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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:Getting Stretched by Christ
Text:Mark 2:18-22 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 16:1,4                                                                                        

Ps 51:4,6                                                                                                        

Reading – Leviticus 16:29-34; Isaiah 62:1-5

Ps 50:3,7,11

Sermon – Mark 2:18-22

Hy 28:1,5,6

Hy 26:1

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation, it didn’t take very long for Jesus to stir up controversy. When we read the first couple of chapters in Mark’s Gospel, we see how Jesus’ words made people uncomfortable, and how his actions caused offense. Forgiving sins, touching lepers, spending time with outcasts—these were provocative things.

Because we’re so familiar with the stories of Jesus’ ministry, we probably don’t appreciate just how much of a stir Jesus caused. But his ministry really shook things up. He made it very clear that the coming of God’s kingdom means change—that it was time to think differently, it was time to think bigger and bolder. And that got people talking. That got people upset. That even started to turn people against Jesus and his teaching.

Jesus knew that this would happen, that his words would offend. But it had to be this way. With him a new era begins, a new age which calls for a new way of life. Because Christ has come, old attitudes and customs have to be transformed. Some of his fellow Israelites don’t want to be part of this, for they’re too comfortable with the way things are. They keep saying, “Just give me that old-time religion. The old ways are the better ways.”

That’s a common response, even for us. But Christ calls us to be on guard against resting in man-made rules, instead of listening carefully to his words. For He wants us all to be ready for his coming kingdom. This is our theme for the preaching on Mark 2:18-22,

            Jesus begins a new and joyous age of salvation. We see this in:

      1) a discussion about fasting

2) an illustration about old and new


1) a discussion about fasting: Our text begins with something that we need a bit of background information to understand, “The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting” (v 18). It needs comment, because in our time we don’t talk much about fasting. Maybe only  when you have to fast for twelve hours before a procedure at the hospital …

In the time of Jesus, however, fasting was a regular thing. According to the Scriptures, there was one fast that everyone had to do annually, on the Day of Atonement. This was the holiest day on the Old Testament calendar. It was the day when the sins of the nation were atoned for through the sprinkling of blood in the Most Holy Place, and through sending a scapegoat into the wilderness, bearing the sins of the people. In order to show their sorrow for sin, God said that Israel had to “afflict” themselves, which is another way of saying they wouldn’t take any food or drink.

Apart from that one prescribed fast, there are quite a few other occasions when we hear about God’s people fasting. They would fast to grieve for the dead, or to humble themselves in repentance, or after a disaster. For instance, Israel always fasted to remember the dark day when the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.

There were certainly some people who fasted to try earn God’s favour. There was also the temptation to win the approval of other people. You’d make it clear to everyone that you were fasting: your hair was uncombed, your clothes were disheveled, you had a grumpy look on your face. But while there was misuse and hypocrisy, others fasted so they could better focus on their communion with God. Physical care is put to one side, so that a person can draw near to God in prayer and through the study of his Word. Actually, for anyone serious about their relationship with God, fasting in Jesus’ time was considered essential; it was right up there with prayer and worship at the temple.

So Mark tells us there’s some fasting going on among the disciples of John and the Pharisees. The disciples of the Pharisees were known to fast every Monday and Thursday. The disciples of John might’ve been fasting as a regular practice, or as part of grieving for their master, since he’d recently been put in prison.

The disciples of John fast, the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but not the disciples of Jesus. This was a shocking thing—equivalent to skipping out on the synagogue services! It must mean a serious lack of reverence for God. And if this was the attitude of Jesus’ disciples, it reflected very badly on their teacher. So the question comes to him in verse 18, “Why don’t your disciples do this?” It’s a question that is definitely tinged with criticism. Jesus and his disciples are neglecting one of the important traditions of the church. How could He do this?

It’s not as if Jesus was opposed to the practice. When we listen to the Sermon on the Mount, we hear him speaking about fasting. But there He urges that it not be done for show, that it shouldn’t be a way to get praise from others—for the rest, Jesus affirms the practice of fasting as something good.

So to this question from the crowd, Jesus could’ve answered that He still approved for fasting. Or He could’ve pointed out that the law prescribed only one fast. But Jesus does something else: He focuses on the deeper reason for why his disciples don’t do it. He answers this question with a question of his own, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (v 19). No—that wouldn’t be appropriate!

Jesus refers here to the wedding customs of his time. Nowadays, it seems that the friends of a bridegroom don’t do a whole lot—all the wedding planning is left to the bride and the mothers. But in Jesus’ day, the friends of the groom had an important task. They were in charge of the arrangements for the wedding celebration, and when it was going on they were expected to promote the festivities so that it’d be considered a success.

So would a groom’s friends choose to fast during his wedding? To stare glumly at all that good food and drink? Of course not—weddings are a time of feasting and celebrating. If the happy couple is in your midst, then it’s only appropriate that you rejoice with them. It’d be an insult if you walked around with a grumbling stomach. So for Jesus’ disciples: with the Lord among them, there’s no need to be afflicted. It’s a time to rejoice with the bridegroom!

If you listen carefully, Jesus is saying something profound about himself here. Throughout the Old Testament, the image of a wedding or marriage describes God’s loving relationship with his people. God was the patient husband of his people, even though they were so often unfaithful. As an example, there are Isaiah’s words in chapter 62, “The LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married… As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (vv 4-5).

This is what Jesus is doing in his ministry—He is bringing in a time of joy for God’s people, like the joy at the most festive wedding. By his atoning work He is going to restore the unfaithful people of God back to their loving LORD. “So how can you fast? Why be sad?” says Christ. “The bridegroom is with you!” Christ embodies the love of God the Father, acting like a forgiving husband to his wayward wife. As Isaiah prophesied, Jesus has come for his bride, to cherish and love her. He’ll even give himself up for her, to sanctify her, to present her to himself as a glorious church without spot or wrinkle or blemish, but pure and holy.

It’s the time of salvation, and it’s a time to celebrate. That’s precisely what Jesus has been doing so far during his ministry: He has been eating and drinking with the tax collectors and sinners. No wonder there is joy, for He brings the good news of God’s forgiving love! He is telling the outcasts that there’s salvation for the lowly, and healing for the hurting.

So it is today: All those who know Christ by faith can be glad in him. Every day we can celebrate his gift of salvation. The Bible tells us to rejoice always, but it’s not the kind of joy that we usually think of. We often think that we need a certain number and quality of blessings to finally feel a passing bit of joy—we need our health, and so many friends, and enough money, other people’s approval, success at work, and good self-esteem—then we can be happy. We want to attach our joy to outward circumstance. But our joy can be in the great love of Christ! He died for us, and He’ll be faithful to us always. In Christ Jesus we have what we truly need, so learn to rejoice in him!

The disciples of the Lord cannot fast while their Master is among them. Fasting can come later. As Jesus explains, “The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (v 20). Listen to that verse carefully: it’s a hint of what is yet to come in Mark’s Gospel. It foreshadows the conflict that even here in chapter 2 is getting closer. One day the bridegroom will be taken away. There are harder times ahead as the disciples will be left alone on earth, they’ll be oppressed and put into prison.

And what Jesus says applies to his followers in every time and place. He’s telling us not to be surprised when there’s pain. We await the bridegroom’s return, and until then there’s going to be struggle. We wish that He had, but Jesus never promised us a life of ease and comfort. Instead, we’re sure to experience temptation and persecution, pain and sorrow. We have joy in Christ, but before He makes all things new, we’ll have many difficulties too. The two will always go together; as Paul would say, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”—rejoicing, yet with tears. We cannot expect differently.

“The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away.” Jesus has turned a critical question about fasting into a bold revelation about himself. Christ is the faithful and loving husband of God’s people! He’s the Head of the church, the Saviour of the body. He is going to die, and this will be the cause of distress. But at the same time it’ll be the cause of great joy, for Christ is redeeming his own.


2)     an illustration about old and new: Jesus has already told his listeners that with his ministry, things are changing. It’s not business as usual. And to explain this further, Jesus uses an illustration or two. Each of them uses the phrase “no one” to make the point: “No one” does this, He says, and “no one does that.”

The first comes in verse 21, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse.” Those among us who work with fabric and textiles know all about such things, that on a sewing project it’s not advisable to combine new fabric with old. It’s not good to do, because the new cloth will shrink a bit after washing, while the old cloth won’t. As a result, the seam between them weakens, then tears—and you’ll be left with two pieces of useless fabric!

What’s Jesus saying? He is the “new,” the Messiah at last arrived. He is preaching a new gospel of God’s grace about the coming of God’s Kingdom. Dramatic words! And who are the old? It’s already becoming clear that the scribes and Pharisees represent the old ways. And Jesus and them cannot be mixed. They can’t be, not without ruining the new.

Take again Jesus’ interaction with the sinners of his day. He welcomed those who were socially and religiously unacceptable, and He ate at table with them. He wasn’t afraid of being associated with tax collectors, or contaminated by the lepers. This new approach did not fit at all with the old assumptions about how God looks at people. Everyone thought that God wanted nothing to do with such loathsome people—they’re sinners, after all. They’re unclean, beyond the reach of God’s grace.

But Christ is revealing something new about God—or rather, something that had been forgotten about God. Salvation isn’t only for the holiest and the most pious. Jesus says that the LORD has compassion on those considered unworthy. This new gospel needs to be put into the hands of broken people and unclean sinners. That’s who it’s for!

Then a second piece of the illustration, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined” (v 22). This was another image everyone could relate to. They didn’t have glass bottles in those days, so they used bags made out of animal skins. Once an animal the hide was stripped of hair, the leather cured, and the edges sewed together, you had watertight container.

But you had to careful with these skins. Especially if you were storing wine, a skin had to pliable and able to expand, because the wine might still be fermenting. As it aged, the gases would need somewhere to go. So putting new wine into old wineskins was asking for trouble. An old wineskin was brittle, and it wouldn’t be able to expand. If it burst, both the wine and the skin would be lost. Compare it to mixing baking soda and vinegar in a plastic bottle and quickly screwing the lid on—you might want to step back!

Jesus warns the Pharisees and scribes for not bending themselves to his words. In this new age of salvation in Christ, some of their old traditions simply wouldn’t do anymore. They’re going to be shattered by something far more radical.

Fasting was just one example. If you fast for public recognition and praise, then you’re far from the kind of faith that Christ is seeking. For him, it’s always about the character of our service, not the appearance. Do we truly love God from the heart? No amount of old custom can take away the need to love God with all your soul and all your strength.

And that principle can be applied most widely—like to observing the Sabbath day, as Jesus goes on to explain in the next events in this chapter and the next. The coming of Christ means there should be far less concern about external religion. With Christ’s arrival it’s no longer about ritual like animal sacrifice, or even about standards of clean or unclean. Gone with Christ are the long and detailed rules about how to worship the LORD.

Instead there has to be a new focus, as suits this new gospel. The coming of salvation in Christ means a greater concern for what lies beneath. What’s the condition of your heart? How do you really show Jesus your thankfulness for what He’s done? How do we as bride respond to the deep affection of the bridegroom? Christ says, “The new wine must be put into new wineskins” (v 22). The new wine of Christ’s salvation needs to be poured into wineskins of joyous gratitude, of freedom in Christ, of spontaneous service worked by the Holy Spirit.

The fact is, God has always called his people to get to the heart of the matter. He’s always told his people to keep their sacrifices if they weren’t going to bring them out of gratitude. And now Christ makes this call even more urgent. You can’t get right with God by empty obedience to what your parents say, or what the elders say. True faith means a genuine love for God, and an active mercy toward others. So what kind of a wineskin are we?

Brothers and sisters, this is something for all of us to reflect on and to apply. We’re still inclined to think that God is honoured best through the customs and habits that we’ve developed over the years. For example, we say that if we don’t do this or that activity on Sunday, then we’re well on the way to keeping the Sabbath. Or if we avoid this kind of godless entertainment during the week, then we can feel like we’re pretty holy. If we make sure that our voluntary contribution gets made every month, then we can consider ourselves to be doing well.

Or we might look at our spiritual life in terms of the activities we’re involved with. We’re busy with these devotions every day, we’re active in the church. We show up at these meetings, and we participate at club. We’ve been baptized, and we regularly partake in Holy Supper. All good things—but we might be reducing the Christian life to doing x-number of activities. We say that these are things that we need to do, for they are what we’ve always done.

It’s more comfortable this way. There’s an ease in the familiar. But this can be the “old” style of religion, of brittle wineskins and cheap plastic. This is the way of the Pharisees, and it’s the way that we’re still inclined to prefer. It’s when we’re satisfied with the outward forms and the long-standing habits. It’s when our main question is: What’s expected of us? What will look right? Christ warns his listeners, and He warns anyone, not to think that we no longer need to grow or to change.

Think of our own situation. Rightly we’re thankful for our Reformed church life, and our well-developed order and organization. We have our church buildings. We have Christian schools and other institutions. And after many years, we have deeply engrained ways of doing these things. And maybe the older we get, the more we dislike what is new and unfamiliar. But isn’t it true that we can be constrained by that? Limited by past practice? After so long, we can conclude there’s no need to change, no need for new ideas.

But Jesus’s words show that sometimes the old ways aren’t that helpful anymore. Perhaps the status quo needs to be re-evaluated. Perhaps the structures inherited from the past mean that we’re missing something important, something more faithful to the Word. Isn’t that part of being a Reformed church, that we’re always reforming? Ultimately, the question to ask about any teaching or any practice is not “Is it old?” Nor is the question to ask, “Is it new?” But we must ask, “Is it true?” Does this old custom in the church bring honour to God? Does this decades-old program help us serve him? Is this rule that we follow something God-pleasing and Scriptural?

And then we have to consider: Do his words still challenge us as church? Do his words stretch us, and bend us, like new wine in a new wineskin? Just a few examples: Maybe we have to be more willing to confess our sins to one another, and to speak of our faith together. Maybe we have to give away more money than we’re used to giving. Maybe we have to pray more often in a day than we’re used to praying. Maybe we have to show hospitality to each other more than we’re used to showing. Maybe we have to grow in our willingness to share the gospel with our unbelieving neighbours. Maybe we have to give up the idols in our life—the idols that everyone considers acceptable.

Just a few examples, but the point is not another list. The point is that we have to make sure that in every area of life we’re bending ourselves to the words of Christ. How is He stretching us? How can we continue to grow in him?

Changing can be hard. As with the whole process of believers and churches being sanctified by God, it takes time and struggle to grow into Christ. It takes the hard work of opening the Scriptures, and opening up our lives, and seeing whether we’re living according to his Word. But our aim is a closer and more obedient walk with Jesus Christ!

That’s who this is about, after all: the Bridegroom, who gave his life for the church. His words bring us joy. His words challenge us. His words call us to make sure that we’re ready for the bridegroom’s return!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2016, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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