New Wineskins for New Wine
People today are subject to such a quickly changing spiritual climate and theological landscape. Popular beliefs, music, worship styles, and even theology seem to change every year. What should we rely on for guidance? Many people rely on church traditions, but do they provide truth and stability? To rise above the confusion, we need to receive the new wine of Christ’s gospel and hold firmly to his teaching found in Scripture. In these we will find God’s spiritual blessings. But new wine can only be preserved when it is stored in new wineskins.
The Parable of the Wine and Wineskins
On one occasion the Pharisees and teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to Jesus:
“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. (Luke 5:30-31)
In other words, God loved sinners and wanted to save them. The Pharisees then offered Jesus another criticism:
“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)
Jesus showed tremendous patience with these people. He didn’t need to conform to their false standards of piety, but he still tried to reason with them. As part of his response, he told them the parable of the wineskins:
And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, “the old is better.” (Luke 5:37-39)
In ancient times wine was stored in goat skins. The skin of a newly killed goat was pliable and flexible, and when the wine fermented, the skin would expand along with the wine. But old skins were usually dry and brittle and would break if new wine was stored in them.
Replica of Ancient Wineskin
In this parable Jesus compares his teaching— the good news of the kingdom of God—to new wine. In context, the wineskins most likely represent the people who hear the message of the gospel —the new wine. Those whose hearts are pliable and teachable will receive Jesus and his teaching, and will be blessed.
Jesus’ disciples were the first new wineskins. They accepted his teaching and followed him into a life of service. The old wineskins which don’t expand but burst are the people who after hearing Christ’s teaching reject it. These are the religious leaders who rejected Christ and his teaching.
A secondary more popular interpretation is that the old wineskins represent the old established religious structures and practices which can’t accommodate a new work of God. There is truth in this view, as we can easily see how established tradition can sometimes hinder the work of God. However, behind established church traditions and structures are the people who maintain and defend them. Religious structures are the result of the focus and work of religious leaders. Clearly the focus of Jesus’ parable are the people who received his teaching, not just their work.
In the parable, Jesus quotes a popular saying of that time: “The old is better.” He was not necessarily agreeing with it, but cited it to teach his lesson. It’s a fact that many people in his day (and ours) preferred established ways and traditions.
The old wine probably represents the popular but misguided views of the Law of Moses by the religious leaders of that time. Jesus’ message was new to the people because they were used to hearing overly strict interpretations of God’s law from the teachers of the law, and very little about God’s love for sinful people. What they thought was the true Word of God was in fact a misrepresentation of it.
Jesus’ Teaching as the New Wine
Jesus’ teachings on conforming to the heart of God’s law were foreign to the people, as they were used to hearing about obedience to the letter of the law. For this reason, many didn’t have a love relationship with God, but only a ceremonial relationship. And the prospect of the Gentiles being accepted into the kingdom—this message was so offensive to them that it alone would have prevented Jesus’ teaching from being accepted by the Jewish culture of that time.
It’s clear that the gospel would never have fit into the religious system that had been constructed by the Jewish religious leaders. The gospel eventually found a home among many of the non-Jewish peoples of the world. They accepted Jesus as their Savior and received his teaching because it was true, and their hearts were pliable and teachable. They were the new wineskins for the new wine.
Those who opposed Jesus were definitely on the wrong side of history. Because they preferred man-made traditions, they have gone down in history as having missed the day of their visitation (Luke 19:41).
The power of human tradition
Much of the opposition Jesus received in his public ministry was due to the power of human tradition. His teaching forced people to think about their beliefs, and in some cases challenged accepted norms. It was certain that he would offend some people.
Many common people rejected his teachings, not because the ideas couldn’t be found in Scripture, but because they were new to them. But to the religious leaders, his teachings were offensive, not just new. Most of the leaders rejected the new wine because of their hardened and stubborn hearts, and their unwillingness to even consider that Jesus might be God’s Messiah. The power of human tradition was so great in them that they rejected the incarnation of God in favor of man-made ideas and practices.
But the kingdom of God was advancing, because the King of truth—the Messiah— had finally come. There was no time to wait: the people had to hear the good news. And this required preaching the true Word of God, at times in a very unfavorable environment.
Dealing With Change in the Church
History has shown that many church practices, beliefs and doctrines have changed through the years. Some beliefs are popular for a while, then die out. Some endure decades— even centuries— only to be rejected later. The authority of the Roman papacy went unquestioned for centuries but was fully rejected by the reformists. The theology of pre-millennialism was popular back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but today, many Christians question it. Today, even what many consider foundational tenets of the Christian faith are being challenged.
How should we respond to this ever-changing spiritual landscape? Many today say that the answer is a return to the creeds and confessions of previous times. While it’s true that time-honored Christian doctrines are anchors for our faith, creeds and confessions vary, and sometimes greatly, depending on the faith tradition. Can these be our ultimate source of truth?
Some people deal with the confusion by digging in their heels and entrenching themselves into a specific church tradition. They defend their church and its understanding of Scripture to the bitter end. There are also some Bible teachers and their followers who make dogmatic proclamations about grey areas of church doctrine with great force and conviction. But our culture has changed significantly, and this kind of talk doesn’t easily persuade the current generation. As the saying goes, “Just saying it doesn’t make it true,” even if said with conviction by an impressive and well-known speaker.
Is the old always better than the new?
Is the old always better than the new? The confrontations that Jesus had with the religious leaders show the answer is clearly no. Jesus’ “new” teaching was the true Word of God, and theirs’ was a misrepresentation of it. And history has also shown that the gospel has always faced opposition wherever it has been carried.
Since Jesus’ ministry, many traditions have developed in the Christian faith, some of which have endured. But many, although they may have had a Scriptural basis at one time, have since lost their original meaning. They eventually became just traditions of men, and the form was all that is left. Sometimes the power of tradition was so great that it opposed the true gospel of grace, and reformation was needed.
The Reformation recovered many “lost” doctrines of Scripture which were buried under years of tradition and inattention to Scripture, not least of which was justification by faith. A great number of theological works and confessions resulted from the Reformation. One was the Westminster Confession (1647) which gave new insight into and needed definition of Scripture for the church at that time. Although most of this confession is solid, many Christians (including me) now reject some of what it asserts, as well as its emphasis.
Many “new” insights into Scripture may not be new at all, but closer to the intent of the biblical author and the meaning intended by God. As church history progresses, new insights are gained, and wrong beliefs are discarded. Reformation didn’t occur just once, but has happened many times in history and will happen again. Even so, a core of essential Christian doctrines based on Scripture still remains.
Medieval beliefs and practices
Some teachings that were commonly accepted at one time need to be fully rejected. Good examples are many of the beliefs from the Middles Ages, especially as related to science and ethics. Of course, the belief that the earth is the center of the universe has long been disproven.
To the medieval mind, cruel and excessive punishments for criminals made perfect sense as deterrents: if inflicting a little pain was good, then a lot was even better. Torture, beatings, and brutal executions for common crimes were widespread. It was believed that if criminals repented of their sins during torture, it might have saved them from going to hell, which was thought to be far worse. To some degree, their treatment of criminals reflected their theology of hell. If God tortures his enemies in hell forever (the doctrine of conscious eternal torment), torturing criminals was also justified. Many creeds and confessions still hold to conscious eternal torment, but this traditional belief is losing ground in the Church and is now rejected by many theologians.
From our perspective today, all of the medieval religious beliefs are old to us, so we are tempted to think of them as established church doctrine. But to the apostles, they were all in the future, and they clearly would have rejected many of them.
Is the New Always Good?
On the other side are the progressives who feel that anything new is good, whether moral, theological, social, or political. They want change just for the sake of change, and fall for anything new because it is new. They reject the wisdom of their elders as irrelevant. The word wisdom is not in their vocabulary, and the word old is avoided.
But it’s clear that much of what is new is also false or harmful, whether new ideas, culture, moral values, or teaching. Many who are obsessed with the new have ruined their lives, their families, and the lives of others. Political leaders who follow extreme progressive ideologies and have gained access to power have been known to ruin whole communities, and on rare occasion whole nations.
There are some Christians who reject anything that is labeled “tradition.” They claim that they don’t need anything from the past because they are being led by the Spirit. This is foolish. Many traditional beliefs are in fact central to the Christian faith, and can’t be discarded without rejecting Christ himself. The Christian faith—the gospel message itself— is based on history: the incarnation, the virgin birth, and the death and resurrection of Christ.
There are also those who call themselves “progressive Christians.” But this term implies that they have improved upon the gospel by progressing beyond the original teachings in Scripture. This is equally foolish and as well as arrogant. You cannot, and should not try to “improve” upon the gospel message. Our goal is always to find the original message, not to try to improve it.
All Christians need to humbly accept the fact that we are fallible and our spiritual eyesight is imperfect. Entrenching ourselves into church dogma, a specific theology, or a new cultural movement can negatively effect our individual spiritual lives, the life of the church, and our witness to the world. Of course God’s Word doesn’t change: “His Word endures forever.” It’s our understanding of it — our interpretation—that can change.
We need to maintain a healthy dialog in the Church with regards to popular or new beliefs. Our discourse should be in humility and love, respecting the views of others, however much we may disagree. Above all, Christ should be the center and Scripture our guide.
New Wine in the Church
We should not reject anything just because it is new. We should never dig in our heals and declare: “I will never drink any wine unless it is old wine.” It’s easy to laser-focus on the forms and structures, and not on the wine itself. Should we always reject a new method of evangelism, a new translation of the Bible, or a new form of worship? But more importantly, should we always reject a new insight into Scripture?
Conversely, we must never accept something just because it is new. We should never get to the point of saying: “I would never drink old wine, it’s out of date.” We should not lightly give up established doctrine for popular teachings, which leads to spiritual deception and ruin.
And finally, Scripture should be our template, our constant reference and final authority—not teachings from bloggers, prominent speakers or pastors, church tradition, or even creeds and confessions. We continually need to ask: What does Scripture say? Has God spoken about this? We should put every teaching to the test: not to attack it, but to hold it up to the light of Scripture. My book Interpreting and Applying the Bible outlines basic principles everyone should know for understanding the Scripture.
Applying Jesus’ Parable Personally
Those of us who live in the United States and Europe now live in a post-Christian society. Religious values and beliefs no longer dominate our cultures. Many consider the message of salvation old and outdated. But God still offers to every person the new wine of his salvation through Christ. It is life-giving wine to anyone who would take it and drink. If you think you are already familiar with the Christian faith, don’t reject it because you think it’s too old. You may be seeing something that is not the true new wine, but only a tradition.
A surprising fact is that the Christian message is still foreign to many people in the world. Millions of people live in a culture with a dominant and well-established religion, many of whom have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. These typically consider the Christian faith new when they hear it, and might reject it just for that reason. But that’s also foolish.
Ultimately the question we should ask is not Is it new, or Is it old, but: Is it true?
The Blessing of New Wine
The personal application of Jesus’ parable is clear: we should enter the kingdom of God by accepting the new wine of the gospel. As pliable wineskins, we must then soften our hearts and give Christ first place in our lives. We should be pliable and be receptive to his teaching, and give it our full attention.
The gospel makes claims that no other religion makes, claims that Jesus himself made. If you have not done so, I strongly encourage you to look at Christ’s claims and his teaching. If his word persuades you, it will be to you new wine in a completely new wineskin. By his own words he promised an eternal abundant life to all who believe in him:
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35)
I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (John 11:25-26)
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