Pastor David B. Curtis


Jesus on Fasting

Mark 2:18-22

Delivered 01/15/2006

We are continuing our study of the Gospel of Mark. The Gospels are records of what the first Christians believed was significant about Jesus, and what must be preserved and communicated into the future. They are both records of Jesus' life and words and records of the response of those who experienced Him.

In our last study we saw Jesus call Matthew to follow Him. Why was it a big deal that Jesus called Matthew to be a disciple and carry the gospel to the Jews? Matthew was a tax collector. The feeling of the first century Jews toward the tax collector would be similar to how our society feels about drug dealers or child molesters. They were despised, they were hated.

What happened after Jesus called Matthew to be His disciple? Matthew had a party and invited all his friends. His friends were other tax collectors and sinners, but Jesus went to the party. This disturbed the religious leaders of the day:

Mark 2:16 (NASB) And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, "Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?"

What was Jesus' response to these Pharisees?

Mark 2:17 (NASB) And hearing this, Jesus said^ to them, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

What was Jesus saying here? Jesus was not saying that there actually were some who were so righteous that they did not need His teaching, only that there were some who THOUGHT they were. He was pointing out that His words were for those who had a conscious need, who were aware that they were sick.

The only way to enter God's Kingdom is to confess your unrighteousness and your inability to meet God's standards. You must see your need before you can receive His grace. You must realize you are sick before He can heal you.

So the Pharisees were upset because Jesus was eating with sinners. But that wasn't all that upset them - they were disturbed that He ate at all:

Mark 2:18 (NASB) And John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they came^ and said^ to Him, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?"

For some, holiness meant avoiding eating with ungodly people. For others, holiness meant religious practices of self-discipline like fasting. The Greek word for "fasting" is nesteuo, which means: "to abstain from food."

In all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), this question asked of Jesus about fasting and His reply appear immediately after the incident of the call of Matthew, and it seems right to conclude that the incident took place at the same time as the feast was taking place which the tax collector had laid out.

"John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting" - note that both groups of people fasted on occasions, and they both found it difficult to accept a new movement within Israel that didn't rely on fasting, but that gave in to moral and spiritual laxity by its departure from the traditions of Judaism.

Added to the Pharisees are the disciples of John the Baptist. These would have been good men, diligent about the cause. But they were also men highly influenced by the religious structure of their day of which fasting was a big part.

"They came and said to Him" - Who is this referring to? If we look at Matthew's account, we see that it refers to the disciples of John the Baptist:

Matthew 9:14 (NASB) Then the disciples of John came^ to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?"

John the Baptist's followers approached Jesus as He reclined at the table while the scribes and Pharisees stood outside not risking any chance that they might be contaminated. This could have been a sincere question from John's disciples, or the Pharisees could have put John' s disciples up to it to antagonize Jesus.

The Pharisees were well known for fasting. How often did they fast?

Luke 18:11-12 (NASB) "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. 12 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.'

It made sense for the disciples of John to fast, because his ministry stressed repentance. So the question they put to Jesus was; Why didn't He and His disciples do the same as these other 'spiritual men'?

Can any of you see yourself here? Do you see another Christian doing something that you would never do and question their spirituality? How can they call themselves a Christian and smoke, drink, go to movies, dance, play cards, and on and on it goes?

It is so easy to become inflexible, isn't it? Especially as Christians, we find ourselves falling into the trap of legalism. Because we care about God's Word and about Jesus' commandments, sometimes we write our own little set of standards to which people must conform. We end up judging everybody by those standards, even when those standards are based more on tradition than Bible.

The issues in our text is fasting. Jesus and His disciples were having a feast with a bunch of sinners and John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting and hanging out with the religious people.

We don't hear much about fasting these days; I have never heard a message on it, and there certainly are not many books about it. But like every other subject, all Christians have an opinion on it. There are those who feel that fasting needs to be bound upon all Christians as a matter of faith. They have made rules and reasons for fasting and try to control others in this exercise. Then there are those who consider fasting totally unnecessary. Who's right? It is imperative that our view of fasting be Biblical. Even though this subject may be a touchy one or one that we are comfortable in ignoring, I think that we do need to take a close look at what the Bible says about fasting.

If asked what the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life were, how would you answer? Let me put it this way, what is it that you as a Christian need in your life in order that you might live a healthy and growing Christian life? What are the essential practices for a vibrant spiritual life? I think that most Christians would say they are: Bible study, prayer, and fellowship. Can you back these up with Scripture?

To this there are those in the church who would ad fasting as a biblical discipline. Now the question is can that be backed up with Scripture? For you the idea of fasting as a discipline may be new, but for the Christian church throughout history it is not new.

The Didache, a manual of church instruction from near the end of the first century says:

"Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do your fast on Wednesdays and Fridays" (7:1).

In other words the early church sought to distance itself of the emptiness of fasting without losing the value of the practice.

Epiphanius, a bishop in Italy in the fifth century said"

"Who does not know that the fast of the fourth and sixth days of the week are observed by Christians throughout the world?"

John Calvin, in the 16th century said:

Let us say something about fasting, because many , for want of knowing its usefulness, undervalue its necessity, and some reject it as almost superfluous; while, on the other hand where the use of it is not well understood, it easily degenerates into superstition. Holy and legitimate fasting is directed to three ends; for we practice it either as a restraint on the flesh, to preserve it from licentiousness, or as a preparation for prayers and pious meditations, or as a testimony of our humiliation in the presence of God when we are desirous of confessing our guilt before him (Institutes, IV. 12, 14, 15).

Martin Luther wrote:

Of fasting I say this: It is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, or studying, or for doing anything else that is good. Under such circumstances God's Word cannot remain. But one should not fast with a view to meriting something by it as by a good work.

I give you these quotes to show that fasting was valued and demanded throughout church history. This is what men in the church have had to say about fasting. But what do the Scriptures say? I hope you realize that quite often Bible teachers/preachers teach things that are very different from what the Bible teaches. Teachers and commentaries can be helpful, but they should never be relied upon as the final authority. Go to the Bible itself - compare Scripture with Scripture, do word studies, examine the context, seek to understand the culture. I know, I know all of this takes work. But isn't the study of God's Word worthy of our effort? It all comes down to how badly you really what to know the truth.

If I told you that I had hidden 10 million dollars in your house, and that you could keep every cent if you found it, what would you do? Would you go out to lunch after church or go straight home? When you got home this afternoon, would you watch television or take a nap? I doubt it. I bet you would cease every other activity and would take your house apart searching for the money. That's the attitude we should have about understanding God's Word:

Proverbs 2:4-5 (NASB) If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; 5 Then you will discern the fear of the LORD, And discover the knowledge of God.

Back to our study - what does the Bible say about fasting? We'll look at the Old Testament first and then the New. Is fasting commanded in the Old Testament? Yes! How often? Once a year. The only fast that was commanded under the Law of Moses was on the Day of Atonement:

Leviticus 16:29-31 (NASB) "And this shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; 30 for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the LORD. 31 "It is to be a Sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute.

Even though the word "fast" is not used in this passage, we see from other passages that "humble your souls" is a reference to fasting:

Ezra 8:21 (NASB) Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.

The word "humble" here is the same Hebrew word as "humble" in Leviticus 16:29. It is the word 'anah. We see from Isaiah that through fasting they were to humble themselves:

Isaiah 58:5 (NASB) "Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one's head like a reed, And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?

Fasting was an expression of humility before God! The Hebrew word for fast is tsowm, which means: "to cover over (the mouth), i.e. to fast" Throughout Scripture, fasting is referred to as the abstaining of food.

The only fast day required by the Law was on the Day of Atonement. It was a solemn time of remembering one's sins and the sins of the nation, and looking to God for forgiveness.

The Day of Atonement was Israel's sixth instituted holy day and occurs in the autumn of the year. On the Hebrew calendar, it falls on the tenth day of Tishri, the seventh Hebrew month, which roughly corresponds to September or October.

"The Day of Atonement" is the English equivalent for Yom Kippur. Kippur is from the Hebrew word kaphar, meaning: "to cover." Therefore, the word atonement simply means a covering. It was on Yom Kippur that an atonement (covering) was made for the previous year's sins. The atonement or covering consisted of blood sacrifice of an innocent animal.

Yom Kippur was the most solemn day of the year for the people of Israel. It was often simply referred to as "The Day." It was a day that atonement was made for the priest and his family, the community, the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting, and the altar. It was a solemn day. The Day of Atonement also was known as the "Great Fast" or "The Day of the Fast." The Israelite who failed to devote himself to fasting and repenting on Yom Kippur was to be "cut off from his people" (Lev. 23:29).

So, only once in the Old Testament is a fast commanded. How about in the New? Are believers commanded to fast in the New Testament? Not that I can find.

The Pharisees had adopted the practice of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays. But this was a tradition, not a command. Fasting in the first century was closely associated with mourning.

What about in Matthew 6, doesn't Jesus imply believers should fast?

Matthew 6:16 (NASB) "And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

Is Jesus commanding us to fast? I really don't think so. I think Jesus was teaching a group of people who commonly practiced fasting. The Pharisees and many Jews had as part of their week, a fast. So, although Jesus said, "When you fast," He does not say you must. Jesus never commanded fasting. He did not say: You shall fast. Jesus or the New Testament do not command fasting, but I would say that most Christian teachers believe we should.

Many years ago, when I was a youth pastor, I used to fast once a week. Each Thursday I would fast for 32 hours. During that time, I would work on memorizing Psalm 119. It was a beneficial time for me. It was a time of learning, a time of spiritual growth. But many Christians do many things that benefit them that are not commanded.

Well, what does Jesus teach us about fasting in our text? Remember the question that Jesus was asked, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" Let's look at His answer:

Mark 2:19-20 (NASB) And Jesus said to them, "While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom do not fast, do they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 "But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.

What does the initial reading of these verses tell us? While the bridegroom is present, the attendants are not to fast. Do you see that? To understand this text we need to know who the bridegroom is and who the attendants are. Who is the bridegroom? In Matthew 25:1-13 Jesus pictures His second coming as the arrival of the "Bridegroom." Jesus was pointing to Himself as the great Bridegroom whose presence meant that men need not fast, the great Bridegroom promised in the Scriptures.

Isaiah 62:5 (NASB) For as a young man marries a virgin, So your sons will marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you.

Isaiah points out that Israel has been called Forsaken, and their land Desolate, but they will be renamed, because God delights in them, and their land will be married. He will be their "bridegroom." Their God is the "bridegroom," and His restored people are the "bride." Thus Jesus, by describing Himself as the "bridegroom of God's restored people," shows that He is uniquely standing in the place of God.

So, Jesus is the bridegroom. Who are the attendants?

Mark 2:19 (NASB) And Jesus said to them, "While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom do not fast, do they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.

The word "attendants" is from the Greek word huios, which means: "a son." We see this same Greek word used in:

Matthew 5:9 (NASB) "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Huios describes a position of dignity and honor. When Christ spoke of being called "sons of God," He went beyond affection to promising a privileged position. The attendants are the guests invited to the wedding - the kingdom citizens - Christians.

There was no more happy time in the ancient world than at a wedding. When we have a wedding, we go to a church or some other meeting place, have a ceremony followed by a short party, and then we send the couple off on a honeymoon. They used to do it differently. In the ancient world, everyone went on the honeymoon. They would have the wedding at the house of the groom, and the couple would stay there with the guests for an entire week of honeymooning. That entire week would be a party time for the people who loved the couple. In a culture where life was hard, and there was not a lot of celebration, the wedding feast was one of the most joyous celebrative times in their lives. It was not a time of fasting. It was a time of rejoicing.

What Jesus is saying is: You know, when the bridegroom is in the middle of the party, you don't fast. You party! You celebrate. The rabbis told them that all religious rituals were suspended during the wedding feast. You don't stop on Monday and fast and Thursday and fast. This is a wedding feast; it is a party. So Jesus told them that He is the bridegroom, and while He is at the wedding feast, it is not the time to fast. To act mournful or morose at a wedding was unheard of in that day. It is the time to celebrate. It is the time to party and celebrate the presence of Jesus.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the imagery of the wedding feast is heavily charged with overtones of the Messianic banquet. Thus Jesus' phraseology here suggests that the behavior of His followers then anticipates the joy of that celebration yet to come, and, for that reason, gloomy ritual behavior is inappropriate for them.

So in verse 19, Jesus is saying that as long as He is present, it is not a time to fast but to rejoice. Now look at what He says:

Mark 2:20 (NASB) "But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.

The "bridegroom," Who was now here, would one day be "taken away" - this is the Greek word apairo. The root word from which it comes is used of "death" in Acts 8:33. This same verb is used by Isaiah in speaking of the Messiah in:

Isaiah 53:8 (NASB) By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living, For the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due?

Jesus knew that He was called on to fulfill the ministry of the suffering Servant, and this was confirmed by John's words, "Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1.29). Thus, we have here the first indication of His awareness of the brutal end that awaited Him. He knew that He must face suffering on behalf of His people. And then, indeed, His disciples would fast. This is a reference to the cross.

Jesus, at a later time, spoke of the time immediately following the crucifixion in terms of sorrow and, therefore, possibly of fasting when He said to His disciples:

John 16:20 (NASB) "Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned to joy.

Some have suggested He was referring just to the several days between His death and resurrection; they would fast just for those days. But that is very unlikely, for several reasons. One is that the early church fasted after the resurrection, as we see in Acts 13:1-3 (cf. Acts 14:23; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27). The other is that in Matthew 25:1-13 Jesus pictures His second coming as the arrival of the bridegroom. In other words, the "bridegroom" is taken away until the "second coming of Christ" - which is a time of great joy.

Now I want to ask you a question: Should we fast today? That depends on your view of eschatology! Is Jesus with us today or not? Are we waiting for Him to come, or has He come?

I believe, based upon the time statements, that Jesus returned in A.D. 70 in the destruction of Jerusalem. The feast of "The Day of Atonement" was a time of fasting and mourning over sin. When Jesus returned in the Second Coming, sin is done away with. It doesn't mean that we don't sin - it means that our sin is paid for. We have been given Christ's righteousness.

The feast following "The Day of Atonement" is the "Feast of Tabernacles," which pictures Christ presence with His people. The feast was celebrated with great joy. Because of the joy associated with the Feast of Tabernacles, it became the most prominent of Israel's holidays. The fullness of this feast in the seventh month was experienced at the coming of Christ at the destruction of Jerusalem. This was a time of great joy for all believers. Believers, Christ is present with us - the "bridegroom" is here, and therefore we do not need to fast.

God divinely placed the Day of Atonement before the Feast of Tabernacles, which is called "The Season of Our Joy." The children of Israel and all believers in the Lord Jesus could only rejoice once they were redeemed and their sins forgiven.

When I read through the language of the New Covenant, I do not see a case made for New Covenant fasting. What I do see is a huge case made for New Covenant celebration, because the bridegroom dwells within us. He is within us. Jesus referred to it as the abundant life. It is party time to celebrate Jesus. Some Christians go through their Christian life more like a funeral than a wedding feast. Everything is so intense, so sober, and so somber that it looks like it is a funeral. Sometimes we need to be reminded, this is a time for celebration and joy. The bridegroom is among us!" Even in the most difficult struggles of life, there is a place for joy--because in those moments, we remember what matters and what is eternal. We remember what lasts and what we have in Christ that can never be taken away. Sometimes in our deepest sorrows, we also experience our greatest joys, because the bridegroom is among us forever.

Our text in Mark suggests that Jesus saw fasting as being mainly for the Old Covenant and the transition to the New, but not for the New. The old world fasted, because they waited in penitence for God to act. But now redemption is accomplished and fasting is a thing of the past. Now is the time for rejoicing.

Then Jesus brings together a couple of parables that I think tie this whole text together. The absence of any conjunction in Mark's Greek indicates that these two proverbial expressions are intended to follow immediately upon Jesus' response about the bridegroom and members of the bridal party. In this context these proverbial statements indicate the impropriety of continuing to observe rituals of the perishing world-age in the New Creation. Understanding these proverbs in their context requires recognition of the radical character of what belongs to the New Age and its incompatibility with the institutions and observances of the perishing world-age. Jesus and His followers belong to the New Age; they cannot be expected to pay homage to the institutions or observe the ritual practices of the perishing age. The focus is sharply upon what is new:

Mark 2:21 (NASB) "No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results.

In those days, clothes were made either from cotton or from wool. Both of these fabrics would shrink. If you had an old robe with a big hole in it and patched it up with a piece of new cloth, then the next time you washed it, the patch would shrink and rip the robe. The result would be an even bigger hole. If you wanted to patch an old robe, then you had to patch it with an old patch.

The Greek word for "patch" here is pleroma. The Greek text says: the new takes the pleroma of the old. This is a cryptic pronouncement of the destruction of the Old Covenant and the Jewish temple. The New destroys the old.

Here is what Jesus is saying: There is no way that the things which He is teaching can fit into the ritualistic systems of the Pharisees. His message of an internal holiness and a repentance from sin is like a new patch being placed upon an old garment. It will tear apart their system of legalism. Therefore, says Jesus, you can't repair what is old by the application of what is new.

Mark 2:22 (NASB) "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."

New wine and old wineskins were incompatible, and it would be inappropriate to put new wine into old wineskins. Old wineskins were already stretched from the fermenting gas of the wine it had already carried. New wine would likewise release fermenting gas that would burst an old wineskin, which was already stretched to its limit, and both the wine and the wineskins will be lost.

In other words, The kingdom's new wine was coming in, and it was coming into the "old wineskin" of the Old Covenant. This new wine destroyed the old. The word "lost" here is apollumi, which means: "to destroy fully, to perish, or lose."

The New Covenant vitality could not be contained within the Old Covenant strictures of a racial people, a geographical land, and a typological temple, for you cannot put new wine into old wineskins. Yet, this is exactly what Jesus meant by his analogy: If the new is poured into the old, the old will burst. And burst it did. It was destroyed as the "newness of the Spirit" was "poured" into "the present evil age" of the Old Covenant principalities and powers.

The Old Covenant was a shadow of things to come. The New Covenant is the substance. Under the Old Covenant, the payment for sin was anticipated; under the New Covenant, it is realized! Under the Old Covenant, the sacrifices were provisional and recurring. Under the New Covenant, the sacrifice of Jesus is eternal and totally sufficient. Under the Old Covenant, men's lambs could only cover sin, but under the New Covenant, the lamb of God takes away sin!

The gospel is too weighty to fit into that Old Covenant kind of framework. The gospel is not about what we do; it is about what Christ has done for us. It is not about how righteous we are, but about the righteousness of Christ for us. The Pharisees listened to the words of Christ through ears that could only think through their rigid forms. The gospel did not fit, because it is centered in Christ and His work, so they rejected it.

The great central, decisive act of salvation for us today is past, not future. And on the basis of that past work of the "bridegroom," nothing can ever be the same again. The wine is new. The blood is shed. The Lamb is slain. The punishment of or sins is executed. Death is defeated. The "bridegroom" is risen and returned. The "bridegroom" is among us, and it is a time of joy not fasting.

Fasting is not a discipline of the New Covenant because:

Our sins are forgiven - paid in full.

Jesus Christ, the "bridegroom," is with us:

Revelation 21:3 (NASB) And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them,

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