14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” – Matthew 9:14-17 ESV
Jesus was a radical. From the moment He opened His mouth and preached His sermon on the mount, He revealed His radical nature. He wasn’t your average rabbi. He didn’t adhere to the standard script handed out by the Jewish religious leadership. No, Jesus was a boat-rocker, paradigm-shifter, tradition-breaker, and custom-crusher. He spoke as one with authority, and He proved that authority by healing the sick, casting out demons, and calming raging storms. Jesus wasn’t afraid to stand up to the religious leadership of His day. He saw them for what they were: Self-righteous hypocrites who were leading the people astray. And He had no qualms about calling them out.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:15 NLT
Everything about Jesus was different, and His radical style was attracting huge crowds of followers. They were amazed by His miracles, intrigued by His words, and strangely attracted to His refreshingly different take on religion. But Jesus’ radical approach to ministry left some a bit confused and others, simply angry. In today’s passage, Matthew records an encounter between Jesus and several disciples of John the Baptist. They had been watching Jesus closely, taking in all that He had said and done. After all, their teacher, John, had boldly claimed that Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). Most likely, these men had heard Jesus speak and even witnessed Him healing the sick and the lame. But they were confused by what they didn’t see. Jesus and His followers were not adhering to what these men believed to be standard religious protocol, so they asked Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matthew 9:14 ESV). The fasts to which the referred were not required by the Mosaic law, but had been established by men. Many of these fasts had been instituted during the Jewish exile in Babylon, and they had become nothing more than ritualistic rites designed to sin favor with God. But even in those days, God had condemned the Jews for their hypocritcal observances of these man-made fasts.
5 “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? 7 Are these not the words the Lord proclaimed through the earlier prophets when Jerusalem and its surrounding towns were at rest and prosperous, and the Negev and the western foothills were settled?’”
8 And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: 9 “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” – Zechariah 7:5-10 ESV
So, the disciples of John, having faithfully maintained this tradition of these fasts, were appalled that Jesus and His disciples failed to do so. And Jesus responded to their question with a question of His own.
“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” – Matthew 9:15 ESV
As the disciples of John, they would have been familiar with this metaphor, because their teacher had used it when speaking of Jesus.
28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.” – John 3:28-30 ESV
In essence, John saw himself as the best man. He was nothing more than a herald for the One who was to come. And Jesus simply took John’s metaphor and expanded upon it, explaining that the day would come when He, the bridegroom, would no longer be with them. It would be then that the disciples would fast and mourn. But in the meantime, there was no reason to fast and mourn. This was to be a time of celebration and joy, because the Son of God had come to earth. The Messiah had finally arrived. Back in Zechariah’s day, during the exile, the people fasted in hopes that God would rescue them and restore them to their land. But all the while they fasted, they were failing to show justice, mercy and compassion to one another. And the same thing was true in Jesus’ day. Religious rule-keeping and the observations of ritualistic fasts had taken the place of true righteousness. Adherence to the law had taken precedence over a love for God and others.
And Jesus explains that He had come to introduce something new. He compares His ministry to new cloth and new wine. And He emphasizes it’s radical new nature by suggesting that, like new cloth, His agenda was not going to be an add-on to the old ways. His message was not about keeping the law, but about recognizing the sinfulness of man as exposed by the law. Jesus had come to provide a radical new way for men to be made right with God. He was offering up something distinctively different. In fact, He had told the crowd listening to His sermon on the mount:
“I warn you–unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” – Matthew 5:20 NLT
Fasting, rule-keeping, religious observances, and self-righteous displays of pious-looking acts would not be enough. Jesus was offering new cloth and new wine. As the apostle Paul would later put it, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV). With the arrival of Jesus on the earth, God was breaking with the old and instituting something new. The Jews had long ago broken their covenant with God. They had failed to remain faithful to Him and He had been forced to send them into exile as punishment for their disobedience. And even though He had eventually returned them to the land, they continued to live in unfaithfulness and spiritual darkness. But Jesus had come to establish a new covenant with the people of God. And the author of Hebrews points out the radical new nature of Jesus’ ministry and message:
6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. – Hebrews 8:6-7 ESV
And the author of Hebrews goes on to stress that this new ministry of Jesus was going to be in fulfillment of the promise of God to establish a new covenant with His people.
8 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
9 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.” – Hebrews 8:8-12 ESV
New cloth. New wine. New covenant. New nature. New hope. And a radical new way for men to be made right with God. And that calls for feasting, not fasting. That should produce in us joy, not mouring. Gone are the days when men must attempt to win favor with God by tying to keep the law of God.
The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT
A new day. A new way.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.