My Take On Cloth And Wineskins


Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture? It just doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in light of what you know or in light of the context?

I’ve struggled in this way with a passage in the book of Matthew. Let me give you the context. Jesus began his public ministry and quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath. After calling Matthew to be His disciple, He went home with him for dinner. The Pharisees complained about Him eating and drinking with tax-collectors (corrupt government officials) and sinners (those who didn’t keep the Jewish law). Jesus told them to “go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE’…”

Soon after John’s disciples and those of the Pharisees observed a religious fast. John’s disciples asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast, too.

Now His answer.

And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (9:15)

I get that. So far so good. But He continued:

“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.” (9:16-17)

Huh?

How did we get from eating with sinners and not keeping a fast, to cloth and wineskins?

Well, obviously, as with the previous part of His answer about the bridegroom, Jesus is making an analogy, but what equals what?

I’ve heard sermons on this passage before and usually the point is this: the old is the Law, the new, the New Covenant. Set aside for the moment that those to whom Jesus was talking would not have understood that analogy at all. The idea of the New Covenant was still just that—an idea. Most people had no clue why the Messiah had actually come.

But the real problem I have here is that the new wine bursts the old wineskin, and both are lost. In addition, the new cloth patch on the old garment in Jesus’s analogies ruins what it was intended to repair.

Yet Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt. 5:17-18)

My thoughts about the cloth and wineskins analogy came clear to me as I read a passage in Mark where Jesus elaborates on the problem He had with the Pharisees:

(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:3-9 – emphasis mine)

The Pharisees were adding onto the Law, changing what God had given by adding in their new regulations. So back in Matthew, what if the old cloth and the old wineskins stand for God’s true Law? In the verses just prior to these analogies, remember, Jesus told the Pharisees to figure out what Scripture meant when it said God desired compassion rather than sacrifice.

God’s Law was actually to love Him and to love our neighbors.

The new patch of cloth, the new wine, then, represent the traditions the Pharisees heaped on top of what God had said. Their add-ons were tearing apart the fabric, bursting the skins, of God’s perfect Law.

I know this way of looking at these verses flies in the face of the traditional interpretation. Traditional … heh-hem. Maybe that’s not a bad thing because I think it fits the context of the passage and is consistent with what Jesus says about fulfilling God’s law and about the Pharisees’ perversion of it through their tradition.

In the end, I come away more mindful of the need to hold loosely things like worship styles and other extra-Biblical practices. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

This article is a reworking of one that first appeared here in May, 2012.

Published in: on April 3, 2019 at 5:55 pm  Comments (5)  
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On Being Dogmatic – Revisited


big_wavesIn today’s western culture, most people seem to be dogmatic about only one thing—that no one should be dogmatic. I’m reminded of the day when I realized I was prejudiced against people who are prejudiced. These positions are nonsequiturs.

In the case of dogmatism, it seems to me professing Christians are adopting this cultural position: dogmatic opposition to those who are dogmatic. Hence, beliefs which were once widely-held such as the authority of the Bible, original sin, redemption through Christ alone, even God’s sovereign right to judge His creation, are in question, if not under attack, within certain groups of people who claim the name of Christ.

Interestingly, the Bible commands us to be dogmatic—at least that’s how I characterize the “stand firm” passages in the New Testament. Paul says “stand firm” to the Corinthian church, three times to the Ephesians, a couple times to the Thessalonians, and once to the Philippians. Peter said it too.

In these verses we’re told to stand firm in the faith, in the Lord (twice), and in the grace of God. Once we’re told to stand against the schemes of the devil.

Another time the idea expanded:

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us
– 1 Thess 2:15

Hold to the traditions the first century apostles taught—the ones we know of because they are written down for us in the Bible. But holding to traditions is what gets people labeled dogmatic, especially in a day when change seems to rule life.

Maybe it’s time for Christians to stop blushing or dodging when someone hurls “dogmatic” at us as an invective. Maybe it’s time to answer, You got that right. I am standing firm, just like my Commanding Officer told me to.

Ah, but there’s another problem for Christians—all this warfare imagery in Scripture. Couple that with the Christian’s claim at exclusivity, and we are labeled as hate-filled because we aren’t amenable to everyone else’s religion.

The key here, I believe, is for Christians to be dogmatic about the right things. We are to be dogmatic about who Jesus is, about God’s nature, Man’s sin and need for reconciliation with God, salvation by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ at the cross, our opposition to Satan, the authority of Scripture, Christ’s soon return.

No question, being dogmatic separates us from our culture—just as being light separates us from darkness, being salt separates us from that which is flavorless.

You see, dogmatic—that is, standing firm even when the wind and waves come—isn’t all that different from faith. Neither one depends on what we can see, and both can get us through the pressures of life.

This post, minus some revision, first appeared here in September 2010.

Published in: on September 9, 2015 at 5:47 pm  Comments (14)  
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Food For Thought – Cloth And Wineskins


Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture that’s hard to understand? It just doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in light of what you know or in light of the context. I’ve struggled in this way with a passage in the book of Matthew.

Context, of course, is a key to Biblical interpretation. Someone studying the Bible today ought not make up something from his own mind or experience. Rather, it’s critical to look at an entire passage, an entire book, to find out what the circumstances were and what the audience likely understood.

Having said that, let me give you the context of the passage that’s given me difficulty over the years: After Jesus began his public ministry, He quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath—something these Pharisees viewed as breaking the law.

In the face of their displeasure, Jesus proceeded to call Matthew, a prominent tax-collector, to be His disciple, then went to the man’s home for dinner with a group of his friends—a group made up of other tax-collectors and people who didn’t keep the Jewish law. The Pharisees complained about Jesus eating and drinking with these corrupt government officials and sinners.

Jesus responded to His critics by saying, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE’…”

Soon after, John’s disciples and those of the Pharisees observed a religious fast. John’s disciples asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast, too. He answered with an analogy.

And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

I get that—Jesus is the bridegroom and His followers are the attendants. So far so good. But He continued, and here is the troublesome passage:

“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.”

Huh?

How did we get from eating with sinners and not keeping a fast to garments and wineskins?

Well, obviously, as with the previous part of His answer about the bridegroom, Jesus is making an analogy, but what equals what?

I’ve heard sermons on this passage before—the old is the Law, the new, the New Covenant. Set aside for the moment that those to whom Jesus was talking would not have understood that analogy at all. The idea of the New Covenant was still just that—an idea. Most people had no clue why the Messiah had actually come.

But the real problem I have with that interpretation is that the new-on-old in Jesus’s analogies destroys the old. Yet Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

WineskinsIs Jesus advocating for new wine to be put into new skins? I mean, isn’t it understood that old wine is better? Approaching the verse with the idea that Jesus is saying, new is better, doesn’t really fit the physical realities of the objects He was using to illustrate His point.

And what about the patch and the old garment? Clearly a new patch is incomplete, so it’s pretty hard to conclude that this analogy is saying new is better.

Interestingly Mark in his gospel elaborates on the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. Take a look:

(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:3-9 – emphasis mine)

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if the old cloth and the old wineskins stand for God’s true Law? In the verses just prior to these analogies, remember, Jesus told the Pharisees to figure out what Scripture meant when it said God desired compassion rather than sacrifice.

The new patch of cloth, the new wine, then, represent the traditions the Pharisees heaped on top of what God had said. Their add-ons were tearing apart the fabric, bursting the skins, of God’s perfect Law.

I know this way of looking at these verses flies in the face of the traditional interpretation. Traditional … heh-hem. Maybe departing from tradition is not a bad thing if it fits the context of the passage. This way of looking at the passage is also consistent with what Jesus says about fulfilling God’s law and about the Pharisees’ perversion of it through their tradition.

In the end, I come away more mindful of the need to hold loosely things like worship styles and other extra-Biblical practices—the traditions of our day which we might be heaping on top of Scripture, particularly on top of what the Bible lays out as the nuts and bolts of what it means to be a Christian—loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

This article is a revised version of a post first published here in May 2012.

Published in: on May 15, 2015 at 7:14 pm  Comments (10)  
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Christmas Trees


christmas-time-1408534-mReal or plastic?

When I was growing up, real was the only way, in part because it was the cheapest way. I sort of felt sorry for people who had to have fake trees. They came in all kinds of outlandish colors, looking more like gigantic sno-cones than evergreen trees. They had a real feel of the future, though, made from plastic or metallic foil, as they were.

And then came a twist–fake trees made to look like the real thing.

Suddenly there was an attraction to fake trees: no yearly expense for a new one, no need to remember to water it, no messy needles to clean up. The downside? I suppose the initial payout might be steep, and for those of us who enjoy the fragrance of pine, that’s missing. Of course, there’s the loss of tradition, too, since families won’t be heading to a Christmas tree lot one cold night after Thanksgiving, picking out a tree, loading it on top of their car, and setting it up in their living room.

Still, for many, there seems to be a lot more up side than down to these artificial trees.

Of course, there is also the issue of decorating trees. Should the lights be multicolored or all of one uniform color? Are the ornaments classical and identical or are they handmade and representative of a person or family’s interests and activities? Do you use tinsel? A star or an angel?

Christmas_tree_in_TexasLike Christmas presents, Christmas trees and lights and all the decorations, for that matter, occupy a good amount of money, time, and energy during this busy season. For those locked in bleak climates of white snow and gray clouds, the colorful reds and greens of Christmas can be a refreshing break to the monotony and drabness of winter that has just set in.

So is there a Christian worldview of Christmas trees and all the accompanying decorations?

I think so. I think there’s a Christian worldview of everything, though that will not play out the same from one home to another, let alone from one country to another. Nevertheless, I think the Bible gives us some guidance.

First, God, in laying out what His tabernacle was to look like, included beautiful things. He included candles and incense and fine priestly garments. He gave detailed instructions for a gold table and cherubs and an ark. He specified the handcrafted curtains with an intricate design.

In other words, creating beautiful things and a beautiful atmosphere was part of creating a place of worship. Can that translate into our homes, especially when all that we do at Christmas time is not concerned with worship?

Well, there’s the real point, isn’t it. Shouldn’t a Christian’s life be about worship? I mean, our bodies, Scripture says, are temples of the Holy Spirit. So why wouldn’t our homes, where we spend time day in and day out, be as significant as, say, our church?

I’m not saying decoration is mandated in Scripture, but clearly having beautiful things, especially at a time of celebration, is consistent with what God instituted for the nation Israel.

I also think Christmas trees and decorations can be a form of giving. I mean, chances are people in a family may have different ideas about the way things should look and how things should be done. The first gift a person can give, then, is peaceful assent. In other words, cheerfully and joyfully doing things the way the other person wants to do them.

Maybe it could be Johnny’s turn to be in charge of the decorations–picking the day when everything comes out of the attic or basement or storage bin and making the critical decisions where to put the manger scene and whether we’ll put tinsel on the tree.

The Christian worldview of Christmas trees and decorations, then, includes putting people first, aiming to be considerate and humble, not demanding and selfish.

Are trees and decorations the real meaning of Christmas? Far, far from it. But in and through the process and the enjoyment of the end results, God can be front and center, and wants to be–not by us forcing religious significance to the tree (which can be legitimately done, if a person wants to do it), but by using the occasion to be Christian–to be a worshiper, to be a person who loves and serves others.

Published in: on December 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm  Comments (2)  
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My Take On Cloth And Wineskins


Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture? It just doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in light of what you know or in light of the context.

I’ve struggled in this way with a passage in the book of Matthew. Let me give you the context. Jesus began his public ministry and quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath. After calling Matthew to be His disciple, He went home with him for dinner. The Pharisees complained about Him eating and drinking with tax-collectors (corrupt government officials) and sinners (those who didn’t keep the Jewish law). Jesus told them to “go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE’…”

Soon after John’s disciples and those of the Pharisees observed a religious fast. John’s disciples asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast, too.

Now His answer.

And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

I get that. So far so good. But He continued:

16 “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. 17 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.”

Huh?

How did we get from eating with sinners and not keeping a fast to cloth and wineskins?

Well, obviously, as with the previous part of His answer about the bridegroom, Jesus is making an analogy, but what equals what?

I’ve heard sermons on this before–the old is the Law, the new, the New Covenant. Set aside for the moment that those to whom Jesus was talking would not have understood that analogy at all. The idea of the New Covenant was still just that–an idea. Most people had no clue why the Messiah had actually come.

But the real problem I have here is that the new on old in Jesus’s analogies destroys the old. Yet Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Of course, Jesus seems to be advocating new wine into new skins. So with what are these two analogous? The wine is Christ’s blood? The skins are the Church?

Maybe that’s too detailed. After all, parables didn’t have one on one correlations, so maybe analogies didn’t either. Except, isn’t that the point of an analogy?

So here’s my new thought, really spurred by a passage in Mark where Jesus elaborates on the problem He had with the Pharisees.

Take a look:

3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) 5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

    ‘This people honors Me with their lips,
    But their heart is far away from Me.
    7 ‘ But in vain do they worship Me,
    Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

8 Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:3-9 – emphasis mine)

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if the old cloth, the old wineskins, stand for God’s true Law? In the verses just prior to these analogies, remember, Jesus told the Pharisees to figure out what Scripture meant when it said God desired compassion rather than sacrifice.

The new patch of cloth, the new wine, then, represent the traditions the Pharisees heaped on top of what God had said. Their add-ons were tearing apart the fabric, bursting the skins, of God’s perfect Law.

So what do you think?

I know this way of looking at these verses flies in the face of the traditional interpretation. Traditional … heh-hem. Maybe that’s not a bad thing because I think it fits the context of the passage and is consistent with what Jesus says about fulfilling God’s law and about the Pharisees’ perversion of it through their tradition.

In the end, I come away more mindful of the need to hold loosely things like worship styles and other extra-Biblical practices. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

Published in: on May 30, 2012 at 6:02 pm  Comments (3)  
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