New Wine for New Wineskins

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. 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.”

- Mark 2:21-22

Christians have, throughout the history of the church, created many religious structures and rituals in order to develop a closer walk with God. At their best, things such as prayer books, specific patterns of spiritual disciplines, and other devotional aids have served as helpful frameworks that have assisted many people in deepening their piety. At their worst, when things that have not been given immediately by God are treated as having been given directly by the Lord Himself, they have become burdensome in the church. This reality shows how careful we must be not to treat good things as ultimate things, that we must not allow useful spiritual practices to become markers of salvation when our Creator has not made them such.

Sometimes, the need for reform is so great that the fresh work of God cannot be contained in old or expected forms. Jesus makes this essential point in Mark 2:21–22. This teaching comes right after the people’s confusion about why Christ was not engaging in the practice of fasting as the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees did. As we noted in our study of verses 18–20, Jesus did not condemn fasting itself; rather, He said that His presence meant it was not time to abstain from celebration. He did not conform to their expectations of piety, not because their views of piety were entirely wrong but because God was doing a new thing. If they were to receive Him, they would have to adjust their expectations and not try to contain the new in the forms of the old.

To do otherwise would cause spiritual damage, as Jesus’ illustration reveals. After a piece of clothing has been washed many times, it has shrunk to a point where it cannot shrink any further. Used wineskins have been stretched as far as they will go without bursting by the gases produced by the fermentation of fresh wine. If one tries to mend a shrunken piece of cloth with a new patch, the patch will eventually shrink and tear away from the shrunken cloth, because the shrunken cloth will have no give left in it. Similarly, the gases produced by fermenting wine will stretch old, stretched-out wineskins beyond their breaking point. New patches are for new cloth that can accommodate shrinking, and new wine is for new wineskins that can accommodate expansion. Jesus could not be fit exactly into preconceived patterns and expectations, and those who tried would find themselves suffering great spiritual harm.

Coram Deo

Dr. R.C. Sproul mentions in his commentary Mark that Jesus “was warning them that their King had come, and they would not be able to deal with this King unless they got rid of the structures that made it impossible for them to receive Him.” If our non-biblically mandated traditions are ends in themselves, they will keep us from seeing Jesus. Such things may themselves be fine, but if we make them unalterable, we will never be reformed according to God’s Word.

Passages for Further Study

Isaiah 42:1–9; 43:19–21
Lamentations 3:22–24
2 Corinthians 5:17

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