In the previous three essays in this series, we looked at various biblical models of empowered discipleship and at some of Jesus’ teachings about it. In this essay we will continue with Jesus’ teachings.
JESUS AS TEACHER: GALILEAN MINISTRY
Thanks to the Gospel of John, we have seen a bit of what Jesus was teaching during his early Judean ministry. Now he was ready to return to Galilee, where he would teach many more things. As I mentioned in the last essay, Jesus and the disciples had been in Galilee briefly before, for the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water to wine. But at that time Jesus didn’t launch a Galilean ministry (2:1-11). Instead he and the disciples returned to Jerusalem for the Passover (2:13).
Now Jesus was heading for Galilee again. John tells us that Jesus talked with a woman of Samaria and others from her city on the way (4:7-42). Indeed he stayed with them for two days. And then after Jesus arrived in Galilee, Matthew declares, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent. For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Thus Jesus began his Galilean ministry.
Jesus immediately renewed his call to the early disciples; and as we noted previously, they responded by giving up all to join him in the Galilean ministry (Matt. 14:18-22 and parallels). As Jesus and the disciples traveled throughout Galilee, Jesus healed people of all sorts of diseases; he cast demons out of many; and he taught about many things.
JESUS’ TEACHING ON FASTING
Now then, we are going to change our approach. To this point, we have been working through the Gospels chronologically, concentrating on discipleship. But now that we have reached the Galilean ministry, I am going to shift away from the chronological survey of the Gospels to a topical approach that extends beyond the Gospels. For the balance of this essay, we will look at the biblical teaching on fasting.
As you know fasting, as it normally is understood, consists of denying food to oneself. The primary purpose is self-discipline. By abstaining from food for one meal, a day, or a longer period of time, we take control of our bodily appetites. We demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control of our lives, not out appetites. By combining prayer with fasting, we remind ourselves with every hunger pang that God is our provider, and we are drawn back to our need of him both physically and spiritually. Moreover, the fasting helps us to focus on the matters about which we are praying.
Now some of you may be thinking, no, the hunger causes me to concentrate on it, rather than on my prayers. That may be true at times, especially before we gain some mastery of the discipline. But the Scripture is much too clear on the power of fasting to allow us to ignore it. Indeed I believe we ignore fasting at our peril. Let’s look at the biblical teaching.
Under the Old Covenant, fasting was required for Jews only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). But by Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had taken up the practice of fasting every Monday and Thursday. Their normal practice was to abstain from food through the day and break the fast in the evening. The Pharisees considered fasting to be a standard form of piety, and they expected all good Jews to do it.
In the Old Testament fasting was relatively frequent, and it had a variety of purposes. For example, Moses fasted during the 40 days he was on Mount Sinai getting the Ten Commandments (Exod. 34:28). Daniel fasted with his prayers when he meditated on Jeremiah’s prophecies and sought the Lord on behalf of Israel (Dan. 9:3). David fasted when he prayed for the healing of his dying son who had been born of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba (2 Sam.12:16). King Ahab fasted and prayed in true repentance after being confronted with his sinfulness by Elijah (1 King 21:27). All of Israel fasted and prayed during their war with the Benjamites, when they lost forty thousand troops in two days (Judg. 20:26). Jehoshaphat declared a national fast (2 Chron. 20:3) and prayed (2 Chron. 20:5-12) when Judah was threatened by a massive invasion. Queen Esther, when she had decided to approach the king on behalf of the Jews, asked Mordecai to get all of the Jews to fast with her and her maidens for three days in preparation (Esther 4:16). And the people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast and mourned in response to Jonah’s preaching (Jonah 3:5).
We can conclude from this survey that under the Old Covenant fasting normally was combined with prayer, and that it was practiced in relation to any and every kind of serious problem, whether personal or national.
Under the New Covenant the situation isn’t much different, although some commentators claim fasting is unimportant under the New Covenant. It is true that Jesus de-emphasized fasting while he was with the disciples (Mark 2:18-19); and we will look at that in a moment. But it is just as true that Jesus himself fasted (Matt. 4:1-2), that he taught that some demon possession situations require prayer and fasting to release the individual (Matt. 17:21), and that he encouraged the disciples to fast after he departed from them (Mark 2:20).
The practice of the New Testament Church certainly included fasting. For example, when the Holy Spirit called out Paul and Barnabas for missionary work, the church at Antioch commissioned them with the laying on of hands and sent them off only after fasting and prayer (Acts 13:3). And when Paul and Barnabas, during that first missionary journey, appointed elders in all of the new little Christian communities, they did so with prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23). Moreover Paul, twice in his second letter to the Corinthians, testified to his own personal practice of fasting (2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27).
It is obvious from all of this evidence that fasting was important not only to the Old Testament people, but to Jesus and the early Church. Jesus fasted and taught his disciples to fast. And the New Testament Church, like the Old Covenant community before it, fasted and prayed in a variety of circumstances. Moreover the Church continued the Jewish practice of fasting twice per week, though by the second century, the Christians were doing it on Wednesdays and Fridays rather than Mondays and Thursdays.
Now then, I mentioned earlier that in one passage Jesus de-emphasized fasting for his disciples during his stay on the earth. The passage is Mark 2:18-22 and parallels. At first glance one might think that Jesus was denying fasting. But a close reading proves that was not the case.
Let’s look at it. But first I want to mention the context. Immediately preceding this passage Jesus was being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. When Jesus heard about it, he said that he ate with sinners, because they were the ones who needed “a physician,” meaning that they were the ones needing spiritual help.
Then comes this passage that implies criticism for failing to fast according to Pharisaic rules. Mark 2:18 tells us that certain people came to Jesus and asked him why John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, but Jesus’ disciples were not. Jesus answered with the analogy of a wedding feast: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”
In an earlier essay, we noted that John the Baptist had used a wedding analogy when explaining his relationship to Jesus. He described himself as not the bridegroom, but as the best man. Now we see Jesus also using the wedding analogy, except Jesus is claiming he is the bridegroom. And no one in first-century Judaism fasted at a wedding. Indeed the entire wedding party feasted for a whole week. And that was Jesus’ point. His disciples would fast when he, the bridegroom, was no longer with them. But during the “wedding,” while the bridegroom was with them, they would feast, not fast.
But that isn’t the end of the passage. In verses 21-22 Jesus goes on to give the analogies of trying to patch clothing with an unshrunk piece of cloth, or putting new wine into old wineskins. Jesus was saying with these two additional analogies that the good news of the gospel, which is joyful like a wedding, couldn’t be contained within the Pharisees’ forms of religion. It won’t do to try to patch the old systems, or to put new content into them. The good news will simply tear or burst them.
So why didn’t Jesus’ disciples fast twice a week? It was because they were enjoying the wedding feast with the divine bridegroom. The Pharisees, who were locked into their twice a week fasting schedule, didn’t understand that there is a time to fast and a time to feast. As David McKenna says, they had lost their “sense of timing.” They were missing the feast, because they were committed to their schedule rather than to the messianic bridegroom. Thus Jesus was not denying fasting in this passage. He was de-emphasizing it for the period of time he was on the earth with his disciples. But he was in full agreement with the practice when it was needed.
In summary I believe that many of us need to take advantage of the power of fasting, especially when joined with prayer. I recognize that many of you may already be masters of the discipline of fasting and prayer. But if not, if you have not been fasting occasionally with your prayers, I invite you join in on the experiment. Try fasting for a meal, say a lunch. And use that time you would have spent eating in prayer.
If that goes well, then you might want to experiment with a daylong fast. And you may even wish to attempt a longer fast. But whatever you do, keep your focus on Jesus. Your relationship to him is the important thing. And the fasts should be seen as vehicles to a deeper relationship, to a purer heart, and to more powerful prayer.