Luke 5:33-39; 6:43-45: Time for a Change
Sunday morning worship, October 21, 2018
Unless a person is very lucky or maybe not so self-aware, we all have areas of our lives in which we need to grow or even completely change. Change is not easy, especially a really deep-seated change in our primary character. Change is so difficult people readily quote, “a leopard can’t change its spots” meaning it’s as impossible for one to change their character as it is for a leopard to get rid of its spots. Changing our innate nature is nearly impossible even if we try very hard. I would guess many who quote this phrase don’t know it originates from the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah.
As Jerusalem was in the process of being destroyed, Jeremiah told the leaders and the people of Jerusalem, “Hear and pay attention, do not be arrogant, for the Lord has spoken. Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings the darkness, before your feet stumble on the darkening hills. You hope for light, but he will turn it to utter darkness and change it to deep gloom. If you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the Lord’s flock will be taken captive…And if you ask yourself, “Why has this happened to me?”—it is because of your many sins that your skirts have been torn off and your body mistreated. Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. I will scatter you like chaff driven by the desert wind. This is your lot, the portion I have decreed for you,” declares the Lord, “because you have forgotten me and trusted in false gods” (Jeremiah 13:15-17, 22-25).
The nation of Israel did not heed Jeremiah’s warning and went into exile. The nation of Israel went into captivity because they forgot the Lord and trusted in false idols. The people of Israel did not change because they forgot the Lord and trusted in false idols. Black skin does not become white. White skin does not become black. Leopards do not lose their spots. It’s impossible to change our inner nature. Once we go over to the dark side there is no returning to the light. Then why did God bother warning the Israelites through Jeremiah? Why weep in secret, bitterly, overflowing with tears if it was impossible for the Israelites to change?
Listen to Jesus: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” All three synoptic gospel writers quote Jesus saying these words: Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27; and Luke 18:27. Jesus didn’t just tell us is possible to change our inner character, Jesus told us how to change any part of our inner character that needs redeemed. Jesus, in today’s text, offers this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better’” (Luke 5:36-39).
The way I understand Jesus’ words is this: We can’t change our inner nature, our core personality in a piecemeal fashion. We can’t change one part here and leave another part unchanged. Change can’t be patchwork in nature. We can’t add a new behavior on top of an old behavior leaving us with a mixture of the old nature and the new nature. We can’t add new wine to the already existing wine and expect it to coexist in the same container. We can’t be good sometimes and bad sometimes. We can’t love the Lord on Sundays and maybe a few other days of the week and do what we want on others. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Changing our inner character, our inner nature requires a complete change, an absolute and total submission to the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit. The whole old self has to be put off. Our old clothes have to be stripped off and new clothes put on. Our old container—our entire bodies, minds, and spirits—have to be emptied of our old self and we have to accept an entirely new body, a new mind, and a new spirit or the coalescing of the old and the new will doom us. That’s why Jesus told Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).
Once we have been born from above, born of the Spirit, our new character has to grow and develop in a pattern similar to the pattern we experienced when we were born of flesh. We have new parents—our God and our church examples. We have a new language to learn—the language of prayer, intercession, and of hearing our Father’s voice as He through the Spirit teaches us to view the world differently. We have a new set of experiences to mold us into the image of Christ, an image into which all of us have been predestined (Romans 8:29). But we have to be willing to walk this road: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
And here is the rub. When we were born of flesh we had no choice in the matter. We didn’t choose our parents, we weren’t rationally able to understand and correctly interpret and internalize the events surrounding our early years. We were subject to other influences outside our control. But we are only born of the Spirit when the wind blows our way and we choose to respond to that calling.
In our reborn state we can choose a Biblically-based worldview through study, intercessory prayer, and the events to which our Father directs us. In our reborn state we can choose how we interpret and internalize these events God brings our way. In our reborn state we are able to be “more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). This is possible because with our new birth comes a new covenant relationship with God. God our Father promises to “put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know, from the least to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:10-12).
What the writer of Hebrews says next is key: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear” (v13). Did we catch that? What is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. If we are really and truly born again our character, our inner, core nature will change. It has to change. What was true of us before is obsolete and outdated and will soon disappear if our old self died and we were born again.
That’s what baptism symbolizes in both Biblical images. When we go under the water, we die. Our old self drowns. We are then raised again to a new life as a new self, our sins forgiven, our personhood remade. The other image, that of stripping off old and dirty clothes and putting on fresh, clean, white clothes is maybe even a better image. We rid ourselves of our self. We choose to take it off and offer it to God. In turn, God now our Father hands us a new self, clean of our past sin and forgiven.
In our new nature, our new self, Jesus compares us to a tree: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:43-45).
And once again, therein lies the rub. What is completely reborn when we are born of the Spirit is only our spirits. Remember Spirit gives birth to spirit. We have to choose to “put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature” (Colossians 3:5) by denying ourselves daily, even moment by moment, and taking up our cross daily and following Jesus (Luke 9:23).
The ability to change our core nature, our inner self is in our hands through the choices we constantly make. The power to carry out these choices lies in the Spirit of God. Real change is a cooperative experience we share moment by moment with Jesus Himself who is interceding for us. I often wonder if we answered the prayers Jesus is praying for us the way Jesus is praying them would we be so upset that He doesn’t answer the prayers we pray the way we pray them? I can’t make anyone change and God won’t. The leopard can’t change its spots, but with God all things are possible. Submit yourselves to God and resist the devil (James 4:7).
New patches tear old cloth. New wine bursts old wineskins. Partial changes never work. Following Jesus is an all or nothing lifestyle. We can’t live in both worlds as so many try. If you aren’t changing at the deepest level something is wrong in your relationship to the Father. The tragic truth is that most of us don’t even understand or care. Too many have their fire insurance salvation-card in their back pocket thinking they can pull it out any time they need it. It doesn’t work that way.