New Wineskins or Old?

By Stephen Terry

“Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved." Matthew 9:17, NIV

Jesus made this statement to describe the difference in ministry between that of the Pharisees together with John’s disciples and what was being demonstrated by his own disciples. A radical shift in ministry was taking place. Prior to Jesus’ ministry, the emphasis had been on avoiding contamination by sin and sinners. The saved were expected to work on their own purification to be an example to others. The Jews had been led into idolatry and eventually Babylonian captivity because of their inability to remain pure in their relationship with God. They had learned their lesson well they thought, and those that returned from Babylon promoted extensive rules to prevent their falling into contamination again. These rules often served as walls to separate the righteous from the lost.

The Jews used as a guide the Talmud which contained the Scriptures and oral traditions for applying the Scriptures. The Babylonian Talmud which was finally finished several centuries after Christ’s birth contained these rules in the Mishna. Prior to this, the Mishna was only oral tradition. These traditions were carefully observed by the Pharisees. The Mishna was commonly believed to date back to Moses and to be equivalent to Moses’ written laws in authority. Jesus frequently challenged the Pharisees over these oral traditions. It was over this that Jesus said, quoting Isaiah 29:13, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

Jesus shed light on this conflict between the “rules taught by men” and the rule of love in God’s kingdom. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one example. In this parable, the Priest and the Levite were more concerned about the possibility of contamination by a sinner than they were about the needs of the wounded man. They probably asked themselves, “Who knows what kind of sins he might be guilty of? Most likely his present circumstances were the result of his failure to honor God. It is probably best to give him a wide birth lest he lead others into his sinful life style.” Fortunately the Samaritan who happened along did not feel this way. He saw a need and ministered to it. Shockingly, he didn’t even do it to win a convert to his beliefs. Many of us see ourselves as Adventist Good Samaritans, but are we?

I have an active online ministry where I meet with people from all walks of life and many different denominations. Some of the stories they relate to me are troubling. A woman in her mid 30’s chatted with me in October, 2007. She was very distraught. She explained that she had been raised as an Adventist. She said her parents worked hard to make sure she had no contact with non-Adventists and even Adventists who were not the same gender. She stated that she was not able to form healthy relationships with men because she never learned how. She felt her only option in life now was to become an Adventist “nun.” She felt she would never be able to raise children in the Lord because she did not want them to turn out like her.

She also had a tremendous concern about her own salvation. She wanted to love and rescue the lost but she had been taught only to fear them…that they somehow would contaminate her and must be avoided at all costs. She felt she could never overcome this barrier to lead others to Christ. She stated this gave her more sadness even than not having children. She wanted to know why her parents did this to her? Why they didn’t teach her love instead of fear. She wanted to know if she would have to spend the rest of her life living in fear? This woman said she felt God was not very powerful because she was taught that any exposure to a sinner would cause her to be overcome and lost.

Clearly the same rules that caused the priest and the Levite to avoid the wounded man by the Jericho road are being promoted today. We are awash in a sea of needs but flee from them as did the priest and the Levite as we fear possible contamination from those who are in the greatest need. Jesus was under no false illusions about the dangers that existed, yet He still sent his followers out to the lost. He said, “…behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves.” Luke 10:3, NIV. These were not even full grown sheep he was sending out. He was sending out lambs. He could only do so because He knew who had the greater power.

The Essenes were a religious sect of Jesus’ day who pulled back from contamination from the world even more extremely than the Pharisees. Living in a commune away from the cities, they sought to live a purified life. Today there are no Essenes. They did not understand how important remaining involved with the needs of others was to ministry and growth. Learning to minister to the needs of the lost and living in the world are important to our survival as a religious community. If we cannot learn to do this without being overcome by the world, we will not be able to grow from lambs into true sheep.

In Matthew 25, Jesus shares the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The only thing that appeared to separate the two groups was that the sheep were involved in needs based ministry. The goats apparently had other things to do. In sharing this with the people Jesus was only reminding them of the words of the Prophet Isaiah found in the 58th chapter of his book. “…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” This is prophet talk for saying if you meet the needs of others, you will grow spiritually.

The needs are all around us if we have eyes to see. I have walked the streets of the inner city in Spokane and seen the needs. I have seen children living in crack houses and meth labs. I have seen single women, often with children living in apartments smaller than my bedroom. I have seen the mentally ill standing on street corners talking to concrete walls. I have seen men and women, alcoholics, passed out and vulnerable in public places. I have seen groups of sullen young men in the streets with nothing to do but look for trouble. They have grown up without hope and now see no reason to allow hope for others.

There is something I have not seen as I walked those streets. I have not seen the members I see in church on Sabbath. I have seen secular organizations, and I have seen the Catholic Church heavily involved in meeting the needs of the lost. (Perhaps the Adventist view toward Catholics can be appropriately compared with the Jewish view toward Samaritans.) I recently examined a directory of Interfaith Ministry community resources for the City of Spokane. Over thirty Adventist churches were listed in this directory but there was almost no Adventist presence listed as meeting the needs of the community for domestic violence, teen pregnancy, substance abuse treatment, mental health, daycare for the poor, and over a dozen other areas. The only entry in the directory for Adventist social services was a community service center that no longer provided most of the services listed and now functions primarily as a food bank.

In all fairness, the church has decided to turn things around at the community service center. We also now have an addiction recovery program at the Central Church. I would challenge you to consider starting one in your community. We must do more. In a city where we have one community service center, the Catholic Church has many social service centers for many different needs. We have a few independent efforts like Polly’s Place and Cookie’s Retreat but we do not work together as we should in these ministries. As it stands right now, the wounded man on the road to Jericho is far more likely to be helped by Catholics than Adventists.

In Revelation, chapter 3, the final church, Laodicea is defined as being mostly lukewarm. We have often identified this as being lukewarm about our salvation. Could we be wrong about this? Could it be that we are instead lukewarm toward the needs of others? Have we become so preoccupied with attempting to live a sanctified lifestyle that we no longer notice the needs of others? Nowhere does Jesus say that we will be saved based on what we wear, what we eat, or what we sing. Nowhere does He say we will be saved based on how many others we can get to agree with our viewpoints on these things. Not that these things are totally wrong to be concerned about, but if there is no needs based ministry, how do we become sheep instead of goats?

The first step toward becoming sheep is to become aware of the needs that exist around us. We must venture forth from our churches and get to know the community around them. Many of our churches are made up of those who live in the country or the suburbs and commute weekly to church services in the city. We share quotes from the book “Country Living” by Ellen White and encourage one another in moving from the cities. We overlook the statements by Ellen White that we are to continue to work the cities from these rural locations. It becomes too easy to remain in our comfortable homes. We concern ourselves with the price of gas and with the time it takes to go back and forth to the city and instead find other activities to fill our time. After all we make a significant contribution in time and gas just to come to services once a week.

Even if our churches do have some from the local neighborhood, the two groups rarely socialize together. Those in the country rarely invite the urban poor to Sabbath dinner. Those urban poor are often paralyzed by the rituals performed by those who are unable to understand life as the poor know it. I remember as a teenager being invited to the pastor’s house for Sabbath dinner. I was scared stiff. It was a world of lace table cloths, silver, china and crystal goblets filled with grape juice. I was so worried that I would spill some grape juice on the lace that I did not enjoy the dinner at all. I refused other invitations because I was afraid of what I would experience. I lived in a world of melmac plates, Tupperware cups, kitchen tables with no table cloths, and mismatched flatware. Our “juice” if we had it was usually Kool-aid. I simply could not relate to the world the church thrust me into. It is equally hard for those who have learned to live by these social rituals to insert themselves into the world of the poor. But we must do so if we are to reach the lost. We must allow Jesus’ example to show us how to cross that gap.

How hard it is to find time to “satisfy the hungry” and to “meet the needs of the oppressed.” Until we find it as compelling to drive into the city to do volunteer services for the poor, the addicted, the abused, and the mentally ill as it is to attend a concert or to go out to a nice restaurant to eat, we may never find the formula for becoming sheep. Sheep have to do things that are often disagreeable. Those who have the greatest needs will talk crudely, might smell unusual, and might dress provocatively. All these things can make a faithful Adventist very uncomfortable.

No one will question us if we hang around with other sheep and constantly work on looking and acting like the other sheep. But if we do this, we will in the end be goats and not sheep. We only need to look at the life of Jesus to see this. When Jesus sat at a well talking to a heathen woman about her marriage problems, He probably didn’t ask Himself “What if someone sees me talking to her?” When Mary washed his feet with her tears, He probably didn’t tell her “Mary, stop it. What will people think?”

Some will ask, “If we do these things, some are going to be tempted to sin and fall away.” I have news, some are falling away anyways. Is it better to fall attempting to rescue others or to fall having never entered the fray? Besides, if we want to be beside Jesus, where is He most likely to be? Aside from the wedding at Cana, there is little in the gospels about Jesus attending parties and nothing about Him watching TV or going to sporting events. If we are looking for Jesus at the movies, we will probably have more luck finding Him in the park talking to the homeless. There are many examples of Him being with the smelly lepers, the immoral prostitutes, the stumbling lame and the blind. To us today, those people are often as invisible as the people who hold cardboard signs at street corners tend to become.

Some have a few choice words for these street corner beggars. The surprising thing is that Jesus has more respect for those who say these judgmental things than He does for those who no longer even notice the beggars. He says “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:15,16, NIV. Those who are so judgmental of the poor can at least still see them. The lukewarm have not only lost the ability to see the needs of others but cannot even see their own needs.

Apart from our own involvement in needs based ministry, what of our existing church administration? What impact would it make on our needs based ministries if the conference offices employed full time staff to write for grants for these ministries? What if our conference offices provided directories for needs based resources to our churches to assist in coordinating need ministries? What if our ministerial associations focused more on coordinating need outreaches? What would happen if we “kicked it to the next level” and started using need based ministries to introduce people to Jesus Christ?

Jesus saw little difference between needs based ministry and salvation. He said, “Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.... Then he said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’ " Matthew 9:5-6, NIV. One cannot separate the gospel from meeting the needs of the sick, the poor, or the outcast.

How does all this relate to wineskins? Although it is as old as the prophets and as old as Abraham feeding Christ in the person of strangers, this can seem like a new truth to some. New truth can be hard to receive into old understandings. For the Pharisees, those understandings could not accommodate needs based ministry. They either had to acquire new wineskins to hold this new message or it would burst their previous concepts and all would be lost, both wine and wineskins. Meeting the needs of others was a radical shift for the Jews of Jesus’ time. It can still be a radical shift today.

In Jesus’ time, it was so radical that the Pharisees accused Jesus of doing the work of the Devil. Sometimes even today, the work of those reaching out to others in need is called the work of the Devil. The person ministering may not eat what the accuser eats, or listen to what the accuser listens to, or dress how the accuser would dress and so must be “of the Devil” it is thought and even sometimes said. As Jesus foretold, “It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household?” Matthew 10:25, NIV

Those who criticize these needs based ministries are walking on dangerous ground. Even Ellen White said “According to the figure that our Savior uses, he who indulges a censorious spirit is guilty of greater sin than is the one he accuses, for he not only commits the same sin, but adds to it conceit and censoriousness.” Thoughts from the Mount of Blessings, page 125. Some would say, “I have not said anything to condemn these outreaches,” but the rolling of the eyes and the shunning of the accused are words enough to show the heart of those doing the accusing.

How much better it is to lay aside such a spirit and to take up the work of needs based ministry. How much better it is to be able to see Jesus in others rather than their faults. If we did this, people would flock to us as they did to Jesus in His day. They will come because they will see Jesus in us…not a Pharisaical, self-righteous Jesus who cringes at the thought of the contamination He might experience, but a loving, caring Jesus who wants nothing more than for people to be whole and loved. To do this we must look past the faults of others to their salvation. “Beneath an appearance of hatred and contempt, even beneath crime and degradation, may be hidden a soul that the grace of Christ will rescue to shine as a jewel in the Redeemer’s crown.” Thoughts from the Mount of Blessings, page 130.

Each of us has a blessing cup. God desires to fill that cup with new blessings everyday, but we must make room for those new blessings by sharing the old ones with those in need. When we come to the Lord with full blessing cups we come away with empty hands because He could give us no more. (Paraphrase, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessings, page 7) When we share our blessings with others in need, we become aware of our own increased need for more blessings. Then we return to the Source to be refilled to impart again. There is great joy in the receiving and great joy in the giving.

Jesus says of the sheep that they are “blessed by my Father.” Wouldn’t you like to have that blessing? It is not wrong to seek blessings for ourselves. Jacob when he wrestled with the angel at the Brook Jabbok, said “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He received that blessing. Won’t you join me in seeking God’s blessing? Won’t you join me in seeking to find ways to minister to the needs of others?



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