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To many people religion is a matter of keeping rules and performing rituals. They many in the estimation of others be very religious people – that may be their own view too. When someone presents a different view of religion, treating it as a matter of heart spirituality, not of works and effort, he may be met with considerable hostility, as Jesus was. We turn now to consider Luke 5:33-39 The Bridegroom is here.
We again encounter ‘the Pharisees and the teachers of the law’ (v30) in the house of converted Levi. They now attack Jesus’ style of ministry. The issue is the observance of set times to ‘fast and pray’ (v33). The law required fasting only on the Day of Atonement, but some Pharisees fasted ‘twice a week’ (Luke 18:12). Jesus appeared very lax by comparison.
(i). John’s disciples. The issue seems to be their different lifestyle – there is no suggestion that their teaching conflicted at all with faith in the Messiah. Like John, their lifestyle was apparently ascetic. There is room for diversity when the gospel is not at stake.
(ii). The disciples of the Pharisees. This is a very different case. They ‘trusted in themselves that they were righteous’ (Luke 18:9). They put the emphasis on externals, depending on works like prayer and fasting to be right with God.
Jesus responds using the language of ‘the bridegroom’ (v34), drawing on OT pictures of God married to his people (see Hosea 2:19). True religion is a living relationship with God through the Messiah who is the source of eternal life. Regarding fasting, note:
(i). Present. The Bridegroom – the Messiah – is present (v34), the Kingdom has come, this is a time for joy, not fasting. The legalistic fasting of the Pharisees is condemned.
(ii). Future. The Bridegroom will ‘be taken from them’ (v35) – at the cross, in fulfilment of God’s plan (Luke 9:22). That death is the essential climax of his saving work.
The implications of the Messiah’s presence are spelled out in vivid, down-to-earth terms:
(i). A new garment. Old and new cannot be combined. Jesus does not offer a better version of Pharisaic religion – he brings ‘the new’ – the fulfilment of God’s gracious plan of salvation. It cannot be combined with legalistic dependence on good works.
(ii). New wine. The ‘new wine’ Jesus brings cannot be contained in ‘the old wineskins’ of Pharisaic religion. The gospel belongs in the ‘new wineskins’ of the church. Sadly, sinners often prefer the old, depending on their works and resisting the gospel call.