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To Feast or Fast

John the Baptist's disciples notice a difference between them and Jesus's disciples.

Written by David Steltz on .

Notes

Introduction

Good morning! We’re picking up in the middle of Matthew 9 today, in the second main section of narrative in the book of Matthew.

Last week, Mike brought us through verse 13. Verses 9 through 13 are where we finally see the character, the person of Matthew enter the narrative. He describes his own calling, as a tax collector, a demographic despised by the Jews, to follow Jesus, and the reaction of the Pharisees.

This leads into a question from the Pharisees, which they direct to Jesus’s disciples, rather than approaching Jesus directly. They ask why Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. To eat with them was to associate with them in a significant, intimate manner, and that was appalling to the pharisees!

Jesus’s response was a lesson in the purpose and mission of the messiah, and even the broader mission of God and his kingdom, to save people from sin and reconcile them to himself.

This week, we’ll continue starting with verse 14, and Jesus is again going to be addressing a question, and this time it’s a question posed to Jesus directly, rather than to his disciples. And again, he’s going to shed some perspective on the nature and purpose of himself…of the messiah.

Passage

Let’s read these next few verses together:

Matthew 9:14–17 CSB
14 Then John’s disciples came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one patches an old garment with unshrunk cloth, because the patch pulls away from the garment and makes the tear worse. 17 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. No, they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

This passage consists of two main parts:

  1. The Question
  2. The Answer

Verse 14 is the question, and the next 3 verses are Jesus’s answer, which he gives in 3 parts, 3 analogies. 

So, let’s look at each of these pieces, verse by verse, and then consider the application it has for us today.

The Question

Starting with the question, in verse 14. The question comes from John the Baptist’s disciples: 

“Why do we and the pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

Some of the source manuscripts don’t include the word “often,” so depending on your translation you may or may not see that word included. But either way, the question is addressing the fact that Jesus and John’s ministries and teaching seem to promote and affirm each other, and yet are marked by contrasting practices and lifestyles in this one particular area.

Context

To get some context, first of all, if these are John’s disciples, why aren’t they asking John this?

Anybody?

Why are they coming to Jesus with this question instead of asking their own teacher?

Because they can’t! John is still in prison! Remember, how back in chapter 4 Jesus hears that John has been arrested, and sort of takes up the mantel of teaching and preaching. Ironically, right after he had just been fasting for forty days!

Matthew 4:12 CSB
12 When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.

Later in Matthew chapter 14, as well as in the accounts of Mark and John, and even Josephus the historian, we learn that the reason John was arrested was, essentially, for offending and embarrassing Herod by calling out his sinful relationship.

John’s message, like that of many other Jewish prophets before him, was all about calling his people to repentance. But specifically, John was preparing people’s hearts for the arrival of Jesus by turning their attention to their sin and their need for a savior. Their need for a Messiah. He was preparing the way for Jesus and for the kingdom.

And he was bold enough to direct that message to Herod Antipas, at that time one of the most powerful Jews alive. And that landed him in prison.

So, can you imagine his disciples feeling a little lost at this point?

Of course they’re going to seek out Jesus! Especially if they heard about what happened with his baptism by John, right?

But they seem to be somewhat cautious and hesitant to follow Jesus.

After all, they are still referred to as “John’s Disciples.” They are surely waiting and hoping and praying for John’s release so they can continue to learn from him! 

In the meantime, they are listening to this Jesus guy and observing him and his disciples, and they’re noticing what appears to them to be a discrepancy between John’s teaching and Jesus’s teaching.

Actually, it’s not a difference in teaching, but a difference in practice. A difference in behavior.

So, naturally, they ask “why?” “Why do we look different from your disciples?” And they approach Jesus directly, which I think is cool! And I think it’s cool that noticed this and are asking about it! It means they are paying attention, and they want to understand! That’s a good thing! It’s a good thing to ask questions, to seek answers, to seek knowledge and wisdom when it comes to following God and practicing righteousness!

Jesus welcomes their question! But before we get to his answer as to why his disciples don’t fast, I want to address why John’s would have.

Why Fast?

Again, John’s message was heavy on calling out sin.

If you remember, when we looked at fasting a while back, we see that it is an appropriate response to sin. And even though there aren’t any explicit commands to fast in the Old Testament law, the one place it is implied is the yearly observance of yom kippur, or the day of atonement, during which the people were called to practice self-denial and reflect on their sins for which God was making provisions for atonement, forgiveness.

Leviticus 16:29–31 CSB
29 “This is to be a permanent statute for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month you are to practice self-denial and do no work, both the native and the alien who resides among you. 30 Atonement will be made for you on this day to cleanse you, and you will be clean from all your sins before the Lord. 31 It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you must practice self-denial; it is a permanent statute.

We also see fasting as a significant cultural expression of grief, and humility, and sincerity before God. There are many examples of this, but here’s one concise example that includes all three:

​Psalm 35:13 CSB
13 Yet when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting, and my prayer was genuine.

John’s disciples would have had multiple reasons to express grief, humility, and sincerity before God, wouldn’t they? To express their repentance from sin, for starters, but now they must also be in grief over the loss of their teacher, and devoted to praying for him, would they not? We’re not actually told that for sure, but I think it’s a reasonable assumption given the context.

My point simply being they would certainly have had legitimate reasons, multiple legitimate reasons to be fasting!

So, their concern, or their confusion, I think is valid!

Asking Questions

And when we get to Jesus’s answer, he doesn’t scold them for asking this question!

Teachers, doesn’t it make you happy when a student asks an insightful question that sets you up perfectly for a teaching moment? It means they’re paying attention, and that they want to learn!

Of course, there are the not-so-helpful questions sometimes too, aren’t there? Questions that are wildly off-topic, or disingenuous. You can tell if they really just want to stump you or throw you off your train of thought, right? That kind of question might call for some rebuke or course-correction.

Jesus had some of those too, didn’t he? With the scribes and pharisees, when they tried to trip him up with questions. They didn’t really care about learning from him, they just wanted to find a reason to slander him. Of course, Jesus always fielded such questions like a pro, but also rebuked them for their hypocrisy and lack of faith.

But when questions come from a genuine lack of understanding and a desire to learn from Jesus, they will never be met with rebuke! I personally think that’s comforting. Of course, we may ask questions and seek answers which God chooses not to reveal at this time, but I believe we are designed to be curious, continual learners, seekers of truth and mining the depths of God and his creation for eternity! It’s in our nature! And especially when it comes to spiritual matters, and honoring God, “practicing righteousness” as Jesus puts it, we should ask questions! 

That’s part of how we “seek wisdom” which is what a large chunk of Hebrew scripture is devoted to! Perhaps most notably, or most bluntly, Proverbs is full of statements about the importance of wisdom:

​Proverbs 8:11–12 CSB
11 For wisdom is better than jewels, and nothing desirable can equal it. 12 I, wisdom, share a home with shrewdness and have knowledge and discretion.

Proverbs 16:16 CSB
16 Get wisdom—how much better it is than gold! And get understanding—it is preferable to silver.

Proverbs also teaches that the way to obtain wisdom, the ONLY way, is from God himself, and a relationship with him:

​Proverbs 2:6 LEB
6 For Yahweh will give wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

And as James writes in James 1:5, God is more than happy to give us that wisdom!

​James 1:5 CSB
5 Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him.

The last point I want to make on this subject is that when we read a verse like James 1:5 or Proverbs 2:6 and see that God gives wisdom, we might at first picture him giving it to us directly, like a divine download into our minds, right?

He certainly can and has done that! Solomon being a notable example. And scripture itself is a gift of divine revelation with a treasure trove of wisdom. Scripture is ultimately our anchor, our source of truth. But it’s also important to remember that God designed us to live in community with each other, learning from and sharpening each other. Even Proverbs speaks to this many times:

Proverbs 19:20 CSB
20 Listen to counsel and receive instruction so that you may be wise later in life.

Proverbs 13:10 CSB
10 Arrogance leads to nothing but strife, but wisdom is gained by those who take advice.

Proverbs 12:15 CSB
15 A fool’s way is right in his own eyes, but whoever listens to counsel is wise.

Perhaps the most well-known reference is the metaphor in Proverbs 27:17

Proverbs 27:17 CSB
17 Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another.

This design for humans to teach and learn from each other starts with the family unit! It’s the most natural thing for parents to teach and instruct their children, and Proverbs 13:1 says it is wise to heed that instruction:

Proverbs 13:1 ESV
1 A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.

As a child becomes an adult, I believe one of the most beautiful ways a parent’s instruction reaches fruition is when their child can learn and grow on their own, and even teach and sharpen their parents! That’s my goal and prayer for my children…if I can one day learn from them, and be challenged and sharpened by what God reveals to them, that would just be such an incredible feeling!

This principle applies to broader community units too, though. Especially when it comes to church...communities meant to actually reflect biological family units as spiritual family members adopted into God’s family. Within that family, we may have spiritual “parents” and “children” as in people in our lives who are instrumental in helping us develop and mature spiritually, as well as those who we disciple and teach and share our experience with.

That’s what happens when we are disciples who make disciples who make disciples who make disciples! It’s spiritual procreation, resulting in many spiritual families all with common ancestry in Christ, so that we are all related by his spirit as one family.

Paul speaks to this in Ephesians, emphasizing the many-varied different gifts and roles given to people in the church body, so that we can be built up in unity:

​Ephesians 4:11–16 CSB
11 And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. 14 Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. 15 But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ. 16 From him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building itself up in love by the proper working of each individual part.

And in Colossians 3:16

​Colossians 3:16 CSB
16 Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

In Romans, he expresses a sentiment that rings with the tone of a proud father seeing his children reach maturity:

​Romans 15:14 CSB
14 My brothers and sisters, I myself am convinced about you that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another.

Alright, I know this was a bit of a tangent, but I thought this was an application worth taking a moment to appreciate.

It’s not the main point of this passage, but I think it’s cool that Jesus welcomes this question and is quick with an answer. 

The Answer

So, let’s move on and look, finally, at how Jesus answers this question.

Wedding

Answering with a Question

Actually, the first way Jesus answers the question is with a question. This is classic Jesus! He does this all the time!

I don’t know about you, but to me it can be kind of frustrating when someone answers a question with a question. But Jesus does this often, and while it may come across as being kind of dodgy about the question, remember he’s in teaching mode, and this is a great teaching tool.

By asking a question, he’s inviting the listener to think critically and form connections in their own mind so they arrive at the underlying truth behind the answer on their own. It may not be as convenient as simply, straightforward answers, but it’s much more rewarding educationally. When a teacher helps a student learn how to solve problems and answer questions on their own, that’s when they’ve really succeeded, right?

Jesus is addressing complex topics of theological and cosmic significance. If you think about the subject of math, which is much more limited in scope but still very complex, you don’t learn about math by memorizing answers to problems and equations. You learn math by learning how to solve problems and equations.

It’s like the common saying “You give a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a day, or you can teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

I believe that’s what Jesus’s goal was in his teaching! He literally wants to teach his disciples how to be “fishers of men!” How to be disciples who make disciples.

Jesus welcomes questions, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean the answer is going to be simple.

The Analogy

That said, I think this first analogy, in the form of a question, is actually the more straightforward of the three parts to his answer.

He says:

​Matthew 9:15 CSB
15 Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.

In this analogy, Jesus is the groom, and his presence with them, the physical presence of the messiah means that they should be happy! And he says the time will come when he will be taken away, which will warrant fasting, but at the present, it’s a time for joy, for feasting!

Just like he didn’t scold John’s disciples for asking the question, he doesn’t really scold them for fasting, either. He simply explains there’s a time and place for both celebrating and fasting, and his presence is cause for celebration!

It’s not a coincidence that Jesus chose this particular analogy. It just so happens that John the Baptist himself described the Messiah in the same way, as a groom. Check this out:

John 3:27–29 CSB
27 John responded, “No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete.

Jesus is speaking to John’s disciples, and using imagery they already heard John use about the Messiah. John said “I’m not the Messiah, I’m just his friend, and I’m super stoked that he’s coming!” John himself says he rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice! And here’s Jesus saying “I’m the groom. I’m the messiah. My disciples are my friends, and so they rejoice that I’m with them.”

Using this bride and groom language is also, once again, revealing Jesus’s divine status, equating him with the Father by drawing on Old Testament imagery of God’s relationship with Israel.

Here’s one example:

Isaiah 54:5–6 LEB
5 For your husband is your maker, his name is Yahweh of hosts; and your redeemer is the holy one of Israel, he is called the God of all of the earth. 6 For Yahweh has called you like a wife forsaken and hurt of spirit, like the wife of childhood when she is rejected, says your God.

We find similar language in Jeremiah and Hosea too.

And Jesus will use this imagery again, at least once in Matthew, and it’s quite significant in revealing who he truly is.

One other thing worth noting about this wedding analogy is that this passing comment that “the groom will be taken away” is the first time in Matthew that he makes an outright prediction of his death. It’s still rather subtle, and he’ll make several more statements that are not as subtle, and which include a prediction of his resurrection as well, but this is the first time he really comes out and predicts his death. It may have went over their heads at the time, but in hindsight is a clear prediction of his future.

Clothes & Wine

Alright, let’s look at the next two parts of his answer, verses 16 and 17:

Matthew 9:16–17 CSB
16 No one patches an old garment with unshrunk cloth, because the patch pulls away from the garment and makes the tear worse. 17 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. No, they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

The Images

OK, this time it’s not a question, it’s two statements, but what on earth do clothes and wineskins have to do with their question about fasting? These are like little mini parables that seem almost like riddles. I think answering a question with a riddle might be even more frustrating than answering a question with a question!

But again, Jesus is helping them to form connections themselves and think critically about who he is. These particular images may not be very familiar to us, but they would have been to his listeners at the time.

If you have an old garment that has already shrunk, and patch it with a new piece of cloth that has never been washed, then when you wash it, the patch will pull away where it has been stitched, tearing the hole and making it worse!

Similarly, old wineskins are brittle, and new wine that hasn’t been fermented yet, or not fermented for long, will release gases as it ferments, rupturing the wineskin. If you put new wine into a new wineskin that’s still strong, by the time it ages and becomes brittle, the wine will be done fermenting.

The images themselves are pretty straightforward, sort of obvious statements. They’re meant to be obvious statements, like “well yeah, duh, everyone knows that!”

But again…what does it have to do with the question?

The Connection

These images speak to compatibility and appropriateness.

  • Old clothes are incompatible with new cloth. It’s not appropriate to combine them.
  • Old skins are not compatible with new wine. It’s not appropriate to combine them.
  • Fasting is not compatible with the presence of the groom, the king, the Messiah. It’s not appropriate to combine them.

I think that’s the most straightforward interpretation, though the use of the words “old” and “new” do also bring to mind the language Jesus will later use, saying that he is establishing a “new” covenant, and there are certainly contrasts between the old and new covenants. However, he’s certainly not saying that the old and new covenants are incompatible. He made that clear at the beginning of his teaching.

To the contrary, Jesus is perfectly compatible with and consummates the old covenant, which allows him to establish the new one. This does not invalidate anything in the law, though it may warrant or even require certain changes in behaviors, rituals, and practices.

Conclusion

So, what about us? Should we fast often? Fast never? Well, we already covered this to an extent…Jesus gave guidance on how to fast during his sermon on the hill…so clearly he isn’t saying that it’s never appropriate to fast; he expected his disciples to fast later on, after his death.

But, as we celebrated two weeks ago, Jesus didn’t stay dead! He resurrected! And that’s cause for celebration!

But then he did leave earth, alive, but no longer physically present among his disciples.

So, do we no longer celebrate until his physical return and the ultimate culmination of his kingdom in a new creation?

Well, no, because on Pentecost, the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the presence and power of Jesus, no longer centralized to one body, but distributed and gifted to thousands and millions to become the church, the bride of Christ, all over the world!

So that’s cause for celebration, right?

But…the fact remains we do still live in a fallen world, at odds with Christ and his kingdom. We will live through a wide variety of seasons and situations!

Yes, we have an unshakable hope and a deep joy in Christ no matter the season. He is with us forever. But Jesus himself fasted and wept. He faced grief and anguish, despite having full confidence in his future, as we also can. This is the human experience of this life.

I can’t help but bring up how this teaching of Jesus seems to draw on the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, which also wrestles with the human experience, the meaning of life from a very pragmatic perspective, and the tension between harsh reality and divine hope.

That’s really one of the main themes of the whole book, but it’s summed up very bluntly in chapter 3, which begins with the very familiar refrain:

Ecclesiastes 3:1 ESV
1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

Most of you have probably heard the rest at some point or another, a beautiful and poetic list of contrasting seasons or times, including a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.

I’ve heard it often recited in difficult, trying times, as a reminder, a comfort that everything on earth IS just a season, temporary, but for those of us who have joined Christ in the new covenant,  our lives will continue into eternity with him.

In the meantime, let us rejoice in the hope of the resurrection, and the life of the new covenant. Let us be filled with the joy of the spirit and the blessing of his presence among us. But let us also not be oblivious to the afflictions of this age; we must be humble and willing to repent when necessary, to grieve, to fast, and pray.

I’ll close with a passage from Romans where Paul speaks to this multi-faceted nature of the Christian life, of the human experience for a Jesus follower on this earth:

Romans 12:12–15 CSB
12 Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. 13 Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.


To Feast or Fast

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North Country Fellowship Church
NCF was started in 1987 to minister to the growing population of Fort Drum and Jefferson County. Located in Carthage, just minutes away from Ft Drum, Lowville and Watertown, it is a blended congregation of local and military folks, single soldiers, young families and grandparents.