Contents, Containers, and Covenants: How the Coming of Jesus Changed Everything and Why We Should Care
No one patches an old garment with unshrunk cloth, because the patch pulls away from the garment and makes the tear worse. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matthew 9:16–17)
When John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus and asked him why his disciples didn’t fast, he answered with a dizzyingly fraught series of statements about his identity, his purpose, and the epochal change that was upon them, Israel, and the world.
He began by declaring himself to be the Bridegroom: the expected Messiah, yes, but also God himself.
In effect, he let them know that their long spiritual exile was over. God had come to make a new covenant with them; to marry them again, in a new relationship with new terms.
Then he dropped a (potentially) even bigger reveal when he told them the Bridegroom would be taken from them. This meant the story of redemption would NOT proceed as expected, that God was doing something nobody had seen coming.
Paul calls this unexpected twist — and its results — “the mystery of Christ.”
Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. (Ephesians 3:2–5, NIV)
In biblical parlance, a “mystery” is something hidden, a secret that only God can reveal. People in Jesus’ day didn’t understand what he was doing not because they were stupid or couldn’t read Scripture properly but because God had hidden his true intentions for thousands of years.
The mystery was always meant to come into the light and be seen — but not until Jesus revealed it by living it.
All of this lies behind Jesus’ parable of new wine and old wineskins, new cloth and old cloth. A new epoch has begun, as the Jews expected it would when the Messiah arrived. But it’s different than what they thought. The New Covenant is not just a renewal of the old one; it’s something categorically new.
And within the New Covenant, old practices are also changing. Prayer is not the same. Fasting is not the same. Worship is not the same. Faithfulness to God is not the same.
So the God-seekers of Jesus’ day have to readjust all of their expectations and even their commitments. It’s not only the contents of their spiritual lives that are shifting, but the entire paradigm that contains them.
To explain this, Jesus gives two parallel pictures: that of patching a hole in clothing and that of filling a wineskin with wine. In both cases he speaks of introducing a new element into an old container.
In both cases, the “new element” is dynamic. It contains within it the capacity to change over time. In fact, the change is guaranteed. Cloth will shrink when it’s washed. Wine expands as it ages.
But the old container is static. In the past it too grew and changed, but now it has fulfilled its purpose and reached its final shape. From now on, it won’t change. The old piece of clothing has already shrunk as much as it can. The wineskin has already expanded to its furthest extent.
- Prayer will change in the New Covenant.
- Fasting will change in the New Covenant.
The Old Covenant — the covenant made with Israel through Moses and contained in the law — could not contain these expressions in their new form. Prayer and fasting in the New Covenant are so radically different that they will “pull” away from the Old Covenant and “push” against it; to try to keep these things together would destroy them both.
What’s the Difference?
In a word (okay, two words), the difference between the covenants is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the “growth agent” that guarantees prayer and fasting will change shape (and change us) in a way that’s incompatible with Old Covenant frameworks.
- Old Covenant fasting was mostly about mourning and repentance, asking God to come.
- New Covenant fasting is mostly about connecting us to our own spirits and to God’s Spirit, making us aware of the God who is already here.
- Old Covenant prayer and worship revolved around the system of sacrifices in Jerusalem, mediated by the Levitical priesthood and open only to the people of one ethnic group.
- New Covenant prayer and worship happens “in spirit and in truth.” It is not dependent on a place or a priesthood (John 4:21–24), and it is open to all people in the whole world.
Fundamentally, the difference between the covenants is this: The Old Covenant was based on an essential principle of separation from God — God is separate from us, and we reach him through carefully managed rituals and observance of law.
The New Covenant is based on an essential principle of unity: God is with us, actually indwelling us corporately and individually through his Spirit, and we are always with him. We access his presence within us by his grace and simple faith.
Unity cannot be held within a context of essential separation. You can’t pray from a position of “seated with Christ in heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6) AND a position of “I am far away from God and hoping he will hear me if I offer the proper sacrifices.” You can’t believe BOTH that you are fully forgiven and embraced by the Father AND that you are still on some kind of day-by-day probation.
You can’t be saved by grace and faith and by your own ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
You can try, but the result will be constant stress fractures in your spiritual life. The new wine is too expansive, too full of life. The new cloth is too dynamic, too much still fitting itself to you and your growth.
A healthy spiritual life within the New Covenant begins with simple acceptance of all Jesus has accomplished, even when it’s counterintuitive, even when our gut says that CAN’T be true and it must be necessary for us to jump through hoops and overcome the distance.
John’s disciples were set to run the race. But their feet were on the wrong track. Jesus let them know a course correction was needed: this race wouldn’t look like they thought it would. His coming was about to change everything in ways that matter radically — to them, and to us today.
Like what you’re reading? Visit rachelstarrthomson.com to get a free ebook on the Lord’s Prayer and keep up with the rest of the series on the gospel of Matthew.
This is Part 126 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
Originally published at rachelstarrthomson.com on July 18, 2018.