaiah had prophesied that the suffering servant would be taken away, so one day the Bridegroom will be taken away, and on that day his followers’ would fast. But that would be in the future, says Jesus. Right now, says Jesus, I am still here, and it’s time to party!
Jesus’s followers were experiencing the joy the Bridegroom brings! Somebody has said that the surest mark of a Christian is not faith or even love, but the surest mark of a Christian is joy. Jesus’s disciples stood out from everybody else because of their joy. “Why aren’t they fasting?” Jesus’s answer is simple. “Because they aren’t sad. They are happy! They aren’t in mourning, they aren’t dismal, They are over the moon!” It’s like a wedding. The Jews certainly knew how to celebrate a marriage. SEVEN DAYS of unbroken celebration! A Jew didn’t even have to take a break from the wedding party to go to the synagogue. During the seven days of the wedding feast those celebrations were the number one priority. No work, no synagogue, certainly no fasting. Think of the most enjoyable wedding reception you’ve ever been to, stretching over a whole week. Jesus is saying, THAT is the kind of joy which a relationship with God brings. It’s a relationship with God which is much more than rituals and habits. If our Christian faith and our times of worship and fellowship aren’t as lively and exciting and joyful as a wedding feast, we’re missing out somewhere! Because, Jesus says,
The new life is MORE than an new patch on an old coat!
Mark 221 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.
If you sew a piece of new, strong but unshrunken cloth on to an old frayed coat, then when it gets wet the new cloth will shrink and make an even bigger tear than before.
The point for the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist was clear. The new life that Jesus was bringing couldn’t just be patched on top of existing rituals. You can’t just add the new on top of the old. The new would be wasted and the old would be wrecked. When Jesus came the Pharisees and John’s followers had just carried on with their old practices. That showed that they had not recognized Jesus as the Bridegroom of Israel. Believing in Jesus was not just another aspect of Judaism which could be added on to all the existing beliefs and practices. Half measures and a hasty repair job would be a complete waste of time. Following Jesus had to replace the old ways completely.
And the same is true for Christians today. Some people think that becoming a Christian will only affect part of our lives. Just our Sundays, some people might think. But Jesus was teaching us that the new life of the Kingdom of God is not just about patching up the old character, covering over the old holes with bits of something new. The new life must replace the old completely.
John 3:3 Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Jesus does not call us to carry on with our old life with just a few new bits added, like going to church, or reading the Bible, or praying. Jesus saves us so that we can live a brand new life. If we don’t allow Jesus to transform our whole lives, then very soon the new and the old will be torn apart again and we will end up more confused and damaged than we were before.
In the same way there’s no point in thinking we can be Christians when we are with other Christians but keep our faith a secret when we are at work or with friends who are not Christians. Chameleon Christians like that will soon discover that we need to make a choice. As Jesus said in Mark 8 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
It’s just as bad if we think we can enjoy the blessings of forgiveness and eternal life but then keep on sinning in the same old ways. We may be able to keep our sins hidden from other people but we can never keep them hidden from Almighty God. Trying to mend our old life with patches of the new life is worse than useless. There’s no point in half-measures, Jesus said, you must be born again! If we aren’t experiencing the kind of joy a wedding feast would bring, maybe the problem is our Christianity is only a patch hiding the holes in the old life we haven’t let go of.
The New Life is Like New Wine Bursting out of Old Wineskins
Mark 2:22 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.”
The trouble with new wine is that it is still fermenting and bubbling, still full of life. It needs new containers of new supple skins which can expand to hold the pressure. Put new wine in old hardened inelastic wineskins which have already been stretched to their limit guaranteed the double tragedy of torn wineskins and the new wine running away, wasted.
For John’s disciples and for the Pharisees, the message was clear. The New Wine of the Kingdom of God could not be squeezed into the rigid old wineskins of Jewish rituals and traditions and practices. The New Wine of the Holy Spirit would burst out of Phariseical legalism or John’s pattern of rigid self denial. The new life Jesus brought would need new forms of expression, new structures, new patterns of worship and prayer and service. Because the new life Jesus brings is new and better and radically different. Jesus changed water into wine, better wine than anybody had ever tasted! And the new wine of the gospel would burst out of any man made religious containers. We can’t put God in a box so that he is on tap when we need Him. The new life cannot be confined – it just bursts out!
It is sad that over the years many churches have had to learn this lesson time and time again. When we should be going ever onward and upward, there is always the danger of getting stuck with new wine trapped in old wineskin. We must beware of being trapped in patterns of worship or prayer or evangelism which were right for previous generations but become a straitjacket for the new life Jesus brings.
Just occasionally I have moments on inspiration and in one such moment recently I wrote this.
“The greatest challenge the church faces in this generation is to become the church of this generation and not remain the church of the last generation – or the last generation really will be the last generation!”
We must make sure that we are never trying to bottle up the new wine of the Kingdom in old wineskins. God wants us to enjoy the love and joy and peace which only comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ – better than the best wedding feast. It cannot be just a new patch on an old life. Or new wine trapped in old wineskins until it all bursts out and gets wasted!