Continuing our studies in the gospel of Mark, we look today at Mark 2:18-22:
And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?
And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the Bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.
The gospel accounts are written as a kind of narrative theology of Jesus Christ, so that in the events recorded, the Holy Spirit is teaching us both who Jesus is and why He has come. We have that in these verses. Who is Jesus? He makes here the enormous claim to be the bridegroom, which is really an Old Testament designation of God. So He is claiming that He is God. Why has He come? There are at least three things in these verses. He has come as a bridegroom to give joy to His bride. He has come to deliver from the impossible religion of the Pharisees and their performance and works. And He has come (and we have here the first mention of this in the gospel of Mark), He has come to suffer. That is in the word “taken away.”
That is really the summary of these verses: Jesus, the Bridegroom, has come to bring joy to His bride by suffering in her place.
In these verses, that is taught in one of the conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. This begins at verse 18 with an accusation: “And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him.” You see here that the accusation does not come from the Pharisees themselves, but from their followers and also from the disciples of John. Here we see the Phrisees as troublemakers. They rally John’s disciples to their side against Jesus and they hide behind the question of their disciples.
The accusation comes in the form of a question: “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?” Now, it may seem at first that they are just innocently asking for information. But there is no interest in the answer. In fact, what they are doing is justifying themselves after the last dispute. They really circle back to Jesus’ feasting with publicans and sinners. He said that He came for sinners, not to call the righteous but sinners. And now the question is: Why does He feast with them? Should He not be calling on them to fast, which is a sign of sorrow?
In these questions, they are really saying to Jesus: We do something that you don’t do. Why don’t you do it? That is their criticism. It takes the form of condescending self-righteousness.
To see that, we should understand the difference between the fasting of the Pharisees and the fasting of John and his disciples. The fasting of John’s disciples was a reflection of the ministry and the message of John. Remember, he lived a lifestyle of fasting as a Nazarite in the wilderness. He did not give up just food, but every last luxury. He did that as a sign of repentance, calling the people also to repentance, and baptizing them with the baptism of repentance. The fasting of his disciples was tied to the mood and the message of his ministry of repentance.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, fasted for a show. It was a part of their religion of performance. Really, they were saying: Look at what we do. And they saw their righteousness and their acceptance with God in their deeds, in their keeping of the stipulations of their own law. Fasting was one of the things that they had added to the Old Testament law. You remember the publican and the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable of the two men who went up to pray. The Pharisee says, “I fast twice a week (on Monday and Thursday).” Every week the Pharisee fasted. They made this a requirement. They paraded it. And they depended upon it before God. That is a very different kind of fasting than the fasting of John and his disciples. John’s was an expression of an inward condition of the heart of sorrow. Theirs was just a part of their routine of performance religion.
Very interestingly, Old Testament law required fasting on only one day a year. That was the great Day of Atonement. And that fasting was a part of contemplating sin and showing repentance. This idea of the Pharisees that the practice itself was an indication of some higher degree of spirituality you do not find anywhere in Scripture. Yes, there were other times in the Scripture that people fasted, not because of a requirement, but rather as an expression of a spiritual reality in the soul. Usually that was tied to some unusual and urgent matter, which was also a time of prayer. So, fasting was an aspect of prayer in the Scriptures. In fasting, one would forego a privilege or a luxury so that he might devote himself to a time of uninterrupted petition and beseeching of God. Fasting does not get you points with God; it is not something to get God’s attention; it is not a lever that you add to your prayer; but it is an expression of the soul that is heaven-focused, that is, feeling a deep need for God.
You have an example of that when Jonah preached in Nineveh. The king of Nineveh put on sackcloth and ashes and declared a time of fasting and repentance and prayer. That was because the situation was so very urgent—in forty days God would destroy his city.
But all this was lost on the Pharisees. Their fasting was something that was paraded before men. They made it a requirement and a stipulation. They saw it as an evidence of their righteousness before God. And, looking at Jesus and His disciples, they said, “You can’t really be religious because you’re partying, you’re feasting.”
So, how does Jesus answer this accusation? There are two parts to His answer, and He uses three illustrations in His answer. We could call these illustrations parables. They are very striking.
In the first illustration, in verses 19 and 20, He uses a very common wedding analogy from Scripture: “Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them,” He says, “they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.”
This, of course, is a picture in Scripture of God’s relationship to His bride, the church, or Christ’s relationship as Groom to His bride, the church. Jesus uses the illustration here to draw a contrast between His ministry and the ministry of John the Baptist. John’s ministry was one of mourning and repentance, and so fasting was appropriate. But Jesus’ ministry was one of joy, and so feasting is now appropriate.
Wedding feasts, in those days, were week-long festivals at the groom’s house. And they were a great time of delight and relaxation. You see that in the joy at the wedding in Cana of Galilee in John 2 and the large flagons of wine that were served. And Jesus is saying, “Now, while I am here, is a time of joy. I am the Savior, the Messiah. The Messiah and Savior is among His people. The blind are given sight to see, the lame are walking, the lepers are healed, the good news of the gospel is being preached, there is forgiveness of sins and joy in that act. Fasting is not appropriate.” That is because fasting was to be an expression of deep spiritual sorrow and pleading to God. Jesus says that days of fasting will come for His disciples when the Bridegroom is taken away.
That ‘taken away’ is a word used in Scripture for a violent arrest. The reference is to Jesus’ crucifixion. In John 16:20 He tells His disciples immediately before His arrest that “ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” He is saying this, that, during the time of His arrest and crucifixion up till the time of His resurrection, those few days will be a time of great sorrow for His disciples, but then, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will come and fill them with joy.
So, Jesus’ first illustration is saying very simply that feasting is what is appropriate now. This is not a funeral, but a wedding. A new day has come, the Savior is here. It is a day of joy and light, and so My disciples feast with Me.
Then He adds to that analogy two further clarifying illustrations in verses 21 and 22. These two illustrations really teach that you cannot mix the gospel of free grace with the Pharisees’ legalism. That is the point here. Two illustrations. At first they seem like riddles, but what they teach is really quite simple and plain.
In verse 21: “No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse.” He uses the illustration of a torn garment that is quite an old garment. It has been washed several times; the fabric has shrunk. And, He says, if you are going to put a patch on it when it needs to be repaired, you do not put on a patch of a new piece of fabric because then, when you wash it again, the new will shrink, and the old will not because it has already been shrunk, and it will pull and tear at the stitching and the tear will be worse. You do not mix the old and the new.
The illustration in verse 22 is similar: “No man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.” Bottles here are wineskins. Jesus is saying here, “You don’t use old, stretched, brittle wineskins, probably made of some kind of leather, to put new wine in. You do not put new wine into those old wineskins because the new wine, as it ferments, will expand and will burst those old wineskins. You must put new wine into new wineskins that can stretch during fermentation.
Now, what does Jesus have in mind here by this illustration of mixing the old and the new? What He means by the new is easy enough. He is referring to His own coming and the gospel of repentance and grace for sinners.
What does He mean by the old? Well, He does not mean by old the Old Testament or the old covenant. We have to understand that the way of salvation in the Old Testament was also a way of grace and not works. By old here, He refers to the religion of the Pharisees and their works-righteousness. It is similar to what He says in Matthew 5 when He says, “You have heard that it has been said by them of old times.” He means the Jewish teachers and Rabbis and their traditions. Their teaching on works-righteousness is really an old teaching, as old as the Fall of man, when Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves to try to hide themselves from God. What Jesus is saying here is very profound. He is saying that you cannot mix a religion of works and grace in salvation. The gospel is not compatible with legalism. When you try to mix the two, He is saying, you will end up in ruin.
There is an example of that later in the New Testament, in the book of Galatians. Paul had preached to the Galatian churches. The Gentiles were converted. They believed and were baptized. Churches were established. Then, along came Judaizers from Jerusalem telling them, “You Gentile converts can’t really be true Christians. You’re not really spiritual enough until you begin to follow the old Jewish practices.” So, they insisted on circumcision and the keeping of the Jewish feast days in the Gentile churches. Like the Pharisees, they added to the requirements of the gospel. They mixed law and grace. In Galatians, Paul says, “You can’t do that. If you do that, you’ve lost the gospel. You’ve gone back to the weak and beggarly elements that cannot save. You’re back into the works camp.” So, in Romans 11:6 he says, if it is of grace it is no more of works; if it is of works, it is no more of grace.
That is the point that Jesus is making here. And, at the very beginning of His ministry, that is quite a remarkable point. His point and His argument against the Pharisees is not simply to show their hypocrisy, but it is to highlight that He is the only way to the Father. That we do not get to the Father, we do not come to God, we are not saved by works and Jesus, but by faith alone, in Christ alone. There is our salvation.
And that is what Reformed faith teaches. You do not come to Jesus with your arms loaded with your own good works and say, “I come to Jesus with these, and I want Him to make up the difference.” No, that is a religion of works-righteousness. That is adding just a little of Jesus into our own works.
The newness in the fulfillment of the coming of Jesus Christ is that He has accomplished all our salvation from beginning to end, every part of it, for every one of those for whom He would lay down His life as a ransom. He is making that point, not just over against the teaching of the Pharisees, but especially for His disciples and for us, because it is in our nature also to seek to gain favor with God by our works or to think about ourselves as better, superior, based on our achievements or what we have done. And that, of course, again goes all the way back to the beginning, where Abel comes with the lamb, but his brother Cain comes with the fruit of his hands and he says, “Lord, look what I brought to give to you. Look what I have done.” Whereas Abel says, “Lord, don’t look at me but look at the lamb, look at the blood of the sacrifice.”
So, that is the answer of Jesus here to the Pharisees and their accusation and their false teaching of performance religion.
Let us close with a few points of application from these illustrations.
First, in connection with the fasting of the Pharisees, Jesus highlights this: There is nothing in a religious ceremony itself and, in fact, it may be entirely inappropriate and even condemning to use religious ceremonies. That is true for those who insist on the practice of the Old Testament ceremonies and more, which are all fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and so have no value in themselves. But it is also true of all our religious ceremonies and practices. If they are simply external, if our prayer, our church-going, our sacraments, our Christian giving, our Sabbath observance are simply external shows of piety, there is no value to them. No. If you are going to fast, let there be mourning in your soul. If you are going to worship, let it be in spirit and truth. If you are going to give, do not do it out of duty, but remember that the Lord loves a cheerful giver. We are not saved by our ceremonies and our practice. And we gain nothing with God. There is no leverage in religious service.
Second, our Christian faith ought to be characterized by joy. It should not be morose, fatalistic, dour, miserable, sullen. And that is true even as we grieve over our sin or are saddened by the consequences of the Fall. Yes, there is a time and place for grief. We grieve over the effects of sin in this world and our own guilt. But we grieve not as those who have no hope. When a loved one dies, we grieve, but not in despair. That is because the Bridegroom is here. And in the gospel, we are the bride. We have the Savior, and even our times of mourning are filled with joy and comfort and hope because we rest in the exalted rule of Jesus Christ and the power of the gospel and the sovereignty of God. And we have hope in the midst of despair. This world is not our home. We are traveling, we are pilgrims, and our grief here on the earth reminds us of that. So Paul says in Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.”
Then also, there is something to be said here about legalism. The spiritual remedy for immorality is not legislation. You cannot legislate a chained heart. I am thinking now, not of society but of the overreaction that can sometimes come in religious circles and in the church when we see something that we think is just not right. Your reaction can be: “Let’s make a rule about that.” The point I am making here is also important for parents. It is the heart that needs to be changed in our children, the heart that needs to be addressed in our children, not just behavior that needs to be changed. Yes, the law is there to show us our sin. But we must teach our children to look with us away from the law to Jesus Christ and say, “We don’t trust our works. We trust Christ who has paid the price for our sins.” It is of grace. That is the point we make, not to minimize the importance of holiness but to emphasize that our standing with God is only in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Our holiness is always the fruit of our salvation, not the root and the core of our salvation.
So I finish this message with a question and a call. The question is this: What of your own doing and works are you trusting? You know how you tell if you are trusting it? You can tell when you say this: “Why am I doing this and they are not doing it?”
Then the call is simply this: Sinner, look away from yourself, look away from your performance, and trust not in yourself, in what you have done, but look to Jesus Christ and trust in Him alone. He is the One who has provided what Hebrews 10 calls the “new and living way into the presence of God.” And so we come to God in Him. Amen.