What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Pharisee”? It’s probably not a happy picture. We usually think of them as solemn, joyless, stern, and, well, perhaps a little grumpy.
Theoretically, the professed doctrinal statement of the Pharisees had much that should have produced hope and joy. After all, they believed the Old Testament to be God’s word and so they anticipated the eventual coming of God’s Messiah. Therefore, they believed that Israel had a glorious future. Further, they believed in a future resurrection and so, even in difficult times, they should have had great joy. Their faith should have been manifested, at least occasionally, with some feasting. But to the contrary, the practice of their doctrinal statement was anything but joyful. In fact, their relationship with God was characterised by solemn fasting. This is clear in the scene before us. And it has much to teach us. Namely, there is a place for both feasting and fasting in the Christian life. But both are to share the same controlling element: faith.
A Revealing Question
Our text opens with a revealing question: “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?’” (v. 18).
What Do You Expect?
Expectations. We all have them. We have expectations of our schooling, our friendships, our marriage, our children, our financial situation, our retirement, our job, our neighbourhood, our holiday, our health, our athletic pursuits, our favourite sports team, and even our religion.
In all of these, sometimes our expectations are fulfilled and sometimes they are exceeded. But, sometimes, our expectations come up short; sometimes we are disappointed. So, it was with many in Palestine when the Lord Jesus Christ came on the scene. What people—religious people—prepared for was not what they experienced. Sometimes Jesus confused them, sometimes he even disappointed them. When they wanted fasting, he gave them feasting; when they wanted feasting, he gave them fasting. When you think about it, not much has changed since then. For many, Jesus still disappoints, or at least, he still confuses. Hence this question.
The religious practices of the disciples of Jesus were strikingly different than those of the Pharisees, and apparently they were also different from those of John’s disciples. Their religion was marked by fasting, while that of Jesus was characterised by feasting. And this was troubling to them.
These observers were offended by joy. They seem to have been bothered by festive fellowship. Happiness played little role in their religion—just like a lot of Christians.
In the previous passages, Jesus was criticised, first, for his claim to forgive sins and, second, because of the people whom he forgave. This was the veiled criticism behind their outward critique of Jesus’ feasting with such deplorables, namely, “tax collectors and sinners.” They apparently were still criticising. Jesus and his disciples were being criticised for celebrating. In the eyes of the Pharisees, and in the eyes of those influenced by the Pharisees, Jesus and his followers should have been grieving, not glad.
Understanding the Times
Fasting was a large part of the religious culture in first-century Judaism.
You may remember that there was one time of the year when God’s people under the old covenant were commanded to fast: on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29–34). This was the only specific time of the year when they were commanded by God to fast.
The word translated “afflict” in Leviticus 16 with reference to fasting is significant. Fasting is associated with mourning, difficulty, trials and even repentance. One does not associate fasting with having a good time. Many times in Scripture, a person is portrayed as having lost their appetite due to a heavy burden, and often in association with a burden concerning sin or a consequence of sin. David, in 2 Samuel 12, fasted when he was burdened about the sickness of his newborn child. Esther’s friends fasted as she went to King Ahasuerus to plead for the lives of her people. Ezra fasted and called for fasts as people mourned sin (Ezra 9:1–5; 10:6). Nehemiah did the same because of his burden about the state and the sin of God’s people (1:1–4; 9:1–2). The Ninevites fasted as they called upon the name of the Lord for deliverance (Jonah 3:6–10). God, through Joel, called his people to fast over their sin (2:12–13).
God’s people fasted frequently during the Exile. Apparently, at this time, they adopted the practice of fasting in mournful anticipation of the New Age, that is, the Messianic Age (Zechariah 7:5; 8:19). They anticipated arrival of Messiah and the new wine of the new era of God’s promised reign (2 Samuel 7). This is even more significant in the light of the scene before us. It helps us to see the folly of this question.
During this period, the Pharisees began the tradition of fasting twice each week: Mondays and Thursdays (see Luke 18:12). Fasting became an important, and even a defining, practice in first-century Israel.
You will recall that Jesus gave instruction in the Sermon on the Mount that, when his people fasted, they were not to look the part! They were to be bright, even cheerful (Matthew 6:16–18). This implies that fasting was a practice that was not normally associated with great joy.
When you consider the circumstances faced by first century Israel, there was plenty to fast about. They were under the rule of Gentile Rome. An Edomite—Herod—was their local king. They were oppressed. They were a long way from the kingdom God promised to David. The people were as sheep without a shepherd. They were waiting for their King, but where was he? No, this was no time for feasting, it was the time for fasting.
Why then were the disciples of Jesus doing so much eating and drinking in the middle of all this crisis? As R. T. France helpfully explains, “The Jesus movement was characterized by celebration rather then solemnity, and it was this which some observers found hard to accept…. The Jesus movement is not taking its religious observances seriously enough.”
A Curious Question
Luke (5:33) seems to indicate that the Pharisees asked this question. Whoever asked it, the question was perhaps sincere, or perhaps it was contentious. Regardless, they were curious. John’s disciples were probably confused. After all, John was, at that very moment, imprisoned by Herod, and his future didn’t look hopeful (1:14). They were deeply disturbed by this and the last thing they could think of was feasting. How insensitive to celebrate at such a difficult time! They may have even deemed their behaviour disrespectful.
A Contentious Question
It is highly likely that Pharisees in the crowd were not looking for an answer but for a reason to convict Jesus of heterodoxy. The Pharisees were adept at sniffing out any deviation from what they considered to be God’s normative tradition. Like the previous scenes, I believe these Pharisees were looking for a fight. But also, as in previous scenes, they would be put in their place. Things were definitely heating up. Fundamentally, this question, at least on the part of the Pharisees, revealed that “their noncompliance with the party [i.e. feasting] … attests to their nonacceptance of his [Jesus’] person” (Edwards).
The question seems to contain a hint of disgust, even envy. After all, here they were, denying themselves, while those following Jesus were living it up! It was neither fair nor fitting. It did not fit with their circumstances and it certainly did not fit with their religious tradition.
A Conscientious Question?
Again, such fasting was not prescribed by God. It was not wrong for them to do so, but it was wrong for them to bind people’s conscience to do so.
Fasting was, and is, a good and healthy practice. A regular practice of fasting can be a good tradition for the Christian. But when it takes on a life of its own, it may become an obstacle rather than a help. It seems that, in the case of the Pharisees and those whom they influenced (such as John’s disciples), it had become an obstacle. Mindless, heartless traditionalism had robbed a tradition of its helpfulness.
We need to beware of traditionalism. We need to beware of a critical spirit towards that which is different, towards that which we do not understand. We need to beware of an unhealthy scepticism, which rejects anything that does not line up with the way we have always done it.
Jaroslav Pelikanhas put it well: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name!”
We should sense the freedom to ask questions about that which is different than our tradition, yet we should ask with a willingness to listen. In fact, this has been the history of our congregation, to great benefit. As Paul warned, “Do not despise prophecies.” Rather, listen to it. Embrace what is truth and reject what is not (1 Thessalonians 5:19–22)
A Revealing Answer
Jesus’ response reveals who he is, at least to those with eyes to see. His answer, as in previous episodes (2:1ff), is in the form of a question.
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. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
Jesus answered the question with another question. In doing so, he turned their question back on themselves. Jesus asked, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?”
Jewish culture, at least in biblical days, celebrated a wedding for a full seven days. Though the Pharisees had prescribed a fast twice a week, they made an exception for guests during a wedding. They realised that it was inappropriate to fast during a wedding, and so wedding guests were exempt from the fasts during a wedding week.
The wedding motif fits with Jesus’ person and work. Just as God was Israel’s husband (Isaiah 54:4–8; 62:5; Ezekiel 16:7; Hosea), so Jesus was making the claim that he is the husband of the new Israel of God. As Witherington points out, this serves as a claim “that Jesus now fulfills for Israel, or at least for his own disciples, the role previously predicated of God.”
This is a very significant and revealing question, which serves as a declaration of his identity and of their responsibility. He was essentially asking them, “In light of who I am, why are you fasting, while we are feasting Yes, there is a time for fasting, but what you have been fasting for has come to pass. Join in the feast!”
You see, the reason for the difference between Jesus’ followers and John’s and the Pharisees’ had everything to do with their attitude toward Jesus’ person.
Gladness with the Groom
By his response, Jesus was making it clear that those who were focusing on fasting had no appreciation of who he was. After all, as Lane comments, “An expression of sorrow is inappropriate to the new situation which has come with Jesus’ presence.”
Sadly, it seems that many in Israel were unaware that the answer to their waiting was standing right before them. Hence, when they should have been feasting, they were still fasting.
The fasting that perhaps arose over John’s imprisonment was a cause of the feasting that arose over Jesus’ arrival (1:14–16). That is, the mourning over John’s loss was erroneously overshadowing the gain of Jesus.
The purpose of mourning is to lead to feasting. Tim Keller writes,
When we looked to the Bible to understand this deep pattern [of suffering], we came to see that the great theme of the Bible itself is how God brings fullness of joy not just despite but through suffering, just as Jesus saved us not in spite of but because of what he endured on the cross. And so there is a peculiar, rich, and poignant joy that seems to come to us only through and in suffering…. Things put into the furnace properly can be shaped, refined, purified, and even beautified. This is a remarkable view of suffering, that if faced and endured with faith, it can in the end only make us better, stronger, and more filled with greatness and joy. Suffering, then, actually can use evil against itself. It can thwart the destructive purposes of evil and bring light and life out of darkness and death.
Jesus’ response is essentially the same as his response in the previous scene. Just as only those who know their need will seek him, the Great Physician, out, so only those who recognise Jesus as God’s Groom, will join the party. In this situation, those with faith will feast while those without faith will continue to fast.
Is this what is behind a flippant attitude towards gathering on Sunday? Do we see nothing to celebrate?
Of course, fasting would become a practice in the church. Jesus alludes to this in v. 20 and we have positive references to fasting in Matthew 6:17–18; Acts 13:2–3; 14:23; and 1 Corinthians 7:5. In those texts, fasting is viewed in conjunction with faith in Christ. But in this context, feasting, not fasting, was the appropriate response because the latter was an expression of unbelief. It was tantamount to a denial of the presence of God’s promised King. It was a statement of disbelief that God’s Groom hades come. Further, especially in the light of who was involved in asking the question, it was a denial that Jesus is greater than John (see John 3:25–30).
Fasting is fine. It can be good—but only if it is fuelled by faith. And what is the evidence of that? The fruit of feasting.
A Call to Celebrate
As you read these opening chapters in Mark, it becomes clear that there was much to celebrate. The good news was being proclaimed because the time had been fulfilled (1:14–15), destinies were being changed (1:16–20), those harassed by demons were being delivered (1:21–28, 32–34), people were being healed (1:29–32, 34), those shut out from society were being renewed and restored (1:40–45), a paralysed man had been completely healed (2:1–12), sins were being forgiven, and sinners were being transformed (2:13–17). Again, God’s word—his gospel—was being proclaimed (1:38–39; 2:2, 13). Yes, there was plenty to celebrate!
In this context, feasting was appropriate and fasting inappropriate. Feasting, in this context, was a profession of faith, whereas fasting was a denial of faith.
Clearly, those around Jesus and the disciples detected a note of celebration and joy. This set them apart. Feasting apparently played a big role in their lives.
Are we known for such celebration? Erma Bombeck tells the story of a little girl in church who kept turning around and grinning at her. After a few minutes, the girl’s mother rebuked her: “Quit grinning—you’re in church!” Bombeck continues, “Many people attend church as if they are attending the reading of a rich aunt’s will who leaves everything to her pet hamster!” At issue is whether we are focusing on the Groom and our privilege to be his bride.
There are lessons to learn here. We must celebrate the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must do so by the feast of Communion (1 Corinthians 5:6–8; 10:14–22). Our lives should be characterised more by feasting than by fasting. Don’t miss the point of good traditions—to get us to Christ.
Celebration and the Cross
There is here a veiled reference to the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. He speaks of a time when the Groom will be “taken away.” This seems to be an allusion to Isaiah 53:8, which speaks of Messiah being “cut off” from the land of the living, and to Daniel 9:24–27 where Messiah is “cut off” in the middle of the “week.” Jesus here predicted that a time of sorrow would come, in which fasting would again be appropriate.
We who live on this side of Mark 16 understand that the Groom would undergo a terrible betrayal and beating and an unimaginable spiritual battle on the cross. The disciples would be driven to despair, bordering on unbelief. But Jesus would appear, because risen from the dead. And one of the last things he would do would be to feast again with them. Feasting and fasting and fasting and feasting is the pattern of the Christian life!
Both feasting and fasting are legitimate parts of the Christian life. The Christian life includes both feasting and fasting. Enjoy the former and be prepared for the latter.
A Revolutionary Principle
In the two parables that the Lord gives, we see a revolutionary principle.
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. 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.
Some commentators are of the view that these two parables were redacted and put here by Mark and therefore were not a part of the original dialogue. Their argument is that they don’t seem to fit the context, particularly concerning the wedding motif. In other words, it looks like mixed metaphors. I don’t know about all of that, but the theme of change clearly fits the context.
Jesus had just confronted them with what should have been a heart-revealing question and now he followed this up with an explanation of change. He was contrasting the old traditions (and, in some sense, the old covenant) with new traditions (because of the new covenant).
Contrary to some, Jesus was not contrasting law and grace (we will explore this further in the next scene); rather, he was contrasting the disposition of the old dispensation, with the disposition of the new dispensation. Further, Jesus was intimating the change not only of dispensation and disposition but also a change in the demonstration or form of the new era. Still further, we see a change in distribution of its benefits.
Out With the Old, in With the New
In keeping perhaps with the wedding metaphor, think of wedding garments. In preparation for the big day, the garments are being tailored. Perhaps an old dress needs to be repaired. The suggestion is made to patch it with new cloth. But the suggestion is rejected because everyone knows that the new patch will make the hole in the old dress even worse. So, the bride either chooses to keep the old or to discard it for the new.
As the wedding feast is prepared, the stock of wine is inspected. More is needed. They dutifully stomp out the juice from the grapes, and now they need to put it in goat-skins for storage and fermentation. They dare not use old skins, for these have been stretched to their limit. The new wine will expand the old skins to the breaking point, and both the container and the contents will be destroyed. Better to keep the old wineskins for what it can do, and the new for what it can do. The result is good stewardship of both the old and of the new.
What does this have to do with feasting and fasting? What does it have to do with the new covenant? And what does all of this have to do with Jesus? What does it have to do with you and me? A whole lot, in fact.
The Times, They Are a Changin’
The new cloth and the new wine clearly speak of a whole new situation, a new dispensation, and a new disposition. They speak of the new era that Jesus, as King and Saviour, has inaugurated. It is freshly new, which means that, though not discontinuous with the old covenant, it is radically different.
Under the old covenant, the world was waiting for fulfilment of God’s promised kingdom, but with the coming of the King, the waiting was over. The solemn and anticipatory fasting had given way to the joyful and celebratory feasting. The King had come; let the celebration begin!
The gospel of the kingdom is this new wine and, as such, it requires a new container—new dispensation, new disposition, but also a new demonstration and a new distribution of its benefits. That is, it is the same grace, but a new structure is suited to it.
Let me illustrate by the context of fasting. Again, Jesus was not saying that his disciples should not fast. He was not even saying that his disciples must never develop a tradition of fasting. He made this clear when he cautioned against bursting the old wineskins. Both must be preserved (Matthew 9:17). Jesus cares about the old wineskins and he cares about the old garment!
Michael Cassidy has written a book titled Bursting the Wineskins. It is, in many ways, a book with a fine motive, but he misses the point when he calls upon the church to change its methodologies by referencing Mark 2:22. He writes, “The new wine being created by the work of the Spirit within old wineskins must be poured out and released, thereby allowing God to bring fresh wineskins into being. But first, the old wineskins must burst. Only this way will a thirsty world be able to drink.”
At the risk of sounding polemical, that is exactly what Jesus was not saying! What Jesus was saying is that, respecting the old forms, we must at the same time recognise that the gospel of the grace of God has brought into the world something so differently new that a new or fresh container is necessary for its proper stewardship.
In the immediate context, his disciples must fast, but from the cross, not to the cross. Leviticus 16, which records the only commanded fast in the old covenant, is in the context of the Day of Atonement, which clearly pointed to Calvary.
At the same time, Jesus was also revealing that the old is important. A part of our stewardship responsibility is to respect the old container. In fact, we are to model our new wineskin on the old one.
The new container is different, and yet a lot like the old. Theologians call this “discontinuity” and “continuity.” We can call it faithful stewardship.
New But Not Novel
Jesus was not exhorting his disciples to be novel. Not everything that is traditional necessarily needs to be discarded. The test is this: Will the tradition result in poor stewardship of the gospel? The content is more important than the container. However, the container may be essential for the health of the contents.
We can note several applications outside the immediate context of fasting.
Jonathan Gibson has written a book on liturgy, and how ancient liturgies speak to the church in our age. He argues that the faith (substance) remains the same but its form (structures) will change with the times. If we ignore the lessons from the old wineskins, our new wineskins will be less than they could be.
We might apply the same principle to the Scriptures we use. While we can learn much from older translations, there is no need to be beholden to one particular translation. The KJV is a good translation, but it is not the only translation that English-speaking Christians should read. The KJV itself respected the older Tyndale translation, and many modern translations honour the legacy of the KJV.
In corporate singing, while we want to honour the old wine skin of truth, fifteenth-century Gregorian chants are not normative for 21st-century churches.
Preaching must remain central in corporate worship, but it must be relevant in its application and even relevant in sense of attention spans of people. Puritan sermons of two hours in length will be like putting new wine in old bottles and preaching will bear the brunt of a bad reputation.
The church is the new Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). The gospel demands a new form when it comes to the people of God—such as multi-site rather than one temple in one city. The old covenant emphasised priesthood, the new covenant emphaises the priesthood of all believers. The new covenant highlights the cross, not an altar. The Lord’s day has fulfilled the Sabbath picture. In each case, the old must be honoured as we highlight the new, and the new must honour the structures of the old.
If we ignore the old wineskin of Israel under the old covenant, we will discard God’s law (see Romans 7). We will discard issues of justice and issues of community (how we treat one another), including issues of ethics, etc.
The Power of the New
This parable and its teaching is rich. And one of its most important lessons is that the gospel is extremely powerful in its effect. It can demolish. It can change things. The gospel discovered will have a powerful effect on our lives, our homes, our habits, our worship, our work, and our churches.
Church reformation is the story about new wineskins and new wardrobes. As the Reformers discovered, the gospel rediscovered will reform our worship: how we sing, how we approach the Bible, how we view and treat the church, and how we pray. It will reform how we approach all of life—our worldview.
The gospel is radical. It goes to the root of our problem: our sin against holy God. Jesus died in our place to bring us to God and he rose from the dead to secure that forever. God loves those who come to him by faith in his Son. Come to him today and either begin a life of feasting by faith, or renew a life of doing so.
Let the new wine of God’s accepting and renewing love of God intoxicate you that you might live with joy inexpressible and full of glory. Yes, you will still face times when fasting will be called for, but it will be a fasting that you know will end with a feast.