"From Fasting to Feasting "
(Delivered Sunday, October 9, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
A television show that has become a favorite in our household is Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Perhaps you've seen it. A team of designers - along with hundreds of contractors, and even some friends and neighbors - give themselves just seven days to completely renovate the home of some worthy family. They remake every room in the house, plus the exterior and the surrounding landscaping. And when it's over, and you see the things they did with someone's poor, rundown old house, it's truly amazing!
Typically, they put the family up in a hotel for the week; and then, when the work is all done, they bring the family back in a limousine. All their friends and neighbors are there to greet them with balloons and banners; and there's a large bus parked in front of the house blocking the family's view. And I suspect that everyone who watches the show would say that their favorite part is when the family finally gets to see their new home.
They wait until the family is situated, with all their friends behind them. And then, when the family is ready, the host of the show shouts, "Move that bus!"; and the bus pulls away to reveal the complete makeover of their home. There are gasps of joy and lots of tears. And then, they take the family on an emotional tour of all the rooms so show what they did for them. It's often just like a brand new home. For some families, it's like a brand new start in life. Those particular episodes are very emotional ones - ones when even the tougher people in my family (ahem!) wipe away tears.
Among the things that they usually do for the family is completely refurnish their home. They throw out all the old things; and put in all-new, top of the line appliances, and all new furniture, and give the decore a whole new look. And usually, the old house is determined to be so dilapidated that they don't even bother trying to remodel it. They completely knock it down and build a newer and bigger one that can hold all these new things.
But I have wondered what would happen if, one day, the host shouted, "Move that bus!" - only to reveal that they had put all-new appliances, luxurious new furniture, and tasteful new lights and decorations and paintings - the biggest and best of everything - into the same old, completely dilapidated, tiny little shack of a house. How inappropriate that would be! It would be as if a family would then be expected to move in with all those things and live in a house that cannot possibly contain them. Obviously, the only way it can be done right is to put all those luxurious new things in a completely new house.
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I thought of that as I came to this morning's passage. It tells us of how Jesus came to this world to bring about something brand new. And the spiritual realities He came to bring about are so new, and so big, and so much more glorious than what came before, that they can't possibly be expressed in the same old patterns and forms any longer. They just wouldn't fit.
Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast" (Matthew 9:14-15).
John the Baptist had been placed in prison by this time (Matthew 4:12); and yet, some of his disciples were still quite active. And here, Jesus is dealing with a specific problem that some of John's disciples were having. They - along with the Pharisees - fasted often; and their fasting was apparently accompanied with a spirit of mourning and sadness. And yet, Jesus' disciples didn't appear to fast. Nor did they appear to mourn. In fact, if you read the story that just proceeds this one, you see that - far from fasting and mourning - they were feasting and celebrating! Jesus answered the concern of John's disciples by telling them that it wasn't appropriate for His own disciples to express a spirit of mourning through a fast. He was right there, present with them; and His presence was reason to rejoice and celebrate.
But after Jesus answered that immediate question, He then goes on to address another issue. Jesus has a way of getting to the real heart of things; and in this case, He deals with a much bigger issue. The issue He addressed was that of their trying to make the new things that Jesus came to bring about fit into old outdated patterns.
In other words, you might say that they were trying to make all the new, glorious furniture and all the new, wonderful appliances fit into a small, dilapidated old house that simply can't hold them. He used a couple of illustrations from everyday life; and told the disciples of John,
"No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse. Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved" (vv. 16-17).
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The message that this passage is trying to teach us is a very important one. In Christ, we live today under the blessings of a new and marvelous spiritual situation. It's a situation that God had always intended to bring about from the very beginning; but it was one that had only begun to be brought into effect in the world at a specific point of time - that is, at the time of Jesus' coming and dying on the cross for us. Everything in God's program that proceeded this wonderful new situation was ultimately there only to point people to it and instruct them about it; but once this new situation came through Christ, it forever made everything that proceeded it outdated and no longer applicable.
The Bible calls this new situation "the new covenant". And before we go any further, let's take some time to think about this covenant a little more. There are a few things you need to understand about it in order to appreciate this morning's passage.
In the Bible, a "covenant" (Hebrew, berit) is typically understood as a formal agreement between two parties - an agreement that binds them to do certain things on one another's behalf. In this case, the two parties are God and His people; and it's an agreement in which He promises to bless them if they keep to the terms of the agreement He sets for them.
One of the most significant covenants God entered into with the people of Israel was announced when He delivered them from out of bondage to Egypt. He had gathered them together before Him at Mount Sinai; and told them,
'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people, for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Exodus 19:4-6).
Immediately after the people of Israel consented to these words, God then gave them His law through Moses. The law constituted the terms of the agreement that the people were to keep. But sadly, they were unable to do so. In fact, they began to break the covenant right away; and continued to break it throughout their history. This was because they - like we - are fallen in nature; and it never really was in any of us at all to keep God's commandments as we should.
But this underscores the fact that what was really needed was a new covenant - one that didn't depend on our ability to keep the law. It needed to be a covenant in which its terms were fully kept for us by Another; and one in which God's law was placed in us in an internal way, and not in a way that depends on our keeping it externally.
And so, as we move along in the story of the Bible and come to the Old Testament prophecy of Jeremiah, we find that God promises His people that a "new covenant" was soon on the way. He says, in Jeremiah 31:31-34;
"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah - not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
What a glorious promise this was! What an encouraging hope it must have given! And I don't have to tell you, do I, that this new covenant has been brought into effect for us by Christ? Jesus Himself, just before He went to the cross, enjoyed that final meal with His disciples; and He gave them bread and wine and told them, "Take, eat; this is My body . . . Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:27-28). The writer of Hebrews tells us,
And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15).
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So there's the first thing you need to know in order to appreciate this morning's passage. The Bible teaches us that God has brought about a "new covenant" through Christ. It teaches us that this wonderful "new covenant" that Jesus brought about wasn't ultimately meant for just the Jewish people alone; but it was intended for the Gentiles as well (Isaiah 11:10; 59:20-60:3). But it was first introduced to the Jewish people.
And that leads us to another thing that you need to know. The bringing about of the "new covenant" means the setting aside of the "old covenant". The writer of Hebrews explains this to us when he writes that "if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second" (Hebrews 9:7). But of course, it wasn't faultless. We were the "fault" in that first covenant; because, in our fallenness, we cannot keep God's law. But the writer goes on to tell us of the glories of the new covenant. He quotes what God said about the new covenant, and adds; "In that He says, 'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away" (v. 13).
The people of Israel were to keep the old covenant through a strict obedience to the law, and through a careful observance of all of the ordinance and services that surrounded the earthly tabernacle. Priests had to offer blood sacrifices for the people - as well as for themselves - because of their sins. They were required to keep a multitude of ordinances and ceremonies so long as the old covenant was still in effect.
But the glorious thing that the Bible teaches us is that the old covenant was never meant to be permanent. It was meant simply to point us to the Savior who would bring about the new covenant for us. All of the ceremonies and rituals were meant to point to something else; as the writer of Hebrews says, "It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience - concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation" (9:9-10).
The old covenant pointed to something yet to come - to "the time of reformation"; that is, to the time when Christ came and died for us. It was simply temporary; and was only intended to point us to our need for the new covenant. Paul - who used to be a strict devotee to the old covenant before he met Christ - wrote these words in his letter to the Galatians:
What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one. Is the law then against the promise of God? Certainly not. For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before the faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor (Gal. 3:19-25).
The old covenant was meant to point us to our need for a new covenant; and to drive us to Christ, who is the Mediator of this new covenant. And now that the new covenant has come about - now that this new situation has been brought into existence - the old covenant is no longer needed. God's character hasn't changed; nor has the standard for holiness that His law expresses changed. But what HAS changed is our relationship to that law through Christ. Apart from Christ, our righteous standing before God depended on our obedience to His law. But now, in the new covenant, our righteous standing before God is a free gift to us on the basis of our faith in Christ - who has fully kept the law for us, and has given His Holy Spirit to live in us and to empower us to live righteously!
Can you see, then, how inappropriate it would be to keep on living under the terms of the old covenant? It's no longer in effect! God has brought about something wonderfully and gloriously new; and the old is vanishing away.
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Now, when this was announced, it required that the people of God stop looking to old covenant patterns and forms, and turn instead to new covenant realities. This didn't always come easy! There's a great illustration of this for us in the tenth chapter of Acts. Even the apostle Peter had a hard time getting out of 'old covenant' thinking!
Peter had been preaching and ministering the message of Christ to his Jewish kinsmen. But it was in God's plan to also bring the Gentiles under the terms of the new covenant. But it was very hard for Peter - a faithful Jew - to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. The Gentiles were "unclean" to the Jews. But that way of thinking would no longer fit the new thing God was doing. And so, God had to help Peter come out of 'old covenant' thinking, and move on to 'new covenant' realities.
Peter was sitting on the roof of the house of a friend. And as he was dozing off - waiting for dinner to be made - God caused him to fall into a trance, and gave him a vision. In the vision, a large sheet descended to the earth, bound up at four corners. And as the sheet opened up, it revealed all kinds of animals that it was unclean for the Jewish people to eat - under the terms of the old covenant, that is. God told Peter, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat."
But Peter, in effect, said, "Oh no; Lord! Not me! I'm a good Jew! I have never eaten anything common or unclean!" And the Lord spoke to him and said, "What God has cleansed you must not call common." Peter was shown this vision three times (Acts 10:9-16)! (He's a lot like you and me, isn't he? We need to hear the lesson several times before we finally get the point.) It was then that God sovereignly commissioned Peter to go to the house of a Gentile and preach the gospel to him.
Peter struggled with "old covenant" thinking, and had to be moved from keeping to old covenant patterns and into new covenant realities. One of the new covenant realities was that it was now okay to eat foods that were formerly considered unclean to the Jew. Another was that it was now okay to eat such foods with Gentiles - who were also formerly considered unclean to the Jew. And that's basically what this morning's passage is about. Jesus is teaching us in it that we're not to cling to old covenant patterns that can no longer contain the glorious realities of the new covenant in Christ.
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Now, I hope you don't mind that I spent quite a bit of time giving you background information about the old and new covenants. But I also hope you can now appreciate how important it is that you know the differences between these two covenants in order to understand what's happening in this passage.
Let's look at it again together. First, you see . . .
1. THE IMMEDIATE CONTROVERSY (vv. 14-15).
Jesus had just enjoyed a feast with His disciples that had been put on by Matthew the tax-collector and his friends. But John's disciples were not in a "feasting" frame of mind. Their teacher - John the Baptist - had been put into prison (Matthew 4:12); and it may be that their fast was somewhat motivated by the fact that they grieved over his absence.
In their mourning, they fasted. But do you notice that they were in agreement with the Pharisees in this fast? Matthew tells us that they came to Jesus and said, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast [and some translations add the word "often" here], but Your disciples do not fast?" The Pharisees were great advocates of the old covenant; and they were strict observers of all its rules and regulations. And so, it's clear that there was an "old covenant" flavor to this fast. It was something that they felt they were obligated to do as an expression of 'old covenant' mourning; and they were surprised that Jesus' disciples didn't do as they felt obligated to do.
Now, I don't believe John the Baptist himself would have been in agreement with the way they were challenging the Lord like this. John's attitude toward Jesus was not one of mourning, but one of great rejoicing. John recognized that he himself represented the ending of an old covenant; and that Jesus was the Mediator of the new covenant. He once spoke of Jesus to his disciples and said,
"He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:29-30).
John, who was the last great prophet of the old covenant1, must "decrease" - just as the old covenant must now fade away; and Jesus, who is the Mediator of the new covenant must "increase".
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And so, in answer to the question of why Jesus didn't make His disciples fast, He told the disciples of John that mourning wouldn't be appropriate. He, the Mediator of the new covenant, was present; and why should mourning and fasting occur when "Immanuel" - whose very name mean "God with us" - is here? Jesus asked them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?" Who can be sad while sitting at the feet of Jesus? And who but those who sit at His feet can understand the joys of the new covenant? It would be as inappropriate as it would be for the groomsmen to fast and mourn during the wedding!
Now, Jesus admits that there will be a time when His disciples WOULD mourn; because He was going to be taken away from them for a time - three days, to be exact! Jesus even told them that He would be leaving them for a time; and He explained,
"Are you inquiring among yourselves about what I said, 'A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me'? Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (John 16:19-24).
So, Jesus tells John's disciples that there will be a time of mourning. But it would only be a short time. And then, He is with them again; and those times will be characterized by great joy.
By the way; before we go any further, let me ask you: Does your prevailing attitude reflect an old covenant mentality or a new covenant mentality? In other words, does the prevailing attitude of your life show that you are still trying to earn God's favor in the old covenant way - under the law; or does it show that you are rejoicing in the presence of Christ that characterizes the new covenant - under God's grace? Does your attitude reflect an attitude of "gotta' do"; or does it reflect an attitude of "already done"?
I'm quite sure that one of the lessons this passage encourages us to learn is that, in Christ, favor with God has already been purchased for us. We can now have continual fellowship with Jesus! And a daily walk of ongoing fellowship with Jesus is going to show itself in a prevailing attitude of joy. "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?"
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Now; that's how Jesus answered their immediate question. But He then goes on to deal with . . .
2. THE LARGER ISSUE (vv. 16-17).
The larger issue is one that was brought up by their question. Their teacher - John - represented the old covenant that was intended to point to Christ. And that's what John did: he pointed to Christ. But now that Jesus has come, the new covenant realities that Christ came to bring about for us need to be expressed - not in the old patterns of the old covenant that was fading away - but in completely new ways that reflect the superiority of new covenant realities.
Look at how Jesus gives two illustrations from everyday life to show this. First, He says, "No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse" (v. 16).
We don't patch our clothes up as much today as they did back a few decades ago - back in the days when folks actually still even darned the holes in their socks! But you certainly get the idea, don't you? If you have a hole in an old garment - a garment that had been worn and washed over and over until the cloth had shrunk; and you then try to patch up that hole with a piece of new cloth that had never been shrunk before; then you'll find out what a mistake that was the next time you wash that garment! The new piece of cloth will shrink; and it will pull the old cloth it was sown up to cover and make the tear even worse.
I believe that the lesson Jesus is seeking to teach us in this is that we can't make the old patterns of the old covenant somehow become updated and relevant by simply patching new covenant realities over them. The old covenant patterns won't hold up under the strain. We would be trying to make works support grace! New covenant realities can't be used to simply cover over the old covenant patterns. We have to have a whole new garment, as it were; and completely trust Christ for our righteousness before God through grace.
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And then, Jesus gives us a second illustration from everyday life. He says, "Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined."
Now, once again, we live in a different day. We use glass bottles; and though I don't drink wine personally, I'm glad we use glass bottles! The wineskins that Jesus speaks of were made out of the skins of goats that were carefully peeled off and turned inside-out. The feet-part and the neck-part of the skins were tied up to hold the wine in; and the wine was poured in through the neck and stored on the inside-part - where, of course, the hair and goat-sweat had been. (Even if I didn't already abstain from wine, that alone would be enough to make me abstain!)
But as gross as it may sound, goat skins actually made the perfect kind of "bottle" to store wine in. As wine fermented, it of course expanded; and the fresh skins of goats had just enough elasticity to stretch and expand with the wine.
But if someone was foolish enough to store new wine in an old skin - a skin that had already stretched, and that had gotten hard and brittle over time - he would have a terrible mess on his hands. The expanding wine would burst the skin; and not only would the skin be ruined but the wine would be lost too. And who'd want to have to go down into the basement and mop up a bunch of fermenting wine all mingled up with wine-soaked goat-skin fragments?
Again, I believe this is meant to teach us another truth about new covenant realities: they cannot be preserved by keeping them in old covenant patterns. Jesus said, "But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved" (v. 17). And in the same way, the new covenant realities we enjoy in Christ cannot be contained in the old forms of the old covenant - that is, in the rituals, and ceremonies, and temple services. New realities need to be expressed in new forms.
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Now, all leads us to a final question: If new covenant realities cannot be expressed any longer in old covenant forms and patterns; and if it requires a completely new set of patterns to express new covenant realities, then what can possibly contain them?
I believe the answer is obvious from this passage. Jesus hints at it when He says, "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?" The answer is that the only way new covenant realities can be adequately expressed in a new covenant way is through Him. It is expressed by an ongoing fellowship with Jesus Christ Himself.
New covenant realities cannot be expressed apart from a deep, abiding relationship of love with Jesus. Paul himself expressed this to be the case; and may his affirmation be our own:
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11).
1". . . For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John" (Matthew 11:13).
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