Habits of Grace: The Purpose of Fasting
Updated: 5 days ago
Fasting is not particular to the Christian faith. Almost every world religion, and even non-religious people, practice fasting. So, what role does fasting play in the life of the Christian, and does it have any role at all? On the surface, it can seem that fasting has no place in the Christian life. It was simply an Old Covenant practice that became obsolete upon Jesus’ ascension from the dead, which marked the beginning of a New Covenant. But Jesus himself says in Matthew 9:15, “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.” In his response to John’s disciples' question regarding Jesus’ disciples not fasting, Jesus tells them that they will not fast while He is with them, but when he is taken away from them, they will fast. In this blog, we’ll unpack this teaching from Jesus and what it means for how Christians should approach fasting.
Fasting in the Old Testament
Before we discuss the purpose of fasting in the Christian context, it is important to understand the purpose of fasting for God’s people in the Old Covenant. We see throughout the Old Testament Scriptures that fasting was directly related to mourning over sin, a yearning for deliverance, and a longing for God. Often, this fasting displayed a desire for God to deliver His promise of sending the Messiah to Israel. This is evidenced in Nehemiah 1:4 when the prophet Nehemiah fasted after learning that the Israelites who survived the exile were in great trouble. For the Israelites, fasting expressed brokenheartedness and desperation, usually over sin, danger, or some desired blessing. This fasting was not a response to God’s deliverance but a desire for it to come.
Fasting (or lack thereof) for the Disciples
The most intriguing part of Jesus’ response to the questions of John’s disciples in Matthew 9 is His statement that His disciples cannot mourn while the ‘bridegroom’ is with them. First, we see Jesus also recognized that fasting was often a sign of mourning, which we discussed in the previous paragraph. But we also see that He calls Himself the bridegroom. This claim to be the ‘bridegroom’ is a direct claim of being the Divine Son of God. In the Old Testament, God described Himself as the husband of His people Israel. Isaiah 62:5 says, “As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” In making this claim, Jesus clearly outlines that His disciples will not fast while the Messiah is with them because His coming is worth celebrating. This is why Jesus and His disciples did not fast but rather feasted, which Jesus was condemned for by the religious leaders of His day (Matthew 11:19).
Fasting for the Christian
In the latter part of Matthew 9:15, Jesus says that His disciples will fast once He is taken from them. This statement makes it clear that fasting is not obsolete for followers of Jesus but will have its purpose once He has ascended to heaven. In his commentary of the Gospel of Matthew, Robert Gundry states, “The entirety of the church age constitutes ‘the days’ that ‘will come when the bridegroom is taken away.’” So, for the 21st-century Christian, Jesus is directly stating that this is the time when His disciples will fast.
But, the purpose of why we fast is still not completely understood. If we read on in Matthew 9 verses 16-17, we see that Jesus says, “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.” John Piper explains this text well in his book A Hunger for God, “The new wine of Christ’s presence demands not no fasting but new fasting.” The fasting of the Old Covenant would no longer make sense because the ‘bridegroom’ had come. God had delivered the promised Messiah to Israel and the Gentiles. This new fasting that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 9 is a fasting that rests on the finished work of Jesus Christ.
We do not fast out of emptiness but out of fullness, which comes from our faith in what Jesus has provided us in forgiving our sins and the eternal hope of everlasting life in His presence. For the Christian, fasting is saying to God that true satisfaction does not come from worldly pleasures such as food, but rather from the relationship, we are given with God through Christ. That is the true purpose of fasting that Jesus calls for us to live out.
It is evident that fasting plays a pivotal role in the life of a Christian. In a world filled with temporary forms of pleasure such as food, there is no better way to honor God by faith than to turn away from those pleasures for a time to seek deeper satisfaction in Him. This is the ultimate aim of fasting for the Christian.
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