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 2:22 ESV)
With the statement above, Jesus caps off his reply to the “people” and their question about why his disciples did not fast like the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist. The short, rather plain parable that Jesus responds with is pregnant with meaning beyond what its terseness would indicate. The first thing we need to do is unpack what Jesus is saying to reveal what the figures in the story relate to in real life.
The “new wine” refers to the Gospel, which is the “new message” which Jesus embodies and declares. The core point that is “new” is that people are made acceptable to God not on the basis of their work but the work of Jesus on their behalf. The next figure, the “old wineskins” are the hearts of people who operate under religion, which Jesus is juxtaposing with the Gospel. The core point that is “old” is that people are made acceptable to God by their own effort and good works and God is therefore forced to accept them. The final figure then, the “new wineskin,” is a heart that has been made ready to believe the Gospel. It is a person who believes that they cannot make themselves acceptable to God. Now let’s put this together with the context of the question which precipitated the response.
The Pharisees, the disciples of John, and everyone human on the planet for that matter, begins life believing that they can work their way to God. As sinners our default position, our old wineskin heart, believes that if we work hard enough we can be our own savior. The Pharisees and the disciples of John were fasting, the root issue in the passage, as a means to work their way to God. Jesus in contrast forbids his disciples to fast. If they fasted, they would do it like a Pharisee and Jesus’ Gospel, the new wine, would be ruined. Jesus is spending his time preparing the hearts of the disciples, making them “new” as it were, so that they will be able to accept the Gospel and fast in a way that honors God. Jesus wants his disciples to fast as a means to cultivate their life with God and not as a spiritual check mark that attempts to earn their righteousness. Jesus must prepare their hearts, pour in the Gospel, and then religious activity like fasting can begin. The new wine must go into a new heart that then engages in activity that cultivates a new life with God.
And what does this have to do with us? Everything!
First, the Holy Spirit is right now, as always, impressing upon hearts that they cannot be made right with God through their own effort. The Holy Spirit is impressing upon old wineskin hearts that their only hope to be accepted by God is the gift of righteousness offered to them in the Gospel. Notice that the unstated actor in the parable, the one pouring the wine, must be Jesus who is explaining the process. It is a truth that must come to us in the same way that the righteousness we need comes to us as a gift.
Second, the process is cyclical because we always drift back to believing that we can earn our salvation even after we are “saved.” The way our finite minds try to understand the parable is that Jesus makes the disciples into new wineskins and then (chronologically) he adds the Gospel. The reality is that Jesus reveals the truth of the Gospel and it changes the person’s heart a little. With this new changed heart, the person is able to receive more truth of the Gospel. As they receive more of the Gospel more of their heart is changed and so the process continues until our belief is made into sight and our hearts are fully transformed when we see Jesus again. If it were not cyclical, our desperately wicked hearts would quickly gravitate back toward earning our righteousness and the Gospel would pour out.
Third, and by way of warning, the issue is not religious activity. This issue is not fasting. The issue is what a person does with the activity in their heart. Are they fasting to earn their salvation or are they fasting as a response to having been saved? Is the “Christian” teaching Sunday school to honor God and bless kids or to earn they salvation? Is the “Christian” welcoming people at the door because God has welcomed them into relationship or they are trying to earn their own welcome? Is the Pastor preaching to show God how good he is, or is he preaching to show others how good God is?
What do you think?
– Eric Creekmore, Lead Pastor