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Today's Study

Luke 5:39: The Old Is Better?

The ancient authorities for the text read variously "The old is good" and "The old is better," but even if we accept the authority of those which read "The old is good," it makes no material difference: anyone who said, with reference to wine, "The old is good" meant that it was better than the new wine.

This is not so much a hard saying as a misunderstood saying. It is often treated as though it carried Jesus' authority and could be applied to a wide variety of situations in which the old is threatened by the new--an old version of the Bible, an old form of worship, an old method of evangelism, and in short everything that is popularly summed up in the traditional term "the old-time religion." But Jesus quotes the saying; he does not necessarily endorse it. The saying is preserved by Luke, who applies it to his version of Jesus' words about new wine and old wineskins. In those words, taken over from Mark 2:22, Jesus compares his message of the kingdom of God to new wine, which cannot be contained in old wineskins that have lost their elasticity. The old wineskins were the rules and forms of traditional religion, which were menaced, as many religious people thought, by Jesus' revolutionary teaching. If, in the saying appended by Luke, the new wine has the same meaning--Jesus' message of the kingdom--then the people who say "The old is good" or "The old is better" are expressing their preference for the old, established, familiar ways. New teaching is disturbing; it forces people to think, to revise their ideas and attitudes. Religious people tend to be conservative, to suspect innovations. Job's friends were like this: the wisdom to which they appealed had the sanction of antiquity, and Job's arguments tended to upset it. "What do you know that we do not know?" asked Eliphaz the Temanite. "What insights do you have that we do not have? The gray-haired and the aged are on our side, men even older than your father" (Job 15:9-10).

Jesus found that much resistance to accepting his message, on the part not of hostile but of well-intentioned and pious people, arose simply from this attachment to old ways and old ideas. They had stood the test of time; why should they be changed? This was a perfectly natural response, and one which was not totally regrettable: it could be a safeguard against the tendency to fall for anything new just because it was new--to embrace novelty for novelty's sake. But when God does a new thing or imparts a new revelation, as he did in the ministry of Jesus, then the instinctive preference for the old could be an obstacle to the progress of his cause. Ultimately, the question to ask about any teaching is not "Is it old?" or "Is it new?" but "Is it true?" Old wine has a goodness of its own and new wine has a goodness of its own. Personal preference there may be, but there is no room for the dogmatism which says, "No wine is fit to drink till it is old."

"The old is good" or "The old is better," then, far from expressing the mind of Jesus, could well express an attitude that he deplores because it hinders the advance of the kingdom of God.

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