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(This blog post is from a sermon preached on June 21, 2015 and can be listened to HERE)
18 Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” - Mark 2:18-22
Heartache: A Civil War soldier wrote to his wife a week before the Battle of Bull run:
“The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.”
He lost his life in the battle. Deep, abiding love between a man and woman in the bonds of marriage can be sublime. But such affection gives place to heartache and even agony that otherwise would be unknown.
Jesus Christ claims the name bridegroom for himself. And the Christian life, sublime in its essence, yet is not a life of unbroken happiness. Redemption is an already and a not-yet. It is a path of joy mingled with bitter tears of longing.
In Mark chapter 2, Jesus is asked about the religious practices of his disciples, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (18).
In the previous verses of chapter 2, Jesus has just been confronted for eating with tax collectors and sinners. You get the sense that there is murmuring to this effect: “this Jesus feasts with sinners and does not fast with the seriously pious.”
Now, there is legitimacy to this question. It is not just the hypocritical Pharisees asking it. Matthew records that the disciples of John were among the ones wondering about this, and we have no reason to doubt that they were faithful men. So it is a serious question. And it is a gateway into so much more.
Jesus answers their question with a question in response, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (19). How wise he is. With those few words, Jesus clarifies the nature and purpose of fasting. And he announces the remarkable moment in history the people were witnessing. And he leads us into the very heart of true religion.
Let’s take this apart.
“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them” (19)? Anyone who has been to a wedding knows that the answer is obviously, “no.” At weddings, you eat and drink…a lot. It is the opposite of a fast. The term, “wedding guests,” that Jesus uses is probably referring to the people who were the equivalents of the modern-day groomsmen. I was just at my cousin’s a wedding a few weeks ago, and I can assure you that when the groomsmen got together in the days and hours leading up to the ceremony, it was not for fasting.
We pray at weddings, but we don’t fast. Why not? Because it is a time for celebration. It is a time for feasting, and dancing, and great joy. And if you understand fasting rightly, you understand that it is the opposite of celebration.
Jesus’ understanding of fasting is aligned with the Old Testament scriptures, which was his Bible. In my own study of fasting, I complied twenty two passages from the Old Testament that refer to it. Let me give you four so you get sense.
[After King Saul was killed by the Philistines]”….And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the LORD and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword” (2 Samuel 1:12).
[After David conceived a child through adultery and had the husband killed to hide it and was confronted by the prophet Nathan and told the child would die.] “David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground” (2 Samuel 12:16).
“Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (Ezra 8:21).
“Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:1-2).
Here is the definition that arises when you survey the Old Testament texts: Fasting is the withholding of food and sometimes drink to take a posture of bodily weakness, suited for humble prayer to God, particularly in times of sorrow, distress, need, or repentance from sin.
That I think is at least very close to what Jesus is communicating about fasting. That is why it doesn’t fit with the wedding celebration.
It is important to understand that fasting is not directly commanded in the Bible. The only occasion it was commanded was for the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). But there are other practices similarly not directly commanded: the Bible never commands us to fold our hands and close our eyes when we pray, or whether we should kneel or stand or sit. But what we do with our bodies can help us or hinder us. If you leave your eyes open, you may be distracted as you pray to the invisible God. On the other hand, early in the morning, if you close your eyes and kneel at your bed to pray, you may find yourself asleep. So some practices are not strictly commanded by God’s law, but nonetheless modeled in the Bible.
Fasting is much like that. It is to be understood as an appropriate bodily action to accompany a spiritual effort in prayer. Humility of the soul finds its counterpart in weakness of the body through fasting. And this was plainly established and expected in the Old Covenant.
Which brings us to our second point:
“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them” (19)? Do you hear what Jesus is saying? He is announcing that the bridegroom has come.
We are in Mark chapter 2. In the few short paragraphs thus far describing Jesus’ ministry, already the demons are cast out. Sicknesses are healed. The Lepers are cleansed. The paralytic is forgiven, and raised from his bed. The normal operations of nature are overruled and spiritual powers are bending and shaking. Something is happening here, something momentous, something that is transitioning the world from one age to another.
All of it is flowing from one man: Jesus Christ. And where do we find Jesus and what is he doing? He is not fasting. He is dining with sinners and tax collectors. Why? What is all this? What are these events that Mark reports coming one after another? Brothers and Sisters, it is the moment in history long awaited. God Most High has come for his bride. What we have recorded in the four gospels is the long foretold coming of God taking his beloved for himself.
Oh how vital it is to understand. The heart of true religion is here. It was lost on the Pharisees and I pray it is not lost on you. How often we are like the Ephesians, who “abandoned the love [they] had at first” (Revelation 2:4). Do you know that God calls himself the husband of Israel? He is the bridegroom of the church.
At the heart of our Christian faith is God’s great promise is “I will be your God and you will be my people” (Exodus 6:7). It is the furthest thing from a cold formula of mechanical religion. The expression of true religion is God’s giving of himself to us (“I will be your God”), so that we possess him. Can such a thing be; that we can call the Almighty, “ours?” And we respond by giving of ourselves to him.
That mutual giving, one to another—that communion, that fellowship—is worthy of no lesser comparison than that of the bridegroom taking for himself the bride that he passionately loves. God gives himself as husband, with all tenderness and outpouring of his own self to us.
So here is Jesus, coming for his bride in Mark 2. He was dining with sinners. Men and women have fallen away from God in their sin. The separation is ultimate. There is no way back for you, left to yourself. You stand under the guilt and power of sin, having broken God’s law and disqualified yourself from his presence and favor. Even as we heard Isaiah declare, “For the LORD has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God….’but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,’ says the LORD, your Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:6, 8).
This is the part of the love story where everyone cheers. It is the part after the terrible separation, predictable in the romantic comedies, glorious in the story of redemption.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God had come. So this is indeed not the time for fasting. This is the reconciliation of God to his bride.
If you are here this morning, and you do not know what it is like to be in a right relationship with God—to know that God is yours and you are his, to give yourself to him and for him to give himself to you—then I plead with you to consider Jesus Christ who came for sinners. Believe in him and turn from your sins. And trust that he accomplished what he came to do. He alludes to what he has come to do in verse 20:
“The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day…” (Mk. 2:20).
That word “taken away” is a strong word; it is reminiscent of Isaiah 53:8, “By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” He is talking about his death on the cross.
In our weddings, the central point of the wedding is the taking of vows. I always try to remind couples of that. You can take away the music, the flowers, the reception, even the homily and still get married. But you cannot take away those vows. They are the most important part of what is happening, and should be considered with great solemnity. Why? Because those vows bind man and woman together in holy covenant before God.
God the Son came to make his solemn vow (Isaiah 42:6), and bind himself eternally to his bride. But that vow also had to be accompanied with a payment. In Isaiah 54, God is called the Redeemer. That means he had to buy back his bride. The price and payment for our sins is his blood. We declare it every week: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
He died for his bride, to pay the ransom price for sin and save her from being consigned to the wrath of God for eternity. And the bride so loved and redeemed by God knows more of the riches of his grace and love than the unfallen angel ever can.
So, this moment of history was unlike any other. The bridegroom had come.
Jesus tells two mini-parables, both about old things not mixing with new things. And these two parables reflect the two groups that are questioning him, the Pharisees and the disciples of John.
The Pharisees had an old garment. It was the garment of subtle, works based religion. Jesus says a new patch cannot be put on an old garment. You know what happens, the patch is going to shrink because it is new, and the garment is not going to shrink, so the patch pulls off and a worse tear is made.
The garment of the Pharisees cannot be patched with slapping the name of Jesus on it. You will lose Jesus, and you will make the wickedness all the greater. The old has to be thrown out altogether.
Let me warn you, this is a very subtle thing because it happens in contexts of great piety, or religious practice. Those Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12). It would appear that they had great devotion to God. But in reality, fasting, which is intended to be a bodily expression of weakness and humility, had subtly been turned into a badge of spiritual accomplishment.
This is a subtle snare. Fasting is supposed to be a gospel statement: “God I bring nothing to you! God I am empty apart from you! God I will perish apart from the heavenly food of your grace!” And it is perverted into, “God look how well I am at suffering for you. Give me what I, in my spiritual strength deserve.”
Friends, that old garment will not mesh with Christ. The bridegroom has come in grace. There is one qualification to receiving him, and it is to know your desperate need of him.
The garment of self-sufficiency cannot be patched, it must be thrown out. It is the garment of the arrogant Old Man, that old, proud, sinful nature; thinking your efforts of piety win you merit with God. And there are many claiming the name of Jesus, but their whole effort of devotion is just a patch on their spiritual pride. And the evidence of their self-righteousness is that they measure their so-called “fasting and piety” against other sinners and look down upon them rather than having compassion on them. And I tell you, that patch of the name of Jesus will not stick in the judgment. And the new wine of Christ’s kingdom will explode that old wineskin of works righteousness.
Beware of the Pharisees. They are still with us, and that spirit of proud, false-piety is infectious to your sinful soul and mine. So let us check our hearts and the reasons why we do the things we do for God.
John’s disciples were stuck not in the old way of pride and works based religion, but they seemed to be missing the fact that the Old Covenant was giving way to something new. The bridegroom had come, and they didn’t understand it, so they were fasting. Their problem was one of ignorance.
What about us? There is a very practical question here: “where are we in history? And do we fast or do we celebrate?” We need to be informed on where we are.
There are good arguments for both sides. The reason for that is because we are in the already-not-yet. We are in the overlap of the ages. Some would say that Jesus has already come and even though he is not with us bodily, he has sent his Spirit and so we should not fast. The kingdom is already here. They emphasize the, “already.”
It is a compelling argument. But I don’t go that way for two reasons.
1) First, Jesus talked about the return of the Bridegroom in Matthew 25. He was speaking about his second coming. So the implication is that we are in a place of waiting and longing for the bridegroom. That is the “not-yet” of our salvation. We are like that civil war bride in a sense, awaiting her husband; longing, weeping, yearning in his absence.
2) Second, the Apostles fasted in the book of Acts. It is very clear in Acts 13:1-3 and Acts 14:23. If the Apostles saw it as appropriate to fast once Jesus was no longer bodily with them, then I do to.
There is a not-yet of the marriage to Christ. As long as we are subject to sorrow, sin, sadness, and groaning, we are not-yet in his bodily presence forever. So we fast because we hunger for him. We fast because we long for him. We fast because we experience the present realities of the old age of the world defined by sin and its curse—an age of great need—need that can ultimately be answered only by Jesus. We fast because we are weak, and we need him. That is Christian fasting. He has said “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).
Fasting is not for the children or the sick or the pregnant. And we remember that God does not command it to be done. But for many of us who can do so, if there is sin to repent of, if there is great need upon you, if you are in a time of distress, if you long for fellowship with your Savior, I commend you to find this help. As we see great evils around us in society we must pray, and I suggest that fasting is appropriate.
Go to your knees in the great weakness of fasting and there declare your hunger for him, your need of him, your emptiness without him, and he will satisfy your soul with his presence and aid.
The Lord’s Supper
As paradoxical as it might seem, a sermon on fasting is appropriately concluded by the Lord’s Supper. The bread and the wine that we partake of here are not given with the purpose of satisfying bodily hunger. Isaiah the prophet declared, "Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1).
We come empty. Jesus fills us. We come with sin, he cleanses us. We come with bondage, he frees us. We come with sorrow, he comforts us. We come with need, he helps us. We come in danger of hell, he delivers us. We come desolate, he marries us.
This food and drink before us is the sign and seal of Covenant of Grace, Jesus Christ taking us as his bride. Eat and drink and be satisfied in all that he is for you.