by Al Maxey

Issue #630 ------- August 22, 2014
One must not always think so much about what one
should do, but rather what one should be. Our works
do not ennoble us; but we must ennoble our works.

Meister Eckhart (1260-1327)

The Gospel in a Goatskin
Reflecting on Christ's Comment
about New Wine in Old Wineskins

On many occasions, and from many different sources, Jesus and His disciples were questioned about their theological perceptions and practices. It is safe to say that Jesus did not always conform to the many religious norms and expectations of His day. In fact, the gospel records reflect that time and again He willfully and openly departed from many of the Jewish traditions and customs that were highly revered by those around Him. Such departures did not go unnoticed, and often became the occasion for challenges to and criticisms of our Lord and His close followers. One such exchange came after a dinner Jesus attended at the home of Matthew (Levi), whom He had called to be His disciple. The Pharisees heard that Jesus and His disciples were "eating with tax collectors and sinners," and they were not amused (Matt. 9:9-13). Shortly thereafter, the disciples of John came and questioned Him about the topic of fasting. "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" (Matt. 9:14). In Mark 2:18 we are informed that at this time "John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting." Clearly, Jesus and His disciples were not. Indeed, they had just finished "a great banquet" (Luke 5:29) at Matthew's house. Luke seems to indicate it was the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who challenged Jesus on this matter of Him feasting while they fasted. Many scholars feel it may have been a delegation consisting of each of these groups (John's disciples, the Pharisees, and the teachers of the law) who challenged our Lord that day. "John's disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but Yours go on eating and drinking" (Luke 5:33). There were a number of fasts observed by the Jews, but the vast majority were never commanded by God (rather, they had been established by the Jewish leaders). The Pharisees were known to fast twice a week (Luke 18:12), and John's disciples most likely followed to some extent his own ascetic lifestyle ("For John came neither eating nor drinking" -- Matt. 11:18). The only fast actually required under the Law of Moses, however, was the fast associated with the annual Atonement (Lev. 16:29f). During the exile of the Jews, four additional fasts were instituted by the religious leaders (for a study of this, I would refer the reader to Reflections #12 -- "Case of the Four Fasts"). NOTE: for a study of the difference between a religious fast and a spiritual fast, you may want to examine Reflections #219 in which I discuss in some depth the teaching of Isaiah 58 where the Lord informs His people of the type of fasting He truly values. Understanding this would have been quite helpful to those who questioned Jesus following His banquet at the home of Matthew.

Part of the problem here, at least on the part of those who came to question Jesus, is that they were elevating their own preferences and practices to the level of divine prescription. When we view our own human customs as being on a level with divine commands, there will inevitably follow a spirit of judgmentalism, which too soon results in condemnation of those who dare to differ with us. Matthew Henry (1662-1714), in his commentary on this text, wrote, "It is common for vain professors to make themselves a standard in religion, by which to try and measure persons and things, as if all who differed from them were so far in the wrong; as if all that did less than they, did too little, and all that did more than they, did too much, which is a plain evidence of their want of humility and charity." To the self-righteous, Jesus and His disciples appeared to be self-indulgent, thus they characterized Him as "a glutton and a drunkard" (Matt. 11:19), because "the Son of Man came eating and drinking." The disciples of John may well have been more sincere than the Pharisees in their questioning of Jesus, but both made the same mistake of elevating their own practice to a place of unwarranted distinction. "They have made their own practice a rule for others; a common mistake, the mistake against which St. Paul argues so strongly in Romans 14 and elsewhere. They thought so much of their frequent fastings that they even ranged themselves with the Pharisees in opposition to our Lord, or at least in distinction from His practice. How often men magnify small outward differences, to the disregard of deep and important agreement!" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 372]. "They wanted Christ above all to regulate His piety by theirs," thus they busied themselves in seeking to "straighten out the conduct of others instead of tending to their own affairs" [Dr. Paul Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 174]. The fact that should be noted here is "that Jesus and His disciples did not conform to the common custom of religious people, including the disciples of the Baptist" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 152].

Nevertheless, Jesus was very gracious in His response to these men who posed their question to Him that day. He didn't condemn their frequent fasts, for such fasting was not necessarily wrong, and, indeed, could be quite beneficial if done for the right purposes and with genuineness of heart. Jesus even encouraged His own disciples to fast on occasion, but He strongly advised them to do so privately, rather than as a public display of personal piety (as the Pharisees were prone to do). "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt. 6:16-18). In response to the question posed by the delegation that day, Jesus gave three illustrations that would serve to convey a number of vital truths to these men (and, by extension, to us today as well). All three have a common theme (the appropriateness or inappropriateness of certain attitudes and/or actions in specific circumstances), although each illustration emphasizes a different aspect and application of that theme.

First, Jesus spoke of wedding festivities. A wedding was a celebration; a time of joy and laughter, not a time of sorrow and gloom. He asked them, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast" (Matt. 9:15; cf. Mark 2:19-20; Luke 5:34-35). In the latter statement, Jesus looked to the time of His death and departure; that time had not yet come, however. Therefore, while He was still with them there was reason for rejoicing. This illustration would be meaningful to the disciples of John especially, and should not have been missed by them, for previously John the Baptist had specifically informed his disciples that Jesus was the Bridegroom, and that those who were with Him should be filled with joy (John 3:28-30). There was no place for fasting when in the presence of the Messiah! Such times were occasions for rejoicing! Jesus then presents to these men a couple of parables (as they are called by Luke in Luke 5:36) to further emphasize why fasting was inappropriate to the new order of things being instituted by Jesus (the very point the writer of Hebrews seeks to make in Heb. 9, when he speaks of the "regulations of worship" in the first covenant [vs. 1] being only temporary "until the time of the new order" [vs. 10], at which time they were no longer needed).

In the first of these two "homely parables illustrating the incompatibility of the old with the new" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 379], Jesus says, "No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse" (Matt. 9:16; cf. Mark 2:21; Luke 5:36). When new cloth is patched into an old, already shrunken garment, in time the new patch will also shrink, which will cause it to pull away from the old garment, thus tearing the garment even more. Luke adds the thought that not only will this rending occur, but the new cloth won't even match the old cloth, and thus it will stand out as different. In the second of these "pregnant parabolic sayings" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 152], Jesus says, "Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved" (Matt. 9:17; cf. Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-38). Most of us today can relate somewhat to the first illustration, for we are familiar with clothing wearing out and needing to be repaired (if not replaced). I can still remember wearing brand new Levi patches on the knees of old, worn and torn jeans as a child. In our modern cultures, however, we are less familiar with wine being kept in containers made of animal skins. It is this latter parable that I want to focus our attention upon in the remainder of this study, since the message of both is essentially the same, yet the objects in the latter are less familiar to us, thus deserving of some clarification.

"The use of 'bottles' made from the skins of animals is very ancient, and is still practiced in the East. The skins of goats and kids are commonly taken for this purpose, and are usually so fashioned as to retain the figure of the animal. In preparing the 'bottle,' the head and feet are cut off, and the skin stripped whole from the body. The neck of the animal sometimes makes the neck of the 'bottle;' in other cases one of the forelegs is used as an aperture through which the liquid may be poured out. ... When the skin is green (new, fresh), it stretches with the fermentation of the wine and retains its integrity, but when it becomes old and dry, the fermentation of the new wine soon causes it to burst" [Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 344]. "Wineskins eventually lost their elasticity, thus it was extremely important to replace them so that they would not burst when the new wine was fermenting" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 536]. "New" wine was wine that was still going through the fermentation process, which process generates gas (known as the "tumultuous stage" of fermentation), thus necessitating the need for a container that could stretch and still maintain its integrity.

So, what exactly is Jesus trying to convey in these illustrations? What is His message? Clearly, Jesus came proclaiming something "new," something alive and vigorous and dynamic; a spiritual reality that could not (and would not) be contained and restrained by the old, inflexible forms of a systematic, institutionalized religion. "Jesus' teaching is like fermenting wine that seems to almost have inherent vigor and cannot be contained within an old rigid system" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 885-886]. "The main teaching of the parable seems to be that the newness the coming of Jesus brings cannot be confined to the old forms" [ibid, p. 637]. "The old is always trying to cramp and restrain the new; ... to confine the ferment of new enthusiasm within the wall of ancient order. Thus, the churches fetter the new fresh life of Christian experience, and run the great risk of being themselves shattered in the process. New spiritual forces cannot be bottled up in antiquated customs. Many a hopeful movement has been wasted by the attempt to limit it to the ideas and practices of the past" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 379-380]. "Legal forms and observances are inadequate to contain and express the fresh, spiritual, ever-expanding life of the Christian" [ibid, vol. 16, p. 96]. Dr. Craig Keener, in his massive Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, opined that Jesus perhaps gave these parables "to explain why traditionalists could not consider Jesus' new ways" [p. 301]. I have certainly seen rigid religious traditionalists on the verge of "bursting" in their fury over the lively manifestations of our new life in Christ, and because our new faith does not always fit snugly into their old forms.

"The piety of the Pharisees, a religion of works which they flaunted before the eyes of the people, on the one hand, and the doctrine of Jesus, a preaching of the free grace of God through His blood, on the other, will never agree" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 50]. "The old, dead orthodoxy of the Pharisees, their righteousness of works, did not fit with the doctrine of Jesus of the free mercy of God in and through Christ Jesus -- the Gospel of free grace" [ibid, p. 174]. The noted NT Greek scholar, Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, writes, "When the attempt is made to mix law and grace, both lose their true identity and you have the doctrines of the Judaizers in the Galatian heresy" [Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, p. 57]. "Like old wineskins, the Pharisees were too rigid to accept Jesus, who could not be contained in their traditions or rules. Christianity required new approaches, new traditions, new structures. Our church programs and ministries should not be so structured that they have no room for a fresh touch of the Spirit, a new method, or a new idea. We, too, must be careful that our hearts do not become so rigid that they prevent us from accepting the new way of thinking that Christ brings" [Life Application Bible, p. 1804-1805]. "The new wine of grace was not to be poured into the skin-bottles of legality. ... The newness Jesus brings cannot be reduced to or contained by traditions" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 228].

Luke adds an interesting insight that the other two synoptic authors do not include in their accounts: "And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better'" (Luke 5:39). Drs. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown characterize this as "a natural revulsion against sudden change" [Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 998]. Jesus brings freedom from the rigid formalism of the past, but "men long accustomed to the latter" have a strong tendency not "to take a liking to the former" [ibid]. They don't like, and thus fiercely resist, change ... yet the Lord came to bring great change! "The new wine of the gospel lives and works; it does not suit the stiff, hard, dry, formal life of the Pharisee. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty; we have received not the spirit of bondage, but the Spirit of adoption, the free Spirit of sonship. But that free Spirit abideth not in mere formalists" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 373]. "The new wine is the sweet Gospel of the forgiveness of sins by the grace of God. This glorious news does not fit into carnal, Pharisaic hearts; if the Gospel is preached to such as still depend upon their own works, it is wasted, for they cannot and will not understand it rightly, and thus receive no benefit from it" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 294]. "Jesus is not a foolish person who tries to combine the old Pharisaic ways with the glorious new doctrine of grace and faith. ... The doctrine of grace and faith and the life that springs from it cannot possibly be combined, even in small part, with Pharisaic Judaism either in its ancient or its modernistic forms" [R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 369-370].

"In every generation can be seen this Pharisaic spirit -- deep-seated hatred and fear of change. Men who have never gone deep enough to distinguish between essential and non-essential, saying, 'If there is new life, let it be kept in the old forms'" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 387]. "The young life of new discipleship was not to be forced into conjunction, and so crushed into conformity, with Pharisaic asceticism, nor was their freedom to be hampered by such unnatural and unwelcome restrictions. ... The principles of true freedom infused by the gospel must burst through the narrowness of mere ceremonialism" [ibid, vol. 16, p. 111]. "Today, when a new spirit enters the churches, it demands not the rigid, unyielding methods of the past" [ibid, p. 103]. "By these very apt illustrations our Lord teaches us that it is a vain thing to attempt to mingle together the spiritual freedom of the gospel with the old ceremonies of the Law" [ibid, p. 87]. "Not the hard, cast-iron service of constraint, but the free, spontaneous service of the full and overflowing heart, is that for which our Lord is looking, and with which He is well-pleased" [ibid, p. 132]. Brethren, let us cease striving to force the new into the old; the lively into the rigid; grace into the confines of law. The unyielding legalisms of the old system of religion are past; it is time to enjoy the ever-expanding life and joy and freedom we now have in Christ Jesus, which can never be bound by the restrictive regulations of mere men. Jesus has brought us new wine. May you and I be new wineskins, ready and willing to be filled up with His Spirit, expanding daily as this Presence within us enables us to grow and express ourselves in new and dynamic ways.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

You had a great Reflections article this week (Issue #629 -- "Sacrament or Ordinance?"). I am experiencing firsthand some of the things you mentioned in the introduction to your article. Recently, I made it known to my family, elders, and preacher that my beliefs are closer to your way of thinking than theirs (the elders here consider our church to be the only "sound" congregation in town; the depth of their dogmatism, in which they are trapped, prevents them from acknowledging any weakness at all in their theology). I have given some of your Reflections articles to my parents and family, but these folks rarely read an article from anyone who they know disagrees with their perceptions. They make sure that their subscription to Truth Magazine (a Non-Institutional Church of Christ publication) stays current, though. Anyway, my father approached the preacher about me reading your Reflections, and instead of approaching me, this preacher preached a six sermon series on hermeneutics, the law of silence, the NT "pattern," etc. His last two sermons were entirely focused on -- guess who?! -- that's right: Al Maxey (he even read from your Reflections). You can stream or download the audio of these two sermons about you by going to (click on the "Recent Sermons" tab and go to the two lessons by Jesse Flowers on July 27). Each sermon is close to an hour long!

From a Reader in Texas:

I am a friend of Edward Fudge and attend "Max Lucado's church" in San Antonio. I also had the pleasure of hearing you speak at The Tulsa Workshop. I was recently made aware of your new book, for which Edward Fudge wrote the Foreword -- From Ruin To Resurrection. I read a sample of it on Amazon.Com, which really peaked my interest. Then recently I attended an event at The Lanier Theological Library in Houston, and learned they have a copy of your book in their library. I had time to read much of your book while I was there. I thought it was excellent through and through. Thus, I would like to order ten copies of your book to distribute to others. My check is enclosed. Thank you!

From a Reader in Texas:

I am sending you a check for a signed copy of each of your four books: Down, But Not Out ... One Bread, One Body ... Immersed By One Spirit ... From Ruin To Resurrection. Thanks!

From a Minister in Arkansas:

As a small footnote to your excellent article "Sacrament or Ordinance?" (Reflections #629), I often made mention of "last rites." However, as a Hospice chaplain, I was chided by a Catholic priest when using that term. He informed me that the concept was replaced in 1972, and they now use the term "anointing of the ill." So, even Catholics are known to embrace change with respect to long held practices. Maybe that is a good example for that minority in "our tribe" who hold dogmatic and vitriolic views! Blessings, my brother!

From a Reader in California:

As I have expressed to you before, your writings are very stimulating and thought-provoking. I know you have a great many readers, and that you can't possibly reply to all of them (you must get lots of email), but I must make my case for a response by you on a subject that I have been wrestling with recently: To what degree, if any, should a Christian be involved in politics? I have been gathering some opinions here and there on both sides of the issue, but was wondering if you might chime in on this. Have you personally given this any thought? How do you feel about it? Would Jesus even vote today? Why or why not? Should a Christian answer the call to defend this country? I probably fit the mold of the average evangelical Christian in terms of political beliefs, and it is my feeling that certain elements within our society are bringing down this great nation and undermining the principles on which it was founded. So, what do I do about it, other than to have served my country (as I know you did also) and fly my flag daily? It would mean a lot to me for you to offer your perspective on this. Thank you so much!

From an Elder in Texas:

Well said (i.e., your article "Sacrament or Ordinance?"), and I agree with your premise that the importance of the command to be baptized was too often conveyed as if it were a sacrament (even though that term was not always theologically understood). I can remember discussion in my extended family of how important it was for a prospective future husband or wife to be baptized prior to the wedding so that they were now "one in the faith and in the flesh," even though some secretly felt their baptism may have been more to please the family than God. Most family members, none-the-less, were satisfied that he or she was now "saved" and thus in "the family fold" (although I wasn't always sure which "fold" they were referring to).

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

I had heard some people using the term "sacrament," but I never really understood it since we don't usually encounter this term in the Church of Christ. Thanks for your explanation in your last Reflections. I am now a little smarter!

From an Author in Texas:

Al, your article "Sacrament or Ordinance?" is tremendous, and so true! Thank you for sharing this. To insist, as some do, that any physical thing a person can do is "essential" is to insist the physical act itself saves! If we are saved only if we do it, and lost if we do not, then it naturally follows that we are saved BY it, which is to deny (as you indicate) the truth of Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5. We are not saved by any works we have done. To "get around" this, most of these people argue that water baptism is not a "work of man" (which argument I don't see how any sensible person could believe).

From a Reader in Canada:

Brother, "Sacrament or Ordinance?" is one of the best articles I have read in a long time! It was short, simple and right to the point. One of the main things I have learned from your teachings is to stop worrying about being religiously "right" and simply trust God. Again, thank you so much for this article.

From a Reader in California:

Al, once again you hit it outta the park! While I at this time have a different understanding of many of these things, and may not agree with you on some of them, I nevertheless fully embrace you as my brother! We have far more in common than we do differences. Your efforts to help others see and understand and accept this fact is worth more than all the hours spent sitting at some lectureship or gospel meeting where, unfortunately, too many times one hears proclaimed and sees manifested the opposite of Christ's greatest commandment: Love for one another! Instead, one sees the seeds of division being sown. Keep the presses turning out your writings, brother -- it's working!!

From a Reader in Canada:

Al, your article "Sacrament or Ordinance?" is spot on! I agree with what you have written completely. Hopefully, all who read it will accept what you have written as teaching given to them by the power and guidance of God's Spirit, who obviously works in and through you. Keep on reaching out to accomplish all that God has given you to do.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, you and our brother Rick Atchley are bringing us all much closer to the acceptance of the truth that all Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ, that men have no jurisdiction in this matter, and that unity is part of the grace package. The controls that men have used to try and bind us are being exposed for what they are: that which takes away our joy and separates us from each other. Religion is not an industry where those who are paid for their services are more saved than others. Please keep on helping to keep the message simple for all to understand.

From an Author in Louisiana:

I have heard it said that if one tells a lie long enough, then people will come to believe it as truth. I also hope that if one keeps telling the truth long enough, people will accept it as truth too. Keep on telling the truth, brother!!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Grace is so radical and so outside the normal human experience that men too often attempt to bring it in line with their "action steps" of faith. But, God isn't going to let that happen. Grace is all His doing, and we should remember that as we participate in the various ordinances He gives to us. Al, you are a gifted man, and I thank you for allowing me to learn under you. It's a blessing for my life. I am seeing a movement within the Churches of Christ, and I don't think this is mere happenstance; it is a Holy Spirit thing, so I know God likes what you are doing. I know that with all my heart. In fact, I'm so excited by what I'm witnessing that I can hardly stand it!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

I wonder if understanding grace is such a problem in Western culture specifically because it flies in the face of American pragmatism. "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps," is, of course, just another way of saying, "Do it yourself, man!" Doesn't pragmatism lead to the belief that one needs to earn their salvation? This pragmatism is so ingrained into the American psyche that to teach the "free gift" of God automatically calls to mind the "truth" that "there are NO free lunches." Thus, grace must be redefined to accommodate our cherished American maxims.

From a University Professor in Tennessee:

Thank you, Al, for calling attention on your Facebook page to your Reflections article from a decade ago on questions pertaining to suicide (Issue #153). At my university, I serve as a faculty representative on a team tasked with identifying "at risk students," and helping them get the help they need. One of my duties is to provide suicide prevention workshops using the QPR method (Question, Persuade, Refer) to help people past a crisis and to choose life.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Wonderful words in your study on suicide! So very true. Many men of God today suffer from depression due to some of the burdens of the ministry. I know in our Baptist churches it has been on the rise. Certainly the burden being carried by gospel preachers is heavy, but we must share the load with our Load Bearer. I believe someone who takes their life is typically not in their normal, rational state of mind, and so I believe (and I repeat that I believe) the mercy of God extends beyond that mere moment of madness. I could never imagine what must be going on in the mind of one who takes their life, but I do know this: except for His grace, it could be me! If it were not for His mercy, I would be dead, in jail, or hell. I pray for those contemplating such an action, and I hope the Lord's Church will rise up and reach out to the hurting! If we are the Body, then let's comfort those in the Body who are experiencing deep distress. Again, your words in your article on this topic are awesome!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I remember meeting you back in the summer of 2005. I took my family on a vacation to New Mexico and we went to White Sands. We also visited where you are preaching. At the time, I was amazingly hardcore conservative Church of Christ, and was attending a strong conservative brotherhood preaching school. I graduated in 2006 and went into the ministry. I stepped down in 2010, however, because my studies led we away from the hardcore nonsense of our denomination's traditionalism. Many patted me on the back for this. Others scorned me. I lost some family and friends over it. I appreciate your loving efforts to bring reform to the Church of Christ denomination. Keep up your good work, and blessings be upon you and your house!

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