To Feast Or Fast
Scripture: Matthew 9:14–17
To Feast or FastMatthew 9:14-17
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Pastor Randy Smith
Off the lips of Jesus to His followers: "You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved" (Mt. 10:22). "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you" (Jn. 15:18). "In the world you have tribulation" (Jn. 16:33).
Jesus Christ made some bold statements to His followers. He did not want them to be surprised when difficulty and persecution came their way. Contrary to the popular belief, all of our suffering does not go away when we come to Christ. As a matter of fact, many problems we never dealt with in the past come upon us in a new and dramatic way when we become Christians.
Too many professing Christians are blaming God because things are not going exactly the way they desire. This attitude is rooted in a faulty understanding and not in the clear teachings of Scripture. Jesus never promised us deliverance from all trials, but He did promise us the sufficient grace when we encounter various trials. According to last Thursday's Grace Quote, "God didn't promise days without pain, laughter without sorrow, sun without rain, but He did promise strength for the day, comfort for the tears, and light for the way" (Author Unknown).
In our passage this morning, we will see that even Jesus Christ experienced difficulty. But most importantly, we will see where we can go for strength and hope in the midst of that difficulty and how we can tap into the grace of God.
1. A QUESTIONABLE PRACTICE
Let's begin with the first point: "A Questionable Practice." Please follow along as I read verse 14. "Then the disciples of John came to [Jesus], asking, 'Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?'"
The timing of this question is quite ironic. You will remember in the previous account from last week that Jesus was rebuked by the Pharisees for the dinner guests He selected. Now there seems to be some opposition as to why Jesus is eating dinner at all!
The text reports that the disciples of John were the ones who questioned our Lord. As you know, John the Baptist had his own band of disciples. But since John's ministry was only to prepare the way for Jesus' ministry, he transferred all his disciples to Jesus once Jesus came on the scene because when Jesus arrived, John's work as the forerunner was completed. In his own words he said, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn. 3:30).
Many of John's disciples did indeed follow Jesus. However, it appears that some did not. Eventually John was confined in prison (Mt. 4:12) and beheaded (Mt. 14:10). These disciples, now without a leader, became a rogue band of religious zealots (cf. Ac. 19:1-3) lost in-between the old and new covenants.
If they were still following in the footsteps of their leader, they lived an ascetic lifestyle marked by their rigorous self-denial. It is easy to see how they prioritized fasting (Mt. 11:18). And while the Pharisee and the disciples of John were worlds apart, this particular topic of fasting seemed to form a common bond. We learned in Matthew 6 that the Pharisees fasted as a regular part of their religious repertoire, even if their fasting was intended for the praise of men (Mt. 6:16). In Luke 18 we read about the Pharisee who boasted in the fact that he fasted twice a week (Lk. 18:12), a common practice assumed by Jewish tradition.
It seems that most spiritual spheres in the first century practiced fasting - all except Jesus and His disciples. Because they were not in compliance with the customary practices, Jesus on behalf of His disciples was confronted: "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" In other words, "Why do You claim to be a religious leader and fail to promote amongst Your followers religious practices like the rest of us?" Once again, Jesus was not conforming to their acceptable spiritual standards.
Was Jesus violating the law of God? Absolutely not! He was only violating man-made religion, which had no bearing on Him or any of us! The Old Testament Law commanded fasting only once, and even then the command is once a year (Day of Atonement - Lev. 16:29, 31) and the reference is veiled.
Once again, this account demonstrates the dangers of legalism, elevating our human traditions above the Word of God. For one, it clearly imposes upon others a judgmental attitude. Like the Pharisees we easily have a tendency to look down upon others who do not follow our self-prescribed set of rules. And second, legalism blinds us to the reality of God. We can get so caught up in our traditions that our assurance is based upon following human standards and not divine standards. In doing so, we trust in a personal righteousness and ignore God's presence. Could it be any clearer in the case of the Pharisees? The Messiah was in their midst, and they missed Him! The living God was right before their eyes, and they not only rejected Him but also confronted Him for not playing according to their self-made rules.
Our Lord responds to them in verse 15, "And Jesus said to them, 'The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?
Throughout the Old Testament God often refers to Himself as a husband to His people (Isa. 54:5-6; 62:4-5; Hos. 2:16-20). Jesus picks up on that metaphor, once again assumes the divine prerogatives, and refers to Himself as the bridegroom here and in other places throughout the New Testament (Mt. 22:2; 25:1; 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:23-32; Rev. 19:7, 9; 21:2).
The point Jesus makes is simple to understand. This is like a wedding, not a funeral. This is not the proper time for fasting. This is a time for feasting. The groom is present with His attendants. (In the weddings I've been a part of the groom and his attendants are always the most celebratory group!) This is a celebration!
The implication is clear that fasting in the Old Covenant was associated with mourning and yearning. Both of these would be inappropriate when Jesus was in their midst. Both of these would be an insult to the bridegroom.
One pastor put it like this: "But Jesus has come as the Messiah (as John himself bore witness - John 1:29). He has come to forgive sinners, as the Old Testament prophesied (Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12). He indeed has commenced to forgive sinners, as He did with the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8). He has come to save sinners and to fellowship with them (Matthew 9:9-10). This is a time for celebration and rejoicing. How, then, can He or His disciples mourn, as symbolized by fasting? Joyful celebration is the proper response to the coming of Messiah. That is why John himself rejoiced greatly (John 3:29). John's disciples (by inference) should do likewise" (Bob Deffinbaugh, www.Bible.org).
Our Lord continues in verse 15, "But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.'"
In this verse Jesus makes it clear that His physical presence with them is only temporary. The time will come when He is "taken away." The verb signifies a sudden removal, a being snatched away violently. Obviously this is a reference to the crucifixion, the reason for which He came and something (as we see here) even this early in His ministry that He was preparing to accomplish. As it was prophesied in the Old Testament, "By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? (Isa. 53:8).
The bridegroom was with them. This was a time of rejoicing. But the time would soon come when He would be taken away. Then, as Jesus said, things would change. Then, as Jesus said, His people would fast.
Though Jesus Christ is still with us spiritually, He is still absent or taken away from us physically. So this expectation of fasting is one that applies to all of us today as we long for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, as we, the bride, yearn for the return of our bridegroom (Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17). As John Piper once said, "In this age there is an ache and a longing - a homesickness - inside every Christian that Jesus is not here as fully and intimately and as powerfully and as gloriously as we want Him to be. And that is why we fast" (Sermon, January 8, 1995). And according to Jesus, that time is now.
Richard Foster in his book, "Celebration of Discipline" remarked that Matthew 9:15 "is perhaps the most important statement in the New Testament on whether Christians should fast today." So how many of us would claim to be Christians? How many of us would claim to be committed to the Word of God? How many of us understand and are regularly committed to the practice of fasting?
2. A CONFUSING PRACTICE
So with such a great emphasis on the expectation that His disciples will be fasting and such a great weakness of the Christian community in this area, I feel the need to put a large parenthesis in this sermon before we gloss over this point and rush on to verse 16 - point number two, "A Confusing Practice."
What is fasting? Why should we be doing it? How do we put the practice into action?
In our society of instant gratification and self-satisfaction, fasting seems the furthest thing from our minds. Combine that with the propaganda that feeds us with the lie that if we don't have three large meals a day with several snacks in-between, we are on the verge of starvation!
Often when we think of fasting we simply associate the practice as going without food. That understanding is only partially correct, mostly incorrect. Fasting is better thought of as a feast. Biblical fasting's primary intention is to feast more upon the Lord. It is as we just learned a yearning, a longing, an aching to have more of God. We do not fast to impress God or impress others. If this is your motive for fasting, as it was the Pharisees', go out and eat a big cheese steak! We fast because God expects we will (Mt. 6:16-18; 9:14-17). We fast because He has tied His greatest blessings of grace to this spiritual discipline.
Let me provide just a few examples:
One, fasting is a powerful weapon in spiritual warfare. When Jesus was encountered by Satan in the wilderness, the Bible says He fasted 40 days (Mt. 4:1-11). Jesus knew the need to draw upon God's power through fasting. Dare we think we are wiser or stronger than Him?
Two, fasting opens our spiritual ears to hear God's voice. During times of fasting God often grants insights and understanding into His will. At times we must have the Spirit fill our hearts and not be so consumed with food filling our bellies. When the early church needed wisdom before they embarked on their world missionary campaign, Acts 13 says they were "ministering to the Lord and fasting" (Ac. 13:2). It was only then that God spoke.
Three, fasting reveals our true God. Is our stomach, as Paul told the Philippians, our god (Phil. 3:19)? Our appetite reveals what is in our heart. Do we grumble because we can't get food like the Israelites (Num. 21:5; 1 Cor. 10:10), or do we live "on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God" (Mt. 4:4).
Four, fasting teaches self-control and self-discipline. How can I overcome my sin of anger if I don't have the self-control to put away the barbequed potato chips? Will I ever have the self-discipline to overcome the biggest sin in America's church - materialism - if I can't get away from the Oreos? It's a good practice each day to go without something you want even if it be something small to forever work on self-restraint.
Five, fasting sharpens and intensifies our prayers. Our mind is sharpest when our body is not digesting food. The hunger pangs are a reminder of our continual dependence on the Lord. Going without food serves as an expression that even the most necessary ingredients for survival are secondary to having God hear and answer our prayer.
Here is a testimony: On Monday, April 19, 1742, the great missionary to the New Jersey Indians, David Brainerd, set apart the day for fasting and prayer. The results? In his journal he recorded, "I felt the power of intercession for precious, immortal souls; for the advancement of the kingdom of my dear Lord and Savior in the world; and withal, a most sweet resignation and even consolation and joy in the thoughts of suffering hardships, distresses, and even death itself, in the promotion of it… My soul was drawn out very much for the world, for multitudes of souls. I think I had more enlargement for sinners than for the children of God, though I felt as if I could spend my life in cries for both. I enjoyed great sweetness in communion with my dear Savior. I think I never in my life felt such an entire weanedness from this world and so much resigned to God in everything" (The Life of David Brainerd, p. 162).
This is just a sampling. The benefits of fasting are many. The methods of fasting are many as well. Since the Bible does not lay out specific directives, we have a freedom in this area as the Holy Spirit leads us individually.
A regular fast means abstaining from all food and drink, except water, for a short period of time. A partial fast is going without a certain type of food. A liquid fast means abstaining only from solid foods. Anything beyond this should be under the supervision of a doctor.
Again, we must remember that the goal is not simply to lose weight. The goal is to eagerly seek the Lord during this time. Fasting is not only about avoiding food, it is about ingesting the Word of God, the beauty of God, the presence of God and the blessings of God. It is about giving up food for Christ's sake. As one author said, "Fasting in the biblical sense is choosing not to partake of food because your spiritual hunger is so deep, you determination in intercession so intense, or your spiritual warfare so demanding that you have temporarily set aside even fleshly needs to give yourself to prayer and meditation" (Wesley Duewel, Touch the World Through Prayer, p. 97).
O.K., here comes the part of the sermon where Pastor Randy needs to make a comment about the building project.
Possibly my biggest prayer for this church concerning the building project is that these next few months would not be a speed bump in the ministry, but that the building project would be the ministry itself. That God would use what He has placed before us to build unity and teach financial stewardship and increase faith and promote prayer and fasting and encourage hearts. And to receive the utmost spiritual benefits from the project it is necessary to have the Lord fully engage our hearts in the project.
I am so encouraged that so many of you are assisting on the building committees and engaging in personal and public prayer (and now fasting) and encouraging the leadership and seeking the Lord about personal donations and individually trying to determine ways both personally and churchwide we can raise more financial provisions.
One example comes in the promotion a couple of you brought to my attention offered by Applebee's. They promise to donate a percent of your bill back to the church. This is how we need to be thinking. But as I was speaking to a gentleman after church last Sunday, I said we need to take it a little further. Instead of $7.00 going to the church, why don't we stay home, eat spaghetti that night and donate the entire $50 to the Lord's work! He responded by saying, "Maybe it would be better if we fasted that night and were able to give even more!"
Maximum spiritual blessings! This is how we need to be thinking. And this is simply another little benefit if we all begin to fast more often!
3. A TRANSFORMED PRACTICE
Let's return to our passage in Matthew and briefly go to the third point, "A Transformed Practice." In verse 16 and 17 Jesus said, "But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved."
If we understand the culture, understanding the basis of these illustrations is fairly simple.
First illustration: Clothing back then was primarily wool or linen. Both of these materials shrink when they are washed. So if an old garment had a hole and in an effort to repair it a patch of new material was sewn to the old material, you can imagine what would happen when the item was washed. The new material in the patch would shrink, pull away from the old material and result in a greater tear.
Second illustration: Animal skins were commonly used to contain liquids. The skins were treated, turned inside-out and sealed where there were openings. As the skins were subjected to repeated use, they became brittle and eventually wore out. If new wine was added to these skins, wine still in the process of fermenting, they would burst the skins and the wine would be lost.
So how does this apply to Jesus' teaching?
On one level Jesus is making a point to the disciples of John and to the Pharisees. He did not come with a religious system that would easily fit into theirs. Their beliefs were flawed and based on the traditions of men. Jesus came with God's true way of doing things. He would not change for them. They would have to change for Him.
On another level, Jesus was bringing a new covenant, a better covenant. He came to fulfill the Old Covenant (Mt. 5:17) and render the old one "obsolete" (Heb. 8:13). Even the Old Covenant, as great and God-honoring as that was, would have to be put aside. Jesus did not come to patch-up the old, He came to usher in the new. Jesus did not come to be on par with Moses and Elijah. Jesus came to be the full and final revelation from God.
So staying within the context of fasting, we no longer look for our redemption as they did in the Old Covenant. We rejoice that our redemption has come, that God has now taken up residence within us. We fast in a sincere desire to enjoy the maximum benefits of the New Covenant. We fast because we long and yearn and ache for the most personal and intimate fellowship with God now made available to us through the death of Christ. We must approach fasting with a new way of living and thinking and believing. As we learned, the work is finished, the kingdom has arrived! We fast as we wait for our Bridegroom to return.
In the New Testament we read the story about Anna. She was a godly Old Covenant saint who longed for the presence of the Messiah. Luke tells us that she fasted and prayed in anticipation (Lk. 2:36-27). Should we in the New Covenant fast any less if we have beheld His glory and have tasted the new wine of His presence in such a real and satisfying way?
May we come to God hungry and find in Him the true sustenance we really need. Do we have a church that really believes this? If so, there will be some changes around here - breaking away from the status quo and really wanting the presence and power of God in our midst!