14Then Johnís disciples came and asked Him, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"
15Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. 16No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved."
In the last few sections of Matthewís Gospel, the author, in addition to recounting some of the miracles that Jesus performed, has recounted some instances of opposition to Jesusí ministry. In Matthew 8:34, the townspeople in the Gadarenes pleaded with Jesus to leave their region because some demons that Jesus exorcised caused a herd of pigs to jump off a cliff. In Matthew 9:3, some teachers of the law accused Jesus of blaspheming when He told a paralytic on a mat that his sins were forgiven. In Matthew 9:11, some Pharisees implied to His disciples that Jesus shouldnít be eating with "sinners". Here in this section, the opposition comes from an unlikely source: "Then Johnís disciples came and asked Him, ĎHow is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?í" (vs. 14). The opposition in this case is coming from the disciples of John the Baptist.
From the beginning of Jesusí ministry, John the Baptist acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. When asked who he was, John said: "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ĎMake straight the way for the Lordí" (John 1:23). When Jesus came to John to be baptized, John said: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" (Matt. 3:14). And when some of Johnís disciples pointed out that many of his followers were leaving him to follow Jesus, John told them: "He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30). "It was the design of Johnís ministry to bring men to believe on Jesus as coming, and to follow Him when He came; and he took great pains to prevent the people from regarding himself as the Messiah (see John 1:20; 3:28-30; Acts 19:4). Yet there were some who, failing to follow out their masterís teachings, felt jealous of the growing influence of Jesus (see John 3:26), and continued to hold exclusively to John" [Broadus, 201].
In the question that Johnís disciples posed, there was a clear implication that Jesusí disciples were being less godly by not fasting. Pious Jews of the time fasted twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays) [Morris, 223]. However, no such fasts are instituted in the Law of God. In fact, only one regular fast is instituted in the law, and that is the command to deny oneself on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29). Yes, fasting at certain times is proper: such as, times of despair when the will of God needs to be discerned. But according to Godís law, regular institutional fasts were not a part of worship. Godís law is perfect. What He instituted constitutes proper worship. When men add to Godís law, the cause of God is invariably harmed. In this case, Jesusí godly disciples were unjustly criticized as being ungodly. As a result, the teachings of Jesus were tainted in the minds of the hearers.
Jesus pointed out to Johnís disciples that there are proper and improper times to fast: "Jesus answered, ĎHow can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fastí" (vs. 15). "By this illustration our Lord teaches that fasting is not to be regarded or observed as an arbitrary institution, but as a thing having natural grounds, and to be practiced or not, according to the dictates of natural feeling as growing out of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. In some situations it is appropriate and may be made beneficial; in others, it is out of place" [Broadus, 202]. The times when Jesus was present with the disciples was a time of great joy, not a time of mourning. To be in the presence of the Lord! How could one consider fasting then? To hear His wonderful teachings! To witness His marvelous miracles! The problem with the Pharisees and Johnís disciples was that they didnít understand the religious ritual that they were observing. They were merely going through religious motions. If they truly understood fasting, and the purpose of fasting, they would have realized how improper it was to fast when the Messiah was in their presence. We must take care that we do not merely "go through the motions" in our religious observances. Do we pray because "we have to", or do we pray with the desire to communicate with God? Do we attend church on Sunday because "we have to", or do we attend church to worship our Risen Lord? Do we read the Bible because "we have to", or do we read it as the living Word of God, seeking to understand what He has to say to us?
By the way, note that Jesus alludes to His leaving this earth, "when the bridegroom will be taken from them." This is the first time recorded in the Gospels that Jesus alludes to His leaving this earth. At this point, of course, the disciples had no conception of all that would happen: Jesusí crucifixion, His resurrection, His ascension into heaven. And, after these things, the disciples themselves would face much persecution. Oh yes, Jesus was right: "The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast." The followers of Jesus did have many occasions to fast after He was "taken from them" (see, for example, Acts 9:9; Acts 13:3; Acts 14:23; Acts 27:9).
Jesus ended His answer to Johnís disciples with a couple of illustrations: "No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved" (vss. 16Ė17). These illustrations seem to have a wider application than this question of fasting. Both illustrations contrast the old with the new, showing that mixing old systems with new systems ruin both the old and the new: new, unshrunk cloth sewn on an old garment will tear the old garment, thus making the patch ineffective; new, unfermented wine, if poured into an old, hardened wineskin, will burst the skin as it ferments, thus ruining both the new wine and the old wineskin. "These illustrations show that the new situation introduced by Jesus could not simply be patched onto old Judaism or poured into the old wineskins of Judaism. New forms would have to accompany the kingdom Jesus was now inaugurating; to try to domesticate Him and incorporate Him into the matrix of established Jewish religion would only succeed in ruining both Judaism and Jesusí teaching" [Carson, 227].
Johnís disciples came to Jesus questioning the way that Jesusí disciples were practicing religion, as Jesusí disciples were not observing the same rituals that they were. Jesus, with these illustrations, was preparing Johnís disciples for even greater changes concerning the practice of religion after the Messiah versus before the Messiah. The old rituals would not be part of the new religion, for Jesus, by His death and resurrection, would do away with the need for the old rituals. Christianity would not be a "patch-up" of Judaism. It would be a new garment. To disregard this would bring harm to true worship. "While the principle here illustrated was introduced with regard to fasting, it is obviously of wider application, extending to everything in which the two dispensations characteristically differ; and the great mass of the Christian world, from an early period, has sadly exhibited the evil results of disregarding this principle. They would, notwithstanding this and numerous other warnings, connect Levitical rites with Christianity. The simple preacher and pastor must be regarded as a priest, and spiritual blessings must depend on his mediation, as if it were not true that all Christians are priests, and all alike have access through the one Mediator. The simple memento of the Saviourís death must be a sacrifice, offered by the priest for menís sins. Numerous religious festivals and stated fasts must be established and enjoined, tending to make religion a thing only of specials seasons. The buildings in which Christians meet to worship must be consecrated as being holy ground, like the temple, and splendid rites, in imitation of the temple worship, must lead menís minds away from the simple and sublime spirituality of that worship which the gospel teaches. With good motives, no doubt, on the part of many, was this jumble of Judaism and Christianity introduced, and with good motives do many retain it; but none the less is it the very kind of thing the Saviour here condemned; and with results as ruinous as he declared" [Broadus, 203].
Oh, Father, help us to focus not on rituals as we worship, but on our relationship with You, made possible through Your Son Jesus Christ. May our worship be true to the principles of worship that Jesus, our example, set forth. Be glorified in our lives. Guide us by Your Spirit, through the study of Your Word, that Your will may be done in our lives. In the name of Your glorious Son, we pray these things, Amen.