Who puts new wine into old wineskins? According to Jesus, no one. “Instead, they pour new wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:22). While I am not an expert in the field, I understand that no one puts new wine into an old wineskin because, over time, the new wine expands but, unlike new wineskins, old wineskins don’t. As a result, the new wine breaks free from the old wineskins.
What did Jesus have in mind when he spoke those words? Most if not all students of Scripture agree that Jesus was offering an aphorism (a brief statement of a principle) rather than a teaching on wine. But if Jesus’ words constitute an aphorism, how are we to understand it? What is this new wine and what are old wineskins?
Jesus does not answer those questions but didn’t really need to. The message is clear. Wineskins represent the delivery system, the wine the package. Wineskins represent the non-essentials, the wine the essential. Wineskins represent the strategy, the wine the goal or objective. Wineskins represent the instruments through which the Holy Spirit works, the wine represents the work of the Holy Spirit. As Howard Synder wrote years ago,
Jesus distinguishes here between something essential and primary (the wine) and something secondary but also necessary and useful (the wineskins). (See Howard A. Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins, 13)
We not only understand the aphorism, we find it easy to apply the principle to the ministry of the local church. As Christ-followers or disciples, we expect to receive new wine as we are led by the Holy Spirit, live by the Holy Spirit, and cooperate with the movement of the Holy Spirit. We also tend to assume that the Holy Spirit will work most effectively through the old wineskins.Since, for example, in years gone by the Holy Spirit worked mightily through the Sunday evening worship service, we expect the Holy Spirit to work through that same instrument today. Why shouldn’t we assume that? We may not assume that because new wine requires new wineskins. The old wineskins can’t hold the new wine; they can’t contain it.
Friends, the Holy Spirit is alive and well. The local church is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is able to do far more than we ask or imagine. As we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, our future as disciples and as congregations will include new wine. The challenge we face, then, is to prepare new wineskins for new wine. Towards that end, we need bold, creative, courageous, and wise congregations willing to not only discern with thanksgiving the presence of new wine, but also willing to discard old wineskins and employ new ones. Not easy work. But what’s the option but spilled wine.