By Rev. Dr. Rob Haynes
Think of a time when you went through a significant transition to something wonderful and new. Maybe it was moving away from home for the first time and getting your own place. Maybe it was starting a new job and moving to a new city. Maybe it was getting married and beginning a new life together. We can celebrate the new thing while appreciating the old that has passed. The old situation prepared us for the new opportunity. However, the new opportunity would not have been possible if we remained in our old situation. We see this lesson in Scripture when it comes to mission and evangelism.
The Bible is full of incidents in which people are invited to leave the old for new possibilities. In Matthew 9:16-17, Jesus tells his hearers that it is time for something novel and different by talking about old and new wineskins. This seems to be out of place, at first glance, since he was asked about the spiritual practice of fasting. However, a closer look reveals an important lesson about serving the Kingdom of God.
First, a little background on first-century wine making: When grapes were harvested for wine, they were first pressed and placed in a large vat. When the sugar from inside the grape interacted with the material on the skin, the fermentation process began. After a few days, the new wine was placed into a new wineskin. These wineskins were made from animals, perhaps from a single organ or the skin of a whole animal.
Wine must ferment with little or no exposure to oxygen, or it will turn to vinegar. To prevent this, the skins were sewn up tight. The fermentation process produces carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the skin. Because the animal skin has a natural elasticity, it expands with the increased amounts of carbon dioxide. However, these skins cannot stretch indefinitely. If they have been used as a wineskin once, they cannot be used a second time. If asked to stretch again, they will reach their breaking point. In doing so, both the skin and the wine of the new batch—and all the work that went into it—will be lost.
The imagery Jesus conveys is rich. He did not come to merely patch up or refill the old religious system. His purpose is to demonstrate something new. He came to fulfill all of the commands of God and show all the Kingdom of God made known in his teaching, miracles, signs, and deeds.
As I said, this incident may look out of place at first glance. However, when considered in its larger place in the text, there is a particularly important lesson about opening up to the new things God is doing in order to realize God’s greater purposes. Consider the miraculous and life-changing events in this chapter:
9:2-8—Jesus heals a paralyzed man
9:9-13—Jesus calls Matthew to follow him
9:18-26—Jesus raises a dead girl back to life and heals a woman
9:27-31—Jesus restores the sight of two blind men
9:32-34—Jesus restores the ability to speak in a man who was mute
Embedded in all of these accounts is the teaching on wineskins. In each of these instances, a radical transformation occurs. Jesus asks people to leave behind the old and embrace a new, life-giving future that God gives them. Blindness, paralysis, chronic conditions, even death itself, are all left behind. Through the power of Jesus, they are all made new and brought new life. Now, imagine if they each went home and tried to put this new life, this new wine, into those old skins. What if the once-paralyzed man continued to lay on his mat each day? What if the once-dead girl crawled back in bed? The idea is ludicrous.
Keep reading through the end of chapter 9 and into chapter 10 to really see the power of this. After all of these new, miraculous things Jesus tells his disciples that there is a plentiful harvest before them. He then gathered the Twelve and told them to go and to teach and to heal. It is important not to miss this powerful lesson: The mission of the Kingdom of God moves forward when God’s people embrace the new. Only when Christians allow Jesus to put away the old and fill us with new life are we able to able to fulfill Christ’s mission. When Jesus calls his followers out of an old situation, he prepares new places and spaces in which to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Those wishing to serve in the Kingdom of God must put away the old that Jesus wants to remove. Only then may we embrace the new and follow him in his mission of bringing Good News.