18 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?” 19 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. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 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. 22 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.”
If you were to ask folks to list the great American novels, most people would probably include Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in the list. The story of a mad, obsessed sea captain ruthlessly hunting a great white whale who took his leg earlier in life is truly a work of art and a great accomplishment. Chapter 68 of Moby Dick is entitled “The Funeral.” In this chapter, Melville draws a parallel between the rotting corpse of a whale that the ship, the Pequod, comes across an orthodoxy. By “orthodoxy” is meant, in a general sense, the beliefs that are accepted by most people as true. Listen to the way that Melville likens the whale corpse to orthodoxy.
Desecrated as the body is, a vengeful ghost survives and hovers over it to scare. Espied by some timid man-of-war or blundering discovery-vessel from afar, when the distance obscuring the swarming fowls, nevertheless still shows the white mass floating in the sun, and the white spray heaving high against it; straightway the whale’s unharming corpse, with trembling fingers is set down in the log – shoals, rocks, and breakers hereabouts: beware! And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped there when a stick was held. There’s your law of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There’s orthodoxy!
Melville’s point can be potentially dangerous if it is used to mean that all traditions are haunting corpses or that because some orthodoxies are oppressive and enslave the minds of men therefore all orthodoxies do. This is simply not true. We would argue, of course, that Christian orthodoxy, the gospel, is the most freeing message ever heard on the earth and certainly cannot be likened to a rotting whale corpse.
Even so, Melville’s main point stands: there is something in old beliefs and traditions that can ensnare the minds of men. This can happen to the point that long after men have stopped thinking about a thing or really even believing in it, it exerts a kind of haunting dynamism. Like a rotting whale corpse that people mistake for dangerous rocks, the traditions of man can weigh on our minds with dread and even steer the course of our lives. In this sense, Melville is absolutely correct!
There’s your law of precedents; there’s your utility of traditions; there’s the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air!
In fact, Jesus came up against this reality all of the time. He was forever scandalizing people who had mistaken corpses for rocks, who felt that their assumptions, formed over the years by the traditions of their religious knowledge elites, had real substance and power and needed to be heeded and feared when, in reality, they were merely the decayed and decaying corpses of faulty ideas that had taken root for far too long in their minds.
We see it in the Bible all of the time! Jesus will do something or not do something, the guardians of the old ways will react with absolute shock and dismay at the violation of their traditions, and Jesus will have to show them how their traditions were actually dead things obscuring the truth.
He makes precisely this point in Mark 2:18-22.
Jesus came to bring joy that spills the banks of sorrow.
In this text, the scandal Jesus created was the result of something He and his disciples were not doing.
18 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?”
Jesus’ behavior was scandalous in that He and His disciples were not fasting. In that day and culture, this was a notable faux pas.
William Barclay points out that “in the Jewish religion there was only one day in all the year that was a compulsory fast, and that was the Day of Atonement…[b]ut the stricter Jews fasted on two days every week, on Mondays and Thursdays.” On these days, the Jews fasted from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. “and after that normal food could be eaten.” For the Pharisees, then, this failure to fast was a failure to honor the customs and to do what good and respectable Jews did.
It is strange to see John the Baptist’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees mentioned together. Ronald Kernaghan has made the interesting and helpful observation that “since no particular day of fasting is indicated here, we might conclude that John’s disciples were fasting for another reason. John was in prison awaiting execution, and they were probably fasting in the hope that God would secure his release.” Others, however, like New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, suggest that this “story seems to have come from a time after the death of John the Baptist when his disciples were mourning and fasting…”
If “the people” who question Jesus are from either the party of John’s disciples or the party of the disciples of the Pharisees (and it is not clear that they are), then this adds a most interesting element to the story. Whether John was in prison about to be executed or he had just been executed, there is likely a different motivation in his disciples’ questions to Jesus than in the questions coming from the Pharisees’ camp. In other words, it is most possible that John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees were asking the same question but for very different reasons. The Pharisees wanted to make sure the old ways were rightly regarded as weighty and significant. John the Baptist’s disciples may have been deeply concerned about their friend or deeply grieving over what had just happened to their friend. To them, Jesus and His disciples eating and drinking and even feasting (remember that we have just come from the house of Levi where they reclined at table) would have been eyebrow-raising to say the least. And, in truth, if this is the case, it is eyebrow-raising to us as well, for we know that Jesus did love John the Baptist.
Even so, Jesus and His disciples were not fasting, so “people” came and asked Him why this was. Why, in other words, was Jesus violating their customs and rules? Why is He not doing what good Jewish men did? Jesus’ response is telling.
19 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. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
In response to their questions, Jesus draws on the imagery of weddings. Weddings at that time were big, festive occasions. Essentially, a wedding brought with it an entire week of feasting. Jesus refers to his disciples literally as “the children of the bridal chamber.” Joel Marcus offers some helpful background.
…lit[erally] “the children of the bridal chamber.”…can indicate either the bridegroom’s attendants or the wedding guests in general…In Jewish law wedding guests were freed from certain religious obligations that were deemed to be incompatible with the joy of the occasion; in a tradition attributed to R. Abba b. Zabda…for example, we read that when a wedding occurs during the holiday of Sukkot [i.e., the Feast of Tabernacles], all the wedding guests…are freed from the obligation of living in booths for the seven days of wedding celebration. “What is the reason? Because they have rejoice.”
In other words, Jesus tells those who question him that just as mourning and sorrow and fasting would be inappropriate at a wedding, so too would it be inappropriate for them to fast when He, the bridegroom, is present with His guests or attendants. This image of Christ as the bridegroom was voiced by John the Baptist when, in John 3, he was questioned about Jesus.
25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Jesus Himself will later use the image again in the parable of the ten virgins found in Matthew 25.
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Here again, Christ is the groom who comes for His bride! Paul will famously use in the image in Ephesians 5.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Jesus is the bridegroom and, as the bridegroom, He was present with His people and that meant that His presence signaled the beginning of wedding festivities! Jesus does say, rather ominously, that the day is coming when the fasting and mourning will be appropriate.
20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
This would appear to be a reference to the crucifixion of Christ. The question is whether or not it is also a reference to the ascension of Christ. In other words, does the time of mourning in which fasting is appropriate apply only to the passion of Christ, or does it, in a sense, extend to the entire Church age in which we wait for His return? To be sure, there is a difference between the horror the disciples felt when Christ was crucified and the longing we feel now for the return of Christ, but it is interesting to note that early in Church’s history she advanced fasting as a viable and even vital Christian discipline. Perhaps we might say that Jesus was referring primarily to the events of His crucifixion, but that fasting, properly done, is an appropriate way for the Church today to express its longing for the Bridegroom’s return as well as to express humility and repentance.
Regardless, Jesus’ point is critically important: now that He has come, we cannot continue to mourn as if the domain of darkness and death still hold power and sway over the world. The bridegroom has come, and His coming brings with it a joy that is too large for the confines of sorrow and despair!
The beauty of this is that it shows us what the primary disposition of the people of God should be: joy!
How can we act with sorrow and mourning and despair when Christ has come! How can we act as if death still reigns when life is in our midst?
It is interesting to see how the movies today depict the pagan peoples of the past as primarily joyful, carefree children of the earth and the Christians of the past as dour people preoccupied with sin and bearing great burdens of guilt and shame. David Bentley Hart has argued that, when the sources are examined, the opposite is shown to be true. Pagan peoples were largely terrified of the elemental powers of the universe and Christian people were by and large marked by joy! Here is what Hart says:
This is not to say that Christian culture ever wholly succeeded in resisting contamination by pagan melancholy and gravity, or even that it ever fully purged itself of this unwelcome alloy. But the “new thing” that the gospel imparted to the world in which it was born and grew was something that pagan religion could only occasionally adumbrate but never sustain, and that pagan philosophy would, in most cases, have found shameful to promote: a deep and imperturbable joy.
That is beautifully and well said! Deep and imperturbable joy!
Ours is a day of great stress, worry, and anxiety. There is a conspicuous lack of joy in the world. In fact, it seems as if anger might be the primary disposition of the world today. It is a day of great uncertainty, of great disequilibrium, of despair even. Could it be that in this sad age in which we live the greatest prophetic and evangelistic act the Church today could put forward would be to model a deep, confident, unshakeable joy rooted in the living, abiding, immutable presence of Jesus Christ?
How can we mourn when the Bridegroom is with us?
Jesus came to bring truth that destroys the old order of things that enslave us.
Jesus next offers two fascinating metaphors that describe what He is doing.
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. 22 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.”
The first metaphor is from the world of clothing. It means that a new, unshrunk cloth, if sowed onto an old and already-shrunken cloth will, when it shrinks, destroy the old garment by ripping it apart.
The second metaphor speaks of wine and wineskins. In the ancient world, one would put new wine in new wineskins because when the new wine fermented, gave off gasses, and expanded, the new wineskin would be able to give with it and handle the pressure from within. But if you put new wine in an old wineskin that has already reached the limits of its elasticity, the new wine, once it ferments and gives off its gases, will rupture the old wineskin.
In both instances, Jesus is giving an example of something that is old being unable to handle the new thing that is put either on it or in it. J.C. Ryle summarized these verses to mean “that in religion it is worse than useless to attempt to mix things which essentially differ…The evils that have arisen from trying to sew the new patch on the old garment and put the new wine into old wineskins have been neither few nor small.”
That is true and well said. What Jesus came to pronounce – the gospel – was of such a new and revolutionary character that the old religious and philosophical structures could not handle it. As a result, any attempt simply to mold these differing elements into a harmonious whole would result in ruin. But what is truly interesting is to note how, in the two metaphors Jesus offers, the new element ultimately destroys the old in two ways: (1) by constriction and (2) by expansion.
The gospel is destructive to the old order of things in that it narrows and pulls inward.
In the first metaphor, the old is destroyed by the new when a simple amalgamation is attempted because the new is too narrow.
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.
That is, the new element draws inward (i.e., shrinks), thereby ripping the old apart. And this is true of the gospel. Of the many ways that the gospel offends, one of the ways is its narrowness. Twice in Matthew 7 Jesus speaks of this property of the gospel.
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
The way of the gospel is therefore narrow. The path to destruction is broad. Then, just some verses later, Jesus says:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
The way of the gospel is so narrow that even many who think they are in the Kingdom will find out, in the end, that they are not. In reality, it is not those who use the language of the Kingdom and the language of the gospel, but rather those who are actually in relationship with Jesus who are saved.
There is a narrowness to the gospel. It is narrowly and exclusively centered on Jesus Christ alone. In this sense, Christ was an offense to the religious establishment by centering all truth and power on Himself. And, today, Christ is an offense to modern latitudinarian sensibilities by saying that, in fact, all roads do not lead to Heaven, but only His road. The narrowness and exclusivity of the gospel is a great offense to a modern world that not only disbelieves that truth is found in only one way but also disbelieves that truth exists at all!
The gospel is destructive to the old order of things in that it expands and pushes outwards.
However, the gospel also offends because it is too broad!
22 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.
In other words, there is something about the message of the Kingdom of God as centered in and proclaimed by Jesus that expands outward exploding the rigid confines of the old system. We can see this in the outrage caused in the text immediately preceding our text this morning, when the keepers of the religious gates were scandalized that Jesus ate with tax collectors and other notorious sinners.
The gospel offends because it too narrowly focuses on Jesus and the gospel offends because it too broadly opens the doors of the Kingdom to whosever will come to Christ! What an amazing and beautiful truth this is! To the broad-minded Jesus is too narrow. To the narrow-minded Jesus is too broad.
I believe that Spurgeon hit on this perfectly when he said that the door of Heaven is so wide the whole world can enter in shoulder to shoulder but so low that nobody can enter except on their knees! Whosoever will may come…but only through Christ can whosoever will come!
What a wonderful series of truths Jesus lays out in this episode in the gospel of Mark! Weddings, clothes, and wine: they are all connected. All speak of the insufficiency of the old way to make sense of or even to handle what Jesus is doing in the world.
Perhaps you feel this in yourself? Perhaps you yourself have felt that the pulsating power of the gospel of Christ is a threat to the old assumptions and categories that used to drive your life? No doubt it is! This is the beauty of the narrow-broad gospel of Jesus: it shatters the old, but, in so doing, it makes all things new.
Come to the Christ who threatens the old ways! Come to the Christ who invites us into the eternal truths the Kingdom and the good news of the gospel.
It is, in fact, as old as time and older still! And yet, it is ever new and ever renewing! Come to the wedding feast where mourning and sorrow are now eclipsed by uncontainable joy! Come and be dressed by the One who takes off the old garment and clothes us in His righteousness! And come and partake of the new wine that bursts the old wineskins!
Come to Jesus!
 Herman Melville. Moby Dick. (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1988), p. 329-330.
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark. The Daily Study Bible. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1971), p.52.
 Ronald J. Kernaghan, Mark. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol.2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p.64.
 Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), p.124.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8. The Anchor Bible. Vol.27 (New Haven, CT: The Anchor Yale Bible, 2005), p.233.
 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions. Kindle, 1932-35.
 J.C. Ryle, Mark. The Crossway Classic Commentaries. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), p.24-25.