A while ago I visited a friend called Mark, who’s a Baptist pastor in America. And he forewarned me that Southern Baptist circles are full of taboos. Well, on my first morning there I noticed this magnificent coffee machine in Mark’s kitchen – at which my jet-lagged heart rose. Mark and family were already out, but some other friends of theirs – a couple– were also staying, and at that moment, the wife came into the kitchen. So I introduced myself and then said, ‘Do you know if there’s any coffee around?’ And her face fell. And she said, ‘Oh… do you drink?’ Which made me feel like I’d just walked into the refreshments tent of a teetotal rally and ordered a double whisky – she obviously thought that caffeine was of the devil.
And you don’t have to be around Christian circles for long to discover a great deal of disagreement about how the Christian life should be lived. Eg, should you drink alcohol or not? Should you work on a Sunday or not? (And does mowing the lawn or washing the car count or not?) Or there are denominational disagreements like: should you baptise infants or not? And with voices on both sides, it can leave you wondering, ‘Who should I believe?’ – and feeling under pressure from the last person to voice a strong opinion.
Well the person for whom Luke’s Gospel was originally written would have known what that felt like. So as we pick up this Luke series again, would you turn to Luke 1, v1.
1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (1.1-4)
Now Theophilus was almost certainly a Gentile (ie, non-Jew) who’d come to faith in Jesus. And he didn’t have to be around Christian circles for long to discover a great deal of disagreement between Jewish and Gentile believers – all centred on the Old Testament (OT) and how it applies to Christians today. Eg, should you be circumcised or not? Should you keep the OT food laws or not – or the Sabbath law or not? Which probably left Theophilus wondering, ‘Who should I believe?’ – and feeling under pressure from the last person to voice a strong opinion. To which Luke says, in this morning’s passage, ‘The person to believe is Jesus: let the Lord Jesus tell you what he wants from you.’ And that’s what we’re going to do this morning. So would you turn on to this morning’s passage – Luke chapter 5 and v33.
So, some people come to Jesus and, v33:
33 They said to him, “John’s disciples [that’s John the baptist] often fast [ie, go without food as a regular habit] and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees [they were the OT experts], but yours go on eating and drinking.” (5.33)
And the unspoken question is, ‘Why don’t you make them fast given 1) that other godly people do it – and 2) that it’s there in the OT?’ Now Luke includes a lot of stories like that, where Jesus is in the thick of an argument. And the reason is that Theophilus, the person he was originally writing for, was in the thick of arguments – fellow-Christians arguing about what God did and didn’t require of you. And Luke is saying here, ‘OK, let’s get it straight from the horse’s mouth. Here’s God the Son telling us what he wants from us.
So I’ve got three headings:
Firstly, JESUS CAME TO BRING GRACE – AND OUR CHRISTIAN HABITS SHOULD REFLECT THAT (5.33-35)
Look on to v34:
34 Jesus answered, “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” (5.34)
Ie, ‘Have you ever been to a wedding without food?!’ A recent survey found that the average cost of a wedding in the UK is now £15,000 and that up to £5,000 of that goes on food. Tess and I spent only a fraction of that, but we had a wonderful outside caterer and the reception was a foodfest from start to finish – from canapés on the way in to chocolate dipped strawberries as you went home. You’ve never been to a wedding without food, have you? Because a wedding is a celebration of covenant love – ie, of two people who’ve promised one another, ‘I will love you – whatever.’ And Jesus is saying here that he came to bring that kind of relationship between us and God his Father.
So just look back to v31. Last time, we saw Jesus calling this guy Levi to follow him – someone who’d led a totally immoral life. And Levi was so bowled over that Jesus had accepted him, that he threw a dinner party for his equally immoral friends to meet Jesus. And the Pharisees were horrified that he accepted the invitation – to which, v31:
31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous [ie, people who think they’re OK], but sinners to repentance.” (5.31-32)
So there’s Jesus the doctor: he saw himself as having come out ‘on call’ from heaven to earth, to die on the cross, to pay for your forgiveness and mine. And unlike the NHS, he’ll take anyone onto his list, however badly they’ve misbehaved. Do you need to trust him on that this morning? But that begs the question: will he then stick with you? Because you don’t become perfect when you turn to Jesus. You muck up every day as you try to live for him. So will he keep forgiving you whenever you need it – keep loving you despite your misbehaviour? And the answer is: yes – that’s Jesus the bridegroom in v34 – ie, Jesus the perfect husband, who on the cross said, ‘I will love you – whatever: I’m dying like this to pay for every sin you’ll ever need forgiving for.’ And that’s grace – God’s committed, all-forgiving love. That’s what Jesus came to bring, and he’s saying our Christian habits should reflect that.
So if you go back to the OT, you find that fasting was mainly a way of expressing your consciousness of sin and your sorrow for it. And that’s typical of the atmosphere of the OT law. It did speak of God’s grace. But mainly, it made people conscious of their sin – but without the full assurance of forgiveness that we can have this side of the cross. And Jesus was saying in v34, ‘Look, now I’m here, to bring grace with the full assurance of forgiveness, fasting is not the appropriate, main habit for those who trust in me.’
And sadly there are branches of Christianity with such habits of dwelling on sin, and even inflicting self-punishment for sin, that you have to say they’ve lost all sight of grace. But maybe you have, too. Maybe inwardly you’re dwelling on some sin in a way that robs you of assurance and joy. And maybe you’re in some way punishing yourself – perhaps by thinking you’re just rubbish, perhaps by refusing to forgive yourself something God has forgiven – or perhaps even by literal self-harm. And you need to know that Jesus is not standing in front of you saying, ‘I want to be your Judge.’ He’s saying, ‘I want to be your doctor. I want to be your perfect husband. I want to bring grace into your life.’ And you need to trust him that his grace is bigger than your sin.
But then look at v35:
35 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them [that’s talking about the time when he’ll die on the cross, rise again and no longer be physically with them]; in those days they will fast.” (5.35)
So is he contradicting what he’s just said? Is he now saying we should fast? No, I think he’s still saying fasting is never going to be the appropriate, main habit for Christians – because being a Christian is about living on the receiving end of God’s grace, and you express that not through fasting, but through joy and thankfulness. Which is why one of our main habits is: singing. Plenty of other religions fast and pray; but who else sings about God’s grace?
But I think he’s also saying two other things. One is about the time between his first and second comings. And he’s saying, ‘Until you’re safely with me in heaven, it won’t be all joy. There will be sorrows – sometimes very deep ones. And although I am with you in them, and you will one day be with me beyond them, they are still times for feeling and showing real sorrow.’ But the other thing he’s saying is about fasting specifically. I think he’s also saying, ‘While you’re living between my first and second comings, you may sometimes want to fast – eg, to make time to pray about something or seek God’s guidance about something – and in a way that shows you’re serious about it. (Which is what you see from time to time in Luke’s portrait of the early church in Acts.) But that’ll be voluntary, not a ‘must’. And it won’t be to dwell on your sin (as in so much OT fasting).’ Because Jesus didn’t come to make us dwell on our sin, but to bring us into relationship with him where we’re sure it’s forgiven.
Second, JESUS FULFILLED THE OT – SO WE SHOULDN’T TRY TO FIT NT LIFE INTO OT STRUCTURES (5.36-39)
What do I mean by that? Well, stick with the fasting example. Fasting was part of the OT law – ie, it was, from time to time, required. And that whole law was like a structure through which people could relate to God before Jesus. And Jesus has just said in v34 that one bit of that structure – fasting – doesn’t really fit the new situation of relating to God through him. But now he’s going to say something about the whole OT structure. So look down to v36:
36 He [also] told them this parable: “No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. (5.36-38)
So the ‘old’ things stand for the OT structures. And the ‘new’ things stand for Jesus. So in v36 he’s saying, ‘I haven’t just come to be a ‘patch’ stuck onto the OT structures.’ Our two year old twins are into stickers in a big way right now and Ellie is especially proud of her ‘I sat still for my X-ray’ sticker, which she got during the broken arm incident a few weeks back. But Jesus is saying, ‘I’m not just a little sticker, a little add-on to the same, unchanged OT structures.’ And then in v37, he’s saying, ‘And I and what I’ve come to bring cannot be fitted into those OT structures – any more than you can decant a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau into the silvery innards of a used-up wine box (I paraphrase). Verse 38:
38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. (5.38)
The point is: the OT always pointed forward, beyond itself, to what it called a new covenant – ie, a new way of relating to God (see, eg, Jeremiah 31.31-34). And Jesus is saying, ‘I’m the fulfilment of all that: I’m the new way of relating to God. And it doesn’t fit into the OT structures. So take an obvious eg: the OT structure of the temple with its priests and sacrifices. That structure was meant to bring home to people that their sin was a massive barrier between them and God which could only be dealt with through sacrifice. But it was only temporary, it pointed forward to Jesus, and it was fulfilled and rendered unnecessary by his death and resurrection. So there are no sacrifices we can offer for sin today – because Jesus’ sacrifice paid for all the sin of all of us. And there are no human priests whom we have to go through to approach God – because the risen Lord Jesus is our priest.
But sadly there are branches of Christianity today that say otherwise. Eg, the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says this:
The... Church... sees in the priesthood of Aaron and... of the Levites [ie, the OT].. a prefiguring of the ordained ministry of the new covenant.
Well, that sentence couldn’t possibly be more wrong. And it goes on:
‘the priesthood has the task... of presenting to God the prayer of the church... and offering the Eucharistic sacrifice.’
Ie, you still need a human priest as a ‘go-between’ between you and God – eg to hear your confession, and to offer the sacrifice of the mass to keep you accepted by God. And what’s going on there is exactly what Jesus warns against in this parable of the old and the new: it’s trying to fit Jesus and what he came to bring into OT structures. But if you do that, you basically end up denying Jesus and what he came to do, and living back in the atmosphere of the OT, with no assurance of forgiveness.
And the same goes for the two major religions of law – Judaism and Islam. Like the Romans Catholics I’ve got to know, the Jews and Muslims I’ve got to know have, at their best, been sensitive souls and very conscious of their sin – which is where law leaves you, if you’re honest. But not one of them has been able to say they’re sure where they stand with God. So isn’t v39 surprising – even shocking?
“And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’” (5.39)
Ie, no-one living in these religions of law naturally wants Jesus. Because it’s so hard to admit that all your religious effort hasn’t put you right with God, and that you still need Jesus as much as anyone. That’s so hard on the religious pride of the religious person. But if you’re a religious person here this morning, that’s what you need to hear.
Third, JESUS INTERPRETS THE OT LAW FOR US AND WE ANSWER TO HIM, NOT TO ONE ANOTHER (6.1-11)
Remember that Luke was writing for Theophilus, who was in the thick of arguments about how the OT law applies to Christians. And Luke 6 begins with an argument about Sabbath-keeping – which may have been something that Theophilus’s Jewish Christian friends were saying he should do.
So let me give you my picture of which commands of the OT law apply to us as God’s will for us today. Think back to your physics lessons about light. White light is made up of a whole range of colours from red through blue – everything you see in a rainbow. And if you shine a beam of white light through a filter, you can cut out all the colours you don’t want so that only red light comes through, or blue – or whatever. Well, think of the OT law as being like that beam of white light – it’s made up of a whole range of commands. And the first coming of Jesus is like the filter. And the question is, ‘Which commands are God’s will for us today? What ‘comes through’?’ Well, we’ve just seen that the sacrificial law doesn’t – because it’s been fulfilled in Jesus’ sacrifice. That’s why I don’t have to butcher lambs; and why I’m not a ‘priest’ and shouldn’t be called one. But then the rest of the NT says that what you might call God’s moral law does come through. So, you can’t imagine Jesus saying, ‘My coming means that lying or adultery is now OK.’ No, OT law which reflects God’s unchanging character (eg, truthfulness) or God’s unchanging creation order (eg, marriage) is still God’s will for us today. And then lastly there were national laws – like circumcision and food laws – designed to mark Israel off from other nations. And they don’t come through because since Jesus first coming, God’s people are now an international, multicultural people.
Now that’s only a rough and ready picture of how we relate to the OT law today. And it’s not 100% clear where some OT commands fit into that picture – which is why Christians disagree over them. And one such area is the Sabbath. So look down to Luke chapter 6, v1:
1 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and his disciples began to pick some ears of corn, rub them in their hands and eat the grain. 2 Some of the Pharisees asked, Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath? (6.1-2)
Now they were thinking of a Jewish commentary on the OT, which defined 39 kinds of work that you shouldn’t do on a Sabbath – including re-tying your shoe laces. (Presumably you were ‘allowed’ to do the work of tying them up at the beginning of the day, but you had to run the trip hazard if they came undone.) So they’d have seen Jesus’ disciples as guilty on four counts: reaping, threshing, winnowing and preparing a meal.
Now think how Jesus could have answered. He could just have said something about the Sabbath – namely, that God didn’t give a 39-point definition of rest, so nor should they. But he didn’t give an answer about the Sabbath; he gave an answer about himself. And it’s a massive claim. Verse 3:
3 Jesus answered them, Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions. (6.3-4)
So he’s referring to that incident in our OT reading (1 Samuel 21.1-6) where David does something that blatantly breaks part of the sacrificial law – but God doesn’t condemn him. God doesn’t judge him as having done anything wrong. And here’s Jesus’ ‘punchline’, v5:
5 Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man [which was one of his titles for himself] is Lord of the Sabbath.” (6.5)
Ie, ‘Just like God judged David as having done nothing wrong then, I judge that my disciples have done nothing wrong now – and I’m Lord of the Sabbath: I invented it, I wrote the law, and I therefore have the right to interpret it and tell you whether and how it applies today.
Sometimes when I’m leading Christianity Explored, people say to me, ‘Why didn’t Jesus claim more clearly to be the Son of God?’ And, granted, he didn’t go round in a hoodie with ‘2nd person of the trinity’ printed on it. But v5 is a claim to be God – you just can’t read it any other way
Now if you’re hoping that I’m about to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ of the Sabbath question, I’m about to disappoint you – because apart from the fact that I’m out of time, this passage on its own doesn’t answer it. But this passage does tell us how to go about answering it. Because if Jesus is the one who interprets the OT law for us, then we need to put together all his teaching on the law, which you find throughout the NT in the teaching of his apostles. And I’m persuaded that, in this particular area, they taught that we’re not bound to keep a Sabbath in the way that OT believers were. Eg, just listen to the apostle Paul in Romans 14, v4:
4 Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. (Romans 14.4-5)
And that’s why my third heading was: Jesus interprets the OT law for us – and we answer to Him, not to one another. So on the OT law things where it’s not 100% clear, we need to listen to one another on both sides of the argument, but then leave one another to do what we conscientiously think we should, and not judge one another or act as one another’s masters. And Colossians 2 makes the same point:
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow [ie, an OT ‘foreshadowing’] of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2.16-17)
And, again, I’m persuaded that those verses show that the apostles taught on behalf of the Lord Jesus that we’re not bound to keep a Sabbath in the way that OT believers were.
As a ‘postscript’, let me say: I do have one day off in seven. But I don’t trace that back to OT law, but to Genesis 1 and 2 which implies that God in his wisdom built the very rhythm of six days’ work and one day’s rest into creation for our good. So I do it as a matter of wisdom, not of law. And I’d encourage you to do the same as far as you can – without feeling guilty about when you can’t because you’re on an unavoidable work shift, or whatever. Because I don’t think Jesus says it’s moral law that you should.
I don’t have time for the end of the passage – which is about the purpose of the Sabbath being for our good. I just have time to sum up the whole thing – which is: in the midst of Christian arguments about what God does and doesn’t require of you, let Jesus tell you what he wants from you, as you come to your own conviction about the teaching of the whole NT on whatever area it is. And remember: he’s far more gracious than the people you’re arguing with.