Something Old and Something New

by Len Hjalmarson

"Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder
who brings out of his treasure things old and new."
  Matthew 13:52

For the past few weeks I've been wondering about the relationship of old structures and paradigms to the new thing that God is releasing in the world. For many years I have personally resisted the concept that "new" always means completely new, without any apparent relationship to the established church or to tradition.

On the one hand, Graham Cooke comments that "paradigms do not build on one another; they replace each other." On the other hand, which of us does not stand on the shoulders of mentors and traditions who have gone before us? It simply is not realistic, constructive or intelligent to deny the wisdom and experience of the past. In fact, CS Lewis and others have pointed out that "the ahistorical are usually, without knowing it, enslaved to a recent past."

Not only may we learn from history, but an understanding of where we have come from gives us clarity as to where we are and where we are going. The trees of the past stand in our present and sow the seeds of the future. Understanding the past and discerning the times helps us understand where we are going. Or, as Augustine put it, "The new is in the old concealed, the old is in the new revealed."

Recently I was reading again in Rick Joyner's book, "A Prophetic Vision for the 21st Century." In his chapter on civil war in the church, Rick shares a vision he calls "War and Glory." At one point in this vision, the sea is released by the Lord to rise up against the island and the old city, and it does so with great fury. Rick believes that the sea represents multitudes of humanity, who are rising up in great waves to destroy much of the present, visible structure of the church. He continues:

When these great tidal waves had stopped, there were no Christian institutions as represented by the previous buildings. However, all the real Christians remained. I do not think it is wrong to keep trying to repair these structures (as the Lord honored and preserved those who did), but this vision affirmed deep within me the need to focus on building people.

Even though the earlier buildings were destroyed, they each contained people who were to be pillars in His house. The house of the Lord was a brand-new building, but those who became its main supports were from almost every denomination and movement. The Lord is "the wise Man who brings forth from His treasures both new and old" (Matthew 13:52).

New Wine, Old Skins

We know that the Lord continually serves new wine, and that the new wine is valuable and even indispensable. The Holy Spirit continually calls us forward. To change metaphors, the manna of yesterday cannot be stored up for today. Our temptation is to plan for tomorrow based on today, and in the process we become independent of the Lord. We stop listening. Instead, we must always walk in dependence on the Lord.

We can't camp out in the comfortable places, relying on what God provided yesterday. We have to follow the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. Culture and the times around us are continually changing. We must change to stay the same. Any movement that fails to respond to the sweeping changes in the world will be left behind. We will simply cease to be relevant and cease to communicate in ways that the rising culture can understand.

Furthermore, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 9:14-17 that new wine cannot be contained in old skins. The heart of the problem appears to be that old structures (the wine skin) can't contain new wine. Structures lose flexibility with time, and no longer respond to changing conditions.

What is true of structures is also true of people. We suffer from a "hardening of the categories." We become accustomed to the old ways, and we fail to perceive new things that God is doing. At times this is because of insecurity; we are comfortable with our relationship to the old things, and at some level we fear change and the uncertainty of transition. At other times we fear the loss of position or prestige; leaders sometimes gain a vested interest in keeping things the same, because in the current system they may be honored and useful. Who knows what change will mean? Who knows what new leaders might arise to meet new conditions?

When the Holy Spirit brings change we must be willing to let go of old ways of doing and being, even old ways of thinking. Leaders are sometimes left behind when God does new things because they have preconceived ideas about how God must work, based on their own history. New leaders, while often immature, are more inclined to be open to new ways of thinking and being. And their inexperience makes them more likely to depend on God in the process.

New Wine and Aged Wine

   Whenever someone attempts to introduce a radically different insight to people whose minds have been formed by an old and well-worked-out way of thinking, he is up against an obstacle. Their taste, as Jesus said, for the old wine is so well established that they invariably prefer it to the new. More than that, the new wine, still fermenting, seems to them so obviously and dangerously full of power that they will not even consider putting it into their old and fragile wineskins.

But try to see the point of the biblical imagery of wine-making a little more abstractly. The new insight is always at odds with the old way of looking at things. Even if the teacher's audience were to try earnestly to take it in, the only intellectual devices they have to pick it up with are the categories of the old system with which it conflicts. Hence the teacher's problem: if he leaves in his teaching a single significant scrap of the old system, their minds, by their very effort to understand, will go to that scrap rather than to the point he is making and, having done that, will understand the new only insofar as it can be made to agree with the old -- which is not at all. Robert Farrar Capon, "Between Noon and Three," pp. 140-142.

But while new wine is good, aged wine is also good! At Jesus first miracle at the wedding in Cana, he was praised for saving the best wine for last. New wine tastes good, but aged wine tastes better (see also Luke 5:39).

In Isaiah 25:6 we are told that the Lord will give us aged, refined wine and fat things. New things, old things.. new wine, old wine. What is the Lord trying to tell us?

I believe that the Lord is saying two things. First, a strict ideological position is not helpful. If we try to embrace the things that the Lord is doing simply because they are new, we are in danger. The spirit of rebellion is alive and well among believers today. But rebellion is a reaction, not a response. As such, those in rebellion do not see clearly. Their perceptions are distorted by powerful feelings, often from wounds gained in the church by misunderstanding or rejection.

Holding fast to new things in a desire to reject all that is old or in the fear that all that is old is bad will not move us toward the future with purity and clarity. Rather, we must hold fast to the Lord and to His word.

In the journey out of Egypt Israel moved with the fire by night and the cloud by day. They did not merely go where they wanted to go; and neither did they enter the promised land until they Lord gave the command. We must be willing to "hold" even in the midst of battle unless the Lord tells us to advance. Rushing headlong into battle may seem heroic, but often it is merely foolish.

An unwillingness to release the old ways of thinking and being is often rooted in a religious spirit. The essence of religion is independence from God; we want to earn our salvation or achieve something in our own strength. We want to have it our way.

A religious spirit is therefore a very slippery thing. Religion can masquerade as iconoclasm, rejection of the old merely because it is old. But Jesus tells us that the scribe fit for the kingdom "brings forth something old and something new."

Embracing the Old Treasure

What is in our treasure that is old but useful?

We could start with the great commandments: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We could add the spiritual disciplines: prayer and meditation in the word of God. We could add "do not forsake gathering together" (Heb.10:25).

We could also add the call to do justice and care for the poor. And, we could add the call to service based on our love for God and for one another, and the call to "submit to one another in reverence for Christ" (Eph.5:21).

Simply put, anything from the word of God properly interpreted is for us to bring with us today. Israel moved forward in the desert, but they carried the Ark of God, with the tablets of stone, wherever they went.

The clue to the meaning of Jesus' statement is in the word "scribe." The scribe was one who took up a pen and wrote and copied the Holy words, passing them on from generation to generation. We bring with us the word of God and the wisdom He has revealed for all generations. "The word of God shall stand forever."

However, I believe that there is a second aspect to embracing the old, also related to wisdom. We need to bring with us the fathers who have gone before us. There are two ways we do this.

First, we do it by listening to the voice of wisdom in history. Second, we do it by listening to the voice of wisdom in the fathers and mentors around us in the church. Much of the wisdom of God is incarnate in those who have listened for His voice before us.

Many of those who are pillars in the old structures will be pillars in the new church, "the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:10).

Psalm 133 relates the blessing of unity, and also the relationship of unity to the fathers who have gone before us. Unity comes down from above (oil), and flows from God the father to the fathers (down the beard of Aaron) and then out to the sons and daughters (the edge of the garments). Fathers and fathering is given to release wisdom and blessing to the next generation.

You Were Called for Freedom

As we move into new things, we are often tempted to throw out everything old simply because it is old. In doing so, we may be serving our own needs and not serving the Lord. Our desire to be free of restraint is often an emotional need in our lives, and may or may not have any reference to what the Lord is doing.

The heart cry of many in our day is "freedom!" Too many have been bound up by religion, and others bound up in sin. Within the church many have been bound in chains of performance, and others bound in chains of religious control. Rick Joyner writes that,

".. there is about to be a clear distinction between those who have received their authority from above, and those who have promoted themselves, or been promoted by institutions. The latter authorities will be increasingly revealed as operating in the control, political and religious spirits.

This is Satan's "cord of three strands" that he has used to bind the church. That cord will soon be broken, and the true liberty of the Spirit released in the world, and the church which will fall into increasing tyranny and bondage to evil. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty" (II Corinthians 3:17). Ibid.

We need to understand the cry for freedom within the context of God's love and mercy. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom," but "do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love be slaves of one another" (Galatians 5: 13).

Freedom is not for the purpose of mere enjoyment, but so that we may better serve one another. Freedom is from and to God, and then toward others.

One of the oldest heresies is Gnosticism, and the essence of gnosticism was the belief that matter was evil. In the gnostic world, only spirit was good and was real. Therefore, God could not really have taken flesh and suffered and died, and Jesus must have only appeared to have suffered and died. His death was an illusion.

Gnosticism exalts spirit over matter. Yet the entire witness of the New Testament is that God really took flesh, and that He really lived, died and rose again for our salvation.

But if this is true, then matter is not evil. God really did create the world "very good." And God really took flesh.

And if so, then the world really "matters." Spirit is important, but so is flesh, so is form. In this real world of matter, there is no life or freedom without form. On the personal and individual level, the Spirit takes flesh. The body is our way of moving and being in the real and good world that God created.

In the same way on the corporate level, there are structures in which the Spirit must operate. Both wine and wineskin are important, and the wineskin must be flexible and subject to change.

Structures are therefore necessary to freedom. Freedom is not without boundaries or limits. Those limits will be defined by all that we know about God, by the primary purpose of service, and by wisdom from the fathers. In other words, we move forward in the wisdom of the Word, our community, and tradition. We must listen with both ears.. one attuned to culture and the other to the Holy Spirit.


Change is often messy, and few of us like change. It is a challenge to all of us to release control and allow new ways of doing and being to arise. Leaders are needed to correct, protect, and direct as the entire people of God are equipped and released.

New wine requires new wineskins, otherwise the skins will burst and the wine is lost. The Lord Himself is bringing change to structures. His heart is to see all His people released to serve Him. Old structures are falling down and God is raising up a new generation of apostolic leaders and fathers who are not afraid to try new ways and walk without maps in dependence on the LORD. (See also The New Apostles).

As we walk into new things, we need to walk with wisdom, neither embracing the new for the sake of being new, nor disgarding the old merely because it is old. We especially need to be careful to hear from those who have gone before us. We need the blessing of godly fathers, those who "have known Him from the beginning" (1 John 2:14).

As we explore new ways of being the church in the world, new ways of His kingdom coming, we need to seek appropriate fireplaces, appropriate containers for the fire of God. If we keep the great commandments in mind and seek to find ways to exalt the Lord and serve one another, we will find the way.

Jeremiah 6:16,17

"Thus says the Lord, 'Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is, and walk in it; and you shall find rest for your souls.

But they said, 'We will not walk in it.'
And I set watchmen over you, saying 'Listen to the sound of the trumpet!

But they said, 'We will not listen.'"

* * * * *

January, 2005.. further thoughts..

The "old wineskin" is Judaism.. or, more particularly, the religious system upheld and dominated by the scribes and pharisees. The "new wine" is the message of grace, founded on the life and death of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit as a sign and foretaste of the arrival of the new age.

So.. in one sense it is all about covenant renewal and the rebuilding of the Temple in the people of God. But that still leaves us wondering about the application and relationship of this passage to what God is doing in the earth today.. some of it in the organized church, but a great deal of it outside the walls.

I think it is unfair to simply label the institutional church as the old wineskin. Instead, the wineskin can be said to be cracking and broken wherever institutional religion and the priests of religion hold sway. Wherever the church has turned inward.. wherever it is about control and manipulation and money.. wherever it is legalistic and privatistic... wherever it is about personality and charismatic leaders instead of about God and His people.. wherever it is all politics and the color of the carpeting.. wherever it is about drawing firm lines and defining who is in and who is out (bounded set).. in all these places the wine has run away and a new wineskin is needed.

God won't pour new wine into a broken skin. But there remain many leaders in traditional settings who are sold out for the kingdom. Some of these will eventually slip through the cracks and find new ways of leading God's people forward.

As for the old and its relationship to the new, Jesus "did not come to abolish the law and the prophets." There remains continuity between the old forms and those which are appearing. Paul taught that the law was "holy and true," in spite of its limitations. It expressed the will of a Holy God. That no one would be made righteous by the law was irrelevant.

Similarly, the forms themselves are irrelevant. No one is made righteous by the fact that they attend a high church service, or a pomo meeting with candles and a rock band. These things are only tools which should serve a kingdom purpose. When they don't serve the purposes of God, they should be discarded. Jesus remains the center and the goal of our love and our lives.

The old and new are not compatible. Pour the life of the Spirit into a religious system and see how long it will last. Or, place a controlling and insecure leader in a healthy system where there is grace and dependence on the Holy Spirit and see how long the community will survive.

One of the reasons that so many established leaders have experienced personal deserts leading to brokenness is that it was the only way they could be prepared to walk into new forms. Many of us were dependent on the old forms.. we couldn't walk forward into the unknown, letting go of the old and trusting God in the darkness.. we were afraid to let go of our successes and positions. We were becoming accustomed to depending on ourselves. We soon learned that "apart from Him we could do nothing." Our love for Jesus, our dependence on Him, and our perspective has been renewed as we stepped beyond our comfort zones. We learned again that "we must decrease" for the sake of His kingdom.

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• © 2002-2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in January, 2005