Jesus’s saying about “new wineskins” is one of His best known sayings:
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.” (Mark 2:22 ESV)
Over the centuries Jesus’ statement has been interpreted a number of ways. Some interpret it as a statement Christianity was going to replace what we now call Judaism because the old religious structure simply could not contain what Jesus was doing. The saying is also frequently used to justify the idea that the “old” must yield to the “new” so that Christianity does not become stale and dead. Some go further and identity the wine as the Holy Spirit and interpret the saying as a warning that people who cling to the “old” are rejecting the “new” move of the Holy Spirit and therefore hindering God.
Given the various ways the statement is often used, its important to recognize what Jesus said in context and how He intended we apply that statement to church, ministry, and missions for the maximum effectiveness.
Jesus’ Saying in Context
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus’ saying. Let’s look at Matthew’s account:
9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” 14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:9–17 ESV)
Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this event. In all three accounts Jesus’ saying and the broader context surrounding the saying are nearly identical. The fact that all three authors arrange this material in the same way is both unusual and significant. Modern biographers tend to tell a person’s story in a chronological way, but the authors of the gospels did not adhere to a strict chronology. Their primary goal was not to detail events in a certain order, but rather to present a picture—a character sketch—of who Jesus was.
As a result they arranged various episodes from Jesus’ life in order to make key points about who He was and what He taught. Therefore the context around Jesus’ teachings is critical in order to understand what the author was trying to communicate to us. Sometimes a particular point is made by one gospel author but not another one. In this case, all three arrange material to make the same point.
The Controversy: Sinners and Tax Collectors
The story begins with the tale of Levi (also referred to as Matthew) who is a tax collector. Being a tax collector had significant social stigma. They were considered to be traitors to their own people who made their living by extortion. Because of their desire for money, they had chosen to work for a Gentile oppressor at the expense of their own people. Tax collectors were willing to bear the rejection of their own people for the sake of whatever money and privilege was afforded by working with the Romans. As a result, no one would expect a tax collector to be sensitive to the call to repentance. Their hearts were hardened and their consciences seared.
This story is surprising for the two reasons. First, because Jesus intentionally reached out to a tax collector. Most Jews would have considered a tax collector beyond the reach of repentance, but Jesus did not. He broke with social norms and called out to Levi and invited him to repent and join His inner circle. Second, the story is surprising because the tax collector responded. No one would have expected the tax collector to respond to the call to become a disciple of a rabbi. However, Levi did the unthinkable. He surrendered his money and his position to follow a religious man.
The Challenge: Why Are You with Sinners?
Levi was so affected by Jesus, he wanted all his friends to meet Him. So, he invited Jesus to come to his house and meet his friends. Given what was required to be a tax collector, Levi’s friends would not have been welcome in the traditional social circles. This is why Levi and his friends were referred to as “tax collectors and sinners.” The religious leaders were confused by Jesus’ willingness to fellowship with this group, so they turned to the disciples to challenge Jesus’ behavior:
Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? (Matthew 9:11 ESV)
Their challenge made sense. Jesus was a holy man who called everyone to repentance—even the religious leaders. He did more than address flagrant sins—He even addressed hidden sins. However, He had gone to Levi’s house to openly socialize with people who where notable sinners. Jesus’ fellowship with open sinners and seemed to be an endorsement of their behavior and did not seem to be appropriate for a repentance preacher. Jesus heard the religious leaders’ conversation with His disciples and He decided to answer their question:
12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13 ESV)
Jesus response was straightforward. He was not fellowshipping with sinners to endorse their behavior. He was seeking the lost, and Levi’s transformation had given Him an opportunity to seek and save those considered to be out of reach. He was not overlooking the sin of Levi’s friends—He plainly identified them as individuals who were “sick” and in need of a doctor—He was on a rescue mission. The religious establishment had given up on these people, but Jesus broke social norms in order to engage the harvest.
The Complaint: The Disciples Do Not Fast
The religious leaders also had a complaint about Jesus’ disciples:
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matthew 9:14 ESV)
At first glance, this seems to be a strange question to include as part of the story. It does not obviously relate to the question about table fellowship with sinners. However, the two questions are related. The leaders challenged Jesus about His behavior because they felt it was inappropriate—it was outside the social norms. The followup question about fasting is the same kind of question. The disciples behavior also seemed inappropriate.
Jesus defended His disciples’ lack of fasting with a simple explanation:
And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matthew 9:15 ESV)
The disciples behavior seemed inappropriate because fasting was a traditional religious activity. Jesus agreed that fasting was right; However, Jesus pointed out the disciples were in an unusual time—a moment when fasting was not appropriate.
Jesus’ response is similar to His response to the previous question. His presence with His disciples created a context where it was appropriate for the disciples to break with tradition for a season, just as Levi’s repentance created the context for Jesus to break with traditional norms. Normally fasting would be appropriate, but in this context it was appropriate for Jesus’ disciples not to fast in order to celebrate His presence in their midst. In each case, non-traditional behavior was appropriate due to the situation.
The Comparison: Clothing and Wine
Jesus shared the core convictions held by the religious leaders. He did not overlook the sin of Levi’s friends, but He recognized they were ready to hear the gospel because of Levi’s testimony. The traditional structure would never reach Levi’s friends, but Jesus could by meeting them at Levi’s house. Jesus did not disagree with the religious leaders assessment of Levi’s friends, but He made it plain there are times it is appropriate to act outside of tradition for the sake of the harvest.
To drive His point home, Jesus used two different analogies:
16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16–17 ESV)
These analogies are what some scholars call “wisdom sayings”—statements of truth with an application. In this context, Jesus gave these saying to explain His behavior. Jesus had crossed traditional boundaries for the sake of the harvest. Because the harvest is the focus, we can apply Jesus’ wisdom to the church by comparing the “wine” in these parables to the harvest and the wineskins to the structure necessary to capture and mature the harvest.
If wine is the harvest—the expansion of the church—then there are times when “new wineskins” are needed. However, we must define what we mean by new wineskins because the term is frequently used to speak negatively of “old wineskins.” However, that was not Jesus’ primary point.
There is nothing wrong with an old wineskin other than it simply does not have the flexibility required for new wine. Therefore a new wineskin—we could say an updated structure—is needed with the flexibility necessary to allow the new wine to mature. Though new wineskins are periodically needed, they are not a complete reinvention of what has gone before. _A new wineskin is still a wineskin._ It is made in the pattern of what has gone before. It is not a rejection of the past. A new wineskin is not a new gospel and not an entirely new kind of church, it is simply a fresh expression of the church that allows it to capture and mature new wine.
For example, Jesus was in pursuit of “new wine” when he went to Levi’s house to meet his friends. Therefore Jesus adjusted the “wineskin” to take advantage of this chance for harvest. If Jesus had told Levi to bring his friends to the synagogue it is unlikely they would have come. The social stigma alone would be too great for many of them to come. However, because Jesus was willing to come to Levi’s house He was able to minister to Levi’s friends. Jesus did not malign old wineskins nor did He dismiss old wine. After all, old wine was once new wine and new wine is intended to become old wine. In Matthew’s account, Jesus said we should be concerned to not lose old or new wine:
Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17 ESV)
Old wine remains valuable. The ultimate objective is to produce more old wine. The old wineskin is not a hindrance to the move of the Spirit, it is simply a wineskin that has served its purpose by stewarding and maturing wine up that point. The old wine is not a hindrance, and we do not want to lose the “old” or the “new.” _The ultimate objective is to produce more old wine._ To do that we need the flexibility in our structures to steward the new so that it can mature. Without an appropriate structure for new wine, the new wine is lost and does not have the chance to mature.
We must constantly make new wine in order to have old wine. The same is true with the church. The church must constantly adapt to steward the next generation of converts so that they can become the mature members of the church. This does not mean rejecting the old, it means making the proper accommodations for the new to mature and not be lost.
Jesus point was that we must be willing to adapt our structures in order to not lose the new wine. New wine is not yet mature and must be matched with a wineskin that can bring it to maturity without breaking. Too often the church is not prepared to adapt to steward and disciple new believers or to evangelize in untraditional ways. However, when we do not adapt our structures, we lose new wine—new believers—unnecessarily.
Our new wineskins—structures—need to be rooted in the traditional foundations just as a new wineskin is made in the pattern of an old wineskin. However, the structure must also be flexible and adaptable. Jesus did not condone sin, however, Jesus recognized He needed to break with a traditional norm to take advantage of an opportunity to reach an entire group of people the traditional structure was not capable of reaching. Jesus was flexible for the sake of the harvest and therefore was able to gather a harvest others were missing.
Our mission and our core convictions do not change with a new wineskin. Forming a new wineskin is not about rejecting our foundations or looking for the “new thing.” It is about actively evaluating our structures to see where we need to make adjustments in order to miss an opportunity for harvest. This is why the New Testament says so little about the operational details of the church. In Jerusalem, the apostles gathered at the temple for worship, but in Thyatira believers gathered at the house of a gentile woman. The early church had shared foundations but a flexibility in expression in order to capture the harvest.
We Must Value Old and New
Luke’s account of Jesus’ saying includes an extra sentence that helps us grasp how we should view “old” and “new” wine:
And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’ ” (Luke 5:39 ESV)
Jesus statement seems odd in light of His admonition to steward the new wine. However, Jesus is addressing two common problems. The first is the lack of vision for new wine. Old wine is wine that has matured. It has a better flavor and is more enjoyable than new wine. It is easy to enjoy old wine and not have any vision for new wine and the process required to steward it. It is simply easier to enjoy what is already mature. We cannot become so comfortable enjoying what God has done that we lack vision for the messy process of stewarding the “new wine.”
The second problem is the lack of value for old wine. Those who have vision for new wine can become so enamored with the “new thing” that they can be tempted to despise both the mature and the existing structures that have served the church. In our pursuit of new structures and a new harvest, we need to remember the wisdom and glory of what has gone before us. The old is not inferior. It was valuable. The goal of capturing new wine and building new wine kind is to enable “new wine” to become what “old wine” now is.
We Must Evaluate our Structures Comprehensively
Jesus combined the analogy of the wineskin with the analogy of patching an old pair of clothes. Both are essentially the same analogy. The point of a garment of clothing is to serve the body and over time new clothing is needed either because a body grows or the clothing wears out. When this happens, a new piece of clothing is needed. That new piece of clothing will be similar to the old piece, but adapted for what is needed just as a new wineskin is similar to an old wineskin but has the flexibility needed to steward new wine.
In both of these analogies, Jesus warns us not to try to patch things, but to think comprehensively:
No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved. (Matthew 9:16-17 ESV)
When you have a new garment, it does not make sense to cut up new clothing to try to patch old clothing. It produces mismatched garments. The answer is to create new clothing that can serve the needs of the body. In the same way, you cannot put a flexible new wineskin on an old wineskin. It will rip and tear.
Jesus’s point is clear: we are not to try to patch things together. Instead He emphasized the integrity fo the entire structure. We patch something together when we take some new idea and try to simply add it to an existing structure. This often happens when people follow a fad or copy something just because it seems to be new and exciting. We must think comprehensively. What is the best new garment or wineskin to steward the harvest? We must do more than capture new ideas and try to add them on to something. We must evaluate our structures holistically in order to create healthy structures where each part of the structure is able to steward what God is doing and take advantage on an opportunity.
This is particularly relevant for ministries who tend to “add on” the latest fad that may have worked for someone else. Jesus’ warning is clear. Do not simply mix and match. Do not simply adopt a “new patch.” Maintain flexibility but realize that something may not work in every context. The exhortation to use new wineskins is not an admonition to endlessly seek new ideas. It is an admonition to stay flexible to capture and steward the harvest so nothing is lost.
The Goal: Maximize the Harvest
Jesus’s main point was simple: we must adapt as necessary to steward the move of God. There are seasons of rejoicing and season of mourning. The disciples wanted to fast, but they were out of such with the season. It was a time of rejoicing. There are also strategic times for great harvest. When Levi followed Jesus, he wanted to introduce Jesus to people who otherwise would not have heard the gospel. Because of their traditions the Pharisees could not see the missional opportunity and confused Jesus’ mission with compromise.
Some seasons have more harvest than others. Some have more difficulty than others. Some seasons have more persecution and others more opportunity. We must adjust our structures as necessary. If we do not we ultimately lose both the harvest and the structure. Different seasons require different structures to best serve, preserve, and expand the church. Mismatched wineskins destroy both the wine and the wineskin:
17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed…(Matthew 9:17 ESV)
This is part of the joy of partnership with God. The church is a living, breathing organism. It is not a fixed, rigid monument. It changes, it grows, and it expands. Our great privilege is partnering with God to develop ministry structures appropriate for the context and designed for the harvest.