Of Wine and Wineskins

Part 1: Observations from the Texts (Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:18-22, Luke 5:33-39)

  1. The precipitating context for the new wine/old wineskins discussion is people asking Jesus why His disciples did not fast. His immediate answer is that you can’t get the friends of the groom to fast at the bachelor party or the wedding — they fast later.
  2. He illustrates His point with two pictures. He begins by observing that if you sew a new patch onto an old garment, the fabric will shrink and make the tear worse. Likewise, if you put new wine into old wineskins, the new wine will swell beyond the old wineskins’ ability to stretch, and the wineskin will burst – bad for both the wineskin and the wine.
  3. The point is that He is doing something genuinely new, and the old forms — while sufficient for the old thing—won’t contain the new thing.
  4. Jesus Himself chases the analogy a bit further in Luke, when He observes that no one drinks old wine and then asks for new, because the old is better. Similarly, He presents senselessly ruining old wineskins as a bad thing.

Part 2: The Nature of Wine and Wineskins

  1. Wineskins are not found objects; they don’t grow on trees. A wineskin exists because someone made it.
  2. Both wine and wineskins start out new, and both inevitably become old. No power on earth can prevent this natural process, and trying to thwart it is trying to live in a world God didn’t make.
  3. Old wine is good. In fact, it tastes better than new wine. But there is no way to get old wine without making new wine.
  4. Even though old wine is better than new, it is an acquired taste. The immature often have trouble learning to appreciate it.
  5. While new wine getting old is a gradual and continual process, making new wine is a seasonal endeavor.
  6. Like most seasonal activities, making new wine becomes all-consuming for a time. To someone who doesn’t pay attention to the changing seasons, it looks like a sudden, unhinged obsession. To the farmer and vintner, it looks like responding intelligently to the grapes being ripe.
  7. It is never enough to make the new wine. If you want to enjoy the wine over time, then you need new vessels to hold it.
  8. Wine is a treasure; wineskins are a means to an end. Neither one lasts forever, and trying to keep them forever is a mistake.
  9. When the wine has been enjoyed, the wineskin remains. It may be recycled as clothing, sandals, or various other forms of cultural production, but it has come to the end of its useful life as a wineskin.

Part 3: Temptations

  1. We want to believe that our institutions will go on forever, perennially vital (in both senses of that word). No. They have a natural life cycle, and that natural life cycle includes birth as a new wineskin, stretching to accommodate the maturing vintage, and the senescence of being an old wineskin holding old wine. Getting old and dying is an unavoidable part of the process. An institution will be unable to contain the next season’s new wine. That was Jesus’ central point.
  2. The old will be tempted to resent the new. The old wine people will want to know why the new wine people won’t join in the old wine project. They will want to know why the old wineskin won’t do. And then, if they succeed in recruiting new people, they will want to know why the new wine wants to stretch the old wineskin. It was fine the way it was.
  3. The new will be tempted to hold the old in contempt, which commonly manifests in a couple of ways.
  4. The new can try to simply ignore the old, as if the new is better and the old is simply irrelevant. This is a very common temptation, and Jesus calls it out for what it is when He observes that no one drinks old wine and immediately asks for new, because the old is better. Old wine exhibits refinement, nuance, and maturity that is simply not present in the new, and can’t be.
  5. The new can attempt to hijack an old wineskin. This never works—as Jesus says—but it is tempting because making a new wineskin is hard work. It always seems like surely we could stretch the old one. But because the new wine people have no regard for what the old wineskin really does contribute, they treat it as though they have nothing to lose, and inevitably, they blow it up.
  6. When the new wine begins to stretch the old wineskin in ways that threaten its survival, there will be a power struggle. Either the new wine people will win, destroy the wineskin, and all the old wine people will leave because the institution can no longer contain them, or the old wine people will win and drive out the new. Neither result is good, and the situation ought to have been avoided to start with.

Part 4: Responding to Temptations

  1. If you are tempted to say that the new wine is better than the old, or to smuggle new wine into an old wineskin, then you need a prolonged and serious engagement with the old wine for the purpose of gaining an appreciation for nuance, sophistication, and maturity. Read fat books; interview old people; study history. Regularly thank God for the old wine and the old wineskins. If you can’t see what to be thankful for, thank Him anyway, every day, and ask Him to give you eyes to see. Keep praying until He does.
  2. If you are tempted to say that the new wine is unnecessary, then you need a keener grasp of the failings of your present situation. In regular prayer, repent of the sins of your people, and ask God to give you eyes to see the failings better, so that you can intercede for your people more effectively. Keep praying until He does.

Part 5: Notes Toward A Way Forward

  1. As always, if we do not have love, we are nothing.
  2. We should love the old wine for the best of its qualities: maturity, refinement, and nuance are good.
  3. We should love the new wine for the best of its qualities: energy and expansion are good attributes of the kingdom of God.
  4. A discerning connoisseur can taste what the new wine will mature into, and love it despite its raw youth for the sake of what it will become. We are called to discernment.
  5. We have old wine because God has favored us with the stability to keep and mature it. We have new wine because God has favored us with a recent harvest. We should thank God for all His favor.
  6. We should rejoice that we are blessed with variety. A young Beaujolais and an old Merlot are both good. We are richer for having both at the feast, and we ought to give thanks.
  7. That said, nobody puts both wines in the glass at the same time. We ought not be cranky because we have a choice; we only face the dilemma because God has been kind to us. Oh, that men would praise the Lord for His goodness, and His wonderful works to the children of men!

Tim Nichols is a pastor at large with Headwaters Christian Resources and a massage therapist in Englewood, Colorado. He is a coauthor of the Victorious Bible curriculum.

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