The fasting of the Pharisees and John’s disciples
Pp Mark 2:18-22, Luke 5:33-39
The bridegroom and weddings
Cloth and wineskins
In all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), this question asked of Jesus about fasting and His reply appear immediately after the incident of the call of Matthew and it seems right to conclude that the incident took place at the same time as the feast was taking place which the tax collector had laid out (Luke 5:29).
Indeed, the context of the feast gives added weight and implication to the question seeing as the concern of those who asked it was based upon what they saw to be taking place in Matthew’s house. However, Mtw 9:18 records that
‘While He was thus speaking to them...’
and the implication here is that the raising of the ruler’s daughter would not have taken place by drawing Jesus out from a feast unless the urgency of the request threw aside all pleasantries. In the two passages in Mark and Luke, the incident occurs as He returns from across the Sea of Galilee after delivering the demoniac and recorded in Matthew’s Gospel in 8:28-34. It may be, however, that Matthew has chosen the correct chronological positioning for the following incident as His phrase of 9:18 appears to be very specific - but, even then, it could also have been drawn from a series of notes that were linked to another narrative and the compiler of the Gospel could have left the text included which provided the link!
Whatever, there is most definitely a close thematic link between the two passages concerning Matthew’s feast and the question on fasting so that they most naturally warrant going together here.
The main thrust of the three parallel passages about feasting and fasting is the same, but there are two notable differences in the text which need to be dealt with (and a few minor ones which we will leave to one side such as Luke’s addition of the Baptist’s disciples as ‘praying’ and his breaking of the first answer to the question by noting that the words on wine were a parable).
Firstly, who was it who actually asked the question? Although there is no one answer from the three sources, there isn’t, in fact, any conflict in the narratives.
Mtw 9:14 tells us plainly that
‘...the disciples of John came to him, saying...’
which is the most specific of the three. Mark 2:18’s
‘...people came and said to him...’
is open to meaning just about anyone and the only real problem lies in Luke 5:33 where it says that
‘...they said to him...’
where the natural interpretation of ‘they’ would be seen in a reference to the previous questioners of Luke 5:30 where we read of the scribes and Pharisees. However, this seems unlikely because of the structure of the question in Luke which refers to ‘the disciples of the Pharisees’ rather than to ‘us’, a point which Matthew substantiates when he alone notes that the disciples of the Baptist asked the question and they do so by asking ‘Why do we...’ (Mtw 8:14).
It seems likely, then, that Luke’s ‘they said to him’ is supposed to be taken as an indeterminable group of people rather than to have to refer back to the scribes and Pharisees from the previous few verses. Besides, as we saw in Mtw 8:14, the natural way to take the phrase
‘...He saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever’
was to take the mother-in-law as belonging to Jesus. But recourse to Mark 1:30 showed us that, in that case, Matthew had just been too brief in his description and the ‘mother-in-law’ was actually Peter’s (even though a notable school teacher refused to accept its testimony!).
The Gospel writers were not always as precise as we would have liked them to be in their sentence construction but both Mark and Luke are here added to by Matthew. It would have been difficult for the Pharisees to have entered the house of Matthew the tax collector anyhow as noted on the previous web page because of the impartation of ceremonial uncleanness by association with the ‘unclean people’ gathered in the house. It’s more logical to assume - if the Pharisees were involved in asking the question - that the Baptist’s followers approached Jesus as He reclined at table and that the scribes and Pharisees stood a way off not risking any chance that they might be contaminated.
Therefore, although both Mark and Luke are unsure as to who it was who asked the question and so phrase their question accordingly, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel knows that it was, in fact, John the Baptist’s disciples who came to Jesus to ask him the question.
The other main difference in the three passages is Luke’s inclusion (5:39) of the phrase
‘And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says “The old is good”’
which appears to be a parabolic way of saying that the scribes and Pharisees, who tried to hold fast to the legal requirements of the Mosaic Law (or, perhaps, the reference is to the way they had expanded the Law into numerous explanations which were equally binding), were never likely to let go of that way of service to God for they found it pleasing to themselves.
As Lukgel notes
‘Just as one who is accustomed to drink old wine has no taste for new wine, so those who are accustomed to the old form of divine worship have no taste for the new form of religious life taught and inaugurated by Him’
‘A man drinking old wine does not want even to try the new...He is so content with the old that he does not consider the new for a moment’
Whether the taste of wine developed in the same way in first century Israel as it does today in glass bottles is impossible to say but, if it did, the well prepared red wines that are given sufficient time to develop once corked and left to lie, will develop richer flavours and smoothness that are more palatable than the fresh and sprightly new wines that some taster we heard once described as an ‘interesting little vinegar’!
But the truth here in Luke is not just applicable to the relationship between the old way of Pharisaism and the new way of Christ. New moves of God throughout history have left behind the adherents to the old move of God, and caused their adherents to begin to question the authenticity of the new experience. Although there are most definitely excesses in new moves (because men and women are part of them!), the comfort and security of the old way is often what prompts many to reject the new for what they already have.
And, before, the reader gets fed up with me repeating what I’ve said on so many former occasions and using greater space than I have here, let me move on...
The fasting of the Pharisees and John’s disciples
We have previously discussed the subject of Jewish fasting in my notes on Mtw 6:1-18 where I dealt with the more personal aspect of fasting in the society of Jesus’ day. I’ve also discussed Zechariah chapters 7 and 8 in the context of the types of fasts that were being observed in the prophet’s day which is also a point of reference. Here, I intend dealing with fasting slightly differently, even though there will necessarily be some overlap.
There is a likelihood that the disciples of John continued observing the fasts specified by the religious leaders of their day even though it’s impossible to be certain on this. What is more important, however, is to note that both groups of people fasted on occasions and that they both found it difficult to accept a new movement within Israel that relied not on fasting but which, it would have appeared, gave in to moral and spiritual laxity by its departure from the way of the ancients.
Edersheim points out that
‘...fasting and prayer, or else fasting and alms, or all the three, were always combined. Fasting represented the negative, prayer and alms the positive element, in the forgiveness of sins. Fasting, as self-punishment and mortification, would avert the anger of God and calamities’
Therefore, to the follower of YHWH who was serious about getting himself right with God and to walk righteously before Him, fasting was an integral part of a lifestyle that attempted not to please man but God. Also significant is the question which here comes from the disciples of John, for both prayer and almsgiving are absent from their query - an indication that, if not at the meal with Matthew and his fellow tax collectors, the question would have been inspired by events such as these in the ministry of Christ.
The Pharisees’ fasting ‘program’ was quite specific in its details and seems to have been laid down in writing in a document simply called the ‘Scroll of Fasting’ - its commands being binding to the point of Jews being forbidden to go about their normal daily life when it said to fast, and to forbid mourning when it commanded the Israelite to be happy (Taanith 2:8). In a footnote to this Mishnaic verse, Danby comments that the term ‘Scroll of Fasting’ referred to
‘...a list of notable days. A similar list is still extant, enumerating 35 days arranged in order of the months, telling briefly the event which marked the day and adding after each the words “it is forbidden to fast” or “it is forbidden to mourn”’
The religious Jew also had the opportunity to fast on both Mondays and Thursdays, these being the days on which it was generally agreed that Moses ascended up the mountain to receive the Law and descended back into the camp of Israel in the wilderness (hence the Pharisee’s confession in Luke 18:12 that he fasted ‘twice a week’). Edersheim notes that
‘...the self-introspection of Pharisaism led many to fast on these two days all the year round, just as in Temple-times not a few would offer [a] daily trespass offering for sins of which they were ignorant’
But these two weekly fasts were normally not obligatory upon the Pharisee but were customary to be observed (as Edersheim in ‘The Temple’)
‘...between the Paschal week and Pentecost and between the Feast of Tabernacles and that of the Dedication of the Temple’
These personal fasts were added to by the one divinely ordained fast of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29), the fast of Esther (in commemoration of the incident described in that book) and of at least the four fasts mentioned in Zechariah 8:18.
But, as ‘The Temple’ records
‘...when great national calamities had overtaken Israel, or great national wants arose, or great national sins were to be confessed, a day of public fasting and humiliation should be proclaimed’
so that the actual numbers of fasts which occurred throughout the year could have varied from one to the next and we can only now speak of a ‘minimum number’ of fasts that were obligatory.
Matmor makes a positive statement when he writes that
‘...whenever people felt that God should be approached in special humility for help in some time of trouble, they saw fasting as the appropriate way’
so that, the more spiritual amongst the religious saw fasting to be of use to their relationship with God rather than as some sort of obligation laid down upon them through the Rabbinical interpretation of the Law.
If the followers of the Baptist maintained these fasts, they would have brought themselves under quite a strict and legalistic regime in which they were more like Pharisees than followers of John - Mark 2:18 indicates that both John’s disciples and the Pharisees were, at that time, fasting which would indicate the possibility that the former continued to observe the listed fasts. Indeed, although this can’t be proved, it could indicate that Jesus had pulled radically away from mainstream Judaism to the point of it being doubted whether he was rejecting the foundational truths of the OT.
Perhaps some of the more devout followers of religion amongst the Baptist’s disciples were indeed following such a strict regime but, on the whole, fasting may have been something which they observed in the one they regarded as their teacher and so followed his example. The crowds had observed, along with the religious leaders (Mtw 11:18), that
‘... John came neither eating nor drinking...’
and it seems to be more likely that the two groups retained their distinctive individuality even though they both continued to use fasting as one of the disciplines in their relationship with God.
The question raised (Mtw 9:14) could be taken as being purely critical of Jesus and, in the minds of the Pharisees, this may have been the case. In the hearts and minds of John’s disciples, however, there would appear to have been a genuine inquisitiveness that needed an answer which would satisfy not just their curiosity but their concerns.
As Mathen comments
‘...their question, though perhaps not entirely free from a tinge of criticism, is probably rather an honest request for information than a veiled but bitter accusation’
What John’s disciples may have found incompatible with their teacher’s statement that Jesus was the One they had been waiting for (John 1:29-34) was the striking differences and contrasts between his way of living and that of Jesus, and it is this which they now address. In the mind of the Pharisee, however, the problem was not one of acceptance with a good response but of rejection regardless.
The two different religious movements, therefore, would need to be seen as asking the same question from differing motives (though Mtw 9:14 record for us only that the question came from John’s disciples. The answer, however, would have been interpreted in a different light by both religious groups).
The bridegroom and weddings
In answer to the question about fasting, Jesus asks another question to illustrate the situation in which the disciples now find themselves and, from here, goes on to speak of a time when days of fasting will be their experience.
We should probably not take the reference to part of the marriage ceremony as meaning any more than what Jesus intends it here to mean and the Jews may well have accepted it not as a proclamation that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah inaugurating the wedding feast of the new Kingdom but as a simple illustration to answer their own question.
Certainly, the theme of the marriage feast is used again in Matthew (22:1-14) but here it appears that the illustration is offered as little more than a cultural explanation.
Mattask’s assertion that
‘...Jesus condemns [fasting] except as an expression of real sorrow’
also appears to be missing the point. Jesus has already taught on fasting in Mtw 6:16-18 by teaching the disciples not that they had to be sorrowful in order for them to enter in to fasting but to teach them certain guidelines so that what they do is solely between themselves and God. Besides, it would be strange if, having known that fasting was only justifiable on grounds of mourning, the early Church entered into it to seek guidance from God when sorrow was far from their experience as it was in Acts 13:3 and 14:23). Rather, as will be seen below, the indication is that Jesus is speaking - for the first time in this Gospel - of His ultimate death and of the time when the disciples would be sorrowful through His absence.
We need to try and understand the phrase ‘children of the bride chamber’ that’s used here (where the RSV has simply ‘wedding guests’ by interpreting the phrase rather than literally translating it). We should note, firstly, that it’s not the same expression as was used in John 3:28-30 where John the Baptist refers to himself as ‘the friend of the bridegroom’ and to Jesus as the ‘bridegroom’, concluding with the statement that
‘He must increase, but I must decrease’
The ‘friends of the bridegroom’ (the plural is more correctly applied to weddings rather than the singular) are more rightly ‘grooms’ (in our present day definition), two of which would have been present at each Jewish wedding - though they were not, it appears, obligatory or the normal custom in the region of Galilee. Edersheim in ‘Sketches of Jewish Social Life’ comments that
‘In Judea, there were at every marriage two groomsmen or “friends of the bridegroom” - one for the bridegroom, the other for his bride. Before marriage, they acted as a kind of intermediaries between the couple; at the wedding they offered gifts, waited upon the bride and bridegroom and attended them to the bridal chamber being also, as it were, the guarantors of the bride’s virgin chastity’
Edersheim then goes on to speak of examples in NT Scripture where the function of the ‘friends of the bridegroom’ is outlined and applied to the relationship of men to Jesus and the Church (representing the Groom and the Bride) but we needn’t concern ourselves here with that teaching for Jesus is referring to something quite different.
It is worthy to note, as previously stated, that this cultural tradition took place predominantly in Judea not in Galilee (Edersheim’s statement which infers that it never took place in Galilee is a little too strong - Judeans who moved residency into Galilee may have continued to practice it). Therefore, in John 2:1-10, where the wedding of Cana is being recorded, the friends of the bridegroom are strikingly absent from the scene, who would have been responsible for running down to the local wine merchants to buy in a few more bottles when the wine gave out (to put it crudely).
So Jesus, the honoured guest it would appear, steps in to the role of ‘friend of the bridegroom’ and produces wine for the marriage festivities.
As noted above, the ‘wedding guests’ of the RSV is more rightly ‘sons or children of the bride chamber’ (where the AV is to be preferred). The RSV’s ‘wedding guests’, while quite accurate, also misses the point of the text and of how it relates to first century Judaism. But this phrase, as ‘wedding guests’ indicate, cannot possibly mean the two grooms who would have been present at a Judean wedding (and which, even if they had been mentioned, may not have meant too much to some of the Galileans who were close enough to hear His words - besides, the imagery would have been totally different).
Edersheim points out that
‘The expression “sons of the bride chamber”...which means all invited guests, has the more significance when we remember that the covenant-union between God and Israel was not only compared to a marriage, but the Tabernacle and Temple [were] designated as “the bridal chambers”’
While John the Baptist claimed for himself the role of the ‘friend of the bridegroom’, the ‘children of the bridechamber’ referred to everyone who was experiencing the joy of the Kingdom that was being demonstrated - not just the disciples who were singled out in the question. There is more significance here, though, than just seeing a reference to the guests invited to the wedding for, as Edersheim points out, ‘the bridal chambers’ (the place where the man and woman sealed the marriage through sexual intercourse) were regarded as being situated in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The ‘bridal chamber’ necessarily needed to be close to the marriage feast (which was sometimes held in the father of the groom’s house) if not in the same house where it was taking place. If the festivities of the new Kingdom were transpiring wherever and whenever such people were being brought back to God and where the sick were healed and the demon-possessed delivered, it implied a departure from the central understanding of Jewish religion from being a centralised worship of God in Jerusalem.
And, if that was so, there was a need to realise that the old order of the Mosaic Covenant was shortly to transpire - if, indeed, it was relevant to the relationship that God was currently inaugurating through Jesus even before the crucifixion.
The bridal chamber of Judaism, therefore, Jesus expanded to include everywhere.
We need to note here that certain commentators don’t follow the explanation of Edersheim at this point and Mathen, for example, equates ‘the sons of the bridal chamber’ with ‘the bridegroom’s attendants’, even speaking of there just being one ‘friend of the bridegroom’ present at most Jewish weddings. He also makes no distinction between the differences which took place in Galilee and Judea.
Matmor also quotes a source as defining the ‘sons of the bride chamber’ as representing
‘that group of the wedding guests who stood closest to the groom and played an essential part in the wedding ceremony’
but it’s difficult to see what function this special group performed. Certainly, there would have been those present who were ‘friends of the bride’, but there appears to be no distinct role-fulfilling group mentioned in the list of commentators I read on Jewish marriage of the first century - so this may be an incorrect statement.
The rejoicing of the wedding feast, however, is what’s in the mind of Jesus here and a few quotes are worth reading to bring across to us the festival-like atmosphere that such a feast was conducted in. Edersheim in his ‘Social Sketches of Jewish Social Life’ comments that
‘...the merriment at times became greater than the more strict Rabbis approved’
and Ungers that the wedding had
‘...every demonstration of gladness...the festivities were protracted for seven, or even fourteen, days...’
So, too, the testimony of Scripture bears witness where, in John 2:1-10, the freely-flowing wine was an integral part of the feast and, in Mtw 22:1-14, where the event is mentioned with an abundance of food. As Matfran points out
‘A wedding is a time of joy, not of asceticism’
and so, if the wedding feast is taking place wherever the Kingdom of God is being actively demonstrated, why could the disciples of John ever consider that fasting and mourning could take place? The miracles performed just didn’t fit in with the act of fasting, for fasting speaks of mourning - and how can one mourn when people’s lives are being set free?
Though the disciples of John might have reason for fasting since their teacher had been taken from them, the question shows that the continued fasting of the Pharisees demonstrated their refusal to accept the good things which were being done through Jesus as being the signs of the Kingdom of heaven on earth. Had they realised what Jesus was actually doing in Truth, they would have rejoiced along with those who were receiving healing, deliverance and who were having the Good News of acceptance preached to them.
Finally, there is an allusion here to the crucifixion which could go unnoticed - certainly, those present who heard Jesus’ words may have wondered at the terminology employed, but it would have been unlikely they would have made the association that Jesus was speaking about His own death. Mattask comments that
‘This is the first reference in the Gospel to Jesus’ consciousness that sooner or later He would suffer a violent death and that for a period...His disciples would be plunged into grief that would inevitably cause them to abstain from food’
This is definitely a too limited statement for it’s quite plain that fasting took place in the life of the Church after the ascension of Jesus (Acts 9:9, 13:3, 14:23) and the statement of Jesus is better understood to refer to the time from the crucifixion onwards though this incident was pivotal in turning unceasing rejoicing into more sobriety of mood.
The verb translated ‘taken away’ by the RSV is particularly significant and, according to Matfran, suggests a violent end. This is difficult to substantiate, though, and the most that can be said here is that the root word from which it comes is used of death in Acts 8:33.
But Matmor points out that Jesus speaks of Himself being ‘taken away’ which would indicate the crucifixion rather than of ‘going away’ which would speak of the ascension. In the natural marriage ceremony, the bridegroom would ‘go away’ with his bride to the bridal chamber to seal the marriage through sexual union, and the thought of him being ‘taken away’ would be incongruous with the festivities - probably more in-keeping with a shot gun wedding (‘You will marry my daughter!’).
Jesus also doesn’t speak of the unsuitability of fasting ‘while the festivities go on’ but while ‘the bridegroom is with them’, another reason to see a change in the attitude of the disciples from the moment of the crucifixion onwards.
It’s certainly true that Jesus, at a later time, spoke of the time immediately following the crucifixion in terms of sorrow and, therefore, possibly of fasting when He said to His disciples (John 16:20) that they would
‘...weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy’
so the application to this specific time is not incongruous with a more general statement that it must refer to the entire Church age. Although Matmor correctly states that
‘Jesus does not command them to fast; He simply prophesies that they will...’
the Didache (late first century) witnesses to the fact that fasting had already become a religious rite and that believers (Didache 8)
‘...should [fast] Wednesdays and Fridays’
Such a burden laid upon His followers was never Jesus’ intention through His statement. All He intended to say was that, while the Kingdom of heaven was being demonstrated through the things that He was doing, fasting was totally inappropriate for, if men and women truly associated themselves with what was taking place in the lives of the recipients, they would have to respond with joy, not fasting which demonstrated mourning.
Cloth and wineskins
From a brief answer concerning the joy of marriage (presumably paralleled with the fasting associated with the mourning of death), Jesus moves on to expand upon His answer by a reference to both the domestic repairing of garments and viticulture in Israel. Only Luke tells us (Luke 5:36) that what Jesus said should be considered as a ‘parable’ but we would hardly miss this - after all, most people knew the bare essentials about both patching garments and wine making and would necessarily have expected Jesus’ words to be referring to the situation just addressed.
Of course, this may not have been the case (as a reading of Mtw 13:10-17 would suggest), but to those who had ears to listen and who had set their minds to understand the things of the Kingdom, the relevancy of His words wouldn’t have gone misunderstood.
Firstly, Jesus turns His attention to the repair work on the old garment which is equally relevant today. An old garment has already shrunk or expanded all it’s going to by the time a repair becomes necessary to give it a little reprise from the garbage bin and what’s required to effect the patching is a piece of material that has similarly shrunk all it’s going to.
Therefore, my wife looks around for an old piece of denim whenever my jeans have become holey, and patches them up with this rather than with a new - and perhaps more durable - piece of new material. The reason is a simple one - once the jeans enter the washing machine (if they don’t jump in all by themselves), the old material simply grows damp and has its dirt removed, whereas the new material put on as a patch contracts and pulls at the threads which hold it in place, usually ripping away from the old material and causing a larger rip to be added.
Therefore, says Jesus, you can’t repair what is old by the application of what is new.
Then Jesus moves on to a similar parable in which He speaks of the storage of new wine - or newly pressed grapes - which mirrors His previous metaphor. As wine production is not fully understood, it will benefit us to discuss, for a moment, viticulture in first century Israel to give us some background here.
The commentators and archaeological works appear to differ in their treatment of wine production in first century Israel but their comments agree enough for us to be able to get a general idea of the process which turned grape juice into alcoholic wine - some of this wine, however, would have been of extremely low alcohol content and shouldn’t be thought of to be as inebriating as today’s bottle of plonk. Wine, in first century Israel, could be a mild product which could be used in the place of a safe supply of fresh water.
Once the grape juice had been collected from the wine presses (numerous of which have been discovered throughout Israel attesting to the almost universal importance of viticulture throughout the land), being run off by channels into a vat and allowed to settle over night, the wine was taken to a cellar for fermentation. Zondervan comments that there were often two ‘vats’ employed (though there have been excavated upto five - one wine press and four containment vats), the upper one (correctly referred to as the ‘wine press’) - being about twice the surface area of the lower but only half as deep - where the grapes were pressed after a few days of being laid out in the sun to increase their sugar content. It was into this lower vat that the juice ran and from which, the following day (Zondervan states that this drawing off took place after between four and seven days once the initial fermentation had taken place), it was removed into suitable containers before being taken into a cellar which, as AEHL notes
‘...might be a cave or a hewn cistern in which the correct temperature for the fermentation process could be maintained’
NIDBA alternatively mentions that
‘Fermenting began within a few hours after the pressing had begun, and subsequently the wine was stored either in new wineskins made from goats’ hides...or in large ceramic containers...’
AEHL only mentions the more sturdy of such vessels which were used and fails to speak of wineskins that were regularly employed in Palestine and which were of more use to the travelling inhabitant of the land than heavy and immovable clay jars would have been. Wineskins would be more practical for the transport of wine by individuals over distances where the weight of the ceramics used in the pot would have restricted the ease of journeying.
However, the same principal of expansion outlined in Jesus’ words in Matthew had to be provided for unless the clay jars were to shatter as the gases were to be formed during fermentation. Therefore, AEHL comments that, from archaeological excavations, it is evident that
‘The shoulder of the jar would be perforated, to permit the release of the gases that form during the fermentation process...Once the fermentation was completed, the hole made in the jar would be sealed and the origin and quality of the wine, plus the name of its owner, would be marked on the seal’
Once the wine was ready (anything from between two to four months after the initial pressing), it was drawn off into smaller jars or wineskins (according to Zondervan) after a straining which took place to eliminate any inadvertent grit or other foreign bodies (such as insects) which were present - how any wine could be considered to have been ‘kosher’ if it had been contaminated by insects is difficult o imagine and there may have been some preliminary sifting through for insects before pressing took place). Wine storage over long periods of time was possible once fermentation had completely concluded and it was generally contained in jars lined with pitch which were sealed and placed in wine cellars.
This type of wine, therefore, would be the ‘old wine’ referred to in Luke 5:39, but the ‘wineskins’ which Jesus is referring to are the containers employed once the grapes have been pressed and the juice collected for fermentation. It’s only flexible skins - that is, new skins - that will be able to withstand the expansion of the process which turns the sugars into alcohol, for old skins are already brittle and inelastic (one commentator notes that there still needed to be an ‘escape valve’ to let gases get away even with the containment in wineskins).
In both the parables concerning the repairing of the old garment and the production of new wine, the thought is of the appropriateness of the material used for the problem which is being confronted - in the former, the inability of what is new to patch the old and, in the latter, the inappropriateness of expecting the old to be able to allow the new free expansion.
As we attempt to interpret Jesus’ teaching in the light of His words regarding fasting previously spoken, we need to make sure that we don’t go too far in our application of His words to Judaism and see them, for instance, as commenting on the totality of the Old Covenant that Israel currently served under. Rather, His specific intention is to deal with what had been taken by the religious of His day (fasting) and apply it to each and every expression of God through their society.
It simply wasn’t true that fasting had to accompany every move of God as the Pharisees would seem to have insisted, because it was based upon sorrow or anguish of heart (note Matthew’s ‘mourn’ in 9:15) and that was not being demonstrated through the expression of God’s Kingdom through Christ at that time. This new move of God within Israel couldn’t, therefore, be contained by the strict old methods and ways (which, in the example given of fasting, was both Scriptural and Biblically justified) but neither was the coming of the new something which could fit into the old way to patch up its deficiencies.
The Kingdom of God’s expression on earth was so radical that the old methodology of religious experience had to be forsaken for that which the Spirit of God was doing through the lives of men and women who were beginning to taste the new. Again, the problem is not that fasting is against the purposes of God (for, as noted above, they will have recourse to do such things later after Jesus has ascended) but that fasting and things like it cannot be expected to be a part of each and every move of God - that is, there is a need for a freedom of expression as the Spirit of God moves and not an attempt to conform Him to preconceived ideas.
Matfran comments that
‘Jesus has brought something new, and the rituals and traditions of official Judaism cannot contain it’
and Mattask that
‘...it was becoming more and more certain that there was a fundamental incompatibility between the old Israel, paralysed by self-righteousness and overloaded with petty regulations, and the new Israel humbled by the consciousness of sin and turning in faith to Jesus the Messiah for forgiveness’
but the problem with their statements is that they have applied Jesus’ words about what is Scriptural but unjustified in the present case to those things which are more man-made such as the commands elsewhere labelled as the ‘tradition of the elders’ and now embodied in the Mishnah.
The point made by Jesus is not that their legalistic interpretations of Scripture are incorrect (which He will have recourse to oppose at a later date - Mtw 15:1-20) but that their insistence that the new move of God must be expressed in ways which actually deny what God is trying to do, cannot be assimilated into the new move. Therefore, Mathag is far more accurate to the intention of Jesus’ teaching here when he comments that
‘...the old wineskins are the established patterns of conduct regarded as exemplifying the righteousness of the Torah. The [new move of God] is too dynamic to be contained by the traditional framework of obedience’
Here also was a warning to John the Baptist’s disciples who had come to Him with their question (9:14) who had been told by him before his imprisonment that his ministry must decrease (John 3:30). Yet, even a long time after his death, his followers still continued to form into a specific group identifiable by their proclamation to those about them (Acts 19:1-7).
But there is equally a warning for us in the Church (which can be found in more detail on two of my previous web pages - ‘Sails’ and ‘A new battle needs a new strategy’).
Too often, Scriptural methodology and expression - just like ‘fasting’ here being commented on by Jesus - has been the stumbling block which has prevented the people who have experienced the previous move of God from moving on to experience what God has started to do afresh amongst His people.
If even fasting is spoken of here as being insufficient to contain the move of God and that the new move is incapable of being an added extra onto the old movings, how much more our man-instituted interpretations and expressions in our fellowships which pull against the free expression of the Holy Spirit?
There’s always a need for excess to be removed from a new move of God, but never for a restriction to be placed upon it’s expression as the Pharisees continually attempted to do throughout Jesus’ time on earth. The disciples of John, however, do seem to be genuinely concerned as to why the dichotomy in religious practice existed between themselves and Jesus’ disciples but, whether they ever came to terms with it, is not certain.
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