Posts Tagged ‘fasting’

The literary structure of Mark 2:18-22

We’re in the gospel of Mark, chapter 2:18-22. This is the third story in a sequence of five stories of conflict that we’ve been working our way through.

You have a handout – Five conflict stories on how these stories are put together. I would just quickly highlight three things. 1) You can see in the left and right hand columns how these five stories parallel each other in various ways. 2) Each story tells us something about who Jesus is (center column). And 3) the two parables at the very center reference all five stories, not just ours, the third.

Alright, let’s work our way through our verses for today.

Mark 2:18-22

We begin with some background.

18Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.”

The Law of Moses only requires one fast, a 24 hour fast on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:29). (Although later there were other fasts that began to be observed – Zechariah 8:19; Esther 9:31; Nehemiah 9:1).

In our story we’re dealing with voluntary fasts, that go beyond what is required. These were usually from sunrise to sunset. Voluntary fasting was one of three key practices in ancient Judaism, along with prayer and giving alms. And it was highly regarded as a mark of devotion to God.

In Scripture, fasting is connected to things like mourning a death, repenting for sins, or when you’re dealing with hard times and you’re desperate for God’s help. It’s self-denial – not eating – connected to humility, lowliness and sadness. (In Matthew 9:15 the word “fast” is replaced by “mourn,” the two ideas are so closely related. Also in Matthew 6:16 Jesus criticizes putting on a show of mourning when you fast.)

Fasting is also associated with prayer (Luke’s version of this story adds in prayer to the topic of fasting – 5:33). It’s a way of intensifying your prayers in order to make your feelings or your needs known to God; the urgency of the situation (Matthew 6:16-18).

  • Regarding John the Baptist, Jesus describes him as someone who came “eating no bread and drinking no wine” – Luke 7:33. That is, he was known for fasting and not drinking alcohol. His disciples must have followed suit.
  • The Pharisees were also known for fasting. They did this twice a week (Luke 18:12) on Mondays and Thursdays.

So both John’s disciples and the Pharisees maintained a lifestyle characterized by rigorous voluntary fasting.

This brings us to the question.

 18And people came and said to him (Jesus), ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’”

There were different religious groups among the Jews, and there is a comparison going on here. John’s group and the Pharisees seem really serious and devout. And so the question is “Are you guys slackers?” This question may well have been raised because, in the previous story Jesus and his disciples are feasting with tax collectors and sinners. And although the question is addressed to Jesus about his disciple’s behavior, it’s meant as a challenge to Jesus who is their teacher.

Jesus’ answer

19And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.’”

Now, Jesus and his disciples would have fasted from time to time, for instance on the Day of Atonement. And since Jesus gave them teaching on voluntary fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, it seems reasonable that they put this into practice on occasion. But they were not known for fasting. They did not maintain a rigorous lifestyle of fasting. This is the issue here.

Fasting, as we saw, would more likely be linked to funerals, where there is mourning and lowliness. But Jesus makes the case that his presence among the people is like a wedding. And weddings were all about celebrating and feasting – for seven whole days! Fasting would have been unheard of at such an event. As Jesus says, “they cannot fast” in such a setting.

So he’s making a claim about himself – Jesus is the bridegroom. The image of God as the husband of Israel was well known in the Old Testament (Isaiah 54:5-6; 61:10; Ezekiel 16; Hosea). But here Jesus has this role (See also Ephesians 5:22ff; Revelation 19:6-9; John 3:29) – and his disciples are his groomsmen or wedding guests.

His coming signals the enactment of the new covenant between God and his people – his bride, seen as a marriage renewal. His coming also signals the arrival of the promised kingdom of God which was also depicted with wedding imagery. (For the coming of the kingdom and wedding themes in the New Testament see Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13 and Revelation 19:7-9)

And so it’s a time of celebration. This is why Jesus was a “feaster,” not a faster. He maintained a lifestyle of celebration and joy, not mourning and sadness. As he says about himself in Luke 7:33, in contrast to John the Baptist, “the Son of man came eating and drinking.” And he celebrated so much that some slandered him as “a glutton and a drunkard.” And this is why he and his disciples were feasting in the previous story.

So Jesus is saying, the new has come! I’m here! The kingdom of God is here. And this has an impact on some traditional practices. The old has to change.

If these other Jewish groups had recognized Jesus’ claim, they too would have changed their practices from a lifestyle of fasting – to a lifestyle more associated with feasting. But they didn’t accept Jesus’ claim, and so they didn’t change their practices.

20The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”

If v. 19 emphasizes Jesus’ presence with them and what this means, v. 20 emphasizes when Jesus will be absent from them. The phrase “is taken away” is ominous. It’s a veiled reference to his death. (It’s likely an allusion to Isaiah 53:8) Jesus is saying that after his death, in those days, his disciples will fast. (Fasting and death/mourning/a funeral are once again connected.) (See John 16:19-20 for a similar idea)

So this new thing, a lifestyle of celebration, is a change of practice specifically related to Jesus’ presence on earth.

Next comes two parables about the new and the old. 

21No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.

22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins.”

These both make the same point, there’s an incompatibility between the new and the old.  In the first, the new is the unshrunk cloth. If you sew this onto an old garment, the patch will shrink and everything will be ruined.

In the second, the new is the new wine. If you put it into an old wineskin that has already been stretched out and is brittle, when the wine continues to ferment and expand, it will burst the wineskin and everything will be ruined. There’s an incompatibility.

Jesus draws out the positive point in the last line –

22But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”

The new of Jesus’ presence and the kingdom requires some new practices, not grafting the new onto the old (the patch) or putting the new into the old (wine). With Jesus’ coming – things get changed up!

Some things to take home

1. Jesus’ divine identity. As we have seen several times now, most recently when Jesus forgave a person’s sins, Jesus takes on the role of God. Or to say it another way, he is the Son of God.

In our text today he identifies himself as the bridegroom of God’s people, who of course, is God. This is who Jesus is. He is not just a prophet. He is not just the Messiah. He is not just a son of God – a powerful ruler or heavenly being. He is the Son of God. This is who our Savior is.

2. Do you fast? This is a challenge that this passage presents to us. Jesus specifically says that after his death, “they will fast in that day.” This is the time we live in now.

If you don’t already, I encourage you to try fasting as a way of engaging in intense prayer, lifting up your sorrows and problems to God. And God will hear you since he is especially attuned to the lowly.

Although, remember to do it according to Jesus’ teaching – so that we don’t advertise our fasting by playing the part of a mourner, as he teaches in Matthew 6:16-18.

3. Are you living in the new that Jesus teaches? As we saw, the change with regard to fasting was temporary, being specifically related to Jesus’ bodily presence with us.

But as I pointed out, the two parables on the new and the old, at the very center of the five stories of conflict, also point back to the first two stories and forward to the last two stories.

  • In the first two stories – with Jesus’ coming the kingdom brings in a time of mercy and forgiveness, so that Jesus now announces forgiveness and extends mercy even to notable sinners.
  • And in the second two stories – with Jesus’ coming the kingdom brings with it a new way of observing the Sabbath for Jesus’ Jewish followers, that emphasizes that it’s made to bless people, and doing good to others on the Sabbath is encouraged.

The coming of the kingdom changes our practices in these ways also. And if the fasting example is mostly temporary, these are long-term changes that clarify for us what God’s will is with regard to how we treat “sinners” and how we might observe Sabbath.


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(edited) How many of you would like your prayers to be more effective? When I say ‘prayer amplifier’ I mean something that will do precisely this; something that will make our prayers be heard on high.

I want us to look at two prayer amplifiers. And today, the topic is fasting.

Some basics on fasting

Fasting means refraining from all food for a time. Another way of talking about fasting is to say that someone is “eating no bread” (Luke 7:33) with bread standing for food. We call other things fasts today, but in the Bible it means no food.

The Day of Atonement fast is the only one required in the Law of Moses. This was an annual, national fast (Leviticus 16:29). Although a fast could be called in any time of crisis (Joel 2:12-13).

There are a number of examples of individual, voluntary fasts in Scripture. And in later Judaism this kind of fasting became quite prominent. In Jesus’ day many fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays (Luke 18:12).

Should we fast?

We don’t talk much about fasting anymore. But the answer to our question is certainly yes, with regard to individual, voluntary fasting.

You can see this first of all in Jesus’ teaching. Matthew 9:14-15 – “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.’”

Jesus is saying, since he is present with them, they are to be joyful and celebrate – like at a wedding. And in Judaism wedding guests were released from ordinary religious duties.

But after he is taken away, that is, after he is killed, “then they (his disciples) will fast.” And this refers to us as well. In the time that we live in, Jesus says, we will fast.

And then in Matthew 6:16 Jesus said, “And when you fast . . .” and then he goes on to talk about how to fast correctly. We will look at this Scripture again in a minute, but clearly Jesus is giving instructions that assume his disciples will fast.

You can also see that we should fast from various examples in the New Testament:

  • Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness before he began his public ministry.
  • The early church fasted – Acts 13:2-3. Paul and Barnabas were chosen for and then sent off to their missionary work with “fasting and prayer.”
  • Paul fasted – Acts 14:23, when he appointed Elders with “prayer and fasting.”

These examples of fasting become a recommendation to us to fast as well.

OK, so we should fast, but –

What’s the point of fasting?

One reason we don’t practice it more, I believe, is that we don’t understand what it’s all about; what we are doing when we fast. We have images of monks and asceticism; of useless torturing of our bodies like Paul warns against in Colossians 2:18; 23. But this isn’t what fasting is about.

Fasting is an expression of humility or lowliness. The point is that you want to humble yourself. You are putting yourself in a place of weakness. The language used in Leviticus to speak of fasting is literally “to afflict oneself.”

Sometimes this lowliness is connected to repentance. Joel 2:12 says, “’Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’” It is a way of abasing yourself before the Lord due to your wrong choices and is a part of repentance.

Sometimes lowliness is connected to mourning. David fasted as he mourned the deaths of Saul and Jonathan – 2 Samuel 1:12. And Jesus connects fasting with mourning in Matthew 9:15, a passage we just looked at. He uses the two words interchangeably.

The point in all of this is that fasting is an expression of humility and lowliness.

So when you combine fasting and prayer, and they are often connected in Scripture, it means that you are praying from a lowly place; that you are humbling yourself before God as you pray. This is the point of fasting and prayer. And –

This is why fasting amplifies our prayers

By humbling yourself, you are putting yourself in a place that gains God’s utmost attention. As Psalm 138:6 says, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Proverbs 3:34 says that the Lord gives “favor” to the humble. And James 4:6 says that God “gives grace to the humble.” God hears those who humble themselves before him.

  • That this is true can be seen in Isaiah 58:4, which says that fasting can “make your voice to be heard on high.”
  • And this can also be seen in Matthew 6 where Jesus talks about fasting as one of three ways to seek “the reward” of God’s attention, in connection with prayer.

When you add fasting to prayer it is a way of getting God’s full attention, as it were.

Now, this doesn’t mean that just because you fast, or fast for a really long time, that God has to grant your request. You can’t force God’s hand. For instance, David fasted so that his first child from Bathsheba might live, but the child died – 2 Samuel 12.

But it does makes sure that you are heard and the intensity of your desire is fully conveyed to God for consideration.

An example of the power of fasting and prayer can be found in the story of Ahab, who was perhaps the worst Israelite king of all. Elijah warned him that God was about to judge him and destroy his whole household. 1 Kings 21:27 says, “And when Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly.” And then in v. 29 the Lord said to Elijah, “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days. . ..” God gives a very evil man a measure of mercy because of his humble fasting.

At the end here, let me give you some cautions connected with fasting. First, when you fast –

Beware of false lowliness – Isaiah 58:3-9

In v. 3 the people complain to God, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”

God’s answer in v. 5 is that outward expressions of humility, bowing down with sackcloth and ashes, aren’t enough. True lowliness doesn’t have to do with outward appearance.

And besides in vs. 3-4 we see that they weren’t truly lowly, but were lifting themselves up by putting others down; that is, they were oppressing others.

In vs. 6-7 they are told to start lifting others up and helping them – the poor, the oppressed and the hungry. Here, lowliness means to lower oneself to help the needy. This is what God cares about, not sackcloth and ashes.

If God didn’t hear them before, as he says in v. 4 – “Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high,” fasting with true humility gets God’s attention. Isaiah 58:9 says, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”

Second, as you fast –

Beware of false seeking – Matthew 6:16-18

That is, when you seek God with prayer and fasting, make sure you are not seeking to get other people’s attention instead. Jesus said in Matthew 6:16, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” They are trying to get others to see how devout they are. So they are actually seeking praise for themselves.

Rather, seek the attention of God alone when you fast and pray. Jesus said in Matthew 6:17-18, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.”

If you don’t get what you seek, because you are seeking the attention of others, the promise is that, if you seek God you will be rewarded. Jesus said in Matthew 6:18, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

So I commend this to you today. If you haven’t tried it before, do so. If you have, continue on. Lift up your concerns to God with fasting and prayer. If you have questions about the practical issues of fasting, I’m no expert, but I will be happy to try to help you.

William Higgins

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Today we look at a familiar passage from Matthew 6. As we will see, it teaches us about seeking out God’s attention, and we all need God’s attention and help with our concerns and needs.

Our text is found right smack in the middle of what is called the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) a section of this gospel that pulls together much of Jesus’ teaching on righteousness.

Read through this text, if you will – Matthew 6:1-18 

1. Jesus is calling us to engage in these activities

that is, almsgiving (or giving to the poor), prayer, and fasting. These were all central practices of Jewish spirituality. But notice in this – Jesus assumes that we will be practicing these as well, for he says,

  • “when you give to the needy” – v. 2
  • “when you pray” – v. 4
  • “when you fast” – v. 16

. . . not “if” or “if you happen to get around to these.”

We are to be giving to the poor, praying and fasting. And so we might begin by asking ourselves – “When was the last time we prayed seriously?” or “Specifically gave to the poor?” or “Fasted in any form?”

Jesus assumes we are doing these things, and he is simply teaching us how to do them in the right way.

2. Each of these practices seeks God’s attention and favor

This is important to understand if we want to get Jesus’ point. This comes out in our verses because he is saying , when we do these things in the right way:

  • God will take note of us
  • God will respond to us

Or as Jesus says three times – “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Now Prayer is obvious enough. It’s all about seeking God that God will hear us and help us. We want God’s attention and God’s mercy.

Fasting is often connected to prayer. In fact, fasting is a particularly intense kind of praying, usually when someone is upset, distressed or grieving. Your situation is so bad that you must have God’s attention and favor. You are desperate. And Scripture notes that God responds to this kind of intense seeking.

Almsgiving – might seem puzzling here, but it is seen in Scripture as giving you favor before God and in your seeking of God. Lets look at this one just a bit more . . .

The principle behind this is clear – “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” – James 5:16. The one who is righteous or obedient has powerful prayers; they have favor with God.

In Judaism, and also here with Jesus, giving alms is a, if not the token of a truly righteous person. In fact in Judaism giving alms became synonymous with the word for “righteousness.” So, given our principle, giving to the poor gives power to your prayers.

An example: Acts 10:4. Remember the story of Cornelius? He prayed and had a vision from God where an angel came to him. Our verse says, “And he stared at the angel in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ And he said to him, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.’”

Notice, his prayers and his alms came up before God. And because of this he had God’s favor. So God sent Peter to preach the gospel to him.

  • His alms gave potency to his prayers.
  • His alms gave him favor with God.

So, all of these practices have to do with seeking God’s attention and favor – “they are seeking activities.” Prayer is seeking God and both almsgiving and fasting  are, as it were, “prayer enhancers.” They are ways of strengthening our praying and seeking after God. They come alongside our prayers, to make them more effective.

Now let’s look at . . .

3. What Jesus is forbidding here

. . . because we sometimes miss the point.

  • Jesus is not saying that we can’t give alms publicly. For instance in church – in our offerings. Remember how in Luke 21:1-4 Jesus commends the widow who gave to the temple treasury, in public?
  • Jesus is not saying that we can’t pray publicly. For instance how we pray in church. Both Jesus and the apostles prayed in pubic, not in a closet.
  • And as well, Jesus is not saying we can’t fast publicly. Paul and others fasted publicly as we see in the book of Acts (13:2: 14:23).

No. Jesus is saying – Don’t draw attention to yourself when you do these things – for instance:

  • Blowing a trumpet when you give alms. (Now this is probably not literal, but just a figure of speech for getting everyone’s attention).

  • Praying where the most people can see you.

  • Disfiguring your face so everyone knows you are fasting, the idea being to emphasize that you are suffering as you fast.

Rather than all this, Jesus teaches us to make sure we don’t draw attention to ourselves. And he drives this idea home with typically extreme statements:

  • With regard to giving – don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

  • With regard to prayer – go off into a closet to pray.

  • With regard to fasting – dress up as if you are celebrating.

This is all hyperbole or intentional exaggeration. As I said, Jesus didn’t always pray in a closet (if ever). His point in all of this is simply – Don’t draw attention to yourself!! Or as Jesus says at the end of each example, engage in these practices “in secret”- for God to see.

Now this doesn’t mean that others won’t see us . Jesus talks about this in Matthew 5:16. We are to let our light shine before others so that people will see our good works and glorify God. But, our text teaches us, we are not to do these things in order to be seen!

This brings us to . . .

4. The central contrast that Jesus is making

These three practices are meant to seek God’s attention and favor.  But we often use them to seek human attention and favor. They are meant to be focused on God and God’s reward. Not on people and the reward that they give.

Thus Jesus rightly says in each case, don’t be like the “hypocrites.” For hypocrisy is when appearances are not as they seem:

  • we appear one way on the outside (good & righteous)
  • but we are really another way within (unrighteous, full of pride or deceit)

In this case, we are doing righteous things: praying, fasting, giving to the poor. But we are doing them for the wrong reason. Instead of trying to please God, we are trying to please people, to gain human praise, notice and honor. (And this wrong motive often affects the character of our righteous acts . We tend to do them in exaggerated ways, trumpets blowing and all the rest, to make sure people notice).

Jesus wants us to do what is right, but that’s not all. To move beyond hypocrisy, we are to what is right, for the right reason.

5. Finally, there is a promise in these verses

It is not for those who seek to be seen in their praying, giving to the poor, and fasting. As Jesus said three times – “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

We get nothing from God, because we already got what we were really looking for – whatever human attention or praise we received from other people. We are nothing more than hypocrites.

But the promise is – if we give alms, pray and fast to gain God’s attention and favor (that is, with right intention and a pure heart) then God will reward our seeking of him. As Jesus said three times – “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

This is the promise of Jesus to us – when we seek God as he instructs us to, we will get God’s attention. God will reward us; God will care for our needs and answer our prayers. William Higgins

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