For millennia, mankind has considered fermented juice—wine—one of life’s “finer things.” Most commonly made with grapes, wine is nearly as old as man.
An article titled “A Brief History of Wine” gives a summary of this unique beverage through the ages: “Just as society finds its roots in ancient Mesopotamia, the earliest evidence we have for the cultivation of grapes and the supervised fermentation of their juices dates back to…the ancient Middle East. The Egyptians recorded the harvest of grapes on the walls of their tombs; bottles of wine were even buried with pharaohs in order that they might entertain guests in the afterlife. Wine was also considered a drink of the elite in ancient Greece…But it was during the Roman era that wine became popular throughout society. In Roman cities wine bars were set up on almost every street, and the Romans exported wine and wine-making to the rest of Europe. Soon, production and quality of wine in other regions rivaled that of Rome herself: in A.D. 92, Emperor Domitian decreed that all of the vines in the Cahors region (near Bordeaux) be pulled out, ostensibly in favor of the wheat cultivation the empire so desperately needed, but possibly also to quell the competition with Italian wine exports.
“After the fall of Rome, wine continued to be produced in the Byzantine Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. It spread eastward to Central Asia along the Silk Route; grape wine was known in China by the eighth century. But the spread of Islam largely extinguished the wine industry in North Africa and the Middle East. Throughout Europe, wine-making was primarily the business of monasteries, because of the need for wine in the Christian sacraments. During this period stronger, more full-bodied wines replaced their sweeter ancient predecessors (which usually were mixed with water before drinking). During the Renaissance, the virtues of various wine regions were appreciated by the increasingly sophisticated wine drinkers, and by the 18th century the wine trade soared, especially in France, where Bordeaux became the preeminent producer of fine wines. The development of distinctive strains of wine grapes led to the production of regional wines with easily recognizable characteristics.
“In the New World the first successful wine-making occurred in the 19th century. Somewhat surprisingly, Ohio was the first region in America to successfully cultivate grapes for wine, but it was soon eclipsed by wine production in California” (The New York Times).
Wine symbolizes prosperity in a number of biblical passages. (See Deuteronomy 33:28, II Chronicles 31:5, and others). When Isaac gave Jacob the blessing, which Esau “despised” (Gen. 25:34), he stated, “Therefore God give you of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn [grain] and wine” (Gen. 27:28). In the New Testament, it is recommended to Timothy by Paul to help his “stomach” and his “often infirmities” (I Tim. 5:23).
Interestingly, wine experts maintain that, in contrast to certain spirits that mature with age, many wines are meant to be consumed while fresh, within about a year, rather than being cellared (aged) for long periods of time. A wine aficionado with an educated palette knows that new wine is both better tasting and probably better for you, having a higher antioxidant content than one that is allowed to sit for a long time.
Wine is one of the many physical blessings God has given us to enjoy. Of course, other verses warn that it must be enjoyed in moderation. But most of God’s people can and do enjoy a glass of oinos, as it is called in Greek. And it is required to have a small amount at the Passover, symbolizing Jesus Christ’s blood.
A Famous Parable
One of Jesus Christ’s well-known parables, the last in a group of three, involves wine. Let’s read the account in the book of Luke: “And they said unto Him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but Yours eat and drink? And He said unto them, Can you make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.
“And He spoke also a parable unto them; No man puts a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new makes a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agrees not with the old. And no man puts new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved” (Luke 5:33-38).
What does this parable mean? To begin, it helps to understand that “bottles” used for wine in the first century were not really bottles at all. James Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels gives insight into the ancient wine-making process: “The climate and soil of [the Promised Land] are excellently adapted to the production of grapes, and from very early times wine has been a common beverage in the country. In the [Old Testament] it is praised as a source of good cheer to the heavy of heart, as a stimulant for the faint, and as a token of a full, happy and prosperous life…”
“In the Gospels wine appears with bread as representing ordinary fare…it is drunk on festive occasions, and at religious feasts…Mingled with oil, it is applied to wounds as a healing agent…”
“The ancient methods of wine-making persist to the present day. Commonly the grapes are placed in a large shallow trough, cut in the surface of the rock. The juice is there trodden out, and conducted by a channel to a deeper trough at a lower level. The time of the vintage and wine-treading is one of great joyfulness among the people, their labours being enlivened by the singing of songs, and rhythmic clapping of the hands. Fermentation sets in quickly. The first, or what the Jews called the ‘tumultuous’ stage, might be passed in four days, during which the wine remained in the trough, or vat, if possible. It was then put into earthenware jars which had been lined with pitch, or, if it were to be sent to a distance, into ‘bottles,’ where the process was completed. In about three months the wine was fit for use.
“Where the soil was deep, a press was ‘digged’ in the earth [Matt. 21:33]. This, built round with masonry, and carefully cemented, received the juice expressed in a wooden structure set on the surface.
“The ‘bottles’ are partially tanned goat-skins. The apertures [openings] where legs and tail have been severed are sewn up, leaving only that at the neck, which is firmly tied when the skin is filled. The wine in the first stage of fermentation, if tied in the skins, would, by reason of the gas generated, burst them. When the ‘tumultuous’ stage is passed, the new ‘bottle’ yields [stretches] sufficiently to permit completion of the process. ‘Bottles’ once stretched in this way had no further powers of distention [lost their ability to stretch], and if used again for the same purpose would, of course, burst [Matt. 9:17].”
Mark’s account states, “…new wine must be put into new bottles” (2:19-22). To prevent both the loss of a large amount of wine and the loss of a wineskin suitable for aged product, care had to be taken to match the wine with the container.
But was Jesus really concerned about wine? Remember, parables are meant to hide meaning from those without God’s Spirit (Mark 13:10-11), but can and should be understood by those who have it.
Let’s look at the context of Luke 5:33-38. Christ first answered a question regarding the approach of His disciples—apostles-in-training along with others who would form the beginnings of the New Testament Church (Matt. 16:18)—contrasted with the way the established religion of the time worked, and even the way that John the Baptist operated as one preparing the way for His First Coming.
In effect, Christ was stating that His earthly ministry marked a dramatic turning point in God working with man.
The next two parables, the first concerning patching an old garment with new fabric, and then putting new wine in an old bottle, are similar to one another. They further emphasize that the true religion that Christ established through His Church was like a new fabric, or fresh wine that no one had yet tasted. And it could not be merged or blended with any other belief system!
In Christ’s time, Judaism could be seen as an “old bottle.” Christ’s teachings were rejected by the Jewish authorities, and the book of Acts shows that over time the Church threw off any remaining wrong understanding or practices that persisted among former Jews.
How does this apply to each of us in God’s Church today?
Old Doctrines and Practices
In the parable, wineskins can be seen as a person’s thoughts, words and actions. When someone is baptized and has hands laid on him, he should picture himself as having thrown away the old bottle in his life—his old way of living—and taking up a new, pliable wineskin ready to receive the new wine of God’s way of life.
Are we still holding on to some of the teachings and traditions of denominations we once attended, or perhaps were raised in? This is one of the most common, but least recognized, areas in which we can hold on to an “old bottle.”
Some of the ones that linger most easily include:
- A Protestant manner—this can take the form of empty, syrupy “love speak” and a wrongly tolerant approach to gross sin (including our own), etc.
- Prophetic ideas from worldly ministers/organizations.
- Empty, repetitive prayer or other approaches to prayer that are unbiblical.
- Conspiracy theories—a deadly but addictive spiritual poison.
- The democratic, Laodicean, “I have my rights and my opinion counts” approach.
- An intellectual mindset, reflecting knowledge that puffs up (I Cor. 8:1).
Others could be cited, but many fall in these broad categories. Have we examined ourselves for these? Do any of these old bottles need to be purged from our spiritual “shelf”?
Old Lifestyles and Habits
God called us out of all kinds of backgrounds, but we have one thing in common—we were in bondage to various forms of sin: “Know you not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor. 6:9-11).
We cannot merge the knowledge of the truth—including true standards of conduct—with leftovers from our days as carnal men and women. While we will slip and sin, our overall pattern of life should reflect the new wine of truth in action. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:17-18).
We must leave behind our old carnal ways and never allow them to creep back in.
Another area in which the “old bottle” can rear its head is that of values—what we consider important, as evidenced by how our time and resources are spent, as well as how we interact with others.
One false value set that is especially common today is materialism: “And He spoke a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, You fool, this night your soul shall be required of you: then whose shall those things be, which you have provided? So is he that lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).
Another is the self-centered desire for power and preeminent position. This is one way in which the “pride of life” (I John 2:16) manifests itself. A false first-century leader described by the exiled apostle John personified this: “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, receives us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and forbids them that would, and casts them out of the church” (III John 1:9-10).
This can also be described as the “Lords of the Gentiles” approach, which Christ made off-limits for His servants (Luke 22:25-27). (This concept is covered more fully in the article Submit Yourself! also found in this issue.)
Do we value sacrifice and service above self? Put another way, do our values align with seeking the kingdom first (Matt. 6:33)? If not, we are trying to receive new wine in a wrong bottle.
Change Is Not Easy
Luke’s account of the parable of the wine bottles is the only one that includes this final statement: “No man also having drunk old wine straightway desires new: for he says, The old is better” (5:39).
The comfort of familiarity is the age-old enemy of spiritual progress. It can be second nature to relapse into certain elements of our “old bottle.” But we must strive to constantly maintain new ones.
Let’s look for old bottles that may be lingering in our lives and replace them with new bottles of conversion, readily receiving God’s new wine!