Thoughts of a Pastor-Historian

Fasting and the New Covenant (Exposition of Matthew 9:14-17)

I can think of no more appropriate topic for the Sunday after Thanksgiving message than fasting.  In God’s providence, this is where we are this morning.  God always knows exactly what we need, doesn’t He?

In this morning’s text, the disciples of John ask Jesus the question: “Why don’t your disciples fast?”  Jesus’ answer to this question provides important insights into the nature of His New Covenant ministry.

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?”  15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.  16 “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse.  17 “Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”  Matthew 9:14-17

The Question, v. 14.
The question is asked by the disciples of John in the same context of the previous question from the Pharisees.  In verse 11, the Pharisees had asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  Now the disciples of John ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples eat at all?”  These two questions represent two views of holiness.  One view said that one could not eat with sinners, the other that one should not eat at all.

It is important to note that the fasting referred to by John’s disciples was not one which was commanded by the law.  Only one fast was commanded in the Mosaic law, that on the Day of Atonement.  Instead these fasting was a tradition practiced by the Pharisees, and apparently adopted by the disciples of John, of fasting two days a week: Monday and Thursday.  This was a source of pride among the Pharisees as is seen in Luke 18:12 where the Pharisee boasts of fasting twice a week in his prayer in the Temple.  It is interesting that when the early church fasted, church history informs us that they also fasted twice a week, but on Wednesdays and Fridays, in order that their fasting not be confused with the fasting of the Pharisees.

Jesus’ Answer, vv. 15-17.
Jesus’ answer was threefold.  Jesus uses three different images to explain why His disciples do not fast like the disciples of John and the Pharisees.  In so doing He reveals something of the radically new nature of His Kingdom.

The first image which Jesus uses is one which the disciples of John would have been familiar with because it was John Himself who applied the term “Bridegroom” to Jesus in John 3:29.  If Jesus is the Bridegroom, then His disciples are the “friends of the bridegroom.”  It is not fitting, says Jesus, for the friends of the bridegroom to mourn while the bridegroom is present with them.”  In employing this image, Jesus is making a startling claim to deity that we might miss if we’re not careful.  In the Old Testament, Jehovah God had used this exact same language to describe His relationship with the nation of Israel.  For example in Hosea 2:19-23, God declares to Israel:

“I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me In righteousness and justice, In lovingkindness and mercy; 20  I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, And you shall know the LORD.” 21 “It shall come to pass in that day That I will answer,” says the LORD; “I will answer the heavens, And they shall answer the earth. 22  The earth shall answer With grain, With new wine, And with oil; They shall answer Jezreel. 23  Then I will sow her for Myself in the earth, And I will have mercy on her who had not obtained mercy; Then I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ And they shall say, ‘You are my God!’”

Now Jesus is using this language to declare that He is the Bridegroom who will call to Himself a bride, the true Israel, made up of both believing Jews and Gentiles.

The point is then, “How can my disciples fast when this long expected promise is now being fulfilled!?!?”  The reason that the Pharisees and disciples of John fasted was because they were longing for this day when God would again show His favor to Israel.  They were mourning waiting for the day when God would restore Israel from its rebellious present state.  Jesus is declaring that with His coming that day had now arrived!

But Jesus also says that there are days coming when His disciples will fast.  Those days are when their bridegroom is taken from them.  Some scholars understand this to refer to the three day period when Christ is taken from His disciples in death between the cross and resurrection.  But the early church apparently understood this to refer to the time after Christ ascended and before He comes again (Cf. Acts 13:3; 14:23; and 27:9).  This is the period in which we are now living.  This is a time for fasting, but not like the Pharisees and disciples of John.  Instead we are to fast as those who know that the Bridegroom has come and long for His coming again.  The Pharisees and disciples of John fasted in mourning because they didn’t believe that God’s promise had yet been fulfilled.  As New Covenant Believers, we fast because we do believe that God’s promise has been fulfilled and we are longing expectantly for those promises to be fully consummated at our Lord’s return!

Jesus now gives two more illustrations of the difference between the fasting of the Pharisees and His disciples by showing the radical difference between the Old and New Covenants.

In these two illustrations, Jesus goes to the heart of the question posed by the Pharisees and the disciples of John.  Their question about fasting assumed that Jesus’ teaching and ministry was only a slight alteration, or a patch upon the existing system of Judaism.  Jesus, however, informs them that fasting is different for His disciples precisely because with His coming into the world something completely new has come.  You cannot just pour the content of the New Covenant into the form of the Old Covenant.  Yes, there will be fasting, but it is a different kind of fasting.

We could add a number of contemporary illustrations of this. The painting of an old building, remodeling, etc. The age of technology yields several good examples.  I.E., computer upgrades.

This is what the writer of Hebrews 8:13 means when he writes regarding the use of the adjective “new” to modify the word “covenant”:

In that He says, “A NEW COVENANT,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Jesus did not come to put a new coat of paint on an old building, but to build a new building.  You can’t force me and my disciples into the same old categories of the old system.

This has numerous implications for our New Covenant worship.  There are similarities but key differences in the worship of the New Covenant.  New Covenant Baptism is different from the baptism of Gentile Proselytes.  The New Covenant day of worship is different than the Old Covenant day of worship.

What are the applications for us today?  We fast . . . because we live between the two comings of Christ.  But we don’t fast like the Pharisees and disciples of John did in Jesus’ day.  Nor do we fast like modern day Jews, Muslims, Mormons, or any other false religion.  We fast because we believe that the King who is our Bridegroom has come to inaugurate His kingdom and we eagerly anticipate His coming again to consummate that same kingdom.  In other words we fast with the words of the apostle John from Revelation 22:20 in response to Jesus’ promise to return quickly on our lips: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”