God’s Wineskin: The New Testament According to the Bridegroom of Heaven
Note: When I wrote this essay a few years back, my goal was to provide non-Christian readers with a winsome introduction to the New Testament. However, in perusing it afresh, I found myself thinking it might also serve as a helpful reminder to older believers in Christ (including yours truly). Is your first love flagging? Does your walk with the Lord seem more of a burden than a blessing? Have you perhaps forgotten—or not quite fully seen—that the New Covenant is, above all else, a marriage covenant? If so, please join me pondering the word of the Bridegroom of heaven concerning the new wine of the new covenant.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast at all?” So Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn while the bridegroom is still with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be made worse. Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins, for if they do, the wineskins burst, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. Instead, they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” —Matthew 9:14-17
The New Testament—a single long book comprised of 27 short books, written over a span of some 40 years by eight or nine chosen followers of Jesus Christ, telling us who he was, what he did, what he taught, how he died and rose and ascended into heaven, and what all of this means for Israel and the nations—may aptly be called God’s Wineskin. The New Testament text cited above helps us to understand why.
When the disciples of John the Baptizer came to Jesus, they brought both a question and (it would appear) a complaint. “Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast at all?” Jesus’ answer—cordial but firm—is twofold.
The King Has Come!
First, in light of his current presence in the world, it isn’t proper that they should fast. He is the Bridegroom—the long-awaited Savior, King, and spiritual Husband of Israel. How can the friends of the Bridegroom fast when he is right there with them? This is not a time for mourning, but for celebration!
Note, however, that Jesus himself casts a shadow over the celebration: “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast.” With the benefit of hindsight, we know what he means. Through treachery, injustice, mob madness, and a shocking death by crucifixion, he and his friends will soon be separated, seemingly forever. And that indeed will be a proper time for fasting. Nevertheless, on the subject of joy and celebration, Jesus is not yet finished. Far from it!
A New Covenant is Coming!
For now he tells them (and us) something further, and something staggering to the Jewish mind. There is another reason his disciples cannot fast: God is now doing something new, something that calls for uninterrupted celebration; indeed, for eternal celebration. He is fashioning a new patch of cloth. He is stitching a new wineskin. In other words, he is now revealing a new and definitive body of spiritual truth. What’s more, by means of this new body of truth he is also unveiling a new and definitive covenant (or spiritual agreement) between himself and everyone on earth who is willing to enter into it.
In the days ahead Jesus will have much more to say about this new covenant. For the moment, however, he is focused on one of its outstanding characteristics: its fundamental incompatibility with the old covenant. And so he says, “No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be made worse. Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins, for if they do, the wineskins burst, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. Instead, they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” Why did Jesus press this point? Why was he so keen on exalting the new wineskin above the old, and on separating the two once and for all?
The Old, the New, and the Eternal
The rest of the New Testament supplies the answer. The Old Covenant was instituted through mere men: Abraham and Moses; the New Covenant will be instituted through the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.
The Old Covenant was an agreement solely between God and Israel; the New Covenant will be an agreement between God and all who trust in Christ the whole world over.
The Old Covenant pictured, promised, and prepared for the things of Christ; the New Covenant gives us the things of Christ themselves, and Christ himself.
Under the Old Covenant, life was characterized by much spiritual failure, sorrow, and penitential fasting; under the New Covenant, life will be characterized by much spiritual victory, joy, and celebratory feasting . . . with persecutions (Mark 10:30).
All of this and more was in Jesus’ mind as he spoke to John’s disciples. For he knew that from the very beginning God had but a single plan for the spiritual life and joy of people everywhere. Now that he (Jesus) is here, the plan is beginning to be unveiled. Later—after his death, resurrection, and return to heaven—the Holy Spirit will fully unveil it to his apostles. Moreover, in the apostles’ writings that same Spirit will definitively lay out the plan and treasure it up in a book called the New Testament. Likewise, he will also lay out the new way of life that is proper to the plan. Thus, through a great chain of divine revelation, the spiritual truth, power, and joy of God’s New Covenant people will be preserved forever.
Here then is why we may aptly refer to the New Testament as God’s Wineskin. According to his own testimony, given through Jesus Christ, it is the God-appointed vessel in which he now brings to all mankind his ultimate spiritual truth, truth that will bring all who hear and obey it into an everlasting covenant with him, thereby enabling them to partake of the new and intoxicating wine of eternal life (John 17:1-2). For this reason what was said long ago to an earthly father about a marriage feast prepared for his earthly daughter, may now be said to our Heavenly Father: “Every man sets out the good wine first; then, when the guests have drunk freely, the inferior. But you have kept the good wine till now” (John 2:10)!
The Wine in the Skin
But what exactly are the contents of God’s Wineskin? What are these definitive truths that he is so eager for us all to know? Surely the best response to such questions is for each of us to take up the Wineskin and drink from it ourselves. But in hopes of encouraging you to do that very thing, please permit one of the friends of the Bridegroom to share a little of what he has seen, tasted, and come to cherish.
1. The One True Worldview
First, God’s Wineskin contains the answers to what I like to call the Questions of Life. Every human heart is familiar with them; and sooner or later every human heart is deeply concerned about them. They include:
What is the ultimate reality, the source of the universe and everything in it?
What is the origin of the universe, life, and man?
What (if anything) went wrong: Why are evil, suffering, and death present in the world?
What (if anything) can be done about them?
Does human life have a purpose, and if so, what is it?
What are the moral standards by which we should govern our lives?
What happens when we die? What is the future of the universe, life, and man?
And finally, is it really possible to find trustworthy answers to all these ultimate questions?
The answers we give to the Questions of Life determine what is called our worldview: the way we look at all things as a whole. True philosophers tell us that the unexamined life is not worth living; that the primary purpose of a meaningful life is to find the answers to these questions, to go in search of the one true worldview. According to Jesus and his apostles, God has poured them all into the New Testament. If you are a philosopher or a theologian (and in a way we all are), such a claim, and the prospect of validating it, is intoxicating indeed.
2. A Treasure Trove of Good Gifts
Secondly, God’s Wineskin contains instructions as to how we may receive certain gifts from God, gifts that we desperately need, and gifts that are meant for our eternal joy. These include the forgiveness of sins, rescue from the peril of eternal punishment, adoption into the family of a loving heavenly Father, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, free access to God’s throne in prayer, a blessed assurance that he is ordering all events for his children’s good, slow but steady progress in holiness, wisdom and strength for daily living, the sure hope of heaven when we die, and the ultimate hope of eternal life with God in a brand new world that Christ will create at his return. Again, Jesus taught that we all need these gifts; and he knew that many of us thirst for them. Accordingly, he promised that all who drink from God’s Wineskin—and respond to its contents with simple childlike faith—will find that their thirst is slaked once and for all (John 4:13-14).
3. A Proposal From the High King
This brings us to our final point, and to a further gift that may actually be the supreme goal of all the rest: a proposal of spiritual marriage to the High King of heaven! We catch a glimpse of this stunning offer in our text, where Jesus identifies himself as the Bridegroom. His disciples would likely have understood. In Old Testament times the prophets had spoken of God as Israel’s spiritual Husband (Jeremiah 2:2-3; Hosea 2:2-20). Elaborating further, they also spoke of the coming Messiah—the promised Savior of the world—as the spiritual Husband of his devoted people (Psalm 45; John 3:25-30). When Jesus answered John’s disciples as he did, he was saying, “I am he.”
Truly, this is a captivating way of thinking about the mission of Christ and his Church. During his life on earth, Jesus sent out his own disciples—“the friends of the Bridegroom”—to speak to their Jewish countrymen. In effect, they were saying, “Here is your Messiah, your long-awaited King. He would have you for his Wife. Will you take him for your Husband?” Later on, following his death and resurrection, the High King would send out still more of his friends into the Roman Empire, where they would ask the Gentiles the same question. Today, as we ourselves drink from God’s Wineskin, we hear him and his friends asking it of us as well.
But what are we to make of the intoxication component of Jesus’ message? Does it not seem strange—and perhaps even dangerous—that he would speak of the new life he offers to those in covenant with him as wine? Have we not all seen how destructive it can be to mix the fruit of the vine with the sin in man?
Yes, it was risky; but it had to be. For it is written that Jesus Christ did not need anyone to tell him about man, for he knew perfectly well what was in man (John 2:25). And because he did, he also knew that there is only one reality powerful enough to overcome man’s intoxication with sin: intoxication with God.
O Taste and See!
But how shall the great transformation occur? How shall sin-inebriated idolaters become God-intoxicated worshipers? Jesus has given us the answer. It is by drinking the new wine contained in God’s Wineskin. It is by prayerfully entering into the New Covenant with God our Father, through faith in Jesus Christ, his divine Son. It is by saying, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes” to the High King’s proposal of marriage. It is by living with him in intimacy, fruitfulness, teamwork, testing, struggle, adjustment, and deepening friendship. Above all, it is by the experience of an ever-growing fire of love that is stronger than death, and that, at the moment of death, will flame up into eternal glory. In short, it is through the wholesome, life-giving intoxication that flows from spiritual union and communion with God in Christ.
Here, then, is one friend’s humble attempt to introduce you to the New Testament, to give you a taste of God’s new wine. But again, I reckon it a far, far better thing for you to open the Wineskin and drink deeply for yourself. As you do, may you find yourself at a marriage feast, celebrating with great joy!