Fasting and Furious
The conflict is rising between the religious leaders and Jesus. We have noted several times this rising tension, which continues to grow throughout Mark’s Gospel. The tension will finally be felt at the end of Mark when Jesus is crucified on a cross. However, we notice even in the early chapters they sought to destroy him (Mark 3:6). Mark chapter two shows this tension builds, with the question of who can forgive sins? (Mark 2:7) or Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? (Mark 2:16). This week we see another question why Christ’s disciples do not fast? (Mark 2:18).
I. Question about Fasting (18)
Mark explains the situation in which this question is asked. He explains that John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. John had been arrested (Mark 1:14). Their fasting might have been because of the mourning the death or imprisonment of their teacher (Mark 6:17-29). The pharisee’s however, fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Monday and Thursday. The law only prescribed one day of fasting per year on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-31 cf Ezra 8:21). This is the term used in Leviticus is ‘afflict yourself’ (ESV), ‘afflict your souls’ (NKJV/KJV), or ‘Humble your souls’ (NASB). This term speaks of the act of fasting during only on that one day. However, the Pharisees would fast twice a week, 102 times per year, compared to the one time the law required. Requiring frequent fasting as the pharisees did is legalism, not the outcry that many people might make today. Today legalism is used as a word even when we point to God’s Word as the infallible rule of faith and practice. However, this, as one preacher said, is ‘pure unadulterated legalism.’ As explained in the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke chapter 18, the pharisee saw this as two things he did that separated him from other men (Luke 18:11). He explained he fasted twice a week and tithed on everything he had (Luke 18:12). They saw fasting as tithing as a means of salvation.
The people came to Jesus and asked him a simple question. John’s disciples and the Pharisees and their disciples fast, why don’t your disciples fast? Previously, the scribes and pharisee’s have asked questions, but now the people have come asking the question. They can see that the Pharisees and John’s disciples fast, but the disciples of Jesus do not. The other questions have been asked to themselves, whereas this question is directly spoken to Jesus.
II. The explanation behind not fasting (19-20)
Often Jesus’ answers come in various ways and levels. Occasionally he will answer the question with a question or give an illustration. However, often, Jesus’ responses have multiple levels, a simple surface response as we see in verses 19-20 and then a deeper theological response (verses 21-22). Jesus’ simple answer was that fasting is for mourning, and feasts are for rejoicing. Many things are appropriate at a wedding that is not appropriate for a funeral. Although people might wear similar attire at each event, they are vastly different. At weddings, you have clapping, laughter, dancing, and enjoying a feast. Yet, at a funeral, these things would not be appropriate. A wedding in the first century was not a short service followed by a reception. It was a joyous occasion celebrated by many people over the course of a week. Jesus’ simple answer is that you do not fast when the bridegroom is with them. But there will be a time when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. His simple answer is they do not fast now because now is not the time for fasting. However, they will fast later. We will talk about Christian Fasting later.
III. Illustration about Fasting (21-22)
Jesus gives two parables of something new, trying to work with something old. The first is a new piece of cloth and an old garment. Once a garment has been washed and dried a couple of times, it might shrink. However, if you were to take a piece of cloth that is ‘unshrunk’ and then apply it to the old garment when it shrinks, it would damage the old garment making it worse. The second example he gives is new wine in an old wineskin. During the first century, they would put wine in wineskins made from goat skin. The new wine would go in the wineskin, and the grapes would ferment, making the skin expand. The skin would be worn and brittle, and if you were to put new wine in an old wineskin, it would burst the old wineskins. The parable’s main point is the two items are destroyed, which Jesus explains “a worse tear is made” and “the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins.” The Greek word for “pull away,” airein, is the same root word found in verse 20 when Jesus explains the bridegroom being “taken from them” (apairein). The same root word appears when the wineskins will be “burst” and “ruined” (apollymi, “destroyed”). If you try to join the new with the old, they both will be destroyed. Jesus doesn’t come to be ‘attached’ to traditional Judaism as presented by the Pharisees or even John’s disciples. If you seek to apply Jesus’ teaching to the man-made teaching, they are not compatible. Jesus comes with new teaching, with authority (Mark 1:27).
IV. Application for Fasting
The question of fasting is important for us today. Jesus responds that his disciples will fast when they fast in that day, when Jesus is taken away (Mark 1:20). The purpose of this statement is to explain when Jesus walked the earth, his disciples did not fast. However, this does not mean we should not fast ever. If we have a sermon on prayer, we are challenged because we don’t pray very much. However, I think as Christians in the west. There would not be many times in our lives that we fast. This passage does not teach us we don’t need to fast but that Jesus’ disciples did not fast during this time. Jesus fasted (Matt 4:2), and Jesus also says that “when you fast (Matt 6:17), Christians fasted in the book of Acts (Acts 13:2-3). Disciples are also fast. We are not to fast like the hypocrites who disfigure their faces that others might see them. Their reward is received when others look at their sorrow in their faces (Matt 6:17). When we fast, we should fast so that others would not know about it. We do so in secret that our Father in Heaven will see us. Jesus then discusses what the reward is, treasures in heaven (Matt 6:19-21).
The practice of fasting, Martin Lloyd-Jones explains, does not exist in modern evangelicals because of an overcorrection from Anglican or Roman Catholic teaching. We do need to be cautious; just because the Pharisees did it does not mean it is evil or we should not do it. The example in Luke 18 is fasting and tithing, two things that I think are given to us in scripture. However, they saw it as works-based, and people thinking they are righteousness. In the ‘Didache,’ writing from the early church explained that fasting was to be done on Wednesday and Friday, not on Tuesday and Thursday like the hypocrites (Chapter 8). Their correction is to move the date, not the practice, misunderstanding the purpose of fasting. The same is today. I have heard of Christians doing the ‘Daniel fast’ for weight loss or other fasts for health or psychological reasons. Joel Rishel, in an article called ‘Why God’s People Should Fast,‘ says we fast today as a “physical expression of the heart hungering for the second coming.” Prayer and fasting go hand in hand. Andrew Murray wrote, “Prayer is the one hand with which we grasp the invisible; fasting, the other with which we let loose and cast away the visible.” To only give up food is not the right understanding of fasting. Fasting, in the simplest form, is humbling ourselves before God (Is 58; Joel 2:12; Ps 35:13, 69:10; Ezra 8:21; Dan 9:3; Neh 9:1-2). The Pharisees only humbled themselves before men, and therefore got their reward from men (Matt 6:17). Fasting, Rishel explains, is “Humbling yourself before God.” However, fasting is about humbling ourselves through confession and repentance. Our humility through fasting shows the death of the flesh to have “our entire dependence on God for all our comforts,” as Samuel Miller explained. Fasting food for our stomach and fasting ‘food’ that we give our souls slander, anger, envy vainglory, and lust. Rishel says,
“The reason there is very little fasting today is because the sinfulness of the human heart has been neglected or explained away.”
Fasting is not only about humbling ourselves but doing so before God. This is to be done by seeking God’s face to know him and discerning his will for us. Fasting is not only realizing the problem, sin but also seeking the solution, which is God. James Blackmore said,
“Denying oneself of food is the easiest step in learning discipline in the service of one who asks for complete commitment… Of course, the condition of the body affects the soul. We are keener of mind and heart when we are not full.”
Christians fast today because we realize that we live in the “now but not yet” age. Christ has conquered sin and Satan on the cross, but they are not quite dead yet. We still sin, and the world still has sin in it. We have a reason for mourning and weeping. We long for that time when Christ will return, and we will not need to fast because the bridegroom is with us. The feast will be set before us. However, it is appropriate for Christians to set apart times of prayer and fasting. Not only abstaining from food but humbling ourselves before God. As we are desperately waiting for the coming of the bridegroom to his bride.