Opening comments:

Many Christians show a lack of dependence toward their Father today, choosing to behave as though they either don’t have a Father or they don’t need one.

We gasp when we hear the figures of how many kids there are that live on the streets, yet time and time again, we are exposed to Christians who have chosen to leave their Fathers house and walk about aimlessly and unprovided for on the streets.

The orphan mentality, as opposed to the Spirit’s mentality, reigns in many Christians The orphan thinks the world is against them, having to fight for everything, learning to live life without love, without being able to trust, where they are concerned that the ones closest to them are one day going to turn on them and steal from them.

In the past few years it hasnt been all that easy in this beautiful country of ours. It is in these moments that a heart can turn – it can turn away from God, not so much by choosing to turn away, but by becoming angry with the brokeness, angry with the police, frustrated with some of the nations leaders, or by living fearfully.

Daniel’s fasting:

Daniel 1:8-16

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the kings food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself. 9 And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs, 10 and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king. 11 Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the kings food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see. 14 So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the kings food. 16 So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.

Daniel’s fast was not to seek God, but rather not to defile himself with ungodly food/things. It was to align himself with God.

Daniel 9:1-19

In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, by descent a Mede, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.

3 Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. 4 I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. 6 … 16 “O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us. 17 Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord,2 make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. 18 O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see sour desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. 19 O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.

There was a looking forward to a Saviour. To God saving his people. Today we have a Saviour.

Jesus’ teaching and apostles example:

Matthew 6:16-18

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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

We understand that Jesus here was speaking into a Hebrew context where fasting was the norm. My difficulty for those who feel this is an inter-testamental statement from Jesus is that he never battled to speak coming kingdom language or teach on how one should live in the coming kingdom, so to assume he is not affirming fasting in this passage, I believe is to incorrectly discern Scripture.

Matthew 9:14-15

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast,3 but your disciples do not fast? 15 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.

Richard Foster, who wrote the book Celebration of Discipline, said in his chapter on fasting of Matthew 9:15, “That is perhaps the most important statement in the New Testament on whether Christians should fast today.” That’s probably true. So let’s give close attention to this text and ask the Lord to teach us from it what we should know and what we should do in regard to fasting.

Why Didn’t Jesus’ Disciples Fast? 

In Matthew 9:14 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.

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 broken-heartedness and desperation, usually over sin or over some danger. It was something you did when things were not going the way you want 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 is just too good to mingle with fasting. So Jesus was making a tremendous claim for himself here. In the Old Testament God had pictured himself as the husband of his people Israel (Isaiah 62:4f.; Jeremiah 2:2; 3:20; Ezekiel 16:8; Hosea 2:19f.). Now his Son, the Messiah, the long hoped-for one, has come and he claims to be the Bridegroomthat is, the husband of his people, who will be the true Israel (cf. John 3:29). This is the kind of partially veiled claim 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 just can’t 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.

But then Jesus said, “But 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 he was referring just to the several days between his death and resurrection. They would fast just for those days. But that is very unlikely. For several reasons. One is that the early church fasted after the resurrection, as we have seen in Acts 13:13 (cf. Acts 14:23; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27). The other is that in Matthew 25:113 Jesus pictures his second coming as the arrival of the bridegroom. In other words, the Bridegroom is taken away until the second coming of Christ.

It’s true that Jesus is present with us by his Spirit. But Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “We [would] prefer to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord.” In other words, in this age there is an ache and a longinga homesicknessinside every Christian that Jesus is not here as fully and intimately and as powerfully and as gloriously as we want him to be. And that is why we fast.

But then Jesus says something very crucial in verses 1617. He says,

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. 17 “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 Jesusthe kingdom of God is here. The Bridegroom has come. The Messiah is in our midst. And that is not merely temporary. He is not merely 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 is the reigning power of Christ in the world subduing hearts to the king and creating a people who believe him and serve him. The Spirit of the Bridegroom is gathering and purifying a bride for Christ. This is the new wine.

Old Wineskins Can’t Contain the New Wine

And Jesus says, The old wineskins can’t contain it. What is the old wineskin? In the context it seems to be fasting. Fasting was inherited from the Old Testament and had been used as part of the Jewish system of relating to God. Now Jesus says, the old wineskins of Judaism can’t contain the new wine.

So what shall we say? In verse 15 Jesus says that we will fast when the Bridegroom is gone. And in verse 17 he says that the old fasting cannot contain the new wine of the kingdom.

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 in danger was not based on the great finished work of the Redeemer and the great revelation of himself and his grace in history. But now the Bridegroom has come. In coming he struck the decisive blow against sin and against Satan and against death.

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 wine is new. The blood is shed. The Lamb is slain. The punishment of our sins is executed. Death is defeated. The Bridegroom is risen. The Spirit is sent. The wine is new. And the old fasting mindset is simply not adequate.

What’s New About the New Fasting?

What’s new about the fasting is that it rests on all this finished work of the Bridegroom. The yearning that we feel for revival or awakening or deliverance from corruption is not merely longing and aching. The first fruits of what we long for have already come. The down payment 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 have tasted the powers of the age to come, and our new fasting is not because we are hungry for something we have not tasted, but because the new wine of Christ’s presence is so real and so satisfying. 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. We must have all he promised. And as much now as possible.

Jesus taught on fasting but also modelled it:

Matthew 4:1-2

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

Acts 13:1-3

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

The course of history was changed when the leaders of the church in Antioch were worshiping, praying, and fasting. I suggest that in our day there has been reawakening in worship around the world and reawakening in prayer around the world. But not yet does there seem to be a reawakening in fasting, except in some places like Korea. Might God not ordain that his fullest blessings will come to the church when we prevail in prayer with the intensity of fasting? That’s what I think fasting is at heart. It’s an intensification of prayer. It’s a physical exclamation point at the end of the sentence, “We hunger for you to come in power.” It’s a cry with your body, “I really mean it, Lord! This much, I hunger for you.”

Fasting in the History of the Church 

The Didache, a manual of church instruction from near the end of the first century says,

Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do your fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. (7:1)

In other words the early church sought to distance itself of the emptiness of fasting as the Pharisees and the religious performers would do, yet without losing the value of the practice. (Please do not get caught up in the days here, the point was that the early church wanted to affirm that fasting was part of the believers life, yet not the way it had come to be practiced by those who had a form of godliness but did not know God.)

John Calvin, in the 16th century, said,

Let us say something about fasting, because many, for want of knowing its usefulness, undervalue its necessity, and some reject it as almost superfluous; while, on the other hand where the use of it is not well understood, it easily degenerates into superstition. Holy and legitimate fasting is directed to three ends; for we practice it either as a restraint on the flesh, to preserve it from licentiousness, or as a preparation for prayers and pious meditations, or as a testimony of our humiliation in the presence of God when we are desirous of confessing our guilt before him. (Institutes, IV.12, 14, 15)

Martin Luther wrote,

Of fasting I say this: It is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, or studying, or for doing anything else that is good. Under such circumstances God’s Word cannot remain. But one should not fast with a view to meriting something by it as by a good work.

In more recent times the evangelical church in South Korea has taught the rest of the world a lesson in prayer and fasting. The first Protestant church was planted in Korea in 1884. One hundred years later there were 30,000 churches. That’s an average of 300 new churches a year for 100 years. Today evangelicals comprise about 30% of the population. God has used many means to do this great work. One of them is a recovery not just of dynamic prayer, but of fasting-prayer.

Application for today:

So the question is asked, ‘Do I believe that fasting is still something worthwhile for the believer?’

I answer with this; Jesus taught it, he modelled it, the apostles did it, a mighty man of God before Jesus did it. So yes, I absolutely believe that fasting is worthwhile for believers today.

I believe fasting is helpful in that it reminds us that our bodies are weak and will pass away and therefore keeps our focus on our all-sustaining, all-powerful Father, unlike the Pharisees who took fasting and made it their object. They fasted twice a week without fail, but they did not know God. Fasting is not the object, God is.

References:

John Piper’s work on the subject of fasting has been used in putting this together.