After nearly thirty years as a believer and fifteen in the ministry, this is perhaps the most difficult topic I’ve felt compelled to address. The difficulty comes because of the Pharisaism in the first half of my Christian walk and ministry. As one childhood friend put it, “You’re so uptight if you ate coal, you’d get a diamond.” He was right. After a lot of study, ministry, failure, sin, and experience, I’ve come to understand that the Gospel is the antithesis to the rigidity and self-righteousness I espoused, and that still haunts the hidden corridors of my heart.
A Prescription from Pharisees
The Pharisees sought the protection of their image and heritage. They were more concerned with the appearance of righteousness than actually possessing it. So their call was to follow the rules. Wash your hands, abstain from healing on the Sabbath, and by all means, don’t associate with tax collectors and sinners. However, their prescription only addressed the symptoms and failed to understand the underlying cause of dead works.
If I’m honest, I’ve handed out more than my fair share of diagnoses and remedies over the years. More concerned with ensuring everyone toed the line, I was obsessed with behavior modification even if it was for the glory of God. What I misunderstood was that glorifying God involves more than merely doing what God has commanded. Amos 5:18-25, Hosea 6:6, and Psalm 51:16-17 reveal that there is a way to offer God precisely what he has commanded that does not please him. Jesus’ intensification of the law in Matthew 5:17-48 demonstrates the need for a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees.
A Prescription for Pharisees
Jesus’ prescription for the Pharisees was not righteousness, but rather a recognition of their unrighteousness. His prescription was new wine; a wine that would explode the old wineskins of their expectations and religious bureaucracy. When Jesus pronounced forgiveness of sins to the paralytic in Matthew 9, the scribes cried, “blasphemy!” When the Pharisees saw Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners they questioned his disciples. Jesus’ response is a quote from Hosea that should strike us with the same force that it struck them: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13).
And then, John’s disciples approached to inquire about fasting. When Jesus replied, it was clear that something explosively new had come. What need is there for fasting when the incarnation of the entirety of your faith is right in front of you? What the Pharisees needed instead of obedience was to actually understand the very nature of God’s mercy as put on full display in the person of Jesus. That kind of divine mercy transforms one from the inside out and produces vibrant and joyous obedience instead of stale and begrudging obedience.
A Prescription for New Wine
Beware the arrogant, self-righteous ones who care more about you affirming their interpretation of Scripture than understanding the Gospel in all of its offensive glory. They hand out verses of Scripture as if from a prescription pad like they wrote it themselves. Ironically, they miss their sickness and the real healing power of Christ’s atoning work. Like archaic doctors, they still attach leeches to their patients and seem dumbfounded by the resulting death.
The new wine of the Gospel doesn’t offer a panacea for all our problems, but it does provide a cure for our most significant problem. Looking to and exclusively trusting Jesus Christ, his perfect life, his atoning death, and his glorious resurrection on our behalf is the sole sufficient remedy for our depravity.
What we need most is not more engaging preaching, more marks of healthy churches, more stringent adherence to our ethics, or more ardent defense of our theological presuppositions. Those prescriptions have been handed out in droves. Instead, we need to herald the unbelievable good news of the Son of God hanging on a tree to satisfy God’s wrath in our place. Once that is done consistently, then the conversation about other prescriptions can begin.
After all, what use does a dead man have for wine at all?