The Fermentation of the Believer

After Jesus calls Matthew and claims, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners,” Matthew takes the time to explain Christ’s work of sanctification a little more. In the previous passage, we saw that real sanctification follows true conversion. When the Holy Spirit regenerates the heart of the person called by Christ, that person cares about growing in obedience to God’s Law. So, the Law does, indeed, have a place in the Christian’s life even though the Christian is not saved by his or her merit or by keeping the Law.

Matthew now takes the time to explain, in narrative form, another facet of sanctification- that of understanding and belief, not merely works.

The teachings of Jesus are so relevant in our day. There are some local churches that push people away because those people believe something just a little different than they do or practice their faith a little differently. I pastored a church that was like this in Oklahoma and have met quite a few people in our own community who were pushed out of one of the churches in our area because of their slight difference in belief or practice. Is this right? Why do you think there are so many differences in understanding and belief?

Matthew 9:14-17

Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?”

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. 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.”

On fasting (v. 14-15)

Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?”

In Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, we saw that it was assumed that those who follow Jesus Christ will fast. Jesus did not instruct His disciples to fast, but said, “Whenever you fast…” (6:16). Like prayer, we see that fasting is fruit that is produced in the lives of Christ’s true disciples as a result of Christ’s work, which is the root. Just as we saw in verses 3 and 4, for those who are truly in Christ, there is only one motivator for good works, that their Father will see.

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…

When we were in the Sermon on the Mount, we also realized that fasting was a very purposeful act practiced for a specific reason. It was practiced only on very special occasions, to seek the Lord’s will (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9, Ezra 8:21), during mourning or deep repentance (Judges 20:26, 1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:12, Nehemiah 1:4, Zechariah 7:3-5, 8:19). Isaiah even rebukes Israel for fasting in order to accomplish some result or to move God to action (Isaiah 58:3-6). Instead, the people were to fast to humble themselves before God and others. In Jesus’ case during the 40-day temptation, He fasted in order to accomplish all righteousness. First, it was preparation in the likeness of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28). Moses fasted for 40 days when giving God’s Law as a sign of the covenant. Jesus fasted for 40 days as He came to fulfill God’s covenant, signified by the Law. Second, it was an undoing of Israel’s 40-year failure in the wilderness- during which they complained that they did not have any food. Jesus’ fasting fits with both seeking God’s will and deep repentance as He accomplishes all righteousness not only for the chosen ones of Israel but also His chosen people who live among the nations.

Fasting, then, comes as a result of our recognition of our own depravity. It is not necessarily a regular practice, but one of deep repentance and mourning. Without a personal relationship with the Father in Christ, without being a committed member of a true body of believers, and without experiencing a true deepening of our personal relationships with God, we do not really experience this reward that Jesus teaches about. The reason we fast, voluntarily depriving ourselves of necessary sustenance, is because it reminds us personally of just how deprived we are without this relationship with God the Father in Christ (the Son). Fasting draws the people of God into deeper worship. We remember that it is fruit, not root.

The disciples are celebrating, not mourning, because the bridegroom is with them physically. In Acts 1:14, it will be implied that the disciples will fast with their prayers (continually devoting themselves to prayer) after Christ’s ascension into Heaven and before the coming of the Holy Spirit. This fasting prayer will be preparation for the coming and explicit indwelling work of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit’s ministry through them. So, Jesus’ words will be fulfilled when He says, “…and then they will fast.” Christ’s disciples would later do what John’s disciples and the Pharisees were doing for the appropriate Biblical purpose.

On sanctification (v. 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.”

These two illustrations, visuals used by Jesus to depict a truth, can refer to one of two things. Either Jesus is illustrating the act of fasting or the reason John’s disciples and the Pharisees fast while His own disciples do not. These illustration either have to do with specific religious practices or with the reason different people have different understandings of religious practices. So, we read verses 16-17 again. Is Jesus illustrating the specific act of fasting? It seems unlikely because there is no way we can make that fit. It doesn’t make fasting more understandable, which is the purpose of an illustration. Is Jesus illustrating why there are differences in understanding and practice? This connection seems much more plausible. Christ’s illustration helps us to answer the question, “Why doesn’t everyone believe the same thing or practice religion the same way.” Furthermore, Christ’s illustration helps us to know what sort of attitude we need to have toward those who have a different understanding than we do or who are at a different level of maturity in their faith.

Forcing what does not fit

We can’t fix old, shrunken fabric with a new, unshrunk, patch. Neither can we or would we put new wine into an old wine skin. The second illustration doesn’t make as much sense to us as it made to people living in the first century because we ferment our wine mostly in wine barrels and steel tanks and bottle it after it is fermented. In the First Century AD, new wine (wine that had not yet been fermented) would be placed into a skin to ferment. During fermentation, like today, ethanol and carbon dioxide would be produced as byproducts, and the wineskin would be stretched. If unfermented wine is placed into an already used wineskin to ferment, the wineskin would most likely burst as a result of the fermentation process.

I have often heard this passage taught to insist that young and old people don’t belong together. It was used as a sort of misplaced justification for doing youth ministry. I have heard it used in an attempt to explain why a certain type of music doesn’t belong in a certain church service. I have also heard this passage used to somehow teach that Jesus had a problem with the old, worn out religion of the Jewish people and that Jesus was bringing a new patch and new wine. A healthy exposition of this passage reveals that Jesus isn’t getting at any of that. He is not describing elements of worship or specialized ministry needs. He is neither criticizing nor correcting the practice of other groups, here. He is answering the question as to why John’s disciples and the Pharisees fast but His disciples do not at this time.

The new patch and the new wine represent an immaturity in belief concerning the kingdom of Heaven. The shrinking and fermenting represent the process of being prepared or sanctified. The old garment and wineskin represent the end goal through greater understanding of the Law- mature belief. The reason that there is this difference in the action and belief among the three different groups is because each group is at a different level of maturity concerning its understanding, belief, and practice of the kingdom of Heaven. Furthermore, each individual within that group is also presumably at a different maturity level.

Discipleship matters

Jesus’ illustration continues as He explains that new wine goes in to new wineskins so that both are preserved. We start with the basics and grow into mature belief. This is the process of sanctification in our lives. God provides the environment for each person within each group to receive exactly the kind of teaching he or she needs at a the appropriate time. This is how God is providentially working together denominations, religions, the different teaching of different local churches, and the differing viewpoints of individuals within each local body of believers in order to sanctify His people among the nations.

At TCATS, we have a range of maturity levels in the faith concerning understanding and practice. One of the easiest things for us to do is simply expect everyone to have a correct understanding of Scripture and right application from the start. Notice, here, that Jesus does not condemn or even correct the fasting of John’s disciples or the Pharisees. He didn’t tell them to stop. Jesus has already taught about how to fast and instructed His followers not to fast like the hypocrites. Healthy fasting is an appropriate, God-honoring practice. Here, He simply explains why His disciples are not fasting at this moment. So, this is the approach we take in discipleship. We simply explain the words of Christ and trust that the Holy Spirit will sanctify His people in His good timing.

It is too easy to, even unwittingly, run people off because we don’t think they have the correct understanding of things. We should know this, that if we are a church body truly following after Christ, there will be a broad range of maturity levels in belief within our congregation. Our responsibility is simply to explain the text, care for people, and trust God to do His own sanctifying work. The truth is we are all in need of sanctification until that work is complete in the resurrection.

Jesus speaks of the reason for fasting as a religious practice. It is a practice of yearning and of mourning while we are not yet with the Messiah. John’s disciples did not have this understanding. Fasting, for them, was still part of their works-based religion. So, Jesus also illustrated what it meant to grow into Spiritual maturity. A person’s understanding grows with his or her maturity in the faith. New believers can’t be thrusted into deep understanding. John’s disciples would have to grow to understand and mature past their works-based religion in God’s good timing.

We also grow in our understanding and each one at our own pace according to the grace of God. So, we preach and teach the text knowing that others will not automatically “get it.” We trust that the Holy Spirit will cause us to hear and glean what we need at our current stage in His sanctification process. We don’t get angry that people don’t remember or that they missed the big point we have tried to make. God is the one doing the sanctifying. It’s not about people remembering the specifics of what we teach. It is about the Holy Spirit doing exactly the work He means to do in a person’s life.

Questions

  1. Do we ever use our maturity or doctrine to look down on others or to constantly correct or diminish others’ understanding, belief, or practice?
  2. Should we be welcoming of those who are at different maturity levels in the faith? Why?
  3. How should we disciple believers into maturity? How much of this is the work of the Holy Spirit?

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