Mark 2:18–22 (CSB) — 18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. People came and asked him, “Why do John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the groom is with them, can they? As long as they have the groom with them, they cannot fast. 20 But the time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. 21 No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new patch pulls away from the old cloth, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost as well as the skins. No, new wine is put into fresh wineskins.”
QUESTION: “when Jesus is asked about fasting by John’s disciples and the Pharisees, why does he say that there need to be different wine-skins since both sides do fast?”
There are three primary texts to draw from: Matthew 9:14–17; Mark 2:18–22; Luke 5:33–39.
Mark shows that both the Pharisees and the disciples of John were fasting and that “some people” asked this question, while Luke only shows the Pharisees coming to Jesus, and Matthew only shows the disciples of John coming to Jesus. Mark’s account seems to be the harmony, suggesting that it was probably some from both the Pharisees and John’s disciples approaching Jesus. Notably, both groups were adhering to Jewish customs of asceticism as their form for fasting and religious observance. In the law only the fast of the Day of Atonement was required (Lev 16:29, 31; 23:27–32; Num 29:7), but after the Exile four other annual fasts were observed by Jews (Zech 7:5; 8:19). By NT times the stricter Pharisees fasted twice a week (Monday and Thursday; cf. Luke 18:12). For both the Pharisees and John’s disciples, in both instances fasting was a sign of true piety, which was not the construct that Jesus used for fasting.
Jesus’ response uses three illustrations, to which Luke 5:39 adds a fourth, all of which are given in the same order and setting by the Synoptics, which reasonably validates harmonizing these accounts since they all seem to functionally use this story to accomplish much the same purpose.
Notably, Matthew gives this account at the conclusion of the second section of his narrative-account of Jesus’ ministry that immediately follows after the Sermon on the Mount. This second section progresses with Jesus’ authority over nature (8:24-27), his authority over demons (vv.28-34), his authority over sin (9:1-8), his desire for mercy over the sacrifices of the old religious system (vv.9-12), and the dawning of a new age (vv.13-17). Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (6:16-18) already challenged the Jewish ascetic forms with the new reality and purpose of fasting, which is given for the purpose of seeking the presence of God (v.18, “who is in secret“).
(NASB95) — 19 And Jesus said to them, “While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
Jesus answers their question about why they don’t follow the ascetic form of fasting according to Jewish customs in a parable, which likely draws the “guests of the bridegroom” metaphor from John the Baptist, who saw himself as the “best man” and Jesus as “the groom” (John 3:29).
The emphasis of this parable is on finding joy in the presence of Christ, who is the bridegroom. He is introducing them to an entirely new construct for fasting, which is centered entirely on joy in the presence of God, and he knew that this construct was not compatible with the Jewish ascetic forms of fasting, which were centered on personal piety.
Jesus defends his disciples by using messianic-eschatological terms: the Old Testament bridegroom metaphor was repeatedly applied to God (Isa 54:5–6; 62:4–5; Hos 2:16–20); and Jews sometimes used it of marriage in connection with the Messiah’s coming or with the messianic banquet (cf. Matt 22:2; 25:1; 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:23–32; Rev 19:7, 9; 21:2). Thus Jesus’ answer was implicitly Christological: he himself is the messianic bridegroom, and the Messianic Age has dawned.
This is his primary answer to their question about fasting: there is no reason to fast when you are in the presence of the bridegroom.
(NASB95) — 21 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. 22 “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
In practical terms, a piece of unshrunk cloth tightly sewed to old and well-shrunk cloth in order to repair a tear will cause a bigger tear (2:21). Skin bottles for carrying various fluids were made by killing the chosen animal, cutting off its head and feet, skinning the carcass, and sewing up the skin, fur side out, to seal off all orifices but one (usually the neck). The skin was tanned with special care to minimize disagreeable taste. In time the skin became hard and brittle. If new wine, still fermenting, were put into such an old skin, the buildup of fermenting gases would split the brittle container and ruin both bottle and wine. New wine was placed only in new wineskins still pliable and elastic enough to accommodate the pressure.
These illustrations support Jesus’ primary answer by explaining why he is using a different construct for fasting. He was showing the Jews that what he was ushering in could not simply be patched onto old Judaism or poured into the old wineskins of Judaism. New forms would have to accompany what Jesus was now inaugurating. To try to domesticate him and incorporate him into the matrix of established Jewish religion would only succeed in ruining both Judaism and Jesus’ teaching.
As Jesus demonstrated with his authority over nature (Matthew 8:24-27), over demons (vv.28-34), over sin (9:1-8), and by his desire for mercy over the sacrifices of the old religious system (vv.9-12), it was fully within his Messianic authority to usher in “new wine” into “new wineskins“.
Exegesis: Matthew 9:17
(NASB95) — 17 “Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”
The phrase, “and both are preserved”, which is found only in Matthew, needs some careful attention in order to avoid coming to critical errors.
Some have taken this expression to mean that both Judaism and Christianity will be preserved, but careful exegetical observation demonstrates that the object of the term “both” refers to the “new wine” that is put into “fresh wineskins”; what Jesus is ushering in must be poured into new forms if both the form and its content are to survive. This is why it is Matthew who includes explicit references to the Church (16:18; 18:17). In other words, they were trying to fit the content of Jesus’ teaching into the old Jewish forms, which is why they couldn’t understand his actions, and which Jesus was warning would break both his content and the old Jewish forms since the content of Jesus’ teaching was not compatible with the old Jewish forms.
When we study this text we might come away with the conclusion that Jesus’ parables about the new wine and new wineskins don’t seem to fit within the question being asked about fasting. But what we discover is that, while these illustrations certainly do seem to go beyond the question of fasting, they only seem to go beyond the question of fasting to the extent necessary to lay the groundwork for the coherence of Jesus’ answer about fasting.
What Jesus is ushering in cannot be reduced to, or contained by traditions of Jewish piety. The messianic bridegroom has come. These parables bring unavoidable and radical implications for the entire structure of Jewish religion as its leaders then conceived it.