New Wine and Old Bottles
Jesus Christ expects His followers to become totally committed to all of God’s laws and way of life. The transition can be very difficult!
By John A. Halford
The Good News, December 1985
Are you thinking about making some big changes in the way you live?
You have begun to understand the truth about how a real Christian ought to behave. You have realized that a lot of empty tradition has infiltrated what is known as “Christianity” today, while some of Christ’s most important teachings are ignored.
Perhaps you have read Jesus’ challenging words found in Matthew 15:9: “In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
And so perhaps you have decided it’s time to make some changes. Perhaps this year you and your family are (sssh — don’t let the neighbors know!) — not going to keep Christmas!
Of course, it might not only be Christmas. The decision to obey Jesus Christ will mean that you must change many aspects of your life, some small, others major. You might have to change the day that you have kept “holy,” or some of the things that you eat. Maybe you must alter the way you budget your money and eliminate many words from your vocabulary. But since it’s that time of year, let’s focus on Christmas.
What’s so bad about Christmas? Christmas, of course, is not a Christian festival. It never has been and never will be.
Hard to change
Most ministers of whatever denomination admit that Jesus could not have been born on December 25. That day was kept as a pagan festival long before Jesus’ birth. Jesus nowhere told us to celebrate His birthday — to do so is one of those “commandments of men” that He warned His true followers against.
So you have decided not to observe it this year.
It isn’t quite as easy as that, is it? Christmas has become so much a part of most people’s lives that not to observe it can mean a major disruption. No Christmas cards. What will Aunt Tess think? No relatives over for Christmas dinner. No decorations. No lights or Santa Claus. You’ll have to try to avoid the office party, and you’d better write to the school explaining that you don’t want little Fred to play an angel in the Christmas play. And no tree.
I remember the first time we didn’t have a tree. It had always been a feature in our house. We would go to a lot of trouble to decorate it beautifully, and then put it in the front window for all to see. A good-looking tree was a status symbol in our street and, though I do say it myself, ours was one of the best and most impressive.
But we read in the Bible where God made some pretty pointed remarks about decorated trees. Check it for yourself in Jeremiah 10:3-4. God said it was a futile, pagan custom — a clear case of worshiping Christ in vain. So — no tree. Even though we knew we had done the right thing, we really missed that tree. The neighbors all had them, sparkling in their windows, but our window remained dark.
We missed it so much that we cheated a bit. We put up a few decorations — not a tree, mind you, just a few bits and pieces to make the place look more cheerful. And we had a Christmas dinner, only we didn’t call it that. It was only a “celebration.”
We felt guilty about it, because we knew we had compromised. It was just that the old way seemed so comfortable, and without a tree and all the rest of the paraphernalia, Christmas just didn’t seem like — er, Christmas.
Jesus Christ knew this would happen. He explained to His disciples that they would indeed miss some aspects of the old way of life, and that even as they learned the truth from Him they would look back nostalgically from time to time.
You will find what Jesus said in Luke 5:36-39. Before we read it, let’s put the incident in its right context.
When Jesus began His public ministry, He immediately came into conflict with the Pharisees, a religious sect who prided themselves on the way they kept God’s laws. They had become so fanatical in their self-righteous attempts to be perfect that they had added many traditions to the basic law of God. The Pharisees thus made the keeping of God’s law into a burden.
Jesus came to teach the truth. He understood not only the letter but also the spirit of God’s law. Of course, He never broke any of the commandments in any way, but to the Pharisees He seemed to be an outright liberal. And, horror of horrors, here He was in Luke 5:29 enjoying a meal with a tax collector and some other sinners. It really was too much!
Not only did Jesus eat with sinners, but He didn’t seem to fast like the Pharisees thought He should. Their custom dictated that they fast twice in the week. They equated their fasting with righteousness. The Pharisees had had no great love for Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, but even the disciples of John fasted sometimes. But Jesus and his disciples never seemed to fast. Why not?
Jesus explained that fasting is a way to get close to God (Luke 5:34-35). While Jesus, who was God in the flesh, was with His disciples, there was no need to fast. When, in the future, Jesus would be taken away from them, His disciples would certainly seek to get close to Him and His Father by fasting occasionally.
Then Jesus went on to teach an important lesson: “No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old” (verse 36).
Any seamstress understands that. New, unshrunk material cannot be used to patch old, worn garments. When it shrinks, it will tear the old cloth even worse than before.
Jesus’ second analogy is not quite so easy for us to follow in the 20th century: “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins” (verses 37-38).
In New Testament times glass bottles were rare, so wine was often transported in animal skins, usually from goats. They made a strong, airtight and moisture-proof container, but you had to be careful. New wine that had not finished fermenting gave off gas that would expand the skins. A new wineskin had some “give” to it, and would allow for the expansion. But old, used skins lost their elasticity. They would burst. The wine would be spilled and the wineskin ruined.
But why tell people that? Jesus Christ’s business was not to give the multitude helpful household hints. Jesus was using a familiar situation to teach an aspect of Christian living.
When someone begins to understand the teachings of the Bible, it is a totally new experience — unlike anything he or she has ever known — like new wine or an unused piece of cloth.
Now, what most of us do is try to fit this new truth into our old way of life. That is only natural, because it is hard to change, and no one likes to admit having been wrong. The old way of life is familiar and comfortable, and we want to hang on to as much of it as possible.
How about you? Perhaps you have fond memories of the Easter sunrise service, the fun of Halloween and those beautiful candlelight carol services down at the old family church. The truth comes smashing into inherited religious ideas and preconceived notions of right and wrong. It challenges comfortable beliefs, making you question things you have always done.
This new way — even if it is right — sometimes seems like an unwelcome intruder, and you find yourself resenting it.
Jesus warned us that that could happen: “And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better’ ” (verse 39).
It is not surprising that so many people, even though they acknowledge the truth, still prefer to cling to their old beliefs. Or perhaps they do as my family did when we met the truth halfway, with a sort of “unChristmas” celebration.
We didn’t enjoy our “unChristmas.” You never can if you know that you are compromising with what is right. We were trying to put our new wine in the old bottle, and we spoiled everything.
All the way
Don’t make that mistake. If you are beginning to understand what it means to be a real Christian, realize that it is going to demand positive action on your part. You can’t have it both ways, observing this world’s customs and still expecting the blessing of the world tomorrow.
“Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not the things which I say?” Jesus thundered (Luke 6:46). He expects total commitment. He demands that we come out of the Babylon of confusion that characterizes so much religion today.
So along with the excitement of learning new truth comes the responsibility of making some painful decisions. Don’t compromise. God does not want to take from us anything that is good. His way of life is filled with exciting experiences that mean something and lead somewhere, not empty, senseless but often very expensive rituals.
As you take the plunge and follow God’s way of life, you will begin to miss the “old wine” less and less. You will see it for what it is — a hollow counterfeit of the real thing.
God is showing you the way to freedom from all that. Instead of looking back at the fraudulent ways of this world, you will begin to anticipate the excitement of helping others learn the truth in the world tomorrow.