The Wrong Way To Measure Spirituality—Luke 5:33-39 #020


Levi Durfey 




The scripture we take up to study is Luke 5:33-39. Jesus and his disciples were just at a banquet at Levi’s house with publicans and sinners. Coming out, the scribes and Pharisees cornered some of his disciples and asked why they would eat with such sinners. Jesus responded by saying that sinners were like patients who needed a doctor. The doctor has to go and be close to his patients in order to help them.


In this passage, the Pharisees are going to attack Jesus with another question. Their question boils down to this: why aren’t you a spiritual person?




What customs do we practice that we use as a measure of someone’s spirituality? 


Over the centuries, Christians have looked at all sorts of external customs to measure a person’s spiritual condition. Here is a list that was popular among Christians in the second-century:


Get rid of everything in your wardrobe that is not white. Stop sleeping on a soft pillow. Sell your musical instruments and don’t eat any more white bread. You cannot, if you are sincere about obeying Christ, take warm baths or shave your beard. To shave is to lie against Him who created us, to attempt to improve on His Work.” (Galaxie Software, 10,000 Sermon Illustrations [Biblical Studies Press, 2002])


Sound pretty silly? Especially silly is the fact that 1800 years later, in the mid-1900’s, it became a sin to have a beard. Go figure.


For 2,000 years, Christians have made lists and changed lists. We’re always looking for simple, external factors to judge how spiritual  we and other Christians are. It’s simple to have a list, but it’s also legalistic, and it doesn’t work. Someone could do everything on your list and still be unsaved.


For the scribes and Pharisees, one of the customs that made one spiritual in their eyes was fasting and saying prayers in a certain way.

Luke 5:33 And they said unto him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink? 


When they said “make prayers,” they weren’t talking about praying in the biblical sense. They were thinking of the religious-type prayers that they performed. Jesus rebuked this sort of prayer in Matthew 6—


5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. (Matthew 6:5)


Please note that Jesus wasn’t banning public prayer, only hypocritical prayer put on for show.


The Pharisees were asking, “Why aren’t you seen praying like we are? If you were a spiritual person, you’d be involved in the prayers that we do.”


The main focus is on fasting. Fasting is abstaining from food for a time in order to focus ourselves more on God. Fasting promotes dependence on God because you have to rely on him to go without the necessary food. Jesus will never say that we shouldn’t fast. Fasting is a good thing for Christians to participate in from time to time—we might, for instance, be led to pray and fast for rain for crops, revival in our land, or the recovery of a seriously injured loved one. Whether or not we should fast is not the issue here.


Fasting, at least on a regular basis, is only commanded in one place in the Old Testament, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27). But by the time the New Testament rolls around, there were all sorts of fasts that the people were required to do. The Pharisees themselves fasted twice a week, Monday and Thursday. In fact, the Greek verb here suggests that Levi’s banquet happened on one of the fasting days for the Pharisees, so they were probably quite perturbed that he and his disciples were eating and they weren’t! So you see, the Pharisees were asking why Jesus and his disciples didn’t follow their idea of proper religion.


In addition to just fasting twice a week, the Pharisees made a show of their fasting (just as they did with their prayers). They made up their faces so they looked like a starving person. They didn’t wash, they wore their worst looking clothes. This is why Jesus would say:


16 Moreover when ye fast [not, ‘if’ and certainly not ‘don’t fast’], be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. (Matthew 6:16)


Fasting at particular times and in a particular way had become a thing that a good and proper Jew did if he wanted to be known as a “spiritual person.”


Over the years, I’ve gotten similar questions from people as well. Why don’t you do this or that? Simple answer: it’s not required in the Bible. It might be a good thing to do, but it’s not sinful not to do it. But when you demand that this good thing be done as a requirement to be spiritual, then that becomes legalism. It’s turned into a bad thing because it’s only being done to please certain people.


Folks, it’s so easy for us to fall into this trap, especially if we’ve been a Christian for a long time. We might have done some ritual or habit for so long, that when we see other people not doing it, we think that they are unspiritual or wrong in some way. Beware of doing that. Examine your traditions and habits in the light of the Bible—you’ll find that it’s probably not required to worship God or be a good Christian. 


It might be good for you to do, it might be good to suggest another Christian do to grow spiritually, but it’s never right to impose on someone else as a measure of their spiritual condition.




So the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why don’t you pray or fast like we do?” Jesus responded to their question, or really, their accusation, in two ways:


1. You Don’t Fast At Weddings


Luke 5:34 And he said unto them, Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? 


Jewish weddings did not involve honeymoons. Instead, every one stayed around for a week to help them celebrate. Their closest friends (what the KJV calls the “children of the bridechamber”) attended to the bride and grooms needs and treated them like royalty. And, of course, there was a lot of food and eating. Fasting during a wedding celebration would be silly and really offensive to the bride and groom. 


Jesus’s point is that his time on earth was like a wedding celebration in a way. He was physically present with people. He was teaching the good news in a way that people found authoritative and exciting. And, of course, he was healing everyone who came to him for help. Jesus had fasted before starting his ministry, but during his ministry was not the time to fast—it was a joyous time.


However, he says,


Luke 5:35 But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. 


This is a hint of his impending date with the cross. After he died, his disciples would be in much distress. The groom will have been murdered. It would be an appropriate time to fast at that point.


Jesus says that there are times to fast, but there are also times not to fast. You can’t gauge a person’s spirituality by forcing them into a routine that you think is spiritual.


2. You Don’t Mix The Old And New


Luke 5:36 And he spake also a parable unto them; No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. 


In the days before preshrunk clothing material, if you sewed a piece of new cloth to a old pair of pants, the new patch would shrink in the wash. And when it shrunk, it would tear seams. You didn’t mix the old and new material.


Luke 5:37 And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. 

Luke 5:38 But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. 


The wine “bottles” being talked about here could be something like goat skins. They would skin a goat and then sew the skin back together. Then they would tie of the openings made by the legs. That would be a wineskin (Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Reader’s Companion, electronic ed. [Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991], 634). 


When you put the wine in it, it would, over time, stretch the skin, almost to the breaking point. Then later, if you were to put new wine in it, the skin would not have enough elasticity in it to stretch any more and it would break.


Again, the point is that you can’t mix the old and the new. The Old Testament way of doing things was not going to be destroyed by Jesus, but it would be fulfilled. The narrow constraints of the Old Testament were about to be burst by the New Testament. Here are a few ways that would happen:


  • Worship at the Temple would be abolished for worship in the temple of the Holy Spirit—the human soul (John 4:20-24; 1 Corinthians  6:19).
  • Sacrifices and burnt offerings would no longer be necessary because Jesus would be our once-for-all sacrifice for all time (Hebrews 10:11-12).
  • Physical circumcision would no longer be necessary because every believer would be circumcised in their heart (Romans 2:28-29, Galatians 6:12-15)
  • And, especially, the Gospel of grace would not be for Jews only. It would be for the whole world. Israel would no longer be the focus of where God works (Colossians 3:11).


These things would be a matter of debate in the early church. They wondered, “How much of the Old Testament do we keep?” Jewish Christians would try to combine Jewish laws and traditions with Christianity. Some felt that circumcision, for instance, was required in addition to believing in Jesus. We see this brought up in Acts 15 at a church-wide meeting. Also, the letters to Hebrews and Galatians confront this error of trying to attach the old with the new. 


Why offer animal sacrifices when you have a greater sacrifice in Jesus? To do so would mean that you don’t really trust the greater sacrifice Jesus made for you. The old and new don’t mix.


Are you trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to save you from your sins?


In addition to the Old Testament way of doing things being fulfilled, the additional rules and regulations of the Pharisees would certainly not mix with the Gospel of grace.


You can’t have a Gospel of grace with human rules attached. It’s like oil and water. The new covenant Jesus was ushering in was incompatible with the old ways and traditions of the Pharisees. There was no way that their regulated and required fasting could be part of the Gospel of Grace. Fasting isn’t bad, but to require it for spiritual acceptability just won’t work. The person who fasts twice a week has nothing on the person who doesn’t fast at all…and could be, in fact, less spiritual.


The Pharisees relied on human effort to be spiritual and accepted by God. Jesus’s Gospel would go in the opposite direction: people would rely on God’s effort to save them.


Would the Pharisees see this? Would they embrace Jesus’s new way of grace? Some, like Nicodemus, would come to accept Jesus’s gospel. But the rest would be like the person Jesus describes in the next verse:




Luke 5:39 No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.


The picture here is not of someone saying that aged wine is better. Aged wine might be better, but that’s not the point that Jesus is making. The point he is making is that there’s a person who won’t even taste the new wine because he stubbornly insists the old wine is better. In other words, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.


Don’t be like the Pharisees…it’s easy for Christians to do, especially as you get older. We sing about the “old time religion is good enough for me.” That’s good, if by “old-time religion” you only mean the Gospel of grace. But don’t go adding stuff to it. Don’t make the old-time religion a kind of Pharisee legalism. 


What do you do if you discover that a conviction that you’ve been holding is actually legalistic? What do you do if you realize that you have been measuring other people’s spirituality by a standard that isn’t in Scripture?


1) First, have hope! It’s not quite true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, especially if that “old dog” is a child of God. Don’t sell yourself short—you are not a dog, or a monkey, or a camel, or any animal. You are made in the image of God and you have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you. The Holy Spirit can change your heart, if you repent and are humble before him. So have hope—the Spirit can teach an old dog new tricks!


2) Why is it difficult for people in general to change, even when it’s clear that the old way isn’t as good?


Because admitting that we’re wrong hurts our pride. Maybe this is something that we’ve believed and taught for decades. It’s hard on our egos to admit that we are wrong and we taught others something that was wrong. When we get to the point where we know that we’re wrong, but feel embarrassed to admit it, we need to pray fervently for humility. 


3) Repent! Remember, who was it that Jesus had the harshest words for? Was it the sinners? No, it was the religious, legalistic Pharisees. We all want Jesus to say to us, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” But what if his words are, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:25). In other words, a little legalism in your life isn’t okay with Jesus. For the sake of your Lord’s name, for his reward of praise to you in Heaven, purge it from your life! 




The measure of a person’s spirituality cannot be measured by external standards that we invent. This doesn’t mean that sinning is okay and that we can’t confront someone in their sin—the Bible insists we should (e.g., Matthew 18). God forbid that anyone come away from this sermon thinking that sinning is okay. But we should examine our own hearts: do we have spiritual measuring sticks that we measure others against that have no basis in the Bible? Then that is a sin that we need to repent of.


The wonderful thing is, that when we confess and repent, Jesus smiles. He welcomes us closer into his fellowship. The famous verse we use for evangelizing unbelievers was actually written to Christians:


20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)


Have you shut the door on Jesus a bit with legalistic measurements? You know how he hates legalism. The good news is that when you fling the door open by repenting, Jesus is eager to come in and sup—fellowship—with you. A new level of intimacy with the Lord Jesus is waiting for those Christians who cast of the legalism of the Pharisees and embrace even more the grace of the Gospel of Christ!

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