Matthew 9:14-17

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Matthew 9

 14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

I love memes, those popular and oft-repeated sayings, often attached to images, that make their periodic rounds via social media or text or simply conversation. One I really like is “Metaphors Be With You!” Get it? It is playing off the Star Wars line, “May the Force be with you!” I know, I know. Corny, but fun.

Metaphors are great tools to employ in descriptive communication. A metaphor is an image that captures a truth and advances communication. Some people have a weak metaphor game and some people have a strong one. Jesus’ was strong! He used metaphors frequently. In fact, scripture is filled with metaphors.

In Matthew 9:14-17 Jesus employs two metaphors in responding to John the Baptists’ disciples who approach Him with a question. Here is the question:

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”

It was a reasonable question. Fasting was part and parcel of righteous living among the Jews, even if it was seemingly often corrupted by self-righteousness and showy, empty religion. Rightly practiced, it was an act of mortification and was generally seen as a holy thing to do. So, yes, this was a reasonable question.

The fact that John’s disciples ask this of Jesus shows that there was some confusion between the camps while there remained a unity of purpose and deep appreciation. John and his followers were not attacking Jesus. They appear to have been honestly trying to understand. Frank Stagg sums up the dynamic between John and Jesus like this:

There is no evidence of a clash between John and Jesus, although it is explicit that John was at least puzzled over the ministry of Jesus (11:2f.), and for some time there were those who followed John and not Jesus (cf. Acts 19:1-7). Jesus held John in high esteem, but differed from him.[1]

It is because of this that John’s disciples ask their question about fasting. Why do they fast but the disciples of Jesus do not? In his answer, Jesus employs three metaphors. We will consider two of those here, for the second and third are very similar.

The wedding metaphor.

The metaphor is a wedding metaphor.

15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

As we will see, this was a profoundly theologically rich image that had numerous implications.

The Identity of Jesus

First, by employing the wedding metaphor, Jesus was saying something about His own identity.

15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?

He refers to His disciples as “wedding guests” and to Himself as “the bridegroom.” Many of His original Jewish hearers would have at this point or later upon further reflection likely been scandalized by this usage of the word “bridegroom” in relation to Himself. Why? Because it is an image used of God in the Old Testament.

In Isaiah 62, for instance, we read:

5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

Here, God is clearly likened to a rejoicing bridegroom. In Hosea 2 this idea is taken even further by the Lord God Himself.

19 And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. 20 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.

What we see in this metaphor is a powerful statement about the identity of Jesus Himself. He is truly God with us!

The Nature of Jesus’ Mission

Furthermore, this image says something about Jesus’ mission.

15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

Jesus comes to call us into a loving, celebratory union of joy and hope. His mission is not to press joyless servitude among miserable and frightened servants. It is to invite us into a union of love! God’s relationship to His covenant people is therefore a marital relationship. He is the bridegroom and we are the bride. This image was appealed to by Paul in Ephesians 5 when he spoke of Jesus’ relationship to the church:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 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’ statement that the guests do not fast while the bridegroom is with them is telling. “Wedding participants and guests were freed from religious obligations, including fasting,” writes Frank Stagg, “during the seven days of the wedding celebrations.”[2] And, in His earthly incarnate state, Jesus was with His people physically. This setting aside of fasting was therefore a picture of what life in glory will be like! “The Christian life is a feast, not a funeral,” writes Warren Wiersbe.[3]

The Coming of Jesus’ Passion

There is an ominous note in these words as well, however.

15 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them…

It has been argued that this is Jesus’ first allusion to the coming crucifixion in the gospel of Matthew. Here, the Lord begins to prepare His disciples for the fact that the bridegroom will be “taken away.” It is a reference to the crucifixion, but also to the ascension. In other words, He will not remain with them forever in His manifest incarnation. He will return to the Father.

The Life of the Church

Tacked onto the end of this announcement of His being “taken away” is a statement about what life will be like for the church between the ascension and the second coming.

15 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

When Jesus is with His people, we do not fast. We are intended to live lives of celebration and peace and joy in the presence of Jesus. In the in-between time—that time between the ascension and return of Jesus—that state should continue for Christ is ever with His people and we are indwelt by the Spirit of God! Even so, fasting resumes its place in the in-between as we wait in anticipation of the bridegroom’s return.

Even so, Christian fasting is different than what fasting had become in first century Judaism. Frederick Dale Bruner points out that “in later Judaism fasting became meritorious” and that “the early church’s occasional and unprogrammed fasting (see Acts 13:2-3; 14:23) can teach the appropriateness of free fasting at special times.” He then asks, “Is it significant that Paul never mentions fasting?”[4]

Fasting in the church is different in that it is not a legalistic prescription. As Bruner says, it appears to have been “occasional and unprogrammed” in the life of the early church. Secondly, it is not meritorious. We are not seeking to gain the favor of God. We are rather, in fasting, seeking to remove impediments in our lives so that we might live rightly in unhindered relationship with Jesus. Thirdly, it is anticipatory. We fast looking forward to the return of the bridegroom!

So, yes, in this time in which Christ, though with us through the Spirit, is not bodily with us as He was when He walked with His disciples, the church may fast, but it does so on this side of an empty tomb and it does so with earnest and joyful expectation for the return of the Lord Jesus.

The wineskins metaphor.

Jesus then offers two more metaphors.

16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

I am going to focus on the wineskin metaphor for it is essentially the same as that of the patch and garment but offers more vivid nuance. The two metaphors are similar in that both warn against adding an element to an existing entity that will not fit within or work with that entity. Thus, an unshrunk cloth patch put on an old garment will, when it shrinks, tear the garment. Similarly, unfermented wine put in an old skin will, when it expands during fermentation, destroy the old skin.

The Nature of the Kingdom

In saying these things Jesus was pointing us to the nature of the Kingdom of God and His definitive work in revealing it and ushering it in. In short, the Kingdom of God is like fermenting wine. It bubbles and expands. It is alive. It has vitality and energy and cannot be contained.

The institutional Judaism of the day was like an old wineskin. It had maxed out its “stretchiness,” so to speak, under the tension of added rules and strictures. It had done all that it could do and, with its human additions, had placed burdens on the shoulders of God’s people.

These two realities—the new wine of the Kingdom and the old structure of first century Judaism—could not abide together. What Jesus had come to proclaim and demonstrate could not fit within the structure as the religious elites had shaped and contrived it.

The Kingdom of God is therefore a very real threat to religion. The religious leaders clearly understood this. Thus their hostility to Jesus.

But we must be careful here. Jesus did not come to destroy “Judaism.” Jesus was a Jew! He came to fulfill the true faith. He was the point of it all along. All the covenants and promises and all the writings of the prophets—indeed, all of the scriptures of Israel—had been pointing to Jesus. But the religious leaders with their old wineskins could not see this. His threat was not to Judaism. His threat was to what it had become.

In saying what he said about wine and wineskins Jesus was therefore proclaiming a new day, a day in which the Kingdom had come and yet was coming, a day in which the old and tired and worn-out religious edifice that had been built, at least in part, upon the backs of those who labored to live “up to code” was now being burst by the fermenting Kingdom that spills the banks of human religiosity.

Jesus was the hope of Israel, but Jesus was a nightmare to Israel’s religious controllers.

Nothing sums up what Jesus was saying and how offensive it was than Jesus’ short synagogue sermon in Luke 4.

16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Good news.

Liberty.

Recovering of sight

The year of the Lord’s favor.

All of this was happening in Jesus and the opposition of the religious rulers was simply evidence that this new wine of the Kingdom could not be contained in their old wineskins.

There is something exhilarating about this, something that feels so revolutionary. That is because it is revolutionary!

To follow Jesus is step into the adventure of the fermentation of the living, expanding, and, to old wineskins, exploding Kingdom of God! To follow Jesus is to leave the old and inevitably frustrating and dispiriting efforts at pleasing God through religious observance behind and to, instead, walk in the way of the King of Kings!

The Kingdom of God invites us into relationship and relationship is always superior to mere observance, no matter how earnest and intense that observance might be.

The old wineskins cannot contain what Jesus is doing. This is the answer to the question posed by John’s disciples. This old approach to fasting had to be rethought in light of the coming of Jesus. Everything was changing! The Bridegroom had come! The old wineskin—the old way of thinking about religious observances and what they mean and ostensibly accomplish—was bursting in the presence of the one who calls us into a living, dynamic relationship of joy and hope and life and proclamation!

The King has come! Everything is now different. And may we praise God for that!

 

[1] Frank Stagg, “Matthew.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Gen. ed., Clifton J. Allen. Vol.8 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.129.

[2] Frank Stagg, p.130.

[3] Wiersbe, Warren W.. Be Loyal (Matthew): Following the King of Kings (The BE Series Commentary) (p. 81). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.

[4] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. Vol.1. Revised & Expanded Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), p.424.

 

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