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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
Title:The Lord Jesus answers a question about fasting
Text:Mark 2:18-22 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 149
Psalm 119:52-54
Psalm 30:1-4
Psalm 30:5-7
Hymn 50:7

Reading: Leviticus 16:29-34
Text: Mark 2:18-22
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ our Lord,

Obviously, our text is about fasting. Now there’s a subject that we don’t hear too much about. In the broader culture, sometimes we’ll hear about the fasting of Muslims during Ramadan. Perhaps sometimes people have to have a 12 hour fast for medical tests. But aside from those things fasting is something of a curiosity in Canadian culture. It’s certainly that way in our Canadian Reformed sub-culture. Maybe there are a few people who quietly fast, but it seems that religious fasting is regarded as strange or unusual in our churches. For whatever reason, many of us seem to think that fasting is fanatical. Strangely, this is despite the fact that the Bible speaks about fasting in both the Old and the New Testament. In this sermon, we’ll look at one of those New Testament passages and hear how the Lord Jesus answered a question about this neglected subject.

In the passage right before this one, Christ was attending a banquet at the home of his new disciple Levi. It has to be emphasized that this was a festive meal. There was plenty of food for everybody, all the trimmings were there and people would eat and drink until they were stuffed.

That sets the stage for what we see happening in our text today. Mark tells us that the disciples of John were fasting along with those who followed the Pharisaical teachings. First of all, note the contrast here. Jesus and his disciples are feasting, but all these others are fasting. They couldn’t nab Jesus on who he chooses to eat with, so now they jump on him for the fact that he’s eating and not just eating, but feasting while many others are fasting. And not only him, but also his disciples!

Second, we have to look a bit deeper into this phenomenon of fasting. In Biblical times, fasting was understood to be simply not eating or drinking for a set period of time. For instance, in 2 Samuel 12, after the incident with Bathsheba, David fasted and wept for the child who became ill. He simply wouldn’t eat or drink anything, but after the child died, then he again ate food. So when the Bible speaks about fasting, it’s not speaking about abstaining from TV or hockey or some other thing. It’s simply about not eating and drinking.

In the Old Testament, God’s people were commanded to fast but only on one occasion. That was on the tenth day of the seventh month – Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. We read about this in Leviticus 16. Every Yom Kippur, the Israelites were to deny themselves – that was another way of saying that they were to fast. The day of atonement was the day the Israelites were corporately cleansed from their sins. The fasting was a humbling reminder of the seriousness of sin and the significance of the day. And this was the only regular time that the Israelites were commanded to fast by God. Of course, kings could command the people to fast as well, but that would be on special occasions, when situations demanded it. The only regular commanded fasting was on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

Now when we come back to Mark 2, it obviously isn’t Yom Kippur. So why are the followers of John and the Pharisees fasting? During the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, what we call the Intertestamental Period, the character and frequency of fasting began to change. In the Old Testament, fasting was only for one day per year or as otherwise commanded for times of crisis. It was connected with humility and showing a contrite heart. But in the Intertestamental Period, during the time the Pharisees became the leading religious group, fasting became something that had to be done at least twice per week. If you wanted to be a good Jew, you had to fast on Mondays and Thursdays. Moreover, this fasting had become a way to earn something from God – it was regarded as meritorious. When you fasted, you were not only a good Jew who met all the expectations of your culture, but you were also earning favour from God. Now, of course, none of this was commanded or taught in Scripture. This was something that had developed and been added to what Scripture teaches. Soon enough it was taken for granted that if you were a seriously religious Jew, this is what you would do. That’s why the disciples of John and the Pharisees were fasting. This is what they did as good Jews.

This expectation was what led to the question in verse 18. In the preceding passage, in verses 13-17, the Pharisees didn’t speak directly to Jesus. But here, whoever it is that is asking the question, does speak directly to him. It appears to be a genuine question, not the sort of snarky veiled rebuke that was given in verse 16. Some people are genuinely baffled by the fact that Jesus and his disciples don’t seem to fit the picture of good Jews. So they ask this sincere question, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

The Lord Jesus answers with three illustrations. Let’s look at each of them in turn. In verses 19 and 20, he uses the illustration of a wedding feast. As he does so, he asks his own question. In the original, it’s clearly marked as a rhetorical question – it’s obvious that the question expects a negative answer. Something like, “It isn’t possible, is it, for the guests of the bridegroom to fast while he is with them?” When you have a wedding feast or party, it would be completely inappropriate for someone to be fasting. A feast is a time for rejoicing – fasting is connected with sadness and mourning. A feast is a time for eating and drinking, fasting has no place at a feast! At the very least it would be highly unusual for someone to do that, some might even consider it to be rude or impolite. As long as the bridegroom is there, the guests are going to celebrate.

Then in verse 20, the Lord Jesus says that the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away – that will be an appropriate time for fasting. We’re going to come back to that verse in a few minutes.

For now, let’s carry on with the other two illustrations. In verse 21, the Lord uses the illustration of a piece of cloth. He says no one takes a piece of unshrunk cloth and uses it for a patch on an old piece of clothing. If you do that you only go from bad to worse, you end up with a worse tear than you began with. It’s only appropriate to use pre-shrunk cloth on an old garment. You see the question here is: what is appropriate? What fits? That’s the connection between this illustration and the one preceding. Just like unshrunk cloth is inappropriate for patching up old clothes, so fasting is inappropriate for a wedding feast.

In verse 22, he drives the point home with one last picture. This time it’s a picture of wine and wineskins. When wine ferments, it releases gasses that exert pressure on whatever container it happens to be in. Wineskins were leather bags used to hold wine. Old wineskins would have already been stretched to capacity by fermenting wine within them. Now if you took an old wineskin and put new wine in it, the new wine with its gasses would expand the wineskin further and it would burst. In other words, here too it’s a question of what is appropriate. New wine demands new wineskins, just like unshrunk cloth demands new clothes and a wedding feast demands feasting.

It’s only appropriate that the disciples of Jesus would feast while he was with them. This is what’s entirely appropriate and fitting for this particular moment in history. With him on this earth, his disciples couldn’t fast . His presence is like that of a bridegroom at his wedding feast. This is the joyous feast of the promised salvation – how could anyone fast at this moment?! That simply wouldn’t fit!

But the Lord Jesus says there is a time coming when fasting will be appropriate. That brings us back to verse 20: “But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.” The pressing question for us today is what is this time that Christ was speaking about? Is today that time or did he have something else in mind?

To answer that, we have to remember the nature and character of fasting. A person doesn’t fast because he or she is filled with rejoicing. In the Old Testament, fasting is connected with sorrow and mourning, and especially mourning over some serious sin or the death of a loved one. Given that sort of context for this practice, we can’t help but think of the death of the Lord Jesus here. In fact, most commentaries will tell you that this is definitely what Jesus was referring to. The time for fasting would come when he died for our sins and when he was in the grave. And sure enough, when we read about the disciples during the three days he was in the grave, we get the sense that they were very sad. Though we don’t actually read that they were fasting, it was common for Jews to spontaneously fast during times of sorrow. So, we would expect the disciples of the Lord Jesus to have fasted during this time.

However, as we all know, he did not remain in the grave. On the third day, he rose again from the dead. He joined his disciples once again and they were glad to see him! We’re told in John 21 that he ate breakfast with them. The time of fasting was over. He remained with them for 40 days and taught them more. Then he left them again, ascending into heaven. But his second departure was not like his first. He left his disciples with promises – the promise of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. He promised them that he would always be with them. He promised them that he would return. And that’s why, after his ascension, Luke tells us that the apostles returned to Jerusalem with great joy and they were in the temple constantly praising God. Here too, this was not a time for fasting, but a time for rejoicing and feasting.

In the early days of the apostolic church, there appears to have been a belief that the Lord Jesus was going to come back in their lifetimes. However, as time went on, the church came to realize that while he could come back at any time, he didn’t meet the expectations of at least some in the early apostolic church. Believers came to recognize that, while he was still present with them through his Holy Spirit, there was a sense in which the bridegroom had been taken from them in his ascension. Believers began to realize that we live in an in-between time where we long for the fulness of redemption. When it comes to the presence of the bridegroom, there is an “already…but not yet.” This is part of the reason why eventually we see the presence of fasting in the early church.

Let’s put this in a way that speaks for us today. Today, we have the presence of Christ with the Holy Spirit. He is our Immanuel, God with us. We live after Pentecost with all its blessings. Let’s not undermine that or undervalue it. It is a true and comforting thing to know and believe that Christ is with us. However, we also have to acknowledge the reality that the wedding feast of the Lamb is not here. It has not yet come. The reality is that our lives are a constant back and forth between the house of mourning and the house of rejoicing. One week perhaps we’re celebrating a birthday and the next week we’re at a funeral. Back and forth. That’s the nature of the age in which we live. I wish it was a simple matter of saying: today is the time for rejoicing because the bridegroom is with us. But that’s not the full picture. If you want a technical term for that, we call that an over-realized eschatology or doctrine of the future things. We need to be real. The reality is that today for Christians there are also appropriate times for fasting. The reality is that the bridegroom is not yet with us in the fullest sense that he has promised in his Word. We have a longing for his return as we live in this broken and sorrowful world, this vale of tears. So, today is the age of feasting and fasting.

How do we know which is appropriate at any given time? We can take our cue from the Bible itself and especially our text. We already noted a connection between fasting and death. In fact, we’ll find that fasting often comes naturally and spontaneously with the grieving process. People have a hard time eating when they’re grieving, especially in the early days of a sudden loss. You don’t have to tell people who are grieving to fast – they often just do it. And that will also apply to heart-felt grief over sin. If we are truly sorrowful over some serious sin and truly repentant, we might expect fasting to be naturally connected with that. You might also know that in the back of our Book of Praise we have a prayer for days of fasting. This prayer is a confession of sins and is meant to be used by the whole congregation in public worship on days for prayer in times of crisis. So there too you see a connection between humbling, repentance and fasting.

The one thing that needs to be made clear is that there is no command in Scripture for us as New Testament believers to fast. This text does not command us to fast. Christ is not saying that you must fast. This is important for everyone to understand so I’m going to say it again loud and clear: the Bible does not command us to fast.

In fact, there are some people who definitely should not fast. Think for instance of those who are diabetic in different ways and to different degrees. Fasting for any meaningful length of time could be life-threatening. Think also of those who have struggled with or currently struggle with disordered eating. Fasting could plunge you back into or further into bulimic or anorexic patterns of eating. This is something that each individual believer has to consider for herself or himself. We don’t have a command to fast, but we do have the sixth commandment which includes not doing harm to ourselves. If our fasting is a form of self-endangerment, it is forbidden. In fact, fasting could be sinful.

Again, the Bible does not command fasting. In our text, the Lord Jesus expects that a time is coming when his followers will fast. But he does not command them to do so. The Lord Jesus is discreet and careful in this area and we should follow him in this. We have the freedom to fast, and many times we will spontaneously do so, but we do not have a mandate. In this way, fasting is not like prayer. Prayer is clearly commanded in Scripture. The Lord Jesus commanded his disciples to pray. He did not command them to fast. He expected that they would, but his expectation does not have the character of an imperative or mandate. From what we read here in Mark, we know that the Lord Jesus simply knew that his followers would do this.

Today is an age where there are times appropriate for feasting and times appropriate for fasting. And when we know that the time is appropriate for fasting and we know that we can fast, we need to take our cue from what we read in Scripture, particularly from what we find in this text. The fasting here has to do with the bridegroom. Here we can think of Hebrews 12:2 which speaks of fixing our eyes on Jesus. When it comes to times of fasting, there too we fix our eyes completely on Jesus. That means that we recognize fully that fasting has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with earning any favour or merit with God. Fasting is categorically not a way to salvation. Fasting is simply a response. It is something that happens in the area of our sanctification, where Christ leads us to sorrow, humility and brokenness, whether that’s over the presence of death and destruction in this world, or over the presence of sin in our lives. It is something that happens where God creates in us a deeper longing for the fulness of our redemption at the marriage feast of the Lamb. Through fasting, we are led to more and more direct our thoughts and faith to the bridegroom and we eagerly look for his coming with the clouds of heaven.

If we do fast, the teaching of our Lord Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18 also needs to be remembered. There he told the people of God that when they fast, it’s supposed to be a private matter. It’s not something to be advertised – it’s not something to hang out in the breeze so that everyone can see how pious you are. No, the Lord was clear that fasting, if it’s done, is to be done in secret.

Finally, anytime we talk about some element of Christian practice, we need to remember that it’s not the gospel. We don’t find the good news as such in fasting. We are not commanded to fast. We are commanded to repent and believe in Jesus Christ – we find the good news in him. So, what does this text tell us about him whom we are called to believe in? Well, we saw that God’s Word reminds us here this morning that the bridegroom was taken from his disciples. He was taken by death that we might live. He was taken that we might be accepted by God and nevermore be forsaken by him.

We also saw that the Lord also tells you here this morning that he was taken again a second time. That reminds you that he is in heaven at this very moment. He is interceding for you at the right hand of the throne of God. He is your Mediator who speaks up for you and defends you! You’re safely in his eternal care.

Our text also teaches us that he is coming back. He will return. Whether we feast or fast in this present age, we know that the age is coming when there will be nothing but feasting. Fasting will have no place whatsoever in the age to come. All our hopes, dreams, and expectations will be fulfilled when the bridegroom enters the banquet hall to join his bride. Then we will feast forever. What a glorious day it will be!
Let us pray:

Father, we thank you for your Word which again reveals Christ Jesus our Lord to us. We thank you for the bridegroom. We thank you that he died for us and took all our sins upon himself. We praise you that he is at your side interceding for us at this very moment. We thank and praise you for his presence among us today through the Holy Spirit. But Father, we long for him to be fully with us. Today we walk by faith, but we want to see Jesus face to face. We look forward with eager expectation to the marriage feast of the Lamb, especially when the brokenness and messiness of this world weighs down on us. We experience the effects of sin and death in our lives and we’re so tired of it. Lord Jesus, come quickly to redeem your people fully. We pray that you would come with the clouds of heaven to bring us to our inheritance with you in the new heavens and new earth. We pray that you would return and put an end to all fasting and introduce eternal feasting to our senses. O Lord, Maranatha! For the glory of your Name we pray, AMEN.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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