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Matthew 9:1-17


If we look carefully at many Old Testament stories, we see that there really isn’t a change here. These ‘new’ bases underlay Old Covenant, but Jesus came to clarify this fact and demonstrate the relationship between Old and New (which we’ll cover in depth later on, particularly in Paul’s letters).

For the purposes of this illustration, however, Jesus is saying that pouring new wine (the New Covenant of grace) into old wineskins (the Old Covenant of obedience and law) would ruin both. The wine would burst the skins and spill out on the ground. So if we limit the New Covenant of grace to Old Covenant rules about fasting and sacrifice and such, we destroy the beauty in both of them.

Note that He’s not saying that the New is better than or replaces the Old. He wants to preserve both by having the New fulfill the Old. There is still a place for fasting and sacrifice and circumcision and all the old prescribed rituals. It’s only when you try to impose them as laws to restrict the covenant of grace that they become dead and legalistic and ruined. There’s a very Chestertonian duality at work here, where both Old and New Testaments retain life and use and validity. It’s not either/or but both!

  1. dsmith236 permalink

    Hmm… I’m reluctant to see the old and new law as a case of Chestertonian duality (is that a term? If not, congrats b/c it’s awesome). The thing that makes me hesitant is that I don’t necessarily see the old and new law (justice and grace, respectively) as a paradox. I want to separate the argument into two categories: first, the character of God; second, the role of man. I can see where the second is a paradox (faith vs. works), but these are not both present “in their fullest” as would be the case in a Chestertonian paradox. In the second, the opposite is true. God’s justice and his mercy can be logically present in the same moment (and in their fullest)- but I do not see this as paradoxical. Then again, I could just be speaking from a limited understanding of Chesterton.

    Regarding the passage, I’m still a little unsure about the message Jesus is trying to make: By pouring new wine into new wineskins, old wine into old wineskins, is he saying that the old and new law must remain separate? If so, does that mean that we somehow must separate them in our own lives or that we now only live by the new?

    Please enlighten.

    • Perhaps the Chestertonian duality (I don’t think I’ve read it elsewhere, but Austin Bramwell, David Schaengold, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Ross Douthat have been discussing GK lately, so it’s quite possible they used the phrase and it stuck in my subconscious.) is a bit overstated. I just meant it as a reference to Chesterton’s routine claim that truth does not usually embody one or another of two seemingly opposed alternatives but both of them fully at once.

      In this sense, what Jesus is saying is not that we have to keep them separate, but we can’t subsume one under the other. In this particular case, He says we cannot constrain the New within the limits of the Old. The Old does not govern the New. I’ll even go so far as to make the bold claim that the New does not govern the Old. The Old Covenant is about how ritual cleanness is a necessary precondition for relationship with God. The New does not negate or change this, but it does provide a means of satisfying the Old.

      In a visual that I’m admittedly stealing from GK himself (read ‘The Ball and the Cross’), they each exist in perpendicular, intersecting at one spot (forming, fortuitously, the shape of the cross). The Old Covenant completely and adequately describes the justice of God and His incompatibility with sin. The New Covenant completely and adequately conveys His grace and desire to be in relationship with us. The intersection is redemption. Basically, I’m claiming that both are infinite and eternal and correct, but (represented in this visual, again, as lines) one-dimensional. The minute you view them both together, they become two-dimensional, giving us added perspective on themselves and each other.

      This got really abstract really quickly. The bottom line is that I think we can still respect the Old Covenant by observing its guidelines for ritual cleanliness, not as a means to salvation, but as a way to honor God’s righteousness. I think we can also respect the New and commune with Him, not because our sin doesn’t matter, but because He’s taken care of it. I think of a paradox (Chestertonian or otherwise) as two seemingly opposite concepts that are both true and that complement one another, a definition, I think, that describes the relationship between the Old and New Covenants.


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