Friday, March 21, 2014

Jesus the Revolutionary

  Life of Christ 49

          We are entering a time in Jesus' ministry in which His fame has gone past the point of 'Did you hear about this guy?' to 'Do you think he is the messiah?'. Consequently, there are those who will seek to look beneath the surface of His reputation, and find out what makes Him tick. We saw this recently when, during a stopover in Capernaum, He was confronted and questioned by a waiting committee of the 'doctors of the Law.' Following that, He meets and calls Matthew, and spend some time with Him. This brings us to our story today (Matthew 9.14-17), another investigative story, if you will.
          John the Baptist, almost a year into Jesus' ministry, still has his own ministry, including a small band of disciples that remain loyal to him. Apparently, word has spread through the grapevine from one group of disciples (Jesus') to another (John's) that Jesus' group of seven or eight didn't fast every week. John's disciples did, and, of course, the Pharisaic rabbis had their own disciples, and they fasted as well.
          Fasting is commended in the Old Testament, and it had become customary in the years between Ezra and Jesus for spiritually observant Jews to fast once a week. The Pharisees, as was their wont, thought if once was good than two was better, and they fasted two days a week. But Jesus' disciples didn't fast at all. Some of John's disciples got up the courage, and on a visit to Galilee, probably specifically to see Jesus, asked Him why they didn't.

          Jesus answers their question by explaining that it isn't reasonable to expect a man to fast at a feast. Feast times were rather a period for rejoicing. Such occasions do not fit with the idea of fasting, which includes sorrow, penitence, and humility of soul. Jesus says, in essence, that since He, the Messiah, was here, the fact needed celebrated. There would be plenty of time for mourning and sorrow after He left.
          Following that explanation, Jesus gets to the unspoken root cause and problem of their question. We will see that this was often His way. He would answer a question, and then go beyond the simple answer to deal with the actual problem. Why did the Jews fast once a week? Was there a scriptural command to do so? No, but there was a traditional call for it, and that was the reason – tradition.
          Jesus was dealing with a religious system, cultured and led by Israel's pharisaic religious leaders, that emphasized the now traditional extra-biblical externals more than it did the spirit of the Torah, and obedience from the heart. He knows He has to tear down this too highly esteemed respect for tradition if He is to turn the people in the direction of real religion.
          At the same time, Jesus already knows that His attempt won't work, that Israel will reject Him, and that He will be killed. He has not yet begun emphasizing it to His disciples, but He does know it. His early knowledge is indicated clearly in John 2.18-19 when, just weeks into His ministry, He cleanses the Temple of the moneychangers, and refers to His own death and resurrection in answer to a question. Ergo, He knows as well that if He is going to fail at reaching His people, and at His attempt to fix what was broken in Israel's religion, that He must start something brand new to take its place. Thus, He gives an example to John's disciples to illustrate His reasoning behind overthrowing tradition, and going with something brand new.
          'No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved' (Matthew 9.16-17).
         Several years ago I undertook a reasonably extensive study of alcohol in the Bible. One of the things I learned is that alcoholic wine does not occur naturally in nature. Rot does, but not the kind of wine that is bottled and sold. To make that kind of wine one must have the correct temperature, and the proper amounts of sugar, yeast, and oxygen. Occasionally grapes rotting on the vine will become vinegary (vinous fermentation vs. acetous fermentation) but no one would drink that. To produce alcoholic wine, in Bible times, was definitely a man-made process.
          This process often involved certain kinds of yeast, which, once introduced into a wineskin stayed in the skin even when the alcoholic wine thus made was poured out. If you then poured new or sweet wine, which was just grape juice, into that skin, and if the temperature was just right and the sugar content of the grape juice was correct, you would then get a new batch of alcoholic wine regardless of whether that was your intention. More often than not, though, you would get a chemical reaction, which since you weren't expecting and thus weren't monitoring, would burst the wineskin open due to the fermentation process going on inside.
          In other words, as Jesus said, if you put new wine into old wineskins, skins that had alcoholic wine in them, that new wine would begin to ferment and the bags would burst. What you needed to do was put new wine into previously unused wineskins so there would be no active yeast cultures inside to spoil it.
          Jesus, to use His own illustration, was not just fixing an improperly made batch of alcoholic wine. He already knew that wasn't going to work. He was going to have to make a brand new batch of wine altogether. And it would be the height of foolishness for Him to place that brand new batch of wine right back into the old wineskins of traditional Judaism. The old wineskin would just ruin the new batch of wine He was making.
          For example, Jesus did set the record straight in relation to the popular yet oh-so-wrong hermeneutic of Old Testament interpretation. His Sermon on the Mount is clear proof of that. But that wasn't enough. No, His life produced, not just a fix to a wrongly interpreted Old Testament, but an entirely brand New Testament. The system of Temple worship, and its stepchild the synagogue would be replaced with a brand new institution called the Church. Judaism itself, with all of its numerous flaws, would be replaced with a brand new religion we call Christianity.
          It is fair to say that Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and grew out of Judaism, but is not fair to say that Christianity is a reformation of Judaism. It isn't. It is something revolutionary. It is something brand new.
          So many people wrongly assert that Jesus was a reformer, one who came to fix what was wrong with the religion of His day. They couldn't be more wrong. Reformation means the improvement or amendment of something that is wrong or corrupt. Jesus wasn't a reformer for He didn't leave behind an amended and fixed Jewish religion. Revolution, on the other hand, means an overthrow of what exists by replacing it with something totally new, and that is precisely what Jesus did.
          This is, to me, a totally crucial thing to understand about the life of Christ, and most people seem to miss it. He was a revolutionary, not a reformer. The American Revolution didn't fix what was wrong with the British governing system. It produced an entirely new country. Jesus didn't come to tweak Judaism, to edit it, or to add a little here and there around the edges. He came to bring something entirely new. He put new wine into new wineskins.

          Jesus was a revolutionary.

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