God’s Wineskin contains instructions as to how we may receive certain gifts from God, gifts that we desperately need, and gifts that are meant for our eternal joy. These include the forgiveness of sins, rescue from the peril of eternal punishment, adoption into the family of a loving heavenly Father, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, free access to God’s throne in prayer, a blessed assurance that he is ordering all events for his children’s good, slow but steady progress in holiness, wisdom and strength for daily living, the sure hope of heaven when we die, and the ultimate hope of eternal life with God in a brand new world that Christ will create at his return. Again, Jesus taught that we all need these gifts; and he knew that many of us thirst for them. Accordingly, he promised that all who drink from God’s Wineskin—and respond to its contents with simple childlike faith—will find that their thirst is slaked once and for all (John 4:13-14).
Note: When I wrote this essay a few years back, my goal was to provide non-Christian readers with a winsome introduction to the New Testament. However, in perusing it afresh, I found myself thinking it might also serve as a helpful reminder to older believers in Christ (including yours truly). Is your first love flagging? Does your walk with the Lord seem more of a burden than a blessing? Have you perhaps forgotten—or not quite fully seen—that the New Covenant is, above all else, a marriage covenant? If so, please join me pondering the word of the Bridegroom of heaven concerning the new wine of the new covenant.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast at all?” So Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn while the bridegroom is still with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be made worse. Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins, for if they do, the wineskins burst, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. Instead, they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” —Matthew 9:14-17
The New Testament—a single long book comprised of 27 short books, written over a span of some 40 years by eight or nine chosen followers of Jesus Christ, telling us who he was, what he did, what he taught, how he died and rose and ascended into heaven, and what all of this means for Israel and the nations—may aptly be called God’s Wineskin. The New Testament text cited above helps us to understand why.
When the disciples of John the Baptizer came to Jesus, they brought both a question and (it would appear) a complaint. “Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast at all?” Jesus’ answer—cordial but firm—is twofold.
The King Has Come!
First, in light of his current presence in the world, it isn’t proper that they should fast. He is the Bridegroom—the long-awaited Savior, King, and spiritual Husband of Israel. How can the friends of the Bridegroom fast when he is right there with them? This is not a time for mourning, but for celebration!
Note, however, that Jesus himself casts a shadow over the celebration: “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast.” With the benefit of hindsight, we know what he means. Through treachery, injustice, mob madness, and a shocking death by crucifixion, he and his friends will soon be separated, seemingly forever. And that indeed will be a proper time for fasting. Nevertheless, on the subject of joy and celebration, Jesus is not yet finished. Far from it!
A New Covenant is Coming!
For now he tells them (and us) something further, and something staggering to the Jewish mind. There is another reason his disciples cannot fast: God is now doing something new, something that calls for uninterrupted celebration; indeed, for eternal celebration. He is fashioning a new patch of cloth. He is stitching a new wineskin. In other words, he is now revealing a new and definitive body of spiritual truth. What’s more, by means of this new body of truth he is also unveiling a new and definitive covenant (or spiritual agreement) between himself and everyone on earth who is willing to enter into it.
In the days ahead Jesus will have much more to say about this new covenant. For the moment, however, he is focused on one of its outstanding characteristics: its fundamental incompatibility with the old covenant. And so he says, “No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be made worse. Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins, for if they do, the wineskins burst, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. Instead, they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” Why did Jesus press this point? Why was he so keen on exalting the new wineskin above the old, and on separating the two once and for all?
The Old, the New, and the Eternal
The rest of the New Testament supplies the answer. The Old Covenant was instituted through mere men: Abraham and Moses; the New Covenant will be instituted through the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.
The Old Covenant was an agreement solely between God and Israel; the New Covenant will be an agreement between God and all who trust in Christ the whole world over.
The Old Covenant pictured, promised, and prepared for the things of Christ; the New Covenant gives us the things of Christ themselves, and Christ himself.
Under the Old Covenant, life was characterized by much spiritual failure, sorrow, and penitential fasting; under the New Covenant, life will be characterized by much spiritual victory, joy, and celebratory feasting . . . with persecutions (Mark 10:30).