***image from https://davedi.com/annual-grape-stomping-celebration-2017/
“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.'” — Mark 2:18-22, ESV
Leave it to religion to try to force its adherents to conform to a system of rules and regulations at the cost of vitality, power, and effectiveness. John’s disciples and the Pharisees knew only one structure, the Old Covenant, so I’m going to cut them some slack. They questioned Jesus about why He and His disciples weren’t observing the traditional fasts. I guess I understand their curiosity. Here’s this Teacher sent from God, whom John had just baptized, and whose divinity was attested to by the “heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (Mark 1:10 ESV) and the voice of God from Heaven (Mark 1:11). “If He is from God, why isn’t he doing the things we’ve been taught to do for hundreds of years???”
His disciples weren’t fasting, Jesus explained, because they haven’t yet been made new. He called Himself the bridegroom, and foretold not only His death, but also His future relationship to the Church, those made new by faith in His substitutionary death and resurrection (although he hasn’t yet referenced His resurrection).
Jesus uses two word pictures to explain the whole bridegroom statement, and in so doing He begins to lay the foundation for the New Covenant. Both word pictures carry the same meaning, so we’ll only look at the second one: new wine and old wineskins.
“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” Being so extensively rooted in the Old Covenant and the traditions of the Jewish elders, John (the son of a Jewish priest), his disciples, and the Pharisees were old wineskins. Jesus was trying to help them understand that their religious minds were not yet ready to accept “new wineskin” faith.
For them to be told that they could find acceptance with God, and forgiveness, without keeping the Law, would not only have been too much to handle, but had they tried to live apart from the Law their faith would be destroyed. A new wineskin is one that hasn’t yet been stretched. An old wineskin is one which has been stretched to its maximum capacity and lacks any further ability to stretch. The Old Covenant was rigid in its expectations of its adherents. Each was expected to conform not only to the commandments, but also to the traditions.
When wine is made, it goes through a process of fermentation. “New wine” is grape juice that has had yeast added to it. When the two are combined the yeast reacts with the sugar in the grape juice and releases carbon dioxide. In Jesus’ time, new wine was put in new wineskins because the new wineskins had the ability to stretch, creating room for the carbon dioxide. Once the fermentation process was complete the wine was stable. Then the aging process can begin. This is when the wine is bottled today.
The New Wine of God’s grace through Jesus would expand in an “old wineskin”, causing it to burst. The grace would wasted and the person destroyed. Paul spoke about the need for people to become new creations. “For neither circumcision (being Jewish) counts for anything, nor uncircumcision (being Gentile), but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15 ESV parentheticals and italics mine).
Jesus told Nicodemus, a Pharisee, that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Then, after His resurrection and before His ascension, He told the disciples, who had put their faith in the resurrected Christ, to wait for promise of the Holy Spirit before they do anything else (Acts 1:4-5). New Wine in new wineskins!
Paul further taught, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20 ESV). God fills us with New Wine so that we can share the Good News with the world! As new creations, new wineskins, we are able, through the Holy Spirit, to bear the pressures of our own “fermentation process,” our maturation in Christ, and spread the “message of reconciliation” without fear of bursting and losing both the New Wine and the wineskin.
It’s so easy for us to spend our entire Christian walk following the traditions of whatever church denomination to which we belong. We receive some type of assurance that all is well with our souls when we attend church regularly (or should I say religiously?!), partake of the sacraments of baptism and communion (and perhaps others, depending on your denomination), observe all the church holidays and put some money in the offering plate. But we need to be careful that we are not becoming old wineskins, rigid and unteachable, unable to serve as vessels of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:5b-6 ESV).