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It is interesting to note that while feasting is a fixed and permanent aspect of biblical religion, fasting is occasional and provisional.

We see that very clearly in two passages, one in the Old Testament and one in the New. In the Book of Zechariah, a delegation from Bethel comes to Jerusalem to seek wisdom from Zechariah and the other leaders as to whether or not the several fasts instituted during the exile should be continued now that a remnant has returned and the temple is being rebuilt. The Lord takes the occasion to correct their overly ritualistic and formal approach to spirituality, telling them that justice and mercy were more important aspects of biblical worship (Zechariah 7:9-10). He does finally answer their original question in chapter 8:19, saying:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. Therefore love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19 ESV)

Thus, the fasts that were created to commemorate and lament the destruction of the temple were now to be transformed into feasts. The fasts were occasional (due to the destruction of the temple) and provisional (discontinued once the temple was under reconstruction). The feasts were to continue in perpetuity.

While feasting is a fixed and permanent aspect of biblical religion, fasting is occasional and provisional.

Similarly in the New Testament there is the story about the disciples of John coming to Jesus and asking:

“Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matthew 9:14 ESV)

Jesus’ answer points out the occasional and provisional nature of fasting. He says:

“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. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:15–17 ESV)

Jesus states that fasting is appropriate during seasons of lament and longing. The saying “when the Bridegroom is taken away from them” refers to the time after Jesus’ arrest up until his glorious resurrection. Leon Morris says here:

“There can be no doubt that by the bridegroom he means himself, nor that is taken away refers to his death.”[1]

The death of Jesus will throw the disciples into a time of lament and mourning. But once he is restored to them through resurrection – their fasting will be transformed into feasting! From that point on, their lives should be characterized by rejoicing.

Once the religion of the Bible passes through the deep valley of the cross and up into resurrection on the other side, the old forms and ceremonies will need to give way to those better suited to the major themes of joy and thanksgiving that will now be characteristic of the movement. Michael Green says here:

“Jesus is clear that his coming marks a discontinuity with all that. (All the forms and practices of Judaism) The old skins cannot contain the new wine he is bringing. Old regulations about ceremonial defilement cannot stand before the joy of forgiveness, fellowship, excitement and new direction which the coming of the kingdom inaugurates.”[2]

That is why fasting is not a major point of discussion in any of the New Testament Epistles. The Apostle Paul does not commend it or address the practice of it in any of his letters.

Would it be wrong for a New Testament believer to engage in a season of fasting?

To be clear, fasting for health purposes or as part of a weight loss regimen is not the concern of this inquiry. Rather, the question that is imagined here has to do with the New Testament believer wondering whether it would ever be appropriate for him or her to engage in a season of religious fashion, such as we see in the Old Testament.

Lament is a minor chord in the Christian system, with joy as our major key

I think the most faithful answer to that question would have to be a qualified NO. It would not be wrong to engage in a time of fasting, provided that the fasting was limited in duration and related to a particular loss or connected to a season of focused, intentional prayer. However, it should not go on too long, it should not involve unnecessary display (Matthew 6:16-18) and it should be careful not to discredit or obscure our faith in the resurrection. Paul said to the Thessalonians:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 ESV)

Lament is a minor chord in the Christian system, with joy as our major key. The focus of our worship is the grateful reception of the grace of God given to us in the person and work of Christ. We eagerly hear. We gladly respond. We gratefully give. Our sacraments are sacraments of celebration. Baptism is about new life. The eucharist or Lord’s Supper is about thanksgiving. These are the new wineskins given to us to contain the new wine of the gospel – thanks be to God!

Pastor Paul Carter

If you are interested in more Bible teaching from Pastor Paul you can access the entire library of Into The Word episodes through the Audio tab on the Into the Word website. You can also download the Into The Word app on iTunes or Google Play.

[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 224-225.

[2] Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, ed. John R. W. Stott, The Bible Speaks Today. Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InverVarsity Press, 2000), 124-125. Excluding the bracketed comments which are mine.