14. New and Old

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 14.  New and Old

Mt 9:16,17   No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

In the previous study, of the two verses before these, we saw Jesus was contrasting the world of the religious with the world of the kingdom of God. Some reading that may feel threatened or defensive because so much of modern church life in the West is NOT like the celebration of new, transformed life that Jesus implied through his analogy of the wedding feast, but the analogy is still there and is now being repeated twice by the next two analogies we now have before us.

In the first one he speaks of a piece of new cloth and an old garment. It is that simple. The point he is making is equally obvious: new material will yet shrink when it is washed while the old remains exactly as it was when it is washed, and so you don’t try patching the new into the old because it will tear the old. Now the problem here is that Jesus is teaching by implication and he does not apply what he is saying to the situation around him, yet it is fairly obvious what he means.

The ‘old garment’ that is unchanging must be Judaism with its powerful leadership in the chief priests and the temple hierarchy, who wanted to maintain the status quo and were thus annoyed at Jesus who they saw as a threat to their established ways, the traditions of the religion. By contrast, the ‘new material’ must be the life of the kingdom that Jesus was bringing. It was full of life, full of action, full of transformation, noisy, vibrant, exuberant and unpredictable. I don’t know if that is how you see Jesus’ ministry but that is how it was. Every time another person was healed there would have been rejoicing and all the words above would apply. The life that Jesus was imparting that brought transformed lives also meant that it wasn’t just a physical change but a whole life outlook change.

Life in the temple carried on day after day with no change. Life with Jesus was one of complete change. If you were one of Jesus’ disciples traveling with him, you never knew what the coming day would bring. For example, one day it meant healing a leper (8:3), then healing a centurion’s servant with a word (8:13), then the healing an old lady (8:15), but then they would leave it all and cross the Sea of Galilee and confront and deliver two demon possessed men (8:32) then, crossing the lake again, healed a paralytic on a stretcher (9:7), then comes feasting at tax-collector Matthew’s house (9:10) – all those things led up to this teaching. Imagine you were one of Jesus’ disciples and let’s assume all these things happened on the same day (maybe they didn’t), when you got up in the morning you wouldn’t have ever guessed all those things could happen. It was a completely unpredictable life as Jesus sought to work with his Father (Jn 5:17,19) expressing the kingdom of God on the earth. No, this was clearly a ‘new piece of material’ and it wouldn’t fit comfortably in with the ‘old garment’ of the life of the establishment. See that last word – ‘establishment’. It means those who are established, those who are set in their ways. If our church services are ‘established’ with the same thing week in, week out, we are more akin to the temple priesthood than to Jesus.

But then he adds a second analogy which makes exactly the same point: new wine and old wineskins. They just don’t go together is what he is saying. New wine is still unstable and changing and even may be effervescent. If you put it into old wineskins which are stiff and rigid and try and contain it, the life of the new wine will just split the skins and pour out. Isn’t that what happens every time a new denomination springs up? The old order gets rigid but as the Holy Spirit keeps working in some, they can no longer tolerate the old and they break out and form some new group. Sadly, and almost inevitably, that new group eventually settle down and becomes rigid and so the conflict continues – and it IS a conflict as the life of God pushes against the rigid boundaries that men so often establish.

Remember the context of all this was John the Baptist’s disciples coming to cross examine Jesus (9:14). Already they had settled in their thinking that John’s severe way was THE right way and so they had trouble with the life and vibrancy of what was happening with Jesus. Later John, in prison, was to send some of his disciples to Jesus to enquire of him, possibly to introduce them to Jesus so they could move on now John’s ministry had ended. When they questioned Jesus about who he was he replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (11:4,5) Look again at that summary of Jesus’ ministry and envisage the joy etc. that accompanied it. This was the new wine and so it was no wonder that it upset the ‘old wineskins’ of orthodox Jewry.

This was Jesus’ way of explaining to John’s disciples on the earlier meeting how incompatible the life he was bringing was with the more orthodox ways (praying and fasting) of the established religion of Judaism. He didn’t actually say it, but the question still hangs in the air – which would you prefer, the day by day, never changing humdrum religion of law and ritual, or the life-transforming ministry of Jesus with its accompanying joy and exuberance, excitement, energy, and liveliness? Will we simply settle for the old, stable and unchallenging and unchanging ways of traditional religion, or will we seek the Lord for an outpouring of his Spirit as he continues to do today what he did then? Be careful how you answer because new wine cannot be controlled and is often unpredictable – but it is life from heaven and it is the expression of the will of God on earth!

15. Is this too impossible?

Meditations on “God of Transformation: 15:  Is this too impossible?

John 3:4   How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

There is a form of religious life that is content with a religion that reveals itself through ritual “in church” and in “being nice”. These people, when asked, say they are Christians for, after all, they go to church regularly don’t they and they ARE by many standards, nice people. The apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé, Timothy, about such people – having a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2 Tim 3:5) These are people who take on a form niceness or religiosity but who have not been impacted by the power of God.

We have now seen two week’s worth of these studies (assuming you read one a day) and so what we have seen again and again is God changing people or situations by His power. Again the apostle Paul wrote, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” (1 Cor 4:20) Mere words do not take a person into God’s kingdom, the place where God’s presence is, where God’s reign is expressed. It is power – God’s power. This is the truth that many do not like, that we can only enter God’s kingdom, we can only be truly changed on the inside, by HIS power working in us and transforming us.

And this brings us to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and the use by Jesus of the phrase being ‘born again’. Oh, say some defensively, this is just those people who try and be super-spiritual, trying to make it all sound something more complex that it is. Well actually you cannot be more simple that to accept Jesus’ very simple analogy: “Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (Jn 3:3)  Make that more simple and you might say, “No one can enter into a living relationship with God unless he or she receives a completely new life.”

Now note the words “new life”. This is not “a new set of rules to follow” which is what we put on and try to work on, but it is an absolute change of life, which starts on the inside and works outwards. It means the things you start saying or doing come  about because of the change that is taking place on the inside. There is a transformation here that goes beyond mere superficial behaviour; this is heart change, attitude change, belief change, life transformation.

Oh this is too complicated, says the nice religious person, you don’t need to make it that complicated! No, precisely, it is not complicated it is ultra simple. I don’t normally try and distil things down to ‘three point sermons’  but let’s try and do that for simplicity sake here.

First there is a change in belief. In fact there are two beliefs that change and they may come in different orders with different people. The first change in belief is about me. I come to realise that I am lost, I am not the good person I kidded myself I was, as much as I put on a good front. I try to be nice but every now and then I get a flash of insight and realise that I am actually not nice and this comes when I say or do things less than are worthy of a nice person. Most of the time I used to cover it up and pretend that’s not how things were but it didn’t matter how much I tried, when I was being honest with myself, I knew I was still just a self-centred individual and God seems miles away. I could go to church but it was mere ritual and the thought of God being close or even speaking to me was completely foreign.

It was my recognition that I needed help that turned me in God’s direction and I found that I was confronted by a God of love who wanted to come and bring change to me. This God was revealed through the person of Jesus Christ, God’s unique Son, who came and expressed the love of God in a most wonderful way but then, allowed himself to be crucified, put to death in the most horrendous way possible. Why? I was told it was to take the punishment that was due to me for all the sins of my life. So how does that affect me, I asked. It means the way is open for you to come close to God and receive His love and forgiveness. How can that happen?

Thus we come to the second thing which is a simple action by me. I bow before Him and surrender my life to Him and ask Him to forgive me. It IS that simple.

Then the third thing is what God does for me. First there is His declarations – I am forgiven, I am cleansed and I am adopted as His child. Second, there is His action, which is to put His own Holy Spirit within my life, within me, inside me – yes, that’s it. His Spirit is His power and so He doesn’t just call us children, He gives us power or the ability to live as His children. We have this new power source on the inside and it is that which transforms us.  His very presence within me, picks up the change of attitude that I offered to Him – for Him to take and lead and transform my life – and He does just that. He communicates with my by His Spirit within, as well as by His word, the Bible, and He guides me, teaches me and leads me on. I am a new person, from the inside out, but it is not just me, it is Him in me.  Again the apostle Paul put it, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17)

I could not do this because it is not merely a wish to change – I had had that before but couldn’t do it when I strived to. No, this only happens when I invite Him in and He comes in the power that is His Spirit, and He changes me from the inside out and empowers me to walk or live it out every day until I die and go to be with Him in heaven. Yes, it IS impossible humanly speaking, but this isn’t humanly speaking, this is the God of transformation being invited in and He comes and transforms.

To take out of context a beautiful little word from Jesus, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20) How that encapsulates what happens. He comes knocking on our lives. We probably don’t realise that it is Him but when we start questioning who we are, that is Him knocking. He brings us to a point of surrender where we open the door of our lives – our will – and we invite Him in. Then look at the promise – He will come in and sit and share most intimately with us, that is what eating together is all about. That is the most beautiful picture possible perhaps that distinguishes the new life from that old self-centred and (in truth) godless life that we had previously. What an incredible transformation! Hallelujah!