By Pastor Glenn Pease
In his book Like A Mighty Army, Halford Luccock tells an interesting story about theatrical history. In the middle of the 19th century the right to produce dramatic performances was limited to a few theaters which had been able to develop a monopoly. Some bright boys of the theater found a loophole, however, and made a break though. The law said plays were forbidden, but it did not apply to operas. Plays with music were permitted. So when they began their play one of the staff would give one loud bang on the piano. That made it an opera, and they could go safely ahead with their play.
This is one way that progressive people overcome the obstacles of the establishment. They find a loophole and the basis of a technicality they worked their way on to the stage of history. Others take a more radical approach in which they ignore and defy the laws of the establishment. This was the approach that Jesus took. Jesus was a revolutionary who told the leaders of the establishment right to their face that His business was to put them out of business.
When they approached Jesus about His disciple's lack of conformity to the laws of fasting, Jesus told them that He had no intention of making His movement a patch on their old garment, nor did He intend to poor His new wine in to their old skins. Jesus did not come to be a reformer of Judaism, or to patch it up and give it new life. He came to revolutionize the relationship between God and man in such a way that Judaism would become obsolete.
Jesus was a revolutionary, but not in the same sense that many think of it. No Christian can condone the tactics of extremists who are violent for violence sake, and who attempt to destroy the establishment, but who offer nothing better to replace the old they seek to eliminate. Jesus offered something new that was so much better that the old was no longer needed. Jesus was revolutionary in the same positive way that we use the word in industry. Many men are hired to spend all their time trying to come with something new. They are looking for some new process, product, or technique. They want something that will revolutionize the industry, for this kind of revolution builds, and is profitable, even if it does render the old obsolete and useless.
Harold Bosley tells of a man who perfected a new process in the manufacture of pigments. In a twinkling of an eye he made millions of dollars of equipment in his employers plant obsolete. Did they fire him for this radical change? No! They made him vice president. Even though he destroyed their old machinery just as effectively as if he would have blown them up with dynamite. The difference between the revolutionary who blows up the plant, and the one who invents something new is that the man who comes up with something new makes it so the old is no longer needed. The destructive revolutionary eliminates something that is still needed, for there is nothing new and better.
Men recognized the value of the revolutionary in the world of industry, for the prophets speak loud and clear, but when it comes to ideas and religious values, men are not progressive. Moncure Conway said, "It is the darling delusion of mankind that the world is progressive in religion, toleration, freedom, as it is progressive in machinery." It is clear to anyone who studies history or human nature that there is perpetual tension between the old and the new. It was the greatest tension Christ faced, and also the early church, and it is still the primary cause of tension in the world today.
The old strives to grow older by making sure the new does not survive. It is Herod killing all the babies to make sure there was no new king. The crucifixion was the answer of the old to the new. The Pharisees hoped that the cross would preserve the status quo, but instead it shattered the foundation beyond repair. The supporters of the old never learned, and they continue to fight the futile battle to suppress the new. When lady Montague brought back to England from the East the practice of inoculation she was roughly spoken to by medical men who were angry, for that practice was not in their books. This story is repeated thousands of times in the history of new ideas. They always have to fight for survival, because men who have lived long and well with the old ideas oppose them. Their theme song is, "Come weal or come woe, My status is quo."
Everyone tends to fall into one of two categories: Those who strive to preserve the old, and those who struggle to promote the new. All of history is a battle between the liberal and the conservative. One of the most fascinating paradoxes of Scripture is that Jesus was both a liberal and a conservative. Much Scripture supports His conservative nature. He came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, and He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. In this passage, however, Jesus is fighting the conservatives of His day, who were the hardened Pharisees bound by old tradition. Their traditions were so strong on trivialities that they have survived even into this modern age among Hasidic Jews. These extremely orthodox Jews, like the Pharisees, are so concerned to make sure they do not work on the Sabbath that they have invented a device called the Sabbath Watcher. You switch it on before the Sabbath and it turns the thermometer on and off in the refrigerator periodically so that when you open the door at an incorrect time it sets off an alarm making you guilty of work on the Sabbath.
This same ultra-conservative attitude characterizes some of the old leaders of the Catholic church. Cardinal Ottaviani had embroidered on his robe the Latin words semper idem which mean always the same. He was expressing the attitude that the Catholic church was right from the start, and never needs to change, for you can add nothing new to the changeless truth. This is the attitude that Jesus fought, and was, therefore, a liberal in His philosophy of life concerning progress. Jesus believed in the new. He came to establish the new covenant, and to make all things new in the lives of men who received Him.
Jesus came to do radical work in men. Paul says, "If any man in be Christ he is a new creation. Old things are passed away and behold, all things are become new." If conservatives in theology faced what Jesus does through the Gospel, they would realize that they, by proclaiming that Gospel, are real liberals, and the liberals are the reactionary conservatives, for they are the ones who want to make Christianity a patch on the old life. They are the ones who spread the patch work Christian theory of getting a little religion into all areas of life. There is nothing new about this, for it is as old as paganism, but the man who believes Christ makes all things new is as liberal and radical as they come. He is for doing away with the old man completely. We have a revolutionary theology, but we are not as wise as Jesus. We do the very thing He said He would not do because it is foolish. Let us examine these parables and learn His attitude so that we too might be wise and not foolish in how we relate the new and the old. First consider-
I. THE PARABLE OF THE GARMENTS.
Jesus is saying that no one is so foolish as to ruin the new in order to preserve the old. Anyone who would cut up a new garment to patch and old one is in need of some common sense. Jesus is saying He will not link His new teaching to the old forms of Judaism, for Judaism was worn out and old, and it would be folly to ruin the new by trying to patch up the old with it. If Jesus would have encouraged His disciples to fast, wash their hands ceremonially, and keep all the Sabbath laws as did the Pharisees, He would have guaranteed that Christianity would have gone to the bottom with the sinking ship of Judaism.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees that His movement is no mere reform of the old, it is a totally new religion designed to replace Judaism. It is a new religion of joy and a marriage atmosphere where fasting and solemn trivialities are completely out of place. You can see why the Pharisees hated Jesus, for this was a challenge to a duel unto death. He said they were old and worn out and obsolete, but the old does not go down without a fight. Even after the cross some of the Apostles such as Peter had a hard time becoming disengaged from the old ways of Judaism. So radical and new was the Gospel of grace that even its top promoters had a temptation to be reactionary, and tie Christianity to Judaism. Christianity was a whole new garment, and not a patch on Judaism. Jesus encouraged His disciples to defy the old traditions in order to protect the new from entanglement with the old.
A.B. Bruce wrote, "..in accustoming His disciples to disregard existing Jewish religious customs in certain particulars he was educating them for the ultimate abandonment of the whole system." The principle that Jesus is teaching is that the new must be kept independent and free from entanglement with the old to be preserved. If this is not done, the new becomes a mere patch on the old which ruins the new and does not improve the old. In marriage, example, God says a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. Marriage is to be a whole new garment in life, but so many make it merely a new patch on the old garment. Parents look upon their son or daughter as still basically theirs. The marriage just adds a new patch to their old family life. Sometimes a couple themselves feel this way. There is no radical new life developed independent of the old, and, therefore, the best things of marriage are lost.
One of the greatest perpetual tragedies of history is the patch work theory of Christianity. It is the theory of being religious in some areas of life make up for deficiencies in other areas. When the Franks were baptized, whole armies went into the water at once. Many held their right hand above the water so they could use that hand for evil, since it was not baptized. This is the patch work type of Christian. It is not a radical new and beautiful garment like Jesus meant it to be, but an old garment patched up. It is a little patch of prayer, and possibly even a patch of Bible reading, with a patch of church attendance added to the old life. The patches do not have a powerful influence, for the old is dominate. The patch work Christian is no different than the non-Christian. All things have not become new, because he has not put on the bright new robe of the righteousness of Christ. He has only cut out a few patches to put on his old robe of self-righteousness.
Jesus was a radical to prevent this, and to preserve the new as distinct from the old. We are only truly Christian in the sense that Jesus meant when we let the old die. A true Christian is an revolutionary Christian, for the old has passed away, and all things are become new, and not just mended or modified. Next look at-
II. PARABLE OF THE WINE.
Jesus again uses an example from common life that is so obvious no one can miss his point. No one does this He said. No one is so foolish they will risk the loss of their new wine by putting it into old wine skins. A new and radical faith cannot be held in old forms. The old forms just cannot hold the creative fermentation of the new faith. The new is active and expanding, and the old skins are hard and not flexible, and so they would burst. Jesus is saying that the new must not be mixed with the old, for the new can only survive by developing its own independent methods.
Paul lamented the fact that the foolish Galatians could not see this and were trying to pour to the new wine of grace back into the old skins of the law. Christians are constantly doing this, and suppress the freedom of the spirit. This is the reason for the generation gap in the church. The older people who have lived well with their ideas expect the youth to conform. Like all conservatives they feel their wine skins are the best. What is good wine skins is good forever is how they feel.
Young Christians feel different. They have new ideas that are explosively relevant. The old skins cannot hold them, for the old skins are not flexible enough. Thus you have today as always the encounter of the new and the old. Those who hold the old forget that it was once new and radical. Those who believe the King James Version of the Bible is the best do not realize the controversy it stimulated when it first came out. The old does not stop to think that the church does not exist to promote the schemes of men, or the leaders of the past. We do not exist to preserve the conviction of any group. We exist to serve Christ, and to offer the world in His name the radical new garment of grace.
Where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty. Each generation is free, under the Holy Spirit, to use new methods to reach its generation with the Gospel. If the old methods are not flexible enough to be effective, then according to Jesus, one is foolish to poor the new wine into the old skins.
The paradox of these parables is that Jesus is being liberal for the sake of being conservative. He wants to keep away from the old and let it die in order to preserve the new. There are two kinds of conservatives, therefore, those who want to preserve the old, and those who want to preserve the new. The conservative who wants to preserve the new does so because he knows this is the only effective way to insure the progress of eternal truth. Those who preserve the old preserve only a fragment of the old old story. Eternal truth cannot be poured into any limited historical mold. It must be free to expand along with man's progress in every other area of life.
The true conservative who conforms to the conservatism of Christ is one who strives to keep the Gospel ever fresh, beautiful, and appealing. Anything that makes it appear old and shabby is to be set aside. Tennyson put it,
May freedom's oak forever live
With stronger life from day to day;
That man's the true conservative
Who lops the moulder'd branch away.
The true conservative is a liberal who is constantly changing to keep the old old story relevant to his day. He does not point to the victories of the past as proof. He offers fresh fruit as evidence of the vitality of Christ in contemporary life.
What this means for us practically is this: we ought not to reject anything just because it is new. Much that is new is folly, but not because it is new, but because it comes out of mans old nature, and not a new nature filled with the fresh wine of the spirit. It is folly to say we have never heard of that before, or we never did that before. The Pharisees could say, we never heard of anyone being saved by free grace before apart from the law. So what? Is God bound by the limitations of man? Not at all! God is a perpetual revolutionary making all things new where ever He can. He will make a new heaven and a new earth. There is yet to come new bodies, new robes, new songs, in the New Jerusalem, and eternal new adventures. The changeless God has an every changing progressing plan of newness. God never gets into a rut.
May God help us to be among those who do not sit and sigh for the good old days, but who rise and labor for good new days. George Buttrick has these words of challenge to us as conservative Christians. "A conservative which, for the sake of the future, safe guards the treasures of the past wins its crown. A conservative which denies the future, counting its little system as full and final truth, has blood upon its hands-the skyline of the ages is black with the cruel crosses it has raised." Let us be among the progressive conservatives who are always laboring with Christ to make all things new.