Sermon preached on Luke 5:33-39 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 09/12/2021 in Novato, CA.
As you know, the OPC recently held the special day of prayer and fasting. Based on a number of questions I received in preparation for that day, I realized that as pastor, I should have given some better instruction to the congregation about how to go about fasting and about the nature of fasting. While today’s sermon won’t address every aspect about fasting, it will help make up for some of that recently missed opportunity.
So then, we find them asking Jesus about fasting here. They ask him how the practices he is having his disciples do compares with what both the disciples of the Pharisees and of John the Baptist are doing. Don’t miss the context for this question. In our pew Bibles, it is separated out as its own distinct subsection, and that is okay, but remember the passage right before this. That’s when Jesus and his disciples were being questioned for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus then admonished them for their critique, saying that it was sinners who needed a doctor, and that he came to call such sinners unto repentance. In other words, Jesus’ eating and drinking with sinful people was for ministry and evangelism purposes.
But then, do you see how the question and concern raised to Jesus today is only subtly different from last passage? Last time it was about why Jesus was eating and drinking with sinners. Now, it is why is Jesus eating and drinking, period. While the most popular forms of the Jewish religion of the time were regularly fasting, Jesus and his disciples were regularly feasting, in comparison. So then, Jesus is asked about this, why his ministry does not feature such fasting, and you can’t help but think this question is asked of Jesus not just for information purposes, but as a critique of Jesus. In fact, in Luke 7 we will see how Jesus mentions there that people were calling him a glutton and a drunkard because he has come eating and drinking. So, clearly there were people who were critical of Jesus and his disciples, thinking they were living it up in sinful partying and prodigality.
It would be helpful here to note what the law of God required in this regard. There was only one time of the year where such fasting was regularly called for in the Old Covenant. That was during Yom Kippur, i.e. the Day of Atonement. That’s described in Leviticus 16, and was the annual day for God’s people to humble themselves before God and confess of their sin and have a special sacrifice offered for their atonement in the Holy of Holies by the high priest. In that context, we see the Biblical concept that fasting is something to join with one’s prayer in the context of humility and lament over sin. It certainly was a quite fitting practice on the annual Day of Atonement observance. But that was the only regular day for fasting under the law. Otherwise, what we see biblically is that fasting would be an occasional practice, when it seemed fitting based on special circumstances. In times of great mourning, or great peril, or grave sin that had been committed, then fasting would be done on such extraordinary occasions to make urgent, special appeal to God. It would be a way to greatly humble yourself before God in lamentation, to cry out to God for help, or healing, or forgiveness, depending on the special circumstances. So then, fasting is typically described in the Bible as an occasional, not a regular, act of worship.
Now for the current circumstances of that day, apparently the Pharisees had turned this notion of occasional fasting upon special circumstances, into a part of their regular religious devotions. As we see in Luke 18:12, we learn that it was common for the Pharisees to fast twice a week. In other words, it wasn’t just occasional fasting based on extraordinary circumstances that warranted it. Now to be fair, one can argue, from the perspective of the Pharisees, that circumstances for Israel warranted such ongoing and regular fasting. Israel had been restored back in the Promised Land now for centuries, but still they were subjects and slaves to Gentiles instead of being free and under the promised Davidic Messiah. They had lost such freedoms and blessings because of their sin, and so one might argue that Israel should still be in lamentation because of that. While that might be a fair point, we also see evidence that such regular fasting became a form of perverted worship by many. Some would fast at that time, and let everyone know they were fasting, in order to be seen and praised by men. Jesus spoke against that attitude in the Sermon on the Mount. Others would harshly treat their bodies and think in doing so that they were pleasing God and could be justified before God by their acts of self-deprivation or even self-harm. Yet, the Bible speaks against such in places like Luke 18:12, Colossians 2:23, and 1 Timothy 4:2-3.
Now as for the fasting of John’s disciples, we don’t know how often or regular they were doing so. We are not told explicitly of any abuses of fasting by his disciples. And in fact, when we think of John’s message, it was a message for a special extraordinary circumstance. His message was that after so many centuries of waiting, the long-awaited Messiah and kingdom restoration was near at hand. In light of this, John’s message said it demanded a special season of repentance and humility before God in advance of his coming. So, in John’s message and ministry, a period of fasting ahead of Christ’s coming seems very fitting.
So then, in comparison to the fasting that was going on with the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, we see Jesus and his disciples were not. Yet, there is a reason why Jesus and his disciples behaved as they did, and our passage addresses this. Jesus gives several short parables to illustrate why.
The first of such parables is that of the bridegroom and his guests in verse 34. As he gives that first reason, we see that it teaches us something about who Jesus is. Verse 34, Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” In this statement, Jesus is being likened to the bridegroom and the disciples to his wedding guests. Realize what the setting is in that parable. It’s a wedding. Weddings are a time of joy. They are a time of celebrating. They naturally are a time and eating and drinking and feasting. If the occasion was a funeral, it would be a different setting. So then, as fasting is something that is occasional and circumstance dependent, Jesus points them to the circumstances and the occasion.
Again, this says something huge about Jesus. If Jesus wasn’t who Jesus was, this would have been a rather presumptuous and even prideful statement. But Jesus was who Jesus was. Jesus was the Lord’s Anointed Messiah and King come in the name of the Lord. He was there to proclaim the good news, the joyous news, of the coming of the kingdom. As the Son of God and promised Son of David, his coming was the occasion of joy. Yes, it would be fitting for humility in advance of his coming. But as he comes, he calls his humbled disciples to rise up and rejoice at how the promises of God are yes and amen in him! So then, Jesus says that the current occasion warrants feasting and joy not fasting and lamenting.
It’s so important when thinking about this question about fasting to know the times. The prophet Amos had spoke of God’s judgment to come upon Israel in Amos 8:10, saying that God would turn their feasts into mourning, and their songs into lamentation. When Assyria destroyed and exiled the northern kingdom of Israel, God did just that. And when later Babylon destroyed and exiled the southern kingdom of Judah, God again did just that. But the prophet Jeremiah prophesied in Jeremiah 31:13 that God would one day bring his people back from exile. There Jeremiah said that when that happened, God would turn their mourning into joy and give them gladness for sorrow. Jesus then is the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. He came to the returned exiles to put away their sorrows and give them joy.
And yet Jesus goes on in this parable to give them a new prophecy. He says in verse 35, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” Here, Jesus foretells his death, and how it would be something forcefully done to him, that he would be “taken away from them.” Jesus would be betrayed, arrested, falsely accused and condemned, and put to death on the cross. That would be an occasion for fasting and prayer. That would be an occasion for lamenting and sorrow. And it would again be an occasion that was related to the sin of the people. For Jesus would submit to all that, even to die on the cross, in order to atone for the sins of God’s people. So, when that happened, it would be again a special occasion that warranted such a change from feasting to fasting. It would be a literal funeral at that time.
If I can then pause and address some application here. It is often asked, what about now? Now, is it fitting for Christians to still fast? Does this passage give us any insight into this? Beyond the disciples fasting when Jesus was crucified on the cross and dead in the grave, is there ever occasion to fast now? Jesus said that to fast when he is with them wasn’t the right occasion, but what about now? Well, on the one hand, Jesus is with us. At Pentecost, Jesus poured out his Spirit upon all Christians, fulfilling what he promised at the end of Matthew’s gospel, that he would be with us always, even until the end of the age. On the other hand, we know that he is not physically with us at this time. How do we reconcile this? Well, Scripture needs to interpret Scripture. What we find is that there are several occasions post-Pentecost where Christians are described in commendable ways for fasting on special occasions. One that particularly addresses this question is in Acts 13. There, we see the church at Antioch fasting before they ordain and send out Paul and Barnabas for the missionary work God had called them to do. There it even mentions the Holy Spirit at work among them in the midst of their fasting. So then, while Jesus is with us still by the Holy Spirit, that does not preclude the use of fasting on special occasion. So then, while not a regular, everyday sort of practice, occasional fasting for special circumstances does continue to have biblical warrant.
The next two short parables Jesus then gives is in verses 36-37. They both teach that there is something new about Jesus’ message and ministry. There may have been fitting reasons for fasting before, under the old circumstances. But now Jesus is bringing something new.
In verse 36, the parable is of a new and old garment. You don’t tear a piece of a new garment in order to use it as a patch on an old garment. Why would you do that? If you have a new garment, why bother trying to fix the old messed up garment. Just wear the new garment! In this parable, what Jesus brings is likened to the new garment. What Jesus brings should be embraced, but it does mean that you will be retiring that old garment.
Similarly, verse 37 is a parable of new wine with old versus new wineskins. New wine is alive with lots of fermentation going on. A new wineskin can be used to hold that new wine, because it can stretch and expand to hold the wine as it ferments and expands. But an old wineskin has already been stretched and expanded. So, if you fill it up with new wine, it won’t be able to stretch and expand further, so it will just burst. So then, again, what Jesus brings is likened to the new wine that needs to go into the new wineskins. You can’t reuse the old wineskins anymore. They served their purpose, but it’s time to get rid of them and use the new wineskins.
So then, what new things does Jesus bring? Well, Jesus comes bringing the new kingdom and will be its new king. Jesus will bring a new covenant that he will inaugurate in his blood, a new better sacrifice. Jesus is bringing a new expanded people, redeeming people from all the nations. Jesus is bringing a new measure of the Spirit being poured out on people. Jesus is bringing new forms of worship by bring a new temple made up of people, not stones, and with a new call to worship in spirit and in truth. And Jesus will ultimately usher in a new creation, and with a new Jerusalem, which will be a new better inheritance and land of promise for God’s people. This is all so new that it’s why it’s called “good news” – you bring news of what is new.
Thinking about all this in the light of the analogy of trying to patch an old garment with a new one, isn’t that what the Jews had been trying to do? They had come back to the Promised Land and tried to patch up that old covenant. They remade the temple. They rebuilt the wall. They vowed to keep again all the laws and statutes and stipulations that they failed in last time. They reinstituted the sacrificial system. They just tried to restart that old covenant all over again, and repair what needed to be repaired. But the prophet Jeremiah already said that old covenant was broken. And he didn’t say it needed to be repaired. He said it needed to be replaced – with a new covenant; with a better one. This is what Jesus is drawing to our attention here. With the coming of Jesus, something new and far better has come unto them. The book of Hebrews can help you think further along these lines, by the way.
So then, the last parable by Jesus is in the final verse, where he says, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” This teaches something about the tendency of humans to favor the old over the new. Or sometimes it’s just favoring the familiar over the unfamiliar. Sometimes the new seems like the scary, unknown, and we reject it without good reason.
Now, this is an example that we want to be careful not to overthink a parable. You might hear Jesus parable in verse 39 and think to yourself, “Well, isn’t old wine better? Don’t you want to age a wine before you drink it?” While that may be the case in some circumstances, that’s missing how Jesus uses the point which is how people have a tendency to reject something new and want to cling with their old. But even using the wine analogy, we know it’s not always the case that older wine is better just because it is older. Take a bottle of two-buck chuck that you’ve aged patiently for 10 years. I guarantee that a just released bottle of Silver Oak will be vastly superior. Well, apply this to Jesus. Jesus isn’t just bringing a newer, unmatured version of the same sort of thing. What Jesus brings is vastly qualitative better and of a different order than what was before. In terms of what we are talking about, the old covenant was full of type, and shadow, and promise. But Jesus has come bring the real thing, the substance of what was foreshadowed and promised.
Yet, people can tend to want to cling on to the old. I’m going to take this idea about liking the old wine and go back to the new versus old garment analogy. I find this issue in my closet. I have some old clothes that I know are old and I frankly don’t even wear much because they are old and weathered. So, then I go and buy some new clothes and I’m excited and wearing the new clothes. But for some reason, I usually have trouble giving away the old clothes. Yes, I do in most cases end up eventually getting rid of those old clothes, but it is hard for me to do so.
So then, with the coming of Jesus Christ and the new covenant that he was bringing, the people were going to have to emotionally come to grips with giving up the old. Of course, there was a lot of continuity with the old. In other words, there would be a lot they weren’t getting rid of. But there was a lot that was being done away with in Christ because the Christ is substance of the types, shadows, and promises. Just think of all the ceremonial laws. Just think of Yom Kippur even – there’s no more place for an annual Day of Atonement celebration in the new covenant. Change can be hard. Leaving behind things we loved and appreciated can be hard. But if you realize that what you loved and cherished was preparing for something far better that has now come, then you realize the need to embrace the new in that case. There’s a time to take the training wheels off. There’s a time when you move out of the house, get married, and start your own family. Elementary school prepared you to graduate and leave it behind and go on to Junior High then High School. Hopefully you get the point. The wonderful religion of the old covenant prepared God’s people for something far better that has now come and is coming in Jesus Christ.
Saints of God, I hope we have had a chance not only today to think a bit about this question on fasting, but also be presented by how much we have in Jesus Christ. May God refresh our hearts in zeal and love for Christ. Let us say the new that we have in Christ is far better than all that came before.
But in a closing thought of application, I wonder if this common tendency to want to stick with the old, can actually sometimes come in the reverse today. There are some people who are always wanting to find and experience something new. But we have to take today’s passage and apply it to where we are it in redemptive history. When Jesus said this in Luke’s gospel, what he was bringing was the new. But it’s not the new for us anymore, in that sense. Yes, the final consummation of all that he has promised is yet coming when he return. But he has now already inaugurated this new covenant and its blessings. Two thousand years later, it’s not “new” anymore in the sense of it displacing the old covenant. My point is that we should not be looking to find some other “newer” religious movement or covenant or practice to come to supplant what Jesus has already brought and taught. Instead, we are called to continue to bring the new that Jesus brought and bring the same anew to each generation until he comes. Let us not be carried away by any new wind of doctrine, but by the grace of God seek to become more matured and aged and refined in Christ and what we have in him.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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