A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer
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by John Piper
Description: This book invites readers to turn from the dulling effects of food and other appetites and to express through the biblical practice of fasting their desire for God.
eBook Publisher: Crossway Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [298 KB]
Reading time: 185-259 min.
New Fasting for
the New Wine
There's a little document called the Didache which was written near the end of the first century. In it there is a section on fasting. One verse goes like this: "Let not your fasts be with hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays." Now that seems strange. Why is changing the fast days such a big deal? I think the point of the early church was this: the Jewish custom was to celebrate its Sabbath on Saturday. That's what the Old Covenant called for. Now, to show that we have continuity and discontinuity from Judaism, we Christians will celebrate the Sabbath, but on a different day. We will celebrate on Sunday, the day the Lord rose from the dead and created a new people. In the same way the Jews did their fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, but we will do ours on different days. Why? Same reason: to show there is continuity and discontinuity. Yes, we embrace fasting; but, no, not just as we find it. There is something new about Christian fasting. We'll take it, but we'll change it. No, we don't mean that fasting on different days is what makes it Christian. That is only a pointer. But Christian fasting is new. That is for sure. How it is new is the point of this chapter.
[Footnote 1 : Didache, VIII, quoted from The Apostolic Fathers (Loeb Classical Library), translated by Kirsopp Lake (London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1970), p. 321.]
In this connection, the most important word on fasting in the Bible is Matthew 9:14-17. I know this is a sweeping claim for me to make. But I say it because these words of Jesus speak most directly and deeply to the central problem of fasting--namely, Is it a distinctively Christian thing to do? If so, how?
[Footnote 2: Richard Foster is almost willing to say this much, but not quite. Referring to Matthew 9:14-17, he says, "That is perhaps the most important statement in the New Testament on whether Christians should fast today." Richard Foster, The Celebration of Discipline (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1978), p. 46. The parallels to this passage are Mark 2:18 22 and Luke 5:33-39.]
It Is Not Obvious That Fasting Is Christian
This is a crucial question for at least four reasons. First of all, fasting, as a deliberate abstinence from food for religious, cultural, political, or health reasons, is "a practice found in all societies, cultures and centuries." Virtually every religion in the world practices fasting. And even non-religious people fast for political and health reasons. So why should Christians join this pagan parade of asceticism? Second, even if fasting was practiced extensively by God's people in the Old Testament, does not the arrival of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus make this practice obsolete? Can you put the new wine of the kingdom into the old wineskins of external form and ritual? Third, does not the finished triumph of Christ on the cross, and the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in the church mean that the victorious Christ is so powerfully among us that the dominant spirit of life should be celebration, not mortification? And besides these three objections, does not the triumph of fasting over the body's appetites lead to pride and self-reliance, which is even worse than gluttony?
[Footnote 3 : "Fasting," by Richard T. Foster, in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, eds. David J. Atkinson, David F. Field, Arthur Holmes, Oliver O'Donovan (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 376. ]
So it is not at all obvious that fasting is a distinctively Christian thing to do. If it is, we need to see how it relates to the Center. And the Center is the triumph of Christ in dying and rising and reigning over history for the salvation of his people and the glory of his Father.
Fasting Is a Universal Religious Practice
No one knows how or where fasting had its beginning. Wherever you go, there are customs and traditions of fasting. Most people are aware of the Jewish fasts including Yom Kippur, or the day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31), and the Muslim fasting during Ramadan and the severe fasting of the Hindu high caste of Brahmans. But the extent of the practice is worldwide. For example,
[Footnote 4 : "Probably no single cause can be alleged as the origin of the practice of fasting." "Fasting," by A. J. Maclean, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912), p. 759. ]
[Footnote 5: The Hebrew idiom in Leviticus, "humble (or afflict) the soul," was taken by the Jews as a call for fasting, and so this day became the central fast in Jewish history. Psalm 35:13 shows this connection between "afflicting the soul" and fasting: "I humbled (or afflicted) my soul with fasting." This is probably "the fast" that Luke referred to in Acts 27:9.]
[Footnote 6 : Eric N. Rogers has a chapter on how each of these religions fasts, Fasting, The Phenomenon of Self-denial (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc. Publishers, 1976), Part II, Chapters 4, 6, 7.]
the Andaman Islanders ... abstain from certain fruits, edible roots, etc. at certain seasons, because the god Puluga ... requires them, and would send a deluge if the taboo were broken.... Among the Koita of New Guinea a woman during pregnancy must not eat bandicoot, echidna, certain fish, and iguana; and the husband must observe the same food taboos.... Among the Yoruba, [at the death of a husband] widows and daughters are shut up and must refuse all food for at least 24 hours.... In British Columbia, the Stlatlumh (Lillooet) spent four days after the funeral feast in fasting, lamentations, and ceremonial ablutions.... Before slaying the eagle, a sacred bird, the professional eagle-killer among the Cherokees had to undergo a long vigil of prayer and fasting.... [Other] American Indian youth [often undergo prolonged austerities] in order that by means of a vision [they] may see the guardian spirit which will be [theirs] for the remainder of [their] life.... Among the tribes of New South Wales, boys at the bora ceremonies are kept for two days without food, and receive only a little water.
[Footnote 7: Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, pp. 760-761.]
Fasting Is a Political Weapon
In addition to worldwide religious fasting, there is also political or protest fasting. One of the most famous examples is Mahatma Gandhi, who lived from 1869 to 1948 and spent over thirty years crusading peacefully for the independence of India. His family and his Hindu culture fed his passion for fasting as a political weapon. His mother was a devout Hindu who went beyond the required duties of fasting each year and added several more rigorous fasts during the rainy season. Gandhi recalled,
She would take the hardest vows and keep them without flinching. Living on one meal a day during the Chaturmas was a habit with her. Not content with that she fasted every alternate day during one Chaturmas. During another Chaturmas, she vowed not to have food without seeing the sun. We children on those days would stand, staring at the sky, waiting to announce the appearance of the sun to our mother. Everyone knows that at the height of the rainy season the sun does not often condescend to show his face. And I remember days when, at his sudden appearance, we would rush and announce it to her. She would run out to see with her own eyes, but by that time the fugitive sun would be gone, thus depriving her of her meal. "That does not matter," she would say cheerfully, "God did not want me to eat today." And then she would return to her round of duties.
[Footnote 8 : Quoted in The Phenomenon of Self-denial, pp. 77-78.]
It's not surprising that Gandhi would make fasting an essential part of his political career. By the ancient laws of Manu, a creditor could only collect a debt owed him by shaming the debtor. He would sit, for example, before the debtor's house without eating day after day until the debtor was shamed into paying his debt. Eric Rogers observed that "this very Indian technique worked for Gandhi.... His fasting undoubtedly touched more hearts than anything else he did. Not just in India, but practically everywhere, men were haunted by the image of a frail little man cheerfully enduring privation for the sake of a principle."
[Footnote 9: Ibid., pp. 79-80.]
Fasting Is a Health Regimen
Then, besides religious and political fasting there is health fasting, with or without religious associations. A brief search on the World Wide Web under the topic "fasting" reveals hundreds of organizations and publications devoted to fasting for health. For example, one of the prominent locations is the Fasting Center International. The blurb on their Internet home page goes like this:
Feeling out of shape, self-conscious, low on energy, or downright unhealthy? Want to improve your physical health, while heightening your clarity of consciousness and your spirituality, as well? Scientific juice-fasting enables you to accomplish all of these goals, very quickly, without any interruption of your work, life, exercise or study routines. Fact is, you'll experience more energy than you now have, during and after your fast!
Glimpses like these, of worldwide religious, political, and health fasting, free us from the notion that fasting, in and of itself, is peculiarly Christian. It may, in fact, be emphatically antiChristian, as it was already in the New Testament, when forty men "bound themselves under a curse not to eat or drink" until they had killed the apostle Paul (Acts 23:21). And it may be distorted, even among Christians, not only into legalistic technique (as we will see), but also into a destructive bondage like anorexia nervosa. All of this raises the question why a Christian would put much stock in a ritual so widely used for non-Christian religious, political, and fitness purposes.
[Footnote 10 : The tragedy of this condition can be seen in the testimony of one young woman: "All I want is to become thinner and thinner, but I don't want to pay attention to it continuously, and I do not want to miss anything. It is this eternal tension between wanting to be thin and not to give up eating that is so exhausting. In all other points I am reasonable, but I know on this point I am crazy." Quoted in ibid., p. 135.]
Does Fasting Belong in the Kingdom of God?
Not only that, the prevalence of fasting in the Old Testament raises the question whether the practice has abiding validity for people who live on this side of the coming of the Messiah and the appearance of the kingdom of God. Jesus said, "If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20). And when the Pharisees asked about the coming of the kingdom, he said, "The kingdom of God is in your midst" (Luke 17:21). So there is a profound sense in which the long-awaited kingdom of God has already come in the life and ministry of Jesus.
This is the "mystery of the kingdom" that Jesus had in mind when he said to his disciples, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables" (Mark 4:11). This was a stunning new reality in the world. "The new truth, now given to men by revelation in the person and mission of Jesus, is that the Kingdom which is to come finally in apocalyptic power, as foreseen in Daniel, has in fact entered into the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within and among men."
[Footnote 11: George Ladd, The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), p. 225 (italics in the original).]
So the question is pressing: does fasting belong in the Church--the new kingdom-people that God is assembling from all the peoples of the world? Some think not. For example, in his book, Prayer and Fasting: A Study in the Devotional Life of the Early Church, Keith Main argues that the inbreaking of the kingdom of God in Jesus' ministry radically changes the importance of fasting. "Thus far," he says, "we have suggested that the joy and thanksgiving that marks the prayer life of the New Testament is a sign of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Fasting is no longer consistent with the joyous and thankful attitude that marks the fellowship."
[Footnote 12: Keith Main, Prayer and Fasting: A Study in the Devotional Life of the Early Church (New York: Carlton Press, Inc., 1971), p. 84 (italics added). ]
Does Paul Nullify Fasting?
Keith Main's viewpoint gains more credibility when we look at the rest of the New Testament outside the Gospels. Fasting is barely visible. Main presses his point:
[Footnote 13 : The references to fasting outside the Gospels are Acts 13:2-3; 14:23; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27. The references in the King James Version of 1 Corinthians 7:5 and Acts 10:30 are probably not in the oldest and best Greek manuscripts.]
[Fasting] ceases to be a crucial issue within the church ... Paul, following the lead of Jesus, deliberately diverted the disciples' attention away from fasting and any form of food asceticism and into prayer, service, and toil on behalf of the Kingdom. Missionary work served as a corrective and counterpoise not only to apocalyptic dreaming but also to the outworn and overworked custom of fasting.... A sense of Life Eternal is ever breaking in upon us. The believer marches to the sound of music from a different world! And it is exceedingly difficult to reconcile the Risen Christ with the fasting forms.
[Footnote 14: Prayer and Fasting: A Study in the Devotional Life of the Early Church, pp.54, 60-61.]
Does the scarcity of fasting in the New Testament epistles, and the joyful presence of the kingdom and the glorious ministry of the Spirit of Christ nullify the relevance of fasting in the Christian church? The urgency of this question is what makes Jesus' words on fasting in Matthew 9:14-17 so important--the most important in the Bible in my opinion.
The urgency is increased when we consider that in Paul's letters food is celebrated as something good, asceticism is treated as a weak weapon against fleshly indulgence, and practices of eating and drinking are regarded as nonessential, except as they express love and contentment in Christ.
The Goodness of Food
In 1 Timothy 4:1-5 Paul warns that in the end times "some will fall away from the faith ... and advocate abstaining from foods." He responds to this attitude toward food by saying, "God has created [food] to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer." So Paul is eager to warn against a kind of asceticism that exalts fasting in such a way that the goodness of God in the gift of food is overlooked or distorted. Even during the holy times of sharing the Lord's Supper, Paul did not discourage eating, but told the Corinthians to "eat at home, so that you may not come together for judgment" (1 Corinthians 11:34).
The Weakness of Asceticism
And when Paul pondered the value of harsh measures for the body, he cautioned the Colossians that such disciplines are of limited value and can stir up as much carnal pride as they subdue carnal appetite. He fears that the Colossians have drifted away from deep and simple faith in Christ toward external ritual as a means of sanctification: "Why do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!' (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?" (Colossians 2:20-22).
What's wrong with these "teachings of men" that call us not to "taste"? He answers, "These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence" (Colossians 2:23). This is a strong warning against any simplistic view of fasting that thinks it will automatically do a person spiritual good. It is not that simple. "Severe treatment of the body" may only feed a person's flesh with more self-reliance. C. S. Lewis saw this clearly and sounded the warning:
Fasting asserts the will against the appetite--the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride: involuntary hunger subjects appetites and will together to the Divine will, furnishing an occasion for submission and exposing us to the danger of rebellion. But the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will. Ascetic practices which, in themselves, strengthen the will, are only useful insofar as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God. They are necessary as a means; and as an end, they would be abominable, for in substituting will for appetite and there stopping, they would merely exchange the animal self for the diabolical self. It was therefore truly said that "only God can mortify."
[Footnote 15: C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1962), p. 112.]
The true mortification of our carnal nature is not a simple matter of denial and discipline. It is an internal, spiritual matter of finding more contentment in Christ than in food.
Eating and Not Eating Are Not Essential
Paul regards eating or not eating as a matter that is nonessential in itself, but which gains value as it expresses love and superior satisfaction in God. Therefore he tells the Roman church, "Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand.... Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.... He who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God" (Romans 14:3-6).
These words from Romans 14 are not addressed to a situation of fasting. The situation has to do with eating food that some in the church consider taboo because of its associations. But that does not change the principle. Eating and not eating--fasting and not fasting--can both be done "for the Lord" with "thanksgiving to God." Therefore, "let each be fully convinced in his own mind." And, as Paul says in Colossians 2:16, "Let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink." For "food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat" (1 Corinthians 8:8). For "all things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything" (1 Corinthians 6:12).
The Most Important Word on Fasting in the Bible
So the question demands our attention: Is fasting Christian? If so, how? This is what the words of Jesus in Matthew 9:14-17 ultimately address. That is why they are the most important words on fasting in the Bible. It's time to look at them.
The disciples of John came to [Jesus], saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out, and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved."
The disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus and ask why Jesus' disciples don't fast. So evidently Jesus' disciples were not fasting while he was with them. In fact, Jesus had set them an example that earned him the reputation of being anything but an ascetic. When he praised the ministry of John the Baptist he said to the crowds, "John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, 'He has a demon!' The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!'" (Luke 7:33-35). In other words, John practiced much fasting, and Jesus practiced little if any (apart from his initial forty-day fast).
Why Didn't Jesus' Disciples Fast?
Now the disciples of John have come to Jesus and want to know why this is. "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" Jesus answers with a word picture. He says, "The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?" With those words Jesus teaches us two things. One is that fasting was, by and large, associated with mourning in that day. It was an expression of brokenheartedness and desperation, usually over sin or over some danger or some deeply longed-for blessing. It was something you did when things were not going the way you wanted them to.
But that's not the situation with the disciples of Jesus. This is the second thing he teaches: the Messiah has come, and his coming is like the coming of a bridegroom to a wedding feast. This, he says, is just too good to mingle with fasting. Jesus was making a tremendous claim for himself here. In the Old Testament God had pictured himself as the husband of his people Israel. "As a young man marries a virgin, so your sons will marry you; and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you" (Isaiah 62:5). "'Then I [the Lord] passed by you [Israel] and saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness. I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine,' declares the Lord GOD" (Ezekiel 16:8). "I [the Lord] will betroth you [Israel] to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion, and I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness. Then you will know the LORD" (Hosea 2:19-20).
Now the Son of God, the Messiah, the long-hoped-for Prince and Ruler in Israel, has come, and he claims to be the Bridegroom--that is, the husband of his people--who will be the true Israel. John the Baptist had recognized this already. When his disciples asked him about who Jesus was, he said, "You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before Him.' He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. And so this joy of mine has been made full" (John 3:28-29).
John's partially-veiled claim is the kind Jesus made about his identity with God. If you had ears to hear, you could hear it. God, the one who betrothed Israel to himself in covenant love, has come.
This is so stunning and so glorious and so unexpected in this form that Jesus said, you simply cannot fast now in this situation. It is too happy and too spectacularly exhilarating. Fasting is for times of yearning and aching and longing. But the bridegroom of Israel is here. After a thousand years of dreaming and longing and hoping and waiting, he is here! The absence of fasting in the band of disciples was a witness to the presence of God in their midst.
When Will the Disciples Fast?
But then Jesus said, "The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." This is the key sentence: "Then they will fast." When is he referring to?
Some have suggested that he was referring only to the several days between his death and resurrection. In other words, the Bridegroom will be taken away from Good Friday through Easter Sunday morning. During those three days the disciples would fast. But then he would be with them again, and they would not fast any longer. Support for this view is found in John 16:22-23 where Jesus predicts his death and resurrection with these words: "You too now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you. And in that day you will ask Me no question. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you shall ask the Father for anything, He will give it to you in My name." In other words, after the resurrection, during the church age, there will be indestructible joy among Christ's disciples. Does this mean that fasting is excluded? Is Jesus only prophesying that his disciples would fast between Good Friday and Easter?
That is very unlikely for several reasons. One is that, for all its joy, the early church fasted on certain occasions (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27). Therefore the earliest Christians did not take Jesus' words to mean that fasting would be excluded after the resurrection.
What then does Jesus mean when he says, "The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast"? He means that after his death and resurrection he will return to his Father in heaven, and during that time the disciples will fast. Robert Gundry is right when he says, "The entirety of the church age constitutes 'the days' that 'will come when the bridegroom is taken away.'" In my judgment, the strongest reason for this view is that the only other place in Matthew where Jesus uses this term "bridegroom" is to refer to himself coming back at the end of the church age. In Matthew 25:1-13 Jesus pictures his second coming as the arrival of the bridegroom. "At midnight there was a shout, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him'" (verse 6). So Jesus clearly thinks of himself as a bridegroom who is gone not only for three days between Good Friday and Easter, but for all the time until the second coming. This is the time he has in mind when he says, "Then they will fast"--until the second coming.
[Footnote 16 : Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), p. 169.]
Arthur Wallis is justified in entitling the sixth chapter of his book, God's Chosen Fast, "The Time Is Now." Now is when Jesus says his disciples will fast. He is saying: Now while I am here in your midst as the bridegroom you cannot fast, but I am not going to remain with you. There will come a time when I return to my Father in heaven. And during that time you will fast. That time is now.
[Footnote 17 : Arthur Wallis, God's Chosen Fast (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1968), pp. 28-32.]
It is true that Jesus has given the Holy Spirit in his absence, and that the Holy Spirit is "the Spirit of Jesus" (Acts 16:7;2 Corinthians 3:17). So in a profound and wonderful sense Jesus is still with us. He said, speaking of the "Comforter," the Spirit, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you" (John 14:18). Nevertheless, there is a greater degree of intimacy that we will enjoy with Christ in heaven when this age is over. So in another sense Christ is not with us, but away from us. This is why Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:8 "We [would] prefer to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord," and in Philippians 1:23, "To depart and be with Christ ... is very much better." In other words, in this age there is an ache inside every Christian that Jesus is not here as fully and intimately and as powerfully and as gloriously as we want him to be. We hunger for so much more. That is why we fast.
Is Fasting the Old Wineskin That Has to Go?
But then Jesus says something very crucial in Matthew 9:16-17. He puts together two images, one about patched garments, and the other about worn-out wineskins. "But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out, and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved."
The patch of unshrunk cloth and the new wine represent the new reality that has come with Jesus--the Kingdom of God is here. The Bridegroom has come. The Messiah is in our midst. And that is not temporary. He is not here and then gone. The kingdom of God did not come in Jesus and then just vanish out of the world. Jesus died for our sins once for all. He rose from the dead once for all. The Spirit was sent into the world as the real presence of Jesus among us. The kingdom of God is the present reigning power of Christ in the world subduing hearts to the King and creating a people who believe him and serve him in faith and holiness. The Spirit of the bridegroom is gathering and purifying a bride for Christ. This is the gospel of Christ and "the mystery of the kingdom" that we referred to above. This is the new wine.
[Footnote 18 : See note 11.]
And Jesus says the old wineskins can't contain it. Something has to change. What is the old wineskin? In the context, we can't escape the connection with fasting. There is no break in Jesus' thought. Follow it from verse 15 to 16: "The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment.... "There is no break. And this is true in all three Gospels where this account is recorded. The old unshrunken patch of cloth and the old brittle wineskins relate directly to fasting as an old Jewish custom.
Fasting was inherited from the Old Testament and had been used as part of the Jewish system of relating to God. In Luke 18:11-12 we get a glimpse of this old practice as the Pharisee prays, "God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get." This traditional fasting is the old wineskin. And Jesus says that it cannot contain the new wine of the kingdom that he is bringing.
Now this presents us with a problem. In Matthew 9:15 Jesus says that we will fast when the Bridegroom is gone. And two verses later he says that the old fasting cannot contain the new wine of the kingdom. In other words, Jesus' disciples will fast; but the fasting they have known is not suitable for the new reality of his presence and the inbreaking kingdom of God.
New Wine Calls for New Fasting
What then shall we say? Are we to fast as Christians, or are we not? Is fasting Christian, or isn't it? I believe the answer is that the new wine of Christ's presence demands not no fasting, but new fasting. Years ago I wrote in the margin of my Greek Testament beside Matthew 9:17, "The new fasting is based on the mystery that the bridegroom has come, not just will come. The new wine of his presence calls for new fasting."
In other words, the yearning and longing and ache of the old fasting was not based on the glorious truth that the Messiah had come. The mourning over sin and the yearning for deliverance from danger and the longing for God that inspired the old fasting were not based on the great finished work of the Redeemer and the great revelation of his truth and grace in history. These things were all still in the future. But now the Bridegroom has come. And in coming he struck the decisive blow against sin and Satan and death.
What distinguishes Christianity from Judaism is that the longed-for kingdom of God is now present as well as future. The King has come. "The kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20). "The kingdom of God is in your midst" (Luke 17:21). It is true that the kingdom of God is not yet fully consummated. It is still to come in glorious fullness and power. At the Last Supper Jesus said, "I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:18). So it is plain that the kingdom of God is still a future reality yet to come, even though Jesus said that "the kingdom of God has come upon you" and "is in your midst" (which is why George Ladd's book is entitled The Presence of the Future ).
[Footnote 19: See note 11.]
This is the Center referred to earlier, which fasting has to relate to if it is going to be Christian. The Center is the decisive triumph of the Son of God, the Messiah, entering history and dying and rising from the dead and reigning over history for the salvation of his people and the glory of his Father. Christians are a people captured by a great hope that one day they will see and be enthralled by the fullness of the glory of God in Christ. But what is decisively Christian in this is that our hope is rooted in the past historical triumph of that very God over sin and death and hell by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is a vibrant hope for the consummation of history in the universal manifestation of the glory of God in Christ--a hope that is unshakably rooted in the past incarnation of Christ who offered himself once for all as a sacrifice for sin and sat down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:12). This is the new wine.
[Footnote 20 : I have tried to spell out this uniquely Christian dependence of the future grace of God on the past grace of God in The Purifying Power of Living by Faith in Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Press, 1995), chapters 7-9. ]
The great, central, decisive act of salvation for us today is past, not future. And on the basis of that past work of the Bridegroom, nothing can ever be the same again. The Lamb is slain. The blood is shed. The punishment of our sins is executed. Death is defeated. The Spirit is sent. The wine is new. And the old fasting mindset is simply not adequate.
The Newness of the New Fasting
What then is new about the new Christian fasting? What's new about Christian fasting is that it rests on all this finished work of the Bridegroom. It assumes that. It believes that. It enjoys that. The aching and yearning and longing for Christ and his power that drive us to fasting are not the expression of emptiness. Need, yes. Pain, yes. Hunger for God, yes. But not emptiness. The firstfruits of what we long for have already come. The downpayment of what we yearn for is already paid. The fullness that we are longing for and fasting for has appeared in history, and we have beheld his glory. It is not merely future. We do not fast out of emptiness. Christ is already in us the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). We have been "sealed ... with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given [now!] as a pledge of our inheritance" (Ephesians 1:13-14; see also 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5).
We have tasted the powers of the age to come, and our fasting is not because we are hungry for something we have not experienced, but because the new wine of Christ's presence is so real and so satisfying. We must have all that it is possible to have. The newness of our fasting is this: its intensity comes not because we have never tasted the wine of Christ's presence, but because we have tasted it so wonderfully by his Spirit, and cannot now be satisfied until the consummation of joy arrives. The new fasting, the Christian fasting, is a hunger for all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19), aroused by the aroma of Jesus' love and by the taste of God's goodness in the gospel of Christ (1 Peter 2:2-3).
The Fasting That Is Feasting
Another way to say it is that the new fasting is the fasting of faith. Faith stands on the finished work of Christ and, on that foundation, becomes the "assurance of things hoped for" (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is a spiritual feasting on Christ with a view to being so satisfied in him that the power of all other allurements is broken. This feasting begins by receiving the past grace of Christ's death and resurrection, and then embraces all that God promises to be for us in him. As long as we are finite and fallen, Christian faith will mean both delighting in the (past) incarnation and desiring the (future) consummation. It will be both contentment and dissatisfaction. And the dissatisfaction will grow directly out of the measure of contentment that we have known in Christ.
[Footnote 21 : This understanding of faith is developed and defended biblically in Future Grace, Chapters 14-16.]
Fasting Does Belong in the Kingdom of God
This understanding of Christian fasting answers all the concerns raised earlier by Keith Main. He said that "the prayer life of the New Testament is a sign of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Fasting is no longer consistent with the joyous and thankful attitude that marks the fellowship." We see now that this is an overstatement. Yes, the kingdom has broken in. Yes, there is a deep drinking even now on the end-time glory manifest in Christ and experienced by his Spirit. But, no, this is not so full and uninterrupted that aching and longing and desiring are completely overcome.
[Footnote 22: Prayer and Fasting: A Study in the Devotional Life of the Early Church, p. 83.]
Even Main himself backs off and admits this when he says,
It is true that the crisis and the tragedy are there as a stark reality. The Kingdom is not fully realized. Granted that the Bridegroom is present and now is not an appropriate time to mourn. Yet this is not entirely so, for we are still in the flesh and weak in faith.... Within this "bitter struggle" the believer, in his devotional life, might conceivably find occasion to fast. It would be only one among many of the ingredients that go to make up the life of the man in Christ.
[Footnote 23: Ibid., p. 84.]
That's right. The presence of the Bridegroom through his Spirit, in the triumph of forgiveness and fellowship, does not make fasting negligible, it makes it new.
Fasting as an Expression of Dissatisfied Contentment
As an act of faith, Christian fasting is an expression of dissatisfied contentment in the all-sufficiency of Christ. It is an expression of secure and happy longing for the all-satisfying fullness of Christ. Christian fasting does not tremble in the hope of earning anything from Christ. It looks away from itself to the final payment of Calvary for every blessing it will ever receive. Christian fasting is not self-wrought discipline that tries to deserve more from God. It is a hunger for God awakened by the taste of God freely given in the gospel.
Christian Fasting Affirms the Goodness of Food
This is why the warnings we raised earlier from Paul's letters are not really objections against Christian fasting, but only against its distortions. "God has created [food] to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer" (1 Timothy 4:3-5). Paul's praise for the goodness of food, and for the freedom that Christians have to enjoy it, is not a contradiction of Christian fasting. The Christian says yes to every good and perfect gift that comes down from the Father of lights (James 1:17).
Fasting is not a no to the goodness of food or the generosity of God in providing it. Rather, it is a way of saying, from time to time, that having more of the Giver surpasses having the gift. If a husband and wife resolve to give up sexual relations for a season to deal earnestly with a problem keeping them at odds, this is not a condemnation of sex but an exaltation of love. Food is good. But God is better. Normally we meet God in his good gifts and turn every enjoyment into worship with thanksgiving. But from time to time we need to test ourselves to see if we have begun to love his gifts in place of God.
Christian Fasting Is Not "Willpower Religion"
The great danger Paul saw in self-made and self-exalting fasting does not nullify the new Christian fasting. Paul warns that there is a fasting that is a "self-made religion and [a] self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, [but has] no value against fleshly indulgence" (Colossians 2:23). In other words, this fasting is a "willpower religion" that actually stirs up the spiritual pride of the flesh even while mastering its physical appetites.
[Footnote 24 : The rare Greek word behind this phrase (ethelothre-skia ) seems to connote the origin and maintenance of this "worship" or "religion" in the human will, rather than in the grace of God. It originates when one is not "holding fast to the head," namely, Christ, as the source of all things. ]
But this is the exact opposite of Christian fasting. Christian fasting moves from broken and contrite poverty of spirit to sweet satisfaction in the free mercy of Christ to ever greater desires and enjoyments of God's inexhaustible grace. Christian fasting does not bolster pride, because it rests with childlike contentment in the firmly accomplished justification of God in Christ, even while longing for all the fullness of God possible in this life. Christian fasting is the effect of what Christ has already done for us and in us. It is not our feat, but the Spirit's fruit. Recall that the last-mentioned fruit of the Spirit is "self-control" (Galatians 5:23).
[Footnote 25 : The word implies mainly sexual "continence." But its use in 1 Corinthians 9:25 shows that it has a broader meaning of discipline in all areas of life. "Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things." ]
All Eating Is Lawful, but Not All Is Helpful
What all this means for Paul's practice is that he was free to fast or not to fast. "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything" (1 Corinthians 6:12). The reason for this is that the act of fasting was not the essential thing. Doing it--or not doing it--for the glory of God was the essential thing: "He who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God" (Romans 14:6). Fasting gives glory to God when it is experienced as a gift from God aimed at knowing and enjoying more of God. God is glorified in us when we aim our behavior at being most satisfied in him. We may do this by grateful eating or by grateful fasting. His gifts leave a hunger for him beyond themselves, and fasting from his gifts puts that hunger to the test.
Should a Christian Buffet the Body?
It is misleading, without careful qualification, to say (as Keith Main does) that "Paul ... deliberately diverted the disciples' attention away from fasting and any form of food asceticism and into prayer, service, and toil on behalf of the kingdom." I agree with the positive second half of this statement, not the negative first half. I would say Paul did direct our attention toward fasting and numerous other kinds of self-denial--not as meritorious religious rituals, and not as an end in themselves, but as a weapon in the fight of faith. Twice, when Paul was listing his trials, he mentioned fasting. "I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often in fastings, in cold and exposure" (2 Corinthians 11:27; see also 6:5).
[Footnote 26 : Prayer and Fasting: A Study in the Devotional Life of the Early Church, p. 60. ]
[Footnote 27 : The NASB translates this "often without food," as though it referred to involuntary hunger. But the fact that just before this word Paul mentions "in hunger and thirst" would suggest that something other than ordinary hunger is in view. Moreover the word used here (ne-steiais ) is always used in the New Testament for religious fasting, and this is its regular meaning in the Greek Old Testament as well (about thirty times).]
This fits with what he said about how he handled the appetites of his body. "I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:26-27). I take this to mean that Paul regarded some ascetic discipline as a useful weapon in the fight of faith. Holding fast to Christ by faith is the key to not being "disqualified." This is plain, for example, from Colossians 1:23, "[Christ will present you holy and blameless to God] if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel." Persevering faith is the key to standing before God acceptable in the last day.
Paul says that one weapon in this ongoing fight of faith is the practice of "buffeting the body." He was not unaware that the desires of the body are deceitful as well as delightful. He said that the "old self" is "being corrupted in accordance with the desires of deceit" (Ephesians 4:22, author's translation). The nature of this deceit is to lure us subtly into living for the "fleeting pleasures" of body and mind, rather than the spiritual delights of knowing and serving God. These pleasures start as innocent delights in food and reading and resting and playing, but then become ends in themselves and choke off spiritual hunger for God. Paul buffets his body to put himself to the test. Does he hunger for God? Is his faith real? Or is he becoming the slave of comfort and bodily pleasures? You can hear the passion of his heart in 1 Corinthians 6:12, "I will not be mastered by anything!" This is not the pride of Stoic self-exaltation. It is the passionate resolve to resist anything that lures the heart away from an all-controlling satisfaction in God.
When I was preaching on fasting and prayer some years ago, a young man came up to me after one of the messages and told me a story that illustrates the kind of buffeting the body in prayer that fits a person for heaven. I had referred to the South Korean church as pacesetters in this regard. That moved the young man to talk to me after the service.
I grew up on the mission field in Korea. There is one experience emblazoned on my mind to show the sacrificial dedication to prayer and fasting in Korea. My father worked with a leper colony, and they had prayer meetings that met at four o'clock in the morning. I was a little boy, but my father took me with him, getting me up at about 3:30 A.M. to get there on time. He sat me down in the back where I could see out the door. And I'll never forget one man who had no legs, no crutches, and was using his hands and crabbing along the ground, dragging his body to pray at 4 A.M. I'll never forget that.
Rising early is a kind of fast. And coming to pray when it is hard to get there is another kind of fast. When we make such choices, we make war on the deceitfulness of our desires and declare the preciousness of prayer and the all-surpassing worth of God.
Is Fasting Christian?
Is fasting Christian? It is if it comes from confidence in Christ and is sustained by the power of Christ and aims at the glory of Christ. Over every Christian fast should be written the words, "I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:7-8). In fasting, as well as in all other privations, every loss is for the sake of "gaining Christ." But this does not mean that we seek to gain a Christ we do not have. Nor does it mean that our progress depends on ourselves. Four verses later Paul makes plain the dynamics of the entire Christian life--including fasting: "I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus."
This is the essence of Christian fasting: We ache and yearn--and fast--to know more and more of all that God is for us in Jesus. But only because he has already laid hold of us and is drawing us ever forward and upward into "all the fullness of God."
My prayer for the Christian church is that God might awaken in us a new hunger for himself--a new fasting. Not because we haven't tasted the new wine of Christ's presence, but because we have tasted it and long, with a deep and joyful aching of soul, to know more of his presence and power in our midst.