Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 9:16 “No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for
that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the
rent is made worse.”
Jesus’ message was so radically new that it required new forms of expression. Merely patching the old customs of Judaism would not work. It would be like mending an old garment with a patch not yet fulled, made compact. When wool fibers get wet, they pass over each other in one direction. Due to their scalar formation, they interlock and can’t get back. Wool has to be taken through this shrinking process before being used in clothing. Otherwise, the garment will shrink when it gets wet. To patch an old garment with unshrunk cloth would prove disastrous. As the patch got wet and began to shrink, the strain on the old fibers would create a tear. The first tear, being inside the patch’s circumference, would be smaller than the second tear, being outside the patch’s circumference.
Remember our context. Jesus was answering a question about fasting, a ritualistic observance. He was not saying we need to reject the Old Testament. The old was fulfilled, not destroyed (MT 5:17). Once a container is full, we can’t add more stuff. But we don’t throw the old away. We instead find a new container.
Much of the Old Covenant involved rituals and ceremonies which pictured the new. Once Jesus came, these were no longer needed. To try to mix the new with what pointed to the new could not have worked. It would have entailed the ridiculous. A sign saying “Springfield ahead” is okay in Nixa, but preposterous in the heart of Springfield. Animal sacrifices pointed to Calvary; the two were never meant to exist simultaneously. Priests pointed to Jesus; by having Him, we don’t need them. People often struggle with the simplicity of Christianity. They want to complicate it with creeds and rituals. We still learn from the Old symbols, but its ceremonial laws have served their purpose, and have to yield to the new reality.
Matt. 9:17 “Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles
break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they
put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.”
Here is another vivid picture to show that trying to combine the Old and the New dispensations would be self-defeating. The ancients carried wine in vessels usually made from goat skins. Once the goat’s head was amputated, the skin was peeled back far enough to allow removal of the insides. After the feet were cut off, the four leg openings were tied with cords. The opening at the neck was used for filling and emptying the vessel. New skins worked well for new wine. The skin was elastic and would stretch to accommodate gases released in the fermenting process. Old skins eventually reached their capacity, having stretched as far as they could without tearing. At this point, fermenting wine caused the skin to rip.
The image presented here is force versus forms. Old ways of doing things often choke new things needing to be done. The old ever tries to cramp the new.
We Bible believers tend to conservatism. A built-in mechanism causes us to want to preserve old ways. Our being conservators of the Bible often evolves into our being conservators of our interpretations and implementations of its truths. We have to be reminded occasionally, as Christians, we worship God, not the past.
Among believers, resentment of the new is chronic. We never stop trying to pour new things into old molds. It hasn’t worked, doesn’t work, and won’t work.
The Bible message always stays the same, but the medium for conveying it changes. Scripture lends itself to changing expressions across cultures and time. Our message is rooted in events of the past, but churches must not live in the past.
The old Puritan had it right: the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word. Don’t let old forms squelch new forces. The naturally creative and ever unfolding expressions of Christianity should not be hindered.
We like the familiar. We find comfort in old clothes. They fit well. We shouldn’t discard them too soon, but they do eventually wear out, and need to be thrown away. Similarly, old ideas and ways someday have to be scrapped entirely.
There is always danger in something new. Risk is an operative term for churches in our culture. Our churches will remain in serious trouble until we are willing to try things which will miserably fail unless God miraculously intervenes.
As a lover of history, I believe no one should ever recklessly abandon customs which have stood the test of time. As a lover of seeing God’s kingdom advance, I know times come when things are bad enough wrong that something radically new has to be tried in an effort to make it right. I think no one has yet found a remedy for the ailing North American Church, but pioneers must keep experimenting with new techniques or our churches will continue retreating into failure.
Someone defined insanity as doing the same things over and over again, yet expecting different results. This is our dilemma. We keep trying methods which quit working a generation ago. Our successes in the late 1940s, the 50s, and early 60s have had a long term disastrous affect on us. The shoe that once fit is now giving us blisters. None of us would seek to impose USA 2000 church customs on China. It is also wrong to seek to impose USA 1950 customs on USA 2000. America has dramatically changed, but our churches have only slightly changed.
Let me cite one example of the many critical transformations we need. Peter Wagner, an expert on church growth, says if you are forty or older, and enjoy the music in your worship services, your church will be dead in a generation. The statement does to some extent contain hyperbole, but is also profound. At Second, we work hard to have a culturally pleasing sound. Ours is not my grandpa’s music. Even when we sing Amazing Grace, it’s not the same as Grandpa’s version.
The good news is, many USA Christians are finally realizing something drastic has to be done. The times are changing, and such seasons of transition are critical. The most critical part of a relay race is passing the baton. The Church in North America is passing the baton. Many local churches will receive it and sprint to spiritual success, but I fear many will drop the baton and deteriorate into failure.
As we stand on this threshold of a new era, Southern Baptists could be a key denomination in helping USA Christians ride a fresh wave of effectiveness. We certainly have faults and failures aplenty, but have rightly chosen to stay true to the Bible and to the Great Commission, both of which are prerequisites to revival.
Also, in this critical hour of desperate need for change, maybe our greatest contribution to the Body of Christ at large is our rejection of creeds and binding traditions. This firm conviction gives our churches greater freedom to experiment than is enjoyed by churches in many other denominations. We heed the Bible, not tradition. We yield allegiance to no man-made creed, not even to heroes like Calvin, Luther, Wesley, and Spurgeon. This tenet allows us from time to time to scrape barnacles off the ship of Zion, to do radical surgery on ourselves, removing what’s fluff, and keeping what’s substance. We must use our freedom to do what Christ did. He cut through traditions of the day and sought to return to the kernel.
It is no coincidence the mightiest stirrings of God in America now are among independent charismatics. They are free from ecclesiastical shackles. Some of their newness has gone to excess, but much of it is valid.
Right now, we Baptists need to be extremely careful and prayerful, humbly seeking a proper balance between caution and adventure. It would be a shame if we, after having been leaders for a generation in praying for revival in America, missed out on revival if it comes. Don’t let old wineskins keep us from new wine.