Last week we began our look at fasting, noting that Jesus never questioned that we would do so. We also looked at the motivation behind our fasting. This week we look at the new covenant purpose of fasting, and fasting as a “new wineskin.”
Fasting for a Purpose
Under the old covenant, fasting was typically a self-renouncing action intended to quell the wrath of God and move him to a gracious disposition wherein he would liberate his people from trouble or oppression. The sons of Israel often fasted as a show of repentance before God because of their foolish behavior.1 Sometimes the children of God fasted before inquiring of him, looking for his direction or for a favorable outcome from their involvement in a potentially dangerous activity.2 On at least one occasion, fasting was used as part of a ruse for an evil plot to be carried out with the deceptive appearance of being engaged in something holy.3 In most cases, under the old covenant, fasting appears to have been employed as a means of persuading God of something, either to act on behalf of his people, or to withhold his wrath from them.
A similar approach to fasting is often employed by believers today, and while we do have biblical precedent for it, I have difficulty embracing the holy hunger strike as a means by which God’s people strive to persuade him to cave in and do something we want him to do.
It is true that we have marvelous examples of purposeful, godly fasts, such as that of Esther when she called on her people to join her in a fast as she planned to risk her life by asking the king to save her kinsmen from destruction.4 We have the example of the widow Anna, who worshiped daily in the temple, fasting and praying, and who was ultimately able to prophesy over the child Messiah.5 We have the example of Daniel, who refused the finest foods and wines from the king’s table choosing, rather, to glorify God through consuming only vegetables and water.6 The entire city of Nineveh was saved from disaster when the king decreed a complete fast from both food and drink.7
In each case above, the glory was God’s and not ours.
Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them.
– Jeremiah 4:12, ESV
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?
– Isaiah 58:3-5, ESV
We have direct calls from God to come with fasting and weeping, but that same call directs us to rend not our clothes, but rather our hearts.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments.”
– Joel 2:12-13a, NASB
It seems clear that the objective of fasting for the Christ-follower is not to persuade God of anything, but rather to submit myself to God and to his working in my life. Any other motive transforms my fast from a blessing into a pointless exercise.
Fasting with New Wineskins
Moving forward from Jesus’ Matthew 6 statement on fasting, we find another fasting challenge in Matthew 9. There Jesus makes a statement that Richard Foster called “the most important statement in the New Testament on whether Christians should fast today.”8
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
– Matthew 9:14-17, ESV
We do violence to this text if we try to wrench Jesus’ statement about fasting and the bridegroom from the statement about the wine and wineskins. The two are beautifully related, just as I believe Jesus intended them to be.
The disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus with their question, and I want to believe their question was sincere and reasonable. However, from Mark’s and Luke’s gospels we see that the Pharisees joined in the objection, and I have no doubt that their motives were less than noble. Some have speculated that the Pharisees goaded John’s disciples into posing the question because the Pharisees knew John’s disciples would be more palatable to Jesus.
It is tempting to become irritated with the Pharisees, the scribes, and (in this case) John’s disciples. We are bothered by their ulterior motives, and constant attempts to trap and slander Jesus. But it is important to note that with each trap the opposition sets, Jesus triumphs, and often shows us something new and wonderful about himself.
Matthew Henry stated it so well: “The objections which were made against Christ and his disciples gave occasion to some of the most profitable of his discourses; thus are the interests of truth often served, even by the opposition it meets with from gainsayers, and thus the wisdom of Christ brings good out of evil.”9
Fasting was a widely accepted practice, and thus almost everyone in the Jewish community fasted. The arrogant Pharisee in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18 boasted about his fasting twice a week.10 Luke’s account of this question qualifies the fasting by saying that the disciples of John and those of the Pharisees fasted often.11 That is, at least, how they described themselves, though we do not know what they considered to be “often.” Jesus himself describes John as one who came “neither eating nor drinking,”12 and apparently his was a significant-enough fasting lifestyle that people said he had a demon.
In response to their question, Jesus returned to his common practice of using similes and metaphors to paint vivid word pictures for his audience. In this instance, Jesus says the attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them. In saying this, he has confirmed the contemporary viewpoint that fasting was associated with mourning, grieving, or repenting. But now Jesus has come as the bridegroom, the Messiah. How can anyone possibly mourn while the Wedding Feast is going on?
This is not an insignificant metaphor for Jesus to use, and I believe it was deliberately chosen. Repeatedly in the Old Testament God described himself as the bridegroom to his people. Consider just this brief listing of passages:
Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD,
“I remember the devotion of your youth,
your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
in a land not sown.”
– Jeremiah 2:2, ESV
When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine.
– Ezekiel 16:8, ESV
I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,
In lovingkindness and in compassion,
– Hosea 2:19, NASB
It will no longer be said to you, “Forsaken,”
Nor to your land will it any longer be said, “Desolate”;
But you will be called, “My delight is in her,”
And your land, “Married”;
For the LORD delights in you,
And to Him your land will be married.
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 62:4-5, NASB
There are numerous passages similar to those above, wherein God portrays himself as the husband to his people, Israel. Jesus has just used similar language in front of John’s disciples and the Pharisees, very clearly identifying himself as the Messiah, as God in the flesh, the bridegroom of Israel. While unquestionably true, this is a bold and dangerous statement for Jesus to make. The life of a Christ-follower is one in which there is no hesitation to proclaim the reality that Jesus is Yahweh, Immanuel.
The New Wineskins
There was a time when the bridegroom walked the Earth, and during that time the disciples did not fast. But the bridegroom was taken away, and it is that reality, Jesus says, that will cause renewed fasting. I believe the time for that fasting is now. We fast because we are separated from Jesus. We fast because we long to be with the bridegroom.
In this life, there is no one I would rather be with than my wife, Alean. She is my soulmate, my best friend, my lover, my accountability, my confidant. But as deeply and passionately as I love my wife, there is something even greater for which I long, and that is to exist in the presence of the creator of the universe. His work in us is complete, and because of that, every man and woman who is in Christ is in possession of that future reality. That reality causes us to fast in a completely new way.
This fasting practice is what John Piper calls “New Fasting” because “New wine, demands new fasting.” According to Piper, “The newness of our fasting is this: its intensity comes not because we have never tasted the wine of Christ’s presence, but because we have tasted it so wonderfully by his Spirit and cannot now be satisfied until the consummation of joy arrives.”13
This is Long-View Living in a Short-View World. We fast, not in order to overcome sin, for we cannot do so. We fast, because in Christ sin has been overcome for us.14 We fast, because death has no sting or victory in our lives.15 We fast, not to plead with God for some new blessing. Instead, we fast, rejoicing that in Christ God has already given us every spiritual blessing.16
Just as the old wineskins cannot contain the new wine without bursting, the old fasting (longing for something yet to come) cannot contain the celebration of what we already have in Christ.
With Long-View Living, we fast, not to beg God for X, Y, or Z. We fast to celebrate what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will continue to do until the bridegroom comes again to receive us, his bride.
Therefore we do not walk about looking pathetic and despondent when fasting, precisely because we are not despondent and pathetic. Our hope is secure, and our joy overflows. Fasting is another means for us to celebrate our completeness in Christ as we long for and look for his return.
1. 1 Samuel 7:6
2. Judges 20:26-28, Esther 4:15-17
3. 1 Kings 21:5-10
4. Esther 4:15-17
5. Luke 2:36-38
6. Daniel 1:8-16
7. Jonah 3:6-10
8. Foster, R. J., (1998). Celebration of Discipline, The Path to Spiritual Growth. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
9. Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. (p. 1655). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
10. Luke 18:12
11. Luke 5:33
12. Matthew 11:18, NASB
13. Piper, J., (January 8, 1995). When the Bridegroom Is Taken Away, They Will Fast – With New Wineskins. Retrieved 05/01/2016 from http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/when-the-bridegroom-is-taken-away-they-will-fast-with-new-wineskins
14. John 16:33
15. 1 Corinthians 15:55
16. Ephesians 1:3