Should Christians Fast or Feast?
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People fast for a variety of reasons. Some fast as a form of political protest. Others fast for health reasons—to lose weight or cleanse their bodies of toxins. Throughout history many people have fasted and continue to fast for religious reasons as a way to express spiritual devotion. This is true for many Christians, as well as people from other religions.
People who fast or promote fasting are sometimes accused of hypocrisy—having an external righteousness but lacking an internal one. They may be accused of pride or of exhibiting a kind of worldly spirituality. Sometimes Christians who promote fasting are accused of violating Christian liberty by imposing rules beyond that which Scripture gives us.
In Matthew 9:14-17, Jesus says the following about fasting:
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.”
As we will see, these verses about fasting are not so much about pride or hypocrisy or Christian liberty but about the movement from the old to the new—from the old covenant to the new covenant. They indicate that fasting was very appropriate under the old covenant, given the nature of the experience of the people of God under the law of Moses. But now that Christ has come, the reasons for fasting have largely faded away. Christians are people characterized by joy.
The disciples of John the Baptist fasted.
The disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus an important question. It was natural for them to wonder why they and the Pharisees fasted but Jesus’ disciples did not fast. We know today some things about the Pharisees' practices in the first century. Historical evidence indicates that the Pharisees regularly fasted as part of their ordinary spiritual life. They fasted on Mondays and Thursdays on a regular basis, which means not eating for two days a week.
While we don't know what the disciples of John did in regard to fasting, they certainly might have followed the pharisaical practice. Whatever their practice was, we know from their question that they were regular fasters. This makes sense when we think about the kind of message that John preached, which was specifically a message of the coming of God's wrath.
John preached about the coming of God’s wrath.
John preached a message of judgment and the need for the people to repent of their ways—to take stock of their sins, humble themselves, and turn to God before he swings the axe at the root of the tree (Matt. 3:10; Luke 3:9). If you had been listening all day to sermons about God's wrath and the need to repent, surely fasting rather than feasting would seem to be a more appropriate response.
This actually raises important questions about the obligations of God's people at this time with respect to fasting. What were the requirements of the Old Testament with respect to fasting? We know from Matthew 11 that John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, though we only read about John in the New Testament. John the Baptist was in the line of the Old Testament prophets Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
It's interesting to note that the Old Testament law required the people to fast only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, which we read about in chapter 16 of Leviticus. The Day of Atonement was the only time each year that the law required the people to fast. And yet, if we read the Old Testament, we find a lot of fasting taking place, and there is a good reason for that.
Fasting was appropriate at certain times in the Old Testament.
Fasting was appropriate in times of judgment or impending judgment. Fasting was also appropriate in times of mourning, grief, lament, and repentance for sin. We see this in Joel 2:12-13, for example: “‘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.’” Thus, it was fitting for the disciples of John the Baptist to fast when they were hearing this message of wrath and repentance from their master.
As God's people Israel lived under the law of Moses, and because they lived in such constant rebellion against the law of Moses, it was very appropriate for them to be a fasting people. Throughout the Old Testament, we read again and again how the people rebelled against God and how God brought his judgment against the people.
Israel was still living under the judgment of the old covenant when Jesus spoke about fasting.
If Israel had been obedient under the law of Moses, they would have done very little fasting and a lot of feasting. The Old Testament law actually commands a lot more feasting than it does fasting. But since they rebelled time and time again, fasting was the fitting response. Because of their sin, a cloud of mourning—a cloud of grief—hung over the Old Testament people. That was still true in Jesus’ day.
It is true that Israel had come back—at least some of Israel had come back from the exile in Babylon and resettled in Jerusalem. Yet, they were still living under the judgment of the old covenant, because the Ark of the Covenant was gone. The throne of David was sitting vacant. Thus, fasting was fitting, even if not required a certain number of times a week or a month according to the Old Testament law.
Jesus provided an answer to John’s disciples by asking a rhetorical question.
Jesus asked John’s disciples, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” The power of a rhetorical question is that we all know the answer—to ask the question is to answer it. Is it proper to fast when you're at a wedding? The answer is, of course not. Weddings are to be times of joy and celebration. When you get invited to a wedding, you don't attend the ceremony and then a reception afterwards in which you will be fasting together. You get invited to a wedding ceremony and a reception where you eat abundantly and lavishly, because weddings are to be times of joy.
It is true that people aren't always joyful when they're at a wedding. Sometimes family members are unhappy about who their relative has chosen for a spouse, or perhaps some friends are there wishing that they were the bride or the groom. But if you go to a wedding and aren't feeling particularly joyful, you should hide those feelings. Weddings are time for joy, and you should act like you are joyful, not by fasting but by feasting. We know that in Jesus’ time, Jewish weddings were parties that would last many days. We get a sense of what this was like in John 2 when Jesus turned the water into wine. People would celebrate for such a long time at weddings that they would run out of provisions.
Jesus came to take away the reason for fasting.
Jesus provides this analogy to make an essential point: just as it is inappropriate to mourn and fast at a wedding when the groom is present, so it is inappropriate to mourn and therefore fast, when Jesus—the great bridegroom—is present. Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and the bridegroom of his people. Jesus' coming as the Messiah means that he is lifting the wrath and judgment of God from upon his people. Jesus has come to take away the reason why the people would fast. He is taking away their grief, taking away their mourning and lament. Jesus is bringing salvation to the people of God, and therefore, you cannot grieve when Jesus is present.
What is appropriate is that we rejoice when Jesus is present. That is what the tax collectors and sinners had discovered in the verses just previous to Matthew 9:14-17. When Jesus calls us—when Jesus wants us in his intimate fellowship—we do not fast but feast!
Now Jesus, of course, does add a qualification here in verse 15. After this rhetorical question, he states that the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them and then they will fast. What is this time when he will be taken away, in which fasting will again be appropriate? Certainly, he is referring at least in part to the days of his crucifixion.
It was appropriate to fast after Jesus was crucified.
When he was betrayed, arrested, and crucified, Jesus was taken away from his disciples. This was a time of great grief for them. In John 16, Jesus even told them on the night he was betrayed, just before he was arrested, that they would weep and lament when he was taken away from them. After watching Jesus being arrested, put on trial, and crucified, and after some of them had actually betrayed him, the disciples did not go back to their homes and have a festive dinner. The disciples surely fasted after seeing their Lord crucified.
Yet, we also wonder if Jesus was also talking about our time now: the time after Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. In some way, he was indeed taken away from his disciples. Is Jesus saying that when he ascends into heaven it will be appropriate for us again to be fasting?
This is probably not the case. It is true that Jesus is absent from us in a sense here and now. He has ascended into heaven. He is no longer before our eyes. We are not in his physical presence. We look forward to the day when that will be true. But is Jesus truly absent from us? The Gospel of Matthew actually indicates that when Jesus ascends to heaven, he is not ultimately going to be absent from us; rather, in the most fundamental sense he will be with us.
Jesus is with us even now.
In Matthew 18 Jesus talks about the church and its coming worship, saying that where two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be among them (Matt. 18:20). This is a promise that we cling to right at this moment. Jesus is with us, since we have gathered in his name. The book of Matthew also ends with the great commission in chapter 28 when Jesus tells his disciples to go into all the world, baptizing, making disciples. Jesus says, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This is the last promise that Jesus leaves us with in the Gospel of Matthew: “I will be with you. I will never cease to be with you.” In John 16, right after Jesus tells his disciples that they will grieve when he is taken away from them in the crucifixion, he goes on to say that no one will take their joy from them.
And no one will be able to take your joy from you, child of God. The ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a cause for grieving but rather a cause for rejoicing, because our Lord's ascension represents his victory over sin and death. It represents the fact that someone in our own flesh and blood has entered into the new creation and is there to intercede for us—there to pour out his Spirit upon us. He is there to guarantee our future resurrection, for we are already the people of God.
We should be careful about mixing the old with the new.
Now that Christ has come and has appeared among us—and especially now that he has completed his work of redemption—the occasion for fasting fades before us in light of our identity as a people who rejoice; for we are Christ’s bride, being redeemed by him and having a place at his everlasting wedding banquet.
These last days are not to be days of mourning but days of joy in our triumphant Lord Jesus Christ. In verses 16 and 17, Jesus gives two analogies to make this point: 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; and you shouldn’t put new wine into old wine skins, since the wine skin will burst, ruining both the wine and the wine skin itself.
Jesus’ basic point seems rather simple: You need to be careful about mixing the old and the new. Fasting belongs to the old ways. We are called to live in the light of Jesus’ coming. We are living not under the old covenant but under the new covenant. We cannot just take the old practices and try to incorporate them into the new and think they will mix and match without any conflict. Fasting, Jesus says, belongs to the old ways, and we do not want to go back to the old ways.
Believers are no longer guests at a wedding—they are the bride of Christ.
Jesus has now been exalted and sits at the right hand of the Father. In verse 15 Jesus used the analogy of a wedding and implied that his disciples were like wedding guests. But Jesus has been exalted, and the New Testament communicates that we are more than just guests at a wedding—we are something much better. We are actually the bride. We are the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of Romans 7, Paul explains important truths about our Christian identity through the analogy of marriage. Paul explains that if a woman in ordinary life attaches herself to another man while married, she’s an adulteress. But if her husband dies and she marries another man, she's not an adulteress. She has acted properly. Paul uses this analogy to tell us that we also have died to the law.
Christians have died to the law that held them captive.
We have died to the law which pronounced judgment upon us, a law that held us under a curse, a law that announced God's wrath upon sin. We have been delivered from the law, and Paul states that we have died to the law so that we might be married to another. We are no longer married to a law that condemns. We are married to the Lord Jesus Christ, our husband who loved us and gave himself for us.
Paul goes on to state in Romans 7 why this has happened—so that we might bear fruit for God, not old covenant fruit but new covenant fruit that reflects the fact that Christ has finished his work and is exalted and that the heavenly wedding banquet has already begun. In several places the New Testament describes the age to come in terms of a wedding banquet where the celebration will never end, to which we have been invited, and where Jesus will sit as the host. Already we have our seats guaranteed at that wedding banquet. Ephesians 5 tells us Christ has given himself up for us as his bride to make us pure and spotless. Already the Spirit is poured out upon us.
You might think of the Holy Spirit as being like a wedding ring. He seals your marriage to Christ and guarantees all the blessings that come through that wonderful marriage already. Already we have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in the Lord's Supper in which we begin to have that experience of the banquet that we will enjoy fully in the future. From all of this we conclude that now is the time not for grief but for joy. As Christians, we do not ordinarily fast.
Christians do not ordinarily fast for spiritual reasons.
Now you may want to fast as a form of protest, because you want the park to be open an hour longer at night, and that's fine. If you want to fast because you think it will help you lose weight, that's fine as well. But Christians do not ordinarily fast for spiritual reasons, because joy is what stands at the heart of the Christian life. The fruits of the Spirit are not love, grief, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; rather, the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
Even so, there may be extraordinary times in the life of the church when fasting is appropriate. In the book of Acts, the church fasted at a time when they were sending off missionaries to service, as well as a time when they were appointing elders in the church (Acts 13). There may be occasions when brief periods of fasting are appropriate.
There are many things that tempt us not to be joyful.
We recognize that there is much in the Christian life we experience as believers that may tempt us to think that grief and lamentation are more appropriate. Already in the Gospel of Matthew, before chapter 9, Jesus has warned those who would be his followers that they may have no place to lay their heads if they follow him. They may have to give up their homes. He has already called Matthew away from his job. You may have to give up your work to be a follower of Jesus. Like the rich young man (Matt. 19:16-22), you may have to give up your material possessions.
In the Sermon on the Mount a few chapters earlier, Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn, who are hungry and thirsty, and who are persecuted” (Matt. 5:1-11). Jesus will explain later in Matthew that we have to suffer—we must take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him. Thus, there are many things that tempt us not to be joyful.
The Christian life is characterized by joy.
Yet, it is not only a joy that we have despite the sufferings we may experience but also a joy we have in the sufferings we experience. As Paul states in Romans 5,
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:2-5)
Even in the midst of the sufferings and the self-denial and the persecutions to which we are subject as the people of God, the Lord calls us to rejoice and be characterized by joy. We can rejoice even in our sufferings, knowing that God uses our sufferings to shape us and to make us all the more into the sort of people who can and will enjoy him and rejoice in him forever and ever.
Let your life be characterized as an ongoing feast before the Lord. Because you have been redeemed, you can rejoice in the place you have at the Lord’s table and look forward eagerly to the time when you will see Christ face-to-face. Praise God that, even until that day, our Lord is with us now and fills us with joy by his Holy Spirit.
This article is adapted from a sermon given by Dr. VanDrunen at Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church on September 24, 2017.
David VanDrunen is an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. He has authored many books and articles on a variety of theological, ethical, and legal topics, including Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, and God's Glory Alone—The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters.
Living in God's Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture by David VanDrunen