Are there passages in scripture that you have read many times, but tend to skip over because you don’t really understand what they mean? One such passage for me is right in the middle of Matthew 9. Today, I dug a little deeper, and found some spiritual gold!
Most of Matthew 9 describes different encounters Jesus had with people who needed physical healing – a paralytic, a woman with a blood hemorrhage, two blind men, a demon-possessed mute, and even a little girl who had died, but whose father was confident Jesus could raise up from her death bed. In every case, Jesus defied expectations and crossed the natural boundaries of science and nature by supernatural healing. In every case, He was motivated by compassion. He traveled the villages teaching, proclaiming the gospel, and healing all kinds of sickness and disease because He saw the people as distressed and dispirited (Matthew 9:365-36).
In the middle of these accounts, Matthew describes a conversation Jesus had with the disciples of John the Baptist, who asked why Jesus’ disciples did not fast, as they and the Pharisees did. Fasting was a sign of religious devotion to God. John’s disciples were likely Essenes, who lived a life of strict discipline and austerity, and were used to such practices. Apparently, John frequently fasted as an example to those who followed him (Matthew 11:18). The Pharisees were great at outward show of piety, even though their hearts were far from God (Matthew 6:16; 23:23-28).
Jesus gave two reasons His disciples did not fast. The first is easy to understand. It wasn’t time to mourn and fast; it was a time to celebrate His presence in their lives, just as the bridegroom is celebrated at a wedding. He told them the day was coming for fasting … when He would be taken away.
The second reason is more difficult to understand. Jesus gives two examples that seem unrelated to the question.
Matthew 9:16-17 – But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.
What do these two examples have in common? The word “new.” Jesus came to bring new things. An old garment can’t receive a new patch; the garment must be replaced. An old wineskin can’t receive new wine; the wineskin must be replaced. The Pharisees and other Jews would hold on to their old ways of duty and religion and reject the life-giving grace that Jesus offered. He did not come to “add” something to the law, but to completely fulfill it and make things new. He came to proclaim a new kind of fast – the kind that Isaiah prophesied that would please God.
Isaiah 58:5-6 – Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?
Jesus healed people physically as a witness to His power to heal spiritually, and in almost every instance He declares that their faith made them whole. In other words, He responded to their need because of their faith in Him. They were set free from their physical bonds that oppressed them, just as Isaiah prophesied. They had to let go of their preconceived ideas of what was possible, and fully commit to faith in Jesus.
It works the same way in the spiritual world, for spiritual healing. If we want the “new wine” we must let go of our old wineskins. Christianity isn’t adding Jesus to our old life, like sewing a new piece of material on an old, worn-out shirt. He replaces the whole shirt. He gives us new wine in new wineskins.
Those who were listening to Jesus and asking questions had to decide if they could let go of the comfortable routines of the law that made them feel good about themselves and surrender to faith in Jesus, salvation by faith alone, through grace alone. They could not have both law and grace. Those who live by the law will be judged by the law (Romans 2:12). In other words, if we want to serve God with our works, we will be judged according to our works – and as we know, we will all fall short (Romans 3:23).
Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast because He was teaching them a whole new way of life. He didn’t want to confuse them by requiring ritual fasting at this time. Later, they would fast in the right way, at the Holy Spirit’s leading, and for the right reasons, for the release of people in spiritual bondage. For now, they were to enjoy His personal presence and learn to walk by faith in Jesus, not faith in their works.
One other observation. In Jesus’ example, if a person tries to fix the “old” with the “new” by simply adding it on, both are destroyed. The old wineskin bursts and the old garment tears. The new patch doesn’t hold, and the new wine is poured out and lost. This is what happens when you put your faith in Jesus but retain your old habits and ways of thinking, trying to fit Jesus into your personal ideas about religion. You’re miserable…the old life doesn’t work because the Spirit of God convicts you, and the new life doesn’t work because you’re trying to do it in your own strength. Jesus came to make things completely new!
How about you? Are there traditions or rituals, or even sinful habits, that are “leftovers” from your old way of life before you met Jesus? Are you still relying on them, or have you discovered the Spirit-filled life of grace and faith?
Don’t just add Jesus to your religion. Let go of your preconceived ideas and human logic. Turn your back on the old life. Jesus came to give us spiritual sight and eternal life by His own work on the cross. Stop working to earn God’s favor, surrender fully to Him as Lord and Savior, and let Him do the work in you.