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Dear Readers,

 It has been a couple of weeks longer than anticipated to make another post.  Both Tillie and I got sick on our trip to China, and it took a couple of weeks to recover.  In addition we made a trip to PA for Tillie’s dad’s ninety-first birthday.  But we are back on a more regular schedule now.  The following post is the last in the series on “Empowerred Discipleship.” 

 

            The last two essays in this series have focused on fasting and prayer.  In this essay we are going to study two of Jesus’ parables on prayer, the two that teach importunity or persistence in prayer.  The first is the parable of the “Friend at Midnight,” located in Luke 11:5-8.  The context for this parable is seen in verse one of the same chapter.  It says, “He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”  
 
            Jesus’ reply to the disciple’s request to teach them to pray was two-fold.  The first part of his response was to give them the so-called Lord’s Prayer.  We studied this prayer (as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount) in our last essay.  Luke records the prayer, which Jesus may have given on several occasions, in this different context.  The second part of Jesus’ reply was the parable of the “Friend at Midnight.” 
 
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread: for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’  And he answered from within, ‘Do not bother me: the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’  I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything, because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” 

 
            The point of this parable is fairly obvious.   Be persistent in prayer.  But it is important to realize two things as we ponder that truth.  First, it is crucial that we understand that the parable is not about God.  That is, Jesus was not saying that God is like the neighbor who didn’t want to help his friend.  On the contrary we know from many other scriptures that God is the opposite of that neighbor.  He always is ready to receive us and help us. 
 
            To put it another way, Jesus was not explaining why God doesn’t immediately answer our prayers the way we would like.  All too often we pray naively, thinking that prayer is a means of getting God to grant our desires.  We forget that prayer is a means of honoring and glorifying our heavenly Father, a means of communion with our creator, and a means of receiving spiritual nourishment.  As we saw in our study of the Lord’s Prayer in the last essay, even when we talk with God about our material, spiritual and moral needs, it is our relationship with him that is central, not what he can do for us.  And we must never forget that. 
 
            Thus the parable of the “Friend at Midnight” is not about the way God answers our prayers.  Rather it is about our reactions to situations where our prayers are not answered the way we would like.  We may not understand why God does not answer our prayers, as we would like, but we understand that God cares about us and about the situations we bring to him.  Therefore we can pray persistently in the confidence that our relationship with him will somehow bring us through. 
 
            The second thing we must realize as we ponder the parable of the “Friend at Midnight” is the context.  As Warren Wiersbe reminds us, it is significant that the parable is linked with the Lord’s Prayer.  Although the parable illustrates persistence in prayer, it is based on friendship, whereas our relationship with the One to whom we pray is one of father and child, not friendship.  Again I remind you, it is the relationship that is the key. 

 
            In the parable, the man finally gets what he needs from his friend, because of his persistence.  So how much more will persistence in our prayers to our heavenly Father bring blessings to us.  In the parable, the man with the need was merely a friend.  He was outside trying to get his friend to unlock his door and help him.  But we are children.  Therefore we are inside the family, which means that we are inside the house with a loving Father.  What a difference! 

 
            Our Father does answer our prayers, though not always as we ask or desire.  He answers, because he loves us.  But he always answers in ways that bring glory to his name.  That is why Jesus taught us to pray, “hallowed be your name.”  There is a sense in which we sully God’s name when we pray in ways that do not hallow or glorify his name. 

 
            Finally, persistence in prayer must not be thought of as a means of getting God to change his mind about something.  Again in the model prayer, as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are to be persistent in prayer not to get what we want, but to get what he wants.  We must learn to trust God as a child.  We must learn to trust his answers to our prayers whatever they may be. 

 
            The other, similar, parable that Jesus gave his disciples on persistence in prayer is called the “Persistent Widow.”  It is found in Luke 18:1-8. 
 
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.  He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’  For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’  And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

 
            The context for this parable is quite different from the first.  Jesus gave this parable about persistence in prayer in a context of teaching about his Second Coming (17:20-37).  Interestingly, Luke provides an application of the parable before he reports the parable.  It is “about their need to pray always and not lose heart” (v. 1). 
 
            In other words, be persistent in prayer.  We cannot give up (“lose heart”); we must keep praying; that is, we must maintain our relationship with God no matter what happens.  Of course that is very similar to the parable of the friend at midnight. 
 
            Once again, the parable is not about God.  God is a righteous Judge.  And once again it is our relationship to God that is important, not getting particular “answers.”  We as God’s people are not like the widow.  She had no social standing, because women had no rights in that society.  As a widow she had no husband to look out for her interests.  And as a widow she would have been poor and unable to bribe someone to get her case heard.  To the contrary we are God’s children and have the privilege of access to the ultimate Judge. 
 
            In summary, if a widow can obtain justice by continually calling on an unrighteous judge, who fears neither God nor man, how much more should Christians be encouraged to persist in their cries to the Judge of all the earth (who also happens to be our heavenly Father), who always does what is right.
 
            Some have questioned the truth of the first part of verse eight.  God’s justice does not always seem to come quickly.  But they forget that God’s perspective of time is totally different from ours.  From God’s perspective his justice comes quickly.  And what seems like delays to us are part of God’s larger purposes.  So we are to be persistent in prayer.
 
            Returning now to the larger issue of persistent prayer, we still need to know why we are taught to be persistent in prayer when our legitimate prayers seem not to be answered.  There are at least three reasons why we need to be persistent in prayer when our prayers are not answered.  First, the answer to a particular prayer may be delayed by conflict in the spiritual realm.  In Daniel 10:12-13, we are told there that Satan (symbolized by “the prince of the kingdom of Persia”) delayed for 21 days the angelic messenger of God who answered Daniel’s prayer.  In other words there is activity in the spiritual realm, which we cannot see, that affects what is happening in our world.  This is especially true when we enter the spirit world by means of prayer.  So events in the spiritual realm may hinder our prayers.
 
            Second, we may need to be persistent in prayer, because it is important for us to maintain close contact with God about the matter.  That is to say, it may be important for us to keep praying about a particular matter, even though the prayer cannot be answered the way we would prefer.  Why?  Because the persistence in prayer can keep us close to God; it can keep us comforted; it can keep our hearts soft; it can strengthen us, etc.
 
            And third, persistence in prayer may be needed, because other people with free will are involved in the situation about which we are praying.  As you know God generally does not violate the freedom he has given to his higher creatures.  When we pray for the conversion of a loved one, we may have to be persistent, because that person is stubborn and resists God successfully.  When we pray for someone’s healing from an addiction, we may have to be persistent, because the person refuses to give up certain lifestyle habits that keep him or her trapped in the addiction.  When we pray for peace in a given area of the world, we may have to be persistent, because many people there refuse to give up their hatred of others. 
 
            In conclusion, we are to be persistent in prayer.  Such persistence might be necessary because of unseen spiritual conflicts; it might be necessary because of our own personal spiritual needs; or it might be necessary because of the stubborn self-will of people involved with the situation for which we are praying.  Generally we will not know why we must keep praying, but we must. 
 

Dear Readers,

Tillie and I will be out of the country for the next three weeks.  We are going on a once in a lifetime tour of China, and I am quite excited about the opportunity.  I have posted a new essay today, but I will not be posting additional essays for about a month. 

Blessings,  Bob

            Our theme for this series of essays is Empowered Discipleship.  We began by studying several biblical models of discipleship: Zachariah, Simeon, Anna, John the Baptist and the earliest disciples of Jesus, as well as Jesus himself. 

 
            We learned that those people shared certain characteristics in common.  They were righteous before God, and obeyed his commandments.  They were faithful to the duty to which God called them.  They were expectant, forward-looking people, who had real faith in God.  They were persistent in their praying.  The Holy Spirit was upon them.  And in the cases of Anna and Jesus, fasting specifically was mentioned in connection with their prayers.

 
            In our previous essay, we surveyed biblical teachings about fasting and concluded that it is a powerful spiritual discipline that can help us to be a stronger soldier in the spiritual wars of our day.  And I challenged those of you who have not fasted with any regularity to experiment with fasting and prayer.  Now in this essay I want us to return to Jesus’ Galilean ministry and study some of his teachings on prayer in order to complete our study. 

 
Time does not allow us to study it all.  So I have selected a couple of key passages.  In this essay we will study Jesus’ teachings on prayer in his Sermon on the Mount.  And in the next essay we will study his two parables on persistence in prayer.

 
            Jesus began a new section of the Sermon at Matthew chapter six, verse one; and that is where we want to go.  Please turn to Matthew 6:1.  In chapter five Jesus had been teaching the disciples about a new interpretation of the law.  But at 6:1 he shifted to the subject of how the disciples should practice their piety.  He stated the general principle with which he was concerned in verse one: “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” 

 
            Next follows three verses on the subject of giving alms.  The gist of the teaching on alms was that we are not to parade our giving publicly so that other people will praise us for our generosity.  Then Jesus began to teach about prayer.

 
The teaching about prayer begins in a manner quite similar to that of alms.  “But when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.  I tell you the truth.  They have received their reward in full.  When you pray, go into your room.  Close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” 

 
This is a crucial element in the matter of prayer.  The principle is that the bulk of our prayer is to be private, before God, rather than public before men, because we are to seek God’s approval, rather than the approval of human beings.

 
            Many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had become hypocritical with their praying, because they did it primarily in public for the very self-serving purpose Jesus condemned.  They wanted people to notice how “spiritual” they were.  That certainly was an easy thing to do in Jesus’ day, because pious Jews all said ritual prayers at 9:00 a.m., noon, and 3:00 p.m.  And it was easy to arrange to be on a busy street corner at the time of prayer, and to do the prayers with great ostentation, so that every one would notice. 

 
            Stanley Jones, the great missionary to India, provides a couple of classic illustrations of this in Hindu culture.  He tells of observing an Indian holy man who would stand immovable all day, paying no attention to the things going on around him.  But he always chose a prominent corner on which to stand.  He tells of another holy man who sat on a bed of spikes and was contemptuous in his indifference to everyone around him.  But his bed of spikes was at a busy crossroads where multitudes surged—and saw!

 
            But Jesus taught that piety, including prayer, is primarily a private matter.  It is a matter between God and us, not between other humans and us.  Therefore as a general rule, it is to be practiced in secret, and we are to let God do the rewarding. 

 
            Now Jesus’ point was not that it is wrong to pray in public.  His point was that it is wrong to pray in public if we have not prayed in private.  If we pray only in public, our motive is hypocritical; and we are in big, spiritual trouble.

 
            Then in verses 7-8 Jesus gave some further instruction about prayer: “And when you pray do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  This is interesting.  It indicates that verbosity is not the key to a successful prayer life.  Jesus already had condemned hypocrisy in prayer, because hypocrisy diverts the glory from God.  Now he condemns verbosity in prayer, because verbosity depersonalizes it. 

 
            The extreme example of depersonalized prayer would be Buddhist prayer wheels.  Buddhists often write out their prayers and then attach them to a wheel of some sort that constantly turns, in the wind, or in a stream of water.  And they believe that their prayer is uttered every time the wheel turns.  Of course genuine Christian prayer is not like that.  It is not mechanical.  Christian prayer is relational.  It is an intelligent conversation with a real person. 

 
            Next, in verses 9-15, Jesus gave the disciples a model prayer, often called the “Lord’s Prayer.”  “Pray like this,” he said.  Since this was given as a model of how to pray, there is no teaching of Jesus that is more important.  I will not record the verses here, because you likely already know them by heart.  If not, you can look them up in a Bible. 

 
            For many of us, this prayer is best known as a ritual that is prayed by the entire congregation every Sunday.  I have said The Lord’s Prayer hundreds and hundreds of times that way.  And there is nothing wrong with that use of the prayer.  It provides a powerful corporate reminder of our relationship with our heavenly Father.

 
            But the truth is the Lord did not give this prayer to the Church for ritual use.  As we see here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave the prayer to the disciples as a model of how to pray.  In other words, what we have here is a pattern to follow that expresses the most important matters about which to pray. 

 
            As we look at the prayer, we note that it addresses God as “Father.”  And then it contains six petitions that neatly divide into two sections of three each.  The address, “Our Father,” is more significant than it looks on the surface.  To address God as “Father” is a common practice for us; but for the Jews of the first century, that was something they never did.  They thought of themselves as servants of God, not children of God.  They believed it was the nation, Israel, that was God’s child (Is. 63:16).  Thus the idea that God is a Father with whom we can have a personal relationship was a new concept that Jesus introduced.

 
            And the fact that the prayer begins “Our Father,” rather than “My Father” is significant.  This is a healthy reminder that we are part of God’s family, and that this is a family prayer.  Therefore we must not pray for anything that would harm another member of the family.

 
            Next, notice that the first three petitions concentrate on God and are characterized by the pronoun “your:” “hallowed be your name; your kingdom come; your will be done.”  This is extremely important.  Jesus said that our first concern in prayer is to treat God as holy, to reverence him as one apart, one who is different, one who is absolutely holy.

 
            Then we are to concern ourselves with God’s lordship, his rule, and his will.  In other words Christian prayer is to focus on God, to be God-centered.  We are to concern ourselves with what God wants to accomplish.  Thus true prayer, as opposed to self-centered prayer, gets us into the flow of what God wants to do on the earth.  Self-centered prayer seeks to get God into the flow of what we want to happen on the earth. 

 
            That is so important.  Let me repeat it.  There is God-centered prayer and self-centered prayer.  God-centered prayer seeks to get us into the flow of what God wants to accomplish, whereas self-centered prayer seeks to get God into the flow of what we want to accomplish.

 
            What are your prayers like?  Are you following Jesus’ model?  Are your prayers Godcentered, or self-centered?  Are they concerned with what God wants, or with what you want? 

 
            That point being made, Jesus did encourage prayer for our own needs.  In Jesus’ model prayer, the second set of three petitions turned to our needs, characterized by the pronoun “us.”  But notice the type of needs Jesus suggested.  “Give us … our daily bread; … forgive us our debts [in Luke’s version our sins], and … deliver us from the evil one.” 

 
            The first type of need Jesus suggested we should pray for is daily bread.  Thus our material needs are important.  But a couple of things should be noted.  Daily bread is hardly “the American dream” of a high salaried job, a beautiful home, and a luxury car.  Bread represents the necessities of life.  Bread is the daily staple we need for survival.  Thus we are to pray for our material necessities. 

 
            The second area for which Jesus suggests prayer is forgiveness, which represents our spiritual needs.  But the really important thing to notice here is that our forgiveness depends on our willingness to forgive: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  This was so important to Jesus; it is the one petition in the prayer that he chose to underline verbally.  In the two verses following the prayer Jesus said: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” 

 
            This is a scary truth, because I have heard many Christians freely admit that they hate someone.  As you know, Jesus taught that we are to love even our enemies.  To some people this seems impossible.  For example it seems impossible to those who have been mistreated by others in ways that are almost beyond comprehension: those who were abused physically or sexually as children, those who were suddenly and violently raped, and those who suffered through the Holocaust. 

 
            Forgiveness of people who have done such things to us is not possible in our own strength.  It is possible only by God’s grace.  But it is possible.  Indeed, Jesus says it is necessary for our own forgiveness.  However do not expect to have warm fuzzy feelings for these enemies.  Forgiveness is an act of the will.  The love of God will cleanse us of the pus of bitterness and hatred.  But that does not mean we will feel warm fuzzies. 

 
            Jesus not only suggested that we pray for our material and spiritual needs.  He also told us to pray for moral needs: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil [or the evil one].”  Each of us is tempted to sin by the evil one.  God never tempts us to sin.  But God does occasionally test people, as he tested Abraham.  In Genesis 22 God sent Abraham up Mount Moriah with a command to sacrifice Isaac as a test of Abraham’s faith and devotion.  Abraham passed that test.  And perhaps Jesus is suggesting here that we pray that we will be up to the test, should God decide to test us.  But one thing is certain.  Every temptation to sin from the evil one becomes a test of our faith; and we must pray for deliverance from any temptation we cannot handle. 

 
            To summarize, first, the bulk of our praying should be done in private, so that the Lord will be the one who rewards us rather than other people.  Second, we must not be hypocritical with our prayers by seeking reward from human beings, because it diverts glory from God.  Third, we must not be unduly verbose in our prayers, because it detracts from the conversational nature of proper prayer and depersonalizes the process.  Fourth, as we saw in the Lord’s model prayer, God and God’s desires are to be at the forefront of our prayers rather than our desires.  We are to hold up his name as holy, pray for his rule, and pray for his will to come to come to pass.  In other words we are to seek to get into the flow of what he is doing rather than try to get him into the flow of what we want to happen.  Finally, we are to pray for our material, spiritual, and moral needs; that is, for daily bread, for forgiveness, and for deliverance from evil. 

            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. 

            In the first two essays of this series we looked at five biblical models of discipleship: Zachariah, Simeon, Anna, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself.  And we deduced certain principles about Christian discipleship. 

 
            In this essay we will begin with the earliest disciples of Jesus.  But we quickly will move to Jesus’ teaching on the subject. 

 

JESUS’ EARLIEST DISCIPLES AS MODELS

 
            In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus appears to call his earliest disciples from their jobs suddenly and precipitously (Mt. 4:18-22, par.).  The way the Evangelists tell it, Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee; and he came across Peter, Andrew, and several others fishing, or working on their nets.  And Jesus said to them, while they were working, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (v. 19, italics added).  And they just dropped their nets and followed him. 

 
But the Synoptics aren’t telling the whole story.  All of these men, or at least most of them, had met Jesus earlier in Judea, before Jesus began his Galilean ministry.  That story is told in the Gospel of John, 1:35-51. 

 
In other words, before the call to discipleship reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke, these disciples already had met Jesus in Judea.  And after meeting him, they accompanied him to Cana in Galilee as chapter two of John tells us.  There the disciples witnessed Jesus’ first messianic miracle, which was the changing of water to wine at a marriage feast.  John calls it a “sign.”  That’s in 2:1-11.  And 2:11 says that the disciples, “believed in him.”  Therefore the later call to discipleship in Galilee was not the “cold turkey” experience it appears to be in the Synoptics. 

 
            The process we see in John is familiar to most of us, certainly to me.  I met Jesus before I truly believed in him and answered his call to discipleship.  That is, I became a Christian as a child; but it was a childish commitment, which I did not live up to.  But like those disciples of old, as an adult I saw a “sign” that led to my discipleship.  But in my case the “sign,” which led to a mature faith, was not a physical miracle, like the turning of water to wine.  My “miracle” was a personal, spiritual “miracle” of inner cleansing and change. 

 
It happened on Sunday evening, September 29th, 1963 at the Colonial Heights Methodist Church in Kingsport, TN.  That night, after the evening service, as the climax of a complex process that took place over a couple of years, I returned to the church under deep conviction.  I found the pastor, who was still there, and under his guidance gave my life completely to God at the chancel rail.  And in that moment the Lord worked a spiritual miracle in my life.  I never have been the same since that day.  Since then, like the disciples of old, I have wanted to be like Jesus.  And I have been willing to follow Jesus anywhere and do anything he asks. 

 
This is important.  It cannot be said too often.  Christian discipleship is not simply a matter of believing, or doing, the right things.  True discipleship is a relationship with Jesus that gives one a willingness to leave everything, and follow Jesus, no matter what it costs, no matter where it leads. 

 
JESUS AS TEACHER: EARLY JUDEAN MINISTRY
 
            Now then, we are ready to take up Jesus’ teachings on discipleship.  As we continue reading the early chapters of the Gospel of John, we begin to see what Jesus was teaching about discipleship during those early days of Judean ministry, when he first met Peter and the others.  Of course he had much more to say later.  But for now let’s look at John 3:1-21.  Once again I suggest you look up the passage in your Bible.  The passage contains the story of Jesus’ famous discussion with Nicodemus.

 
Jesus taught Nicodemus the most basic principle about discipleship in existence: “unless one is born anew [or again] he cannot see the kingdom of God” (verse 3).  He continues in verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

 
            This second birth, the birth of the Spirit, is the key to discipleship.  Indeed one cannot be a real disciple of Jesus without it.  To be a disciple of Jesus, one has to be in a real relationship with him.  And one enters into such a relationship by repentance and faith.  That is, when we believe with genuine repentance and faith that Jesus is the Son of God who came into the world to save us and give us eternal life, we are “born again” (verses 14-17).  In theology this experience is called regeneration. 

 
At the moment of regeneration, the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus, comes into our lives to dwell.  And we enter into a personal relationship with him.  That is a spiritual miracle.  And it is absolutely necessary to be a true disciple of Jesus.  The new birth marks the beginning of our spiritual journey with him.  It makes discipleship possible.  And it makes real prayer possible.

 
What I have just said needs fleshed out a bit in two ways.  First, some students of the Word seem to teach that being “born again” is the end of the spiritual quest.  But in truth, it is just the beginning.  Genuine conversion is not merely a recorded transaction, a record in heaven that says we will go to heaven instead of hell.  That happens!  It is a wonderful truth, but it is only part of the reality. 

 
When we are converted we not only are “born again” or regenerated.  At the same moment our sins are forgiven.  In theology that event is called justification.  We now stand before God’s bar of divine justice, not as guilty sinners, but as forgiven sinners.  Because our sins are forgiven and we are born again, we begin a love relationship with Jesus.  This relationship, like all others, needs maintenance.  Relationships are dynamic, not static.  They grow deeper and stronger, or they grow more shallow and weak. 

 
In theology the process of growing in the relationship with Christ, and becoming like him, is called sanctification.  Let’s think of an illustration from our every-day realm.  Imagine that a man and a woman marry.  Then after the honeymoon, the husband tells his new wife that he is returning to his mother, and that she was to go back to her mother.  What would happen to that marriage? 

 
Yes, it would be doomed.  They might be married.  But there would be no way to develop a good marital relationship.  Unless something changed, the marriage would fail.  My wife, Tillie, and I have been married for more than 50 years.  However, we did not begin our marriage under ideal conditions.  I wouldn’t recommend the way we did it to anyone.  She had just graduated from high school in Pennsylvania.  I had graduated the year before and was in the military, scheduled to go overseas.  We married just weeks before I shipped out.  Thus we began our marriage with very little experience of one another and a 15-month separation.  When I returned from overseas, the real beginning of our married life took place in faraway Texas, where I was stationed.  We were just kids, and we hardly knew one another. 

 
We made it, but only because we were too poor for Tillie to fly home.  More than once she threatened to take her next allotment check, and go home.  But when the allotment check came, the rent was due; and we couldn’t pay it without the money from her allotment.  Tillie had too strong a sense of responsibility to leave the rent unpaid, so she would stay.  And we managed to work out our relationship.

 
            What I am trying to say is, it takes time and effort to build a relationship.  And it is just as true in the spiritual realm as in the physical.  So the new birth is the beginning of a spiritual relationship with the Lord Jesus that we call discipleship.  And because it is a relationship, discipleship takes time and effort. 

 
            In addition, to be a disciple of Jesus is different from the classic idea of learning from a master in order to become a master.  It was fairly common in ancient times for people to become a disciple of a particular teacher, because they wanted to become a teacher.  But that is not part of being a disciple of Jesus.  Rather following Jesus as a disciple is a relationship wherein one unconditionally sacrifices one’s whole life to him (Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26f.) for the whole of one’s life (John 11:16). 

 
            That was the first matter I wanted to flesh out.  The second is that prayer is the primary way we maintain and develop our relationship to Christ.  There is no escaping it.  Prayer, sometimes accompanied by fasting, is the major means by which we develop our relationship with the Lord.  Therefore it is the primary means of pursuing discipleship.  I will take up that subject in the next essay.