John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:18-22).
The primary fast of the Jews was the Day of Atonement, one of the seven annual solemn assemblies of the Law of Moses. The Pharisees also fasted on the second and fourth days of every week. Apparently, the disciples of John were doing something similar. (The Pharisees didn’t have disciples in the same sense as John or Jesus. The term “disciples of the Pharisees” might refer to anyone who followed the example of the Pharisees.)
Although such fasting was not part of the Law of Moses, by Jesus’ day it had become an important expression of the Pharisees’ meticulous devotion to the ceremonial law. To the Pharisees, if Jesus’ disciples were not fasting, then it called into question their piety, sincerity and devotion toward the ceremonial law. Further, it called into question Jesus’ attitude toward the ceremonial law. Jesus had already healed on the Sabbath, and his disciples had already been noticed picking grain on the Sabbath and eating without the prescribed ceremonial washing. Add to that the lack of fasting, and the Pharisees must have found this upstart rabbi increasingly troubling.
After Jesus was gone, fasting would have a place in the Christian community. It would remind believers of their dependence on God, of their need for God’s mercy, and of the power of God for the salvation of those who believe the gospel. Until then, Jesus’ disciples had no reason to fast. In the Bible, fasting is a sign of disaster, or a voluntary abasement during times of great stress or trial. But the presence of the Son of God on earth with his disciples was a time of joy, not of sorrow. The time for sorrow would come later, when Jesus was murdered and taken away.
In any case, fasting in the manner of the Pharisees, as a sign of their devotion to the ceremonial law, was incompatible with the new covenant Jesus was inaugurating. For Jesus’ disciples, fasting while Jesus was with them would have been like sewing a new piece of cloth on an old garment — it would have been incompatible. Jesus’ point was that the old has gone, the new has come. The two are not compatible. To put new wine in old skins ruins both the skins and the wine. New wine requires new skins.
Today, it’s still easy to try to pour the new wine of the gospel into the old wineskins of the Law. Grace doesn’t come easily to us. We like to have a way of measuring where we stand with God. The gospel tells us simply to trust God that he loves us and has forgiven all our sins for the sake of Christ. But we often want something more tangible than that. We want something we can sink our teeth into.
So we run back to the Law. The Law provides a way of measuring where we stand with God. If we avoid sexual sin, for example, and lying, and stealing, and murder, then we can have a firmer basis for feeling that God isn’t mad at us. If we don’t use crude language, if we don’t watch entertainment that has sex and violence in it, if we help others, if we don’t miss church, and so on, then we can rest easier about our relationship with God. Of course, these are good behavior patterns, part of the way we naturally desire to live when we have fellowship with God.
But even when we’re successful in behaving well on the outside, a deeper problem remains. Doing good things doesn’t solve the problem of our alienation from God. Our pride, our selfishness, the sin in our heart of hearts, is still there. And every once in a while, when our guard is down, what we really are inside squirts out to remind us that we’re still sinners. Then we can either pretend we’re not really that bad, or we can admit to ourselves what we’re really like.
Not based on the Law
Fellowship with God is not based on the Law. It is based on God’s faithfulness to his word of grace. God told Israel: “I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed” (Malachi 3:6; compare Deuteronomy 4:31). God’s free determination to do as he pleases is what gives us a positive relationship with him. He tells us through the words of Jesus in John 3:17: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Mike Feazell in 2004 and was updated in 2012.
John wrote, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He did not write, “God is justice.” If God were after justice, none of us would survive. But God has determined to dispense grace rather than condemnation. We are told, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). How grateful we can be that God is the way he has chosen to be! God’s devotion to us is the basis of our fellowship with him, devotion that God has demonstrated through Jesus Christ.
When we’re really honest with ourselves, we know that despite constant trying, we still sin. Where does that leave us? We can either work harder and harder to keep up the whitewashed façade of personal righteousness, or we can turn it over to God and trust him to forgive us and make us righteous. If we take God at his word, then we can rely on him to do in us and for us what he says he has.
Faith gives us rest. It transforms godly living from a duty, from a way of proving ourselves, to a joy, to a way of taking part in the good life we can have with God in Christ (referring not to physical abundance, but to spiritual contentment, to the inner peace only God can provide, which is worth more than physical riches).
Most of us can use a good rest.