Friday, May 5, 2017

Christ the Bridegroom and New Beginning: Matthew 9:14-17

I’ve often wondered why Belshazzar feasted when the Persians were at the gates of Babylon.  I’ve often wondered why the high priests and religious leaders in Jesus’ day were so concerned to keep themselves ceremonially pure when they were conspiring to kill the Messiah.  But it’s really just all a matter of a loss of perspective, a blurred vision that is the result of sin, that causes people to see things upside down and out of focus. 
How do you keep a proper perspective?  We often hear the advice: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  I agree, but I would add that God is the main thing.  To put anything else as the main thing is idolatry.  But more than that, it is to put light and fluffy trivialities in the place deep and weighty realities.  So it is not only sinful, it is stupid.  It is to do what Stephen Curtis Chapman wrote about in his song, “See the Glory:”
I’m playing Gameboy standing in
the middle of the Grand Canyon
I’m eating candy sittin’ at a gourmet feast
I’m wading in a puddle when I
could be swimming in the ocean
Tell me what’s the deal with me
(I know the time has come for me to)
Wake up and see the glory
We confess that Jesus Christ the Son of God.  He is the glory.  He is, as the apostle Paul put it to the Colossians, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [i.e. the preeminent one] of every creature” (1:16), and “in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (2:9).  Or, as Hebrews 1:3 puts it, Jesus is the “brightness of his [the Father’s] glory, and the express image of his person,” and he upholds “all things by the word of his power.”  There is no way to get around the apostle John’s conclusion: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1).  Scientists are blown away by the magnitude of the universe and by the power exhibited in it through stars and supernovas.  But what the poet said about dogs and cats applies equally to stars and supernovas: “the Good Lord made them all.”  He is infinitely greater than the greatest display of beauty and power and wonder and awe in the universe.  After all, he is the architect of such beauty and power and wonder and awe.  The creator is greater than the creature.
We need to meditate upon these things.  We need to remember who Jesus Christ is.  We need to think about his power and his glory, what he has done and what he is doing even now.  “Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered” (Ps. 105:5).  And we need to think on these things because doing so helps us to keep a proper perspective.  We need to be reminded of Grand Canyon realities so that we don’t fritter our lives away in ultimately meaningless trifles.  I don’t want to end up a spiritual Baron Von Schlieffen, who when one of his staff officers pointed out the beauty of the sun reflecting off a river, looked briefly and coldly at it and then replied, “An unimportant obstacle.”  I don’t want to become like that.  I don’t want to die to beauty, and especially I don’t want to die to the One from whom and in whom all true beauty is to be found: the Triune God.
And I’m convinced this is why Matthew is writing his Gospel.  He is not writing this just to give us details about the biography of Jesus.  He is writing this to tell us about the glory of the Son of God.  He is writing this to encourage faith in him, joy in him, and obedience to him.  As we’ve looked through miracle after miracle, we’ve seen more of Jesus Christ, who he is and what he can do for weak and sinful men and women. 
That goes for the passage in front of us as well.  These verses, in which our Lord deals with the disciples of John the Baptist over a question of fasting, also point us to who Jesus is.  That is, they are not meant primarily to sort out this question of fasting, though I don’t doubt that they do that.  We looked at them from that perspective when we considered Matthew 6:16-18.  And we noted that John Piper has called these verses the most important word in the New Testament on the issue of fasting.  They teach us that in the period of time between the ascension of Christ and his return in glory, the church will have times of fasting (Mt. 9:15). 
But these words of Christ go beyond the question of fasting, and open another window onto the meaning of his coming into the world.  In particular, he reveals two things about himself in these verses.  First of all, he reveals that he is the Bridegroom.  That is very significant.  I don’t think he was just looking for a good illustration of a joyful time, and a wedding feast met that end.  Rather, this tells us something about Jesus.  Secondly, these words tell us that Jesus by his coming into the word has brought about a new beginning, a new age.  So these are not idle words.  This is not just about fasting.  This is about Jesus, pointing us to who he is, just as these miracle stories in Matthew 8-9 have been doing.
But before we look at what these words have to tell us about our Lord, we need to consider the implicit warning which lies in these verses.  Here were men, well-intentioned no doubt, who were totally upset over this whole question of fasting.  They were so upset that they had to accost Jesus over it.  In other words, they were totally consumed by these external religious observations, and when someone didn’t follow them in it, it annoyed and disturbed them.  And there are people like that.  And many times the reason they are like this is because they don’t understand what real, internal religion is; they don’t know what it means to have a relationship with the living God, and so they obsess over externals.  Now that doesn’t mean that disciplines like fasting are not important; our Lord teaches that they are.  But the warning inherent here is that we have to be careful that we don’t neglect our heart because we are satisfied with ritual.  There are people who know how to read their Bibles, go to church, and pray; but these are rituals to them, and they know nothing about the reality of walking with the living God in a real relationship.  And so they get upset when you don’t do things the way they do it.  And that’s what was happening here.
And of course our Lord deals with their questions brilliantly.  He not only answers their question, but points them to the truth about himself, which is what they really needed to see.  John the Baptist pointed people to Jesus; perhaps these disciples had not heeded his teaching well enough.  Our Lord corrects that by teaching them these important things about himself.
First of all, Jesus tells us that he is the Bridegroom (15).  The occasion for this was this question from the disciples of John (14).  At this time, John was in prison (4:12), and perhaps some of John’s disciples blamed Jesus for not doing anything about it.  So perhaps they were already a little disgruntled at Jesus.  But they also followed their master’s ascetic life (11:18), and here they are blaming Jesus for not doing so (cf. 11:19).
In this they were followed by the Pharisees, who fasted twice a week (evidently, according to John Gill, on Mondays and Thursdays).  Now this was not commanded by the Old Testament, which only required Israelites to fast on the Day of Atonement; these were voluntary fasts that had become more or less a standard sign of good spirituality by Jesus’ day.  But they had become so standard that any deviation from these fasts was taken by many as a sure sign of a lesser spirituality.  The Pharisees couldn’t understand why Jesus would hang out with sinful people; the disciples of John couldn’t understand why Jesus would not require his disciples to follow the rigorous fast schedule of John the Baptist and of the Pharisees.
To this our Lord responds: “Can the children of the bridechamber [i.e. wedding guests] mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”  The obvious answer to this question is, no.  You don’t fast at a wedding.  But the interesting thing is why Jesus chose this particular illustration.  One reason could be that John the Baptist had already used this illustration with regard to Jesus, and since Jesus is speaking to his disciples, he reminds them of it.  In John 3:28-30, John the Baptist says, “Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.  He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.”  Here, John likens himself to the best man with Jesus as the groom.  John rejoiced at Jesus’ coming.  This is not a time of fasting, but a time of rejoicing. 
But even so, this was still shocking, because in the OT God is the groom and the husband of Israel.  For Jesus to say he is the groom, the husband of the new people of God, can only mean that he is taking to himself what to the OT prophets belonged only to God.  For example, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “For thy Maker is thine husband; the LORD of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called” (Isa. 54:5).  Later, Isaiah repeats this image of God as the husband of Israel: “As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee” (Isa. 62:5).  Of course, we all know that the whole story of Hosea revolves around this image of God as the husband of a wayward bride, the people of Israel.  So when Jesus identifies himself with the bridegroom, he is doing more than evoking a useful illustration of a happy time.  He is identifying himself with the God of Israel.
The NT picks up on this.  To the Corinthians, Paul writes, “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2).  And to the Ephesians, he writes that the mystery of the oneness of husband and wife points ultimately to the relationship that Christ has with the church (cf. Eph. 5:32).  In Revelation 19:7, the church is pictured as the Lamb’s wife.
But in describing himself in this way, Jesus is not just identifying himself with the God of Israel, he is also telling us how he relates to his people, the church.  Jesus is the perfect husband to a very imperfect bride.  “What the bridegroom is to the bride, the Lord Jesus is to the souls of all who believe in him” (J. C. Ryle).  And this is demonstrated most clearly in his undying, sacrificial love for them.  “Husbands, love your wives even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Eph. 5:25).  My dad was a medic in the army during the Vietnam War, and he has told me that when he was at Fort Sam Houston, he would see wives of mangled veterans look at the torn bodies of their husbands, and then shocked by what they saw pull off their wedding rings, turn around and leave.  But Jesus Christ didn’t marry a perfect bride.  His bride was already mangled and disfigured from sin.  And yet he gave up the glories of heaven for a time to suffer unspeakable misery and death in order to win her for himself.  “For ye know that grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). 
It is good to remember this because we sometimes wonder if Jesus really loves us especially when we are going through a crisis.  Have we not doubted God because we have experienced tragedy?  I’m not going to even pretend that I can answer the question, “Why?” when you go through tragedy.  But let us point every doubt and every question to the cross of Jesus Christ.  On the cross, we can see that Jesus Christ without question loves those for whom he died.  He loves his bride, the church.  He loves every believer, no matter how great or small their achievements in the faith.  The cross is the proof of that.  He is the shepherd who gives his life for the sheep.
But his love is not just a dying love, like that of a Romeo or Juliet.  His love is a conquering love.  Paul goes on to say to the Ephesians, in describing Christ’s love for his people, that he died so “that he might sanctify and cleanse it [the church] with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27).  He gave his life so that they might have life.  In his death, he has purchased for us something far more breathtaking and precious than a life here without pain.  He has given us the privilege to be presented before the king of the universe holy and without blemish.
A few verses later, in telling husbands how to love their wives, the apostle writes, “For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church” (Eph. 5:29).  He loves the church by nourishing and cherishing it.  He supplies all our needs.  He forgives all our sins.  He sympathizes with us in our troubles.  He does not reject us for a few weaknesses.  He considers his church to be one with him.  Those who persecute the church persecute Christ (cf. Acts 9:5).
Though the earthly life of our Lord ended in his crucifixion, nevertheless it was a time of joy that he had come.  His death meant the redemption of the church his bride, the eternal salvation of every soul that believes. 
Now it is true that in the interim, in the time between our Lord’s leaving this world for glory and his return, that there are times when it is appropriate to fast and mourn.  But the tears we weep are nevertheless tears of joy because the day will come when he does return.  It was right to rejoice and not fast in the presence of the bridegroom.  And it is right to mourn and fast in his absence.  But the hope of every believer is that the time is coming when we will once again be in his presence.  And that will be forever.  There is coming a day when there will be no more fasting, no more mourning, no more crying, because we will be in the presence of the Son of God forever.  One of my favorite NT prayers in the one from Jude 24-25: “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever.  Amen.”
Our Lord goes on to follow up the wedding analogy with a parable (16-17).  But this parable goes beyond the particular situation of fasting.  The basic point it this: our Lord has come to inaugurate a new era, and the old forms of Judaism (including how it did fasting) cannot be poured into the new forms initiated by Jesus.  The kingdom that Jesus was building was not just a continuation of the old kingdoms of Judah and Israel; there was a definite newness to it.
To illustrate this, he uses the analogy of patches (16) and wineskins (17).  You don’t put a patch of unshrunk cloth onto an old garment.  The patch will shrink over time and make the hole it was meant to patch even worse.  Nor do you put new wine into old wineskins.  D. A. Carson explains: “Skin bottles for carrying various fluids were made by killing the chosen animal, cutting off his heat and feet, skinning the carcass, and sewing up the skin, fur side out, to seal off all orifices but one (usually the neck).  The skin was tanned with special care to minimize disagreeable taste.  In time the skin became hard and brittle.  If new wine, still fermenting, were put into such an old skin, the buildup of fermenting gases would split the brittle container and ruin both bottle and wine.  New wine was placed only in new wineskins still pliable and elastic enough to accommodate the pressure.”[1]  Jesus is likening the religious system followed by both the Pharisees and the disciples of John to the old garments and old wineskins.  Jesus did not come simply to carry on those traditions.  He came to introduce an entirely new situation, one that was ultimately incompatible with the old ways of doing things.
Now what is this new situation that Jesus was introducing?  I think the best way to put this is in the terms that the author of Hebrews uses when he describes our Lord as “the mediator of the new covenant” (Heb. 9:15), which he also calls a “better covenant” (cf. Heb. 7:22; 8:6).  Better than what?  Better than the old covenant (Heb. 8:7), one which is decaying and waxing old and ready to vanish away (Heb. 8:13).  What is the new covenant?  The author of Hebrews, quoting the prophet Jeremiah, tells us:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people; and they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.  For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. (8:10-12)
What makes this a new and better covenant is just the fact that it is a successful covenant – the old one was not (8:9).  Whereas in the Old Covenant, God laments that his law is not written on peoples’ hearts (Deut. 5:29), in this covenant, he promises to write his law in the hearts of his people.  That is what makes it successful.  In the old covenant, God wrote his law on tablets of stone.  In the new covenant, God writes his law on people’s hearts.  In the old covenant, God outwardly commands his law to people so that they know it; in the new covenant, God inwardly commends his law to people so that they do it.
Thus, the kingdom that Jesus is building is primarily a spiritual kingdom.  To be a part of the old kingdom and covenant, you simply had to be born into it.  But to be a member of this kingdom that Jesus is building, you have to be born again (cf. Jn. 3:1-8).  Thus, though there is some continuity between and old and new covenant in the sense that the former pointed to the latter, there is a real discontinuity between the old and new covenant, and therefore it cannot be seen simply as a continuation of old patterns followed by both the Pharisees and the disciples of John.
Now we must be careful here.  Some have taken our Lord’s language here, and come to some wrong conclusions.  One is that people are saved differently under the new covenant than under the old covenant, that the new situation our Lord was introducing was a different way to be saved.  Some older dispensationalists claimed that under the old covenant people were saved by their works, whereas in the church age, people are saved by grace.  Now this is entirely wrong.  People were saved under the old covenant by grace not by works.  In other words, people under the old covenant were saved in virtue of the new covenant (cf. Heb. 9:15).  You see this primarily in the examples of Abraham and David, who Paul says were both justified by faith, not by works (Rom. 4:1-12). 
The difference between the covenants is not a difference in how people are saved.  The difference is that the purpose of the old covenant was primarily to point through external ordinances to the spiritual kingdom and covenant that the Messiah would inaugurate.  The old was the shadow; that new is the reality.  But because the old was external, it was possible to be a member of the old covenant people of God without being saved.  However, the new covenant people of God have all the privileges promised in that covenant; in other words, the new covenant community consists of those who are born again, justified, and who are being sanctified.  In that sense, it is successful, whereas the old was unsuccessful.
Should we not be thankful that our Lord is the Mediator of this better covenant?  Should we not be thankful that he came, not just to show us how to fast, or how to exercise the spiritual disciplines, but that by his death he has mediated a new covenant, a successful covenant, one that guarantees the salvation of all who belong to him?  “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).  Should we not rejoice that the one to whom all the shadows of OT ordinances pointed has come?  And should we not therefore look for and long for the next step in the history of redemption when God makes all things new through Jesus Christ?
In these words, therefore, behold the Son of man and Son of God.  He is the bridegroom, and he came in love to her to purchase her redemption and her marriage to himself.  And by dying, he sealed a new covenant, one that brings blessings far superior than those found under the old covenant.  Look to him this morning, and find those blessings for yourself!


[1] D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC), p. 227.

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