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Questions & Answers > Questions on tricky passages > Old wine and new wine, feasting and fasting

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Question:  I've never understood what it means in the passage about new wine and old wine. Can you explain it?

Graham and Teena's answer:  The "new wine and old wine" passage occurs in Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:18-22 and Luke 5:33-39. All three are very similar except that Luke's account contains one extra (and vital) line which Matthew and Mark don't have, that "No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better'" (Lk 5:39). Therefore we'll look at Luke's account, which says:

"They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.” [In Matthew's account, it is John's disciples who ask this question.]
Jesus answered, “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them;  in those days they will fast.” 
He told them this parable: “No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old.  And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.  No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.  And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ ”  (Lk 5:33-39, NIV)
  
It is curious that John still had disciples after Jesus began his ministry.  John pointed people to Jesus whom he acknowledged as being far more powerful and important (Jn 1:24-36, Mk 1:7-8, Lk 3:15-17);  so most people appropriately went to Jesus instead, and John fully accepted this (Jn 3:24-30).  Nevertheless, it seems there was a group who preferred to stay with John -- and fast and pray in the Pharisaical style -- rather than move on to follow Jesus. John had a tremendous following (Mt 3:5, Mt 21:26) and even to this day there are groups like the Mandaeans who hold to his teachings over Jesus'.  But such people were out of step; they should have followed Jesus instead of continuing forever with John.
  

John's disciples noticed the contrast between their fasting and Jesus' disciples eating and drinking, and asked Jesus why this was.  Jesus answered, “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?  But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them;  in those days they will fast.”  Jesus used an analogy which John the Baptist himself had used -- that Jesus was like a bridegroom and John the Baptist was like the bridegroom's friend who attended him (Jn 3:28-29).  John's disciples would have known this analogy since it came from their own teacher.  So the "bridegroom" represented Jesus and the "guests of the bridegroom" represented Jesus' disciples, which fits with the original question being about the eating behaviour of Jesus' disciples.  Everyone knew that a wedding banquet was a time for celebration and eating and drinking, not for fasting.  In Jewish history, fasting was associated with times of mourning or impending disaster or desperately seeking God when he had turned away from them.  Where Luke has "fast" in this verse, Matthew has "mourn", suggesting they are similar in effect.

Jesus said that a future time would come when the "bridegroom" (Jesus) would be taken away from them, meaning either his death or return to heaven; and that would then be the time for fasting and/or mourning.  Indeed, just before his death Jesus told his disciples that they would mourn for a while because they wouldn't see him (Jn 16:19-20), but then their mourning would turn to joy, meaning at his resurrection and/or at Pentecost.  

So Jesus described two seasons:  the present season of "eating and drinking" while he was with them, and the future season of "fasting" and/or mourning when he would be taken away from them.

He then told them a parable about a patch of new cloth wrecking an old garment instead of matching it, and new wine bursting old wineskins, and how it would be better to put new wine into new wineskins.  The principle common to both is that we need to make a response appropriate to the season.  Otherwise we will spoil the season, and not benefit from it.  The implication is that there was an appropriate response to Jesus being with them, and a different response appropriate to when Jesus was taken away from them, and that they needed to get them right or it would be to their disadvantage.

Each parable refers to "old" and "new", and it is most natural for these to correspond to the two seasons Jesus had just described.  The question is, which corresponds to which?  The answer is given right at the end, but only in Luke: "And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ "  So the "old wine" is the good one, and the "new wine" is undesirable by comparison.  This means that the present season of eating and drinking with Jesus is the better "old wine", and the future season of fasting and mourning when he is taken away from them is the "new wine" which nobody wants.  This goes against our modern way of thinking that "new is better" with our desire for the latest and greatest. However, with wine it is well recognised to this day that older wine is the better wine.  With clothes in that day, new cloth was unshrunk (as Matthew and Mark have it) and so would tend to shrink and pull away with time and washing, so new cloth was less desirable also.

To summarise what the symbols probably mean:  

  • Jesus with disciples = bridegroom with guests = old wine or old garment;  
    the appropriately matched response is an old wineskin or patch of old cloth = eating and drinking (with Jesus).
  • Jesus taken away from his disciples = bridegroom taken away from the guests = new wine or new garment;  
    the appropriately matched response is a new wineskin or patch of new cloth = fasting and mourning (when Jesus was gone).

Churchgoers are often confused by this passage because there is a widespread (but incorrect) church tradition that "new wine" represents the Holy Spirit, and the "old wine" is the Law or Old Testament.  But the passage doesn't mention the Holy Spirit or the Law at all;  it mentions only the bridegroom (Jesus) being with them, or the bridegroom (Jesus) being taken away. The passage gives its own decode for its own symbols.  If we try to equate "new wine" with the Holy Spirit, not only do we have no evidence to support this leap, but we immediately run into the problem that Jesus said that the old wine was better than the new wine, which would be a false statement if we try to equate the old wine with the Law and the new wine with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus was effectively saying to John's disciples, "This is a season for eating and drinking with me, not for fasting and mourning (with John).  The season for fasting and mourning will come when I'm taken away from you -- but it won't be nearly as good."  There was a rebuke implied here -- that John's disciples were not responding appropriately to the season.

It isn't really necessary to work out exactly what each of the 8 elements correspond to (new and old wine, wineskin, garment and patch).  The point is that each season requires a different appropriate response, and it is to our advantage to get this right.  Nevertheless, I'll repeat the passage with the decodes in brackets:

"They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.” [In Matthew's account, it is John's disciples who ask this question.]
Jesus answered, “Can you make the guests [disciples] of the bridegroom [Jesus] fast [and mourn] while he is with them [Jesus is with them]?  But the time will come when the bridegroom [Jesus] will be taken from them [Jesus' death and/or return to heaven];  in those days they will fast [Jesus' disciples will mourn when he dies and leaves them].” 
He told them this parable: “No one tears a patch from a new garment [fasting and mourning] and sews it on an old one [Jesus being with them]. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new [fasting and mourning] will not match the old [it is an inappropriate response to having Jesus with them, and is to their disadvantage].  And no one pours new wine [Jesus taken away from them] into old wineskins [eating and drinking].  If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined [the wrong response will ruin the situation].  No, new wine [Jesus taken away] must be poured into new wineskins [fasting and mourning and praying].  And no one after drinking old wine [Jesus with them] wants the new [Jesus taken away], for he says, ‘The old [Jesus with us] is better.’ ”  (Lk 5:33-39)
  
  
Applications for us today
  
Follow Jesus directly.  John the Baptist's job was to point people to Jesus;  people heard about Jesus through John, but then they needed to move on and follow Jesus.  However, for whatever reasons, some didn't;  they stayed with John as his disciples.  The result was that they were noticeably different from Jesus' disciples.  They were aware of this difference and asked Jesus why it was.  Jesus explained that they were failing to recognise the season and respond appropriately -- and although Jesus didn't explicitly say so, a large part of the reason for that was that they were following John instead of Jesus.
  
The same problem exists today.  The job of every apostle, pope, preacher and pastor is to point others to Jesus -- not to have disciples of his own.  We all need to follow Jesus directly.  This means understanding and applying his teachings in Mt-Jn, and developing our own ability to hear the Holy Spirit.  Unfortunately, many people prefer to camp near a John the Baptist instead -- some strong, charismatic figure who everyone knows has God's authority and is very close to Jesus.  It's easier than striking out and following the more radical and unpredictable Jesus.  So they read the New Testament letters and listen to great Christians, but they shy away from Jesus' own teachings in Mt-Jn;  and then they wonder why they don't have the same characteristics as Jesus' disciples had.  I did the same thing myself for 20 years, following my pastor and the apostle Paul.  In the back of my mind there was a vague niggling awareness that I wasn't like Jesus' disciples in the gospels and acts, but I didn't like to think about it.  Then in 1993 I learned  to study and understand Jesus' teachings for myself, and to hear from the Holy Spirit for myself, and act upon what I heard -- and my life took on a hugely different direction!  And a far better one.
  
Recognise the "season" and respond appropriately, or we'll ruin everything!  If God decides that now is a season of repentance for me, then I need to repent -- not to go out teaching and preaching, which is a different season.  For example, in 1993 God gave me [Graham] some great insights about things in my life I needed to correct, and my first thought was, "Wow, this would make a great sermon to give to other people!" But the Holy Spirit quickly told me, "The only ministry you're fit for is repentance."  That brought me down to earth with a bump!  It was a season of repentance and applying what I was learning to my own life, and I needed to adjust to that.  It was another 18 years before a teaching season came and God asked me to begin teaching that material to others.
  
The most frequent seasonal changes in our own lives (Graham & Teena) are "seeking seasons" and "doing seasons".  If we don't know clearly what God wants us to do next, it is a season to seek him and pray and wait and listen until he tells us what to do -- and this can take days, weeks or even months.  Once the Holy Spirit has told us what to do next, then it is a season to go ahead and do it.  It would obviously be unwise to rush ahead and "do" without knowing what God wants us to do;  and equally unwise to continue to seek and wait after God has told us what to do. But it's amazing how often people miss these seasons and do something else instead, and it generally doesn't work out well.  Typically, we want to avoid or shorten the harder seasons like seeking and repenting;  we want to rush ahead into the more attractive seasons like doing and teaching, before we are ready and God leads us into it.
  
Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of his day for not recognising the season, or the "signs of the times" (Mt 16:1-4).  Israel was defeated and controlled by a foreign power (Rome) which was one of the curses for not keeping the Law (Lev 26:14-17);  if they had been keeping God's commands in the Law, they would have had victory over their enemies (Lev 26:3-8).  This meant that God was not pleased with them and was a very strong indicator that they needed to repent and change their ways.  And if this wasn't clear enough, Jesus came preaching, "Repent!" and performing miraculous signs which demonstrated his authority from God.  It was a season of repentance for Israel.  But they missed it;  they preferred to think it was a season to teach and judge and test others.  They missed the season and responded inappropriately, and the results were disastrous:  they missed the path to eternal life, and Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70AD.
  
Do we know what season we're in?  How do we know?  If we aren't sure, the safest assumption is that this is a season of seeking God and/or repenting. That's not so much fun, I realise, but far better in the long run.  The most effective ways to seek God are by setting aside large chunks of time to spend soaking in the gospels (Mt-Jn), praying, and worship.  Even if we seek God "unnecessarily", he is well able to tell us that it is now time to move on to other things!  But if we assume, "I'm fine and I know what I want to do," we may never find out the things in our lives that need to change and the next steps God would have shown us.