For an Informed Love of God
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“Out with the New; the Old is Better!” (Luke 5:39)
Why do some people resist the new, and why do others think the new is better than the old? Jesus' teaching is the new wine, and the purveyors of the old will almost always fight it, asserting their old forms of thinking are good enough or actually better. Why is it so hard to evaluate the new and decide whether or not it should replace our old? Let's think through Luke 5:39.
In explaining why his disciples don’t fast, Jesus tells the parable of the wine skins. “No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old garment. If he does, he both tears the new, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. Rather, new wine is to be put into new wineskins” (Luke 5:36–38).
And then in typical fashion Jesus tacks on a final comment. “No one drinking the old desires the new; for he says, ‘The old is good (χρηστός)’” (Luke 5:39).
The general meaning of the parable is clear. Jesus’s message is the new wine, and the old forms of Jewish religion can’t hold it. Things have to change, but what does v 39 mean?
At one level, it is a “no dah” sentence. Of course, as a general rule, the longer wine ages the better it is and the statement runs the risk of seeming tautological. But in the parable, since the new wine is Jesus, something else must be happening in the verse.
“Good” is a translation of χρηστός, the positive form of the adjective that means (among other things) “meeting a relatively high standard of value, fine.” BDAG gives the example of “fine wine.” So some translations read, “The old is good” (ESV, NRSV).
The NIV’s translation “The old is better” views χρηστός as a comparative (also CSB, KJV). Technically, the comparative form is κρείττων, but the clear-cut divisions between the three forms of adjectives has breaken down in the Koine period, and though rare the positive can be used as a comparative (see Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 297).
The distinction here is significant. Jesus is saying that his theological opponents believe that the old forms of Jewish religion are actually better than the new wine he is bringing.
Other translations feel the awkwardness of saying that old wine is “good” and translate according to the needs of the context. The NASB says “good enough, the italics indicating that they are adding the word to convey the meaning of the verse. The NET says the same but without italics.
This gives a different meaning, almost an acquiescence to Jesus’s teaching. It doesn’t pass judgment on Jesus but with complacency says that they are okay with what they have.
Depending on voice inflection, using “good” can mean the same thing. This would be almost impossible to convey in writing, which is why you should aways read your translation out loud to see what role voice inflection might play. You can say, “It’s good,” perhaps with a shrug of your shoulders, and mean “good enough.” Or you could say “It’s good” with a sternness in your voice, which means it is better.
I suspect “good enough” said with a militant tone of voice is what Jesus means, which becomes a prophetic statement predicting Judaism’s overall rejection of the Messiah.
I have been impressed as of late with how resilient the old, established forms of anything are. Churches that stick to old forms, preferring to shut their doors rather than ask how to reach the people in their area. Seminaries that can’t conceive of any other way of educating their people despite the fact that educational cost have risen exponentially more than the cost of living over the past twenty years, and despite the fact that it is generally acknowledged that seminary graduates are not adequately prepared for ministry (just ask your pastor). People who keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome. The old can have a fierce grip on people.
But at the same time, there can be wisdom in tried and true ways of thinking, and just because something is new doesn’t mean it is better. Expository preaching — preaching the biblical author’s intended meaning — that starts with people’s felt needs and concludes with Jesus’s new wine, will always be better than any other form of preaching. After all, that is exactly what Jesus did.
But Jesus’s ways are new, and they are better, and they will always be meet with opposition from the old. A word to the wise: never under-estimate the power of someone saying, “but we’ve never done it that way,” and watch them dig in their heels until the doors of their church or school are permanently shut.