New Wineskins

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”

  Jesus, John 7:37, 38

On a given day at a specific hour only known to the Father (Matthew 24:36), Jesus will return in glory.  Every man and woman who has ever lived will be appraised, evaluated and measured solely in terms of their relationship with the Carpenter from Nazareth.  The Nazarene Carpenter did not simply refine Aristotelian ethics; he did not merely reorder Old Testament spirituality; he did not simply renovate the old creation.  He initiated a revolution.  We must renounce all that we possess not just most of it (Luke 14:33).  We must give up the old way of life, not just correct some aberrations in it (Ephesians 4:22).  We are to be an altogether new creation, not a refurbished version of it (Galatians 6:15).  We are to be transformed from one glory to another, even in the very image of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18).  Our minds are to be renewed by spiritual revolution (Ephesians 4:23).

 – Brennan Manning, The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus

The Encounter

 33They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.” 

 34Jesus answered, “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? 35But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.” 

 36He told them this parable: “No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ “

Luke 5:33-39  

Some Observations

This encounter follows Jesus’ eating and drinking with tax collectors and “sinners” at Matthew’s house after Matthew began following Jesus.  We can infer that Jesus likely had some of his disciples with him at the party based on the way the question is posed.  When Jesus says to “follow me,” it is an invitation to learn everything about him, from his teaching, to his priorities, to his mission, to how he acts in different social situations.

The Pharisees try to catch him again, this time using John’s disciples’ ascetic lifestyle as a challenge to Jesus’ seemingly less rigid way.  Jesus responds with another hint of his deity as he refers to himself as the bridegroom.  The wedding metaphor suggests the celebratory mood of the kingdom – God has broken into the world to redeem it through Christ!

Jesus’ reference to fasting after the bridegroom is taken indicates there are indeed appropriate times for sorrow, fasting, etc.  The life of the disciple is therefore neither a round-the-clock party, nor is it an ascetic withdrawal from the world God created.  Taking joy in God’s love, grace and provision for us should be a common factor in both states, whether we are celebrating or experiencing sorrow.

Jesus then moves on to new/old patches and new/old wineskins.  He is hinting here at how different his teaching will be from what everyone expects.  He will neither affirm the legalistic Pharisees nor will he deny the call to righteousness for sinners that live under his grace and forgiveness.  As Brennan Manning says above, Jesus brings not just some minor alterations to existing teaching and practice, rather a revolution; total renunciation of the old life to enter the new; becoming new creations, not updated versions of the old man or woman, but total transformation.

Jesus did not come to reform the old system, but to replace it.  Jesus also recognizes how hard accepting his new way will be when he says, “No one who after drinking the old wants for the new.”  We are very locked into the patterns, ideas and assumptions that we have built our lives around and our orientation is to bolt Jesus onto the existing frame.  

Jesus claims that such cosmetic changes and behavior modification are not what he intends for his followers.   Rather we are to become new men and women, transformed into his image in all dimensions of our lives: more loving, graceful, wise, sacrificial, patient, kind, peaceful, servant-like, etc. with a sense of purpose that transcends our self-seeking default.

This is the call of discipleship.  Becoming more like Christ means knowing him more thoroughly as the disciples did when they left everything to follow him and learn from everything he did and said.  To state what we all know from firsthand experience, becoming a Christian (accepting God’s grace through Christ as our way of reconciliation to God) does not mean you automatically become Christ-like.

The decisions to believe in Jesus as our Savior (monumentally important indeed!) and to become a true follower and disciple of Jesus are discrete, but should be intimately linked.  Given the lack of evidence of transformation in the lives of many people self-describing themselves as Christians, it appears that many have affirmed the first decision while answering no to the second (perhaps by ignoring that such a mandate from Jesus exists).

As daunting as becoming Christ-like may seem – we all see way too much of the old man/woman daily – we know that this transformation is possible.  We see it repeatedly through Scripture in the lives of a bunch of fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, persecutors and even Pharisees.  With God all things are possible – his Spirit is at work in us to bring forth change and fruit that we cannot manufacture on our own.

Much of contemporary neuroscience supports the idea that such transformation (how we think and act) can indeed occur and that our brains are designed in a way that makes this eminently possible.  The brain’s “plasticity” permits changes of the physical structure of our brains – rewiring of neurons and synapses to support new ways of thinking and acting, while connections facilitating the “old” behavior weaken and atrophy – based on new patterns and a redirected will.  Of course, such new behavior patterns and a re-ordered will are generated from a transformed heart through the work of the Spirit in sanctification.  New grooves replace old grooves over time as we follow Jesus and seek to emulate his thinking and behavior, with the Spirit at work on our hearts throughout as the generative force to reshape and transform our minds.


“I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion.  To fear the Lord and to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.  Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have understanding and power.  By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth.  I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.”

  Proverbs 8:12-17

A Prayer

“As for God, his way is perfect; for the word of the Lord is flawless.  He is a shield for all who take refuge in him.  For who is God besides the Lord?  And who is the Rock except our God?  It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect.  He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.  He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze.  You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; you stoop down to make me great.  You broaden the path beneath me, so that my ankles do not turn.”

  Psalm 18:30-36