Old and New Wineskins

(Mark 2:18-22)

In this section of scripture the people approach Jesus over fasting. The disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees promoted fasting, but Jesus disciples were not fasting. I have already covered the issue of fasting in an earlier post, which you can read here. So in this post I will focus on the following teaching, which was to do with old and new wineskins.

Jesus taught the people that you cannot put new wine into old wineskins as the skins will burst and the wine and skins will be lost. When wine is first made and stored it goes through a fermentation process. Gases are produced which expand and thus the containers must either be able to withstand this pressure or be flexible enough to expand with the gases produced. Old wineskins have already been through this expansion process when they were first filled and so they are no longer as flexible as new skins. Thus new wine is not put into old wineskins so that neither the skins nor the wine will be lost. The new wine needs to also remain in the skins for a period of time to go through the fermentation and maturing process to age it so it develops its flavour. New wine often does not taste as good as old wine for it has not developed (although I take this on advice from others as I do not drink wine or other alcoholic drinks).

Now Jesus uses this analogy of old and new wineskins to speak about the receiving of the old and new covenants. The people are the wineskins and the covenants are the old and new wine. He shows that it is very difficult to teach a person who is steeped in the old covenant the matters pertaining to the new covenant. In fact the two should not be mixed as they do not exist together and a person trying to live under both covenants at the same time will struggle.
The Old Covenant is based upon bondage under law and condemnation for sin. It also required the keeping of many days, feasts and fasting. But the New Covenant is about freedom from law and release from sin and does not require the keeping of feasts, days and fasts as required under the law, which Paul showed saying, “You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!” (Galatians 4:10) When the New Covenant came, the Old Covenant is ready to be obsolete as the writer of Hebrews says, “In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13) And also, “…then he added, “Lo, I have come to do thy will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.” (Hebrews 10:9)

Paul also shows us that to try to live under both covenants is like living in adultery. He said in Romans 7:1-3 that a married woman cannot live with another man while her first husband is alive or she will be committing adultery. But if the husband dies she can remarry anyone she chooses. Then in the next verse he shows us that this is the same for Christians moving from the old to the New Covenant. He says, “Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:4) So we too are set free from the law through the death of Christ so that we can leave the Old Covenant behind and come and belong to the new risen Christ not under the law of the Old Covenant, but under the teachings of Jesus in obedience to the Father under the New Covenant.

For those brought up under the Old Covenant it is very hard to make this change. Paul himself who had the teachings of the Old Covenant deeply ingrained into him as he was a Pharisee showed he had great difficulty in his walk to God in Jesus Christ. He had to account all things of his former life and the teachings he had been taught as garbage because of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. (Philippians 3:8)

But as we see in Paul’s case, it is possible that a person brought up in the Old Covenant ways can make the change to the New Covenant. Even though old wineskins may burst when filled with new wine, nothing is impossible for the Lord. He can shore up the old wineskins and make them flexible and receptive to the new teachings of the New Covenant, but even so it will be difficult for a person who is steeped in the old teachings.

Fasting in the New Covenant

(Matthew 9:14-17)

Jesus is approached by the disciples of John the Baptist and asked why his disciples did not fast like they and the Pharisees did. Jesus then used this teaching to show that the New Covenant was a new teaching and fasting under the New Covenant was quite a different matter to the Old Covenant.

Fasting in the Old Covenant was a process employed for many reasons. There were four appointed fasts under the law of Moses that were strictly applied as well as a fifth fast that was less strictly applied. Typically fasting was a form of abstinence, usually from food or drink, for a period of time. Fasting was also not an end in itself, but was a purpose or means to an end. Often fasting was seen in the Old Testament as a mechanism for a person to draw near to God for a specific purpose. As an example we saw King David fast to come before God in the hope that God would heal his child and prevent his death. (2 Samuel 12:13-23) Esther also proclaimed a three day fast among the Jewish people to come before the Lord on her behalf before she went in to approach the King on behalf of the Jews. (Esther 4:10-17) There are other examples, but the key to these fasts, both individual and of the whole community, were that the fasts were targeted towards a specific purpose and to seek out God.

In addition to the appointed fasts, there was also a practice of personal fasting when an individual would abstain from food or some other pleasure so as to come before God. They would fast and bring their prayers to the Lord during the period of fasting. The practice of fasting twice a week arose and became a custom although there was no scriptural basis for this practice in either the Old or New Covenants.

Fasting in the New Covenant is only occasionally mentioned and does not appear to be a strict condition or requirement under the New Covenant, unlike the appointed fasts ordained in the law under the Old Covenant. A problem had arisen in the practice of fasting in the New Covenant period as Jesus mentioned this in several of his teachings. We see in Matthew 6:16-18 that some people would disfigure their faces and look dismal when they fasted so that people would see their situation and perhaps commend their abstinence or look upon them as being pious. Rather, Jesus counselled that they should clean themselves up when fasting so no-one knew of their fast so that when they brought their petition before God they would receive their commendation from Him and hopefully gain the answer to their prayers. We see Jesus also upbraided the Pharisees who saw themselves as better than other people for they fasted twice a week (Luke 18:9-14). But in this case the Pharisees were fasting as an end in itself. They fasted so that they could look good before others rather than trying to draw closer to God. Indeed the Pharisees on numerous occasions were upbraided by Jesus for doing the works of the law without applying the wisdom, justice, mercy and truth of the law. Their fasts were not to come closer to God but were done to look pious or religious in front of the people. It was a mark of their pride, arrogance and hypocrisy which Jesus disdained.

Now in this teaching back in Matthew 9:14-17 we see also that Jesus was showing that these were new teachings he was giving. Indeed he was teaching the New Covenant although at that time few would have been aware of this matter. And he showed that there was a challenge in giving this teaching for it involved a significant change. Humans as a species typically resist change because it requires effort and leads to the unknown. He gave two examples saying that you don’t put a new patch of unshrunk cloth into a garment that is already washed and old, and you don’t put new wine into old wineskins. In both cases if you do, more damage is done to both parts of the change. The wineskins are destroyed and the wine is lost and the patch shrinks and tears making a worse hole in the garment that was being repaired.

The old wineskins and the old garment in his examples are the people who have received the Old Covenant teachings. They are comfortable with the teachings and accepting of what they understand. The new wine and the new cloth patch represent the New Covenant teachings that Jesus was teaching the people. He was saying that to try and put these New Covenant teachings into the old people would be difficult and could even be damaging to them. The apostle Paul in his letters shows the anguish and heartache he went through in his walk as he had to reject the old Pharisee teachings he was steeped in from a young age, so that he could accept the New Covenant teaching he was receiving from Christ through the Holy Spirit. So it is possible to replace the old teachings, but Jesus was showing it would not be without difficulty and in some cases loss. In many cases it is better to leave the old people with their teachings and to seek new people to learn the new.

And so with fasting in the New Covenant, Jesus was saying that this is a new teaching too. Although it was mandated in the Old Covenant it is not as important in the New Covenant. The purpose of fasting in the Old Covenant was to come before God, but in the New Covenant we have direct access to God in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said that he would be with us until the end of the age and we have access to him even today. The Holy Spirit he has given us has direct access to the Father to petition on our behalf, so we do not have the same need for fasting today as in former times.

The true fast that God sought from man was not an abstinence from food but rather to abstain from evil and to do good as shown in Isaiah 58:1-9. The fasts the Pharisees held were a sham but the true fast is consistent with the teachings that Jesus gave. There are times in the New Covenant where people did fast, however whether these are necessary now is questionable as we now have access to God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit directly. I would not suggest they either are or are not necessary and for the most part it is an individual matter. However they are not mandated in the New Covenant as they were under the Old Covenant.

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