Is there something pleasant about the smell of a brand new car? Do you appreciate the look of joy on a little girl’s face as she shows off her new bicycle? In Matthew 9:14–17 Jesus emphasizes the newness of the kingdom he is establishing.
Recognize the newness of the kingdom of God. See your need to follow Jesus. Jesus finds Matthew at his tax collecting work in Capernaum. Given that these taxes went to the oppressive Roman government and subordinate authorities, that the tax collectors did their own evaluation of the goods they were taxing, and that they had a reputation for taking a substantial portion for themselves (remember Zacchaeus?), the tax collectors were not only despised, they were considered disloyal and treated as open sinners. Matthew, whose account is shorter, and who does not focus on himself, simply says that he got up and followed him. Luke, who calls Matthew by his other name, Levi, remarks that he left everything. As when he called the fishermen earlier, Jesus expects prompt and total obedience. Jesus and his disciples then attend a dinner, probably in Matthew’s house, to which many of Matthew’s fellow tax collectors. That brought the disapproval of the Pharisees, who demanded to know why Jesus was associating with tax collectors and sinners. In turn, Jesus responds that it is not the healthy, but the sick who need a physician. He quotes Hosea 6:6. That prophet’s marriage, as well and his preaching, had pointed out the sin of God’s people, had summoned them to repent, and then had assured them of God’s mercy. Israel had a superficial self-righteousness, but God requires obedience from the heart. Mercy, not outward religiosity, is God’s desire. The Israelites of Hosea’s day went about the forms of worship, including sacrifice, but they ignored the basic command of showing mercy. “[W]e have no reason to fear that Christ will reject sinners, to call whom he descended from his heavenly glory. . . . [P]ardon is granted to us, not to cherish our sins, but to recall us to the earnestness of a devout and holy life.” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospels). Matthew is showing you how important it is that you be aware of your deep need for Jesus.
Rejoice in being Christ’s disciples. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? The theme of discipleship, prominent in verses 9–13, is emphasized in our text. The contrast is focused sharply between being a disciple of either John the Baptist or the Pharisees on the one hand, or a disciple of Jesus on the other. The contrasting situation of the disciples comes to expression in the matter of fasting. The Old Testament required fasting only on one day in the year, the Day of Atonement, see Leviticus 16:29,31; cf. Psalm 35:13. The Pharisees expanded fasting (Zechariah 7:5) until they practiced it twice a week, Luke 18:12. It became part of their works religion. Although John’s preaching criticized the Pharisees, his emphasis on repentance apparently also involved fasting, Matthew 3:7 & 11. Thus there was a formal similarity with the Pharisees. To be a disciple of Jesus involves joy, precisely because he is present as the bridegroom, as the messianic King. Jesus did not require his disciples to fast because his presence meant joy. “Discipleship is not for the comfortable and respectable, but for those whom conventional society would rather keep at arm’s length. The Pharisees can only see their failures, but Jesus sees their need, and the fact that they acknowledge it themselves gives him the opportunity to fulfill his calling to ‘save his people from their sins’ (1:21).” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 350).
The new kingdom requires new structures. The newness of the kingdom of God doesn’t fit into the old structures. It certainly doesn’t fit the self-righteous fasting of the Pharisees. And it even goes beyond John’s essentially Old Testament call to repentance. Jesus uses down to earth images. A patch of new, unshrunk cloth, on an old garment will only make matters worse, especially the first time it’s washed! New wine, stored in an old, brittle, goatskin bag, will cause the container to burst. The Old Testament prophecies of the kingdom kept talking about new things. God declares new things, Isaiah 42:9, so his people respond with a new song, Isaiah 42:10; Psalm 96:1. They will be called by a new name, Isaiah 62:2. Even the covenant God makes with them is new, Jeremiah 31:31. The brand new thing God has done is to send his Son into the world to be the Savior of his people. The kingdom cannot look the same after that event. It cannot be contained by the Old Testament structures and categories. The church is never going to look identical to old Israel.
What, exactly, is new? What gives you reason to rejoice instead of grieving and fasting? Rejoice in the presence of the bridegroom. Do fast when appropriate. Jesus did not oppose all fasting. He has instructed his disciples how to fast, Matthew 6:16–18. Although God’s Word does not require you to fast today, there are times when it is appropriate, such as times of special repentance from sin, or particularly intense prayer, see Acts 13:1–3. A time of fasting was about to come for his disciples. The presence of the bridegroom (Jesus himself) gave a joy that precluded fasting. But the bridegroom was soon to be taken away. This can refer to nothing less than the coming death of the Lord, which he refers to here, early in his ministry. Then certainly the joy of the disciples would be replaced by mourning, feasting would turn to fasting and sorrow. The joy brought by the presence of the bridegroom was provisional and temporary. Though the disciples did not yet realize it, their joy was being purchased at the price of the death of their Lord. “[M]aintaining what is old (fasting as the expression of sorrow and repentance with a view to the approaching judgment, the subject of John the Baptist’s exhortation) means a misunderstanding and ignoring of the time of salvation that has already begun, as well as the proclamation of salvation that is being fulfilled. Here, too, it is not the law that is opposed by Jesus nor the observance of certain religious forms attendant to it, but rather, the basically unbelieving mechanical maintenance of what is old without recognizing what is new.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 305).
Rejoice that Christ has come, and that he is present for you. The bridegroom came, and the bridegroom was taken away. But that does not mean that the brand new work of God has gotten old and spoiled!
Precisely because the bridegroom, Jesus, was taken way to his death on the cross, you can have joy. His death was followed by his resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. He has not left you comfortless, but has sent his Spirit to be with you and to live in you. As you trust in his death and resurrection in your place, you are part of the new work that God is doing in the universe. The new is a reality in your life. That presence of your Lord by his Spirit gives you hope and joy—even when you find yourself going through dark times that may even cause mourning and fasting. You are not, you cannot be, hopeless. You look back to the Messiah who came, and who was taken away. You look ahead to his coming again. Then your joy will be full. The bridegroom came and was taken away. But, even in this sinful world, you, the church of Jesus Christ, are his bride, being prepared to be presented spotless before him. Rejoice!
Yes, you live in a sin-cursed world in which there are occasions for fasting and sorrow. But the presence of your Savior, his very real presence now, and the future, but certain, fullness of his presence at his return, give you joy—an exuberant, expanding joy, which, as it bursts the old wine skins, permeates all of your life with its aroma.