Chapter 9:14-17 (ESV) - Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
Question to consider: Why does Jesus call Himself the bridegroom?
John the Baptist prepared his disciples to receive the Messiah, and he pointed to Jesus as that Messiah when He came on the scene. Since then, he had been put into prison by Herod, and was not able to witness all that Jesus was saying and doing. Although they had been baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, they were still under the Law, and it was customary for Jews to fast at least once a week along with the Pharisees. Those Pharisees who strove to be particularly pious fasted twice a week.
However, Jesus proclaimed that He was the bridegroom which is mentioned in both Isaiah and Jeremiah. In Jeremiah, the voice of the bride and bridegroom is used both to lament the silence of the barren city of Jerusalem and in celebration of the coming salvation. Although it could be applied here, I actually think Isaiah 61 is a better fit. This is the chapter in which Jesus proclaimed Himself as its fulfillment in His first sermon in Capernaum, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor…” (Isaiah 61:1-2)
The bridegroom in this chapter celebrates Israel being clothed in righteousness, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)
I don’t think it was lost on John’s disciples that Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the bringer of salvation to Israel. His coming was a cause of celebration for the disciples which should not be taken away from them. There would be a time in which Jesus would be taken from them, and they would fast. They would face persecution and hardship as they brought the good news of salvation to the world.
Jesus then pointed out to John’s disciples that the ways of the Old Covenant could be compared with old wineskins. The ways of the New Covenant would be like new wine. Fasting under the Old Covenant was an attempt to keep the Old Testament Law. Even if they were successful at fasting, they still were condemned under the Law because the Law was not intended to save anyone. If we fast under the New Covenant, we may do so to focus on prayer or as a form of worship, but we don’t earn favor with God by our own attempts at righteousness. Going back to the Law to earn God’s favor when we’ve already received God’s favor in Christ is like trying to put new wine in old wineskins.
Paul used circumcision to illustrate this point, “I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:2-6)
Dear heavenly father, we praise You for sending Christ to be our bridegroom and bring salvation to all people who call upon His name. Help us to worship You out of gratitude for what Christ has done and not try to impress You or others with our attempts at righteousness. Amen.