14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 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. 16 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. 17 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 9:14-17 ESV
They are not sanitized or canonized, making them unrelatable or, better yet, unbelievable. The people presented to us in the Bible are flawed and prone to failure, just as we are. They wrestle with doubts and fears. Their minds constantly struggle with questions about everything, from fairness to God’s faithfulness.
Even the ones who displayed a heart for the things of God found themselves wondering out loud about the seeming incongruities of life. The world in which they lived was not a kind and gentle place, but could be harsh and unforgiving. Even the Jews, the chosen people of God, found their religion, with all its rules and requirements, to be a difficult lifestyle to maintain. This is what prompted Jesus to say, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 ESV).
Theirs was a religion based on works. Yes, their was faith involved, but essentially, they were required to keep all of God’s commands if they wanted to enjoy His blessing and approval. Rule-keeping was intended to be God-pleasing. So, when some of John the Baptist’s disciples noticed that the men who followed Jesus failed to fast, they were confused and probably a bit shocked.
Both Mark and Luke record this scene a bit differently than Matthew. They indicate that the question regarding fasting came from some anonymous person in the crowd, who asked Jesus:
“John the Baptist’s disciples fast and pray regularly, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees. Why are your disciples always eating and drinking?” – Luke 5:33 ESV
Mark adds the important detail, “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting” (Mark 2:18 ESV), which leaves the impression that the fasting was taking place at that very moment. If that is so, it is likely that the disciples of John, who were having to go without food, were a bit put out that the disciples of Jesus were free to eat and drink. So, they sent someone to get an answer from Jesus. But their intent was not to seek clarification but to offer a bit of condemnation. This whole scene smells of competition and comparison. As disciples of John, they had viewed the arrival of Jesus and His chosen followers as a kind of turf war. Before Jesus had shown up on the scene, their leader had been the primary show in town. Even Matthew describes the popularity of John.
Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him. – Matthew 3:5 ESV
Yet, with the arrival of Jesus, the popularity of John had faded. His 15-minutes of fame had ended abruptly and now Jesus and His disciples had taken center stage. This probably left John’s followers a bit jealous and feeling as if their decision to follow John had all been in vain. And when they saw that the disciples of Jesus were little more than rule-breakers, that inflamed their sense of fairness and propriety. The wanted answers. They demanded an explanation. And Jesus gave them one.
But notice how Jesus responded to their request. He picked up on a theme their very own leader had used to describe his relationship with Jesus. John had clearly understood his role and the part he had been called by God to play.
“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. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:29-30 ESV
John understood himself to be little more than a friend of the bridegroom. He was inconsequential when compared to the groom. In fact, he fully realized that he was destined to play a diminishing part in the story surrounding Jesus’ life and ministry.
Using John’s own metaphor of the groom and the wedding, Jesus responds to their request by stating:
“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.” – Matthew 9:15 ESV
Mark and Luke provide a slightly different take on Jesus’ words.
“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” – Mark 2:19 ESV
“Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” – Luke 5:34-35 ESV
Notice that they both put the emphasis on fasting. But Matthew stresses the idea of mourning. The Greek word Matthew used carries the idea of wailing or an outward expression of grief. Fasting was often linked to an individual’s repentance over sin in their lives. It was a physical way of expressing their sorrow by denying themselves such necessities as food and water.
In this case, Jesus reminds the disciples of John that it made no sense for the friends of the groom to mourn while he was still with them. There would be a proper time for them to grieve over the loss of their friend, but right in the middle of his wedding celebration would not be appropriate.
The Book of Ecclesiastes illustrates the need to recognize that there are a proper time and place for everything.
For everything there is a season,
a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance. – Ecclesiastes 3:1-3 ESV
What the disciples of John failed to understand was that denying themselves food or water, while beneficial when done at the proper time and for the right reason, was inappropriate when the Messiah was in their midst.
The Messiah’s arrival should have been a time for feasting and celebration, not fasting and self-denial. By fasting, a man was attempting to restore himself to a right relationship with God. But Jesus had come to take care of that problem by offering Himself on their behalf. And that should have been a cause for joy, not for mourning and asceticism.
Jesus was trying to let them know that a new day had dawned. They were living in a new era when the old ways were being replaced with something far grander and significant. That is why He uses the imagery of a piece of new, unwashed cloth being sewn as a patch onto an old garment. After washing, the new cloth would shrink, causing the old garment to tear and rendering it of no value. The new way of the Kingdom was not compatible with the old way of law-keeping. Gone were the days of trying to earn your way into God’s good graces. Jesus had come to make possible a new means of justification and salvation.
The disciples of John were living under the old system of law-keeping and self-produced righteousness. They were still attempting to keep God happy by doing things that proved their spiritual superiority. It seems that the disciples of John viewed themselves as somehow more godly that the disciples of John, by virtue of their commitment to fasting. But Jesus is accentuating the radical nature of the new covenant He came to bring. He even compares it to new wine. This carries the idea of freshness and future fermentation. As wine aged, it would expand, placing great strain on the vessel in which it was contained. Old wineskins were brittle from age and incapable of accommodating the rapidly fermenting nature of new wine. The pressure would cause them to burst.
Once again, Jesus is accentuating the newness and freshness of what He had come to do. It was not that He had come to abolish or replace the law. He had actually come to fulfill it. But it was going to require something altogether new and different. The apostle Paul describes the radically new and regenerative nature of Christ’s work on the cross.
But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit. – Romans 7:6 NLT
Paul goes on to describe the law as “spiritual and good” (Romans 7:14 NLT). Jesus even said He had not come to abolish the law but in order to fulfill it. So, rather than fasting, the disciples of John should have been feasting. They should have been celebrating rather than abstaining. There had always been a time and a place for fasting, but Jesus was letting them know that it was now a time for feasting. The Messiah was in their midst. The bridegroom was with them. So, let the party begin.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.