Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
Mark 2:18-22 ESV
Hosea received one of the strangest commands from God in all the Bible: “Go, take to yourself a wife a whoredom and have children of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2). And that is exactly what the prophet did. He married a woman named Gomer, who is not said to have been a prostitute but merely a sexually loose woman, and she bore three children. Interestingly, the first son is said to be born to Hosea (1:3), while the other two are simply recounted as “she conceived again and she bore…” (vv. 6, 8), which suggests that Hosea’s paternal status on his second and third children was in question, at the very least.
Hosea 3:1 tells us why God gave His prophet such a task: “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” His life was used as a living parable of God’s love of His idolatrous people. Indeed, in Isaiah 62:5, the LORD exults: “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
Yet for all the ways that God’s love for Israel resembled a groom loving his bride, God’s people were not prepared for Him to come down in the flesh to be with His bride.
A QUESTION ABOUT FASTING | VERSES 18-19
Verse 18 gives us the set-up for this particular passage: “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.” The text implies that the fasting practices of both groups were well-known to the public. Of course, we can assume that John’s disciples fasted for slightly different reasons than the Pharisees, since throughout the Gospels Jesus will repeatedly condemn them for practicing their religious duties in order to be seen by others. The disciples of John, however, can be assumed to simply be following the pattern of their teacher, who was in everything that he did an ascetic. Nevertheless, fasting always had a common element, which Peter Bolt explains:
At its core, fasting was associated with mourning (1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Sam. 1:12; Esth. 4:3; cf. Judith 8:6; 1 Macc. 1:25-28). If you were bereaved, you grieved, and in your grief you refrained from eating any food. You fasted because of the deep sorrow raised by the death of someone you loved. By extension, fasting was also associated with mourning over sinfulness. A person could be so grieved at their sin that they fasted (e.g. 1 Sam. 7:6; 1 Kgs 21:27; and perhaps 2 Sam. 12:16-23). But it should not be forgotten that behind this fasting associated with grieving over sin lay the basic meaning of fasting in association with mourning.
The fact that fasting reflects mourning is a crucial one to keep in mind for how Jesus answers the question that people bring to Him: “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” I find it interesting that they do not ask Jesus why He doesn’t fast. Presumably, they would have been thinking of fasting in association with mourning over sinfulness, so they may be assuming the goodness of Jesus but question why He is not purging the sinfulness of His disciples through fasting.
Even still, Jesus answers: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” the imagery of a wedding and the bridegroom is a fascinating one. In the first century, Jewish weddings lasted an entire week, and they were one gigantic feast. The very last scenario where fasting would seem appropriate would be a wedding, for a wedding was time of celebration rather than mourning. In other words, as pious and godly as fasting might seem, “for everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). There is a time in which fasting is appropriate, but when the bridegroom is present and the wedding feast is occurring, fasting would be inappropriate.
For such a seemingly simple answer, Jesus is presenting a great depth of truth. First, it is highly significant that Jesus referred to Himself as the bridegroom, as Sproul notes:
The Old Testament never refers to the Messiah as the bridegroom. The bridegroom in the Old Testament is God and the bride is Israel. But in the New Testament, the bridegroom is the Son of God and the bride is His church. Given the Old Testament context of the metaphor, it is clear Jesus was claiming even more than messiahship when He referred to Himself as the bridegroom.
Namely, He was making Himself equal with God. Jesus was claiming to be Israel’s bridegroom come down in the flesh to be with His bride. How indeed could they fast? God Himself was among them, and the disciples particularly followed Himself everywhere. The day that Old Testament saints longed to see had arrived. The King had come; it was time for celebration, not mourning.
Second, this flips typical prophetic imagery on its head, particularly of the Babylonian Captivity. Three times Jeremiah predicts that the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians would silence the voices of the bridegroom and of the bride (7:34, 16:9, 25:10). This was to show that the devastation would be so thorough that it would leave no room for celebrations. The land would be turned into perpetual mourning. It would be a time of fasting, not feasting. Jesus, however, is reversing this imagery, claiming that with His presence has come the time of feasting and celebration rather than fasting and mourning. To quote Bolt again: “Those calling upon Jesus and his friends to fast are moving in the wrong direction, for, in fact, the coming of Jesus is more like a funeral that is turned into a wedding banquet.”
THE NEW HAS COME // VERSES 21-22
In verses 21-22, Jesus shifts imagery to target a new but related point. First, Jesus points out that “no one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.” Next, He uses wine-making: “and no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins-and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But the new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
Both have to do with the old being insufficient for the new. If a patch of cloth has not been shrunk yet and is patched onto a tear, it will shrink while attached to the garment and make the tear worse. Likewise, old wineskins, which were leather bags for fermenting wine, could no longer expand as the wine fermented. So, if you filled an old wineskin with new wine, the fermentation process would burst the wineskin.
Of course, the great question remains to be asked: “What is Jesus’ point?”
He is making a point about the overall nature of His coming. “He has not come to patch up this old system” (24); instead, He has come to make all things new. Again, most of Israel was not prepared for this, even though the Old Testament predicted it. Jeremiah 31:31 even directly declares that God would “establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” The book of Hebrews helps us to understand the new covenant that Christ inaugurated, and right before citing Jeremiah 31, the author of Hebrews bluntly says, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (Hebrews 8:7). Or, in the wording of our passage, if the old has been faultless, there would have been no occasion for the new.
Jesus, as the bridegroom come to earth, inaugurated the kingdom of God, the new covenant for God’s people. These two illustrations are His warning to all who would still wish to hold fast to the old covenant during this new age. J. C. Ryle points out that this is exactly what Paul rebuked the Galatians for doing. They became convinced by the Judaizers that circumcision was still necessary under the new covenant in Christ. Paul, however, tells them that they might as well emasculate themselves entirely for all the good that circumcision can do in addition to Christ. In other words, there could be no mixture of the old with the new. The new had fulfilled and replaced the old.
Of course, this does not mean that we are now free to neglect the Old Testament. On the contrary, the things of the Old Testament were “a copy and shadow” of the fullness in Christ. The New Testament cannot be properly understood without a sufficient grasp of the Old Testament, which is why I have been trying to frame this study with allusions to that first portion of Scripture.
Furthermore, the warning for us to still stands today. Not only is there still the pull of Judaizers who want to return Christianity to Judaism, but there are also perpetual temptations to graft the gospel onto unfit systems. There is no end to the “Jesus and…” systems. As Ryle says,
We have only to look around us and see. There are thousands who are trying reconcile the service to Christ and the service of the world, to have the name of Christian and yet live the life of the ungodly,–to keep in with the servants of pleasure and sin, and yet be the followers of the crucified Jesus at the same time. In a word, they are trying to enjoy the ‘new wine,’ and yet to cling to the ‘old bottles.’ They will find one day that they have attempted that which cannot be done.
As Mark is slowly laboring to reveal, Jesus’ cross stands at the center of the new covenant, and it abolishes every possible and ____ that we could attempt to attach to Him. By His perfect and atoning blood, the Levitical system of the Old Testament has passed away for good. Any sacrifice now made for sins is no longer pious and godly but instead an affront to the perfection of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. Likewise, any sin, ungodliness, or worldliness that we attempt to keep in addition to following Christ is nothing less than scorning His priceless offering. There is fifth verse to the great hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” that is rarely sung but which fittingly represents this principle:
His dying Crimson, like a Robe,
Spreads o’er his Body on the Tree;
Then I am dead to all the Globe,
And all the Globe is dead to me.
This is the nature of the newness that Christ brings. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our former sins, desires, loves, good works, and even life are crucified with Christ upon the cross, and we are made new in Him.
WHEN THE BRIDEGROOM IS TAKEN AWAY // VERSE 20
You may have noticed that we bypassed the verse at the very center of our passage: The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. This is the connective tissue between Jesus’ first point (that His disciples cannot fast because the bridegroom is with them) and His second point (that the old covenant is insufficient for the new covenant that He is inaugurating). Here He references a coming day when the bridegroom will be taken from them. In fact, the language that Jesus uses (the days will come… and in that day) are pointedly apocalyptic.
While more than specific day of crucifixion is being referenced here (for we are still living in the time of waiting again for the bridegroom to come for His bride), the crucifixion is certainly in view. Thus, given how heavily Mark will focus upon this cross, this verse is significant as the first place in the Gospel in which its shadow has fallen.
Again, this predicts to all who were willing to listen that Jesus was not going to be the Messiah that they had expected. He was not yet establishing a physical, eternal kingdom. Although the bridegroom had come and the feasting had begun, He would soon be taken away, and the time for fasting and mourning would return.
This verse is so easy to miss because it is sandwiched in between Jesus proclaiming good news (the new is here; time to celebrate!), yet it is the predicted sorrow of this verse that brings in the new covenant. Each time we observe the Lord’s Supper, we hear Christ speaking, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25), and drinking it together is a proclamation of “the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26). Just as through sin, death entered the world, so through death, our Lord conquered sin and death, ushering in the new creation with His own resurrection being the first fruit.
And though His disciples did not yet understand, the bridegroom came for that very purpose. Back in Hosea 3:2, the prophet obeys the command of God to take again his wayward wife out of the house of her adulterer: “So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and lethech of barley.” This verse implies that Gomer, through her whoredom, had become some kind of sex-slave. Yet Hosea redeems and ransoms his own unfaithful wife out of her whoredom and slavery.
This is exactly what the great Bridegroom came to do as well. Although He came to be the ransom for many, the payment for His adulterous bride was not in silver (although silver was used to betray Him); instead, He purchased our redemption with His own blood. He came to be taken away. As the Second Adam, He did what the first Adam should have done after Eve ate the fruit: He traded His own life for hers.
But where does this leave us today, knowing that Jesus did not stay dead but is alive and ascended to the Father? As we wait for His second coming and look back upon His first coming, do we fast or feast? Do we mourn or celebrate?
The answer is: yes. We dwell in the already-but-not-yet. The King has come, but He will come again. The kingdom is here but is still to come. Our sin has been defeated but must be killed on a daily basis. We are a new creation, but the old lingers still. Jesus reigns supreme, but every knee has not yet bowed nor has every tongue confessed that He is Lord. Indeed, just as the cross itself is both the best and worst event in all of human history, we hold both sorrow and joy together in the same hand. We celebrate and mourn, for we are both triumphant and afflicted.
One day, however, the Bridegroom will come again, and heaven and earth will pass away and be made new. And as our bodies are resurrected like Christ’s own resurrection, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). And we “shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:6).
Do you fast? I hope you do, for the Bridegroom has not yet returned for His bride.
Do you feast? I hope you do, for the bridegroom is with you always even “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
 Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel, 21.
 R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expository Commentary, 43.
 The Cross from a Distance, 23.
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 28.
 Bolt notes that the wording of in that day is identical to the Septuagint of Daniel 12:1’s at that time.