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Inappropriate Fasting

Category Articles
Date March 1, 2004

Many things that are not wrong, but, in fact, good in themselves are inappropriate at some times and in certain circumstances. You don’t wear a white dress to a funeral or a black one to a wedding. You don’t act rowdy at church and you don’t act reverent at a football game. You don’t give your wife a kitchen skillet for your anniversary, and she doesn’t give you a yard rake for your birthday.

Back in the summer of 1984, I conducted the wedding service in Hattiesburg, Mississippi for a couple who once served the church in Huntsville, Chris and Sarah O’Brien. After the wedding, we attended the reception. Then we left that same night to drive to Pensacola where the next day I conducted my grandmother’s funeral. Mourning and tears would have been totally inappropriate at the wedding. Likewise celebration and festivity would have been most inappropriate at the funeral. Both celebration and mourning are good, but only in the appropriate circumstances.

The issue of appropriateness came to the forefront when Jesus faced a question about His disciples’ failure to fast.


Once Jesus was attending a dinner party. Levi, the tax collector, had left behind his tax collecting business to follow Jesus. He then invited his friends to a feast at which Jesus was the guest of honor, to celebrate his new life. When the Pharisee scribes, who were experts in the Old Testament Law and all of the traditions that had grown up around the Law, saw Jesus attending this party with Matthew’s old friends, they were scandalized that Jesus would share table fellowship with such people.

It is interesting to note that following these concerns about Jesus and feasting, there arose questions about Jesus and fasting. Mark gives us the context for what occurs now by making two observations: “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.”

The John referred to is John the Baptist. It is likely that fasting was commended by John Baptist and practiced by his followers. John was an austere man. He lived in the wilderness, wore clothes made of camel hair, and ate locusts and wild honey. In style of dress and ministry he reminded people of the bold and confrontational prophet Elijah. He preached a challenging message. His was a ministry of preparation for the coming of the kingdom of God. He knew that, when the kingdom came, it would mean not only salvation but also judgment. He told the people that, though they thought they wanted the kingdom to come, in fact they were not ready. They needed to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. John’s mission was to prepare people for the appearance of Jesus by warning them of their danger and calling them to a radical reorientation of their lives. So fasting was altogether appropriate to John’s mission and message. It might be summarized as, “This is no time for frivolity or celebration. It is time to get serious and mourn for your sins.” Fasting fit the message. His disciples fasted because he had taught them to do so.

Another reason that John’s disciples may have been fasting at the time when the question about fasting arose was that John had been arrested and imprisoned. They likely were mourning his loss and offering fervent prayers for his release. Fasting fit the situation of John’s disciples. Whether for both of these reasons or one of them the fact is that John’s disciples were known for fasting.

The Pharisees were also known for their fasting. The Mosaic Law required only one fast each year – Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. However the Pharisees went much further – they fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. The Pharisees were a lay movement within Judaism that called for careful attention to and obedience of the Law. But they also endorsed the traditions that had grown up around the Law and the hedges that the scribes had put around the Law to prevent even coming close to Law breaking. Many of the common people, even if not Pharisees themselves, admired the Pharisees and were sympathetic to them, because the Pharisees were serious about their religion.

Now the question some of the people put to Jesus was, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” The question is a legitimate one that might be asked by someone sincerely wanting to understand. But, as it appears in this section of Mark devoted to early conflicts Jesus had, it is likely that there was a hostile motive and intent. The implication was, “How can you be a serious religious teacher when your disciples do not fast? We know that John was serious and the Pharisees are serious. They fast. But your followers don’t do any fasting. How can you explain this?”

One of the things we should mark before we move on is that this question arises from a position that goes beyond the requirements of God’s Law. If they had questioned Jesus about the feast on the Day of Atonement, He would have endorsed it. But they were testing Him by observances that go beyond the Law. This kind of thing continues to arise in Christianity when Christians judge other Christians by whether they do certain things or do not do certain things that are not required in the Bible but are thought to be good things. Christians can ask. “Does he read his Bible every day? No? Then he is not serious about his faith.” Or, does he ever use tobacco or take a glass of wine? Yes. He cannot be a committed Christian.” We must be careful not to fall into the mindset that characterized Jesus’ critics.


Jesus responded to the question from the people with a declaration that begins with a counter-question: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Then comes the declaration: “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days are coming when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

We know enough about weddings in our own experience to know that they are occasions of joy when sadness is not appropriate. Celebration is in order. Sometimes we see mothers or sisters, and once in awhile even fathers and brothers, shed a tear at a wedding, but once the wedding is over, there duty is to suppress the tears and to lead the guests in a party. Once I visited with a friend of mine, who is not Dutch, but is a minister of a Reformed church coming from the Dutch tradition. The wedding was in the afternoon, but it was well into the evening when he and his wife got home. He commented that the Dutch have so much trouble justifying partying, that they like to make the most of it when they do have an excuse. I’ll let some of our members who come from Dutch backgrounds say whether or not that is accurate, but it shows again how important festivity is to weddings.

In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, weddings were times of great celebration. In the case of a virgin bride the party went on for seven days. There was an abundance of wine and food and people danced and sang. The primary responsibility of the guests was to share in the joy and join in the festivities. These were times when fasting was totally inappropriate. As long as the bridegroom remained, there was festivity; only when he left would life return to normal and people go back to routines that might include fasting.

Jesus’ point is that He, the Bridegroom is here, and fasting would be inappropriate. His presence called for celebration. Fasting has its place, but not now. It is clear that Jesus has a high view of Himself and the significance of His presence. By a “high view of Himself” I do not mean either that He was egotistical or that He had what we have learned to call a “good self-image.” I mean that He was aware of His uniqueness. Mark has told us from the very beginning that his Gospel is about “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Here Jesus demonstrates His own awareness of who He is. In the Old Testament it is the LORD Himself who is the Bridegroom and Husband of Israel. For instance, in the prophecy of Hosea, the LORD says, “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, and in steadfast love and mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD” (Hosea 2: 19,20). By calling Himself the Bridegroom, Jesus is claiming that He is the LORD, that the LORD has come among His people, and that therefore this is a time of rejoicing.

But there is an ominous note, too. He speaks of a time when the Bridegroom will be” taken from them.” The picture is of a violent removal of the Bridegroom. The party will not go on forever. A time is coming when the Bridegroom will not be present with them any longer, for He will be forcibly taken away. This is the first time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus makes a veiled reference to what lies ahead for Him. In the end the only way He can make the Bride His is by submitting to being taken away to judgment and death for the Bride. When this happens there will be time for mourning and for fasting. It is like a person who knows he will die taking his family on vacation and saying, “This is a time for us to have fun and not be sad. The time for sadness will come, but it is not now.” When Jesus was taken by the Roman soldiers, tried before Jewish and Gentile courts, condemned to death and crucified, that will be the time for His followers to mourn. But that time has not come.

The question we have to ask is,” What time is it now? What is appropriate in the time in which we live? Is it time for fasting or for feasting?” We can answer this by going to a concept that is important for understanding the New Testament. This concept is called the “already, but not yet.” In one sense the kingdom of God has come and is here. Not only has Jesus died for our sins, but He has been raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and seated at the right hand of God the Father, where He reigns. So we feast.

But has the kingdom finally and fully come? No. We still struggle with sin, our own and the world’s. All the kingdoms of this world are not yet visibly is submission to Christ. Persecution of the Church continues. All the evil in the world is not eradicated. Violence and war, accident and illnesses are still with us. Death still reigns over the human race. So the kingdom has not fully come and will not until the last Day when Christ returns in glory. So we still experience suffering and sadness, temptation and sin. So fasting is appropriate, too.

But we do not fast when we come to the Lord’s Table. Though the portions of bread and wine are small, the Supper is a spiritual feast. It is a festival where joy is the dominant theme. Already forgiveness, reconciliation, adoption into the family of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, eternal life, and the promise of resurrection are ours. But there is also a not yet. The Supper is a foretaste of a great wedding feast to come, when Christ will eat and drink with His people at the heavenly banquet. Then faith will become sight. There will be no more struggle with sin, no more suffering or sorrow, no more pain or loss, no more death or mourning. And then no more fasting, for sin will be swallowed up by righteousness, sorrow by joy, and death by life. We keep this festival today in the certain hope of the everlasting festival that is coming.


One of my seminary professors said that a sermon should include explanation, illustration, and application. The purpose of illustrations is to open windows for the truth of the explanation and the power of the application. HereJesus closes this discussion by giving two illustrations.

The first has to do with cloth. If you have an old garment, and it gets a hole from wear and tear, you do not want to patch it with new cloth. When the piece of garment is washed, the new cloth will shrink, and, since its fibers are much stronger than the old cloth’s, the garment will get a larger hole than it had before. The old fibers will be pulled by the new fibers to the point of tearing.

The second illustration has to do with wine. The wine vessels were made of animal skins. Over time the wine skins would dry out and begin to become brittle. What would happen if you put new wine in the old wine skins? The new wine would begin its fermentation process, and pressure would build up in the old wine skin. When the pressure reached a certain point, the old wine skin would not be able to contain the new wine, and would burst.

Jesus uses both of these illustrations to provoke His hearers and us to think, to think beyond just the question of fasting to the whole significance of His coming into the world. It is obvious that He is saying that there is something radically new is not compatible with the old.

But what is new and what is old? What is old is the Judaism of Jesus’ day, especially the kind of legalistic Pharisaism with which Jesus had so much conflict. The Pharisees were legalistic in two senses. They were legalistic because they went beyond the commands of God to the traditions of the elders and the hedges the scribes had added to the Law. They added to God’s Word and placed heavy burdens on the backs of people who wanted to take their faith seriously. But they were legalistic in a more profound and devastating sense. They believed they could establish their righteousness and standing with God by their law-keeping. In other words, they thought they could obtain the righteousness they needed to be accepted by God by their performance in relation to God’s Law.

Now someone might say, “Why does there need to be this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees? Jesus and His teaching are closer to the Pharisees than to any other Jewish sect. Maybe He has some new insights that could be added to the teaching of the Pharisees. If there were holes in the teaching of the Pharisees, Jesus could, as it were, sew in His teaching as a patch. If the life of Pharisee’s teaching had diminished, could not the vitality of Jesus teaching, as it were, be poured into that their teaching? Jesus’ point was that there was no possibility of that, for He is not just another teacher; He is the Son of God, whom the people had already recognized as teaching and acting with original authority. Jesus and the old Judaism are fundamentally incompatible.

Jesus has come to provide and to show the way to salvation that does not depend on human merit, human effort, human ability, or human accomplishment. He had come to provide us with the righteousness we need by the obedience of His life and by His sacrificial death, in which He submitted Himself to the penalty of the Law. He has come to show us that salvation is not by what we do, but by trusting in what He has done for us. He proclaims the good news of favor despite our demerit, of forgiveness that is not earned, of righteousness that is outside us. Salvation by Law or salvation by Jesus. Human ability and merit or divine grace and mercy. You can have it one way or the other, but you cannot have it both ways.

The same issue remains for us. How do you want to gain acceptance with God? By doing the best you can, doing better than most? In other words, by what you do. Or, acceptance with God by what Jesus did for sinners? Salvation obtained by your efforts? Or salvation by faith in Christ’s efforts? Salvation by your works? Or salvation by faith in Christ’s works?

When we come to this Table of the LORD, we confess that we are poor, needy, sinful, and helpless. But we hold out our hands to Christ in faith and He fills them with free forgiveness and His perfect righteousness. I invite you to come now and to eat the living bread and drink the new wine of Christ and His Gospel.

Gospel Reading: Mark 2: 18-22

William Smith
Westminster Presbyterian Church

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