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What Is the Significance of New Wine in New Wineskins?

Given the biblical and historical context of the term “new wine,” many scholars attach symbolic significance to Jesus’ use of it as recorded in Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, and Luke 5:37-39. There are three primary theories.

Apr 20, 2022
What Is the Significance of New Wine in New Wineskins?

“No one pours new wine into old wineskins,” Jesus lectured some 2,000 years ago. “Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:22).

This short statement has since become one of the more famous sayings of our Christ, imbued with theological importance and examined in great detail by scholars and pastors alike.

So, for us today, what’s the significance of new wine in new wineskins? Let’s look at the biblical context, historical context, and theories about symbolism to see if we can discover an answer.

What Is the Biblical Context of New Wine?

The phrase “new wine” is used frequently in the Old Testament, and it most often refers to earthly prosperity (especially when paired with “grain). That is to mean, “tokens of the blessing of God,” which prospers one with wealth (The Illustrated Bible Dictionary: Vol. 3).

May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness — an abundance of grain and new wine (Genesis 27:28).

He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land — your grain, new wine and olive oil — the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you (Deuteronomy 7:13).

Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine (Proverbs 3:9-10).

In the New Testament, the term “new wine” (oinon neon in Greek) is barely used at all. Only Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, and Luke 5:37-39 record that phrase — and all three of those instances refer to the same event in the earthly life of Jesus.

It seems that the disciples of the Pharisees and of John the Baptist made a regular habit of fasting — and Jesus’ disciples did not. According to Moses’ law, fasting was only required once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31).

However, tradition had grown up over the centuries that all pious Jews should fast twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Vol 1).

So, when Jesus and his disciples broke with that tradition, “Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’” (Mark 2:18).

Christ responded with several short metaphors to defend his actions. First, he compared himself to a bridegroom at a wedding ceremony (and who fasts at a wedding ceremony?).

Next, he spoke of the danger of putting a new patch on an old garment. Finally, he mentioned the illogic of storing new wine in old wineskins. That last metaphor is what we’re exploring today.

What Is the Historical Context of New Wine?

In the Israeli culture of that time and place, winemaking was as common as eating and drinking. Clean water was scarce, and the climate of that area was especially favorable to viticulture, so out of necessity, wine was most often the drink at meals (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery).

To make wine, grapes were harvested and then, usually, spread out in the sun for a few days to increase their sugar content.

Next, they’d be crushed in large stone vats, first with people stomping barefoot on them to press out the juice, followed by more pressing that used a wooden plank weighted with stones.

Historians tell us that typically “the new wine was left in the vat to undergo the first fermentation, which took from four to seven days” (This, by the way, puts the lie to the idea that Jesus was referring simply to nonalcoholic “grape juice” when he talked of new wine).

In fact, “some scholars are of the opinion that unfermented wine was impossible” in ancient Israel). After that, the wine would be strained and stored in wineskins or jars to complete fermentation (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 5).

Because new wine continued to ferment and emit gas inside its container, it was therefore crucial for it to be stored in new, supple wineskins. That way, the flexible nature of the wine container would allow it to expand and stay sealed as the fermentation process progressed.

The idea of putting new wine in an old, inflexible wineskin would’ve been regarded as foolishly wasteful because the old, dried-out wineskin would simply crack and drain out all of the new wine (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Vol 1).

What Are the Theories of Symbolic Significance of New Wine?

Given the biblical and historical context of the term “new wine,” many scholars attach symbolic significance to Jesus’ use of it as recorded in Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, and Luke 5:37-39. Here are three primary theories:

1. New wine represents the new covenant of grace. This is probably the most popular opinion, though it may not apply consistently to the text, depending on one’s interpretative choices.

This view says that Jesus was referring to himself when he spoke of new wine and referring to the Jewish extra-biblical, religious traditions when he spoke of old wineskins.

New wineskins, then, would be a transformed way of thinking that embraces the gospel of grace (Ephesians 2:8-9) rather than the legalistic religion of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:13).

This is fairly supported in the New Testament overall but might have some inconsistencies when applied to the specific contexts of Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, and Luke 5:37-39. For instance, new wine/new wineskins are tied contextually to old garments/new cloth in all three passages.

In the one case (wine), the new is emphasized as superior, while in the other case (garment), preserving the old is emphasized as the priority.

Similarly, Luke 5:39 records Jesus saying that “no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”

So, there are some exegetical dynamics to be resolved. Still, even with those inconsistencies, new wine as the new covenant of grace is a plausible interpretation.

2. New wine represents the failed, legalistic additions to God’s law made by the Pharisees. This is a less popular view but is held by some prominent evangelical thinkers, nonetheless.

For instance, Dr. Charles R. Swindoll, president of Dallas Theological Seminary, sees new wine in Jesus’ context as a reference to the intense legalism of Judaism at the time.

In Swindoll’s Living Insights: Mark, he suggests that both the old wineskins and the old garment represent “the Old Testament relationship with God” — something inherently good and fulfilled by Jesus rather than abolished by him (Matthew 5:17).

New wine, and the new patch of cloth, both represent “the religion of the Pharisees” — something which has corrupted the good intent of God’s law (Matthew 23:13).

The summary application, according to pastor Swindoll, then is, “Your newfangled, man-made religion of legalism causes more damage than what it attempts to fix.”

3. New wine doesn’t symbolize anything of significance — it’s just a rhetorical example of faulty thinking. It’s hard to ignore that Jesus’ reference to new wine was an abrupt, relatively minor part of his overall response to the question of fasting — and that it’s not taught again, or even mentioned, anywhere else in the New Testament.

That leads some to suggest that the commonly accepted symbology of new wine could be something we’ve imposed on these Scriptures rather than drawn from them.

In this view, new wine is rhetorically illustrative but not necessarily symbolic. It simply uses commonsense thinking of the ancient time to make obvious the faulty, legalistic logic of the Pharisees.

For instance, in his commentary Mark: The Gospel of Passion, Michael Card offers this insight about Jesus’ comments, “He is asking them to picture an old, cracked wineskin and the absurd notion of pouring new wine into it. Again, the image is one of inappropriateness.”

Why Does This Matter?

So, for us today, what’s the true significance of new wine in new wineskins? Well, it could be any, or all, or none of these things. What do you think?

For further reading:

Why Did Jesus Turn Water into Wine?

Are We Transformed by Our Salvation or Resistant to It?

What Is the New Covenant in Jesus Christ?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/serikbaib

Mike Nappa is a practical theologian known for writing “coffee-shop theology” and Christian Living books. He’s a bestselling and award-winning author with millions of copies of his works sold worldwide. An Arab-American, Mike is proud to be a person of color (BIPOC) active in Christian publishing. Google Mikey to learn more, or visit MikeNappa.com. Find Mike Nappa’s bestselling book, Reflections for the Grieving Soul wherever books are sold.

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