The Wineskin Conundrum (Luke 5:36-39)

The latest in a series of posts based on messages in Luke that we are currently preaching at the Ebenezer Regular Baptist Church.

We now come to Luke 5:36-39, which has proven to be a knotty problem for many a theologian. What are the garments? What are the wineskins? What is Jesus talking about here?

As with any passage, a number of things have to be taken into account. And with difficult texts, it is often helpful to get back to the basics of biblical interpretation.

The human author of this passageis Luke, and the most relevant aspect of his life – from a hermeneutic perspective – is that he was a long-time companion and disciple of the apostle Paul. Thus we can expect pauline themes throughout his writings.

The intended audience of the book of Luke is gentile Christians, personified by the immediate recipient, Theophilus. The immediate recipients of Jesus’ teaching include Pharisees, and, according to Matthew’s account, disciples of John the Baptist. Their presence (Luke also mentions them) is key here, I believe, but more about that later.

The immediate context of the text is a series of events that have one thing in common, the presence of, and debate with, the Pharisees. It is likely that these events did not happen chronologically as they are presented in Luke. This means that, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he put them in that particular sequence for a reason.

When I study, I like to lay the text out in ways that are easy to visualize. I find it helps me get an overall grasp of what is happening, as well as place individual events into their proper context.

Here is my visual representation for the context of this portion:








So, as you can see, 5:36-39 is right in the middle of a section of several different literary genres that have as their unifying factor a continuing and escalating conflict with the Pharisees. It is also a sort of didactic addendum to teaching on fasting – an illustration tagged on to the end of a sermon, if you will.

Now let’s take a look at the text itself. A careful reading shows two words that stick out. Time for some more color-coding:

He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”

Now, admittedly, in these posts, I do not usually go back so deeply into the study process. But here, I think it is necessary in order to understand the meaning. Based on all the previous information, here is what seems clear to me:

Jesus gets asked by some disciples of John (Matthew tells us is was them who did the asking) as to why his disciples didn’t fast. Jesus initial answer (see our previous devotional) is that fasting is not a sign of spirituality, but rather a natural reaction to events.

He then goes on this riff about old things and new things (using cloth and wineskins as an example), and how the two are incompatible. This, I believe, is still directed at the disciples of John the Baptist. Remember that John was a transitional figure, bridging, as it were, the gap between Old Covenant and New Covenant. And there is the point of the text. Jesus is telling the disciples of John that they will need to make a clean break from the old to the new. They cannot try to mix the two, they cannot go on equating rituals (like fasting) with spirituality. Once the Law has led them to Christ, they must set it aside and follow Him.

That truth would have resounded with Luke’s Gentile readers (Jewish rituals were not required for their conversion) and it should resound with us as well. Our position with God does not depend on the observation of rituals or formalities, it depends completely on the finished work of Christ.

But…that final phrase…

And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’

What in the world does that mean? I believe that here, Jesus is pointing out the propensity the human beings have to cling to ritual, formality…in short, to works-based salvation. Paul himself felt that frustration when, very possibly with Luke at his side, he wrote to the church at Galatia,

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. (Gal. 1:6-7)

And what was that “other Gospel”?

And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage…Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Gal. 2:4, 16)

Why is it so easy to fall back onto works? Because works can be measured. Works can be “done”. Works make us feel good, at least temporarily. Works appeal to our pride. And so we prefer the old wine of the law, or at best try to pour the new wine into the old wineskins.

And it doesn’t work.

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