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Matthew 9:14-17

Text Comment

v.14     It is somewhat surprising to us that John the Baptist, even after he had been imprisoned, continued to have a group of followers and that they did not identify directly with Jesus, whom John himself had identified as the Messiah.  Little is made of this in the Gospels and so it is hard to know what to think of this group of people: what their views were and why they continued to relate to John and not to Jesus, even after John’s imprisonment.

Fasting, you may remember from our consideration of it earlier, in connection with the Lord’s remarks in the Sermon on the Mount, played a great role in religious observance in the Judaism of the day.  The Pharisees prided themselves on fasting twice a week – something never mentioned in the Law of Moses – in addition to the annual Fast of the Day of Atonement and some other commemorative fasts that had been added to the religious calendar.  Jesus was not against fasting and there is little to suggest that he and his disciples never fasted.  He fasted, we know, during the 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry and, as we said, he gave instructions to his disciples as to how they should fast.  What is likely meant is that Jesus did not fast as often or as rigorously as did both the Pharisees and the disciples of John, or at least some of them.

v.15     A wedding is a time for joy and celebration, not for asceticism and self-denial.  Everything in its time.  The time for heavier, harder things will come for Jesus’ disciples too.

v.17     The liquid expressed from the grapes was placed in new wineskins which stretched as the wine fermented.  Already used wineskins had no stretch left in them and the gas created by the process of fermentation would cause them to break under the pressure.

Without a doubt, the thought of this paragraph continues that of the two previous paragraphs.  Think of this sermon, then, as a continuation of the last two.  In preaching through the Bible paragraph by paragraph the preacher faces this challenge from time to time:  how to preach the same message on consecutive Sundays without being repetitive and wearying.  On the other hand, this repetition in the Lord’s teaching is itself a fact of some importance.  It is one of the advantages of preaching consecutively through books of the Bible.  It forces us to reckon with the Bible’s own emphases.  If Jesus talked repeatedly about something, then his preachers should too.  Certain things are said over and over again precisely because they are so important and because we have difficulty keeping them firmly fixed in our minds and hearts.  The Bible does not have a great many major themes, nor did Jesus in his preaching.  But both it and he return to those themes time and time again.  This is as true of the OT prophets, for example, as it was of the preaching of the Lord.  One of the reasons we can find it tiring to read the prophets is that they are so repetitive.  However, a wiser, more thoughtful response to that repetition would be for us carefully to consider why certain things had to be said so often and at such length.  So if you are inclined to think you understand that salvation is of grace and not by works and do not need to be reminded, then think again.

Why is it that the Lord Jesus returns to this theme of the religious viewpoint of the Pharisees, of their failure to receive him, their failure to appreciate that the forgiveness of sins is utterly, from beginning to end, the gift of God, founded on the work of Jesus Christ, of their misunderstanding of salvation, thinking as they did that peace with God was the predictable outcome of religious observance and good works, such works as lay entirely within the ability of human beings to perform?  Why is it that Jesus turns the astonishing healing of a paralyzed man into a lesson about the divine power that it takes to forgive sins?  Why is it that he makes the Pharisees’ grumbling about his association with “sinners” an occasion for saying that pride is the mortal enemy of salvation and the man who thinks salvation a predictable thing and something that “good” people deserve is the man who is furthest from heaven?  And why is so much of the rest of his teaching in the Gospels addressed to this same subject, this same criticism of the ardent religious mind of his day?

Well the answer is no doubt that he believed that there was nothing more important for people to understand.  There was no more fatal error that they could indulge than supposing that they had it within their power to save themselves.  Nor was there an error to which people are more prone.  He wanted to make us experts on both the typical error into which people fall in thinking about salvation and on the only true way to everlasting life.  Jesus is interested in the salvation of the world, in the eternal life of human beings.  It is for our salvation that he came into the world.  That is why the great error of mankind in thinking about salvation is so important to him.  It is why he can’t stop talking about it.

The paragraph we have before us does not directly address the question of the way of salvation, but it, as it were, puts the finishing touch on the teaching of the previous two paragraphs.  Jesus takes the occasion of the question about fasting put to him by some disciples of John to make a point about the incompatibility of the two viewpoints concerning salvation that exist in the world; the two viewpoints he has been comparing and contrasting.  There are only two; always only two possibilities concerning this most vital, this one absolutely fundamental question of human life, philosophy, and religion:  how can a man be right with God?  How can he live forever?  How can he find the forgiveness of sins and be reconciled to the living God who alone can give him eternal life?  The first answer to that question, the one to which most human beings incline, the one that all human beings will give if left to themselves, is the wrong one.  The right answer we must be made to see.  Such is the darkness of our minds and hearts.

First the Lord Jesus said something about not fasting while the bridegroom is present, a statement that must have seemed enigmatic to John’s disciples.  Obviously he was saying that this was not the time for his disciples to fast, but he says little more than that.  He doesn’t criticize the fasting of John’s disciples, he doesn’t directly address the question of the place of fasting in the contemporary system of religious observance.  He goes on, instead, to illustrate his point with a little parable – that is what Luke calls these remarks, a parable.

Now the point of these two statements – the first about the patching of an old garment; the second about new wine in old wineskins – is not immediately obvious.  If you consult the commentaries you will find that they have been understood in a number of different ways.  But a consensus of interpretation has emerged and, I think, it is fair to say that Jesus’ meaning, in both instances, is the same and fairly clear.

In both cases the Lord is illustrating the vast difference that separated his outlook from that of the Jewish tradition of his day and warning us against making any effort to find a compromise between them.  The two outlooks represent two principles that are irreconcilable, that are at war with each other, that are fundamentally and inevitably opposed to one another.  Try to patch Jesus’ way on to that of the Pharisees and the other Jews of the time and they will not hold together to make a new and better garment.  Put the new wine of Jesus’ message into the wineskins of the religion of the scribes and Pharisees and the result will be ruined skin and spilled wine.  Luke adds the Lord’s further thought, that Matthew does not include in his characteristically shorter account, that “no one after drinking old wine wants the new,” which means simply that those who are satisfied with the traditional viewpoint and are defenders of it are not likely to welcome the Lord’s new and radical message.  The Pharisees, comfortable with their point of view, were unlikely to find his attractive.

In Matthew’s shorter version the accent falls especially on the incompatibility of the two opposing principles and the systems of thought and life that stem from them.  [Hagner, 244]  And if you put the final two illustrations together with the Lord’s remark about fasting, his general point is that what constitutes true righteousness, what matters most to God and to a man or a woman’s eternal life is his or her view of Jesus Christ, the centrality of Jesus in any human heart.  It was absolutely typical of the church of that day to think of salvation fundamentally in terms of religious observances like fasting.  And that was a fatal mistake.  Fasting may be important and have an important place in a faithful life, but its true meaning and purpose are found, can be found only in relation to Jesus Christ, only as an expression of faith in him.  In other words, the two irreconcilable outlooks that Jesus is talking about are salvation by grace and salvation by works, Jesus the person on the one hand and the round of religious and moral performance on the other.

The church of Jesus’ day had lost almost completely the conviction that their forgiveness, their salvation, their eternal life required a redeemer who would die for their sins.  That had been the teaching and the promise of the ancient Scriptures, but that teaching had been buried – as it has so often in human history – under the weight of a thousand dos and don’ts.  They had replaced the Redeemer with themselves; it was their doing, not his that would tell the tale.  Salvation was not a great event in the middle of human history – the entrance of the Son of God into human life, his suffering, his death for our sins, his resurrection – it was, so much more prosaically, a man’s doing some of this and a woman’s doing some of that.

It is true that you can find in the rabbis of the time some acknowledgements here and there about the grace of God and the sinfulness of man.  But one has only to read that material to find himself in a different world than that of the Bible.  It is the world that most people inhabit and find themselves at home in, no matter their religion, no matter the age in which they live.  Do some good, be nice, be religious in whatever way you think of that, and suppose that enough for God.  It is the mindset of the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Jew, multitudes of people who call themselves Christians, and the militantly secular humanists of Europe and North America.  And, says Jesus here, there can be no compromise between that principle and mine – the principle of self-salvation on the one hand and the principle of divine grace accomplishing salvation through the sacrifice of the Son of God.  It is either/or never both/and.  One is false and one is true.  One is a broken reed, the other the stairway to heaven.

These two viewpoints are distinguished not only by their fundamental principles – self-righteousness vs. the gift of Christ’s righteousness – but as well, as Jesus intimates here, their corresponding experiences.  There is a joy, a celebration at the center of salvation by grace through Christ that there is not at the center of salvation by self-effort.  Even fasting, which is in the nature of the case hard work, remains joy when it is the act of one who has met the bridegroom and is waiting for the wedding feast of the Lamb.  Salvation is like the joy of a wedding.  But only if there is a bridegroom.  And Jesus is the bridegroom.

A few years ago I came across a book of letters, written in Latin, between C.S. Lewis and an Italian priest by the name of Don Giovanni Calabria and, after Calabria’s death, another priest of the same order, Don Luigi Pedrollo.  They wrote in Latin because it was the only language in which both men were at ease. These letters had lain for years unnoticed in an archive and were only recently published.  I have used the book in my Latin classes because Lewis wrote Latin as clearly as he wrote English and it is interesting for students to read Latin that was recently written and not only the two-thousand year old texts that they are accustomed to reading for class.  The correspondence began in 1947 and ended in 1961, shortly after the death of Lewis’ wife.

In one of these letters, written late in 1951, Lewis writes to his Italian friend,

“As for myself, during the past year a great joy has befallen me.
Difficult though it is, I shall try to explain this in words.  It is astonishing that sometimes we believe that we believe what, really, in our heart, we do not believe.

For a long time I believed that I believed in the forgiveness of sins.  But suddenly (on St. Mark’s day) this truth appeared in my mind in so clear a light that I perceived that never before (and that after many confessions and absolutions) had I believed it with my whole heart.

So great is the difference between mere affirmation by the intellect and faith, fixed in the very marrow and as it were palpable, which the Apostle wrote was substance.  Perhaps I was granted this deliverance in response to your intercessions on my behalf!

This emboldens me to say to you something that a layman ought scarcely to say to a priest nor a junior to a senior.  (On the other hand, out of the mouths of babes; indeed, as once to Balaam, out of the mouth of an ass!)

It is this:  you write much about your own sins.  Beware (permit me, my dearest Father, to say beware) lest humility should pass over into anxiety or sadness.  It is bidden to us ‘to rejoice and always rejoice’.  Jesus has cancelled the handwriting that was against us.  Lift up our hearts!”  [The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis, 69-71]

Now that was a Christian speaking!  There was this sense, newly discovered, or perhaps more accurately, newly impressed upon the heart, of the extraordinary fact that the Almighty had forgiven his sins.  And this was great joy to him.  And he was sharing his joy with another man and encouraging him to enter into the same joy.  No wonder.  Forgiveness that stems from God’s love, from Christ’s great and terrible sacrifice, that leads to everlasting life in the world to come; no wonder that joy should fill the heart.  The experience of this fact is joy itself for a human being.  A great thing has been done for you by Almighty God!  A great gift has been given to you at terrible cost to the Son of God.  Here an infinite love meets you and redeems you and lifts up your life forever.  This experience of amazed gratitude, of joyful love is absolutely characteristic of true Christian faith.  And in the moment of that realization, whenever it comes home to the heart, at once you realize that you could never have achieved this result, this life yourself.  It was utterly beyond your power to do so.  Only God could do this for you and he has!  If you have this knowledge, this forgiveness, you have everything.  If you have Christ – and many people do not – you have all that a human being could ever hope for or desire.  This is why Paul will later say that the kingdom of God consists in joy!

Now that is precisely what the Pharisees did not experience; that was a joy they did not know.  Nor have the multitudes who have been like them in the history of the world known it either.  The Pharisees did not even know that such a joy in the presence of the bridegroom existed, or they had forgotten that it did.  I do not say that there was no one who knew this joy; there certainly were those who had received the salvation of God and knew the joy of his redeeming love.  There were among the Jews those who received Jesus precisely because they had in their hearts the ancient faith of Moses in the redeeming love of God and the joy of the forgiveness of sins as a free gift of that love.  But many, surely most of them had lost this treasure.  What was joy unspeakable and full of glory to the disciples of Jesus was all plain and ordinary to them.  Their hearts did not swell at the thought of God’s love for them, of Christ’s sacrifice for them.  They were too busy checking the box and filling the square.  They didn’t imagine they needed the Son of God to die for them and so didn’t imagine that he would come among them, or that God would love them so mightily as to be willing to send his son for their salvation.

Given that they knew the Bible so well, you may wonder how something as magnificent as the love of God could be forgotten or diminished to the point that it no longer controlled their thinking about salvation.  But, mystery or not, it has happened untold numbers of times in the world since and, I suspect, there maybe some of you who have not yet realized, not fully, not really, how thrilling, how indescribably breathtaking is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now don’t mistake me.  The Pharisees and the other church members of the time (and vast numbers of those in the church today) knew that God was a personal God.  They prayed to him.  They read his promises in the Word and looked to him to fulfill them.  But, all of that notwithstanding, they had reduced the grand revelation of the Scriptures of salvation through an utterly undeserved, utterly unexpected and almighty love to techniques of religious devotion and the practice of morality.  Their doing had replaced the Redeemer’s dying; their little things had replaced his mighty thing.  I don’t think anyone intended that at first.  No one set out to denature the faith revealed to Abraham and to Moses and to the prophets.  But that is what happened and it has happened times without number ever since.  It is a subtle process by which whole generations are robbed of the gospel’s power and glory.

For example, it is very difficult to find in official documents of the medieval church that the church ever approved the idea that souls could be bought out of purgatory by the payment of money in support of church projects.  But no one doubts that this had, in fact, become the common belief and that this belief was openly encouraged by the church’s silence if not by the active endorsement of the higher-ups who sent the indulgence peddlers, men such as Johan Tetzel, to raise money for the church treasury.  And what this proves is that men in sin are far more likely to swallow almost any ridiculous idea than they are to embrace the pure gospel of Christ.  We must, after all, explain why when the Messiah, the perfect man, the Savior of the world came into the world, when he did such good to so many, and when he exercised miraculous power sufficient to prove to everyone that he was indeed the Son of God, the lion’s share of the church spat on him and put him to death.  Such is the raging force of unbelief in a human heart unless it is broken by the Holy Spirit.  This is the Savior’s point:  these principles are out and out enemies of each other.  You can’t patch them together.

There was among the Pharisees and so many others in that day, as there is today among great multitudes, almost nothing of the “miserere” – Have mercy upon me O my God – or the “De profundis” – Out of the depths I call to you, O Lord; hear my cry.”  There was hardly anything of “O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” or of the “Whom have I in heaven but you, O Lord, and earth has nothing I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  Those are the expressions of people who know they are great sinners and who believe that God’s love and grace is their only hope.  It is such a subtle thing, it happens so slowly, so imperceptibly, that the presence of the bridegroom slips from the mind of the church and it becomes the fellowship of Pharisees.  No longer a mighty love; no longer a terrible sacrifice; but do this and do that and all should be well.  Nothing to trouble yourself over.  Nothing for God to trouble himself over.  He has bigger and better things to do than stoop down so far as to love and redeem a poor and unworthy human being.  And this congregation will come to think the same if we do not become and remain experts at smelling out this error and if we do not remain champions of salvation by grace, rejoicing its power and glory every Lord’s Day as the generations come and go.

Wesley Ulrich is a PCA missionary doctor in Jordan.  He writes splendid letters home:  always interesting, always informative.  In a recent letter he wrote this:  “The other day a [Muslim] friend and I were discussing the “probability” that we might make it to heaven. I told him that a local school boy had told me that they had been taught in school that by Judgment Day Islam would be divided into 72 denominations. Of the 72 only 1 would make the grade. My friend who is, I am sure, more informed about religious matters than the school boy, explained that the Jews too would have 61 such sects, the Christians would have 62, and Islam would have 63 (not 72). Only one of each group would be found “right.” I asked him then, which sect is the “right” one. He smiled and replied, “the one to which I belong.” From the look in his eyes I knew that he hoped he was right but the inherent ambiguities of such matters left a lot to be desired. I then asked him how he knew he was his father’s son … or that his own sons knew that he was their father. The answer obviously lies in being told by one’s father or telling his own son; implicit trust is the rock of such certainty. And, if we human parents have such interest in our children knowing their parentage so much so is the Heavenly Father eager to reveal it. It is our Father’s word in this world – and our Father’s Word in the next that forge our eternal hope. And, we can indeed become the 1 of 60-some. [May 27, 2004]

Well it is a striking thing to say in this day and time that the Muslims and the Jews have, by and large, the same religious viewpoint and it is the viewpoint of the Pharisees.  Do this; do that and hope for the best (and, I expect, most of them really, down-deep, are pretty sure their best will be good enough).  The suicide bombers certainly seem to think their acts of righteousness will get them to Paradise.  But that is an utterly different viewpoint than that of the man or woman, boy or girl, who has met the bridegroom come from heaven and has felt his great love in the heart and has measured his great sacrifice made on the cross.  Doubts melt away before such a love as that!

I read the other day that one of the diamond fields in South Africa was discovered in the 19th century quite by accident.  A traveler entered a valley one day and walked up to a settler’s cabin.  A little boy was sitting on the front stoop throwing stones.  One of the stones fell at the stranger’s feet and he picked it up, laughing, and was about to toss it back when there was a flash, a reflection of the sun, from the rock in his hand.  He looked it more carefully and knew at once that it was a diamond.  For some time those apparently useless stones had been lying about.  The settler and his family had walked on them, the child had thrown them, the horses and the cart had rolled over them. [J. Stalker, Christ our Example, 223]  It is something like that that the Lord Jesus is after in this famous statement and his illustrations of the patch and the wineskins.  He was just a pebble to many of those people.  They would never see him as anything else.  They could not see the diamond because they had no expectation of finding one.  They weren’t looking for one.  More than that, they didn’t now how to recognize a diamond.  Their religious thinking was so skewed they didn’t recognize the Son of God when he stood right before them and did things only the power of God could perform.  They were expecting only the ordinary, not the miraculous.  They liked their world; they didn’t want to change it; and there was no way they could fit Jesus into that world.

But, in the same way, those who find the diamond, those who are made ready by the Spirit of God to recognize the diamond, who can see the flash of divine love and power in Jesus Christ, they understand immediately that everything must change.  Jesus, they realize, is the meaning of everything and all their hopes will be and must be fulfilled in him alone.  And suddenly, in a moment, in that realization, they know themselves rich beyond all their wildest dreams.  And that is joy!  It is the joy human beings were made for and here is the only place to find it.