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I was reading Matthew 9:14-16 this morning, in which Jesus is questioned by John’s disciples about fasting. I’ve probably read this passage a thousand times without giving it any deep thought. Fasting is not something we do very often anymore…many Christians not at all. And Jesus’ answer to their direct question does seem rater cryptic at first. But then I had one of those moments when a light went on, and I realized this passage isn’t really about fasting at all. Typical of Jesus, he uses the question as an opportunity to teach a deeper truth. And since I haven’t written a bible study post in a long time, I thought I would share my thoughts on this one.
Here’s the passage:
“Then John’s disciples came and asked him, ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
First, Jesus does answer their question about fasting by reminding John’s disciples of who he is…the Messiah. He asks them, and rightly so, how can his disciples fast in the presence of their long awaited messiah? This is a time for rejoicing, for celebration, though he eludes to his impending crucifixion as a time when they will mourn and fast.
Then he goes on to a less obvious lesson—at least for us. We still sew patches on clothes, and pre-shrink our cloth, but the concept of wineskins doesn’t say much in this era of glass bottles. And what is he talking about anyway? What do either of those things have to do with the question of fasting? But Jesus doesn’t waste words, or a teaching opportunity. So what is he trying to tell John’s disciples, and us thousands of years in the future?
Wineskins were flexible bags made of animal skins. They would be filled with new wine, which would expand during the fermentation process. The soft skin bag allowed for this expansion to take place. Over time, these bags would get old and brittle. If new wine was poured into them, they would simply explode as the pressure built up inside.
John’s disciples asked specifically about fasting, but Jesus’ answer went much further. Why had they asked the question in the first place? Because they were firmly grounded in the rules and ritual requirements of Judaism, which was after all, God’s law. (Much of that law had been twisted and expanded on by men over time, but that’s material for a separate post.) They were basically asking, “How come you aren’t making your disciples follow the rules?” Fasting was a requirement, it was expected. And for the Pharisees, truthfully, it had become a form of showing off how much more spiritual they were than everybody else.
Jesus first answered their question, then addressed their mindset with the second part of his answer. He used wineskins as a metaphor for the Jewish system, which had become old and rigid. But he was preparing new wine—a new way to salvation, based on grace rather than strict adherence to the law. There was no way for that old system to contain the new gift Christ was about to give all of humanity. Little did they know, that old wineskin was about to burst, and everything would change.
So let’s bring this down to a more personal level now, and extend the metaphor a little. Jesus’ new wine is poured into us every day of our lives through the Holy Spirit. What kind of wineskin are we? Are we rigid and inflexible? Stuck in our ways, and clinging to things God doesn’t want for us? Do we stay hidden within our comfort zone too often? Allow our past, our wounds, our emotions, our circumstances, or our culture, to set our limits for us? Are we so focused on “religious rules” that when we are tested we shrink and separate ourselves from God’s will? Or are we open and flexible to God’s guidance? To His words on our heart when we pray? To His commands when He tells us what to do? Even to His teaching moments that sometimes leave us with more questions than answers?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I’ve spent far too much of my life hunkered down in comfortable, old wineskins. Those rigid walls seem pretty strong and protective at times…until the Holy Spirit comes through and shatters them. Kind of like today, when over breakfast I almost breezed through a mere 4 lines of scripture, that seemed to only talk about an outdated Jewish practice not relevant to my daily life—and got my mind blown instead. I’ve never seen wineskins before, and probably never will, but I’ll be thinking about them during my quiet time this week as I reflect on the state of mine, and how I can make it new again.
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