The parables of the new cloth and new wine are actually found in three of the Gospels, Matthew 9:16,17, Mark 2:21,22 and Luke 5:36-39. The verses that precede them establishing the context are essentially the same in each occurrence. I’m going to use Matthew’s account, then look at the one in Luke that includes an additional remark made by Jesus at the end of the parable that isn’t found in Matthew or Mark.
First, let’s establish the context. And let me remind you that it is always a good idea in dealing with the Scriptures to establish what comes before or after a passage to help in understanding the intent or meaning of the passage. This is what is meant by "context". Matthew 9:14-15 establishes the context of Jesus’ parables of the new cloth and the new wine. This is what it says.
"Then the disciples of John (the Baptist) came to Jesus asking, why is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t? Then Jesus answered, Can the wedding guests mourn while the bridegroom is still with them? The time will come when the bridegroom is taken away, then they will fast."
I said earlier that the verses preceding these parables are essentially the same. There is, however, a slight difference. In Matthew’s account, the disciples of John ask Jesus the question seen above and include the Pharisees in their query; in Mark, it appears the disciples of John and the Pharisees together come to Jesus with the question; and in Luke, the text suggests the question is part of a conversation Jesus has with the Pharisees, who include the disciples of John. What is clear in all three texts is that both the disciples of John and the Pharisees were involved in this incident and both questioned Jesus.
It is further clear that both had compared themselves to Jesus’ disciples and had come to the inescapable conclusion that Jesus’ disciples were just not measuring up to the high standards of their religion. They had recognized the fact that Jesus and His disciples didn’t do the things they did to put their self-righteousness on public display (see what Jesus had to say about such activity in Matthew 6:1-18). What we have to notice in this is that the disciples of John had apparently come under the influence of the Pharisee’s religious rules in the absence of John’s leadership, as he had, by now, been put in prison by Herod as a result of his public insults regarding Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias (Matthew 14:3-4). They had quickly forgotten the substance of John’s message of repentance and his rejection of religious self-righteousness (Matthew 3:1-12).
Here, the disciples of John join the Pharisees in what amounts to a frivolous attempt to discredit Jesus. The implication is "we keep the rules and are therefore righteous, so why don’t You and Your disciples keep the rules?" Now I can understand the Pharisees saying this, but I’m disappointed the disciples of John allowed themselves to get caught up in it. This is a great illustration of what can happen to people who start out in a sincere quest to know God, but then get derailed by the pressures to join the religious crowd. Even John the Baptist, after Herod had put him in prison, began to have doubts about Jesus when reports of Jesus’ activities failed to meet his expectations (Matthew 11:1-6).
And now would be an appropriate time to mention what Jesus means in Matthew 5:17 when He says, "Don’t think that I’ve come to do away with the Law or the Prophets, I’m not here to do away with them but to perform perfect obedience to them". The key words in this statement are kataluo, translated "destroy" in many translations, "do away with", above; and pleroo, usually translated "fulfill", but in this context means "to perform". If you follow the text in Matthew 5 Jesus continues His sermon pointing out in detail how the Pharisees had perverted the Law with their own rules that, in effect, had nullified the spiritual principles God had established. When you read the rest of this chapter, you find Jesus making the statement "You’ve heard it said…. but I say" six different times. What He’s really saying is "The Pharisees say…. but God says". Brought forward to our time, what He's saying is "religion teaches.... but the truth is".
What’s the point? Jesus makes it clear that He was here to demonstrate perfect obedience to God (something He had to do to qualify Himself as our sin-bearer when He went to the cross on our behalf), but was not bound in any way to the man-made, religious requirements the Pharisees had devised. And since they had their own ideas of what righteousness looked like, they couldn’t recognize true righteousness in Jesus. In the same way the religious crowd today wouldn’t recognize Jesus if He walked into one of their meetings. They would expect Him to be a man-pleaser with all the outward signs of religious self-righteousness, approving of everything they were doing and accepting everyone who was participating. I’m sure Jesus would be a huge disappointment to them.
And while I'm here, let me say that we should not be any more bound to religious requirements than Jesus was. He came to show us the way, so let's follow His example. And I guarantee you institutional, traditional Christianity does not represent God today any more than the Pharisee's Judaism did in Jesus' day. And those who fail to make the distinction are blind.
If you read on past the account of these parables in Luke 5 into Chapter 6, you’ll find the religious crowd continuing to struggle with the fact that both Jesus and His disciples had a serious disregard for their rules (in other words, they couldn't make that distinction). The disciples picked grain, rubbed it between their unwashed hands and ate it on the Sabbath. Jesus, to their horror, even healed on the Sabbath. As you follow the series of events in Chapter 6 it seems Jesus tired of their silly protestations and confronts them directly in verse 5 with this statement: "The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." And though the meaning and intent of this statement may have been somewhat veiled to those who heard it that day, this is what Jesus meant. In His use of the title "Son of Man", He literally means, "The Son of God Who is a Man". If you expand the statement, He literally says, "The Son of God Who is a Man is Master even of the Sabbath (and can do whatever He decides)". Obedience to God and obedience to religion isn’t the same thing. And these incidents show us they don’t look the same either. And this is what we have to keep in mind as we go back to our text in Matthew 9.
So, when they asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t follow the rules, Jesus’ response was intended to be a jab at the Pharisees, a response that could do nothing but incense them even further. He compares His time with His disciples to a wedding feast. He’s the bridegroom and they are the guests. By doing this He puts the spotlight directly on the One they are trying to discredit, the One Who is breaking their precious rules. Then, with the parables that follow He tells them that in His presence, things had changed; their old rules didn’t apply, and in His Gospel of the Kingdom, there was something new.
Now, let’s look at the parables and make the applications. This is the parable of the new cloth found in Matthew 9:16.
"And no one puts a patch of unfinished cloth on an old, torn garment, because the patch will weaken the garment and the tear will be made worse."
The translation here is a little different than most in that the KJV translates agnaphos, "new", while most subsequent ones use words to describe the "new" cloth as "cloth that has not been shrunk", "unshrunk" or something to that effect. Agnaphos is a combination of the negative article a, with knapto, meaning, "to card". It is sometimes translated undressed, uncombed or, as above, unfinished, and refers to wool or cotton cloth that has not been carded or combed so that the fibers are aligned, giving it both strength and a smoother, more finished appearance. As Jesus explains in the parable, such cloth, if used to patch a tear in an older garment, would actually weaken the garment and cause a worse tear.
Now, let’s look at the application. This parable illustrates the incompatibility of the old with the new. And when Jesus uses the illustration of the unfinished cloth being used as a patch for an old garment, He’s implying that something new, yet unfinished, is not compatible with something old, which has been damaged or torn. The new, unfinished cloth is His message of the Kingdom; the old, torn garment is the present condition of Judaism. The New Covenant is not yet fully revealed, so it is not completely understood. The Old Covenant (the Law and the Prophets) has been damaged, torn and rendered useless by the religious whims of men, determined to follow their flesh, rejecting God’s righteousness and devising means to produce their own self-righteousness.
They could never repair the old, damaged garment by simply adding the new, unfinished cloth to it, the result would be something even more damaged than the original. Remember the context? Jesus is being accused of not keeping the rules of the religious crowd. But also remember, this was a mixed crowd. So, were the disciples of John trying to repair the old torn garment (Judaism) by adding a patch of unfinished cloth, (John’s message of repentance and Jesus’ Good News of the kingdom) to the Pharisees self-righteous rituals? I believe they may have been.
At this point I need to backtrack and explain a couple of points. In the illustrative language of the parable Jesus describes His message of the Kingdom as unfinished. Why? We have to consider several things to answer this question. First, Jesus’ tells us that He was "sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:5, 6, 15:22-28, 21:42, 43, John 1:11, 10:16). It would not be until after Jesus’ death and resurrection that an invitation to join in the promises of the Kingdom would be extended to the Gentiles (revealed to Paul in Acts 9:15 then Peter in Acts 10, see also Acts 15:13-18, Romans 1:16, 9:24-33 and Ephesians 3:1-11).
The second has to do with the revelation of truth. In John 14:26 Jesus tells His disciples that after He was gone the Holy Spirit would come to "teach you all things and cause you to remember what I have told you already." Then later, in John 16:12, 13 He tells them "I have many things to tell you, but you’re not mature enough to bear them. However, when the Spirit of Truth has come, He will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak His own message, but only what He hears from the Father and will do it in the Father’s timing."
Jesus here acknowledges that His Good News concerning the Kingdom was not a complete revelation; there was more to come. The rest of it wouldn’t be revealed until after He was gone. Then, as they were able to understand it, it would be unfolded bit by bit to the Apostles through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Paul explains this principle in I Corinthians 2:12, 13 when he tells us how he came to understand the message he was to preach to the Gentiles. He said it was "what the Holy Ghost taught, adding one spiritual principle upon another". It took Paul approximately 17 years to come to a point where he was confident of this message (read Galatians 1:11-2:2 and notice 1:18 and 2:1).
Then the last thing we need to consider here involves a combination of the first two and will take a little more time. If we go all the way back to Exodus 19:6-8, we see Moses the priest receiving instruction from God, then giving it to the elders, who in turn gave it to the people. In Exodus 30:30 Moses is further given instruction to "anoint" Aaron and his sons to a permanent priesthood, a service to God in which they would represent Him to the people at the direction of the Holy Spirit. The word "anoint" comes from the Hebrew mashach, a word used to illustrate consecration to a responsibility in which God is the authorizing agent and the Holy Spirit is the means of carrying out that responsibility (see I Samuel 16:13 for another instance of the use of this word).
I point this out simply to remind you that up to the time Jesus came into the world, God had always had an authorized representative structure through which He could relate to His people, whether it was the family priest, the Old Testament priesthood or the prophet, even though, for the most part, that representative structure had come to rely on man-made religion instead of the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is a situation that persists to this day. And please, don’t write to me accusing me of saying God’s revelation can only come to the select, "anointed" few. I didn’t say that. Revelation comes to any who seek it (James 1:5). The trouble is many are too lazy or distracted to seek it and not willing to invest the time and effort required, so, mercifully, God stands ready to speak to them through a representative if they're smart enough to listen.
Now, to put this all together, the reality was that Jesus’ message was incomplete (it didn’t include the Gentiles or a revelation of the true church and how it was to function); He promised it would be completed after He was gone by revelation to the Apostles through the ministry of the Holy Spirit; and though God had always had an authorized representative structure, until the Apostles received the revelation for it, there was no representative structure that could relate to the Gentiles. The Old Testament priesthood would have nothing to do with them. And it wouldn’t have helped them anyway, because as Jesus illustrates in this parable (remember, we’re actually talking about the parable of the new, unfinished cloth), the old and the new was incompatible.
God’s representative structure for the New Covenant is found in Paul and Peter’s writing, regarding elders (see the article "Leadership in the Church") and Jesus’ five-fold gifts to the His Church (the explanation of Ephesians 4:11-14 towards the end of the article "Grace, Faith and Spiritual Gifts). This is what replaced the Old Testament priesthood (see the explanation of the development of the priesthood over time in "Avoiding the Dog and Hog Disease – Part 2). And though this revelation has been perverted in many ways and is used to justify institutional religion today, the fact remains (as I have been pointing out over and over again in the articles on this website), traditional, institutional, denominational religion has little or nothing to do with the revelation given to the apostles by the Holy Spirit.
Further, Jesus tells us that if the two were joined, the damage would become worse than ever. What you see, among other things, in the Book of Acts is those Jewish Apostles struggling to understand the revelation of God as they move away from Judaism (the old garment torn by the wrong, religious influences of men). Then, when you begin to read Paul’s letters, you see his struggle to keep the tear from getting worse as the Judaizers infiltrate the fellowships trying to patch the old and the new together. And now, if you have the honesty, discernment and maturity to understand it, you see this great conglomeration called "Christianity" in the world today that is, in fact, the old garment patched with the weak, unfinished cloth – a cause of deception and destruction in the world the likes of which Judaism alone could never approach. It is the great "Judeo-Christian" culture that dominates the world’s false religions. And Jesus saw it coming.
The parable of the new wineskins follows in Matthew 9:17. This is what Jesus says.
"New wine is never put into old wineskins, because the skins will burst, the wine will be lost and the skins destroyed. But new wine must be put in reconditioned wineskins, then both are safe."
I like this parable. It makes me smile. Every time I read it I think of how it’s commonly used (or abused) in institutional religion. When a "pastor" comes up with a different angle, another gimmick, some new twist on an old doctrine of deception, he pounds on the pulpit to wake up the people who are trying to get some sleep, leans forward, raises his voice and proudly calls his brainchild "new wine". And as many times as I heard it used when I was involved in traditional religion, I can never remember the mention of the wineskins or any attempt to explain this parable. That’s classic religion.
And like the parable of the new cloth, this one can also be properly understood only when correctly translated. In the KJV two words are translated "new". The word as it applies to wine is neos, meaning, "new" as it relates to time, recent or young. However, the word used to describe "new" wineskins is kainos, meaning "new" as it relates to form or quality and depending on the context it can mean different, uncommon, renewed, refreshed or reconditioned. In this case, as common sense demands and the translation above indicates, "reconditioned" is the proper rendering.
Here, Jesus incorporates the prevailing knowledge of winemaking in this culture to illustrate yet another point regarding the incompatibility of the old Jewish religious system with the new message of the kingdom, but with a different twist. This difference is discovered in the process of making wine. If you believe the KJV (and most subsequent translations), you would assume that every year new wineskins (leather bottles) had to be produced, because new wine could only be put into new wineskins. Such was never the case. Old wineskins when emptied were saved for the next year. Over the course of time they became dry and brittle. But they were easily "reconditioned" by soaking them in water for a few days. Then, when they softened, they were coated with olive oil and were ready to use again. Now the bottles were able to stretch, accommodating the expansion of gases that were a result of the fermentation process.
The illustration is obvious. The old is still incompatible with the new. However, in this case, Jesus makes it clear that the new message can only be successfully deposited in the old heart that has been reconditioned and is soft, pliable and ready to extend itself to new limits as the revelation of the kingdom continues to grow. The new message of the kingdom is going to experience expansion and change as it distances itself from the old dried out, inflexible Jewish system. And those who receive it must be ready and able to withstand the pressures caused by the agitation and violence of that process. The new wine would destroy those trapped in their rigid, religious ways. And to them, the new message it pictures would be lost to them forever.
Now, before I end this thing, I want to go to Luke 5:39 and show you something not recorded in Matthew or Mark. This is what it says.
"And no one after drinking old wine, right away asks for the new, for he says, the old is better."
Here Jesus contrasts the old Jewish system (old wine) to the message of the kingdom and the revelation that was to follow (new wine). He’s making a simple statement of fact. He’s not saying He agrees that the old is better; He’s saying that people think the old is better. He’s warning against the tendency in people to hold on to the old, resist change, over value the old or find false security in it. The word translated "old" is palaios, and is used to designate something whose time has past or that which has lost its usefulness or is worn out. The old Jewish system had lost its usefulness (this same word is used to describe the "old" garment in the first parable). At any rate, the old system had its time, but now its time was past. It had lost its usefulness and was being replaced with something better. It was worn out and the time had come for those who had ears to hear to begin asking for the new.
To be continued in Part 3 – The Two Debtors