Matthew 9:14-17

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 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. 16 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. 17 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.” [1]

Christians in our post-Enlightenment era are often bombarded with the philosophical presupposition that human reason is the best, in fact the only, way to comprehend reality. But what evidence is there for the reliability of human reason? What evidence is there that there is only one reality to this world, that which we can sense with our 5 senses?

Interestingly, the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant argued against such “enlightened” thinking in his book entitled A Critique of Pure Reason. Kant wrote that there is a much greater limit to what human beings can know. He showed that human reason and science cannot gain access to and eventually comprehend the whole of reality. In other words, there is no such thing as “pure” reason. What we perceive as reality may or may not be reality itself, or it may not be all there is to reality. Therefore, the person who keeps a Bible by their bed and believes what it teaches may not be as unrealistic about this universe as many enlightened thinkers today would like to believe.

That brings us from Immanuel Kant to his namesake, Jesus. You might remember Matthew 1:23 where Jesus is given the name Immanuel (which means God with us). Jesus wrote no book on the value and limits of human reason. In fact, we have no record of anything he wrote. But we do have a record of what he said and did in the gospels. And here in Matthew we have a record of what we can call Jesus’ critique of “pure” religion. Just as Kant critiqued his arrogant enlightenment culture, saying in effect they were not as bright as they thought they were, Jesus critiqued his arrogant religious culture, saying they were not as righteous as they thought they were.


The idea we confront is this: it does not matter whether one uses a system of philosophy or a system of religion to govern their worldview. Human hearts are born into the condition of sin, which is always desperately seeking its own glory through some form of relative morality (I’m better than that person over there). From the very start of his ministry, in his teachings, miracles, and outreach to the unlovely, Jesus is critiquing pharisaical religion. He is tearing down any man-made, religious traditions that had come to overshadow, supersede, or contradict the Old Testament and the gospel of the Kingdom.

In verse 17 Jesus talks about wine skins, old and new. “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.” The new wine symbolizes the good news of the Kingdom that has come in Christ, that is, the newness of the gospel personified in Jesus. The new wine skins represent whatever teaching and conduct draws attention to the gospel of Messiah Jesus. The old wine skins, which would swell and burst as the newly pressed wine fermented, represents Judaism, both teachings of the Torah that are fulfilled in Christ (such as the temple and its sacrificial practices) as well as any unbiblical, man-made traditions such as those of the Pharisees.

Jesus is not critiquing all Jewish religious practices. He doesn’t say anything negative about the tradition of the synagogue that developed during the Babylonian Exile, and he doesn’t say anything negative about the many traditions surrounding the Passover meal. Rather, he seems to embrace such man-made traditions. But he does critique any and all religious views and practices that can’t hold the new wine of the gospel.

If you put the new wine of the gospel into the right skin, the fresh wineskin, it will hold it. In fact both the wine and the wineskin will be preserved. Jesus did not come to abolish God’s Law but to fulfill it (5:17). Christ is not at odds with the Old Testament. The first nine chapters of Matthew make this clear with its minefield of Old Testament quotations and allusions. Everywhere you walk through these nine chapters you will step on an Old Testament quote. We stepped on Hosea 6:6 last week.

Put the new wine of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ into the new wineskins of holy scripture and it will hold. But put the new wine of the gospel into the old wineskins of Judaism and the new wine will show the imperfections of this religion. The old wineskin religion will stretch and break. To use the Lord’s other analogy in verse 16, it’s like taking a new piece of cloth that has never been washed and dried (never shrunk) and sewing it on to your old blue jeans. The new piece of cloth will shrink and tear away.

So, just as Immanuel Kant critiqued the idea of “pure” reason, that our experience of reality is all there is to reality, so our Immanuel critiqued the supposedly-pure religion of the Pharisees and scribes that could not hold up and hold onto the gospel.


In chapter 9, three religious groups ask Jesus three old wineskin questions. After Jesus tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven, the scribes equate such a statement with blasphemy. The scribes knew that only God could forgive sins (9:3). That was the obvious old wine answer. God alone can forgive sins and he does it by means of the priest offering an animal sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem.

But Jesus has a new wine answer. With the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, he is the high priest. He is the sacrifice. He is the temple, Immanuel, God with us. He is the divine Son of Man who has authority to forgive sins (9:1-8). So in the first eight verses of Chapter 9 (the miracle of the paralytic), we see the old wine skin of the scribes burst as they question just who this man is who proclaims and demonstrates the authority to forgive sins.

Next comes the second religious group, the Pharisees. In 9:9-13, when Jesus offers mercy to Matthew the tax collector and his friends, an obvious bunch of sinners, the Pharisees raised the question, “Why is Jesus eating with these types of people?” The old wine answer to that question is, “There is no good reason. He should be separate from those people. Holiness means separateness. It means not eating certain types of foods and not having fellowship with the irreligious Jews or Godless gentiles.

But the new wine answer is, “The times are changing. Holiness does at times mean separation. We must be careful with whom we associate so as not to fall into their sins and idolatries. But, for the sake of the gospel, we are to become all things to all people, to have dinner with sinners for the sake of their salvation.

Finally, we have one last religious group, the disciples of John the Baptist. We find it in verse 14: “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’” Why isn’t Jesus fasting and teaching his disciples to fast? Jesus is still reclining at table at Matthew’s house. First, the Pharisees interrupt to ask why Jesus is eating with this unsavory crowd. Then the disciples of John interrupt, asking why Jesus is eating at all. Later, in 11:18,19, Jesus will say:

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

Under the old wineskin system, everything must be seen and approved publicly. If you fast too much, they will think poorly of you. If you eat too much (or sometimes if you eat at all), they will think poorly. Here Jesus finds himself stuck between these two religious extremes in a fallen world where everyone seeks their own self-righteousness, their own relative morality.

To understand the question John’s disciples pose, we need to recognize something of John’s ministry. John the Baptizer was an aesthetic. His ministry was to embody repentance through how he lived, what he looked like, and what he did or did not eat. So when Jesus came on the scene preaching the same message as John, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” John’s disciples expected Jesus to display this same kind of outward repentance.

To some extent he did. He was poor. He did fast (once for 40 days!). And in the Sermon on the Mount he taught about the top three Jewish spiritual disciplines: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting (6:16-18). The only commandment to fast in the Old Testament Law was on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34; Numbers 29:7-11). By the 1st century the Pharisees had developed a custom of fasting twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. It appears from this text that Jesus and his followers were not following this pharisaical tradition of fasting.

So it’s easy for us to imagine that Jesus and his boys were eating at this banquet on Thursday evening, which would explain why all the lawless in town could make it to Matthew’s that night to eat (because they weren’t ever fasting). It also explained why the Pharisees and John’s disciples were likewise free to watch this dinner party (they were fasting).[2] The Pharisees and John’s disciples were grumpy and hungry, trying to feed off the empty calories of relative morality. Jesus, on the other hand was partying. And he was doing it with the absolutely wrong kind of people!


Regardless of what night this dinner party was held or whether or not John’s disciples held strictly to pharisaical fasting practices, hopefully you understand a little better from where this question in verse 14 came. They were asking a sincere question because they were interested in what Jesus had to say. But, no doubt, they are also a little peeved to see a great rabbi eating when tradition says he ought to be fasting.

Jesus does not rebuke them, as he does the other religious groups. Instead he teaches them that his disciples are taking a break from fasting because there is a wedding in town. In fact, there is a messianic jubilee! Here comes the bridegroom! Look at verse 15. Notice his new wine answer, an answer that will burst their old wineskin. Jesus said to them:

15 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.

One of the really cool things about the gospel accounts is that they contain the question-and-answer sessions with Jesus. In the gospels whenever Jesus is confronted with tough theological questions, his answers are always brilliant. They are usually short, simple, and easy to understand. But they are also like a river full of gold, and everywhere you dig you come up with giant nuggets. Look again at verse 15.

The first half of this golden river is Christ’s return question: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” If you are new to the gospel accounts, you will find that Jesus often answered a question with a question. It was his way of getting the seekers to think. They want to know why he is not fasting like any normal religious person would do. To them that seemed like a rocket serve. But Jesus easily volleyed it back to them. In essence he asked them to first tell him if they would fast at a wedding.

Of course not! Fasting at a wedding? What could be more inappropriate? What would be more rude than to refuse the hospitality of the wedding party? In Jesus’ day the typical Jewish wedding lasted seven days. Everyone invited would take time off from work so they could work hard at having a good time. You might remember Jesus first miracle, when he first “manifested his glory” (John 2:2), was at a wedding where he turned water into wine.

So, as we are panning for gold in this rich river, our first nugget is that Jesus equates his earthly ministry with the wedding party. He claims that just as it would be unnatural, rude, selfish, and insulting to fast at someone’s wedding, so it would be morally wrong and irreligious for Jesus’ disciples not to celebrate the appearance of “the bridegroom.

This passage is full of analogies such as the unshrunk cloth, the new and old wine, the new and old wineskins. Is this term “the bridegroom” just another analogy? I think that’s highly unlikely. Rather, Jesus is instructing John’s disciples to think back on something John the Baptist once said. In John 3: 28-30, when they asked John about Jesus, John said:

I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

Why did John the Baptizer equate Jesus with the bridegroom? That’s strong language for a prophet to use, in the prophets such language is reserved for God. You could see this in Ezekiel 16:7, 8 or Jeremiah 2:2, or Isaiah 54: 5-8, where we read:

For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.       6For the Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. 7For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. 8In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you,            but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer.           [3]

Or you could read the book of Hosea. Remember that Jesus just quoted from Hosea 6:6 back in verse 13 when he answered the Pharisees’ question. It’s possible Jesus here, in his answer to John’s disciples, has another passage in Hosea in mind. Perhaps he was thinking of Hosea 2:14-20:

Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards. …

And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me “my husband” …And I will make for them a covenant. … And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.

Do you see what Jesus is saying here? Take this big picker of a nugget out of the pan and admire it. Jesus is making the highest claim for his authority. Jesus has called himself or been called “the Son of God” (4:3; 8:29) and “the Son of Man” (8:20; 9:6), and now he calls himself “the Bridegroom,” which can either mean he is using an inappropriate analogy, or he is claiming equality with God.

Matthew doesn’t indicate whether the scribes or Pharisees understood this claim. He doesn’t even record whether John’s disciples heard this claim. It’s likely that this claim went over the heads of everyone there that day when he said it. But it did not go over Matthew’s head as he was retelling this story in this Gospel. It certainly didn’t go over the heads of the early church. The apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:23 and 2nd Corinthians 11:2, and John in Revelation 19: 7 and 22:17 had no trouble getting the point that Jesus is the bridegroom and that the church is united into him through trust.

So the first part of Christ’s answer to their question about not fasting is something like this: Don’t get so uptight. The Kingdom of God is at hand! Yes, we should repent. But we should also rejoice and be glad, for this Kingdom is like a wedding, and Jesus is the bridegroom. So, pull up a seat. Sit down for the meal. Grab a cocktail. Join the party. This is happy hour!


Then Jesus says, in 15b, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” In other words, it’s simply an issue of appropriate timing. Jesus is at least referring in part to his death and burial. But it’s highly likely that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are also included. Perhaps the ascension it’s the preferred answer since Acts 1:9,10 says Jesus was “lifted up…into heaven.” Once Jesus ascends, the church will be left without his physical presence as we long for the consummation of our marriage to the Bridegroom, what John calls “the marriage of the lamb” (Revelation 19:7). Those who trust into the perfectly-lived life and sacrificial blood-shedding death of the crucified, buried, risen, and ascended Lord Jesus Christ possess within us his Holy Spirit. And we also perceive his presence in a unique way when we gather to worship corporately and celebrate the Lord’s supper. But we long for the day when we will see him face-to-face.

We live in the era of the “already but not yet.” Christ has already come and freed us from the guilt and burden of our sin. But his Kingdom is not yet fully consummated, and we still deal with the presence of sin in our lives and in the world around us. That means the second part of verse 15 is directly applicable to us today. We have the freedom to fast. Notice Jesus does not say that Christians must fast. This is not a command. Nor does Jesus say that Christians ought to fast. He simply says they will fast.

We will fast when we need to convince ourselves who is in control of our bodies when it comes to resisting temptation and sin. We will fast to exercise our moral muscles. We will fast when we are repenting of sin. We will fast, as the early church did, when we are calling upon the Lord to know his will, to make a wise judgment, or to ask him to open the door for the gospel. We will fast simply because we long for the great wedding supper of the Lamb. We will fast because we long for the day when God will let justice roll like a mighty river, the day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

So, yes, we will fast. However, if you don’t fast or haven’t fasted yet, don’t worry. This text should not be used to place some man-made burden on your back. This passage is not so much about fasting as it is about freedom. So much foolish, unbiblical fasting has taken place in the church for hundreds of years. Fasting from meat on Fridays during Lent, fasting to gain God’s approval, fasting to show others just how holy you are and how unholy others are – those are some of the bad, man-made reasons people fast.

If the only fasting we witness is legalistic, ritualistic, ostentatious, or for the purpose of works righteousness, it’s no surprise that true, Biblical, God-honoring fasting is not in fashion today. The “pure” religion, the man-made, rules-based culture of Jesus’ day that he everywhere critiques, always equates the rigor of fasting with the level of spirituality. The more you fast, the more acceptable you are in the sight of God and men – according to mana-made religion.

But Jesus is tearing down all that religious rubbish and calling us to leave man-made religion for a personal relationship: “Come to me… and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you…. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:28-30). To put it differently, submission to Jesus is freeing! That is the paradox of the Christian faith. Through trust alone we are united to Christ in a personal relationship that constrains us to love, serve, sacrifice, follow, obey, and even fast if and when it is in our interest or the interest of others. Christ gives no command that compels us to fast.

The Apostle Paul, the Pharisee of Pharisees, gives no command to fast. In fact, he only writes about it negatively (Colossians 2:16-23). It is rather the love of God that controls us and compels us to do what is right and pleasing in the sight of God. Our freedom in Christ gives us the freedom to fast without fear as we wait patiently but expectantly, with oil burning in our lamps, longing for the bridegroom to come again and abolish for all time the man-made religion of relative morality.

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 9:10–17.

[2] O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth (Preaching the Word) (p. 250). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 54:5–9.