So please take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to Mark’s gospel, chapter 2. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, you’ll find that on page 837. We are continuing to work through Mark’s gospel; we are at the eighteenth verse. This is now the third, fourth, of five episodes that Mark recounts together like this to explain the escalating friction, conflict, between Jesus and the religious establishment of His day – the scribes and the Pharisees. Back in chapter 2:1-12, Jesus has healed a paralyzed man and in the course of His engagement with him, pronounced forgiveness. The Pharisees were outraged because the only one who may forgive sin is God alone. There is an implicit claim to deity in Jesus’ words and so the Pharisees called Him a blasphemer. And then as we saw last time, in verses 13 through 17, when Jesus invites Levi who is a tax collector, an outcast, friend of tax collectors and sinners, to become a disciple of His and then goes and enjoys a celebration, a party at Levi’s home, the Pharisees are outraged because this is not the kind of behavior one expects to see in a devout, religious, observant rabbi that they think Jesus is claiming to be.
And then in our passage this morning in chapter 2, beginning at verse 18, the question has arisen about fasting, because apparently everybody fasted. John’s disciples and the followers of the Pharisees did not have very much in common at all, but at this point at least they seemed to agree; they both were engaged in regular fasting as part of the discipline of their religious observance. But Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast and that left them somewhat suspicious in the eyes of those who sought to be devout and devoted in those days. You know, the mark of being a faithful Jew, someone who is really serious about knowing God, is surely that they would fast like the disciples of John or the disciples of the Pharisees. “So what’s going on with You and Your disciples, Jesus? We don’t understand. You don’t seem to fit the mold of a godly man at all” – at least judged by externals, which is sort of the whole point; judged by externals. We tend to put far too much attention, don’t we, on external performance and not on the heart.
Just a word or two about fasting before we go any further so that we’re clear about what’s going on here. We know that Jesus fasted for forty days. We know in Matthew chapter 6 when He gave instructions to His disciples on prayer, that He included using the same language to explain it, instruction about fasting, so that the two ought to go together in the ordinary life of a follower of Jesus – fasting and prayer. And so in Acts 13 verse 2, in Acts 14 verse 23, we see the early church engaged in prayer, seeking the will of God, and fasting together. So there is a form of fasting that is an adjunct to earnest prayer in which we’re saying to God that, “The things for which I am praying are so urgently needed by me, or by Your church, or by Your people, I’m so burdened for this, anxious to see these things fulfilled that it’s almost as important to me, as necessary to my spiritual welfare or to the advancement of Your kingdom or the glory of Your name as daily bread is to the maintenance and sustenance of my body.” That’s what we’re saying when we fast. That sort of fasting continues to have an appropriate place for a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But there’s another sort of fasting, very much the norm in the Old Testament Scriptures, that was the fasting embraced by the Pharisees. It was a fasting that was expressive of deep sorrow. It was a way to express mourning and regret. There’s only one fast required by God in the Old Testament Scriptures – that’s on the Day of Atonement. And that was a fast that expressed profound sorrow over sin. So fasting, in this second form of fasting, was all about being sad and mourning and regret and sorrow for sin.
Now in addition to that one mandated required fast on the Day of Atonement, the Pharisees, as was their common practice, added some extra regulations. And so they fasted, they instituted an obligatory fast for those who were really serious about knowing God, twice a week – on Mondays and on Thursdays. And when they fasted, they whitened their face to make it look as though they were in shock. They left their hair disheveled; they didn't dress well. They left their clothes untidy. They made their lives as uncomfortable as possible because, for them, the mark of real godliness was a form of austerity and severity, long faces and heaviness and a solemn, somber spirit. That's what it really looked like to be godly. And of course, you look at Jesus – where is He to be found? Well, He's with Levi and his buddies in the middle of the party. It doesn't seem right at all. What is going on?
And so Jesus is responding to the concerns that are being articulated about, “Why don’t You fast like the godly seem to fast? You don’t seem to be sad at all!” And in verses 18 through 23, as we’re going to see, Jesus gives three short parables. He takes us first to a wedding reception in verses 19 and 20 where there’s a great celebration; a wedding feast. Then, He takes us to a tailor’s shop in verses 21. And then, He takes us finally to a vintner’s cellar as he decants wine into wineskins in verses 22 and 23. So those are the three pictures. And as we walk through them, it’s almost as though each is a lens that brings into slightly sharper focus the nature of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. And so with each new lens, we see a little more detail and a little more detail so that when we put them all together we see a marvelous picture about the newness and the joy that ought to mark those who enter into the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re simply going to look at each in turn – the wedding celebration, the tailor’s shop, and the vintner’s cellar. Before we do that, we’re going to pause and pray and then we’ll read the Scriptures together. Let us pray.
O Lord, Your Word is now before us. We pray, we plead with You, that by the power of the Holy Spirit we may indeed hear the voice of Christ Himself and that the old life and the old ways, so focused on externals, might shrivel and die and the new wine that fits in new wineskins that marks Your kingdom might have its place in all our hearts, with great joy. For Jesus’ sake, amen.
Let’s read God’s Word together beginning at verse 18 of Mark chapter 2:
“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.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy Word.
In the days immediately after World War I, Donald Grey Barnhouse, who would later become the senior pastor of Tenth Pres in Philadelphia, was walking the streets outside the Belgian city of Mons. There had been a series of extended battles during World War I. First, Mons was the site of a massive Allied retreat and then at the end of the war of a dramatic German retreat. And then lining the streets outside the city were German artillery and the material of war left by the retreating German army. And Barnhouse was wandering along on a beautiful spring day – clear sky, not a breeze to stir the trees – observing the German material of war, just looking around him, enjoying the quiet after the ferocity of the battles, when a leaf fell, leaves began to fall from the trees overhead. Now, this is spring. Why are leaves falling in spring? One of them stuck in the belt of his uniform and he plucked it out and it crumbled in his fingers, dry and desiccated. These leaves have somehow managed to cling to the branches through the strong winds of autumn, through the frost and the snow of winter. And now that it was spring, there's not a breeze in the air and still, the leaves are falling; now the leaves are falling. Why are they falling in spring?
Well, it's new life, you see; new life budding on the branches pushes out these dead, old leaves. What Jesus will tell us in these three parables is that with His coming, spring has arrived at last and the old, dead, lifeless ways that characterized so much of the empty religion of the Pharisees no longer has any place. He’s coming to push it out and expel it, to dislodge it with something so much better. Let’s look at the passage and see how Jesus teaches us that point.
The Wedding Reception
First of all, verses 19 and 20, by taking us to the wedding reception, to this wedding celebration. Everyone loves a good wedding. Don’t they? Imagine being invited to the reception; it’s a lavish affair. The best chefs in town have catered the event and there’s a banquet spread for you of the most delicious sights and smells. All your favorites are there; it’s all done to perfection. The smells are intoxicating; your mouth is watering. I hope I’m not making you think too much about lunch! Be patient! But your mouth is watering and you’re ready to dive in when the instruction comes, “You may smell and not taste. You may look but not touch.” That would be a terrible torment. Wouldn’t it? What kind of wedding celebration is that? Who fasts at a wedding? No, you feast at a wedding. Anything else is ridiculous. Which is exactly Jesus’ point in answer to the question, “Why don’t You and Your disciples fast?” Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. Actually, the rabbis said that the friends of the bridegroom are exempt from any religious obligation like fasting that might undermine the full expression and enjoyment of their joy during a wedding celebration. They cannot fast; they’re forbidden to fast, you see. It’s not allowed.
Now in the Old Testament Scriptures, you probably know Yahweh Himself, the LORD God, is described as the bridegroom. And Israel is often wayward, unfaithful, and yet beloved bride. In the New Testament, the bride is the church. And beginning in parables much like this one, the Lord Jesus makes an extraordinary claim because, you see, He is identifying Himself now as the bridegroom – Yahweh, the LORD God, the bride of Israel. The bridegroom of Israel is the Lord Jesus Christ; the bridegroom, and the church His bride. And now He says, “Since the bridegroom Himself has come among you, surely, surely you understand. This is no time for mourning,” which is what the fasts of the Pharisees were all about – mourning. No, this is a time for celebration; not for fasting but for feasting.
There’s no exception given to that. There’s no place for a morose, heavy, solemn, long-faced response to the coming of Jesus Christ. No exception. Not even for Scottish Presbyterians! I remember once preaching in the Highlands of Scotland at a small, rural church and I used an illustration – it was a very good illustration, even if I say so myself. And, it was funny! Not just David Strain funny; it was really funny! And I could tell the congregation wanted to laugh out loud, but they wouldn’t! You know, their faces turned red, people were sweating, they were all looking at the floor, their mouths were twitching just a little, people were biting their lip, but they wouldn’t laugh! It’s not the done thing, you see. Serious Highland Christians, you know, you keep a straight face in church. What a travesty! What a travesty! The bridegroom has come. Rejoice! The bridegroom has come! Of all people, the guests of the bridegroom, the bride, in fact, that's the church, of all people we have reason for joy.
Now Jesus does say that shortly this will change for a season for those who followed Him. Notice what He says in verse 20. “The days will come when the bridegroom is” – notice the language – “taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” It’s not just that the bridegroom is going to leave. No, the shadow of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest and torture and crucifixion is cast over the wedding celebration. Something terrible is going to interrupt the wedding reception. The bridegroom is going to be violently taken away. Jesus knows the trajectory His ministry is on, you see. He knows He is on a collision course with the religious powers that be that will end at Calvary.
If you look down at the very last of the episodes that Mark is using here to explain the conflict between Himself and the Pharisees, the first story in chapter 3, verse 6, you will see that same theme reappearing only now it’s no longer couched in terms of metaphor. Look at verse 6 of chapter 3. “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians.” That tells you how serious they were. The Herodians and the Pharisees did not make common cause against anyone for any reason. They were political opponents. The Pharisees held counsel with the Herodians against Jesus how they might – what? How to do what to Jesus? “How to destroy Him.” The shadow of the cross is cast over this whole event. And it would take place, remember, when the shepherd was stricken, the sheep would be scattered. It would take place with one of His disciples betraying Him, with Simon Peter denying Him, with every one of them forsaking Him. “In those days,” Jesus is saying, “the mourning expressed in your kind of fasting, Pharisees, in those days it would be appropriate, but not now; not while I’m still here.”
And brothers and sisters, we live on the other side of the resurrection. We have even more reason for joy and celebration than the disciples who stood with Christ when these questions came His way that day. About fasting, we needn't mourn. No, in fact, the characteristic response of a disciple of Jesus Christ is not sorrow but joy. Certainly, "Weeping may last for a night, but joy will come in the morning," for all who know that Jesus Christ has bled and died and lives and reigns. Yes, we may "be grieved by various kinds of trials" – 1 Peter chapter 1 at verse 6. And yet in the midst of them, Peter says “we rejoice because even though we do not see Jesus, we love Him. Though we do not see Him, we believe in Him and rejoice with a joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of our faith, the salvation of our souls.” We are in a better position than the disciples were before the cross. We have more ground of gladness even than they because we know that the Christ who taught them and walked with them the dusty streets of Palestine, now sits reigning on the throne at the right hand of the Majesty on high. His Spirit has come to dwell in our hearts and He will never leave us nor forsake us. The bridegroom has come and so we rejoice. To know Jesus is to know joy that sorrow can’t eclipse or tears ever erase. To know Jesus is to have endless reasons for gladness.
Think about it. You have a new heart. You have sin forgiven. You are in Christ, a new creation. You have God for your Father. You have the Spirit to help you in your weaknesses. All things must work together for your good. Nothing shall separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. To you belong the promises of God and the ordinances of Gospel worship and the fellowship of the saints. Access with boldness to the throne of glory. You have the ear of the Father, the intercession of Christ, the riches of God’s inheritance among the saints, and the hope of glory. You shall inherit the earth. Your hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be filled. You shall see God. You are called sons and daughters of God and to you belongs the kingdom of God. Sin cannot condemn you. Satan cannot destroy you. Death has been defeated for you and glory waits. So now that Jesus has come, you who trust Him and follow Him, rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Joy is the mark, not mourning, joy – joy that cannot be snuffed out by tears – joy is the mark of the guests at the wedding celebration when Christ is the bridegroom.
The Tailor’s Shop
And then, Jesus uses a different metaphor. He takes us not to the wedding reception but to the tailor's shop. Do you see that in verse 21? "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." I send my dress shirts to the dry cleaners, probably like many of you do. It may be that the explanation for the shirts that no longer button around the collar is my expanding girth. That is, I'll just say, that's a possibility! But I do have some shirts and the sleeves only come halfway down my arm now, so my arms haven't grown; the shirts have shrunk! Right? I send them to the dry cleaners and after a while, the fabric has begun to shrink. Now if a tailor selects material like that, which after a few washes will begin to shrink, he selects material like that to patch a tear, a few trips to the dry cleaners and your garment is so much worse off. Because as the material shrinks, the tear is worsened, not bettered. That's exactly Jesus' point. No tailor would ever do such a thing. He's trying to fix it, not make it worse.
Here's the point Jesus is really making. “You can’t treat Me like a patch on the tired, old garment of your existing life. It simply will not work.” Don’t we treat Jesus like that sometimes? We think of ourselves as essentially sound. “I’m a good guy. I mean, what’s not to love.” Right? That’s what we say. “I’ve got most of it all together. I’m doing pretty well. But there are a few tears in the garment here and there; a few threadbare spots. And I really could use Jesus to patch them for me. The rest, I’ve got covered.” And Jesus is saying that just won’t work. It just will not work. In fact, if you try it, the fabric of your life will only tear still more dramatically. You can’t patch Jesus onto the threadbare, tired, old garment of your existing life. You can’t have it your way and have Jesus to boot.
So the first parable highlights the joy of Jesus’ coming. The second parable highlights the incompatibility of having Jesus and having your old routines. You see, the Pharisees were trying to get to God under their own steam and things like fasting were one of the many mechanisms they had developed to try and curry favor with the Lord. And Jesus is saying, “You can’t do it that way and have me too. You can’t have your own righteousness and My righteousness. It’s one or the other. My righteousness will cover the filthy garments that is the truth about you. Your own righteousness is an illusion that you ought never to trust.”
The Vintner’s Cellar
And so the third parable that Jesus uses covers much of the same ground but it adds an additional, an additional insight. He takes us from the wedding reception to the tailor’s shop to the vintner’s cellar. I suppose those three things might properly go together, I guess. A bride needs a dress and every celebration needs wine. Those three things naturally hang together so there’s a progression. We’re now at the wine cellar as the vintner is pouring and decanting his wine – not into glass bottles in those days, of course, but into wineskins. Wineskins were used because when you poured new wine into them as the wine fermented, the wineskins had some elasticity to it. They could expand, you see. But if you tried to put new wine into an old wineskin that had already expanded to the fullest extent and had become a little brittle and inflexible, when the new wine began to ferment and the gasses caused it to expand, what happens? Well, you have a sticky mess on your hands is what happens! There’s an explosion and both the wineskin and the wine is lost. No, He says, “new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
What is it that’s really on offer when you get Jesus? Not a patch on your old life; new wineskins. Jesus, when the new wine of His grace breaks into your heart, makes you new all the way through. You get a new heart. “If anyone is in Christ he is a” – what? Let’s try that again. “If anyone is in Christ he is” – what? “He is a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.” Jesus makes us new. That’s what you get when you get Jesus. That’s what’s really on offer here. The buds of new life in the springtime of His kingdom force out the dead and desiccated old ways according to which you have been living. It is what Thomas Chalmer’s famously called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” It expels the old loves and the old life and the old routine and the old priorities. Now you see that you have Jesus you want nothing so much as life on His terms. When Christ comes, He makes us new.
Warning and Encouragement
So you see those two notes? There’s a note of warning and a great note of encouragement. The note of warning is, when you try to patch the old life, when you try to put new wine into the old wineskins, disaster ensues. So we need to stop, we need to stop trying to use Jesus as a band-aid, as a patch on our problems. Instead, we need to surrender, stop living life on your terms altogether and begin living it on his. He wants to make you new, inside out. That’s why we have reason to celebrate. That’s the encouragement. That’s what His grace really does. It is renovative, transformative. That’s why we rejoice. That’s why as we’re about to come to the Lord’s Table we come to it with glad hearts. “Jesus, on the night in which He was betrayed, took bread and when He had broken it, He gave thanks.” Eucharisteo – “I give thanks.” That’s why we call it a Eucharist. It’s a table of thanksgiving; a table of gladness and of joy. It is, as it were, a taste ahead of time of the final banquet when the bridegroom returns for His bride at last and takes us all to the marriage supper of the Lamb in the new heavens and the new earth where there shall be no more sin, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor death, for the old order of things has passed away. Here, we get to glimpse it; here, we get to taste it with great joy and gladness.
If like the Pharisees you see Jesus as a patch to be applied here and there as you need Him, you’ll never understand the fullness of joy really on offer to you in Him. But you can, you can, if instead of coming to this table you come first to Him. It’s not more religion you need, more routine that you need, more ritual that you need – whether fasting or feasting – what you need is Christ. And so come, won’t you come and bend your knee to Him anew, or for the very first time. Let’s pray together.
O Lord our God, we thank You for Jesus who brings new life, who pours new wine into new wineskins, who will not be a patch on the threadbare old garments of our old lives. He wants to make us new. Thank You for the new life so many of us have already come to enjoy, and for the anticipation of its consummation to come that we have here as we gather together around the family table to receive and feast upon the Lord Jesus. Grant to us the joy of sin forgiven, the joy of life from the dead, the joy of fellowship with the living God, the joy of the communion of the saints. Grant that to us and grant that we never go back ever again to the broken cisterns, the counterfeit pleasures of a dying world. For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
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