Scripture: Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the Bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the Bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” Matthew 9:14-17 ESV
Observation: This story regarding fasting and Jesus’ messianic explanation find their parallel in Mark 2:18-22 and Luke 5:33-39, with the additional notation that the disciples of John also fasted (implying this may have been one of the regular fast days instituted during the Exile). But why join forces with the Pharisees and confront Jesus (as Luke reports)? John spoke ill of the Pharisees, referring to them as a brood of vipers (Matthew 3:7). But with John now incarcerated (Matthew 14:14), some of his disciples, perhaps stirred by jealousy, felt differently about Jesus.
In our text, Matthew recalls Christ responding with three messianic illustrations to enlighten John’s disciples of their misguided observance of fasting: to earn God’s approval. Jesus contends that fasting is not the basis of establishing a relationship with God. Hence, he uses four metaphors (the fourth found in Luke’s account) to refute their legalistic approach to holiness and point them to something new and infinitely better on the horizon:
- Do you insist the wedding guests fast while the Bridegroom is with them? The day will come when they will fast because the Bridegroom is no longer with them.
- No one patches an old garment with an unshrunk piece of new cloth, for the patch will tear away and make a worse tear.
- No one puts new wine into old wineskins lest the skins burst.
- After drinking aged wine, no one desires the new (Luke only).
All four refer to the dawn of a new age in Christ (the inauguration) of the New Covenant of Grace that extends from Pentecost to the consummation at Christ’s return.
Takeaway: The first metaphor picks up on John’s illustration at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, where John saw himself as the best man and Jesus as the Bridegroom (John 3:29). The guests in this text represent Jesus’ disciples who have no reason to fast while he is with them. Still, a day will come (pointing to his ascension) when they will mourn and fast for a season.
The second and third emphasize that Jesus’ disciples cannot integrate his Gospel with the laws of Moses because adherence has failed based on outward observance. Instead, the Holy Spirit will write the law on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34), and Immanuel will be with them and in them. And as the fourth metaphor indicates, once they taste this refined wine of the New Covenant of Grace, they will not want to return to the immature wine of trying to adhere to hundreds of laws by willpower alone.
Our takeaway? It’s the same. As Paul repeatedly elaborated to his church plants, Israel failed to uphold the law because it only exposed their sins and showed them the boundaries. Jesus, however, has perfectly fulfilled all the requirements of the law and has invited them and us to sup with him and drink his new wine. Thus, we draw near to him by faith and consume his bread and wine that represent his body and blood sacrificed for us to bring forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with the Father, and eternal life with our Triune God.
Today, the church’s understanding of the Eucharist (holy communion) ranges from:
- a memorial (congregational churches) to
- his spiritual presence (liturgical churches) to
- a metabolical embodiment (Roman and some Orthodox churches).
Regardless of what we perceive as the correct understanding of this sacrament, it points us to a greater reality: Christ has died; Christ is risen, and; Christ will come again! Any more or less is tantamount to mixing old wine with the new—an unpalatable concoction. But if we wholeheartedly and regularly come to the Bridegroom’s table and sup with him, our sorrows will soon turn to joy as we deepen our understanding of his grace. And if we choose to fast, our motivation will spring from wanting more time with Jesus.
Prayer: Father God, we are immensely grateful for your Son, the Bridegroom of our worldwide church, who has shed his blood of the New Covenant of Grace for us. Knowing that we can quickly lose sight of the eternal import of Jesus’ sacrifice, would you please provoke us to gather regularly as his body of believers and sup with him and fast to draw near to him and deepen our understanding of his grace? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling