Is It Time to Change Wineskins?

Innovating to Hold the New Wine

May 8, 2023

The rabbis of old had a saying, “Without wine, there is no joy.”1 This was especially true at a wedding. In the first century, weddings were a big deal and often accompanied by multiple days of gift-giving and speechmaking. Plates were kept full, and the wine kept flowing. Perhaps this explains why Mary turned to Jesus after the third day of a wedding celebration to say, “They have no more wine.”

Not only does Jesus offer new wine, he offers the best wine. He is the best wine.

Wine was the equivalent of wedding cake and running out was a major faux pas. What would Jesus do?

John would later record the story and the miracle that followed in John 2:6. He writes, “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to His servants, ‘Fill the jars with water’; so they filled them to the brim.” A few verses later Jesus turned all 180 gallons of water into new wine. I did the math and that’s the equivalent of 908 bottles of wine. Perhaps a few guests started singing, “908 bottles of wine on the wall, 908 bottles of wine. Take one down, pass it around, 907 bottles of wine on the wall.”

Jesus offers new wine. But there is more to the story.

Most weddings would begin with the choice wine; the Mad Dog 20/20 would be held in reserve. But in this story Jesus transforms the water into the finest of wines, perhaps the equivalent of a French Bordeaux valued at $500 a bottle. The master of the banquet had one taste and cried out, “You have saved the best til now” (John 2:10). The symbolism is clear: not only does Jesus offer new wine, he offers the best wine. He is the best wine. The arrival of the Messiah meant the new wine of the gospel. He saved the best until now.

Wine and Wineskins

In Luke 5, a group of religious people express their frustration with Jesus. They resent his grace-filled approach as he is partying with Matthew and his sinful friends, and so they attack him and accuse him of all sorts of things. Why isn’t he following the rules and regulations of their laws? Why isn’t he obeying the man-made systems they have put into place? Why is he associating with sinners? Jesus responds by saying, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Luke 5:37-38).

The chemical reaction from fermenting grapes produces a gas that expands and turns the juice into wine. Jesus reminded his listeners that if new wine was poured into old wineskins, the gas would burst the old, stiff containers. The new wine is eternal and comes from God. New wineskins are temporary and created by us.

In his book The Problem of Wineskins, Howard Snyder writes, “As time passes wineskins must be replaced, not because the gospel changes, but because the gospel itself demands and produces change. New wine must be put into new wineskins, not once-for-all, but repeatedly, periodically.”2

This has everything to do with innovation.

To hold the new wine, we must be willing to create new wineskins by innovating and adapting. This process can be challenging to say the least. Wineskins are those old traditions, stiff structures, and rigid patterns that have become more important than the gospel itself. They are the written regulations, the unwritten rules, the nostalgia of the past, the traditions and “sacred cows,” and the pressure to maintain the status quo.

To hold the new wine, we must be willing to create new wineskins by innovating and adapting.

But the new wine is worth it. God wants to do a “new thing” in your life and ministry and if we don’t put in the hard work of changing the wineskins, we may miss out on all God wants us to do. This innovation applies at both a personal level and a corporate level. We need to wrestle with both.

Corporate Wineskins

In the first century, when the Spirit was poured out from heaven and ignited the Church, a different structure was needed to house the new wine. Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost resulted in 3,000 people being baptized. How do you contain that kind of movement? Where do you gather? What do you do? The apostles and larger group that gathered in the upper room had to innovate to contain all God was doing.

A few years ago, COVID-19 caused pastors and churches everywhere to rethink the wineskins of their ministry. Tough questions needed answers, and most churches pivoted to an online approach to preaching, disciplemaking, and small groups. If the pandemic remained, many of those wineskins would have been made permanent, and in some cases they stuck.

The Asbury revival of 2023 is another example of how new wine was spilled into the wider community forcing colleges, churches, and other networks to pivot by creating new wineskins. It seems wherever God is moving and working, we must evaluate our current wineskins and ask whether the current organizational patterns and programming of the church can contain it.

What might God be calling you to do differently in response to the opportunities and challenges in your community?

There are those in our churches that will be resistant to the new wine. In Luke 5:39 Jesus reaffirms this idea by telling the Pharisees, “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’” There are plenty of people that simply long for the old wine. Their longing is for the familiar taste of the way things used to be. Human nature often desires what is comfortable and predictable. “The old is better,” people say.

But is it?

The new wine may not be as smooth to the tongue and as finely aged as the old. It may be a bit sharp and unrefined. But it is alive. It is active. It is the new thing God is doing and it can’t be contained in old structures. New wineskins must be formed to accommodate all God wants to do.

Personal Wineskins

This concept also has a personal dimension for pastors and leaders. A popular worship song by Hillsong titled “New Wine” expresses this idea in its lyrics, speaking to times in life when God begins to make new wine out of our struggles. Although the process requires pressure and crushing, the result is often something new. The chorus speaks to the goal of being willing vessels in the hands of God: “Make me whatever you want me to be.”

This is the cry of every man or woman willing to do whatever it takes to allow God’s new wine to flow. God is looking for any heart willing to yield and trust and fashion itself into the vessel God wants them to be. On a personal level, we need to wrestle with the way our lives are structured. Perhaps we need to change a few habits, spiritual disciplines, or attitudes to reorder our wineskins to be more receptive.

God is looking for any heart willing to yield and trust and fashion itself into the vessel God wants them to be.

I’ve recently been convicted to wake up earlier, spend more time with God, regularly walk my neighborhood in prayer, and intentionally live with greater boldness in public. I’m searching my heart and my mind to see what thoughts and desires need challenged or adjusted. I don’t want to miss the new wine. I want God to fashion me in his image, no matter the cost. I want His new wine to flow in my life.

The final lyrics of “New Wine” reflect that outpouring by talking about the power and freedom of laying down our preferences for him.

No one pours new wine into old wineskins. May God grant us the courage to innovate corporately and personally to contain all he wants to do.

Notes

1. “There is no joy without wine, since ‘wine gladdens the heart of humanity’” (B.T. Pessahim 109a).

2. Howard Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins: Church Structure in a Technological Age (Franklin, TN: Seedbed Publishing, 2017).

Jon Wiest

Jon Wiest

Jon Wiest (“West”) is the Co-Founder of Mobilize the Church, a global ministry mobilizing a growing wave of disciple makers, pioneer leaders, and church planters. He previously planted churches in Dallas, TX and Des Moines, IA and is the author of Banding Together and Pioneers. Jon has degrees from Wheaton College, Wesley Seminary, and a D.Min. in Church Planting from Asbury Theological Seminary. He is a rabid San Francisco 49ers fan, loves traveling, sports, and history, and currently lives in the Indianapolis, IN area with his wife and four daughters.
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