Jan 5 2013
“No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
I have firsthand experience of this. I once bought a bottle of wine and forgot it in my car boot (trunk). After a few days of African sun it was ready for action. And what a moment it chose! It was late at night; the streets were silent. I stopped at a traffic light, and BOOOOOM! I went numb. I thought someone had shot at me from close range. I waited for any sense of pain, but there was none. Then the smell of fermented fruit filled my car and I thought, “Oh, my wine!” (OMW) I rushed to open the boot and sure enough there was glass everywhere. A burst wineskin!
♦ In Jesus’ day wine was kept in a goatskin – a complete one with arms and legs. An old skin would be stiff while a new one was more elastic. New wine was put into the more elastic new skin because it had more fermenting to do and needed lots of expansion room. It would simply burst an old skin.
Jesus used this illustration while he was being accused by the Pharisees of breaking the law. He was really telling them that the Spirit was upon him to do new things that could not be contained by their understanding of the law. The Pharisees accused him on four occasions in the above reading. First they claimed he should not eat with ‘sinners’. But the Spirit in Jesus wanted to change sinners. Then they accused him and his disciples of not fasting when others were. But Jesus claimed it was time to feast and celebrate, not fast. He said, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” Then they accused him and his disciples of picking grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees considered this to be harvesting. But they were just hungry. So Jesus asked them if they also had a problem with King David eating the consecrated bread in the house of God (imagine scoffing all the communion bread!). Lastly they accused Jesus of healing a man on the Sabbath. They saw this as doing the work of a doctor. But Jesus was not doing it for money; he was simply dishing out the gifts of God to all who needed them.
These laws as understood by the Pharisees formed a very stiff wineskin and the Spirit in Jesus was like new wine – lively, vibrant, and explosive. There was no way it was going to stay within their little containers!
I love this: Jesus said “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2.27). This is a key statement for understanding where Jesus was coming from. The Sabbath was there to restrict the spirit of the world not the Spirit of God. Jews set aside their work and careers once a week to take a rest and focus on their Creator. But the Pharisees application of the law was actually restricting the work of the Creator.
Likewise, the Pharisaic rule of not eating with ‘sinners,’ was designed to stop people becoming ‘sinners.’ The problem is that it also stopped the ‘sinners’ getting the input they badly needed from devout Jews. This powerful new wine was challenging the Pharisaic wineskin.
Through out church history God has poured out his new wine; and whenever he does it challenges the wineskin containing it. The skin must soften or give way. We only need think of Martin Luther and how his message could not be contained by the church of his day. The message soon burst out onto the streets where it found ‘sinners’ needing healing and saving, and the Protestant movement was born.
But it keeps happening, and it keeps challenging. In the 90s we saw new wine poured out in Toronto which started a wave that circled the globe. I remember that my initial reaction was that of a stiff, resistant Pharisee, “Why would God make people laugh for hours? What’s the point of rolling on the floor? Surely this is mass hysteria?” I was a resistant wineskin and I needed softening. Well it only took one touch of the Holy Spirit and my paradigm began to expand. I soon wanted everyone else to have the same experience. At the time I remember someone saying, “Yeah, God offends our minds to reach our hearts.” I think the new wine of the Spirit will always offend minds as he looks for soft hearts that can contain him.
Now, Jesus asks the Pharisees an important question, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (3.4) Here he was asking them to take note of the Spirit and divine heart that gave birth to the law. Whenever we see a law in Scripture, we should ask, “What is the Spirit and heart behind this law?”
When Jesus said “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”, he was pointing to the heart of the Father which is above all law. This underlines an important precept: The Spirit behind the law is always more important than the letter of the law. This is why the New Covenant is a law written on the heart by the Spirit rather than written on tablets of stone (2 Co 3.3).
We need to be careful. It’s easy to become a modern day Pharisee who puts the letter above the Spirit. We could read Paul saying, “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak” (1 Co 14.27). But what if God gives a fourth tongue? Is it forbidden? No! The Spirit and heart behind Paul’s rule is love and order not numbers!
The Old Testament has a verse that says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev 19.28). The context suggests that tattooing in those times was connected to pagan rituals that where performed at the burial of their dead. Since Israel was to avoid pagan religions altogether they were not allowed to tattoo themselves. But what if someone in modern times loves Jesus and wants a tattoo of him on their arm? Do we forbid it? No! To forbid a Jesus tattoo because of a law made to stop pagan rituals in Israel would be putting the letter of the law over the Spirit and heart of the law.
Imagine you are a traffic officer on a motorbike. A car screams past you doing 80kph in a 50kph zone. You give chase and stop the car. You point out to the driver that they have broken the law. The driver apologizes and says their mother on the back seat has had a heart attack and they are rushing them to hospital. If you are a traffic officer that puts the spirit of the law above the letter, you will forget that they broke the speed limit and offer to escort them at high speed to hospital. Why? Because like the Sabbath law the road laws are there to save life, not kill.
Jesus said the two greatest commandments were, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.”He said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mt 22.37-40). Here he was pointing out the Spirit and heart behind the entire law – to love God and each other. If we all did this perfectly we would not even need civil laws or police to enforce them. The Spirit and heart of the law is above the letter of the law. Or said another way; the wine of the Spirit is more important than the wineskin that contains it.
It’s a new year; perhaps you have some new resolutions. But what is God’s plan for you in 2013? Do you sense his new wine within you? If you do, it’s likely to be both exciting and challenging. And so there is a second question. What must you change to be a new wineskin? Only you know what God is doing in you, and what needs to change. Why not give it a few minutes of thought and prayer. Happy New Year!
Other Illustrations: Beggar and Communion Wafers | Jackie Pullinger’s Journey
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