Luke 5:33–39

When we come to faith in Christ, we do not merely add Him into our old way of life. Conversion means nothing less than complete transformation. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke to explain Jesus’ teaching on the incompatibility of old wineskins and new wine.


This morning, we’re going to continue our study of the Gospel According to St. Luke. We are in Luke 5:33–39, and I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Then they said to Him, “Why do the disciples of John fast often and make prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink?”

And He said to them, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days.”

Then He spoke a parable to them: “No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved. And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.’”

You have just heard the unvarnished word of Almighty God, bearing the fullness of His authority and truth. Please receive it as such. Let us pray.

Again, our Lord, we ask that You visit us this hour with the presence of Your Holy Spirit, that He may aid us in our understanding of the things we have just heard. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Tradition of Fasting

Last week, we looked at Luke’s description of the call of Matthew the tax collector. After that evening, Matthew had a feast at his home for Jesus and invited all his friends, the other tax collectors of the day. The Pharisees were put out because Jesus was now associating with known sinners and publicans. That was not the end of Pharisees’ critical attitude toward Jesus, so they raised a new issue in the passage we’ve seen this morning.

We are told that they came to Jesus asking Him this question: “Why do the disciples of John [the Baptist] fast often, likewise the disciples of the Pharisees, but Your disciples eat and drink? We don’t see them fasting.” They were upset about Jesus’ apparent neglect of their tradition of fasting.

In the Old Testament, God commanded that the people of Israel fast on one occasion, the Day of Atonement, but otherwise fasting was a matter of voluntary activity and practice. We see two times when fasting occurred most frequently in the Old Testament.

The first time fasting occurred in the Old Testament was when people sought a deeper and sharper focus on the things of God. They would withdraw from the normal activities of this mundane life in which we live and devote themselves exclusively to contemplation and meditation on the things of God.

The second time for additional fasting in the Old Testament was as an expression of mourning. When death came to a loved one, or great defeat to the nation, or a time of repentance was at hand, the people would express their grief and mourning by rending their garments and entering a fast.

The Legalism of the Pharisees

The Pharisees, who were the archconservatives of Israel, created new laws that God never imposed upon the people. They created their own traditions, and their tradition sought to require the Jews to fast twice a week for at least a portion of the day. Not only that, but in their zeal for righteousness, they began to teach the idea that fasting was such a righteous enterprise that it would bring merit to the person who fasted. This was just one more element of the Pharisees’ attempts at self-righteousness.

On another occasion, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for substituting their traditions, the traditions of men, for the law of God. This is the first rule of the legalist. The legalist legislates where God leaves people free. They take “you may” and turn it into “you must,” and that is fatal to a healthy Christian life. The Pharisees, who considered themselves the ultimate standard of righteousness, were the fathers of this kind of legalism.

The second point of legalism is the idea that you can earn your way into heaven legally by doing good works or obeying the law. Again, the Pharisees were at the forefront of those who taught that fatal error. They were, as I say, archconservatives, but what they were zealous to conserve was not the law of God.

When John the Baptist came, he came in the prophetic image. He spent time living in the wilderness on wild honey and locusts. He was an ascetic. He was given to self-denial and asceticism to focus his mind critically on the things of God, and he taught his disciples to do the same thing. So, for John the Baptist and his disciples, fasting was a frequent experience. Elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that the Pharisees criticized John’s self-denial and at the same time accused Christ of being a winebibber (Luke 7:33–34). In any case, the Pharisees were archconservatives, but they were jealous to conserve their own traditions.

When to Conserve, When to Change

We must be careful because the New Testament speaks of another tradition. Jesus is sharply critical of the Pharisees’ traditionalism, but when we come to the Apostolic age, the Apostle Paul speaks warmly and devoutly about what he calls in Greek the paradosis, which he received and instructed his readers to pass on to everyone. Paradosis is the Greek word for “tradition,” and it means, “a giving over from one to the next.”

Τhere is a godly tradition, the Apostolic tradition, which is to be maintained and guarded in every age of the church. I know people who love all things old and have no room for change in their lives. They think, “If it’s new, it can’t be good.” That’s their attitude. They are tenacious in their conservatism.

On the other hand, you have people who believe it can’t be good unless it’s new. The old is always outmoded and outdated, as the philosophers who gathered at the Areopagus in Athens, or Mars Hill, believed. As Paul tells us, they were there to discuss what was new. We see this curse on the church all the time, where we always are receiving new insights and new theologies that come down the pike to challenge classic Christian orthodoxy.

If you don’t like the liberal fad of today, wait five years. It will change because people are busy trying to discard the classic, true, biblical tradition and replace it with something else. It takes great discernment, wisdom, and knowledge of the things of God to know when to be conservative and when to be open.

If you are a conservative as I am a conservative, we must always ask ourselves the question, “What is it we’re trying to conserve and why?” I don’t care at all about preserving human traditions just because they’re traditions, but I do care about preserving the biblical and Apostolic tradition and those traditions that have arisen through two thousand years of church history, which have been used by God to serve the Apostolic tradition.

Symbols, Shadows, and Things Eternal

Let’s return to the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. How did Jesus respond to the question, “What about You and Your disciples?” In so many words, Jesus asked the Pharisees, “What time is it?” They weren’t wearing wristwatches or carrying clocks around, but Jesus wasn’t asking them what time it was in the day. He was asking them what time it was in terms of redemptive history.

The Bible was written over thousands of years. God’s revelation of Himself and His plan of redemption and salvation was gradual and progressive, beginning in Genesis and expanding through the prophets and the whole Old Testament, where God added new information about the kingdom that was to come. He established feasts that were to be celebrated, the Passover and the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Ingathering.

All these things were not to be fulfilled in and of themselves. The New Testament tells us, “The blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin,” and yet there was this elaborate procedure in the Old Testament of slaying animals on the Day of Atonement. These things were the shadows of what was to come. They were symbols that pointed beyond themselves to what would come in the fullness of time. When the final sacrifice would be made and the ultimate atonement be offered, these shadows would then be discarded.

You have people today who want to take all the Old Testament and bring it over into the New Covenant, and then you have people who say the Old Testament is totally obsolete. They don’t care a bit about it, and all they care about is the New Testament. No, no, no—there is an intimate relationship between Old Testament revelation and what is given to us in the new covenant.

There is a sense of eternal continuity between the things taught in God’s revelation in the Old Testament and that which comes to us in the New Testament. At the same time, there are things that pass away and are abrogated. The ceremonial law and the dietary laws of the Old Testament have been set aside. The moral law of God has not.

The Bridegroom Has Come

Jesus understood redemptive history, but the Pharisees didn’t get it. Jesus answered the question of what time it was by saying: “When there is a wedding feast, the friends of the bridegroom don’t fast when the bridegroom is there. When the bridegroom comes, the fast is over. When the bridegroom comes, it’s time for a feast.”

Jesus was speaking of Himself. Just as Israel was the bride of God in the Old Testament, so the New Testament church is the bride of Christ, and He is the bridegroom who had been promised for centuries before. Now He is here. He was saying: “When the bridegroom is here, you don’t fast, you don’t mourn, you don’t rend your garments. You rejoice, You throw a party.” But the Pharisees didn’t know what time it was. The Pharisees didn’t get it, and thus their critical spirit at this point.

Jesus continued, “The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away, and then the friends of the bridegroom will fast,” referring to His execution at the end of His incarnation and earthly ministry. That is why, in the early church, after the departure of Jesus, there was a great revival of voluntary fasting among Christian people. During times of persecution, when the Christians were being thrown to the lions and suffering, their fellow believers would pray and fast for them as they endured perilous conditions.

Bursting Wineskins

To explain the concept further, Jesus told two simple parables about the cloth and the wineskin. He said: “I know you Pharisees aren’t tailors, but you should know something basic about sewing. If you have a pair of pants and you tear a hole in it and want to patch it, you don’t get a new piece from a new pair of pants. You don’t cut up the new pants and try to add a piece to the old pair of pants without shrinking it. If you sew an unshrunken piece of material on the old piece, the patch will shrink when you try to wash it. When it shrinks, it will pull the threads off, and the hole in your pants before you patched them will be worse than when you started.”

I don’t know how closely the Pharisees listened to the first illustration that Jesus gave, but I’m sure they paid attention to the next one, because now it touched upon something important to them—their wine. Jesus gave this illustration:

No one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved. And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, “The old is better.”

The old is better, unless you believe, like many Christians in America (probably the only nation in the world to believe this), that they didn’t make real wine in the Bible. This idea was invented not by exegesis, but by the Welch’s grape juice company. When I hear some of my friends saying that what they call wine in the Bible isn’t really wine, I wonder what Bible they’re reading. Here is a clear example: when poor Noah made a vineyard, made wine, and drank too much of it, he got drunk. He didn’t get drunk on grape juice. We see that throughout the history of the Bible.

In this illustration, Jesus said, “When you take new wine, you don’t put it in old wineskins.” Why not? The old wineskins made from goatskin or sheepskin have been stretched because the wine that was in them was continuing to ferment and stretch the leatherette substance to its limit. Jesus was saying that if you put new wine in the old wineskin and that new wine starts to ferment, and in the fermentation process the gases in there expand and stretch the old wineskins, the old wineskins have already been stretched. So, if you put new wine in there, you’re going to lose the wineskin because it’s going to break, and you’ll also lose the wine. You put the wine in the wineskin to keep the wine and preserve the wine so you can carry it about to enjoy the wine. If you put new wine in the old wineskins, you’re going to lose both the wineskin and the wine.

So, what do you do? Jesus gave the answer: “If you’ve got new wine, must have a new wineskin.” If you put the new wine in a new wineskin, and then the wineskin can expand as the wine is fermenting, and you won’t lose either the wineskin or the wine. When you’re done you won’t be saying, “Well the old wine was good, but I’m not interested in the new.” The old wine was good because it was fermented—that’s why it is good.

What Jesus was saying is simple: you can’t take the kingdom of God and the arrival of Jesus and simply put it on top of the Pharisees’ traditions. It won’t fit. Something new was happening. There was a new covenant. Yes, it built upon the old, but it couldn’t be absorbed totally by the old. You must have a new aspect if you’re going to fit into the new covenant, and by extension, you can’t have Christ and squeeze Him into your old life and expect that to work.

No Carnal Christians

A dreadful teaching has spread throughout evangelical Christianity that you can become converted to Christ and never change. This “carnal Christian” idea is impossible. It is blasphemy. It is firmly against the teaching of Christ and against the New Testament.

When you are born again by the Holy Ghost, you are a changed person. If you’re not a changed person, your conversion experience is false. You can’t be born of the Holy Spirit and not be a changed person—it is impossible. The sanctification that comes after being born again takes our whole lifetime and into glory, but change begins immediately.

If you question your conversion, one way you can check yourself is to ask, “Has there been any change in my life, or am I still living the old way in the old wineskins, with the old clothes that are torn and tattered?” If you are in Christ, beloved, you are a new creature. You need a new set of clothes and a new skin to carry the wine of the Holy Ghost. Let’s pray.

Father, thank You for making all things new, for making us new, for giving us a new covenant that is so much richer, better, and more fulfilling than the old. Thank You that You do all things well, and You’ve given us the bridegroom and made us His bride. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.