Then they said to Him, “John’s disciples fast often and say prayers, and those of the Pharisees do the same, but Yours eat and drink.”
When I think of Jesus as Bridegroom, my mind most often goes to the time when He will come again and receive His bride, the church. But in these three almost identical Gospel accounts, Jesus spoke of His disciples as attendants and Himself as the Bridegroom during those days of His public ministry.
All three writers report that John the Baptist’s followers came to Jesus, inquiring as to why His followers didn’t fast (and Luke adds, “say prayers”) as they did. They noted that (even) the disciples of the Pharisees did the same, yet Jesus’ followers ate and drank.
The question seems to hinge on whose disciples were more committed, pious, or serious about their roles in proclaiming the kingdom of God. This conversation follows earlier verses in the same passage where Jesus and His disciples were attending a big reception hosted by a new convert, a tax collector named Levi.
As they ate and drank, the Pharisees grumbled at their presence asking, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax gatherers and sinners?” Tax collectors were held in very low regard, believed to be disloyal to their heritage and almost certainly crooked in their dealings.
In later New Testament passages, we learn that early Christian churches experienced the same sort of criticism as they ministered to the outcasts of society. From the Pharisees’ perspective, associating with such people made a person morally unclean, so how could Jesus, in good conscience, spend so much time with them?
Jesus’ reply doesn’t mean that fasting and prayer isn’t expected of born-again Christians, but that the expression of sorrow through fasting and prayer weren’t appropriate in the context of His presence among them.
Quite the opposite—His followers appropriately rejoiced in the forgiveness they received through faith in Him, and their new membership in the kingdom. There would be plenty of time later, when the Bridegroom would be taken from them, for prayer and fasting. He was referring, of course, to His violent crucifixion. This reference would likely have been very puzzling to the Pharisees, but it’s crystal clear to us today.
The parable, which follows this exchange, is best understood by focusing on two words: old and new. They were a couple of generations away from much patching of garments, and they likely knew nothing at all of storing wine in wineskins (skins of small animals such as goats, which had been de-haired, tanned, and sewn together to create storage vessels).
But if we focus on the real message, we can easily grasp the meaning of the parable. To place new wine in the old wineskin wouldn’t work—the two are incompatible. To try and patch up the fabric of Pharisaical Judaism with that of the gospel wouldn’t work either—both garments, old and new would be damaged in the process. Jesus didn’t come to patch things up, but to make all things new!
Luke’s main message in the larger passage has to do with the fact that God’s kingdom has been realized. Jesus, the Anointed One, is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. The joy of the Lord belongs to all who recognized Him at His coming and who now follow Him. In light of these realities, there’s no room for fasting or mourning, only joy.
The implications of these truths are quite another matter. We’re tempted to say, “Well, I’m not a follower of John the Baptist, certainly not a Pharisee. I’m not into patching garments and definitely not into wineskins, so this passage doesn’t have a lot of relevance for me.” Guess again.
The questions arose in the first place because Jesus and His disciples mingled with the lost and needy of their world. They rubbed shoulders with those who needed to hear the Good News, those who needed to experience healing and forgiveness without judgment or condemnation.
In short, Jesus and His followers took the Good News to the people who needed to hear it. They didn’t expect these needy people to come to them. Do we?
One of the most difficult challenges for us today is to connect in meaningful ways with those who need a Savior. Much of our lives involve fellowship with other believers. Our closest friends are believers. We go to church together, eat together, go to movies and concerts together. When is there time or room in our lives to mingle with the lost and needy as Jesus did?
Remembering how He lived, what His priorities were, and how He saw His mission, gives us fresh insight into how we should live, what our priorities should be, and how we are living out our mission of making disciples. And we do these things with great joy and anticipation, awaiting Jesus, the Bridegroom, who’s coming for us, His bride!
- Do you know of any modern-day believers who have been criticized for ministering to the outcasts of society? What ways to be part of this ministry have you discovered?
- Have you discovered that intentionality is essential to frequent and fruitful interaction with lost people? How do you express that intentionality?
- Since Christ is the Bridegroom and we (the church) are His Bride, what preparations are you making for His return?