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The Joy of the Gospel

December 1, 2019 Speaker: Brian Wilbur Series: The Gospel of Mark

Topic: Gospel Joy Passage: Mark 2:18–22


An Exposition of Mark 2:18-22

By Pastor Brian Wilbur

Date:   December 1, 2019

Series: Mark: Knowing and Following God’s Son

Note:   Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard   Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



Here is the Word of God as it is written in Mark 2:18-22 –

18 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? 19 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. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21 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. 22 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)


The Gospel of Mark was written to tell us about “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1). Today’s passage shows us why this gospel is a message of great joy. It also shows us that a profound heart transformation is required in order for us to enjoy the joy of this gospel.

Which leads me to ask you a question: Is your life characterized by joy in the gospel of Jesus Christ?

We see two very different and contrasting images in Mark 2:18-22. On the one hand, there is the image of fasting. Picture a person fasting in sackcloth and ashes, abstaining from food, saying ‘No’, maintaining careful self-discipline, mourning over what is lacking, and aching for that which is beyond his reach.

On the other hand, there is the image of feasting. Picture a person who is feasting, celebrating, dancing, making music, singing, and enjoying the fullness of what he already has.

Two very different images: which image best represents the flavor and feel of the Christian life? Which image best captures the flavor and feel of your life?


The situation in the passage before us is that other people were fasting, but Jesus’ disciples weren’t fasting. Verse 18 says: “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.” Of course, these two groups of people were not in the same spiritual camp.

“John’s disciples” were the followers of John the Baptist, the faithful prophet whom we met in Mark 1. There was a certain no-nonsense strictness to John himself, so it isn’t surprising to learn that John’s disciples were devoted to the spiritual discipline of fasting. Even so, John and his disciples were true friends of the Lord Jesus.

By contrast, the Pharisees and their scribes were quick becoming the enemies of the Lord Jesus. But they shared something in common with John’s disciples: they too were in the habit of fasting. This isn’t surprising, either, for we know that the Pharisees were committed to the highest standards of religious conduct. In the famous parable of ‘The Pharisee and the Tax Collector’, the proud Pharisee congratulated himself because he “[fasted] twice a week” (Luke 18:12).

It is important to point out that fasting is not inherently wrong. Periodic fasting can, in fact, be part of a healthy spiritual life. When Jesus spent the forty days in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13), He fasted and felt hunger (Matthew 4:2). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives instruction for what you should do “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16), thus indicating that fasting is a valid expression of spiritual devotion. Through the prophet Joel, the Lord pleads with His people: “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12).

Here’s the logic of fasting: you abstain from the ordinary necessity of food for your body in order to devote extraordinary attention to your deeper need for spiritual nourishment. Physical food is a wonderful gift, but you don’t live by physical bread alone, and you are desperate for the gracious word of the Lord to come and fill you up and restore you to health. So you temporarily go without physical food so that you can focus your spiritual hunger on the things of the Lord.

You can fast for the sake of your own spiritual health. Or you can fast with others for the sake of a congregation’s or a city’s or a nation’s spiritual health. When the prophet Jonah proclaimed the word of the Lord to the people of Nineveh, the king of Nineveh proclaimed a fast throughout the city: “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God.” (Jonah 3:7-8)

So fasting, in and of itself, can be a legitimate expression of seeking after God. But just like any other legitimate activity, it matters greatly what is going on inside your heart. The proud Pharisee in the parable mentioned earlier looked at his fasting as a great spiritual achievement that gained him favor in the courts of heaven. If you do that, you turn fasting into sick-hearted religion. When Jesus gave instruction about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount, He warned against fasting in order to impress other people (Matthew 6:16). Some people might also fast as a sort of ‘magic wand’ that is supposed to manipulate the hand of God.

Generally speaking, it is probably safe to assume that John’s disciples were fasting for good reasons, and that the Pharisees were fasting for bad reasons. However, Mark’s purpose in this passage is not to contrast good fasting versus bad fasting. Instead, Mark’s purpose is to contrast fasting with not fasting at all. For unlike “John’s disciples and the Pharisees,” Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast. In fact, what did we just see the disciples doing in the previous passage (in Mark 2:15-16)? They were feasting in Levi’s house! So, shall we fast or shall we feast?

In our passage, certain people want to know why the feasters aren’t fasting? People want to know why the feasters aren’t as serious about seeking God as the fasters are? Do you understand? After all, if anything shows a high level of seriousness in the spiritual life, it would be fasting, right? They want to know why Jesus’ disciples seem so lax and carefree. So they ask Jesus: “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (v. 18)


Although the issue of fasting is the springboard for the answer that Jesus is about to give, Jesus actually goes on to show us that the real issue is the overall attitude of our hearts and whether our hearts are properly aligned with His gospel. So the purpose of this passage is not to give you a few nuggets of wisdom to shore up your theology of fasting. Instead, the purpose of this passage is to invite you into a life of great joy, which is beautifully expressed by feasting. Feasting, not as over-indulgence in bodily cravings, but as the overflow of joy in the presence of the Lord, is a great symbol of a healthy spiritual life.

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.” (v. 19)

This is an astounding statement! Far from abstract religious philosophy, Jesus is saying something utterly profound. Jesus is saying that He is “the bridegroom” and that His disciples are “wedding guests” – and one thing you don’t do when the music of matrimony is in the air, is call for a fast!

Jesus isn’t just saying that He is the Bridegroom and that His disciples are “wedding guests” – He is saying that He is the Bridegroom who is with His disciples. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us (see Matthew 1:23)! Jesus is also the Bridegroom with us, the gladhearted Husband who comes to dwell with His people! And one thing you don’t do when the Bridegroom is near, is put yourself on a diet! It’s just not fitting! Can we have a rehearsal dinner, please? Can we have a special breakfast in the morning to anticipate the festivities later in the day? Can we have some appetizing treats spread out for all to enjoy? Can we have some music and dancing? Can we have some joy and gladness? Can we have a buffet of the best food that never runs out? And, if perchance the wine does run out, can the Bridegroom turn 120 gallons of water into 120 gallons of fine wine (see John 2:1-11)! Oh come and let us feast together on this festive occasion!

One passage at a time, Mark is showing us who Jesus is. He is the beloved Son of God (Mark 1:1, 11). He is the Lord (Mark 1:3) who exercises divine authority (Mark 1:21–2:12). He is anointed by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10), led by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:12), and He came to baptize His people “with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). He is “the Son of Man [who] has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). He is the gracious physician who eats with sinners in order to restore their spiritual health (Mark 2:15-17). And here: He is the Bridegroom of His people.

The Lord Himself is the ultimate bridegroom, the ultimate husband, the ultimate lover of His people. With joy and gladness, the Lord makes promises, pledges His steadfast love, and forms a covenant with His people.

The Bridegroom Brings the Joy of Salvation

The Old Testament set the stage for the coming of Jesus the Bridegroom: 

“For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer.” (Isaiah 54:5-8)

“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zephaniah 3:14-17)

Do you understand the implications of these passages? If God has deserted you and cast you off in judgment, or is threatening to do so, then by all means weep and mourn and fast. If God has hidden His face from you in righteous anger, or if His judgments are actively upon you, or if He has allowed your enemies to triumph over you, or if He is far away and His love is nowhere to be seen, then by all means tear your clothes, sit down in sackcloth and ashes, and through fasting cry out in desperation for the mercy of God.

But if God has drawn near to you, if He has shown you great compassion and gathered you to Himself, if He has taken away your judgments and set His everlasting love upon you, if He has conquered evil and triumphed over your enemies, if He is in your midst and lavishing the joy of His kingdom upon you, then celebrate and sing aloud and rejoice with all your heart and sit down with the King at His table. Not fasting, but feasting! Not sad faces, but large hearts! Not laments, but songs of joy! Not aching for a distant kingdom, but rejoicing at its arrival! As King Jesus proclaimed: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”! (Mark 1:15) Do you understand?

When Jesus says in Mark 2:19 that He the Bridegroom is with His people, He means nothing less than the stunning truth that “God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save”. The joy of the gospel message is that the Lord has come – not to judge the world but to bring salvation to it. His coming is therefore a cause of incomparable gladness: “Fear not,” says the angel, “for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

Mark has been giving us glimpses of this reality: the demon-possessed are restored to their right mind, the sick are healed, the leper is cleansed, the paralytic is forgiven, the despised tax collector is called into the Lord’s family, and the Lord of mercy eats with sinners and calls them into His grace. What does this mean? It means that the true King is in your midst! This arrival of King Jesus is good news for the poor in spirit, is comfort for the distressed, is the oil of gladness for weary hearts, and is salvation for all who taste and see that He is good (see Isaiah 61:1-3, Psalm 34:8, 1 Peter 2:2-3)!

Fasting or Feasting?

So I ask you again: Is your form of Christianity better captured by the image of fasting or the image of feasting?

The mindset of fasting says: God’s kingdom is far away, God is distant, God is not smiling on me (in fact, He is quite displeased!), and therefore I’ve got to undertake serious spiritual discipline (like fasting) in order to perhaps move God’s heart in my direction. The mindset of feasting says: God’s kingdom has arrived, God is with us now, God’s goodwill and favor rest on me, God’s heart of love is poured out upon me, and therefore I’ve got to celebrate God’s gracious presence.

Fasting says: I’m aching for a grace that hasn’t arrived. Feasting says: I’m full of joy because grace is right here in our midst.

Fasting says: I’m part of a religious system that might possibly get God’s attention. Feasting says: I’m already an honored participant in the greatest wedding in the universe.

Fasting says: I’ve got to lay myself low because God is absent. Feasting says: I’ve been lifted up because God is present, and – to take on the perspective of verse 19 – “[as] long as [we] have the bridegroom with [us], [we] cannot fast.”

Is The Bridegroom Still With Us? Yes!

Even so, in verse 20, Jesus acknowledges that these first disciples were going to have to face a few difficult days when He was taken away from them: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” In fact, these disciples would face two very difficult stretches of time when the Lord was absent: 1) the dark and uncertain days between Jesus’ death and resurrection; and 2) the ten days of anticipation between Jesus’ ascension and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. On both occasions the Lord was physically absent and the Holy Spirit had not yet come to indwell the disciples.

But once the risen King bestowed His Spirit on His people (Acts 1:8, 2:1-4, 2:32-33, 2:38; Romans 8:9-17; Galatians 4:4-7), He is effectively and truly with His people forever. The Lord Jesus says to His disciples: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20) and “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Jesus promised: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). Because the Lord is with us through His Spirit, our Christian life ought to be characterized by joy: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)

It is tragic that so many people, including people inside the church, live as if the gospel isn’t true. They live as if the King isn’t in their midst. They live as if sustained spiritual joy is unattainable. They live as if God’s grace isn’t real to them. They live as if the message of salvation and the forgiveness of sins and peace with God and the gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t the greatest news in the whole world. They are churchy people. They have their spiritual do’s and don’ts. They might even fast from time to time. They have a form of religion, but they do not know the power of true godliness (see 2 Timothy 3:5). They do not grasp the life-changing truth that God is with us, that the Bridegroom has come, that the Spirit has been poured out on believers, and that the marriage between the King and His bride is well underway. Do you grasp it?


Take this truth to heart: the grace and joy of the Bridegroom’s presence is impossible to grasp unless you have a profound change of heart. Jesus gives two analogies (in v. 21-22) to illustrate how it is impossible for people stuck in the oldness of religion to understand the newness of the gospel.

The First Analogy: Unshrunk Cloth

The first analogy is in verse 21: “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.”

If you patch an old garment with unshrunk cloth, then in due course that patch is going to shrink, and when it does, the garment is only going to be torn into worse shape.

In this analogy, the gospel of the good news of God’s gracious presence is like the new piece of unshrunk cloth. So long as you try to fit the gospel into the old garment framework of traditional religiosity, you won’t be able to wear the gospel. You’ll have this piece of unshrunk cloth on your old garment and you’ll think it’s part of the old way; you’ll think that the gospel is a nice little addition to your religious system; you’ll think that the good news is a convenient gap-filler in your spiritual rulebook; you’ll think that the message of a divine bridegroom is an interesting philosophical metaphor in your otherwise boring walk with God. In the end, you’ll find that it just won’t fit, “and a worse tear is made.”

The Second Analogy: New Wine

The second analogy is in verse 22: “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.”

If you put new wine that still needs to undergo additional fermentation into an old leather wineskin that is already weakened and brittle from past use, the wineskin is going to burst apart and the wine is going to be lost.

Here again, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the new wine. So long as you try to hold the new wine in the trappings of legalism, or in the trappings of works-based religion, or in the trappings of earning your way into God’s favor, or in the trappings of spiritual disciplines (like fasting) as a strategy to get God’s attention – so long as you do that, you won’t be able to truly drink and enjoy the gospel. So long as you treat the gospel as a sentimental little attachment to your dutiful religious life, you’re going to find that the gospel won’t work for you. In the end, you’ll probably blame the new wine of the gospel for not satisfying you, but the actual problem is that you couldn’t hold this wine, because you never got a new heart.  

An important question of application from verse 22 is: what kind of a wineskin are you? Are you an old wineskin with an old, sinful heart that is incapable of receiving and rejoicing in the gospel? Or has God made you a fresh wineskin with a new heart that is able to hold the new wine with great joy?


But there is an even deeper question that this passage presses upon us: Do you realize that the living God is a large-hearted God who calls for feasting?

You see, here’s the deeper problem that human beings have: they have a totally distorted view of God. How many people actually think that God is most pleased when hyper-religious people fast, but that He must be very suspicious when ordinary people feast? How many people associate God mainly with fasting, discipline, poverty, and restriction? Follow the rules, and maybe God might possibly be a little bit impressed. How’s that for good news? How many people assume that if God showed up at a dinner party, that would be the end of the party? How many people don’t know that God throws a better party! Are you one of those people who believes that God is a boring deity who has a small heart and is usually mad?

Well, those who think this way apparently haven’t read the Bible – because the Bible shows us that the living God calls us into His abundance of joy. The first thing that God said to Adam in the Garden of Eden is, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:16). Yes, there was one restriction to follow (see Genesis 2:17) – but what you had in the beautiful garden was, as one pastor described it, “One No In A World Of Yes.”[1] Do you understand?

When God established His covenant with Israel, the predominant feel of their life was that they were to feast on the abundance of the Promised Land. Fasting was a minor theme, but feasting was the predominant theme.

When the Lord Jesus Christ came onto the scene, He is found eating with tax collectors and sinners. And Jesus gave us that wonderful picture that God’s kingdom is like that of a generous father who throws a lavish party when the prodigal son comes home.

The Lord promised through the prophet Isaiah a future day of salvation when “the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” (Isaiah 25:6) That promise will find its ultimate fulfillment at “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9) and in the unending joy of fellowship with God in the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21-22).

Our Lord Jesus gave us a perpetual reminder of that future day of feasting in the kingdom of God. This perpetual reminder is called the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as part of the Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus told them: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” (Luke 22:15)

Have you come to understand that the living God is a large-hearted God who doesn’t just call us to feast, but who is eager to dine with us? Look to Jesus Christ, standing outside of His own church, knocking on the door: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20) The Lord Jesus is the loving Bridegroom who desires to have supper with His imperfect bride.

Our gracious Bridegroom gave us this symbol of holy communion that represents the gospel – and what kind of symbol is it? Is it a symbol of fasting? No, it is an image of feasting! A small piece of bread and a small cup of juice is not a large feast, but it is the symbol of a large feast – for at this feast we draw near to the One who gave us Himself: we partake of His body, we partake of His blood, and in due course we shall partake of His glory! Jesus Christ, the compassionate Bridegroom, “loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27)

When we go forth from this place, Jesus calls us to live out this image of feasting with one another: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). Show hospitality to one another, share life together, and eat together with eagerness and joy! This is how we can together live out the joy of Mark 2:18-22.

People with the old wineskins will see the bread and the cup as meager symbols of a poor god who wants us to feel somber one more time, or as a mere ritual that might possibly do a little something for them.

But people with the new wineskins will see the bread and the cup as tokens of the Bridegroom’s incomparable love that led Him to give everything, and He calls us to feast with Him and with one another in His gracious presence.

Therefore come to the gospel feast, have your fill, and celebrate the presence of our victorious Lord!



[1] Douglas Wilson, Why Children Matter. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2018: Kindle Loc. 147. “One No In A World Of Yes” is the title of Chapter 4, which begins: “When God first created the human race, He placed Adam in a garden full of delights, with just one prohibition in the middle of that garden. Outside the garden, nothing was prohibited, and inside the garden, only one thing was prohibited.”


Victor Babajide Cole, “Mark.” In Africa Bible Commentary: A One-Volume Commentary Written by 70 African Scholars. Tokunboh Adeyemo, General Editor. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark (The Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974.

Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mark (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 2). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

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