January 10, 2015
Well, it’s that time of the year for resolutions, diets and exercise. All three are typically broken rather quickly, but let’s talk about diet for a moment. There are lots of diet fads that surface from year to year – I’ve seen many come and go. For example, it seems like Whole30 is the rage today – how many of you have heard of it? How many have done it? How many are doing it? If you don’t know, Whole30 is a thirty day diet/cleanse in which you do not eat sugar, grains, dairy and legumes or beans. No fried foods, no sweet tea or soda for that matter. You’re basically confined to meat, vegetables and fruit.
Now, why in the world would anyone choose not to eat sugar, cheese and bread – as far as I’m concerned, three staples of life? After all, Jesus said, I am the bread of life – He did not say, I am the broccoli of life. Because, they tell us, it’s physically healthy. So, healthy people out there encourage us to eat, or in this case, not eat certain foods. Why, they ask, are you eating, when we’re not? And the implication is, we’re healthy, and you’re not.
That is the question some people asked Jesus in our text this morning. Why are we not eating, and you are? And the implication is, we’re spiritually healthy, we’re good, and you’re not. Read it with me – Mark 2:18-22. Read.
Is that clear to everyone? This is the third of five stories in a row in our study in Mark in which we see rising opposition to Jesus. The first two stories had to do with forgiving sinners – the last two will have to do with the Sabbath. In the middle, this one has to do with fasting – actually, much more – Jesus is saying, you can’t put the good news of the gospel – the teaching of the kingdom of God in old wineskins of the Old Covenant. This opposition will culminate in chapter 3 when the religious leaders begin to scheme to kill Him. Of course, Mark makes it clear later in the book, that’s why He came – not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
Last week – and there’s actually an intentional flow here we need to catch – last week, we saw Jesus call Matthew, a tax collector, to be a follower – not only that, one of the Twelve. Then, Jesus attended Matthew’s party – a room full of tax collectors and sinners. You see, the old system, especially the way it had evolved into the tradition of the elders, never would have done that. Sinners were not welcome. So, the scribes of the Pharisees were indignant, asking why Jesus would eat with such riff-raff. To which Jesus responded with those words, I came to call sinners – so I spend time with sinners.
We need to understand something here – Jesus is deliberately doing two things. First, He’s calling sinners – the irreligious into His kingdom. Look at His list of followers so far – fishermen, women, lepers, paralytics, tax collectors and sinners. Quite a group, in that day. And second, He is intentionally challenging the traditions of the elders – the teaching that supposedly made you spiritually healthy. Do this if you want to be healthy like us. You need to fast like we do. But in the end, Jesus is going to prove, following rules for rules sake are of no value. Following rules to make yourself acceptable to God will not work. You might be able to follow rules you made up – don’t eat on Mondays and Thursdays – but you would never be able to follow God’s rules – God’s law. Thank God for the gospel.
In verse 18, some disciples of John and the Pharisees, came to Him and asked a question, “Why do we fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” This was yet another indictment against Jesus – you see, disciples did what their leader taught or did – so Jesus wasn’t fasting – in fact, He was feasting with sinners.
Jesus responded to that question with some seemingly nonsensical words. What in the world is He saying? We need to do some digging, but I think you’ll see how it all fits together. Here’s what I want you to see at the beginning – fasting for fasting’s sake is of no value. Doing anything – any spiritual discipline without God as the spiritual end – is of no value. So we have to ask ourselves, why do we do what we do – why do we read the Bible? Why do we pray? Why do we go to church? If the end is because you’re supposed to, so you can check a box, so you can look spiritual, then it’s of no value. The end of all our activity should be to serve Christ well, and know Him better.
Now, there is a place for fasting – a time for saying no to food, and perhaps other things. And we are living in a time when we should consider putting away food, and pursuing something – Someone – much greater. We’ll talk about that later. For now, we’re going to break the text down into two parts:
- First, Jesus is going to answer their question in verses 18-20.
- Then second, recognizing there’s an underlying problem that prompted this question, that He’s going to expose. He’s going to give two parables to illustrate a very important kingdom truth in verses 21-22.
Let’s begin with the question and its answer in verses 18-20. The disciples of John – that is John the Baptist – and the disciples of the Pharisees – that is, those who seeking to follow the tradition of the elders, asked Jesus a question. Now, you may remember from Mark 1 that John was in prison by this time. His disciples came to Jesus and said, Look, we fast. The Pharisees and their disciples fast. Why don’t your disciples fast? Isn’t that the spiritual thing to do?
Before we look at Jesus’ answer, let me ask you a question – why did the Pharisees, and unfortunately, maybe even these disciples of John, fast? That would be a hard question for them to answer. Do you fast – they liked that question. Yes we do. Why do you fast? They didn’t know. Well, because it was the spiritual thing to do.
You see, while the Old Testament only required a fast once a year on the Day of Atonement, the tradition of the elders said, if you really want to be spiritual, fast twice a week – on Mondays and Thursdays. Now, it’s possible the party at Matthew’s house was on a Monday or a Thursday – which meant, while the spiritual people were fasting, Jesus and His disciples were feasting. Spiritual people don’t feast on those days – they fast. What for? Who cares – just do it. Why you fasted didn’t matter. What mattered was that you did – that’s what spiritual people do. And by this time, not only did they fast fastidiously, they made sure everyone knew they fasted. They neglected their appearance, they didn’t wash their faces, they walked around looking all gloomy so everyone would say, they must be fasting – look how spiritual they are. To which Jesus said, “Paid in full – you just got your reward.”
Along with fasting, they did other things to prove their piety. They prayed, and, oh, did they pray. They prayed long, ostentatious prayers – publicly, on the street corners and in the synagogues, to be seen by men. They weren’t praying to God, they were praying to be seen – paid in full – you have your reward. They also tithed – and they were careful to tithe everything. They tithed on their mint and dill and cumin – they even counted out spice leaves to the very last one to make sure to follow the Law, at least the way they interpreted it. And when they tithed, they sounded a trumpet to make sure everyone knew they were giving. Paid in full – you have your reward. The point is, everything they did, they did for show, to be seen by men; not as a testimony to their commitment to God, not to serve and know God, but as spiritual merit badges to glorify themselves. I want you to remember that – the things they did were just external shows. It was a system of self-righteous piety – it had nothing to do with God. So why do you do what you do?
They fasted alright, but they were totally oblivious to God when they did it. Which helps understand Jesus’ answer. He said, “While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”
In those days, the wedding feast usually lasted about seven days. The bridegroom would choose his best friends as attendants to be responsible for the festivities – to keep things moving along. You think it’s tough being the wedding planner today – try keeping a party moving for seven days. The wedding party, was of course, a time for feasting and celebration. It wasn’t a time for fasting and mourning – unless you missed the wedding bouquet, again.
Jesus was the bridegroom. His disciples were the attendants. Just a side note – there is not an Old Testament concept of the Messiah being the bridegroom. This is a new concept – one which the church fully capitalized on. Jesus is the bridegroom, the church is His bride. However, it is true that the OT spoke of God as the bridegroom and Israel and His bride – so this is yet another veiled way in which Jesus claims deity.
It didn’t make sense for the attendants to fast while the bridegroom was still there. This was a time for feasting. The fact is – you don’t fast just to fast. You fast in response to what’s going on around you. Fasting is in response to brokenness, to mourning, to hungering and thirsting for something besides food. If you fast every Monday, because, well, that’s what you do – and there is no compelling, God-centered reason to fast, you’re wasting your time – it doesn’t make sense.
But now let me be clear – if you choose to fast on Mondays to pursue your relationship with God – or pursue something with God – that’s great. What you don’t do is fast for fasting’s sake.
Now, some want go to the other extreme and say, see we don’t fast anymore, right? Yes we do. We do fast – the bridegroom is not here anymore. And it’s okay to schedule a fast – in response to what God is doing in your life. Again, my point is, if you schedule fasts on Fridays because, well, spiritual people fast, then you’re wasting your time.
Please notice something else. Jesus said, there will come a time to fast: that is, when the bridegroom is taken away. The word for “taken away” can carry with it the idea of a sudden removal, of something being taken away violently. Jesus was referring to His own death, when He would be forcefully and violently taken from His disciples at the cross.
Then would be the time to mourn. Then would be the time to fast. Is fasting still acceptable and warranted today? You bet it is. We see the early church continued to fast. Why, then, do we fast? To know and serve God better – more closely, more intimately. In times of brokenness. In times of mourning. In times of hungering and thirsting for something that food will never satisfy. I’ve told you this before – in his book, A Hunger for God, John Piper suggests we fast – that is, we put away God’s gift of food to concentrate on the Giver more than His gifts. We are saying, God, as much as I love food, You are more important to me than food.
One very important reason we fast is implied in this text – we fast because we long for the bridegroom – we hunger for God, so we put food aside to express our desire to see Jesus – to see the bridegroom come back. There are lots of other reasons to fast, but in the context of this passage – longing for Jesus is a good reason. That, of course, is truly a spiritual response. We don’t fast on Thursdays to be spiritual or because we want people to know we’re spiritual – we fast on Thursdays because we long for the Savior – we fast because we are spiritual, and we want Jesus.
Now, the point of their question was this: they were concerned that Jesus didn’t meet the external requirements of the day which told people you were spiritual. You pray, but you don’t pray like us. They were impressed with all Jesus was doing, but there was something missing – you’re not following the traditions of the elders – you’re not doing what we think spiritual people do. Why are you focusing on internal things like forgiveness, when our religion focuses on external things? How can you forgive people like a paralytic, how can you call sinners like Matthew, how can you party with tax collectors and prostitutes? You don’t fit into our system. You see, there was a deeper problem here, and Jesus knew it.
- Which brings us to our second point. Seeing the broader issue, Jesus gives them two parables to help them, and us, understand an important kingdom truth, verses 21 and 22.
Jesus uses a couple of very earthy illustrations – parables, Luke calls them – which everyone would have understood, to teach a kingdom principle. If you sew a piece of unshrunk or new cloth, usually linen or wool, onto an old article of clothing, when you wash it and the new piece of cloths shrinks, it will pull away for the old material, causing a bigger hole. It won’t work – everybody knows that.
So also, if you pour new wine into old wineskins, it won’t work. They knew that, too. Wineskins were made of tanned, specially treated hides that had only been cut at the neck and feet of the animal. The legs were sewn shut, the neck was left open for pouring, but tied tightly with a string to prevent spilling. Doesn’t sound too appetizing – drinking red stuff coming out of something that still looks like an animal. Old wineskins would eventually dry out and become brittle. If you poured new wine into it, the fermenting process would cause the skin to expand, causing the old wineskin to crack and burst, spilling the new wine. The only suitable container for new wine was a new, pliable wineskin.
What is Jesus saying? He’s dealing with the deeper issue. He says, you want the kingdom and kingdom truths to fit an old cloth. You want it to fit in old wineskins. It doesn’t work that way. The old system of legalism, the old system of traditions and rituals have to go. They have no place in My kingdom. I am not willing to be added to your rituals, to your systems, to breathe life into them, to make them better. They don’t mix. The gospel of forgiveness and grace and cleansing cannot be attached to the old and external traditions of self-righteousness and ritual – they don’t go together. The external, legalistic, self-righteous system of traditional and ritualistic Judaism doesn’t fit with the ministry and message of Jesus. Don’t try to mix them up – they don’t go together.
Which is why self-righteous people never fit into the kingdom. They’re always trying to mix their works with grace. That doesn’t work. And that’s why only sinners fit. They know they have nothing to offer – the bring nothing to the equation – it’s grace plus nothing else. That’s why Jesus ate with sinners. That’s why He healed paralytics and lepers. That’s why He calls tax collectors and sinners. They don’t try to bring old cloth and old wineskins. With them, everything is new – as it should be.
Which brings us to our conclusion, and you’re asking the question, okay, fine Scott – most of us aren’t Jews, we never have followed the traditions of the elders – I don’t even like dieting, let alone fasting – what does all of this have to do with us? Good question – let me make an application for us. We can create our own old cloth and our own old wineskins if we’re not careful. What do I mean?
We may not struggle with the legalism of the Pharisees – requiring people to fast twice a week, or tithe our spice leaves – but if we’re not careful, we can start identifying certain behaviors as being the things that spiritual people do. I want you to understand something. The guys that came and asked Jesus the question that day were not just Pharisees. They were disciples of John. Which means, they were genuine God-seekers. But they were God seekers who had become tangled up with spiritual activity for the sake of the activity. You see, even genuine God seekers, evangelicals, Bible believing people, Alliance people, can get steeped in ritual and tradition if we’re not careful. We can create our own systems of spirituality. And if you don’t do those things, you’re not spiritual. And we can start viewing people because of what they do, or don’t do – and therefore not being quite as good as us.
Religious ritual and routine have always been dangers to true godliness. Even if it’s not wrong by itself, when form becomes more important than function, when it becomes lifeless routine, we’ve created an old wineskin. And if we’re not careful, the form will break, and we’ll spill the wine of the Spirit of God. That’s what the wine refers to here – true life, spiritual life, in the kingdom. Listen to me – true spiritual life, is not in the wineskin – it’s in the wine.
So, if spirituality is seen in how we pray, in how we worship, in the kinds of songs or hymns or choruses we sing or don’t sing, in what days we attend church or don’t attend church, in what instruments we use or don’t use, in doing things the way we’ve always done them, because, well, we’ve always done it that way, then we’ve created an old wineskin. And we can do certain things all our lives because we’ve always done it that way, and it can lose its meaning. Some of you pray before meals because you feel guilty if you don’t. Some of you are here this morning, not because you’re drawn to God, but you feel guilty if you don’t come. And some of those activities have become mechanical, ritual, and altogether useless.
And my prayer for us is this: if there is anything we do for the sake of the form, I pray the new wine of the Spirit of God will crack and burst the wineskin, leaving us scrambling to find a new one. More than anything, I want our forms to draw us to God and His grace. Anything that puts us or our practices at the center have to go. They are old wineskins that can never contain the grace and Spirit of God.
I always want us examine what we do. Why do we do what we do on Sundays? At small group? On Wednesdays? Was it something that used to be meaningful that has lost its meaning? If so – it’s become an old wineskin that has to go. Bottom line as we close is this. In our relationship with Christ, what Jesus is looking for is reality, not ritual. Let me say that again, in our relationship with Christ, what Jesus is looking for is reality, not ritual. Why do we do what we do? Is there life, or is it just legalism? I want us to be a different church – so that when we come in – when people come in – we leave, they leave, saying – wow – that was different. I’m not talking about creativity – I’m talking about life. I want us to leave saying, we met with God today.