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Matthew 9:14-17 “Jesus’ Place”

“Then, the disciples of John came to Him saying, ‘On what account do we and the Pharisees fast often, yet your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Isn’t it impossible for the sons of the wedding hall to mourn so long as the bridegroom is with them? Yet, days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. So no one puts on a piece of unshrunk cloth onto an old garment; for the completion of it lifts away from the garment and a worse schism comes about. Neither do they put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins surely burst, and the wine pours out and the skins are destroyed. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.’”


Having recorded the ultimate authoritative sermon in history (5:1-7:29), Matthew moves Jesus from the mount where authority was claimed to the people where this same authority is proven. Matthew 8:1-9:34 consists of three cycles of miracles that prove Jesus’ authoritative claims. These cycles of miraculous authority are interrupted by scenes focusing on discipleship. The cycle of authoritative cleansing, restoration, and atonement (8:1-17) is followed by a scene where the cost of discipleship is revealed (8:18-22). Likewise, the cycle of Jesus’ authority to calm, cast out, and forgive (8:23-9:8) is followed by a section dedicated to teaching the nature of discipleship (9:9-17). Our present text is the conclusion of this discipleship narrative.

Matthew himself is the example of a true disciple (v. 9) as Jesus calls him and he leaves everything behind in order to follow Jesus. The farewell feast that Matthew hosts (vv. 10-13) is a feast in Jesus’ honor and an explanation to his friends that Jesus, not money, is Matthew’s new master. This feast is criticized by the Pharisees, whom Jesus’ rebukes as the spiritual children of the rebellious and idolatrous norther tribes seven centuries earlier. Now, in vv. 14-17, Jesus is questioned from another corner. The disciples of John the Baptist seem to be confused regarding Jesus’ apparent lack of piety. Having already rebuked the Pharisees regarding His purpose, Jesus now turns to the disciples of John. Or rather, the disciples of John turn to Him.


The timing of this event appears to be in the same context as both Matthew’s feast and the Pharisee’s interrogation of Jesus’ disciples (vv. 10-13). While it is true that the grammar does not demand an immediate chronological connection,[1] the fact remains that Matthew’s intention is to logically link the two events in the reader’s mind.[2] It is not Matthew’s intention to present Jesus’ biography as a neat timeline of events but to argue that because Jesus is God’s Messiah, Judean Christians are to forsake everything and follow Him alone. The previous spat with the Pharisees made clear the purpose of Jesus’ advent: to call sinners unto salvation (v. 13). Here, Jesus will make clear His place in God’s plan of salvation: He is the beginning of something new.

The text flows in a straightforward manner where John’s disciples question Jesus (v. 14) and Jesus provides His answer (vv. 15-17). His reply not only directly answers John’s disciples’ question about fasting (v. 15) but goes on to explain the disconnect between Jesus and the present religious establishment (vv. 16-17).


Question of Fasting: Traditionalism Masquerading as Fidelity (v. 14)

Then, the disciples of John came to Him saying, ‘On what account do we and the Pharisees fast often, yet your disciples do not fast?’


Where the Pharisees came to undermine Jesus’s authority by questioning the disciples, these men come to Jesus directly. It seems that they primarily seek to understand rather than to critique. On the other hand, John the Baptist has been in prison for some time now (4:12), yet his followers continue to remain loyal to their old master. This loyalty is obviously misplaced since John himself identified Jesus as the One of whom he spoke (Jn. 1:29-36; 3:25-30). That these men were not following Jesus, but maintained their identity with John is not something to be overlooked. Having correctly identified the herald, they are missing the King.

Regarding the question itself, several observations can be made. First, the fasting in question is neither the prescribed national fast that accompanies the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29; 23:27) nor is it the individual’s fasting in their own engagements with God as already prescribed by Jesus (6:16-18). Rather, this is a reference to the twice-weekly fasts[3] (Mondays and Thursdays as alluded to ) practiced by those who considered themselves as pious in 1st century Judaism.[4] Because these fasts were not prescribed, there is nothing wrong, irreverent, or disobedient in the fact that Jesus’ disciples did not practice them. These fasts came from tradition rather than from revelation. In addition to this, the prophets had already made it clear that outward works of piety are no substitute for simple obedience from the heart (Is. 58:1-12; Zech. 7:1-14).[5]

Second, the disciples of John seem to join themselves to the Pharisees over and against the disciples of Jesus. This is remarkable in and of itself due to John’s outspoken hostility to the Pharisees and Sadducees (3:7-10). Yet, these men seem to think that they and the Pharisees have a pious leg up on the disciples of Jesus. At least in this matter, the Pharisees are almost considered as allies rather than foes.

Finally, while the question specifically mentions Jesus’ disciples and excludes Jesus Himself, there remains an unspoken sideswipe aimed at Jesus. It is impossible to separate a disciple from his master, for a good disciple will emulate the one who trains him. If John’s disciples find it curious that Jesus’ disciples do not fast as they and the Pharisees do, then they also find it curious that Jesus is not teaching them to do so. Their question is more about what Jesus is teaching His own more than anything else.


Answer: Fidelity Trusts Covenant Fulfillment (vv. 15-17)

The rest of the text contains Jesus’ answer. The answer itself is provided in the form of a rhetorical question (v. 15), which should sufficiently close the door on the doubts of John’s disciples. Yet, Jesus plows ahead and expounds upon this answer (vv. 16-17) so that all doubt concerning Jesus’ place in covenantal expectation will be removed.


Explanation: A Wedding is no place for Mourning (v. 15)

And Jesus said to them, ‘Isn’t it impossible for the sons of the wedding hall to mourn so long as the bridegroom is with them? Yet, days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.


True to form, Jesus answers with a question, and a rhetorical one at that. The obvious and implied answer is “no”. It would be ridiculous for the personal friends and attendants of the bridegroom (i.e., the sons of the wedding hall) to mourn during a wedding feast. The image of a wedding feast is purposeful, vivid, and perfectly presents Jesus’ case. At this juncture it must be realized that Jesus has equated (1) Himself to a bridegroom, (2) His disciples as His personal attendants, and (3) their relationship as pre-wedding revelries.

A wedding in that day and culture would have been much different than our own. For starters, the groom plays the key role rather than the bride. It is the groom who arrives at the bride’s home to take her to his home escorted by his friends. This procession would include the whole community as they honor and congratulate the happy couple. Once they arrive at the groom’s home the festivities begin which may last up to a week. All the while, the groom’s friends are close at hand as they partake in and supervise the celebration. So important was their role that they were excused from their many other duties which would include the twice-weekly fast.[6] By equating the disciple’s relationship with Jesus in terms of a wedding feast, their exemption from fasting while the feast lasts is assumed. To fast (an expression of mourning) during a wedding feast would be improper, impolite, and downright disrespectful.

Yet, the illustration of a wedding is hardly arbitrary. The prophets have often used the image of a wedding to speak of Yhwh’s relationship with Israel and the image of a wedding feast as a metaphor for Messiah’s kingdom. The most famous of such illustrations is found in Hosea (1:1-3:5), the same prophet quoted by Jesus when rebuking the Pharisees only two verses before. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees’ questions regarding His associations by revealing that He is the healer of Hosea 6 and here He claims to be the bridegroom of Hosea 2.

In the context of Hosea, the bride of course is Israel while the bridegroom is Yhwh. Israel’s rebellion, idolatry, and apostasy is likened to harlotry (Hos. 1:2) for which she will be punished (Hos. 2:1-13). Yet, there will be a day of forgiveness and restoration where the one-time harlot is restored to the status of bride (Hos. 2:14-23). Hosea’s own marriage is a symbol of this blessed future restoration (Hos. 1:3-11; 3:1-5). Jesus’ point is simple yet staggeringly profound: He, Israel’s bridegroom, has come to collect what is His. His disciples join the bridegroom in this blessed time of merriment. Yet, the Pharisees and John’s disciples are fasting as they carry on their pious mourning. Mourning is appropriate for a funeral, not a wedding. The fact that the Pharisees and John’s disciples continue to practice outward signs of mourning at such a time is indicative of rejection and unbelief.[7] There will come a time when the disciples too will mourn, when the bridegroom is taken from them.

The reference to the bridegroom’s being taken away is as shocking as it is revealing. This does not fit in with the wedding image because it would be the groom and bride who are left at home while the attendants (after the festivities have concluded) depart.[8] Yet, Jesus speaks of His being taken away. This is the first reference from Jesus’ own lips of His coming death, a time of mourning indeed as the bridegroom is taken away before the marriage can be consummated. After Jesus’ death and burial, the disciples will fast.[9] This brings an unasked question to the foreground. If the Pharisees and disciples of John are mourning during the wedding celebration, what will they be doing when the bridegroom is taken away?


Exposition: The New Covenant is New (vv. 16-17)

So, no one puts on a piece of unshrunk cloth onto an old garment; for the completion of it lifts away from the garment and a worse schism comes about. Neither do they put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins surely burst, and the wine pours out and the skins are destroyed. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.’


Jesus’ explanation of why His disciples do not fast as the Pharisees and disciples of John do is now expounded upon with the use of two additional illustrations. As the prophetic bridegroom of Israel, Jesus is the head of something new, that is to say Jesus is the head of the New Covenant. These illustrations demonstrate that the New Covenant can neither be added to the Old Covenant[10] nor contained by the Old Covenant.


The New Covenant cannot be added to the Mosaic Covenant (v. 16)

In a day when clothing is neither produced nor mended at home, this verse requires a bit of explanation. For the average person of the day, wool was nearly the exclusive fabric worn. Wool was first sheared from sheep, spun into thread, and then woven into fabric. Once the fabric came off the weaver’s loom, it had to be dressed or washed before being manufactured into clothing. This way, the fabric would be “preshrunk” and accurate measurements for clothing could be made.

What is in view here is the unthinkable and unimaginable attempt to take a piece of fabric fresh from the loom and sewing it on an older, tattered, and shrunken garment. After the first washing or walk in the rain, the patch would shrink and pull away from the garment, likely taking a portion of the older garment with it. As a result, the patch job caused more harm than good. The point is simple: Jesus has zero intention of providing a patch for the Mosaic Covenant or the present corruption of the Judean religious system.

The Mosaic Covenant was given with an expiration date. If Israel disobeyed Yhwh, they would die (Deut. 28:15-68). This by no means made the promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel invalid, but these blessings would only come about after the curses of the Mosaic Covenant (Deut. 30:1-10). Therefore, the covenantal blessings to come cannot possibly be tacked on to a covenant that will be completed with the death of Israel. This is essentially what the Pharisaical system attempted to do, that is, reduce Mosaic Covenant obedience to external acts of piety (like fasting). In their minds, through their works they could produce covenantal obedience and thus enjoy covenantal blessing. Jesus’ illustration warns against such thinking. To attempt to reform the corrupt or to patch the old will produce ruin, not restoration. The New Covenant is new.

The Greek text here is most interesting. Most English versions read something like “for the patch pulls/tears away from the garment” (NASB, LSB, NKJV, ESV). Yet the Greek (αἲρει γὰρ πλήρωμα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ ἱματίου) translates more woodenly: “for its completion/fulfillment tears from the garment”. When the new, unshrunk cloth is fulfilled or compete (πλήρωμα) it pulls away from the garment. If the unshrunk cloth has a fulfillment in and of itself, then it cannot be used as a patch on what is old.


The New Covenant cannot be Contained to the Mosaic Covenant (v. 17)

The next illustration also requires explanation for a modern audience. The new wine (οἶον νέον) is wine that has just been made and is still fermenting. Because the fermentation process produces carbon dioxide as a biproduct, any container must either (1) be able to withstand the building pressure, (2) have enough elasticity to expand with the pressure, or (3) not be sealed so as to allow the building gas to escape. The third option is really no option at all since an unsealed container would also allow undesired contaminants. For this reason, the skins of animals freshly skinned and cured provided a watertight container with elasticity to expand with the fermenting brew within.

But there is a world of difference between an old wineskin (ἀσκοὺς παλαιοῦς) and a fresh wineskin (ἀσκοὺς καινοὺς). A wineskin that has already been used has no more give, its elasticity has been spent. To pour a new batch of wine into it will result in the skin splitting under the pressure and the wine being wasted on the ground. If the wine is new, freshly made, then it must be contained in a new wineskin. Only this way can both the new wine and the new wineskin be preserved.[11] The Pharisees and the disciples of John are attempting to force New Covenant blessing into the old wineskin of the Mosaic Covenant. The effect is a religion that formed of manmade tradition and has little in common with the commands handed down by God through Moses. The result will be the loss of the container as well as the blessings. Jesus’ point is simple: He is bringing something new.


This section of discipleship (vv. 9-17) highlights what a true disciple of Jesus is. When the master calls, the disciple follows regardless of the cost (v. 9). A disciple of Jesus knows and understands Jesus’ purpose is to save and redeem sinners rather than validate the self-righteous (vv. 10-13). Finally, a disciple understands the place of Jesus in God’s plan of redemption is to bring about the New Covenant. Jesus is not interested in reforming the old. He demands faithfulness to the new that He has inaugurated.

[1] The temporal adverb τότε (then) does not necessarily demand an immediate succession of events as καὶ ἐγένετο (and then it was) does in v. 10. What the adverb does indicate is that this event occurred after the previous encounter and is in some way connected to it. Though the strength of that connection may be more logical than temporal.

[2] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 427.

[3] Mondays and Thursdays as alluded to in Lk. 18:12.

[4] David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 254.

[5] Hendriksen, p. 427.

[6] Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud & Midrash, trans. Andrew Bowden and Joseph Longarino, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022), p. 561-7.

[7] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 224.

[8] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 390-1.

[9] Jesus’ previous teaching on fasting (6:16-18) is not in view here. The fasting Jesus spoke of in the SM is a personal expression of grief over sin and/or a time of personal communion with God. The fasting spoken of here is regulated by the calendar and is nothing more than traditionalism. Jesus is not saying that after His death the disciples will return to the dead works of 2nd Temple Judaism, but that His death will be a time of legitimate grieving where true fasting would be appropriate.

[10] What is meant by “Old Covenant” is specifically the Mosaic Covenant. The New Covenant is related to all the previous unconditional covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic) and by no means replaces or supersedes them. In fact, the New Covenant is the means by which all the other unconditional covenants are fulfilled. Neither is it accurate to speak of the New Covenant replacing the Mosaic Covenant because the Mosaic Covenant was fulfilled before the New Covenant was established.

[11] There are those who would make Jesus’ words indicate that both the new and the old wineskins are preserved as opposed to the new wine and the new wineskin. This is not only a very difficult position to prove grammatically (why would ἀμφότεροι not refer to the two nouns contained within the same clause?) but makes no sense within the illustration. Old wineskins are never preserved as wineskins. For reasons already explained, they can never serve that purpose again. Therefore, they would either be discarded or repurposed.

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