Soul Seeds: New Life in Old Forms
Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?”
And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse. Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:14-17)
Few Christian groups can have an ugly argument like Baptists can. Born with open democracy, Baptist groups are known for some of the most horrendous behavior when confronting their own kind over things other believers regard as relatively minor. The reason I can say this is that I was a Southern Baptist for the first half of my life. I am still amazed at the sorts of things people consider so important they would destroy the life of a fellow church member. This is nothing of which to be proud.
It can be argued those most guilty of such unchristlike displays are almost surely not true believers, but simply possess great influence in the local church. That is hardly an excuse, since it is still shameful how such people are permitted to gain that power. They bring into the church body the same combative incivility we might expect from corrupt union bosses, greedy business managers, or political leaders. That’s because disputes are usually about money or power.
Sometimes it’s something simply visceral. One issue over which I’ve seen some of the most idiotic disputes is the consumption of beverage alcohol. It’s important to note the American Prohibitionist sentiment is pretty much a joke elsewhere in the world. One can find some support for it in the UK, but not much anywhere else. The short history lesson is this: American Baptists were born from the same stock as the social work movement, when it first appeared in England. It rose as a response to the drunken squalor one found in the cramped warrens of company housing built from scratch by coal mine operations. Major coal deposits were found away from any cities where housing was usually to be found. The miners and their families in this company housing were ripe for every human ill, and abuse of alcohol (sold at the company store) was prominent.
Everyone agrees alcohol abuse is harmful in every way. But only a fool who knows no history, and very little of the Bible, will deny the Law of Moses permitted Jews to consume fermented grape juice which contained alcohol. It was rare to find any fruit of the vine which was not fermented, since it only lasted a day or two in a world without refrigeration. Let’s stop being silly: Jesus drank fermented wine like every other Jew. That has little bearing on whether we ought to avoid it today. Jesus did a lot of things we would never do in modern times.
What makes the issue so ugly and contentious is guilt from something truly evil: bringing worldly ways into the Household of God. Not the alcohol consumption, but the political maneuvering is what has no place. Trying to force the old fallen life to fit into our New Covenant in Jesus’ Blood is an abomination. Jesus spent an awful lot of time showing how the old rabbinical traditions were just that – traditions not from God. They were not directly connected with the Law of Moses, but were often spurious additions which served no good purpose. Some were indeed sensible; the Feast of Dedication was not commanded by God, yet seemed quite justified. That feast arose after the conquests of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. His successors included some pretty hateful rulers; one of them erected a pagan statue in the Temple in Jerusalem and sacrificed a pig to Zeus on the Altar. Getting all that defilement removed some time later was good cause for an annual commemoration.
But the silly command to fast weekly was just a bit much. John the Baptist followed an even stricter regime, as he belonged to a rather ascetic school of Judaism popular at that time. John’s disciples were puzzled when, after John’s public endorsement, and after several of his disciples became followers of Jesus, the rules for discipleship were quite different. Jesus and His disciples appeared to be in the party mode by comparison.
From the very beginning, Jesus had been teaching how the Law of Moses was not what the Pharisees often claimed it was. Their empty legalism actually pulled Moses down to a lower level. In the second place, the Law of Noah was an older and higher standard; it had been in force far longer, and Moses was more a specific application of Noah. Third, both were mere reflections of an eternal spiritual standard. Merely correcting the false view of Moses would exclude restrictions of the type they had come to expect, and it was confusing to those who hadn’t spent time with Jesus. His answer to John’s disciples was attempting to point out the meaning of “radical” – getting back to the root of things. His teaching was both new and ancient, a new expression growing from ancient roots.
Jesus was teaching a New Covenant, a covenant which brought one into an individual relationship with Jehovah. The Covenant of the Moses, while holding individuals accountable, was aimed at the Nation of Israel. It was a national covenant, a subset of Noah’s Covenant, which God established for all humanity. This New Covenant Jesus taught brought one into the Kingdom of God, a wholly new entity which embraced Noah’s Law and realized God’s original intentions at Creation. It was clearly based on all that had gone before; what was equally clear was how it was a totally different kind of thing, because it had never been done on a wide scale.
How could the old traditional forms hold this New Life in the Kingdom? They could not. It was like demanding the friends of the bridegroom fast before the wedding celebration was over. And in ancient times, when cloth was largely hand woven, it had to be washed and dried at least once in order to establish its true size. Patching an old garment with this newly woven fabric was foolish without first washing the patch. Who knows how much and in what direction it would shrink?
It’s also as silly as putting new wine into old used wine skins. “New wine” was a specific term, referring to the first blood of the grapes. In order to get the most of what a load of grapes had to offer, they would be tromped in the vat until all that remained was thick slurry. Of the several gallons one might get from a batch, only the first quart or two was of that finest quality, with a much higher sugar content, and fewer solids. It fermented into a rather potent wine, with a fairly high alcohol content. The last drainage of the wine vat came closer to making brackish vinegar – the sort of low-quality stuff issued to soldiers in their rations, and what Jesus was offered while on the Cross.
In the process of fermenting, the better quality stuff released a lot of gases, and only a new wineskin could stretch enough to contain it. Old dry, hardened wineskins had already stretched to their limit. One could put the cheap stuff in there and it might be alright. What Jesus was offering was a totally new level of faith, a higher calling to a close personal communion with God the Father Himself. What the Father gave for the former covenants could not contain this joyful existence. They were tied to a context which had passed. When the personal presence of God comes into the human soul, so very much changes, the old forms break down in the process.
Everything must be wholly re-evaluated. The old ways had to be scrutinized to see if they were useful in the Kingdom. Naturally, some things would carry over, as they had always pointed back to the ultimate truth. It was the same God. Yet, much would not be useful. Paul referred to the process as “rightly dividing the Word” (2 Timothy 2:15). One had to know God the Person in order to discern what parts of Moses applied, and how they applied. One had to understand the purpose of those provisions. So the old allowance for divorce was tossed aside (Deuteronomy 24:1 and Mark 10:1-12), but the command to love took center place (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Matthew 22:34-40).
What held good for John the Baptist was not sufficient to serve Christ the King. What is in our lives prior to Christ is subject wholly to His judgment, whether it shall go, stay, or be changed. Bitter fighting over silly, petty disputes does not belong in the Kingdom. We have the power to love those with whom we disagree. If we cannot act in love, we do not know Jesus.