The parable of the new cloth and new wine
Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39
A tradition is a long-established custom or belief passed on from one generation to another (Oxford). Because of that, many traditions are good and necessary. Paul speaks several times of some traditions in such a positive manner. For example, Paul states in 1 Corinthians 11:2, Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. Paul commends them for remaining steadfast regarding certain traditional beliefs and practices that he had taught them.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul tells the brethren to stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or letter from us. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 Paul is even stronger telling them to keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. Traditions that keep you focused on the word of God and help you to walk properly with the Lord are good.
However, even good traditions can lose their meaning. The reasons for them are often forgotten and lost so they are followed blindly simply because it is what is expected.
The tradition can end up replacing the word of God In Isaiah 29:13 the Lord rebuked the people because their worship had become rote tradition without meaning.
Jesus and His disciples continually confronted traditions that hindered and even blocked the true worship of God. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and scribes because they often would neglect, or set aside and even invalidate the commandments of God by their man made traditions (Mark 7:3-13). In this study we will look into one the conflicts Jesus and His disciples had with traditions and how Jesus dealt with them.
In John 1:11, we read that the Word—the Creator God—came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. The gospel accounts provide ample evidence of this in Jesus’ frequent encounters with the Pharisees and other religious authorities of the day. In a well-worn pattern, the Pharisees question Him on every point possible, trying to find a fault.
One such exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees resulted in what is commonly called the Parable of the Cloth and the Wineskins. While found in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:16-17; Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:34-39), Luke’s version is the fullest:
Then He spoke a parable to them: “ “You can’t make the wedding guests fast while the groom is with them, can you? But the time will come when the groom will be taken away from them — then they will fast in those days.” He also told them a parable No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wine skins; or else the new wine will burst the wine skins and be spilled, and the wine skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wine skins, and both are preserved. And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.’” Luke 5: 34-39.
While these examples are valuable in their own right, they do not stand on their own. If we were to begin here, it would be like coming in on the last part of a conversation; without understanding what led up to this, our comprehension will be spotty at best. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all put this parable at the end of a fairly lengthy record of Christ’s actions and the Pharisees’ objections (Matthew 9:1-17; Mark 2:1-22; Luke 5:17-39). His words here, then, are the summation and capstone of a much longer interaction.
His example of the bridegroom is clear enough on its own, except that a well-known Messianic prophecy speaks of Israel’s God as her Bridegroom (Isaiah 62:5) Jesus was already on the Pharisees’ bad list for telling a man that his sins were forgiven (Luke 5:23) and now He follows that up by referring to Himself as the Bridegroom!
Luke 5:35 is pivotal when it comes to understanding the parable that follows: “But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days.” And Jesus replies to the question of the “people” in Luke 5: 33 in a series of contrasts between new and old. The parables Jesus expounds contains new and old clothing, new and old wineskins, and new and old wine. Christ as the “bridegroom” being taken away makes the “newness” possible, and once that “newness” is available, it is wholly incompatible with the old.
Jesus begins with an example of old and new garments: “No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old.” In Scripture, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden, garments or clothing are common symbols of righteousness. After Adam and Eve sinned, they tried to cover themselves with something they made with their own hands (Genesis 3:7). Instead, God gave them tunics made of skin (verse 21), requiring the life of an animal, representing the Lamb of God giving His life to cover sin.
To understand the new and the old, it is important to realize that the “old” could have many applications. It is not just the Old Covenant. In fact, the Pharisees in Jesus’ audience did not actually represent the Old Covenant. The system of beliefs and practices that developed into Judaism is not the same thing as the Old Covenant. Certainly, Judaism makes use of the writings of Moses and the prophets, but it also leans heavily on the traditions of Jewish scholars
The Pharisees, then, were not actually living by the Old Covenant! God intended that covenant to prepare His people for the coming of the Messiah. Everything in the holiness code, the sacrifices, and so forth was intended to point to Christ. Since the Pharisees could not recognize the Object of the Covenant, what they were practicing was not what the pre-incarnate Christ delivered to Moses. Their traditions have put them far off course.
Therefore, the “old” elements in this parable could be any system of belief aside from what became available through Christ.
In the example, the new wine is expansive. The fermentation process produces a great deal of pressure. An old and brittle wineskin will not be able to withstand the increasing stress, and it will burst. The wineskin is a type of vessel. Throughout Scripture, vessels are symbols for people. For Christians, there is an “old man” and a “new man.” The old man represents the life we had before conversion, and the new man, the new vessel, is the life that comes because of conversion and the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. But if we take the expansive and dynamic new wine, and we attempt to put that into the old life, we can be sure that we will have a disaster on our hands.
Our old lives, our old ways, are entirely incompatible with the new wine. The new wine requires change, expansion, and steady improvement, while in the old life, there was no real desire or ability to change. Remember, the new wine is tied to the blood of Christ the Savior, the New Covenant, the indwelling of God’s Spirit, and the spiritual result that will be produced by those powerful factors. Trying to cram all that into a person who is unwilling to change because of traditions will invariably result in his coming apart at the seams. The precious new wine is spilled on the ground and dreadfully wasted.
Each gospel account varies in exactly what group brings this question to Jesus. Luke is the most general simply referring to them as “they.” Mark also uses the vague term “they” for the group, but also points out that the question arose because the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees were fasting. Matthew specifically points out that the question arose from the disciples of John the Baptist, so they are asking this question with the possibility that the disciples of the Pharisees have also joined in since they are present in the near context and are also fasting. Following Luke’s account we read in 5:33, And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same, but Yours eat and drink.” It was a legitimate question, yet it also showed their lack of understanding concerning the kingdom of God and the nature of righteousness.
In some ways it is strange that the disciples of John the Baptist are among those asking this question. John had already declared to his disciples that Jesus was the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world and that Jesus must increase while he decreases (John 3:28, 30). They should have been following Jesus instead of John by this time, but for whatever reason, they were still following John. My own speculation is that they were more interested in the reformation of Judaism than the renewal of its very nature as advocated by Jesus.
The Old Testament only specifically commanded one fast per year which was on the Day of Atonement. Yet, they are fasting in the same or a similar way as the Pharisees. In practical terms, they did a lot of the same things as the Pharisees. The major difference is that they acknowledged their sinfulness and the Pharisees did not, but they practiced many of the same traditions.
Jesus responds to them by gently answering their question and then pointing out the more sweeping change He is bringing about.
Luke 5:34-35, “And Jesus said to them, “You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 35?But the days will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days.” Essentially, Jesus tells them that His disciples do not fast because He is with them. It would be inappropriate for them to be mournful and downcast as long as He, the bridegroom of the illustration, is present. However, there would be a day coming when He would be taken away, a foretelling of His crucifixion, and after that the disciples would fast for it would then be an appropriate expression of their grief, mourning, and longing for His return. That is the simple answer to the question, but Jesus goes on to illustrate the more radical nature of what He is saying. Jesus does not desire a reformation of Judaism as practiced by the Pharisees. Jesus is advocating a brand new covenant as advocated in Jeremiah 31:31-34 it was not even a reconstruction of Judaism that is thought of here.
The Lord answered with the illustration of a wedding. Would it be proper for the friends of the bridegroom to fast and mourn in the presence of the bridegroom? Certainly not; this was a time for joy and celebration. Christ, of course is the bridegroom and while He was here, there was no reason for His disciples to fast. The day would come when the bridegroom would no longer be with them physically, and that would be the proper time for fasting. The Lord never demanded fasting from us, but He certainly shows His approval of it for those who wait for the bridegroom’s return.
The Lord goes on to show how that John’s work marked the end of one dispensation and the beginning of another. The dispensation of the law was drawing to close, and a new dispensation would soon begin. This is illustrated in Hebrews 8:7-13 which says,
"For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second one. But finding fault with His people, He says:4 Look, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah — not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors on the day I took them by their hands to lead them out of the land of Egypt. I disregarded them, says the Lord, because they did not continue in My covenant. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people.
And each person will not teach his fellow citizen, and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them.
For I will be merciful to their wrongdoing, and I will never again remember their sins.6 7
By saying, a new covenant, He has declared that the first is old. And what is old and aging is about to disappear."
In Ephesians 3:2, the Apostle Paul calls this new dispensation, the one in which we now live as the “dispensation of the grace of God.” These two dispensations have their purpose, but they are not to be mingled together. The dispensation of the law has passed; we live now in the dispensation of grace. As an example, the Lord did not speak of patching an old garment with new material, or to put new wine into old bottles. These things just do not belong together, even as law and grace do not mix. The Apostle Paul assures us in Romans 6:15 that, “…we are not under the law, but under grace…”
The illustration is very simple. If you have a worn garment that has a torn, you cannot patch it with a new piece of material without causing the garment even greater damage. The reason being that the old material has already shrunk. If you sew a patch of new material over the hole, the new material does not match the old and will shrink with washing causing the new seams to tear the old material. You cannot fix Pharisaical Judaism by patching it with moral reforms. The torn garment must be replaced, Jesus' illustration derives from a well-known fact: No one with a reasonable amount of experience in mending clothes would waste a piece of new cloth to repair an old garment. If new cloth is used to patch an old garment, and the patch becomes wet, it shrinks as it dries and puts strain on the old garment. The tear becomes worse than it was.
The second example makes the same point. Luke 5: 37-38, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. 38?But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.” There were a couple of ways in which wine could be stored. One was in pottery such as the large jugs mentioned in John 2 when Jesus turned the water into wine. Another method of storage was in cured animal skins – leather pouches. As time went by, the leather would age and become dry, stiff, and brittle. Such a wineskin could be used for aged wine or water, but it could not be used for new wine. In the process of making wine in ancient Israel, the wine would be put into wineskins for storage after only aging for about a week. It would then continue to ferment. A new skin, which would be supple and pliable, would easily expand under the pressure increase as the fermentation continued. If you put new wine in an old wine skin, it would not be able to withstand the pressure or expand as the new wine continued to ferment and give off carbon dioxide, and so the leather would rupture.
The last illustration is attached to the illustration about wines. Luke 5:39, “And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’ ” His point is simple. If you are used to and already like what you have, there is little interest in something new. In fact, because the flavor is so different, it may even be rejected as inferior because it does not meet your expectations. The Pharisees and scribes were self-righteous. They would stick to their traditions including trying to make themselves righteous through fasting. They had no interest in changing their beliefs and practices to accommodate a system in which the sinner is cleansed and made righteous by faith in a merciful, gracious and loving God.
Jesus is showing that His "new" doctrines do not match the old rites of the Pharisees, which is built on traditions. If His "new" doctrines were attached to their old ones, it would distort the truth. Christ is preaching against syncretism, the mixing of beliefs. We must completely replace the old human way of life with the new godly way of life (II Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9-10). Because God's "new" way is righteous and spiritually strong, it cannot be combined with the "old" wicked and weak human way of life. They are incompatible.
The new wine in the parable represents the inner aspects of a Christian life, and the new cloth pictures outward conduct and conversation. A person's behavior reflects his commitment, seen in the illustration of attaching new cloth to old clothing. The old clothing—our sinful, selfish life—cannot be mended but must be replaced. The new cloth is a righteous life. The Pharisees' ritual fasting was an old garment for which a new piece of cloth was useless.
It is untenable to attach Christ's doctrine to the old doctrines of Judaism . The righteous system Christ came to establish cannot be forced into an old system . Christ is warning against syncretism of beliefs; it simply does not work.
Our Savior teaches that life cannot be a mixture of two opposite principles. We cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). We cannot trust in our own works for salvation in Christ, nor follow the world and God. His new way must completely replace our old worldly ways so that we walk in newness of life.
Matthew 22:1-13 contains the Parable of the Wedding Garment, whose lesson is that inappropriate clothing will keep a person out of a wedding feast. Isaiah 64:6 says that “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.” The Pharisees had a righteousness, but Jesus asserts that our righteousness must exceed theirs (Matthew 5:20), meaning that we need to have His righteousness imputed to us, which becomes our new covering, our new garment. As we become one with Him and submit to taking on His image, we have a righteousness that does not come from our works but from God’s work in us.
Thus, we have a contrast between man’s righteousness in the old garment and the old wineskin and the righteousness of Christ – in the new cloth and the new wine skin. But, just as it makes no sense to tear off a piece from a new garment to patch an old one, so is it also a futile exercise to try to keep our own righteousness intact and use a little bit of Christ’s righteousness to cover a flaw here and there. The two coverings are incompatible—we have to choose one or the other.
Reformation of lifestyle would not work. The reformation of any works based system of righteousness will not work. It must be replaced. Jesus had authority to forgive sin based on mercy and grace in the same way God had always forgiven His people. They must believe Him and their faith would be reckoned as righteousness (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4). The self-righteous were not interested, but even if they were, the tattered clothes of the system of Judaism that had been perverted by traditions of men could not be patched with new cloth. Their system could not contain the new wine of Jesus’ teaching that sinners could be forgiven and made righteous through faith in Him. A new garment of righteousness, a new wine skin of regenerated personal holiness had to be provided. Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
First, there is a forsaking of sin. When a person truly understands their sinfulness, which comes as a result of the Spirit’s conviction, there is a corresponding desire to get away from it. In Matt: Matthew’s response to Jesus’ call was without hesitation. Jesus called and he got up and left behind his sinful occupation. The regenerated heart will seek the same in forsaking their sin in order to following Jesus.
Second, there is an abounding joy in a forgiven sinner. His or her heart is full and desires to share that joy with others just as Matthew did in giving the banquet so that others could hear Jesus.
Third, there is a new desire. While we will always struggle against sin while we are in these earthly bodies, the forgiven sinner has a regenerated heart. There is new wine in a new wine skin. There is a new garment of righteousness to wear and the old tattered clothes of legalism, ritualism and traditionalism have no place in such a person’s life, for they have entered into a relationship with God in which they are now forgiven. They have been made righteous by His grace. They can cease the vain endeavor to achieve it by their own effort. Jesus has authority over sin. He can forgive it and will forgive yours if you will turn to Him. If you have received forgiveness, then rejoice and tell others. If you have not, today is the day of salvation. Recognize your sin, confess it to Him, and He will forgive you.