Bible kevinroosecomContinuing a study of the passages from Luke’s Gospel which have been omitted from the three-year Lectionary for public worship, today’s post is part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Luke 5:33-39

A Question About Fasting

 33And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.'”


This is one of those puzzling passages in the New Testament that would have made perfect sense to the Jews of Jesus’s era. Thanks to John MacArthur, everyone who has ever wondered about the true meaning of these verses will understand them by the time they reach the end of this post. Would that everyone had MacArthur’s understanding and willingness to explain Holy Scripture.

Before we look at his analysis, what follows is Matthew Henry’s concise explanation which begins to open the door to understanding Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees. It explores three facets of what Christ said to them. One is the newness of His disciples to spiritual discipline. Another is His desire to draw a clear line between the practices of old Judaism versus those of the new Christianity, where He is the Bridegroom. A third is the caution He exercises to ensure that the Apostles and disciples do not revert to their more comfortable ‘old wine’ ways.

Henry offers this analysis (emphases mine):

It was a wonder of his grace that he proportioned their exercises to their strength. He would not put new cloth upon an old garment (v. 36), nor new wine into old bottles (v. 37, 38); he would not, as soon as ever he had called them out of the world, put them upon the strictnesses and austerities of discipleship, lest they should be tempted to fly offSo Christ would train up his followers gradually to the discipline of his family; for no man, having drank old wine, will of a sudden, straightway, desire new, or relish it, but will say, The old is better, because he has been used to it, v. 39. The disciples will be tempted to think their old way of living better, till they are by degrees trained up to this way whereunto they are called. Or, turn it the other way: “Let them be accustomed awhile to religious exercises, and then they will abound in them as much as you do: but we must not be too hasty with them.” Calvin takes it as an admonition to the Pharisees not to boast of their fasting, and the noise and show they made with it, nor to despise his disciples because they did not in like manner signalize themselves; for the profession the Pharisees made was indeed pompous and gay, like new wine that is brisk and sparkling, whereas all wise men say, The old is better; for, though it does not give its colour so well in the cup, yet it is more warming in the stomach and more wholesome. Christ’s disciples, though they had not so much of the form of godliness, had more of the power of it.

As I explained last week, Luke 5 is a powerful chapter. It involves recognition of one’s sinful state (Peter and the paralytic) and Jesus’s mercy in healing the leper, calling the tax collector Levi (Matthew) and dining with his friends. The Pharisees were following Him from the healing of the paralytic to these questions about fasting; they could not help but criticise everything Jesus did. They were publicly self-righteous and spiritually blind. They were heartless and pathetic at the same time.

This episode appears in the other two Synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Mark) as well as in John’s. Here is Matthew’s version (Matthew 9:14-17):

A Question About Fasting

 14Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15And 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. 16No 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. 17Neither 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.”

And Mark’s (Mark 2:18-22):

A Question About Fasting

 18Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22And 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.”

John’s takes a different context, that of John the Baptist’s disciples (John 3:25-30):

25Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Some might wonder how closely John’s passage about John the Baptist relates to the Pharisees. John MacArthur explains that some of John the Baptist’s followers did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah — the Bridegroom, as He calls Himself after John the Baptist’s appellation in today’s reading. These disciples of John’s allied themselves with the Pharisees in the disciplines of fasting to advance their piety. They were still awaiting the Messiah:

when you think of the disciples of John you probably think of the good guys. And what are the good guys doing with these bad guys, these legalists? Well it’s not strange to understand the mingling together and I’ll tell you why. John the prophet, you remember, came in the third chapter of Luke … He came into the region around the Jordan and he was preaching repentance … Literally thousands of people, if not tens of thousands were going out there, they were listening to John preaching repentance, and getting ready for Messiah. “Come, repent and be forgiven and get your heart ready for Messiah.” And he had many thousands and thousands of disciples.

There was a day … in John’s ministry, not all of those people would have been there that day, when Jesus showed up. And that was the day that John points to Jesus and says, “Behold…what?…the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And John wanted his disciples to then move their allegiance to Jesus. In John 3:28 to 30 John said, “He must increase and I must decrease. I’ve got to fade away and you need to move toward the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.” And Jesus, you remember, was baptized by John and the Father said, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased, and the Spirit descended upon Him,” and it was clearly recognizable to John that this in fact was the Messiah. And so John wanted to transition his people to the one who had to increase, Jesus Christ.

But not all his followers were there that day and not all his followers were convinced Jesus was the Messiah. And not all of the disciples of John followed Jesus. But I’ll tell you what many of them did, because we meet them in this context. They made a serious commitment down there at the river. The confessed their sin. They asked for forgiveness. They wanted to be acceptable when the Messiah came and set up His Kingdom so they could get in the Kingdom. So they cranked up their religious involvement a few notches. And how would you do that in Judaism? You would start hanging around with whom? The scribes and the Pharisees. You would say, “Hey, we had a real dedication over there, we sort of recommitted our lives to religion and to God and where is the highest level of religion, we need to get there? So let’s hang around with the scribes and the Pharisees. Let’s do the fasts that they ascribe to. Let’s do the alms giving that they ascribe to. Let’s pray the prayers that they ascribe to. And let’s really be serious because when the Messiah comes, we want Him to know that our repentance was real.” So they don’t make the transition to Jesus, but all of a sudden they start hanging around with the people they perceive in their religious system are at the highest level.

Now at this time also, interestingly enough, John the Baptist is in prison. So he’s not around to help his disciples. He’s not around to be preaching everywhere saying, “Here’s Christ, here’s Christ, follow Him, follow Him.” He’s in prison and he’s going to lose his head. So for all intents and purposes, his voice is stilled.

So these disciples of John wanting to be very, very faithful to their dedication that they made at their baptism with John wind up associating with these religionists. They blend in to the religion of the day and they do what would be the highest level of religious devotion. And by the way, long after this, go all the way to the nineteenth chapter of Acts … The nineteenth chapter of Acts … you will run into disciples of John who never heard of Jesus…never heard of Him. That…that’s years later. There was no media, there was no radio, or TV, print media. If you didn’t hear about Jesus or meet Jesus, if you were off somewhere else, you didn’t know, you didn’t know. So there were disciples of John way into the nineteenth chapter of Acts and they gave them the gospel … And they repented, they believed in Christ, they were baptized, they received the Holy Spirit.

Here is the passage — Acts 19:1-7 — concerning John’s disciples in what is now part of Turkey. Evangelisation by John the Baptist’s followers clearly continued after Jesus’s Ascension and spread far beyond the Jordan River:

Paul in Ephesus

 1And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 7There were about twelve men in all.

This is the type of devotion we encounter in verse 33 of today’s passage. Note how the Pharisees cited the discipline of fasting of John’s disciples against the lack of it in Jesus’s.

John MacArthur explains the context in his sermon. First, he says that Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) was the only fast mandated in Mosaic Law. The rest were extraneous to it and mandated by man — the Pharisees. Along with public, audible prayer, it was a way of visibly elevating themselves above the Jewish populace: ‘See how holy we are.’ (Not unlike Ramadan. People should never know when you’re fasting — no media announcements at a national level, no moaning about food or fatigue on an individual one.)

Leviticus 16:29 and 31 commands people and it uses the phrase, “Humble your souls,” or in the New King James, “Afflict your souls,” from the Hebrew word anah which is commonly used to refrain from food. What was the Day of Atonement? It was a day when you took a hard look at…what?…your sin. When you did a deep inspection of your soul, when sacrifices for the whole nation were made, when the whole nation stopped its normal course of action and everybody did a heart search of their own sin…and that was God’s required fast. You don’t eat, you mourn, you grieve over your sin. There weren’t any other required fasts. There were occasions in the Old Testament when the Jews did fast over grief in the book of Esther, chapter 4; in Isaiah 58 they’re referred to; 1 Kings 21 they’re referred to; Joel chapter 1 verses 13 and 14. There are fasts in the Old Testament associated, always associated with grief and mourning and the wrenching of the heart over some serious issue. That’s…that is a proper fast. They’re not required, they’re just done voluntarily when…here’s the key…someone is so overwrought, so sad, so heart sick, so concerned to pray that they have no appetite.

Jesus’s reply (verse 34) about fasting at a wedding feast might appear cryptic to us, but the Pharisees would have understood Him clearly. MacArthur says that there were specific times of celebration when fasting was strictly prohibited. Wedding feasts were among them:

Weddings often lasted seven days. Fasting [wa]s out of place …

There were ancient rabbinical rules, by the way, forbidding people to fast at a wedding. Rejoice with those who rejoice. There’s a time, says Ecclesiastes, to weep and a time to laugh. Fasting has its appropriate time, a time of broken grieved hearts. But Jesus said, “You don’t get it, do you? You don’t get it. The bridegroom’s here.” Who’s that? Himself. There’s an old Jewish document called “Migalot Taonit???” called “The Scroll of Fasting.” And it says that fasting is forbidden in all days devoted to happy times of celebration. The rabbis understood that.

The word ‘Bridegroom’ to describe the Messiah is unique to the New Testament. Here Jesus refers to Himself as the Bridegroom — the Messiah. Therefore, it is a time of rejoicing, putting aside remorseful fasting. Whilst Jesus is among the people, it is a time of enjoying His ministry and His presence.

Then, in verse 35, He warns that He — ‘the Bridegroom’ — will not always be with His people. Then comes the time for sadness and fasting. This occurred after His Crucifixion and prior to his Resurrection. Luke 24 relates that He ended their fast after He rose from the dead. First, there is his stop in His disciples’ home outside of Emmaus (Luke 24:28-31):

28So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.

These people then hurried to Jerusalem to tell the Apostles and other disciples gathered together in fear of the authorities. Luke 24:36-43:

36As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate before them.

Back to today’s confrontation with the Pharisees. In verse 36, Jesus tried a different approach, that of new, unshrunken fabric on old in order to patch a worn bit. My late paternal grandmother, a tailor’s daughter, was always very careful to wash a piece of fabric first to shrink it before using it in this manner. We’ve forgotten this now, but this was common knowledge for centuries. New fabric on old leaves a pucker and possibly a tear in a short space of time. The colour and texture will also be different. Jesus was explaining to the Pharisees that His new religion — Christianity — would not be able to be grafted onto Judaism, which had come to an end. He had fulfilled the preparation Judaism required for the Messiah. Now the Bridegroom was here; there was no longer any need for purification or manmade rituals.

In verses 37-39 He used another tack, that of wineskins. In Europe, we still speak in our respective languages of ‘a skinful’, referring to wine or other alcoholic drink served in a leather pouch. Although barrels have been used here for centuries for large-scale fermentation, in Jesus’s day, this was still done in large leather pouches. New wine had to begin fermentation in a new skin which was flexible and would expand comfortably to catch the sediment at the bottom and allow for the gas on top. I’m oversimplifying, but if you’ve ever worn a pair of leather gloves in pouring rain, you’ll notice that once they dry, they are less supple than before. The principle holds true for putting new wine in old leather skins. The skin will burst.

Jesus used this analogy to express that Judaism and Christianity were incompatible. New wine — Christianity — could not be put into the old skin of Judaism. It is a mystery that the Messianic sects (e.g. Jews for Jesus) have not grasped the meaning of today’s passage from Luke 5. Let us pray that they do.

Next time: Luke 6:1-5