Do you ever come across parts of scripture that leave you scratching your head wondering what is even going on? And even though you read it over and over again you still don’t quite grasp the meaning? Well, today in Mark 2 we find one such scripture for me. The verses we’ll dive into today confused and stumped me for years - I had no idea what Jesus was talking about. So what better scripture to jump into!
Now, the gospel of Mark is very action-oriented, focused a lot on what Jesus does, miracle after miracle, showing His divinity to it’s hearers. With lots of action words used and phrases like immediately, once again, a few days later, another time…I find the language of the gospel propels me forward to read it more quickly than other parts of the Bible. That is, until I get to Mark 2:21-22, the confusing part, when Jesus says:
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
So what is Jesus talking about? The image of the cloth makes sense to me that you want fabrics that match up, that are equally worn and preshrunk; otherwise the new patch will shrink when washed and tear the cloth. But what about this image of the wineskins?
I’m not a wine connoisseur, but upon further research I learned that when wine was put into wineskins, as the wine fermented and aged, the wineskins holding the wine would become rigid and brittle over time. So much so that if you did put new wine into an already brittle wineskin, once that new wine started to ferment, which is a very active process, the gasses and things happening with the wine would cause too much pressure and the wineskin would burst. The old wineskins had already stretched to their limits and were no longer flexible and malleable like a new wineskin, which was needed for the fermentation process.
So again, what does this mean? This response of Jesus is still within the context of answering the question of why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast like the Pharisees and others, which is to refrain from eating for a specific time and purpose usually with the purpose of going deeper in prayer. Fasting was a regular part of the rhythm of life for the religious leaders and devout of the day. And Jesus responds that there will be a time for fasting later, but the time when the bridegroom is with the wedding guests, that is not the time to fast, it’s a time to celebrate! And then He goes on with these illustrations of the cloth and the wineskins.
Essentially what He’s saying is that like the old wineskins, the rigid, brittle religion of the Pharisees had reached it’s limit. Living solely by the Law had gone as far as it could go, it reached the limit of what it could do for God’s people, and now Jesus was here, amongst His people, establishing a New Covenant, doing a new thing, and it was a time to celebrate!
This new thing He was doing, God incarnate operating in the Father’s authority and offering hope and healing to all people through Him and by Him, not by works or ancestry, was radical. We might be used to the idea, or at least familiar with, Jesus’ saving grace and the fact that we are saved by grace alone through faith in Him, but this was brand new, and potentially uncomfortable, to these original hearers, especially the Pharisees who devoted themselves entirely to following the Law and the rules of the Old Covenant in order to gain righteousness.
Jesus is telling them that this new thing He’s doing, requires new vessels; vessels that are malleable and flexible, ready to receive this new thing He is doing. If we think of our hearts as these wineskins, God cannot move in the way He wants to in a hardened heart, but if we continually remain soft to what He is up to in our lives, that’s where He can move.
The wine can also be likened to the Holy Spirit and a move of God. So in our own lives, how are we readying ourselves, even now, to receive afresh what the Holy Spirit is up to. Is there a new thing He is wanting to do in your life, requiring a new openness to His Spirit in your life? And how can you ready your vessel, so-to-speak, present a new wineskin to Him, ready for the churning up, fermenting process? Maybe there’s something He’s asking us to give up or purposefully making space in our day-to-day for His Spirit to speak to us. Maybe worshipping Him throughout our day in different ways instead of only through a few songs and only on Sunday mornings. Maybe it’s beginning to pray daily for a soft heart, ready to receive what the Lord has. Would our hearts be like these new wineskins, malleable and ready for a fresh move of God.