New Wine in Old Bottles
“And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.”
This passage is almost identical with the account given by Matthew in Matthew 9:9-17. Yet, there are slight differences in the two accounts of these events. The differences are no more accidental than the similarities. Though there are no contradictions between Matthew and Mark, the differences in these accounts, light as they are, are instruments by which unbelievers are tripped up and stumble because God has made Christ a stone of stumbling to them. When rebels will not bow to Christ, when they will not believe the Word of God, God gives them that which in their minds justifies their rebellion and unbelief.
The slight differences between the way Matthew tells a thing and the way Mark, or Luke, or John tell the same thing demonstrates the sovereignty and wisdom of God the Holy Spirit. He used these men as instruments in his hand, as a man would use a pen or a typewriter, to write the very words he inspired, exactly as he wanted them written. Yet, he allows the contrasting personalities of those men to shine through their writings.
You have probably read this passage many times, just as I have, passing over the things recorded here very casually. When reading the Word of God, that is always a mistake. The things written here were written by Divine inspiration and written specifically for our edification, consolation, and instruction in the things of God. This brief narrative of a brief segment of our Lord’s earthly life contains five important, spiritual lessons we need to learn and lay to heart. May God the Holy Spirit, who inspired these words, apply them to our hearts by his grace and power, for Christ’s sake.
The first lesson set before us is the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ often calls the most unlikely men to be his servants.
“And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him” (vv. 13-14).
The man called Levi here, and in Luke’s account, is the same person who is called Matthew in the gospel narrative bearing his name. What we have before us is the early history and remarkable conversion and transformation by the grace of God of a base publican named Matthew. This man was transformed in an instant by the almighty, irresistible call of the Son of God. The publican became a disciple, then an Apostle, and an Evangelist, because the Son of God passed his way one day and said, “Levi, Follow me.” Three things should be obvious as we read these two verses.
1. Matthew was called at a specific time. — The Lord Jesus called him “as he passed by.” Salvation comes to chosen redeemed sinners at the appointed “time of love,” when he comes to them in grace (Ezekiel 16:6-8).
2. This was the call of a specific person. — Levi, Matthew, a publican, a tax collector. This is one of the many illustrations of our Savior’s sovereign, distinguishing grace. He passed by the Scribes and Pharisees, leaving them to themselves, and called Matthew. Matthew was not seeking the Lord. He was sought of the Lord.
3. The call of Christ to Matthew was an irresistible, effectual call. — The Master said, “Follow me…And he arose and followed him!” So it is “that the purpose of God, according to election, might stand; not of works, but of him that calleth… So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Romans 9:11-16).
Matthew, Mary Magdalene, the thief on the cross, and multitudes of others have found Christ who sought him not (Isaiah 65:1), while “Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded” (Romans 11:7). Every saved sinner, like Matthew, is a trophy of God’s distinguishing grace. We should never despair of anyone’s salvation. Our Lord can take a money loving CPA, like Matthew, and make him a saint and an evangelist by the mere call of his almighty, irresistible grace. We never know who is elected, until they are called. And once they are called, God’s elect are usually surprising (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Next, in verses 15-17 we see that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Great Physician of sin-sick souls.
“And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
The Scribes and Pharisees were highly offended by the fact that the Lord Jesus was comfortable in the company of publicans and sinners, and that they were comfortable in his company. The murmuring of the Pharisees is exactly what we might expect from them. It is the identifying mark of Pharisees in all ages. When the Lord Jesus heard the report of their insinuating gossip, he told them plainly that he had come into the world specifically to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15; Matthew 1:21). Robert Hawker wrote…
“As Jesus opened Matthew’s heart to receive him, Matthew opens his house to welcome Jesus. Neither is this all. For as this one Publican had found mercy from the Lord, Matthew invited other Publicans to come and find mercy also. There is enough in Christ for all. What a lovely view to behold the Great Redeemer, encircled at Matthew’s table, with Publicans and Sinners!”
The very character of Christ, the Great Physician, led him to the place where sin-sick souls were found, that he might exercise his healing power upon them. Our Savior’s name is Jehovah-rophe, “the Lord that healeth thee” (Exodus 15:26).
Our Lord Jesus performed many mighty miracles on the bodies of men. And I have no doubt that he still does. I know what it is to experience his marvelous intervention, when medical help seems futile. Yet, his miracles of mercy, love, and grace were and still are indescribably more glorious. The bodies he healed were soon to sicken again and die. But the souls he heals are healed forever. The physical healings were intended only to demonstrate that he has the right and the power to heal the soul and save his people.
Our great and glorious Savior saves sinners by three mighty acts of free and sovereign grace, which he alone can perform: by blood redemption, by sovereign regeneration, and, ultimately, by glorious resurrection. And he heals every sin-sick soul that comes to him for healing (Luke 9:11). No sinner ever came to the Son of God for mercy who did not obtain mercy. How encouraging that ought to be to poor, lost sinners!
The question of John the Baptist’s disciples (v. 18) about fasting illustrates a third lesson we need to learn. — Sometimes true believers become sidetracked and confused by meaningless things and fall under the influence of religious hypocrites. — “And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?”
Christ’s sheep will not follow a stranger (John 10:5). God’s saints have an unction from the Holy One and cannot be deceived with regard to the gospel (1 John 2:17, 27). Still God’s saints in this world are only frail, fickle, sinful men and women of flesh and blood. They often fall under the influence of wicked men, thinking that they are doing good. Sometimes by bad influence from people they think are sincere, they get sidetracked by meaningless issues. That is exactly what happened here with John’s disciples. They got to listening to the Pharisees, with whom they had in common the practice of religious, ceremonial fasting. Ignoring the indescribably greater issues of redemption, grace, and forgiveness, they joined the Pharisees, carping and criticizing the Lord Jesus and his disciples because they did not fast.
Let no one be mistaken. — John’s disciples were true believers (John 1:29-37). They are called John’s disciples simply because it was John the Baptist who had instructed them in the gospel of Christ. Yet, these true disciples, men who were taught by a faithful man, fell under the influence of the Pharisees and erred greatly, both in doctrine and in practice. These believing men fell into the horribly evil tendency of our proud nature. They set themselves up as the judges of others, making themselves the standard of righteousness and true godliness. The fasts they kept were fasts of their own appointing. Yet, they considered them acts of godliness, and looked upon our Lord’s disciples as behaving in an ungodly way because they did not observe their fasts. How sad. Yet, how common such behavior is among true believers. The 14th chapter of Romans was written specifically for such believers.
How sad it is to see brethren fighting against brethren, as though they are enemies. God save us from such evil.
The fourth thing set before us in verses 19 and 20 is the blessed fact that the Lord Jesus Christ is our Bridegroom and we are his chosen bride.
“And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.”
How sweet it is to see the Lord Jesus taking up the cause of his disciples, defending his beloved bride from the accusations raised against her. That is exactly what he does for us still at the Father’s right hand as our Advocate in heaven (1 John 2:1-2).
As I have shown, John’s disciples were his disciples, too. They were as much a part of the bride (the church) as the others. In their weakness, and without the guidance of their pastor who had been imprisoned, they were seduced with the leaven of the Pharisees. And in their weakness and fault, the Lord Jesus here deals with them gently, giving us an example to follow. At the same time, he defends those who were accused by them.
What the bridegroom is to the bride, Christ is to his people. He loves us with an everlasting love. He has taken us into union with himself. We are one with him, “For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Ephesians 5:30). He paid all our debt. He supplies all our needs. He sympathizes with us in all our troubles. He bears all our infirmities, forgives all our sins, and supplies us with grace sufficient to make up for all our weaknesses. The glory he has received from his Father, he has given to us. And where he is, there we shall soon be. These are the privileges of all believers. We are the Lamb’s wife (Revelation 19:7). God has joined our poor, sinful souls to Christ as our precious Husband. And those whom God has joined together with his Son shall never be put asunder.
The disciples of John the Baptist, like their leader, were ascetics. Like the Pharisees, they kept many religious fasts. Apparently, they had been scandalized by their association with Christ and his disciples, who were seen at the feast in Matthew’s house and did not fast. Therefore, they raised the question, with the Pharisees, “Why do thy disciples fast not?”
The Lord Jesus gently answers by declaring that he is “the Bridegroom” who had come to his bride. He said, “As long as I am with my bride she cannot fast.” He is the Bridegroom of whom Solomon sang. Why should we fast while he is near? The marriage of the bride and Bridegroom is a time for feasting and rejoicing. John had taught his disciples this (John 3:29). The Bridegroom rejoices over the bride (Isaiah 62:5), and his rejoicing over her causes her to rejoice in him.
But the Lord Jesus would soon be separated from his bride. He said, “The Bridegroom shall be taken away from them.” No doubt, he was talking about his death. When their Beloved was gone, then his disciples would fast. And that is exactly what happened. What sorrows fell upon them after the Savior’s crucifixion! C. H. Spurgeon wrote, “It is the same with us. Our Lord is our joy: his presence makes our banquet, his absence is our fast, black and bitter.” All ritualistic, ceremonial fasting is the husk that swine eat.
Our Lord Jesus is not teaching us here that we ought to practice fasting. The reality of fasting is known only to the children of the bridechamber when their Lord’s presence is not known. Religious people, like the Pharisees, talk a good bit about fasting, though they know nothing about it. Our Lord Jesus intends for us to understand the mere abstinence from food is not a fasting of the soul before God. — “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). — “Meat commendeth us not to God, for neither if we eat are we the better, neither if we eat not are we the worse” (1 Corinthians 8:8).
It is an astonishing indication of the pride and corruption of our sinful hearts and vile nature that inclines us (as is so constantly the case) to substitute physical acts in the place of vital godliness and heart worship. This inclination is strong among all the fallen sons and daughters of Adam, because that which we do gratifies the flesh. Our proud flesh will bring anything to God but Christ, trust anything but Christ, and find consolation and hope in anything but Christ. To trust the person, work, and finished salvation of the Lord Jesus none will ever do, except those who are taught of God the Holy Spirit and made willing to do so by the power of his grace. All outward shows of godliness, devotion, and spirituality the Spirit of God declares are nothing but “a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting the body” (Colossians 2:23). Instead of directing us to Christ, they lead us away from him into everlasting ruin (Colossians 2:16-23).
In times of great strain and trial, Moses, Elijah, and the Lord Jesus all fasted. But with the Pharisees fasting had become a common, publicly advertised ceremony. It was an outward show of holiness, piety, and devotion. John’s disciples seem to have placed great emphasis upon this religious custom. But our Lord always dealt with it as an insignificant thing and insisted that when men do fast they must do so in utter privacy (Matthew 6:16-18). We are never to make a show of religion!
The fifth lesson is found in the parable given by our Lord in verses 21 and 22. In spiritual matters we must never attempt to mix things that differ. We must never put new wine in old bottles.
“No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.”
Our Savior delivered this parable in response to the question raised by John’s disciples and the Pharisees about fasting. It may have been proper, our Lord says to John’s disciples, for the friend of the Bridegroom and his disciples to fast. But to require the Bridegroom and his disciples to fast was as ludicrous as sewing a piece of new cloth in an old garment, or putting new wine into old bottles or wineskins.
Actually the parables here given were simply proverbial sayings that may be applied to many things. But essentially their meaning is simply this: — We must never try to mix things that do not mix. Many great evils that have arisen in the church could have been avoided if the lesson of these parables had simply been heeded. And many of the evils exiting in the church today could be corrected if this lesson was followed.
In spiritual matters we must never attempt to mix things that differ. Just as under the Mosaic law the mixture of linen and wool and the plowing of an ox and an ass together were prohibited, so in this age, we cannot mix and must never try to mix law and grace, flesh and spirit, Christ and the world, or carnal ordinances with spiritual worship.
The problem at Galatia was that they tried to put the old wine of Mosaic laws and ceremonies into the new bottle of grace. The Judaizers at Galatia tried to mix Judaism and Christianity. They tried to hold both to the law and the gospel. They wanted both Moses and Christ. They tried to mix physical circumcision with spiritual circumcision. Such mixture can never take place. Either we are under the law, or we are free from the law. It cannot be both (Galatians 5:1, 2, 4).
In the early church many tried to mix the philosophies and religious customs of a pagan world with the gospel of Christ, just as they do today. Nothing is new under the sun. In the earliest days after the apostles, and even while the apostles were living there were those who attempted to make the gospel palatable to the world by mixing the religious customs, traditions, and opinions of paganism with the gospel of Christ. The result was disastrous then and shall be now. In those days compromise paved the road to Romanism. Today men are laying the road back to Romanism as fast as possible. We simply cannot mix flesh and spirit or works and grace in the worship and service of our God. — “For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). We cannot worship God in the Spirit while kneeling before crosses and pieces of idolatry. We cannot rest in Christ as our Sabbath while observing sabbath days.
Many professing Christians today constantly attempt to stitch Christ and the world together. How many there are who seem determined to prove our Lord wrong, who try to serve both God and mammon. They wear the name of Christ in profession, but serve the world. They want to enjoy the new wine of Christ, but they want to drink it from the old bottle of the world. They will not utterly despise the new garment of discipleship, but they want it without cost or cross. So they try to sew it to the old garments of pleasures, covetousness, and love of the world. They will find one day soon that they have attempted that which cannot be done.
How fond fallen humanity is of carnal religion and religious rituals! Fallen man will substitute anything for Christ. He prefers anything to real godliness. Ceremonial fasts, benevolent alms for the poor, and costly religious ceremonies are things dearly loved by our fallen nature. Man looks to them, performs them, and vigorously defends them, because these are the things trusted by men for pardon, peace, and acceptance with God. But they are all as damning to those who trust them as the blasphemies of the most abominable reprobate.
Religious ceremony is nothing but the dressing of the old creature in a new piece of cloth, not the renewing of the Holy Ghost. Our Savior used these two parabolic statements to show the folly of such. You may sew new cloth into an old garment, but the two will never become one. The new will soon rip away from the old, and the rip will be an obvious gaping whole. If (as in the days when wine was stored in bottles made from animal skins) you put new wine into an old wineskin, the fermenting wine will soon burst the old wineskin.
“In cases where the outward ministry of the word is heard and received into the old unrenewed heart of the Adam-nature, as the fermentation of new wine burst the old dried skins into which it is put, so men, unrenewed by the Holy Ghost, will burst with hatred, both against Christ and his people. Perhaps no hatred is equal to that which the carnal mind fosters against the people of God. And not simply the carnal, but the professor, in whose heart no saving work of grace hath been wrought. It is painful to flesh and blood, sometimes, to meet the malice of the ungodly and openly avowed profane. But the professors of godliness, in the Pharisees and self-righteous, under the cover of sanctity, comes with deeper malignity.” (Robert Hawker)
Our Lord’s doctrine is just this. — The new robe of Christ’s perfect righteousness cannot be patched to our filthy rags; and the new wine of the gospel cannot be held in the old wineskin of our fallen nature. But when God the Holy Spirit makes us new creatures in regeneration, when he makes all things new in the experience of saving grace, Christ’s righteousness is made to us a completely new robe of salvation; and the blood of Christ poured into our souls as the new wine of grace makes glad the heart of man (Psalm 104:15; Isaiah 61:10).
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