Jesus’ first teaching on fasting was in Matthew 6. In that chapter, Jesus taught that other people should not notice when a person fasts. Fasting should only be visible to God because it is a method of humbling self before God. So that we are not mistaken on this teaching, Isaiah 58 and Zechariah 7 both said this. God told the Israelites through these prophets that if their fasting was just motions they went through and they were not taking care of the hungry, poor, naked, and unsheltered, then He would not hear them. God requires a whole life given over to His service, not just outward actions. God looks at a person’s heart behind the actions. Jesus repeated this in Matthew 6. The Pharisees showed they were fasting by not bathing, anointing their heads with oil, and by wearing sackcloth and ashes. They were seeking acknowledgement by people. Jesus told them they received what they desired, public acknowledgement. On the other hand, they did not receive acknowledgement from God. They received and earthly reward, not heavenly.
In Matthew 9:14-17, the topic of fasting arose again. This time John's disciples asked Jesus directly about fasting. John’s disciples approached Jesus and asked why His disciples did not fast like the Pharisees and them. We need to understand this situation better. John’s disciples were still Jews. The disciples were sad and at a loss of what to do about John being imprisoned by Herod (Matthew 4:12). In the past (the Old Testament), people often fasted when seeking God’s guidance or expressing grief. John’s disciples acted as most Jews did when they fasted. They did not know a new day had come with a new covenant, even though John testified to it when he said “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). They did not hear Jesus’ teaching on fasting or the new covenant.
What is interesting is that the Pharisees are involved in this passage. Often when people challenged Jesus on a point of Jewish religious life, the Pharisees were the challengers. We note that the scribes and Pharisees were near when Jesus spoke to John’s disciples. (See 9:3, 11.) The Pharisees probably instigated this questioning so that John’s disciples spoke the challenge to Jesus. The Pharisees forever tried to catch Jesus in blasphemy or breaking Jewish religious laws. Another thing in this passage we need to note is Jesus made a point that showed His disciples are different from John’s disciples and the Pharisees. He called His disciples “attendants of the bridegroom” (vs. 15). “Attendants of the bridegroom” means sons, descendants, or heirs of the bridegroom. Jesus called His disciples his descendants, His heirs. His disciples are new children in Him and are heirs of the Father now. They will receive God’s love, grace, and salvation, as well as live with Him for eternity. Paul said this in Romans 8:17. We can imagine the slap the Pharisees felt when Jesus said this. They felt Jesus slapped them by saying they would not inherit eternal life with the Messiah. This may have enraged them. We do not know for sure how they took Jesus’ words at this point. We do know they never gave up their relentless pursuit to trip Jesus. They wanted to imprison and kill Jesus. Jesus told them the attendants of the bridegroom do not fast. He separated His disciples from the Pharisees and John’s disciples. By Jewish religious law, people at a wedding did not fast. Weddings lasted seven days and they did not fast for those seven days. Jesus’ disciples are not like John’s or like the Pharisees at this time. Jesus equated His disciples with being wedding attendants, but not just any wedding attendants; they were co-heirs with the bridegroom, with Christ.
Jesus punctuated this proclamation with two parables, the parables of the new cloth and the new wine. In these parables, Jesus did not speak specifically to fasting, but to the new covenant and new life in Him. He said, “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. A couple of things we should notice here are the old garment needed a patch and patches came from shrunk cloth. First, the garment needed patching. The garment needing a patch was the old way of relating to God. Prior to Christ, the Israelites came to God through sacrifices for sin, which never took away all sin. They had to repeat sacrifices regularly. Also, within the religious life of the Israelites, there were arguments and divisions over how to live before Yahweh. The strict Jews required obedience to 613 laws. The stringency of these laws often did not allow for giving of mercy or compassion on the Sabbath. A chasm between the different forms of Judaism occurred because of their interpretation of the Law. The people did not need their old ways, the old garment, mended. They needed a better way to be in a right relationship with Yahweh God. Jesus came to earth to bring that better way, the New Covenant. The new cloth represented the better way. Trying to sew a patch of new unshrunk cloth onto old cloth will not work. These disciples of Jesus were new disciples. They had not had a chance to wear the cloth, their new life long enough to allow it to fit them well. The cloth/life was not yet tried, tested, and shrunk to become a familiar, loved garment. They were just learning about the new garment. Also, the patch of unshrunk cloth will pull away from the old cloth, but new life in Christ is not to be an add-on to an already existent life. Jesus came to bring a new way and a new covenant with God. He fulfilled the old covenant. The old has gone the new has come, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17. When a person becomes a follower of Jesus, the person has a new life and it does not fit with the old life. The habits of the old life do not go with the new life Jesus gives us. A person must choose which life they will lead. The Pharisees and other Jews could not realistically expect the new believers in Christ to follow their old methods of coming before God and of living on the earth. Thus, Jesus stated, they will not fast according to the old customs of the Jews. (Remember, nowhere in the New Testament does God mandate His children must fast. Fasting is one way of humbling oneself and seeking God, but God does not mandate it. The Jews must realize Jesus wove a new cloth to make them a new set of clothes, not something just to patch an old cloth. Jesus provided a better way, the new covenant. He fulfilled the old covenant.
With regard to the parable of the new wine, we must understand the method used in Bible times for making wine. The wine bag/bottle is just as important as the wine. People made the wine by pouring fresh grape juice into fresh skins/bottles. They skinned and tanned goat hides. The neck of the goat became the neck of the bag. After the person poured the fresh grape juice into the skins, over time the juice would ferment. As it fermented, it produced gases. The need for new bags was most necessary for this part of the process. The new bags were fresh, young, and expandable. They grew with the production and increased pressure of fermenting gases. Old bags were dry and inflexible. They could not withstand the pressure of the fermentation gases, but were not supple and expandable. Old bags could not grow. This analogy is what Jesus meant when He spoke to John’s disciples and others who listened. The message Jesus brought of the new covenant, the new way of relating to God, must go into new wineskins, lives made new by Christ. As people grow more in the knowledge of Christ and grow more like Him, they expand and grow just as the fermentation gases from the grape juice expand the new wineskins. The new wineskin is the new life Christ gives to people. The old way of life was stagnant, insufficient, and could not bring a person into a right relationship with God. A person must choose between their old way of life - religious and secular life - or the new life Christ gives. If we try to put the new covenant (the wine) Jesus brought into an old lifestyle (wineskins), it will not fit. The old life fights against the new wine, the new covenant, Christ brings and bursts the old wineskin, then both the old life and the new message will be lost to the person. The person will become confused and drift in life. When we allow Christ to pour the new life He brought (salvation and life with Him forever) into new wineskins (a new way of living/the new man) both are preserved, the Gospel given to the person and the person’s life.
Jesus made 4 points. One, His disciples are co-heirs with Him of eternal life with the Father in heaven. This meant that the Pharisees were not co-heirs. However, Jesus told them in verse 12, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus came for everyone, but only persons who recognize he or she is sick, who realize he or she is a sinner, will receive salvation. The Pharisees as a group did not recognize their sickness. Second, Jesus came to give a completely new life/cloth, not have some of what He brought for humankind added onto what they already did in life. Christianity is not a patch for our lives. It is the only way to have abundant life, to be made right before God (have salvation), and to have eternal life in God’s Kingdom. Third, the new wine must go into new wineskins. Jesus gave a new way, the new covenant, to be in relationship with God and that requires we accept and live out a new life and no longer live as we did previously. We cannot continue to live our old sinful lives and expect that since we say we believe, we will be all right with God. Our acceptance of His grace and forgiveness must bear fruit in our lives. Fruit will show by the way our lives changed from what they were to a new way of living, a life of mercy, compassion, and devotion to God. The fermentation gases represent this growth. Fourth, fasting is a personal issue. For John’s disciples, they mourned the imprisonment of John and fasted humbly to go before God asking Him to intervene for John. For the Pharisees, they fasted to advertise their piety hoping to gain praise from other people. For Jesus’ disciples at that particular time, fasting was not needed because God, in the form of Jesus Christ, was in their midst. He already acknowledged them and chose to be with them. There would be a time later, after Jesus ascended to heaven, when they might want to fast to humble themselves, recognize and repent of their sin, and ask to be in God’s presence. Fasting is just one method of coming before God. God does not mandate it. By definition, fasting is a religious exercise of abstaining from food or drink. It removes our focus from our wants and needs to focus on God. Every time we think of eating or drinking the item from which we are fasting, we remember our fast and that we are seeking God. We remember not to focus on our self, but on God. We are seeking God’s presence, His will, and His way.
I do not know if you are fasting this Lent. If you are, why are you doing it? Do you want to be part of the crowd who does? There is a better reason to fast. Being a part of the crowd will not get you acknowledged by God. See Isaiah 58 and Zechariah 7. Do you want to be in God’s presence? God desires a continual relationship with us. He created us to be in relationship with us. God created us in His image, the crowning glory of creation. We are the only ones of His creation into whom He breathed His life. It is for us that He sent His Son, Jesus, to be the once and for all sacrifice, the only sacrifice ever needed for our sin, so that we could have a renewed relationship with Him.
Are you ready to accept His love and sacrifice? Are you ready to become new wineskins for the new wine? Are you ready to put on the whole new garment that Jesus gives to you, not just the patch? What do you need to do to come before God today? Maybe fasting? We must always come to God in humility, recognizing His greatness and our sinfulness, and asking for His forgiveness, and then we can be in a renewed relationship with Him.
Christians observe Lent for forty days before Easter. At Lent Christians prepare for the celebration of Easter by humbling themselves before God with repentance, moderation in life, and spiritual discipline, some include fasting in the latter. Lent is a time to reflect on Jesus Christ’s suffering and sacrifice. Have you taken the time to consider God’s great love for you? He allowed His Son, Jesus the Christ, to be beaten and crucified for your sins. That thought is humbling. Take this time now and consider what Jesus did for you so you could be in a renewed relationship with the Father and have eternal life with Him. Whatever it takes for you to consider God’s great love for you do it because He gave everything He had to show you how much He loves you.