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Can you explain the parable of the wineskin? what was Jesus trying to tell the disciples?

 "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.” (Matt. 9:17, ESV)

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    I assume you are asking for the spiritual meaning Jesus illustrated rather than why new wine bursts old wineskins.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 23:04

4 Answers 4

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It refers to the coming of the New Covenant versus the Old Covenant. However, there is some debate about the precise meaning. Jesus obviously had the first century scribes and Pharisees in mind, but the question wants to know exactly what it was about them that Jesus had in mind. The parable of the wineskins makes the same point as the parable of the new patch on the old garment. Paul in Galatians makes a good application of this parable, that Christianity doesn't make Gentiles to first become Jews by following the Mosaic Law.

yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:16, ESV)

McGee makes the point.

Our Lord is saying this, “I haven’t come to sew patches on an old garment. I have come to present a new garment, something which is altogether new.” This was very radical. John summed it up in his gospel when he said, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). -- McGee, J. V. (1997). Thru the Bible commentary (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 54). Thomas Nelson.

This Messianic Jewish commentary is one of the few that addresses this question of the wineskins:

Whereas in v. 16 Messianic faith has to be adapted to Judaism, here it is Judaism which must be adjusted to Messianic faith. If one tries to put new wine, Messianic faith, into old wineskins, traditional Judaism, the faith is lost and Judaism ruined. But if Judaism is freshly prepared, reconditioned so that it can accommodate trust in Yeshua the Messiah, both the faith and the renewed Judaism, Messianic Judaism, are preserved.

The concluding paragraph is:

The meaning of the figure is that the new wine of Messianic living cannot be poured into old religious forms if they remain rigid. But if the old religious forms become “fresh,” they can accommodate Yeshua. When “kainos” is rendered “new,” as in many translations, the implication seems to be that Judaism cannot possibly be a suitable framework for honoring Yeshua the Jewish Messiah—only the “new wineskin” of Gentilized Christianity will work. This is a peculiar conclusion, especially if it is recalled that Yeshua was speaking with his fellow Jews. As rendered here the point is that the only vessel which can hold the new wine of Messianic life in a Jewish setting is a properly renewed, restored, reconditioned and refreshed Judaism, such as Messianic Judaism was in the first century and aims to be now. -- Stern, D. H. (1996). Jewish New Testament Commentary : a companion volume to the Jewish New Testament (electronic ed., Mt 9:17). Jewish New Testament Publications.

While John Piper uses the term professionalism, I would reword what he writes as career (old wine skins) versus calling (new wine skins).

The world sets the agenda of the professional man; God sets the agenda of the spiritual man. The strong wine of Jesus Christ explodes the wineskins of professionalism. There is an infinite difference between the pastor whose heart is set on being a professional and the pastor whose heart is set on being the aroma of Christ, the fragrance of death to some and eternal life to others (2 Cor. 2:15–16). -- Piper, J. (2002). Brothers, we are not professionals: a plea to pastors for radical ministry (p. 3). Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Jon Courson puts it as the new versus tradition:

You can’t put new wine in hardened old wineskins because when the new wine begins to ferment, the old hardened structure can’t flex with it, causing the wineskin to burst and the new wine to be lost. When people try to put something of a new moving of the Lord into an old structure, they end up not only quenching the wine of the Spirit, but blowing apart the structure in the process. -- Courson, J. (2003). Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (p. 323). Thomas Nelson.

When Jesus brought the Good News of the gospel, he brought new wine into the marketplace of ideas. As a teacher, he did not fit the rigid concepts of the past. He taught revolutionary, explosive ideas that shattered hundreds of years of traditions. If his new wine were to be preserved, new receptacles were required. People had to change. -- Reapsome, J. (2008). 10 minutes a day with jesus: growing in your love for the savior. Baker Books.

MacEvilly in Gill's commentary even applies the parable strictly to Jesus' ministry with limited application to today other than application to new converts. Matt. 9:15 gives this some precedence.

The application of these similitudes is quite easy, and is meant by our Redeemer to justify His mode of acting in not subjecting His disciples at first to the rigours of penance, for which, in their present imperfect state, they were unfit. His disciples He compares to old garments and old bottles; an austere system of life, to new cloth and new wine; and He argues, that if His disciples were all at once subjected to austerities quite new to them, they might fall into despondency, and desert His service altogether. Austerities are reserved for the time when, after being disciplined in the school of perfection, they shall become strong in the fulness of the grace of God’s Holy Spirit.... The application is the same as the foregoing. Those who are lately converted, are unable to bear the heavy burdens for which the fulness of the grace of the Spirit will fit and strengthen them. -- MacEvilly, J. (1898). An Exposition of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (pp. 170–171). M. H. Gill & Son; Benziger Brothers.

CHRYSOSTOM. Here again He confirms what He has said by examples of common things; No man putteth a patch of undressed cloth into an old garment; for it taketh away its wholeness from, the garment, and the rent is made worse; which is to say, My disciples are not yet become strong, but have need of much consideration; they are not yet renewed by the Spirit. On men in such a state it is not behoveful to lay a burden of precepts. Herein He establishes a rule for His disciples, that they should receive with leniency disciples from out of the whole world. -- Thomas Aquinas. (1841). Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew (J. H. Newman, Ed.; Vol. 1, p. 343). John Henry Parker.

JEROME. Otherwise; By the old garment, and old skins, we must understand the Scribes and Pharisees; and by the piece of new cloth, and new wine, the Gospel precepts, which the Jews were not able to bear; so the rent was made worse. Something such the Galatians sought to do, to mix the precepts of the Law with the Gospel, and to put new wine into old skins. The word of the Gospel is therefore to be poured into the Apostles, rather than into the Scribes and Pharisees, who, corrupted by the traditions of the elders, were unable to preserve the purity of Christ’s precepts. -- Thomas Aquinas. (1841). Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew (J. H. Newman, Ed.; Vol. 1, p. 344). John Henry Parker.

RABANUS. The different comparisons all refer to the same thing, and yet are they different; the garment by which we are covered abroad signifies our good works, which we perform when we are abroad; the wine with which we are refreshed within is the fervor of faith and charity, which creates us anew within. -- Thomas Aquinas. (1841). Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew (J. H. Newman, Ed.; Vol. 1, pp. 345–346). John Henry Parker.

Warren Wiersbe puts the application of this verse in a wider context.

Second “discipleship” interlude (vv. 9–17). We have covered the call of Matthew in the first chapter of this study. We need only to comment on the four pictures of His ministry that Jesus gave in this message. As the Physician, He came to bring spiritual health to sick sinners. As the Bridegroom, He came to give spiritual joy. The Christian life is a feast, not a funeral. The illustration of the cloth reminds us that He came to bring spiritual wholeness; He did not come to “patch us up” and then let us fall apart. The image of the wineskins teaches that He gives spiritual fullness. Jewish religion was a worn-out wineskin that would burst if filled with the new wine of the Gospel. Jesus did not come to renovate Moses or even mix Law and grace. He came with new life! -- Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 35). Victor Books.

In both cases, the result is the same. But, besides its special lessons, the second simile is also intended to show how entirely false the view alluded to in the first simile was, that Christianity was only a piece of new cloth to mend the torn garment of the old theocracy. -- Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (p. 171). Logos Bible Software.

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  • Gill agrees with the general gist of these answers re: the new wineskins but singles out the scribes and Pharisees as the old wineskins, having been hardened and aged by their dogmas. Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 9:41
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    @AncientGiantPottedPlant -- See edit of first paragraph.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 11:48
  • I meant John Gill but your edit still adds value! Well answered, with or without Gill(s). Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 19:17
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In the passage of Mt 9:14-17, a contrast is made between the disciples of Jesus and the disciples of John as well as the Pharisees with regard to the practice of fasting.

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” – Mt 9:14 NKJ

In his response, Jesus associates fasting with the state of being in mourning. Jesus’ disciples were not fasting because they were experiencing the joy that comes with being in his presence.

And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? – Mt 9:15

The association between the external act and the internal state is key to understanding the parable of the wineskins. The parable speaks to an inherent incompatibility between worship that is defined by strict adherence to external rules and practices, the old wineskin, and one that is led by the internal inspirations of the Spirit, the new wine (cf Jn 4:23-24). The brittleness of the old is incompatible with the dynamism of the new.

Bottles, in Eastern nations, were made, and are still made, of skins of beasts… By long usage, however, bottles of skins became tender and would be easily ruptured. New wine put into them would ferment, and swell and burst them open. – Barnes commentary, biblehub.com

Within the context of the passage, Jesus’ words apply to religious practice, where the wineskin represents fasting and other forms of worship. When the external act of worship is in keeping with or is renewed by the internal movement of the Spirit, both are preserved. Beyond the context, Jesus’ words can be applied to the individual, where the wineskin represents the human person. Here, that which is born of the flesh must be reborn by the Spirit to become a vessel that can hold the new wine (cf Jn 3:3-8, Acts 2:13-17). When flesh conforms to Spirit, then both are preserved.

But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved. – Mt 9:17

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Note that the wider passage in Matthew is parallel to Mark 2:18-22 and Luke 5:32-39. Both Mark and Luke state that the new wineskins will actually burst (ῥήγνυμι) were new wine to be put into them. Note also the possible allusion to Jeremiah 13:12 -

"You shall speak to them this word: ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, “Every jar shall be filled with wine.” ’ And they will say to you, ‘Do we not indeed know that every jar will be filled with wine?’"

The verse should be read together with what precedes it:

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 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. 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. 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.”

What Jesus is saying is that while He is with them and they are "new" great burdens will not be placed on them. This awaits them in the future.

John Chrysostom (4th c.) explains:

And while He speaks of the present, He foretells also the future; as that they shall hereafter be new, but until that come to pass, nothing austere and grievous ought to be imposed on them. For he, saith Christ, that seeks to instill the high doctrines before the proper time, thenceforth not even when the time calls will he find them to his purpose, having once for all made them unprofitable. And this comes to pass not by any fault of the wine, nor of the deceivers, but from the unseasonable act of them that put it in.

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I. Three Parables on Incompatibility, Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:18-22, Luke 5:33-38

“John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they came and said to Him, 'Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?' And Jesus said to them, 'While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.'”

A. The setting:

Jesus and his disciples are in Matthew's house eating with tax collectors and sinners, Mark 2:16. Luke calls the gathering a “great crowd of tax collectors and other people,” Luke 5:29. Because there was a question about why Jesus' disciples did not fast, Jesus offers three parables that present a lesson in incompatibility.

  1. John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.

a. John's disciples fasted often. In Matthew 11:16-19, Jesus says that John came “neither eating nor drinking” and the Pharisees accused him of having a demon. By contrast, when Jesus came both “eating and drinking” the Pharisees said, “Behold a gluttonous man and a wine bibber,” Matthew 11:19. Jesus compared this unreasonable attitude of that generation to children playing in the marketplace.

“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other children, and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance (celebration); we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn (sorrow).’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.'”

Like the children in the marketplace, the Pharisees were not going to be pleased no matter what game was played. They criticized both John and Jesus and refused to listen to either. They would not mourn at John's warnings of judgement (the funeral dirge), neither would they celebrate and rejoice at the presence of the bridegroom (the playing of the flute and the dance).

b. John's disciples fasted often because John's message was one of impending doom with the “winnowing fan” and the “ax laid at the root.” For them, this was a time of sadness and sorrow.

  1. The Pharisees fasted often but this was more for a public show so that others would think them pious rather than for true piety. Actually, they merely made a pretense of fasting, so this served only to reinforce their hypocrisy.

a. In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus accused them of fasting “to be seen of men.”

b. To the Jews, religion was not joyous but something that was weighty and burdensome. While the Pharisees bound these burdens on the people, they were unwilling to bear them themselves,

“Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: 'The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore, all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.” Matthew 23:1-4.

c. Voluntary fasting was never imposed under the Law. There was, however, a national day of fasting that was imposed and observed once a year on the Day of Atonement. This was an imposed fast, not a voluntary fast. See Leviticus 16:29-30; 23:27-31; Numbers 29:7. Over time, this became regarded as simply, “the fasting day,” Jeremiah 36:6,

“So you go and read from the scroll which you have written at my dictation the words of the LORD to the people in the LORD'S house on a fast day. And also, you shall read them to all the people of Judah who come from their cities.”

In Acts 27:9 it is called simply, “the fast.”

Voluntary fasts were practiced for a number of reasons such as personal humiliation in sin, for sorrow, affliction, and death in the family. This was apparently viewed quite favorably by the Lord; but frequent fasting such as that demanded by Pharisaic tradition was never required or imposed by the Law of Moses.

B. The parable of the attendants of the bride chamber, Matthew 9:14-15, Mark 2; 18-20, Luke. 5:33-35. Two questions were posed by the Pharisees and the disciples of John, 18.

  1. “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?”

This question seems to have come solely from the scribes, and as always, with such questions about Jesus from the scribes and the Pharisees, there is an air of accusation. If he condescends to eat with tax collectors and sinners, then he can't be any better than they are. They use themselves and their own conduct as a metric by which to judge Jesus. “We do not do this, and neither should he.” “We are better than they.”

a. Jesus responded by saying,

“They that are whole have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” 17.

Thus, he is in the right place and in the right company.

b. Matthew 9:13 adds, “But go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6). The Pharisees were great at offering sacrifices. They were experts at it. What they needed was to learn to exorcise mercy to those whom they served. This is what pleases God. Jesus used the words of the prophet as the metric by which to judge the scribes.

  1. “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?”

This may have been a question posed simply out of curiosity, at least on the part of John's disciples, but there may have also been other things implied in this question from the scribes such as, “what right do you have for celebration, or why do you violate the custom?”

a. In answer to these questions, Jesus defended these actions by comparing them to a wedding celebration, “The bride groom is here.” So, this was a time for celebration, which is appropriately accompanied by feasting, not fasting.

b. When the bridegroom was taken away, the disciples would fast for then they would have proper reason for expressing sorrow, Matthew 11:16-17. Fasting only has meaning when there is just cause for it. Where appropriate circumstances and motives are absent, fasting is nothing more than pious mockery.

C. The parable of the new patches on old garments and new wine in old wine skins.

The most popular application of these two parables is that the old law is not to be joined with the new covenant. But I think there is a real problem with this interpretation.

  1. These parables have absolutely nothing to do with the old covenant vs the new covenant.

a. The context is about fasting and feasting, not the old and new covenants. There is no mention in this entire narrative about either the old law or the new covenant. This must be forced into the narrative in order to arrive at this interpretation.

b. Frequent ritualized fasting was never part of the old Law so, this reference to fasting was not a reference to the Law of Moses.

  1. The application is simply that fasting and celebration, just like feasting and sorrow and impending doom, are incompatible. Jesus appeals to the simple logic of these everyday examples to show the foolishness of mixing things that are incompatible.

Everyone knew that one does not sew a new patch on an old garment nor did one put new wine in an old wine skin. They all knew the foolishness of these things. The result would be greater damage to the garment and the loss of both the wine skin and its contents. In the same way, one did not celebrate (which is represented by the feasting) during the time of sorrow and one did not fast during the time of celebration. These are contradictory to one another. As Jesus says, both are ruined. Both fasting and celebration are profitable in their proper contexts, but when they are joined together, they represent a contradiction that destroys the significance of both the fasting and the joy. While Jesus was with them, it was time for joy and celebration which was to be joined with feasting. When he was taken away, then would be the proper time for sorrow which is accompanied by fasting.

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