In Matthew 9:14, Jesus is questioned by the disciples of John the Baptist: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast but your disciples do not fast?” It should be noted that although in the Old Testament there are several instances of individual and corporate/public fasting, there was but one fast required by the Mosaic law. That fast was in conjunction with the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29–31). There is no indication that the incident Matthew describes took place during the Day of Atonement. So what John’s disciples and the Pharisees were observing was additional fasting that had become a tradition within Jewish piety.
Unfortunately, fasting, like many other traditions extrapolated from the law of Moses (and not required by it), had become an end in itself and an expression of spiritual pride. Such ostentatious displays of piety were roundly condemned by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:1–18). John’s disciples may not have been guilty of the hypocrisy that Jesus denounced in Matthew 6, but at the very least they were gauging the spirituality of Jesus’ disciples by the traditions of men rather than what was commanded in the Mosaic law.
Jesus responds in a rather interesting way: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” (9:15). Here is one of those eschatological (already, not yet) moments. On the one hand, Jesus declares Himself to be the promised, prophesied, and long-awaited Messiah in His reference to the bridegroom. John the Baptist uses similar language in John 3:28–29: “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ [Messiah], but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete.” In both passages, Jesus is clearly identified as the bridegroom and, therefore, the Messiah. In both passages, the presence of the bridegroom occasions great joy.
Fasting is an act of longing and desire, specifically a longing and desire for a fuller sense of God’s power and presence. The incarnate God embodies the divine presence and power (John 1:14; Col. 2:9; Heb. 1:3). In answering the question of John’s disciples with a question of His own, Jesus says in effect that because He is the end to which all longing/fasting should point, His disciples have no reason to mourn or long for His divine presence.
The Pharisees, of course, rejected such claims of Jesus to be the Messiah, and the disciples of John had not quite grasped this great truth at that time, either. Jesus labors to make this point to the disciples of John — if they really knew who He was, they would also not be fasting; instead, they would be rejoicing and celebrating.
Jesus continues to correct their understanding of fasting when He refers to His impending death and departure, stating, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them and then they will fast” (Matt. 9:15). We live in the interim in which the bridegroom has been taken away. There remains, therefore, a place for fasting. In Acts 9:9 we are told this about Saul of Tarsus: “And for three days he was without sight and neither ate nor drank.” In Acts 13:2–3, the church at Antioch fasted in their preparation to send Paul and Barnabas off on their first missionary journey. In 14:23, prayer and fasting were included in the appointing of elders. Seeking to highlight the benefits of fasting, John Calvin wrote that it is “a holy exercise both for the humbling of men and for their confession of humility.”
On the website Reformed Worship, the late Harvey Albert Smit addressed some of the apprehensions that some Reformed Christians have about fasting. He writes, “When it comes to fasting, we Reformed Christians seem to live in a tension between guilt (if we don’t fast) and fear of self-righteousness (if we do), between feeling that we lack in piety (if we don’t) or that we’re making an ostentatious display of piety (if we do)” (“Fasting,” Issue #6). Given the extremes of much of evangelical literature on spiritual disciplines, including fasting, one can understand the confusion Smit expresses. Calvin even warns against the danger of superstitions that can easily creep in. In fact, he says, “it would be much more satisfactory if fasting were not practiced at all, than diligently observed and at the same time corrupted with false and pernicious opinions, into which the world repeatedly falls.” This is the sort of thing that the apostle Paul strongly refutes in Colossians.
So let us be clear, fasting in the new covenant is not commanded by God, nor is it or any other spiritual discipline a means by which we earn (by our sincerity) anything from God. On the contrary, fasting is an act of humility wherein we acknowledge our need to subdue the appetites of the flesh and focus more intently on who we are and what we have been given in Christ.