The Gospel Stands Alone (Mark 2:18-22)

The Gospel Stands Alone (Mark 2:18-22)


Mark 2:13-22

We find ourselves in a portion of Scripture, which at first glance may cause confusion. During my study this week I discovered that many respected teachers differ on what Christ is saying. Jesus is driving home a point through a cultural practice, and two parables that run parallel. At the end of the day there are really only two views accepted by believers. We must therefore do our duty and draw out the meaning which the author intended.

The two views:

1.) Christ is demonstrating the supremacy of the New Covenant over that of the Old Covenant.

2.) Christ is demonstrating the incompatibility between the gospel message and the unbending system that is imposed by the self-righteous.

I believe it is the latter view we should adhere to and not the first one. Though the Scripture does teach the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant, it does not destroy it or stand-apart from it. This text, therefore, should not be used to demonstrate that. Hebrews 8 would be more appropriate.

Christ Himself declares:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”[1]

The parables He teaches here show destruction occurring when two things come in contact. The new cloth cannot live in harmony with the old, and the old wine skin is incapable containing the new wine as it ferments.

Jesus is declaring the false religious system of self-righteous Judaism is unsuitable for the gospel. The dead giveaway to this lies in the rebuke that Jesus is responding to, which is essentially:

“Why don’t you all fast like we do?”

Understand, the Old Testament Law only required Jews to fast once a year on The Day of Atonement.[2] Apart from that they were not bound to fasting on a regular basis.

Could fasting occur on other days? Absolutely, but it was not obligatory.

The Scripture is filled with instances of fasting apart from The Day of Atonement.[3] The command to fast in Leviticus called for men and women to literally humble their souls. Failure to do so meant being cut off. When we see fasting occurring in the word apart from The Day of Atonement it is often associated with great mourning. Merrill Unger writes:

“In connection with the fast it would be a practical confession of misery and an act of deepest humiliation before the Lord.”

Sadly, after the Babylonian captivity of Israel, fasting became a weekly practice. Not out of brokenness before God, but piety. The Pharisaical mindset had established a tradition of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays only to be seen and revered by men. Jesus rebukes this by saying:

“And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.”[4]

Again, fasting was to be a “confession of misery and an act of deepest humiliation before God.” The Pharisees were hypocrites, because they fasted without humbled souls. Luke records Jesus’ parable dealing with this topic:

“And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt. “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice I week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”[5]

There is no humiliation within the minds of the self-righteous; pride has consumed them. They sought to be seen and led others likewise. The blind leading the blind.[6]

So, what did we see in the text last week? Jesus telling these self-righteous hypocrites He came to call sinners and not the righteous. Again, they were righteous by their own self-evaluation and not God’s. There is none righteous![7] The inflexible system established by the self-righteous is incapable of making one right before the Holy and just God.

Mark 2:18

“And John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting and they came and said to Him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”

Think of the Pharisees logic:

Why are you eating with tax-gatherers? We don’t!

Why are your disciples not fasting? We do!

They think highly of themselves, because they seek to establish their own righteousness via tradition. They are the “pinnacle of perfection”.

There are at least two things we should notice about the rebuke towards Christ:

1.) The content

2.) The Source

What is the content? In light of what we know about fasting this rebuke has nothing to do with keeping the Mosaic Law, but everything to do with breaking Rabbinical Tradition. Even Luke demonstrates tradition is the topic:

“The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers…the Pharisees also do the same…”[8]

The whole reason conflict was arising between Jesus and the Pharisees was because He would not submit to the established tradition. The traditions where they had established their own kingdom upon, and not God’s. They will later try to trip Him up with the Mosaic Law, but that is not what is happening here.

Again, the Law of Moses only required fasting to be done once a year on The Day of Atonement. The Pharisees, however, piously and hypocritically did it twice a week as the “spiritually elite” instructing others to do the same.

Now, the Pharisees are obviously a part of the source, but the text includes another party:

“And John’s disciples and the Pharisees…”

Matthew records only John’s disciples coming to Christ with the question.[9]

Luke records only the Pharisees.[10]

Why would disciples of John the Baptist be making such a statement to the One John heralded?

I believe there are a few options:

1.) These disciples of John are just as caught up in self-righteous traditions as the Pharisees.

2.) These disciples of John are genuinely fasting and mourning over the imprisonment of the Baptizer.

3.) These disciples of John fast on the traditional days, but unlike the Pharisees they actually humble their souls before God.

As a note, Jesus never rebukes the fasting practices of John’s disciples, only Pharisees.

Now the context of this passage is not about Jesus’ relationship with John’s disciple. The context is about the growing conflict between the gospel message and self-righteous works. John’s disciples are minor figures in this portion. Consider the unchanging faces through this chapter and into the next:

1.) Christ answers the Pharisees thoughts on His authority over sin (Mark 2:1-12).

2.) Christ answers the Pharisees rebuke about dining with tax-gatherers and sinners (Mark 2:13-17).

3.) Christ answers the Pharisees criticism on why His disciples do not fast (Mark 2:18-22)

4.) Christ answers the Pharisees interrogation on His disciples and the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28).

5.) Christ answers the Pharisees thoughts by healing a man on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6).

6.) Christ answers the Pharisees rebuke that He does everything through Satan’s power (Mark 3:20-30).

The point is the greater context shows the conflict needing to be addressed here is between Jesus Christ and the Pharisees, not John’s disciples.

What is the conflict? The gospel message and self-righteousness are incompatible with each other.

Let’s briefly recall the rebuke:

“Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”

“Jesus, you’re guilty of not being like us! Why?”

Jesus’ response:

Mark 2:19

“And Jesus said to them, “While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom do not fast, do they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.”

Jesus directs them to a wedding ceremony.

Why is it His disciples do not fast? People do not mourn and fast during wedding feasts and celebrations. It is not a time to “humble your soul”, but be lifted up in joy!

Why are His disciples joyous? Jesus is the bridegroom and His disciples are the attendants of the bridal chamber. They obviously will not mourn while He is with them, but be glad and rejoice.

Why are they rejoicing? Christ has come with His gospel, and His gospel alone redeems undeserving humanity.

They are rejoicing over the mercy and grace found only in Jesus Christ. Not only are they rejoicing, but Matthew has thrown a major reception party for Christ. He desired his wicked and ungodly friends to know the joy of true forgiveness in Christ’s gospel alone.

Now, I believe this account takes place on a Thursday for two reasons:

1.) The next conflict occurs on the Sabbath day.

2.) This dialogue happens during Matthew’s party, where Christ’s disciples are eating and drinking.

This clearly reveals to John’s disciples and the Pharisees they are not observing the common fast. This is sad, because they do not even see the need to rejoice over mercy and grace towards sinners. They don’t think they personally need it! They are more focused on outer moral reform.

Jesus says, “They have reason to rejoice, because I’m here among them.”

John says of Christ:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth…For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”[11]

Christ refers to Himself as the bridegroom. This is interesting, because nowhere in the Old Testament is the Son of Man referred to as that. God is the only One ever referred to as such. Jesus again equates Himself to be God. You may recall that Jesus directed the Scribes to learn mercy and compassion from Hosea.

What is Hosea about? God as a husband faithfully and mercifully loving His unfaithful wife, Israel.

Look at the context of this portion:

Pharisees: “Only God can forgive sin!”

Jesus: “I know! Now, let Me show how far My forgiveness extends; Follow me, Levi!”

Pharisees: “The tax official? Why are you eating with such ungodly wretches?”

Jesus: “I came to save the sinful and undeserving like Hosea did with Gomer.”

Pharisees “Well your disciples should be fasting like us and not partying!”

Jesus: “My disciples are rejoicing that the Husband-to-be has faithfully loved His undeserving bride.”

Mark 2:20

“But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”

There will be a day when the disciples mourn. They will mourn because the Husband-to-be will be taken away from them. He will be taken way to justify His ungodly and undeserving bride. Out of His love for her He will see that the just wrath she deserves is met out on Him. The gospel message is the heart of this portion. It is being contrasted with the self-righteous system and mindset of the religious leaders.

Jesus now presents two parables showing His message is not compatible with theirs.

Mark 2:21-22

Understand both the old garment and the old wineskins are defective, useless, and beyond repair. So is the Pharisees self-righteous system.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results.”

Luke reads:

“No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old.”[12]

The old is completely incompatible with the new:

1.) The new will destroy the old.

2.) The new does not even resemble the old.

You will also ruin the new garment which is effective, useful, and perfect. Don’t use the new to fix the old, utilize the new!

Jesus goes on:

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

Old wineskins have been stretched out and are brittle from fermentation. New wine will destroy the old skin as it ferments; therefore it needs to stand alone in new skins. So too the gospel stands alone.

Luke records Jesus’ tragic closing statements:

“And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’”[13]

Men and women become so entrenched in self-righteous tradition they don’t see their error. If we do not teach the true gospel it is no gospel at all; just a useless and pathetic promotion of self-righteous works.

I will ask again:

What do we do with God’s gospel?

What do we truly teach throughout the week?

What will happen to our message when it is compared to the glorious gospel of Christ?

Will we be found teaching a message incompatible with the gospel of Christ?

Will the message of Christ justifying the ungodly tear apart our message like an old garment?

Will the message of Christ crucified and risen again make our message burst like old, brittle and stretched wineskins?


[1] Matthew 5:17

[2] Leviticus 16:29-31;23:27-29; Acts 27:9

[3] 2 Samuel 12:16; 1 Kings 21:9-12; Ezra 8:21; Isaiah 58:3-5

[4] Matthew 6:16

[5] Luke 18:9-14

[6] Matthew 15:14

[7] Romans 3:10

[8] Luke 5:33

[9] Matthew 9:14

[10] Luke 5:30-33

[11] John 1:1,14,16-18

[12] Luke 5:36

[13] Luke 5:39

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