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The Life of Jesus - Series 3: Episode 10

Feasting, fasting & serving Jesus

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 9:14-17
Mark 2:18-22
Luke 5:33-39

Fasting is discussed with reference to the Old Testament, traditions and present day. Jesus uses images of new and old cloth, and wine skin, to show change from Judaism to Christianity.

Fasting is discussed with reference to the Old Testament, traditions and present day. Jesus uses images of new and old cloth, and wine skin, to show change from Judaism to Christianity.


Hello and welcome to Series 3 and Episode 10, entitled: ‘Feasting, Fasting and Serving Jesus’. The passage we're going to study in a moment is taken from Matthew 9: 14 - 17.

Introduction and Recap

Before we get to that passage, let's remember where we are in the story. We've just recounted, in previous episodes (Episodes 7 and 8 of Series 3), two remarkable miracles: the healing of the leper, where Jesus sends the leper, having been healed, to Jerusalem where he reports to the priests. (It was their job to decide who was healed of leprosy and they would have interviewed him and found that Jesus was the person who'd healed him.) This led them to start investigating Jesus more formally about his claims and so, in the next story, where Jesus is in Capernaum, and a man is let down through the roof (a paralysed man on a stretcher), we find he's being investigated by Pharisees and others and he claims to forgive sins. He claims to forgive the man's sins and have authority on earth to forgive sins as the Son of Man - which is a divine title taken from Daniel 7: 13 and 14.

These are remarkable events, outstanding miracles, in which Jesus' authority - not just as a healer, or a teacher, or a prophet  but as the Son of God and the one who has power to forgive sins - is emerging. His authority is emerging, it's becoming clear in the story. The incident that happens immediately before this focuses on another key thing that's happening. Not only are there outstanding miracles as Jesus travels around; not only is it becoming clearer and clearer that he's claiming to be the Son of God, the Messiah, the Son of Man, who has the power to forgive sins; but he's also gathering together disciples, committed followers. We've seen already how he called several people to follow him in John 1 when he was by the River Jordan being baptised. Now, in Galilee, he's beginning to firm up that process and, in Luke 5, we saw that he called Peter and Andrew and James and John, the fishermen, to become ‘fishers of men’ - to leave their trade and follow him - so they're following him, as a team working with him.

In the last episode, we saw how Jesus, suddenly and quite dramatically, called the tax collector by the name of Matthew to join his team of committed followers and disciples - which Matthew did. When Matthew had a celebration meal and he introduced all his friends to Jesus,just before he left his job and started travelling around with Jesus throughout Galilee. During that occasion, the Pharisees who were watching from outside were questioning why Jesus was associating with these types of shady business people (tax collectors, black marketeers, shady businessmen) ‘tax collectors and sinners’ as Matthew describes them, in this party. They question that, and Jesus said something important which leads directly into our topic today: he said, in Matthew 9: 12,

‘“(It's) not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”’ ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’

Matthew 9:12-13, NIV

We discussed this theme a little in the last episode and I'll go back to that for a moment because it follows on directly into the story that we're talking about today. God says, in the book of Hosea 6: 6, that he wants an attitude of mercy to be at the centre of those who want to worship him, rather than an attitude of carrying out the religious rituals - which, in that particular case, was sacrifice.  ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice,’ “I desire inner change more than an outward religious action.” This attitude of mercy was an attitude of kindness and grace towards other people and an attitude, also, of respect towards God but, primarily, an attitude of kindness and grace towards other people. ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’ “I want an inner change of attitude before religious actions really have their full meaning.” That's basically what was being spoken of by the prophet Hosea, in Hosea 6, and Jesus applies that principle in his ministry, in his life and, basically, saying, “If you had a right attitude towards other people, you wouldn't be so obsessed just with religious duties.”


This is really important because it's a particular religious duty that is the topic of our story today. Immediately following that, a particular religious duty of great significance at the time was being discussed - and that is the duty of fasting (by which we mean going without food for a defined period of time). Jews didn't go without water in fasting, generally speaking; it was food that they abstained from for one day, two days, three days or whatever period that it was. Fasting was a matter of significant discussion at the time. Let's read the passage and see what Jesus has to say about this subject, bearing in mind what he's already said that people must understand the saying from Hosea where God says, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’  Matthew 9: 14 - 17:

‘Then John's disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”’

Matthew 9:14-17, NIV

John's disciples come and they question Jesus about fasting. John the Baptist still had an active discipleship group at this time, even though he was in prison and will ultimately be executed. The Pharisees were also fasting and, if we read the other account in Luke, we find that the Pharisees were also involved in asking this question along with John's disciples. Here are two very religious communities, at the time of Jesus, saying, “We're serious about religion and because we're serious about religion, we fast. From time to time, we go without food and it's part of our religious practice and duty.” Many of you will be familiar with this concept because in your society there might be a religious tradition of fasting associated with the religions of your country, so that would be similar to the situation that we have described here.

Fasting in the Old Testament

Let's talk, for a moment, about fasting in the Old Testament and amongst the Jews before we look and see what Jesus says when he gives this remarkable answer to the question. When we look in the Old Testament, it's noticeable that fasting was only required of the Jewish people in the Law of Moses on one day per year. This day was called the Day of Atonement, known as Yom Kippur to the Jews. This is described in Leviticus 16. The Day of Atonement was a day when all the Jewish people needed to reflect on the sins of the whole nation (individuals, communities, but the nation as a whole) and in which the High Priest, in the Temple, would conduct a particular ceremony of sacrifice which would symbolise the transfer of the sins of the whole nation onto the animal in the form of sacrifice which was offered to God to ask for his forgiveness for the whole nation. It was a sombre, serious, and quiet day. The animals concerned, in this case, were goats. One of them was sacrificed by the High Priest and the other one, which was known as the ‘scapegoat’, was not killed, but sent into the wilderness (or desert area, near Jerusalem, the Judean Wilderness) - but only after a ritual event taking place in which hands were laid on the goat by the High Priest and the sins of the nation were confessed and transferred to this animal, symbolically. Then the animal was driven into the wilderness, on its own, in the expectation that it would die in the wilderness. That was the symbolism of the Day of Atonement. It was a sombre and serious day and this was the day when all Jews, if they followed the Law of Moses, would fast but fasting was not a requirement at any other time. 

As you follow through the story of the Old Testament, you'll find that later on, when the Jews returned to their country having gone into exile, some other fasts were introduced - but they weren't in God's Law; they were added in as a way of expressing worship to God at that particular time, but they weren't in the original law of God and the Law of Moses. In Isaiah 58 we have a prophet - a major prophet of Israel - talking about fasting; and in Isaiah 58, he criticises the Jews who fast for religious purposes but still have wrong attitudes in their heart. For example, Isaiah 58: 4,

‘Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed (or)for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?(and he carries on)“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?’

Isaiah 58:4-7, NIV

So the prophets of Israel, like Isaiah, identified the risk of having pride in the religious practice of fasting, whilst not changing inwardly in human attitudes - particularly attitudes to the poor and the needy, the hungry, those without homes, those without clothing, and other members of their family who were in need - the categories that Isaiah spoke of there. This is another example of that principle, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ that I mentioned earlier on and Jesus is applying this to the question of fasting, as we'll see in just a moment. For the Jews, fasting was not a major requirement in terms of God's law: once a year, on the Day of Atonement, was the requirement but traditions of more extensive fasting had grown up and two of them are represented in this story.

Fasting Traditions

One is the Pharisees, the Pharisee of Luke 18, in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, proudly says in the Temple - and we'll come to the parable on another occasion - ‘“I fast twice a week and give a tenth of my money,”’ give a tithe. Fasting was a practice amongst the Pharisees, some even twice a week - all of them fasted regularly and John the Baptist's disciples had obviously entered into a similar practice of regular fasting.

This is the background to the question and what's noticeable to them is that Jesus’ disciples are not practising fasting. Jesus' answer, essentially, in verse 15 is, “It's only a matter of timing.” In other words, he likens their situation to being at a wedding - a moment of celebration - being with the bridegroom (with him being the bridegroom in this image) and basically saying, “If they're with the bridegroom in a wedding, the guests, the last thing they'll do is to fast. They'll be feasting; they'll be enjoying the wedding celebrations.” That's the situation that his disciples are in. They're enjoying Jesus' company in the same way as we enjoy the company of the bridegroom at the special event of a wedding but he said that ‘the bridegroom will be taken from them’ (a reference to his death, his resurrection and his ascension), ‘“and then they will fast.”’ In other words, fasting is a good religious practice but it was a matter of timing only. That explained why his disciples weren't fasting when John the Baptist's disciples were fasting and the Pharisees were fasting. It was a matter of timing and their inner attitude was right because they were celebrating the presence of Jesus and enjoying his presence.

Fasting Today

This tells us something significant about the place of fasting in the Christian life. Shortly, we'll be starting the Sermon on the Mount and, in that sermon, that teaching, Jesus is quite clear about both prayer and fasting. He explains the mechanics and the realities of prayer, which we'll discuss in some detail, but he also says, in Matthew 6: 16,

‘“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others (that) they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”’

Matthew 6:16-18, NIV

We'll discuss this topic in more detail when we study that passage, but Jesus is quite clear that fasting will be part of the Christian life but it will never replace the inner attitude of openness to God, humility towards God and, particularly, the attitude of mercy. ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice,’  Matthew 9:13 - the previous verse to the passage that we're talking about. The outward religious duties always have to be contextualised, or thought about in the context of what is going on, in the human heart. What was going on in the human heart of Jesus' disciples was an enjoyment of their relationship with Jesus - finding out more about him and his mission and enjoying friendship and fellowship with him on the journey, and fasting wasn't a part of that process at that particular time. It was only a matter of time before fasting came about.

Two Images to Explain the Change From Judaism to Christianity

Jesus goes on to use two metaphors, two images, to describe what's happening, basically, as there is a transition from Judaism into Christianity. This issue of fasting is an example of that. They had loads of traditions about fasting and Jesus wasn't going to carry those traditions on. He was going to allow people to make their own choices.

He uses the image of sewing a piece of cloth onto an existing garment and putting new wine into old wineskins - basically saying that you can't match together the old and the new. We know that clothing has been stretched as it's used; if you put a patch on, or another piece of cloth, in order to mend that clothing there's a risk that the new fabric, or the new piece of cloth won't be able to keep it firmly in place and it will come undone because it needs to stretch. My mother taught this to me when I was a child when she taught me how to sew. She explained that principle to me and said that that biblical idea was true and she showed it to me from the fabrics that she used to mend her children's clothes. With the new wine and the old wineskins, we need to remember that the Jews - like many other ancient Middle Eastern people - used goat skins to hold wine. The goat skins would stretch with use and would adapt to the fermentation process and the chemical processes of the wine inside them; so if you used that wine and put some new wine in, the chemical processes would probably crack the goatskin, so new wineskins had to be frequently found.

The significance of these two images is Jesus is basically saying, “I'm bringing a new religion. I'm bringing a new way of life and it's not going to fit conveniently into the religious life of Judaism as you know it today.”  He was saying this to John the Baptist's disciples and to the Pharisees, and everyone else who was listening. He was saying, “Something new is happening. It's going to be very different and it's not going to fit into the old way of doing things.” Particularly, it's not going to be a religion of rules and regulations - like fasting. There were no specific rules or regulations about fasting that came from Jesus; the principle of fasting was there, but how it was carried out was not defined by a series of rules. This is characteristic of the way that Jesus led his Church and there are many other examples of it.


Let's spend a few minutes thinking what have we learnt from this passage, what are our reflections, together? The first thing I want to say is that fasting is a good discipline for Christians but it's not a religious law. It's not something that the Church tells you you have to do at a certain, particular time. It's something you do when you inwardly sense it's the right thing to do or, perhaps, in a local church community, or family community. There's a common agreement that there'd be a good time to fast. Let me tell you a couple of contexts in the New Testament because that sometimes helps us to understand it. If you look in the book of Acts, you'll find people fasting when they are devoting themselves for a special time of prayer. For example in Acts 13, at the beginning of that chapter, the leaders of the church in Antioch are described and it says in the opening verse, Acts 13: 1,

‘Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers’(and it gives the names of these, and, in verse 2, it says)‘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.”

Acts 13:1-2, NIV

The interesting statement here is ‘while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting.’ The leaders had taken time to worship, and they'd decided they were going to do without food - it was to focus their minds on seeking God. This is getting very much to the heart of what fasting is about; it's a practice we should adopt at a time when we are particularly seeking to get close to God, to worship him and to seek his will. I find this very helpful in my own life when I choose to fast - which I do from an inner conviction from time to time, rather than from any outward law that the Church imposes upon me. A second example which is interesting is in Acts 14: 23, when Paul and Barnabas were appointing pastors (or elders) in new churches which they had started. And Acts 14: 23 says:

‘Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord,in whom they had put their trust.’

Acts 14:23, NIV

Fasting is mentioned there, when they were seeking blessing in the appointment of leaders; they were praying and they were seeking blessing. They wanted God to own that process, to make it a positive process so the churches developed. Here's another context for fasting: when we're seeking the blessing of God on key decisions that we have made. Fasting is a good discipline for Christians, but not a religious law for us. If you are a Christian disciple reading this, I want you to take that to heart. If you don't fast at all or haven't thought about it, then reading the Gospels will make you realise that it is a reality that we should consider - particularly when you look at Matthew 6: 16 onwards, which we'll discuss in our series on the Sermon on the Mount. If you come from a background where there are religious traditions that impose fasting and it becomes really hard work, becomes something very difficult, very burdensome, then this is not the heart of Jesus' approach to fasting. Sometimes it's good to do without the things we normally take for granted in order to focus our attention more specifically on seeking God. We need to beware of a legalistic attitude towards fasting and we also need to be aware that sometimes, in some of our societies, the idea of going without food at all is really against the culture - people are very keen to indulge as much as they can - and there are times when Christians say, “No, I'm going to cease eating for a time in order to seek God.”

The two images at the end of our passage suggest that Jesus is making a radical break with Judaism. He isn't just setting up a new sect of Judaism, a new series of rules, a new series of teaching; he is setting up a completely new way of life. Christianity is a fundamentally new way of life and this should encourage us to think of our lives in terms of new wine and new wineskins. The new wine, most obviously, would represent the life within us and the new wineskins would most obviously represent the structures of life we have - the structures of the Church, in particular - that we live in. Although we can't pursue this teaching in great detail in this context, I want to leave you with these thoughts on this particular image: the new wine and the new wineskin, the need for new wineskins when you have new wine. The new wine represents the new spiritual life that Jesus brings. Particularly, it represents the work of the Holy Spirit - as we'll see as we carry on in our studies, as is taught very clearly elsewhere in the New Testament. Every person who truly believes in Jesus, has been reborn (or regenerated, come to fresh life), receives the Holy Spirit to live inside them and God's intention is that we should be filled with the Spirit on a daily basis. We should experience his presence as a dynamic reality on an ongoing basis, and experience his power helping us in our lives - that's the new wine! That's the new wine of Christianity and that new wine needs Church structures that enable people to express their faith very openly, very genuinely and very dynamically so that the new wineskin helps us to keep the new wine and allow the new wine to be productive. Our church structures need to be very open to the presence of the Holy Spirit: to his gifts, to the miraculous things that God does, to times of prayer, to prophecy, to evangelism and mission and testimony and a very strong focus on heartfelt worship to God from people who gather together. We need the new wine and we need the new wineskins. The place that fasting has in this is a good discipline for Christians, which we choose to adopt from time to time, in order to seek God more sincerely for his will, to worship him, or for his blessing. It's not a religious law for us that becomes burdensome and becomes a deadweight that weighs us down - this is the best perspective we could possibly have on this particular discipline. There's a place for feasting and there's a place for fasting in the Christian life as we seek to serve Jesus.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Fasting was a religious tradition of which the Jews were proud. What traditions do you hold? Are you proud of them and the way you do them?
  • Discipleship
    1. ‘Fasting is a good discipline for Christians, but not a religious law’. Share your experiences of fasting. Turn to S4 E13 to discover more of Jesus’ teaching about fasting.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Define some of the differences between Judaism and Christianity.
    2. Our church structures need to be open to the Holy Spirit.’ What does that mean practically for your church structures?
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