A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on November 25, 2018.
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’ Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved’ (Matthew 9:10–17).
Following the call of Matthew the tax collector Jesus attended a feast. It was not a gathering of the religiously faithful but a party of sinners. We are not told what Jesus ate or what He drank but only His purpose. Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” It is in this brief scene that we see Jesus’ heart for the lost.
Forsaking the public opinion of the Pharisees, Jesus associated with sinners, not to engage in their sin but to save them from it. Therefore, as we look at this feast with tax collectors and sinners, we see ourselves at the table. As we look around the table, we confess, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). Indeed, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Sin may seem like a party but in reality “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
But there is one at the feast who stands out, one who reclines at table saying, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” He is Christ Jesus our Lord, and in Him is the free gift of eternal life. Therefore, the redemption we have in Christ by God’s grace is like feasting in His presence.
Feasting in His Presence
Consider what Jesus knew as he reclined at table. Feasting in the presence of Christ revealed our Lord’s knowledge of man’s greatest need. Our greatest need is not a full belly or a healthy body. Jesus taught the Pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” meaning that He “came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Feasting in the presence of Christ also revealed the human propensity for religion. The Pharisees were not novel in their religious intentions. Outward performance trumped the inward reality of a circumcised heart. They substituted sacrifice for mercy. The Pharisees did not feast with Christ because they had no need for Him. They were religious enough.
But to feast in the presence of Christ, you must be at the table. You must confess that you are in fact a sinner by nature and deed. You must acknowledge your need of a Savior, of whom there is only one (and it is not you!). By God’s grace alone you must put your faith in Christ alone, and then you will enjoy the true and everlasting feast of redemption. As such, we are feasting in His presence while also fasting for His return.
Fasting for His Return
In stark contrast to Jesus’ feast with the tax collectors and sinners, John the Baptist’s disciples were fasting, as were the Pharisees. Setting aside the distinct differences between the ministry of John and the practices of the Pharisees, what place did fasting have in their lives? In considering this, let’s begin with the basics: What is biblical fasting? Biblical fasting is not the latest American weight loss craze. It is not a longevity of life strategy. It is not a detox method. Simply put, biblical fasting is voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.
With this understood, how was fasting practiced in the Old Testament? In the Old Testament, the only commanded fast was on the Day of Atonement. All other fasting was voluntary and was for the purposes of mourning or for seeking God for a specific and often difficult circumstance. For example, David fasted for his dying child. Ninevah, as a city, fasted when the prophet Jonah delivered God’s message of pending judgment. Therefore, fasting in the Old Testament often accompanied an urgent spiritual need. As God spoke through the prophet Joel, “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:12–13).
Compare this call for fasting, weeping, and mourning with the religious duties of the Pharisees, and we see the evidence of a broken and contrite heart is missing. In contrast, to the Pharisees we may presume that the disciples of John the Baptist were fasting in accordance with John’s message: fasting for repentance and a longing for the consummation of the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus’ disciples were not fasting, and John’s disciples want to know why.
Jesus’ answer is so incredibly revealing, teaching not only about fasting but more importantly about Christ Himself. Let’s consider carefully Jesus’ answer. Jesus begins with a question: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” This question would have certainly captivated the questioners’ attention, because Jesus is employing a wedding metaphor used by John the Baptist, who had testified,
“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice” (John 3:27-29). Continuing with John’s metaphor, Jesus asks John’s disciples to consider the absurdity of fasting when the bridegroom is present. A wedding is a time of celebration. It is a time when friends and family come together enjoying the grand event. The party continues until the newlyweds depart. In other words, there is no fasting at the wedding reception.
Jesus follows his wedding party question with a prophetic statement: “The day will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Such a somber statement reveals that His metaphorical question is teaching. Feasting is enjoyed in the bridegroom’s presence but fasting follows his departure. A wedding was not an unfamiliar metaphor for the children of Israel. For example, through the prophet Jeremiah God said, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride” (Jer. 2:2). And, through the prophet Hosea God confronted Israel’s sin as the unfaithfulness of a wife to her husband. Alluding to Himself as the bridegroom of Israel, Jesus contrasts His earthly ministry with the ministry of the church after His ascension.
Explaining further, Jesus changes metaphors from a wedding to clothing and wine. When clothing was not as disposable, it was patched. In patching clothing the fabrics must match in age: a piece of un-shrunk cloth will not work on an old garment. The cloth will shrink and eventually fail as a patch.
Similarly, new wine must be put in not old but new skins. When grapes are crushed, the natural yeast of the skin joins with the sugar of the juice and fermentation begins immediately. As the new wine ferments, it expands in size requiring an expandable container, such as the first century flasks of animal skins. New skins were supple and could expand with the fermentation, but old skins would crack and leak the precious wine. Like un-shrunk cloth or old wine skins, the Old Testament practices of piety were not sufficient for the new wine of Christ’s first advent.
The Pharisees and even John’s disciples were fasting under the Old Covenant but the Christ of Covenants had come. In the fullness of time He came, and His disciples feasted in His presence. On the last day He will return, and we will feast with Him again. Until that day, we fast, not as one who knows not the Christ but as one who does, longing for His return.
Practically speaking, in longing for His second advent, how then do we fast? First, as Jesus taught in His Sermon on the Mount, we are to fast privately: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:16–18). Fasting is not a public display of your religiosity; it is a private practice of inward piety.
Second, we are to fast with prayer. It is no accident that Jesus connects prayer and fasting in His Sermon on the Mount. Fasting is not a time of morbid self-reflection; it is a time of sweet communion with God. But we must be careful not to stop here as if the Christian life is a balance between feasting in Christ’s presence and fasting for His return. Let us heed the apostle’s caution: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). As Christians, there will be times of feasting and there will be times of fasting, but let us remember that we enjoy the ongoing presence of Christ fellowshipping, in His Spirit.
Fellowshipping in His Spirit
There is the temptation in each of us to obsess on feasting and fasting. Some only want to feast with the tax collectors and sinners rejoicing at the party of Christ’s redemption. Some skip the party for the personal practices of private prayerful piety. But as disciples of Christ we are called instead to live by and keep in step with the Spirit (Gal. 3:25).
Just as Christ was present as the bridegroom, so we rejoice in the joyful presence of His Spirit within us. We feast in the bountiful blessings of His ordinary means of grace, being fed on the reading and especially the preaching of His Word, being nourished on His spiritual presence in the bread and wine of the sacrament, being reminded of His covenant of grace is the sprinkling water of baptism. We rejoice in the redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus through the fellowship of His Spirit.
Why then do we fast, if we have fellowship with the Holy Spirit? We fast here for “the desires of our flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17). Fasting sobers us to the reality of our flesh and the necessity of walking by the Spirit. Fasting also awakens our spiritual palate to the malodor of our flesh and the delight of the fruit of the Spirit, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
And fasting prepares our hungry souls for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. So, there is a feasting and a fasting of redemption which we find in fellowshipping in His Spirit, a fellowship known only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
We praise the Lord for heav’nly bread,
With which immortal souls are fed:
We praise Thee for that heav’nly feast,
Which Jesus with delight could taste.
He, while He sojourn’d here below,
Had meat, which strangers could not know:
That meat He to His people gives,
And he that tastes the banquet lives.
(Philip Doddridge, “The Christian’s Secret Feast,” 222:1-2).