New Wine Into New Wine Skins

Ordinary 8B

Mark 2: 18 22


We are reminded in R. Alan Cole's Tyndale Commentary, "Mark", that John the Baptist and his disciples were "meticulous in keeping the ceremonial law". No one denied this: not even the Pharisees when they interacted aggressively with Jesus. John was a "bastion of orthodox Judaism". This is especially important to understand since several of the disciples of Jesus had come from John's followers, and when called to become apostles, brought with them a strictly orthodox background. This was the reason the group of questioners (especially John's disciples), were puzzled by Jesus' apparent lack of respect.

They were puzzled that the disciples of Jesus appeared soft and lax; at least not very fervent. The Law of Moses did not require regular weekly fasting but by the first century A.D. this had become an established practice of the devout Jews. (This passed over into Christianity which altered the actual days but retained the practice which is still in place today.)

The attitude of Jesus to fasting quickly became a test case as to whether this young rabbi was rejecting the traditions of the elders. In our short text, Jesus is challenged sincerely by deeply religious people who wanted to know. Without in any way demeaning John the Baptist, our Lord answers his interrogators in a way which forces them to ask much deeper questions about him.

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 18

Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, "How is it that John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?"

Whether or not the people who asked the question were John's disciples, they didn't elaborate on the fact that although both groups were fasting, they were most likely doing so for different reasons. The Pharisees fasted voluntarily on Monday and Thursday each week as an expression of piety and self-consecration. (Lane). John's disciples may have been fasting as an expression of mourning for the imprisonment of their master; or, perhaps even more likely, as an expression of repentance to hasten the time of redemption. (Lane) Our Lord seems to be aware of their motive in asking the question, and uses the moment of opportunity to advance some teaching. He is gentle, however, as his questioners may have been, or included, disciples of John (see Matthew 9: 14). If this were so, they would have sincerely wondered why Jesus was not also fasting.

In reply, Our Lord used three illustrations, all of them going to establish the same thing, that we should observe a fitness and a propriety in things.

The remainder of the text records these three examples.

Verses 19 and 20

Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast."

This first illustration would have puzzled more than a few onlookers. Nowhere in the Old Testament was the Messiah represented as a bridegroom. This means that no one present would have interpreted at that time our Lord's words as a Messianic reference. That came later. (Lane).

Albert Barnes (mid 19th Century) explained it like this:

The children of the bride-chamber - that is, the bridemen, or men who had the special care of the bridal chamber, and who were therefore his special friends — do not think of fasting while he is with them. With them it is a time of festivity and rejoicing; and mourning would not be appropriate. When he is removed, or taken away, then their festivity will be ended, and then will be the proper time of sorrow. So, says he, John, your friend and teacher, is in captivity. With you it is a time of deep grief, and it is fit that you should fast. I am with my disciples. It is, with them, a time of joy. It is not fit that they should use the tokens of grief, and fast now. When I am taken away, it will then be proper that they should fast.

Verse 21

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse."

We call on Albert Barnes again:

A second illustration was drawn from a well-known fact, showing also that there was a propriety or fitness of things. None of you says he, in mending an old garment, would take a piece of entire new cloth.

There would be a waste in it. An old piece, or a piece like the garment, would be better. The word here translated new, in the original means rude, undressed, or not fulled or cleansed by the cloth-dresser. In this state, if applied to an old garment, and if wet, it would contract and draw off a part of the garment to which it was attached, and thus make the rent worse than it was. So, says he, my new doctrines do not match with the old rites of the Pharisees. There is a fitness of things.

Verse 22

"And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins."

Thanks to Albert Barnes, we have the following:

The third illustration was taken from wine put into bottles. Bottles, in eastern nations, were made, and are still, of skins of beast. Generally the skin was taken entire from a sheep or a goat, and, properly prepared, was filled with wine or water. They are still used, because, in crossing deserts of sand, they have no other conveyances but camels, or other beasts of burden. It would be difficult for them to carry glass bottles or kegs on them. They therefore fill two skins, and fasten them together, and lay them across the back of a camel, and thus carry wine or water to a great distance. They were of course of different sizes, as the skins of kids, goats, or oxen might be used. Bruce describes particularly a bottle which he saw in Arabia, made in this manner, of an ox-skin, which would hold sixty gallons, and two of which were a load for a camel.

By long usage, however, they of course became tender, and would be easily ruptured. New wine put into them would ferment, and swell and burst them open. New skins or bottles would yield to the fermenting wine, and be strong enough to hold it from bursting. So, says Christ, there is a fitness or propriety of things. It is not fit that my doctrine should be attached to, or connected with, the old and corrupt doctrines of the Pharisees.

New things should be put together, and made to match.


In this wonderful reading we witness a very beautiful moment in the public ministry of Jesus. It is unique, yet not unlike a few other accounts of how he takes his listeners through the transition from the Old Dispensation, into the New. These few verses show how he can be so very incisive and yet ever sensitive, respectful, and affirming.

As we have noted, the audience around Jesus on this occasion was probably a mixture of adherents to the Pharisees, some disciples of John the Baptist, and some of our Lord's own disciples. It does not matter that we do not know for certain. What is of special interest is that he chooses to impart a message for each of these groups which he intends the others to hear and ponder.

The disciples of John the Baptist knew that their Master had prepared the way for, and pointed to the Lamb of God. They were instructed by a great prophet who taught them about the Messiah who had come into their presence. They were therefore among those who wondered why Jesus did not seem to be conforming to orthodox Jewish practice. It is obvious Jesus was sympathetic to their situation and understands their sincere bewilderment. He loves them for their loyalty to John and to their Faith. However, this is the moment of truth which cannot be sidestepped, and Jesus demonstrates how he can honour the Old Covenant and at the same time lead in the New.

In the first parable, verses 19 and 20, Jesus implies that it is right for John's disciples to be fasting, whether in mourning for their Master, or as an act of penance. And then, lovingly, he gives a most unexpected response, implying that while he is present with his disciples, fasting is not appropriate. But their turn will come!

Here, our Lord strongly affirms John's disciples in their continued loyalty. He does not challenge them to follow him, but leaves them to return to John and comfort him in the dungeons of the morbid fortress of Machaerus until he meets his tragic death. But he does not leave them feeling lost and disheartened. They belong to the Old Covenant but he opens a window, especially for them, and lets them see into the New. He honours them with the first ever revelation that the Messiah is a bridegroom. They are left to take that back to their Master, whom Jesus proclaimed the greatest of all prophets, and seek his wisdom about what it means. We do not need to know the precise outcomes. Enough for us to know that Jesus has, in one act, affirmed them in their devoted discipleship of the great prophet, yet shared with them a glimpse into his new order of things to come. This moment has been captured for us so that we too can share in its warmth, sublime dignity, and outpouring if love.

The second parable about caring for an old but much loved garment is just as powerful. A garment is not to be discarded just because it is old or needs mending. As we are all aware, such a garment may well outlast many a newer one, provided it is mended carefully and with due attention to, and respect for, what has gone into the making of it. It has its own life, and that must be honoured.

In this beautiful parable, our Lord is showing his love and supreme respect for the Jewish Faith which has nurtured him and brought him to this moment in time. Jesus has no dispute with Judaism or any of its loyal adherents who are the common folk going about their daily life. He does, however, take issue with individual, educated Pharisees who try to discredit him and even destroy him. They are a case apart.

The parable shows how the old garment of the Jewish Faith must be allowed to retain its own character without intrusions and being got at by those who don't know what they are tampering with. This may be something Christians cannot understand but the parable makes it clear that it is something they must accept! It is indeed a mystery and indeed a beautiful one.

The parable of the new wine being only for new wine skins, is now addressed to our Lord's disciples. They will in due time come to understand that the new teaching the new wine, needs to be housed in a new container. It will be Jesus himself who will be both the teaching and the container, for it will be the Church, his Mystical Body which will be the depository of his Word.

Our calling is to be fairly and squarely located within the teaching he commanded to be passed on. That is what is meant by being a disciple of Jesus Christ.


What are we to make of this? In some respects, it would do no harm to note what we should NOT make of it! Jesus is not authorising every Tom, Dick or Harry to declare what is old and therefore to be discarded so they can bring in whatever suits them and their usually tight-knit bunch of immediate supporters! The Church today is fighting this very battle on All fronts. If you have not noticed this, you may be in for a shock. But do not be alarmed: there is a lot of it about!

Our Lord was the instrument whereby God took our salvation history into a new age. As part of this great beginning of the Church, the Holy Spirit was breathed into it and it became a living being: indeed the Body of Christ.

We need to beware of all and sundry who proclaim to the world that there is a new in-breathing of the Holy Spirit and therefore all manner of things must change. That is the battle cry of every misfit who wants to engineer change in the Church. It is actually (though not to be admitted) a manifestation of what we generally call today, New Ageism. It is counterfeit renewal but under the guise of "reform" or "new growth", — all of course "in the Holy Spirit"!

Our Gospel text clearly establishes Jesus as the one-time and one-and-only reformer. In him, all of the Old Testament teaching and prophecy find their fulfilment. He instigates the true New Age. The Jews who became members of his Church saw the Body of Christ as the New Israel and its members true sons of Abraham. That does not mean that John the Baptist and his disciples, along with other devout Jews, many of whom never met or heard Jesus, were part of some disestablished religion. They were called to serve out that old and venerable order, and it is not for us to attempt a determination as to where they and their successors fit in the plan of salvation for all humanity!

Jesus established a new order and in our text above, succinctly established a simple principle that "we should observe a fitness and a propriety in things" (Barnes). His followers for all time would so observe the teaching and ordinances he put in place. It would not be for those who wanted the freedom to change to meet market place values, to take charge and marginalise those who remained loyal to established Christian principles. We tend to emphasise this dilemma frequently since it is of such concern in the Church today. No wonder meticulous meditation on the Gospels is also a practice which has been marginalised: it exposes the fraudulent movements in the Church for what they are: infiltration by an alien spirit. We commend the matter to your prayer.

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