I wonder how many parents have tried to teach their children about the importance of honesty by telling them (or reading them) the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. This story is often called a fable because it is attributed to Aesop (who was a well-known writer of fables). But it can probably more accurately be viewed as an extended parable. It is a simple story, that aims not only to entertain, but also to convey a simple religious or moral lesson. We sometimes think that teaching in parables was something unique to Jesus, but it was actually a common practice among Jewish rabbis long before the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
What was however unique about the parables that Jesus told, was the fact that they were told as much to hide truth as they were to communicate it. Notice how Jesus answered his disciples in Matthew 13 (v.11-13) when they asked him about the purpose of the parables. He said: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”.
The purpose of the parables was therefore both to illustrate and to obscure the teaching of Jesus. Their purpose was to, on the one hand convey the truth about Jesus and his kingdom in simple terms, but also to hide it from those who were wise in their own eyes (Mt. 11:25). I will say more on this reality in coming weeks as we embark on a new series through the parables of our Lord. But to give you a foretaste of what to expect in these articles, I want us to briefly consider a pair of parables that show just how (as Albert Mohler puts it) explosive these parables were to the religious establishment in Jesus’ day.
In Mat 9:14-17 we read: “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
We are told that these disciples of John the Baptist were concerned because Jesus and his disciples weren’t fasting twice a week, as was the strict custom of the Pharisees. Apparently, the Pharisees and the disciples of John viewed this fast (though not commanded anywhere in Scripture) as a sign of religious orthodoxy or even moral purity. They are, in truth, implying that Jesus and his disciples seem to be a bit lax in their religious zeal.
But Jesus’ answer implies that they did not realize who it was that they were dealing with. In using the bride/bridegroom language of the Old Testament (where Yahweh is the bridegroom and Israel the bride), Jesus was hinting both at his divine identity and his redemptive mission to come and lay down his life to purchase his bride (the Church).
Those who came to Jesus to ask him about fasting were mistaken in thinking that he, like John the Baptist and the Pharisees, was merely interested in moral reformation – calling the Jewish people back to more rigorous adherence to the law. They thought that he was just another prophet or teacher, in a long line of prophets and teachers. They did not realize that Jesus had not come calling people to greater zeal for the (ceremonial) law; he came instead to fulfill the law and to radically alter the way that God’s people would worship him. The temple with its sacrificial system and feasts would no longer be a factor in their worship of God. They were simply types and shadows pointing to the Messiah who had now come (Col. 2:16-17). These practices, along with any man made practices that the Pharisees and Scribes had attached to them, would pass away under the New Covenant that Christ would establish by the shedding of his blood on the cross (Lk. 22:20; Heb. 8:6-13; Heb. 9:17).
Jesus then proceeds to tell two parables that are intended to show that the Kingdom he had come to establish, could not be integrated with the way they were accustomed to worshipping God. These two ways of worshipping God were incompatible; Jesus was doing away with the Old Covenant to establish the New (Heb. 8:13).
In the first parable Jesus says that trying to bring these two covenants together is like sewing a new (unshrunk) piece of cloth onto an old garment. As a relatively big guy, I’ve learnt by painful experience that a shirt that fit perfectly in the store might not fit as well after it has its first wash. Jesus is making the point that simply patching up a hole in a garment with a new piece of cloth is not a long-term solution. The moment the garment is washed, the patched part shrinks and tears the garment. The old and the new are simply incompatible.
Likewise, Jesus says, no one puts new wine into an old wineskin, because everyone knows that old wineskins, having dried up and stiffened, can’t withstand the pressure produced by the fermenting wine. When the wine ferments the old wineskin bursts apart. Therefore, says Jesus, the new wine should be poured into a new wineskin so that both may be preserved.
The point Jesus is making in these parables seems clear. The kingdom Jesus had come to inaugurate simply would not fit into the religious mold of first century Judaism. Because of his once for all sacrifice on the cross, there would be no more need for animal sacrifices or a priesthood (Heb. 9:25-26). Because of the indwelling Holy Spirit, there would be no more need of a temple (1 Cor. 6:19). There would be no need to write the law on doorposts and on the borders of their garments, for under the New Covenant the law would be written on their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34).
As Christians we sometimes fail to recognize that the Protestant Reformation revolved around this very issue. Sadly, the medieval Roman Catholic Church had lost sight of these great gospel truths and plunged the world into darkness for many centuries. They had forgotten that the Old Testament priesthood and animal sacrifices were simply types, foreshadowing the redemptive work of Christ. Instead of celebrating the wonderful truth that: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous,” (1 Pe. 3:18); the Roman Catholic Church taught (in fact still teaches) he must be sacrificed repeatedly in the sacrament of the Mass (Holy Communion). This they teach even though Hebrews 9:25-26 says that Christs perfect sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to atone for sin and that no repetition of this sacrifice was needed.
But the gospel was also obscured by the introduction of pagan philosophy into the theology of the church. Because of the influence of Platonic Dualism, the bread and wine meant to symbolize Christ’s body and blood, was believed to transform into the actual body and blood of Christ. For this reason these elements eventually came to be worshipped in violation of the second commandment.
At the time of the Renaissance and later during the Reformation, when theologians started studying the Greek New Testament, they quickly realized that the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church was incompatible with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. At first these men tried to change (reform) the church from the inside. Many paid with their lives in their attempts to do so. But soon the truth of Jesus’ words in these parables dawned on them, they needed new garments and new wineskins. They needed to do away with Old Testament practices and offices that were fulfilled in Christ. They also needed to do away with the traditions and doctrines of men that had obscured the Good News about the Lord Jesus Christ for so long.
Praise the Lord that in that case the attempt to sew in an unshrunk cloth did indeed lead to a tearing away – and what a blessed tearing away it was. The Lord was leading his people out of what Luther called the Babylonian captivity of the Church. They were returning to Christ the true Head of the Church.
But let us be grateful as we consider these two parables; knowing that we have not discovered the precious truth of the gospel because of our own wisdom or understanding. It was Christ who revealed to us the need to get rid of the old wineskins and the old garments. What God hides from the wise and understanding he reveals to little children. Let us therefore also be patient with our Roman Catholic friends as we share the gospel with them and as we pray for their salvation – for what do we have that we have not received, and if we have received it, how can we boast (1 Cor. 4:7)?