18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” – Mark 2:18-22 ESV
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each recorded the following scene as having taken place immediately after Jesus shared a meal with “many tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:15 ESV). The timing is important because it establishes the context for what happened next. Jesus’ decision to accept an invitation to dine at the house of Levi (Matthew) had left the Jewish religious leaders disgusted. Their view of Him had reached an all-time low because He had chosen to consort with known sinners. In addition to being a blasphemer and trouble-maker, this radical Rabbi from Nazareth was a poor judge of character.
So, immediately after His dinner at Levi’s house, Jesus was confronted with a question regarding His behavior. But it came from an unexpected source. While Mark simply indicates that some “people” posed this question to Jesus, Matthew reveals that it was actually some disciples of John the Baptist.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” – Matthew 9:14 ESV
These men were confused by the behavior of Jesus and His disciples. It could be that they were just as alarmed at Jesus’ choice of dining companions, but rather than bring up what Jesus had just done, they chose to question what He and His disciples failed to do: Fast.
As good Jews, the disciples of John would have faithfully kept the various written and oral traditions of their people, and that would have included requirements regarding fasting. But according to the Mosaic Law, there was only one day set apart by God for fasting, and that was the Day of Atonement.
It will be a Sabbath day of complete rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. This is a permanent law for you. – Leviticus 16:31 NLT
But over time, the Jews had prescribed additional fast days. By the time Jesus appeared on the scene, the Pharisees had instituted a twice-weekly fast, and it was this fasting to which the disciples of John referred. These additional fast days were intended to be an outward demonstration of one’s dedication to God. They were visible acts of righteousness that let others know you took your religious commitments seriously. But it was just such outward displays that Jesus had warned about in His sermon on the mount.
“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1 NLT
And Jesus had purposefully focused His attention on fasting and pointed out how this practice of self-denial had become a means for self-promotion.
“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:16-18 NLT
Yet, here were the disciples of John asking why Jesus and His disciples failed to honor the twice-weekly fast – as they did. By admitting that they were fasting, these men violated the warning Jesus had issued: “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious.” But for them, fasting had become a sign of righteousness. It was a mark of one’s spiritual commitment.
But they failed to realize that Jesus had come to bring something new. Their attempts at self-righteousness were totally inadequate. Their outward displays of self-denial were doing nothing to elevate their standing in God’s eyes. It brings to mind the stinging rebuke that God issued against the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah.
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood. – Isaiah 1:13-15 ESV
And the apostle Paul brings up the same subject in his letter to the believers in Corinth,
So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. – Colossians 2:16-17 NLT
Paul provides a much-needed insight into what is going on in Mark 2:18-22. With the coming of Jesus, all of the rules associated with Judaism were changing. The temple, the Sabbath, the feasts, and the festivals were all intended to point toward the coming of the Messiah. They were, as Paul put it, “shadows of the reality yet to come.” And as Paul makes clear, “Christ himself is that reality.”
The author of Hebrews reinforces Paul’s understanding about the purpose behind the former system of rules and regulations associated with the law.
The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. – Hebrews 10:1 NLT
Jesus’ arrival had ushered in a new era. The old was giving way to the new. Jesus had come to do what the law was never intended to do: Restore sinful men and women to a right relationship with God.
The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT
And Jesus drives home the point that His presence with them ruled out the need for fasting and rule-keeping. All their self-empowered efforts to earn favor with God were no longer necessary. Just as a sick person cannot make themselves well, sinners cannot make themselves spiritually whole and acceptable to a holy God. They must simply admit that they are sick and in need of a physician.
So, Jesus attempts to inform the disciples of John that their fasting was in vain. Rather than deny themselves food, they needed to recognize the presence of the Messiah and feast alongside Him. Just as the tax collectors and sinners had dined with Jesus in Levi’s house, Jesus was inviting the disciples of John to celebrate alongside Him. And He used the metaphor of a wedding feast to illustrate His point.
“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
The scene of wedding guests fasting and mourning while attending the festivities was meant to be ludicrous. Fasting would have been the farthest thing from their minds. And Jesus wanted these men to know that His presence among them was intended to be cause for celebration. Their long-awaited Messiah had finally come, and He was bringing “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10 ESV). And as the angels told the shepherds in the field on the night of Jesus’ birth: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11 ESV).
The Messiah (the bridegroom) had come and that was cause for celebration. But Jesus indicates that a time of mourning would come soon enough because He would one day leave them.
“The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” – Mark 2:20 ESV
With this somewhat cryptic statement, Jesus made reference to His coming death. While this foreshadowing of His coming death would have escaped those in His audience, it was meant to reinforce His call to celebrate His presence. He had come and it should have been a time of joy and feasting. But the Jews were busy grumbling, doubting, and disbelieving.
Then Jesus reinforces the radically new nature of the days in which they lived. He was disrupting the status quo. He was turning everything on its head and introducing a whole new means for sinful mankind to be restored to God. And His arrival was not intended to be an add-on to the old way of going things. It wasn’t going to be the law + Jesus. Don’t miss what He said in His sermon on the mount.
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.” – Matthew 5:17-18 NLT
He had come to fulfill all that the law required. And in doing so, He was eliminating the any requirement that men keep the law in an effort to assuage the anger of a just and righteous God. Jesus was going to satisfy God with the sacrifice of His own life.
To drive home His point, Jesus used the analogy of using a new piece of unshrunk cloth to sew a patch onto an old garment. They would be incompatible and prove to be unsuccessful in solving the problem being addressed. And it would make no sense to store new wine in an old wineskin because the fermentation of the new wine would cause the old wineskin to burst.
Jesus had come to do a new thing. And while the way He lived His life seemed to be inconsistent and incompatible with what the Jews had come to know, He was introducing “new cloth” and “new wine” – a new way that was meant to bring new hope to a lost and dying world. And the apostle Paul would have us rejoice in the fact that old has been replaced with the new – all because of Jesus.
So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 NLT
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.