The Text: Mark 2:18-22 – The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting: and they came and said to Him, “Why are the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fasting, but Your disciples are not fasting?”
And Jesus said to them, “Can the sons of the bridechamber fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast in those days.
“Also, no one sews a piece of new cloth on an old garment: otherwise the new piece that filled it up takes away from the old, and the tear is made worse.
“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins: otherwise the new wine does burst the skins, and the wine is spilled, and the skins will be ruined: but new wine must be put into new skins.”
One of the most neglected items of Christianity and religious devotion to God is fasting. Think about it for a moment: Jesus fasted; Jesus taught about how to fast; the early church fasted; the apostle Paul fasted. We have more examples of fasting in the New Testament than we do of meeting on the first day of the week, yet for many Christians, fasting is completely ignored. Is this the way it should be? Keep that question in your head as we look at this event in the life of Jesus.
The Text, part 1 – Question About Fasting (Mark 2:18)
Jesus is still sitting at Matthew’s house, eating with the tax collectors and sinners, when this incident takes place.
The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting.
Fasting, according to the Bible, is giving up food for a certain period of time, and is always connected with one’s relationship to God. Sometimes it was a portion of a day, other times it was a full day, sometimes it was a week or even more. But the purpose of the fasting in the Bible wasn’t for weight-loss (though that isn’t a bad side-effect); it was for focusing your attention on God and showing your dedication to Him. It’s connected with prayer, with worship, with mourning, with repentance, with rededication, and with “laying up treasures in heaven.”
The King James Version says “used to fast,” but literally, Mark says that the disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. That is, they were fasting at that moment. The Pharisees fasted each Monday and Thursday, and bound that on their disciples, so this took place on one of those two days. The disciples of John held fasting in high regard as well, especially since their teacher (John the Baptizer) had a diet (locusts and wild honey) that was almost continual fasting.
There were hypocritical fasters who twisted their faces up in pain, letting everyone know that they were fasting. The Pharisees are probably the ones that Jesus was talking about when he said that during His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:16).
In the Old Testament, there was only one day where fasting was commanded, and that was on the Day of Atonement, the day that Jews now call “Yom Kippur.” God used the phrase “afflict your souls.”
And this shall be a statute forever to you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all…for on that day the priest shall make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you might be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It shall be a Sabbath of rest to you, and you shall afflict your souls, by a statute forever. (Leviticus 16:29-31).
The same thing is mentioned in Leviticus 23 and Numbers 29.
The first time that fasting is mentioned in the Bible outside of the Day of Atonement was in connection with mourning and worshiping God, seeking His guidance (Judges 20:25-28). The Israelites fasted for a day when they were mourning over their sin (1 Samuel 7:6), the valiant men fasted for seven days when mourning the death of King Saul (1 Samuel 31:12-13), David fasted for seven days while praying for his infant son to live (2 Samuel 12:15-20), Ahab fasted after hearing Elijah’s prophecy against him (1 Kings 21:20-29), all of Israel fasted when they prayed to God for protection from their enemies (2 Chronicles 20:3-15). Ezra proclaimed a fast for the people to follow (Ezra 8:21-23). Nehemiah records that the Israelites fasted and re-dedicated themselves to Jehovah (Nehemiah 9:1-3). But Isaiah also records that even in the Old Testament, some were doing it for wrong reasons:
[They said:] We have fasted, and You don’t see it! We have afflicted our soul, and You take no knowledge!
[God replies:] Behold, in the day of your fast, you find pleasure, and exact all your labors. Behold, you fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness. You shall not fast as you do today to make your voice heard on high. Is it this kind of fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day to Jehovah? (Isaiah 58:3-5).
Thus, we can see that fasting was not inherently righteous nor inherently wicked—it all depended on the attitude of the ones fasting. So keep that in mind when we see the question that the disciples of John and the Pharisees asked Jesus.
They came to Him and said, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples don’t fast?”
The disciples of John were, if they paid attention to John’s teachings, honest souls who were seeking to please God and prepare themselves for the coming Kingdom of God. Thus, we shouldn’t assume they had any ill intentions when asking this question. They were probably asking an honest question. The disciples of the Pharisees were quite possibly in the same situation, being taught that they’re supposed to fast twice a week, but confused as to why Jesus—a clear religious leader who could work miracles—wasn’t making His disciples fast.
We should stop here for a moment and note that when you do things differently, people tend to notice. “You don’t use instruments; why not?” or “Why don’t you have big fancy buildings?” Don’t be ashamed, but use it as an opportunity to teach people something about the church of the Bible.
The Text, part 2 – Jesus’ Answer (Mark 2:19-20)
Jesus didn’t have anything against fasting, if done for the right purposes. After all, Matthew tells us that He fasted for 40 days after His baptism when He went into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-2). Later on, Jesus gave instructions for how His disciples were supposed to fast: not making a show of it (Matthew 6:16-18). And in His answer that He gives on this occasion, He foretells that His disciples will fast—just not while He was on earth.
Can the sons of the bridechamber fast while the bridegroom is with them?
In ancient wedding ceremonies, a group of men would accompany the groom to the bride’s house and when the bride came out, they escorted the two of them back to the groom’s house. This was followed by a celebratory feast that usually lasted seven days. It was a time of joy and celebration. It would have been inappropriate and rude to fast during such an event.
In fact, the words Jesus chose in His response show that beyond being rude, it isn’t possible for them to fast during such a time. The word “Can” is actually the Greek word dunamai, which means power or ability. Literally, then, Jesus’ response is: “Do the sons of the bridechamber have the ability to fast while the bridegroom is with them?”
The use of the bridegroom illustration might seem strange, but remember that John the Immerser had already described Jesus to his disciples as the bridegroom (John 1:28-30). John’s disciples, therefore, should have caught the reference.
As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.
Literally, Jesus says, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they do not have the ability to fast.” They are to be celebrating, not fasting. To fast would be an insult to the groom, the bride, and the family.
But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them.
Wedding celebrations do not last forever; there comes a time when they end. Here, Jesus makes it clear that He’s not going to be on earth forever; there will come a time when He will not just be gone, but He will have been taken away. This is a hint, a prophecy of His death, but also to His ascension, when He was taken away into the heavens (Acts 1).
Then they shall fast in those days.
The conclusion of Jesus’ initial answer to the disciples of John and of the Pharisees is that His disciples will fast, but that it would be inappropriate to fast while they’ve got Him with them. The fasting of disciples of Jesus would take place after He ascended into heaven.
The Bible bears this out, showing that His disciples—Christians—did fast.
Now there were, at the church in Antioch, certain prophets and teachers; Barnabas, Simeon that was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen which had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they send them away (Acts 13:1-3).
And when they [Paul and Barnabas] had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord on whom they believed (Acts 14:23).
Do not defraud one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer…(1 Corinthians 7:5).
…do not receive the grace of God in vain…giving no offense in anything, that the ministry be not blamed: but in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings… (2 Corinthians 6:1, 3-5).
Brethren, Jesus is still gone; we are still living in those days—the days in which Jesus said His followers would fast. Jesus gave instructions on fasting:
Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, so that they might appear to men to fast. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face; so that you do not appear to me to fast, but to your Father which is in secret: and your Father, who sees in secret, shall reward you openly. Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupts, and where thieves do not break in and steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6:16-21).
Fasting with a purpose to focus on God is laying up treasure in heaven!
The Text, part 3 – Two Parables (Mark 2:21-22)
After showing by his first illustration that it would be inappropriate for His disciples to fast while He was there, Jesus gave two parables which illustrate the point from a different angle.
No one sews a piece of new clothing on an old garment: otherwise the new piece that filled it up takes away from the old, and the tear is made worse.
Jesus is bringing the new Kingdom of God. He’s not bringing a reform of Judaism, not trying to add something new to the Old Testament. He’s coming to fulfill the Law, bringing it to its conclusion. You wouldn’t take a brand-new piece of fabric and sew it over a hole in some old clothes, because when you wash it, the new fabric is going to start to shrink, and it will rip the hole even larger. You can’t mix the old and new fabrics. Similarly, you can’t mix fasting and celebrating—they don’t go together.
Without coming out and saying it, Jesus was announcing the end of the Old Testament system, the end of the Law of Moses, which would be replaced by the New Testament. He did this by “nailing [the Old Testament] to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
No one puts new win in old wineskins: otherwise the new wine bursts the skins and the wine is spilled and the wineskins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.
No one with any knowledge of wine and the leather pouches they stored them in would consider putting new wine in an old, stretched skin, because it would waste the wine and destroy the skin in the process. Instead, it was to be put in a new skin pouch so that it could stretch and expand as the wine fermented. This was a common process that most people were at least familiar with.
Jesus is teaching about a coming kingdom, and the illustration here is basically saying that you can’t force His teachings into the rites and rituals of the Old Testament (and especially of the traditions of the Pharisees) regarding fasting.
Some have suggested that the disciples of John and the Pharisees are to be viewed as the “old wineskins” and the “old garment” that were unable to accept the new teaching of Jesus; and that perhaps Jesus is teaching them they have to destroy their old ways of thinking before they can accept the new truth that He is bringing them. Obviously some of John’s disciples could accept the teaching, for some of them became apostles, but Luke’s account adds these words of Jesus: “Also, no man having drunk old wine immediately desires the new, for he says ‘The old is better’” (Luke 5:39). If this is seen as more of a general statement instead of a hard and fast rule, then this interpretation is something worth considering.
But overall, remember that the question Jesus is answering is about why His disciples don’t fast. His answers show that He was pointing toward something New, and that trying to mix the old and the new would only end up with disaster. It’s reminiscent of what Paul says in Galatians 5:4 about New Testament saints who were trying to mix their religion with Old Testament commands—they have “fallen from grace.”
How should Christians Fast Today?
Probably the biggest questions people have regarding fasting are (1) should Christians do it, and (2) if they should, how should they do it? Since fasting is often coupled with prayer, think about it. We aren’t given the specifics for every single time we are to pray, and how long to pray, exactly what words to use, but that doesn’t change the fact that we know we’re supposed to do it.
Jesus gave commands on how to fast, which we read earlier, and He didn’t give commands that were irrelevant to His people—therefore, Jesus expects us to fast. But the details about how long and when aren’t given specifically to us, and are therefore up to our own judgment. I used to tell people that I fasted four times a day, only taking breaks for meals. Maybe choose a day where you’re going to skip just a meal in order to spend time studying God’s word or spending a long time in prayer. One congregation I know of fasts from Tuesday evening until Wednesday evening when they all come together to share a meal before Bible study.
Whatever you decide to do, however you decide to do it, make it a time to grow closer to God and show your dedication to Him.
Don’t Mix the Covenants!
The Old Testament was nailed to the cross, but there are a lot of people who want to drag parts of it down. Some groups demand keeping the Sabbath (which was only ever given to the Jews). Others say that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath,” but when you realize that Sunday is the “first day of the week” and “Sabbath” is the Hebrew word for “seventh,” you’ve got problems—seventh is not the first, and vice versa. We’ve got friends who insist that we have to stand with Israel because they’re God’s people. No, Christians are God’s people, the Jews were rejected because they rejected Jesus. If you want to say we should stand with Israel because they are our friends and allies, then that’s a different discussion (a political one), but in no way, shape, or form are the Jews still God’s people today unless they have become Christians.
They can become Christians the same way that you can become a Christian. There is just one gospel, the power of God to save souls, both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 1:16). That gospel is the good news about Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross on our behalf. You believe that good news, let that belief cause you to repent and confess Him, and then be buried with Him in baptism for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-5). After so doing, live faithfully to the best of your ability and you will have a home awaiting you with God and Jesus forever!