SynopsisIn this passage some people question Jesus about the practice of fasting. (In Matthew 9:14–17 we are told that it’s John the Baptist’s disciples.) The Pharisees were fasting, and John’s disciples were fasting, but Jesus’ disciples were not, so people wanted to know why. It’s not always easy to see tone in these texts, but my guess would be that the question is somewhat accusatory; not so much “why aren’t you fasting,” but “why aren’t you fasting like you’re supposed to?”
Jesus’ response is to compare himself to a bridegroom: a wedding is a time for celebration not for fasting, so when you’re with the bridegroom of course you don’t fast. Jesus goes on to say that the days will come when the bridegroom—himself—will be taken away, and then his disciples will fast.
Jesus then goes on to say something that seems like a non-sequitor:
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins. (verses 21–22 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
ThoughtsOne obvious example of Jesus’ disciples fasting after the bridegroom was taken away from them would be right after his crucifixion, before he’d risen again. They were quite obviously in a time of mourning then. But even aside from that, the New Testament continues to include the practice of fasting—for example, see Acts 13:2 (ESV)—so this isn’t something that was abolished with New Testament Christianity. We still mourn over sin (and our own sinfulness), and it’s appropriate to do so.
Jesus then gives the metaphors of sewing a new piece of cloth onto an old garment, and putting new wine into old wineskins. These are metaphors for how New Testament Christianity relates to Old Testament Judaism: Christianity is not simply a “patch” on Judaism. If you were to view Christianity as nothing more than an extension of Judaism, a couple of extra rules added to the rules we already had from the Old Testament, you’d be missing some fundamental aspects of Christianity. Definitely there is a sense in which Christianity carries on from Judaism, there is a sense in which it is an extension of what God had already revealed in the Old Testament, it’s even true that Jesus focused most of his evangelism on the Jews, and it wasn’t until He’d gone back to be with the Father that Christians really began the push to evanglize gentiles. But it’s also true that Christianity is fundamentally different than Judaism; it’s not at all about following rules, it’s about faith in Jesus. Jesus is beginning to tell his disciples something that Israelites in the Old Testament could not have understood, or at least not understood fully: that the Law of the Old Testament was never intended to save them, all it could do was point to their need for God to save them.
So my question is this: all of this being understood, why is Jesus making this point right now? The people haven’t asked him about the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. (They don’t even know something called a “New Testament” or a “New Covenant” is going to be created.) They’ve asked him why his disciples aren’t fasting, and he’s talking about the fact that something entirely new is starting now, which is fundamentally different from the old. What’s going on here?
I hinted at it above: Old Testament Judaism, as people understood it, was about following the rules which had been handed down by God, whereas New Testament Christianity is about faith in Jesus. It’s right there in the name: Christianity. In a word, the difference between the Old and New Testaments is Jesus. Jesus is what Christianity is all about. So think it through: people come to ask Jesus why his disciples aren’t fasting, and Jesus tells them that it’s because the bridegroom is still with them, so fasting isn’t appropriate. Why is it not appropriate? Because Jesus is more than just a teacher, he’s more than even a prophet. If any of the well known rabbis of the day had been there, if Isaiah the prophet had been there, even if Moses had been there, their disciples would have fasted. But Jesus is different; Jesus is their God.
This is what Jesus is trying to teach them. I doubt they got it, I doubt even the twelve got it; it wouldn’t be until after Jesus’ death and resurrection that things would start to get more clear for people. But when the Holy Spirit really started to open their eyes, they would remember teachings such as this one.