14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. 15 And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 16 And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ 17 For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. 18 And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. 19 And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. 20 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.
Mark’s Gospel announces the best good news that this world has ever heard. God’s saving rule has arrived in the ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. In Jesus, Mark presents to us a life that is more than just compelling and inspiring. It is a life, a person, and a message that demands our souls, our lives, and our all. And, what I want us to see from this passage is that the Kingdom of God that arrived in Jesus and that continues to exist as a reality in this world today was a new movement, a new deal unlike any of the kingdoms of this world.
Unlike opposing world systems and religions, including Old Covenant Judaism, Christ’s kingdom and movement reached out and offered real hope to those suffering beneath the shadow of death.And, the good news is that the same is true today. The world’s systems and religions, governments and programs, even at their best, are not designed to meet humankind’s deepest needs—redemption from enslaving powers, reconciliation with God, and freedom from the fear of death. Only Christ and his saving rule can meet these needs and can restore to people their purpose as God’s image bearers. That is what I want us to continue to see from Mark 2.
13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
I want us to see three truths from these verses. I want us to see that (1) in Jesus, Israel’s God visited and displayed his kindness to the world, (2) that Jesus’ kingdom was a new movement that cannot be safely mixed with or contained by this world’s systems or traditions, and (3) that unlike this world’s leaders, systems, and religions, Jesus and his kingdom are uniquely fit to meet humankind’s deepest needs. In fact, I want to make it clear that he offers forgiveness and new life to all those who will turn to him for rest, especially those who have been marginalized, excluded, and let down by the broken systems of this world.
IN JESUS, ISRAEL’S BRIDEGROOM HAD COME TO RESTORE HIS BRIDE
First, I want us to see that, in Jesus, the God of Israel had returned to his people as a bridegroom to a bride. In verses 18-20, we are reminded that one of the great hopes of the last days as proclaimed by the Prophets had come in Jesus. To observe this in this back and forth concerning fasting, we need to understand the Old Testament background behind what Mark and Jesus are doing here.
In the Old Testament, there came a point in the history of Israel in which the LORD God had had enough. He tolerated Israel’s idolatry and flagrant acts of injustice and ungodliness for centuries. He was patient, merciful, longsuffering, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness; however, Israel was habitually unmoved and unfaithful. As a result, the LORD God left them in judgment. He had dwelled with his people since he had rescued them from Egypt and first appeared to them at Sinai. However, at last, he exited the Temple of God and the Land of Promise, and he left them to be attacked and exiled among the nations.
They wanted to be like the nations. They worshipped the gods of the nations, and they practiced the ungodliness that characterized the nations, so God gave them over to their desires and exile resulted. However, the judgment of exile was not God’s final word to his people. Rather, he spoke through the Prophets words of comfort and good news. He promised them that, in the last days, he would return and restore them, forgive and heal them.
One of the images that the prophets used for this reality—the return of the LORD to his people—was that of a bridegroom coming out to meet his bride. Isaiah uses this image in several places. And, as we saw in our Scripture reading, Hosea uses this image as well. In the last days, the LORD, the God of Israel, would return to his people once again as a bridegroom to his bride and would restore her to himself.
With that background in mind, I want you to think with me about verses 18-20. People had noticed that, while John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees fasted as a regular part of their religious observance, Jesus’ disciples did not. As a result, some curious inquirers asked Jesus why his disciples did not fast. Fasting was a regular part of the religious observance for renewal movements within the tent of first century Judaism, so why did Jesus and his disciples not fast?
Jesus answered that for the disciples to fast would be to go against the very purpose of fasting. People fast as a sign of mourning, great sorrow, or penitence. But, while Jesus was with his disciples, it was a time for great festivity. When he was taken away through his approaching death, then they would mourn, but now was a time for celebration. That was essentially Jesus’ answer. However, he didn’t just come out and say it the way I just did. Rather, he said it by identifying himself as Israel’s bridegroom, as the LORD God who had returned in these last days to restore his people.
Think about that for a few moments. Mark, Jesus, Jesus’ most scripturally sensitive listeners, and many of Mark’s original readers would have recognized the background to the bridegroom image and would have recognized the significance of Jesus’ claims. Jesus essentially answered that the disciples had no reason to fast because, in himself, the LORD God had returned to them and was beginning his saving rule among them. What a profound and daring claim!
This reminds us that with the coming of Jesus something extraordinary had happened. The time had been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God was at hand. The good news that Isaiah spoke concerning the restoration of Israel and the salvation of the nations had arrived. Mark and Jesus both are reminding us here that, in Jesus, the LORD—the God of Israel, the Maker of heaven and earth—had returned to his people.
This reminds us of one of the great mysteries and truths of the Gospels. In the face of Jesus, we see the glory and the face of the LORD himself. When Jesus had compassion on the leper and tax collectors and sinners, people who had been cast away from respectable Jewish society, we see the compassion of God himself for such people. When we see Jesus’ anger at the enslaving powers of sin and death, we see the anger of God himself against those things which dehumanize his image-bearers and wreck his world. When we see Jesus’ grief at the tomb of his friend,0 Lazarus, we see the tears of God. When we see Jesus welcoming little children and rebuking the disciples for turning them away, we see the very heart of God.
When we see and hear Jesus calling out to the weary and heavy laden to come to him for rest, we see and we hear the cry of our God inviting the world to be reconciled to himself in Christ Jesus. And perhaps most profoundly of all, when we see Jesus hanging on the cross—the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many—we see the self-giving love and faithfulness of a God who always keeps his promises and fulfills his purposes for his people and for his world.
In Jesus, the LORD, Israel’s God, had returned to his people as a bridegroom to his bride. That’s why it was not a time for sorrow but for exceeding joy.
CHRIST’S KINGDOM WAS A NEW, DISTINCT MOVEMENT
Second, I want us to see that Christ’s kingdom was a new, distinct movement within the tent of first-century Judaism that could not be mixed with or contained by this world’s systems and religions, governments and programs. We see this in verses 21-22.
Behind the question about fasting lay a larger question that Jesus answers in verses 21-22. That question was this: What was the relationship between Jesus’ teaching and movement to the other renewal groups within first-century Judaism? Jesus, after all, was unlike the Pharisees. The Pharisees kept their distance from those who were unclean—lepers, tax collectors, and sinners. The Pharisees also fasted and carefully observed even oral traditions that governed the Sabbath and other areas of daily life. Jesus did not seem all that interested in such things. Jesus went into the desolate places; he ventured outside the camp and mingled with the unclean and forbidden. He called tax collectors to be his disciples and socialized with known sinners. He said things that seemed to undermine food laws and reinterpreted Sabbath regulations.
All of this was surely weighing on the minds of certain people, so Jesus not only answered the question about fasting in verses 19-20, but he answered the larger question behind it as well in verses 21-22. What exactly was the relationship between Jesus and his movement and other renewal movements within the Judaism of the time?
The answer that Jesus gave was this: He had not come to start another renewal movement within Old Covenant Judaism. Rather, he was ushering in the kingdom of God, the fulfillment and the goal of the Old Covenant and the end of all the false religions and broken systems of this world. Old Covenant Judaism had paradoxically failed to bring lasting hope to people, while at the same time achieving its divinely-intended goal. The place of the Jewish Law in the story of Scripture is complex, but essentially what it did was this.
It successfully diagnosed Israel’s (and, by extension, humanity’s) deepest problems and identified their greatest needs, but it did not offer lasting hope or solutions beyond pointing people to the better covenant that would come when the bridegroom himself returned to restore his people. We catch a glimpse of this in Mark’s gospel. The movements of the Pharisees, the scribes, and even that of John the Baptist and his disciples accurately diagnosed man’s deepest problems.
They pointed out, in their own ways, that each person east of Eden is under the tyranny of sin, has the stain of death upon them, and are unfit for fellowship with God and service in his kingdom. However, instead of offering people redemption from the enslaving powers of sin and death and restoration into the family of God, they excluded and marginalized. They correctly identified lepers and tax collectors and sinners as unfit for the presence of the Holy One of Israel and unfit for his service, but instead of offering them lasting solutions they pushed them to the margins.
The leper was pushed to the desolate places, outside the camp of God’s covenant people. Tax collectors and other notorious sinners were shunned and disassociated from the community and from the practices that the religious elite claimed gave life. To be fair, the Pharisees would have welcomed tax collectors and sinners if they had rejected their pasts and adopted Pharisaic lifestyles, but they didn’t offer the new life that was needed to live genuinely holy lives. Like the false religions of this world that kept God at a distance from his creatures, renewal movements among first-century Jews also became religions of death and tears that could not offer lasting hope and change.
For this reason, Jesus made it clear in verses 21-22 that he had not come to patch up old systems, but he had come as the cornerstone of God’s promised kingdom. He hadn’t come to reform the wheel, but to break it. This is what he meant by the two short parables in verses 21-22. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth onto an old garment, because when the unshrunk piece shrinks away from the old a worse tear results.
Likewise, no puts new wine into old wineskins. Old wineskins had been stretched to the limit and became brittle with age. The purpose of placing new wine in wineskins was to allow it to continue to expand and ferment. But, old wineskins could not continue or contain this process and would burst. That was what it would be like if one tried to mix Jesus’ new movement with the constraints of Old Covenant Judaism. Old Covenant Judaism could not contain it and to mix the two would be to jeopardize them both. Jesus brought an end to the Old Covenant and ushered in the New. The Old Covenant prescribed man’s deepest problems and needs, and the New met them with real hope and solutions.
Before we move on to the final point, I want to point out that what was true concerning the kingdom of God and Old Covenant Judaism is also true concerning the kingdom of God and today’s systems. We should not equate Christ’s kingdom with governments and political parties or with our programs and religious traditions. Christ’s kingdom is something different, and if we try to fit Christ’s kingdom within them we will ruin them both. This doesn’t mean that we should not be concerned with politics and political parties or that we should not respect and follow traditions to a degree.
As Christians, we should rally for just laws and policies and oppose those laws and policies that oppress and deface God’s image-bearers and the creation. But, we must realize that, even at its best, governments and political parties, politicians and policy makers cannot solve humankind’s deepest problems and meet their most pressing needs. They are not designed or equipped for it. Only Christ and the message of the kingdom can do that. Only the tools of the kingdom—self-sacrificial love, service, and the message of the cross—are suited to meet those needs. We need to remember this truth and to be about the fundamental tasks that Christ has called us to as his people. Christ’s kingdom was a new, distinct movement that could not be mixed with or contained by this world’s systems and religions, governments and programs.
CHRIST OFFERS REAL HOPE TO THE MARGINALIZED
Finally, the last truth that I want us to see is this. Christ offers forgiveness and new life to all those who will turn to him for rest, especially those who have been marginalized, excluded, and let down by the broken systems of this world. We see this in verses 13-17 in the call of Levi and in the dinner that Jesus attended filled to capacity with tax collectors and other “sinners”.
In these verses, we see illustrated for us the differences between the movement of the Pharisees and the kingdom of King Jesus. First, we need to think about how the scribes of the Pharisees dealt with tax collectors and sinners. And, the reality is that they treated them with the same contempt and disregard as they did lepers. Just as lepers were unclean and would contaminate those who came into contact with them, so morally bankrupt tax collectors and sinners were also unclean and would contaminate those who associated with them. Therefore, such people were shunned by the pious. The scribes of the Pharisees rightly diagnosed the problem. The morally bankrupt who use and take advantage of the poor are unfit for fellowship with God and service in his kingdom.
That was true of the tax collectors and it was true of other law breakers; however, that is as far as the Pharisees went. They diagnosed their problems, but gave them no lasting solutions other than to warn them to become like them or else be shunned and pushed to the margins of respected society.
That, however, was not the approach of Jesus. He demonstrated this through two shocking actions. First, he actually called a tax collector to leave behind his corrupt business practices to come and follow him. For Jesus to invite a tax collector to follow him was for Jesus to invite contempt from those within the respected ranks of the community. Then, Jesus went even further and had table fellowship with Levi’s tax collector friends and others who were known to be morally ruined. And, this was apparently not the first time Jesus had done something like this. The implication in verse 16 is that associating with sinners was a regular practice of his ministry.
Indeed, when the scribes of the Pharisees grumbled about this, Jesus answered that the very reason he came was to go to the sin-sick and needy and to offer them forgiveness and restoration. Now, it was a big deal to have table fellowship with someone in the first century. And yet, Jesus had table fellowship with sinners. The reason is not that he tolerates or condones sin. The reason is that he brought hope and the possibility for real change to those in desolate places.
While the religion of the Pharisees and even John the Baptist could diagnose their sin problem from a distance, Jesus had the tools and the power to go to them, interact with them, and rather than become unclean himself make them clean and restore them to the family of God. Jesus went to the outcast and marginalized and offered them forgiveness, healing, and restoration into the family and the service of God, if they would find their rest in him.
My friend, if you are here and you are down and out, know that Jesus offers you the same hope. He offers you hope beyond the grave and hope to persevere through life’s trials. He can restore to you the purpose for which he created you! Jesus’ death secured forgiveness and provides cleansing and new life for those who turn to him. He can free you from the enslaving powers of sin to live for him and to make a real, lasting difference in the lives of those you love.
Jesus was raised from the dead, exalted to the right hand of God, and has all authority over heaven and earth. He will return to transform our mortal bodies and to give us a share in his inheritance—the world. My friend, if you would find your life and your rest in Jesus, then you would have no reason to fear death or any other earthly or heavenly power that threatens your life or future.
Don’t think that because you have a sketchy past or go unnoticed by others in the community that you are unnoticed by God. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost! He came for and pursues the sick and sinful. God cares, and he is kind. That is who he is. He will gladly rescue you from sin and the fear of death, if you would turn from the path you’re on and believe the good news about Jesus!
Jesus came to those who were sick and to those who were poor because, unlike the kingdoms and religions, programs and politicians of this world, he offers solutions to humanity’s deepest problems. He grants forgiveness of sins, redemption from enslaving powers, and fellowship with God. He gives the Spirit and the power to serve in his kingdom. Find your life in his today.
Finally, for those of us who already claim the name of Jesus, we must ask ourselves if we have traded the revolutionary message of the good news for rules and traditions through which we exclude and keep at a distance those in most need of Christ’s compassion. Jesus was willing to risk his reputation among the religious and the powerful to go to those most in need of the good news. May we be willing to do the same! Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick do. We can’t apply the medicine of the gospel, if we refuse to see the patients who most need it. Let us be willing to reach out to those who—just like us—are in great need of the hope of Christ.
This is the theme of “The Cross and the Abolition of Religion,” an inspiring chapter in Peter G. Bolt’s The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel in NSBT, Vol. 18 (InterVarsity: Downers Grove: 2004), 18-47.
Ibid., 26. Bolt writes: “Jesus has not come to be absorbed by this religion of tears. He is the bridegroom, bringing the great time of last days’ feasting when the shroud of death is finally cast away once and for all.”
If you’re in the Paducah area and want to talk more about King Jesus and what it means to live in his new world, I would love to sit down with you over a cup of coffee (my treat!). Contact me, and let’s meet! I also invite you to come and worship the King with me at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. We meet for worship weekly at 10:30 on Sunday mornings.