Some of the sharpest theological divisions among the people of God stem from disagreements in how we understand the continuity and discontinuity in the plan of God. Leaving aside those aberrant groups that assume the dietary laws and other trappings of the Mosaic economy are still in force today, there is much disagreement between various groups of believers who emphasize either continuity or discontinuity.
While this week’s text is not a study in dispensationalism vs. covenant theology (much less an examination of the various mediating positions that have been advocated over the years), it is helpful to realize that our Lord’s point to His opponents did revolve around the issue of continuity vs. discontinuity, and how that applied to our walk with Him and His work in the gospel.
Moreover, it is also an examination of how people often add to the Word of God—not by making inferences from the text and understanding the world around them, then applying that text to changing situations as the standard God has for them, which is simply biblical Christianity, but rather with their own fallen thinking and reasoning. There are many reasons for this, but on one level or another they boil down to pride and an unwillingness to let the Word of God have the final say in the affections, thinking, and life.
With that said, let’s look at today’s passage and see the glorious newness that has come about in Christ—and our responsibility to conform to it, rather than trying to drag the old ways into His glorious new day.
A. The Critical Question (v. 18)
Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish leadership is escalating. The true anointed King has come to inspect His nation and take over, and this is not agreeable to the men who have asserted themselves as judges over the nation and the Word of God. We have already seen them reasoning in their hearts (2:6-7), then querying the disciples (2:16); now, they are addressing their criticism directly to the Lord Jesus. They have formed a negative and contentious opinion of Him throughout the last months, and now it is getting to the point where they feel the need to critique Him openly.
What is the point of contention? That the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees fast, but Jesus and His disciples do not. By Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had created an elaborate and overwhelming system of legalistic externalism—rules which one had to observe to be considered a good, observant Jew, even if they were at best applications of the Torah (and applications, though authoritative, must always be held loosely since circumstances and needs change). Indeed, the Pharisees had so perfected their system that they were not only more committed to it than the Scripture (and willing to contradict the plain meaning of Scripture to keep their system), but they felt that by observing it, rather than the hard standard of holiness revealed by God (one achievable only by looking away from oneself and casting oneself on the sheer mercy of God to begin with!), they were actually quite impressive to God and affirmed by Him.
A major part of this traditional externalism was regular fasting. While the OT commanded only one period of required fasting—on the Day of Atonement, to outwardly express symbolize inward humility and repentance—the Pharisees required fasting twice weekly. This was one way in which their legalism and self-righteousness found practical expression. To not fast would have been a scandal.
Of course, our Lord did not confuse the human tradition of the Pharisees with the inerrant Word of the living God. And we must realize there is nothing wrong with tradition—indeed, tradition is a good thing! None of us invents the system of faith and practice on our own; we are indebted to Christian tradition to help us know the boundaries of the faith, how the great doctrines have been rightly articulated and distinguished from heresy, and how to apply God’s commands to our lives in life-giving ways. The problem is not tradition in itself, but tradition that is allowed to contradict Scripture, or is seen as a source of revelation. The Word must always be paramount. Once we cleave to our tradition over the Scripture, we have become Pharisees.
That John’s disciples fasted along with the Pharisees need not be seen as some overt criticism of them. Eve godly, saved Jews would have followed many of these commands, and when done out of a sincere, humble heart it should not be equated with the self-righteous, prideful externalism of the Jewish leadership.
B. The Corrective Response (vv. 19-22)
Jesus answers their question as He often does: bringing the discussion back to the central issues of the Word of God and His person and work. Indeed, His answer not only does not apologize for His rejection of their externalism, but implies they—the most religious, devout people of their day—are not aligned with the saving purposes of God!
Jesus draws an analogy from the culture of that day: A wedding was a massive event, lasting a whole week, and was the kind of event you missed only if you were deathly ill or wanted to commit social suicide. During this kind of celebratory event, it would be unthinkable, indeed, offensive, for someone to fast (as fasting was commonly associated with mourning, repentance, and seasons of great spiritual need). Jesus’ point is clear: Why should His people fast when He is present and active among them? The kingdom has come initially in the person of Christ. It is the time of fulfillment of promises. God is active. This is a time of great joy and gladness! Fasting is not fitting for what God is doing in Christ.
Of course, there will come a time when the disciples fast: when the bridegroom is taken away! “Taken away” refers to a violent removal. This is obviously a reference to the crucifixion. In that day of mourning, His people will fast. But not now, while He is here. And arguably, while Jesus appears to expect His people to fast in this age (e.g., Matthew 6:16-17), it need not characterize us given that He is yet active and present among us as king and will soon return to complete His assured promises. Jesus does not oppose fasting, but rather the elevation of it or any other practice to an externalistic legalism that contradicts and undermines the Word of God!
Jesus then illustrates what He is saying with two parables. The point of all He has said, and will say, is not really about fasting. Fasting is merely the gateway into a larger issue. First, He says, you don’t sew a new, unshrunken patch of cloth onto an old garment. This would have had great relevance in their day. There were no synthetics in the ancient world, so it was common for clothes to shrink as they were washed and worn. In order to be consistent with the pull of the old fabric, a shrunken piece of cloth would have to be the patch. An unshrunken one would pull wrongly against the garment and cause an even greater tear.
Secondly, Jesus says that one does not put new wine into old wineskins. As wine fermented, gasses would build up and stretch the wineskin, eventually beyond use for anything except old wine, which had already fermented. If you put new, unfermented wine in the old skin, the skin would burst as the gas built up.
The point is clear. Jesus is drawing an analogy between the old way of doing things (which I take to be both the religion of Judaism in particular and the sinful things that come with out fallenness in general) and the new that has dawned in Himself. The two cannot be mixed without great disaster and detriment. Jesus isn’t talking about fasting. He’s talking about the whole legalistic, self-righteous, ugly system that at the moment is manifesting itself in fasting. The whole thing must be eradicated. Even the legitimate ceremonial and other laws have been fulfilled in the person and work of Christ. How much more quickly ought we to abandon the ugly self-righteous things that contradicted the authority of the Word of God?
Ultimately, Jesus is making a point about the transformative nature and exclusivity of the new covenant. There is an absolute line of demarcation between the way of God and the way of man! Like the rich young ruler, these Jewish leaders loved something more than God—in this case, their prideful externalism. The new covenant and kingdom Jesus brings is entirely exclusive—you must leave behind everything contrary to the will of God. (Of course, this is worked out over progressive sanctification and many years, but the principle of surrender is established at conversion.) You can either have Jesus, or your fallen human thinking that sits as judge over the holy text. You may not do both!
The new covenant is also transformative. It does not just transform people, through it starts there. The bridegroom and new wine imagery is eschatological. One day, the bridegroom will come back. He will restore Israel to Himself in her land as an everlasting possession. The blessing she enjoys will overflow to all the nations, who will worship the Lord God together in a renewed, glorious environment where everywhere we turn will be an occasion for thanksgiving and worship. And the Lord Himself promises us He will serve us a banquet (the Marriage Supper of the Lamb?) with aged wine, the finest of wines (Isaiah 25:6). A new world, in a mortal kingdom for a thousand years, then fully immortal and resurrected forever and ever, is coming. It is certain. Only those who have come under the new covenant in this life will be in that world; only those who participate in the “already” will be there for the “not yet.”
As mentioned above, the true king has come, and He has come to take over. Throughout the gospels, He consistently asserts His authority as God and king over again the usurped, prideful autonomy of men who, with Adam and Satan, say “I will not serve Him.” Here, the king denotes the exclusivity between His way and that of every other way. The old era in redemptive history has ended; the time of redemption has dawned. Will you side with the Lord Jesus against your flesh and seek to serve Him alone in the glorious bonds of His new covenant? Eternity hangs on your decision. May God keep us faithful until the day we see Jesus Christ!