We're turning in our New Testament to the gospel of Mark chapter 2 as we continue our studies in Mark's account of the gospel of our Lord Jesus. We're beginning to read this morning from verse 18 through to verse 23, and I've entitled the message today 'Feast or Famine, Old or New'.
We take up our reading at verse 18: "And the disciples of John", that is, John the Baptist, "and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him", that is, Jesus, "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber", or the guests of the bridechamber, "fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles", and we'll end our reading just there at verse 22.
Now, Jesus is in the centre of controversy once more. You remember the previous question He was asked that we studied last week in the preceding verses to the ones we read: 'Why is it that your Master eats with publicans and sinners?'. So that was a question regarding the company that our Lord Jesus was keeping. Now the present question for our consideration today raises the issue of why Jesus was enjoying the company of these publicans and sinners so much, having such a good time feasting in their presence, with those type of people at the table. You remember how abhorrent that was, we saw last week, to these Pharisees.
Now specifically here it is John the Baptist's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees, which really means the followers of pharisaical teaching, who ask why Jesus isn't fasting, why Jesus' disciples weren't fasting - when John's disciples fast and the Pharisees' followers fast, why did they not fast? That's their question, verse 18, 'Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?'. Now if you look at verse 18, we read that it says the disciples of John and the Pharisees 'used to fast'. Now I don't want to get technical, but in the Greek language that carries the idea that they may well have been observing a fast at this very moment. That's very important to our understanding of this event.
Now we believe that the Lord Jesus is most likely still in Levi's house - that is Levi, Matthew we know, who was a publican and a tax collector, and we saw last week all that that meant, how despised they were - and now He is in Levi's house, having been invited to socialise with some of his companions and colleagues in the trade. The Pharisees have seen Him there, and now they are witnessing Him with this motley crew feasting on a day when they, possibly, were fasting. Now I'm reading between the lines, I know, but it is very likely that this event was taking place on one of the weekly fast days. Now let me give you some background regarding this practice of fasting. The only time we find a compulsory fast ordered in the Old Testament is for the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when the Jews were commemorating the day when their sins are forgiven, and hopefully, by faith, looking to God for forgiveness of sins on that day. But fasting had evolved to the stage where in Jesus' day the stricter Jews fasted twice in a week: Monday and Thursday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. So after 6 p.m. they could eat all they wanted. In Luke 18 verse 12, in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, a tax collector, you remember that the Pharisee declared, self-righteously, 'I fast twice in the week'. So this was a common practice of the Pharisees and of their followers.
Now let me say before I go on any further, in qualification to anything that will be said, the Lord Jesus was not anti-fasting. He believed in fasting, for He fasted Himself, He taught fasting - indeed, in this very portion, He implies that His own disciples one day, when He is taken away from them, will fast. But Jesus' protest here, that throws Him into the midst of this controversy with the Pharisees and the disciples of John, is at the abuse of the practice of fasting among Jews in His day. You see it was exercised in an ostentatious way. What I mean by that, I'll just quote for you the words of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, and He takes up more than just fasting, giving alms and praying, how they were done hypocritically. 'Take heed', He says, 'that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven'. Matthew 6:6: 'But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly'. Then, related to fasting in verses 16 to 18 of chapter 6 of Matthew, 'Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly'.
The Lord Jesus is not objecting to fasting, just as He is not objecting to praying in the Sermon on the Mount, or giving to charity in the sense of the Lord's work and good works; but He is objecting to how these Pharisees had extracted all semblance of joy from the religious experience of praying, almsgiving and fasting. You see, when these Pharisees fasted they pretentiously would have whitened their faces with powder to look pale. They would have dishevelled their hair and worn tattered clothing - and I think, as I look out, maybe some of you have followed that tradition this morning! - but they wanted to declare to others that they were mournful, religious individuals, they were morally and religiously sober. Monday and Thursday, the fast days, were also market days - now do you know what that means? That they doctored themselves up to show that they were fasting, and they went to the marketplace to show everybody they were fasting, the day when most people would be gathered together at the one spot - the greatest exposure!
Now, thanks to the legalism that was imposed by the Pharisees, the Jewish religion in many respects had become a burdensome and joyless thing. These poor Jewish people were crushed by rules and regulations that Jesus even said Himself were impossible to obey, Matthew 23:4: 'they bind', that is, the Pharisees, 'heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers'. So I think you can see now why the Pharisees were so appalled that Jesus was feasting on what, for them, was a fast day. Now you can see also why Jesus and His disciples were not fasting, but feasting, they were making a point! To enforce this point and hammer it home, the Lord Jesus uses three illustrations to contrast dead legalistic mournful religious form with the living liberty of the joy of grace that is found in Him.
Here are the three illustrations: the first is of wedding, in verses 19 and 20; the second is of clothing in verse 21; and the third is of wine in verse 22. Let's look at the first illustration Jesus uses. Let me say first that in all these three illustrations, it is striking how earthly Jesus' parables really are - they come with such force because of the domestic nature of them. Effectively what the Lord Jesus is saying here in verses 19 and 20, before we look at the detail of it, is: life in God is meant to be like a wedding, not like a funeral. That's what He's saying. It's meant to be like a feast, not a famine. The emphasis in Jesus' point, before we delve into it and perhaps miss the wood for the trees, is the element of joy. There was no joy in this fasting of the Pharisees. But there is another aspect to what Jesus is going to say, for in chapter 1 verse 15 you will remember He emphasised that the time is fulfilled now, the kingdom of God is at hand now, repent ye and believe the gospel. The Lord's ministry was coming after John the Baptist, and He was saying that the Messiah you've been waiting for and praying for, the Bridegroom has come, so all your waiting is over, I'm in your midst!
There could be many explanations why John's disciples were fasting. It may be because John was in prison. It may even be because he had already been beheaded, but I feel that they were fasting because they were still waiting for the Messiah, they were still waiting for justice in Israel, for deliverance from God. Jesus is coming and saying: 'Why are you still waiting and fasting for this?'. You remember, of course, in Matthew 11 they asked the question of Jesus, supposedly sent by John: 'Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?' - and they had failed to see, move from their master's ministry of preparing the way of the Lord, to recognizing that the Lord was in their midst and celebrating His arrival and His presence.
You remember John saw himself as the friend of the Bridegroom, and perhaps these disciples of John failed to see themselves as the guests of the Bridegroom, because He was there. Also John was an austere man, he was somewhat of a recluse, he was in the old order of the prophet Elijah. You remember in Matthew 11, Jesus says 'John came not eating and drinking', he was a man who was in a kind of asceticism - and I'm not in any way demeaning that or condemning it, far from it - but Jesus ate and drank with men, He mixed with sinners, so much so that He says in Matthew 11, 'You say of me that I am a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners'. You see, Jesus was something different, something different completely from the old order, He was something absolutely and dramatically new.
He accepted meals, He played with children, He interacted with outcasts, and it appears that John's disciples made the same mistake as the Pharisees: they may not have been as hypocritical as the Pharisees, but they still failed to enter into the joy of having the Bridegroom with them. They failed to see that what they were fasting for was there, like the Jews today. The point that I believe Jesus is bringing to us is: they were not rejoicing in Christ's coming. In verse 17 the Lord Jesus, we saw last week, said effectively: 'Do you not expect doctors to be around patients? That's why I, as a Saviour, am around sinners'. Now He is saying in the same ilk: 'Do you not expect wedding guests to be feasting, not fasting?'.
Now, after a Jewish wedding, the couple didn't go away on a honeymoon, they stayed at home. For a week or so there was open house, and there was continual feasting and rejoicing, and the bride and groom were treated like king and queen, and even at times were crowned. That was a very special time, because in a hard-wrought life like they had in that particular era, this wedding was the happiest week in a man or a woman's life. Because of that, even Rabbis recognized it and gave an exclusion from some of the rigid laws. There was a rabbinic ruling that said that all in attendance on the bridegroom, listen, were relieved of all religious observances which would lessen their joy. So wedding guests were excluded, exempted from fasting, even on fasting days! This is Jesus' point - now He does qualify it and say that the days will come when I am taken from the guests, and then My disciples will fast. The word 'taken' there, 'taken away', implies violence, I believe He's talking about His death.
Now some think then that Jesus was prescribing fasting between His death and His resurrection, and they say that there is no need to fast now because we have the Bridegroom with us in Spirit. That might seem plausible as we look only at this text, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn't square with the rest of the New Testament. In Acts 13 we have the separating of Barnabas and Saul for the work of the gospel, and the apostle's fasted before it; Acts 14, before they ordained the elders they fasted. Paul said himself in 2 Corinthians 10 that he was in fastings often. So the Lord was not scrubbing out the practice of fasting. Here's how Kenneth Wuest translates this verse, that is verse 19: 'The sons of the bridechamber are not able to be fasting while the bridegroom is with them, are they?'.
So what the Lord is doing is He is contrasting two spiritual experiences, and I believe they're the only two spiritual experiences that exist today. What is that? Feasting or famine. You either subscribe to the famine of legalism in every form: works religion, adhering to rules and regulations to earn favour with God; or you're enjoying the feast of God's grace when you realise that Christ is so great, having encountered Him, and you realise what His grace has done through His death and resurrection and His gift of forgiveness. But you can even practise fasting now and still feast at the same time because you're feasting on the Living Bread, you're drinking at the Fountainhead! They hadn't discovered that, you see.
Now John the Baptist understood it, even though his disciples, perhaps, had erred at this time. Though he was of the old order, you remember he said in John chapter 3 and verse 29: 'He that hath the bride is the bridegroom', pointing to Christ, not himself, 'but the friend of the bridegroom', John, 'which stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled'. Why? Because he was in Christ's presence. Now, everything that the Lord Jesus is saying here is telling us at least in our era that the Christian attitude to life ought to be one of joy - a feast! Yet some Christians look as if they've read their rich aunt's will and discovered she left everything to the cat! In church, that is the way some of you look! I know I look like that at times. I've even heard it said that because there is no record of Jesus smiling or laughing in the Gospels, that we ought to not laugh or smile! I think there's many instances of humour related to the Lord Jesus, and joy, but there are some people even who call themselves Christians, and they espouse this idea that to be spiritual you must be uncomfortable or at least look uncomfortable all the time!
So Jesus presses this home: the Christian life, the life with God, the life of grace is meant to be a feast, not a famine! Is your soul feasting on Christ? Here's the second illustration, of clothing. Verse 21: 'No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse'. Now that word 'new' there in verse 21 could be translated, and is by the English Standard Version, as 'unshrunk'. 'No man puts an unshrunk piece of cloth on an old garment'. Now you've got to understand the process of the fuller's job in Palestine. Maybe you don't know what a fuller is? Sometimes people think of it as a launderette - well, not quite, it was also a person that treated clothing. The fuller's trade was to take a new piece of cloth that had been just manufactured, and he had to make it usable and durable. He did that by putting it through a process of cleansing, then he would shrink it, then he would thicken it through use of moisture, heat and pressure - and the point of it all was, if you had a hole in your coat or jacket and you put a new patch on, when the rain fell and hit it would shrink and then there would be another greater rip. But if the cloth was treated, well, that wouldn't happen.
What Jesus is saying here is: 'If I take this new cloth, the preaching of grace that I am bringing to you, and try to patch up your old dead religion' - and the word 'old' here for the old cloth is not old in point of time as years old, but it means old in point of use - 'Your worn out cloth, it will be torn apart!'. Jesus' point is this: 'I have not come to do a patch up job on Judaism. My intention in coming into this world is not to prop up dead religion, but to bring a new cloth'. It is the cloth of grace, and it can't patch up the worn out garment of Mosaic law and adherence to the rules and regulations of the Old Testament. The law was given by Moses, John the gospel writer said, but grace came through Jesus Christ.
Now here's the problem: some people attempt to retain the Mosaic law and put on it a patch of grace. What I mean by that is: they mix law and grace. They think that they're going to get to God by keeping the commandments. Now don't misunderstand me: the commandments are good, and the commandments are a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, to show us that we cannot keep the commandments - but the commandments do not equate grace. Jesus is saying: if you try and take the old garment of the law and patch it up with a new patch of Jesus' grace, both will be destroyed, both will cease to be used according to their original purpose.
Now I can give you a living example of this in the New Testament, and that is the doctrine of the Judiasers in the book of Galatians. These were men who believed in Christ, believed the good news that He had come to die and rose again, but they were wanting to reconcile Judaism with Christianity. They were wanting to circumcise people as well as baptise them. They wanted to keep the law alive, and the ceremonies and ordinances, and they wanted to place it side by side with the Gospel. That has always been an error, even in the church. Not long after the Apostles died, some tried to mingle platonic philosophy with the gospel. Some tried later on to make appealing to the heathen the Christian faith, and so they borrowed forms and processions and vestments from the temples of heathen gods - and we're left with Roman Catholicism today, trying to mix law with grace, untruth with truth. Jesus is saying in the context of dead old legalistic Judaism: there comes a time when the day of patching is ended. Patching is no more effective, recreating must now begin, and Jesus came to that conclusion in His day, Luther came to that conclusion concerning the church of Rome in his day, John Wesley came to that conclusion concerning Anglicanism in his day - what is it in our day?
I will apply this message a little bit later, but dead traditionalism and dead formalism is as rife today, even in evangelicalism, as it has ever been - and that is the reason why many people are robbed of their joy. It may well be that there are times when we try to patch and mend and adjust, when what is wanted is the complete abandoning of something that is worn out, and the acceptance of something that is new altogether. If you're here this morning and you're an unconverted person, you need to realise that you can't do a patch up job on your soul. You need the new garment of God's salvation - throw out your dirty rags that are filthy in God's sight, even your own righteousness is like that, and accept the garment of salvation that is a gift!
Let's move on to this third illustration which is wine. In verse 22: 'No man puts new wine into old bottles: else the new wine bursts the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles'. Now that word 'bottle' there is not like your milk bottle, it's wineskins - that's what the writer is talking about. They were leather, made of animal skins, and because of that eventually, with age, they lost their ability to stretch. Now I could give a very apt illustration of that, but it maybe wouldn't be appropriate for folk with too many wrinkles and that! But it's just like - well, you know what I'm talking about! It loses its ability to stretch with age. What Jesus is saying is that if new wine is put into them, pressure is built up within the wineskin by the fermentation of the wine, and the skin bursts - and then the skin is destroyed, the bottle is broke, and the wine spills and it's no use either.
Now what is Jesus talking about? The new wine is the joy and the power that Christ brings, and the old wineskins are the form and ritual of dead Judaism. What He is saying is that new wine needs new skins. His point is that there is no use for you disciples of John the Baptist, and for you followers of the Pharisees to put My disciples, Jesus says, under the bondage of sorrowful fasting as it has been practised in the past. It won't work, because the joy and effervescence of the new life in Christ must be allowed to spring forth, must be allowed to express itself! Can I say this to you today: Christianity has always suffered from man's attempt to mix it with legalism. The Lord taught on this portion of Scripture, categorically and explicitly, that the two don't mix - they don't mix! So stop trying to mix them! Jesus taught that legalism is a cancer that kills new life, and if you don't believe me you need to see the Gospels, and you need to see how serious this legalism was. Because of Christ's non-observance of these fast days, because He broke the pharisaical interpretation of the sabbath that we'll see in our next study in the following verses of this chapter, it was because of these things that verse 6 of chapter 3 says they began to devise a way, take counsel of how they might destroy Him! That's how serious legalism is: it leads you to extinguish the presence of Christ - and if you can't celebrate His presence, that's the only other alternative, you extinguish it, whether you're conscious of it or not.
Now I have heard it said, and I have said it: 'If it's new it's not true, and if it's true it's not new'. If it's new it's not true, and if it's true it's not new - now that is authentic and true in the sense that God is changeless, doctrines in the word of God are changeless. I hear people say: 'I'll never change, no change Jehovah knows' - I've got news for you: you aren't Jehovah. Waken up, you're not God, you've got to change, I've got to change. God's word never changes, doctrine never changes, but here's the problem: some can't distinguish between doctrine and practice. There are some very biblical practices here that we must never change, but there is a difference between principles and procedures; there's even a difference between doctrine and interpretation. In Jesus' day the Jewish pharisaical, and even John the Baptist's disciples' interpretation was stifling the new wine that was in Christ, the joy that came from it. It was having the potential of, one, destroying Judaism or, two, destroying the new wine. Jesus wasn't prepared to put His new wine into the old wineskins, new wine needs new skins, and dead religious forms of an old era will not suffice for a new life - that's what Christ is saying.
As one writer put it: 'The new wine of the new covenant stretches us to new limits. The inner pressure expels unneeded things and fills every aspect to new limits. So dynamic is the new life that the old wineskins of previous religious structures must give way' - and that's why we have the Christian church today, that's why we have the Protestant church, that's why the Methodist Church is still here and was ever here, that's why we've had the revivals: because men broke out of tradition when the new life pushed it out! Not modernism, not pandering to people's felt wants, no, that's not what I'm talking about.
Now let me apply this truth. First of all, these illustrations of the Lord Jesus: the wedding, the clothing and the wine tell us that salvation is of grace, not of the law. I say to you again this morning: you can't patch up your sinful life by adhering to the rules and regulations of old law in the Old Testament. Now someone might say: 'Ah, but hold on, Jesus said He came not to destroy the law but to fulfil it'. Well, you're right, Jesus wasn't against the law, He enshrined the law, He was the only man who kept the law - but you know there's two ways of replacing a thing. For instance, take an acorn: you can get a hammer and smash it to smithereens - you can replace it with nothing by doing that - or you can stick it in the soil, and wait for the seasons to roll and see it grow into a mighty oak. That's what Jesus did with the law, He fulfilled it, He accomplished it so much so that God's law, that was written on pieces of stone that the Jews couldn't keep, the New Testament tells us is now written on our hearts - the new covenant. We have now the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus. That doesn't mean we go out and break all the commandments because we don't adhere to them any more, not in the slightest, it means we can actually live it by the power of the Spirit, not by legalism. That is what 2 Corinthians 5:17 means that it says: 'Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new' - that's what that verse means.
You need God's salvation, which is by grace, and I hope everybody here this morning has that. The second way to apply this is: false ecumenism is out. That's another way to apply this verse and these illustrations. In other words, you can't patch up dead religion, and therefore we should never be uniting with dead religion. We should only unite with those who have the truth of this new wine, this new cloth, that are rejoicing in the wedding feast that Christ has come, and there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved. We must never water it down.
A third application is that legalism, traditionalism, formalism is out. That doesn't mean there aren't some good traditions, there are very good traditions and there are very biblical traditions that are derived from doctrine, but according to the Lord Jesus Christ: if anything that is man made or devised in the heart or mind of a man stifles new life, if any old form kills the new vibrant being that is in the new gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter how beloved it is to us, it must go! That's Christ's word.
The fourth application is: life, liberty and joy - whilst these other things are out - must be in. Is life, liberty and joy in you? Do you know what our problem is here? And it's mine too. We haven't lost the doctrine, but we've lost our joy - do you agree with me? The first Salvationists, The Salvation Army, used to jump for joy when they sang their hymns. It was because General Booth told them that when they felt the Spirit moving them, they could leap in a hymn or a prayer, and they did. Now I'm not prescribing that for you this morning, but all I'm saying is: there was something fresh. God was doing a new thing through them. I don't agree with a lot of their doctrines, but no one can say to me that God wasn't moving in the early days of the Salvation Army, and even moving today among some of them.
What God is saying through the Lord Jesus here is that there is a perpetual wedding joy with Christ for those who will have it: a feast, not a famine; new clothes, not patched up rags; new wine in new wineskins. Do you think it's a coincidence that the early church, in Acts chapter 2, were accused of being drunk? Is that a coincidence? Now they weren't rolling around, and barking, and roaring like a lion - but they were filled with so much joy that the people said: 'Nobody could be full at this time of the morning!', but they were filled with the Spirit of God! It told on their face, in the way they sang, in the way they preached, the way they prayed! We have lost this: Christ brings perpetual joy to those who take it and fight for it.
Let me ask you as I close: what is your reaction to this message? Maybe you'll carve it up with the roast at the dinner table, that's OK! But can I say to you this morning: if you're sitting there, and at any point, like me, you think, 'This is not appropriate' - that's what they said of what Jesus was doing. If you're sitting there thinking, 'Here, this is dangerous, because you don't know how people will take this on, you know' - that's what they said, 'This is dangerous'. If you're saying: 'This is scandalous' - the Pharisees said it to the point of pulling our blessed Lord to death.
I am inviting you to exit, if you're in it, legalism to the glory of God with a leap and a bound, and sit with the Lord Jesus and join Him in the feast of joy with publicans and sinners. Leave the fast and formalism and dead religion, and know the joy of the Lord which is your strength. Have you got it? There's no joy in keeping rules, because you can't keep them, you'll always fail - but there is joy as a fruit of the Spirit, where you're not drunk with wine wherein is excess, but filled - that word means 'controlled constantly' - by the Spirit. Is it a feast or a famine? Is it the old, or is it the new?
Who of us can say, as David, 'As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God'?
Father, help us to feed on Christ. Sometimes we can stand upon the correctness of our doctrine, the perfectness - we suppose - of our practice, and yet all these things are idols if they distract us from Christ, if they rob us of joy. Lord, give us, restore unto us the joy of our salvation. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Evangelical Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the fifteenth recording in his 'Studies In Mark' series, entitled "Feast Or Famine, Old Or New" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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