Musings from Mark – Patches and Wineskins
I am trying a new approach to my bible study this year. Instead of reading straight through the bible from cover to cover, or sticking to a daily reading plan, I am instead focusing on a certain book for a month at a time. In the course of a month’s time, I will read that book straight through from start to finish several times. In January, my focus was Ephesians. Since that was a smaller book, I was often able to read it through once in my morning devotions and again during my evening devotions. But this month, I am attempting a longer book, the gospel of Mark. It’s been awhile since I have read this great treasure about the earthly ministry of Jesus, and a few things have jumped out at me as the Lord has refreshed and awakened me to some of His truth which I had neglected and forgotten about. So this post (and possibly more to come) is inspired by the Gospel According to Mark.
“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.” Mark 2:21-22 (NASB95)
These words are spoken by Jesus to the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees. The point that Jesus makes from these two parables was not only relevant to them two thousand years ago, but is still relevant to us today. So what exactly was the point that Jesus was trying to make with these odd illustrations? Let’s break it down.
First, Jesus gives the picture of sewing a patch on an old garment. I can remember when I was little boy living on a farm where there were always opportunities for adventure. Because of these myriad opportunities coupled with a ton of youthful energy, I was fairly hard on clothes, especially when it came to pants. Whether it was exploring in the timber, crashing and falling off of my bicycle on the gravel, climbing trees and rocks, it seems as though my pants took a beating and from time to time mom had to sew patches onto the knees (obviously this was before the time when holes in pants were cool). Similarly, in Jesus’ day and age, new clothes would have been expensive and hard to come by, so instead of buying new garments, people often repaired the old ones. Jesus’ analogy would have been something the people would have easily understood.
In the parable, He explains that no one uses unshrunk cloth as a patch on an old garment. He clarifies why to those of us who may not understand why nobody does this. He states that if you do this, the unshrunk patch will pull away from the older fabric of the garment. Jesus states that the end result of this poor patch job would be that a worse tear would result.
The second illustration that Jesus gives would have been just as easily understood by His original audience. While the warning of scripture is clear about the dangers of abusing alcohol, appealing to us that it is much better to be filled with the Spirit than to be filled with wine which is dissipation (wasteful), people often drank wine diluted with water during this time period. Palestine had an abundance of grapes and vineyards by which they processed the grapes into wine. After the grapes were harvested and pressed to get the juice out, it was often stored in jars or animal skins. It was important that these containers have extra room to allow for expansion during the fermentation process. In the case of wine stored in animal skins, it would be important that they be new and pliable, not old and brittle. It is this picture that Jesus is presenting to us in this parable. He says no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If someone mistakenly did this, He says the new wine will cause the old dry, brittle skin to burst open. The result will be that the wine is lost and the skin is useless.
After Jesus gives these two illustrations to the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, He sums things up by saying, “but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” So what does that mean? Well, here is what I believe Jesus was saying to them and is trying to say to us today:
First of all, God is not just a patch over our torn and worn out lives. He is not just a cover-up for our ragged garment, hiding the stain of sin underneath. Nor does He just conceal the rips and tears in our broken lives. Instead, He heals, restores, and causes all things to become new.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NASB95)
God, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, completely renovates and transforms His children into new creatures with new identities. The old has passed away; the new has come. God has given us a beautiful illustration of this in nature as we watch the metamorphosis of an ugly, ground-stricken caterpillar who is miraculously transformed into a beautiful, elegant butterfly. This butterfly has absolutely no traces of its former life. In fact, scientists tell us that while the caterpillar is in the cocoon parts of its body are actually broken down by enzymes and are “recreated” at the molecular level.
Those who try to hang onto the old life, who only want God to patch their lives, are similar to the garment that Jesus talked about in Mark. The new cloth eventually pulls away from the old resulting in a worse tear than what was initially there. The point being that a worse spiritual condition will be the result. It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Revelation when He says that those who choose to be lukewarm will be vomited out of His mouth.
Secondly, God is not just an addition to our lives that can be squeezed in. He is new wine that requires a new wineskin to be able to contain Him. Sometimes a person comes to the conclusion that there is something missing in their lives, something that is preventing them from experiencing a full, well-rounded life. And sometimes that person will decide that what is missing is religion or church. Possibly, they will even recognize it as God that is missing. So this person will decide to add church attendance or some other religious activity to their lives. They may even drag their family members to these church activities for a season. But what they are failing to understand is that God is not just another activity that can be added to a list of activities that we engage in. He completely encapsulates, encompasses, consumes, and engulfs the life of a humble believer; not just merely adding activity to it like taking up ice skating or going out for wrestling or playing the piano or hunting or any number of other activities. If we attempt to merely squeeze Him onto the list, eventually our old wineskin is going to burst, ruining both the wine and the skin. The final state of this person will be a worse condition than when they started because now they will have no hope in the things of God, the wine has been tainted because they will have the skewed view that God and religion must not have been what was lacking in their lives because it failed to fulfill them. In reality, it was a failure on their part to allow God to recreate them into new pliable wineskins that would be able to contain the fresh wine of God. It is similar to what Jesus said in the Gospel of John:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3 (NASB95)
How do we know if we have truly allowed God to remake our lives into new garments and new wineskins? Here is a suggestion that may not be perfect but I think is a great place to start.
Consider your life for a moment, your childhood, teenage years, adulthood. Was there ever a time in your life when you realized that you were a sinner? Was there ever a moment of clarity for you when you understood that you weren’t morally perfect and as a result it made you a candidate for the wrath of God? In response to that experience, have you ever turned to God asking for forgiveness, desiring for Him to transform you like the caterpillar, seeking a new identity from your former self? Can you point to a moment in your life when God did exactly that, changed you, transformed you, gave you a new identity? A moment when you became united with Christ in the likeness of His death, and being reborn, knowing that you shall also be united in the likeness of His resurrection? If not, Jesus is waiting.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” Revelation 3:20 (NASB95)