“I am not come to call righteous [persons], but sinful [ones] to repentance.
And they said to him, Why do the disciples of John fast often and make supplications, in like manner those also of the Pharisees, but thine eat and drink? And he said to them, Can ye make the sons of the bridechamber fast when the bridegroom is with them? But days will come when also the bridegroom will have been taken away from them; then shall they fast in those days. And he spoke also a parable to them: No one puts a piece of a new garment upon an old garment, otherwise he will both rend the new, and the piece which is from the new will not suit with the old. And no one puts new wine into old skins, otherwise the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be poured out, and the skins will be destroyed; but new wine is to be put into new skins, and both are preserved. And no one having drunk old wine [straightway] wishes for new, for he says, The old is better.” (Luke 5:32-39)
The greatest confusion concerning Christian fasting is related to its purpose. All other wrong practices and beliefs related to fasting are the results of this foundational misunderstanding.
In the whole Bible fasting is always linked to intensive prayer and humbling of oneself whenever there is an urgent and/or a difficult problem in which the believer (individual fasting) or the people of God (community fasting) practically express their confidence in God alone and not on self. This is the right purpose of fasting, and this is why the Lord linked it with the idea of mourning in a passage parallel to the passage that I quoted above: “And Jesus said to them, Can the sons of the bridechamber mourn so long as the bridegroom is with them? But days will come when the bridegroom will have been taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:15) As you see in this text (note the verbs that I have put in bold), the Lord has put a parallel between mourning and fasting, because, as I explained above, the purpose of fasting is linked to a reason which is an urgent and/or a difficult problem which causes “mourning”. The Lord explained that this “mourning” cannot happen as long as He is with us here on earth to take care of the problem. But after He left the earth, “mourning” was necessary again, as He now works by His Spirit in His Church who waits for Him. It is in this way that our mourning will be changed continuously to a God-glorifying joy which is full. All other kinds of “joy” are unrighteous and do not glorify God. The Lord Jesus is away, so our problems will be presented before the Throne of God in prayer; we can’t ask Jesus face to face, as He is not with us in flesh here on earth. This is why on the last day before His crucifixion the Lord said: “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.” (John 16:24) Before that day, the disciples never prayed to Jesus, because He was with them, so they could address Him directly, and He would take care of the matter. For example, when they faced the problem of the wind in the sea, they came and told Him directly their problem, and He took care of the matter; they did not fast and pray so that the problem would be solved… But now that the Lord has left, His disciples pray to Him, because He is not here in the flesh. Now it’s the time when His disciples fast (mourn) when they have problems, thus relying on God alone and being continuously filled with the God-glorifying joy; now the Bridegroom is not with them on earth; He was suddenly taken away as He died on the cross for their sins and rose again on the third day and ascended to the Father.
So when asked by the Jews why His disciples do not fast like the legalists, the Lord first explained to them the right purpose of fasting, because, as we have seen, the right purpose of fasting is essential. He explained to them that one should not just fast to fast, or fast as a duty or an ordinance kept as a tradition or as a work by which the legalists expect to earn some credit before God or to get the forgiveness of their sins. Do you ask how His words meant what I explained here? Well, the ones who asked him were keeping legalistic fasts, and He explained to them that their way is wrong, while the right way is to fast when He (the Bridegroom) is not there to take care of the urgent and difficult problems which the believers face. And we have seen that urgent and/or difficult problems are the cause of fasting. The Lord Jesus explained in John 17 (in His prayer), and more precisely in John 17:11-13, the difference between His presence here and His going to the Father in relation with how the disciples would be cared for; we have a detailed article about this: Jesus asks the Father to keep us from the evil one; I encourage you to read it in order to know more about what it means that the disciples fast when the Lord or the Bridegroom is not present with them in the body, and to understand more why I explained it in the way I have done above. The fact that these Pharisees raised this question shows that they saw fasting as a public exercise to display one’s own spirituality. The Lord rebuked their hypocrisy, and the whole Bible rebukes such a hypocrisy (see Isaiah 58:3-11). Now, how sad that today some legalistic systems that claim to be the true Church of Christ have officially instituted a legalistic system of fasting called Lent which is the same error of those who asked the Lord about fasting and to whom the Lord gave the explanation that we saw above. How sad that those who blame the Jews for not listening to the Lord Jesus and claim to be the true Church of Jesus Christ did not listen themselves to the explanation of the Lord.
So this purpose of fasting was always clear to the saints of the Old Testament, although it was wrapped up in the external ordinances of the Old Covenant related to seasons and times. The Old Covenant saints had to keep fasting in accordance with the Old Covenant, because although they were sons but they were like slaves as long as the Redeemer had not come yet (see Galatians 4:1-5). So they had to keep drinking the “old wine” until the new one came. When the “new wine” came, the saints accepted it with great joy by God’s Grace. But the self-righteous in all times, whether in the Old Testament or the New, seek to put the self in the front, and they declare their acceptance of the challenge of the Law that calls them to be perfect. And it is not by chance that the text quoted at the top of this article, wherever it comes in the Gospel accounts, it comes after the words of the Lord about the fact that He has come to call the sinners and not the righteous (i.e. those who think they are righteous, i.e. the self-righteous) to repentance. When the Lord was talking about true righteousness in contrast with self-righteousness, those legalistic people came and asked Him about fasting to test His conformity to the ordinances of men… This is usually what happens to biblical believers: self-righteous people see them eating meat in the season of Lent, and they exclaim: “Oh, you are not fasting?!” As if fasting were an ordinance to keep in order to earn credits with God… And they forgot that the Lord said that we should not show people that we are fasting… Thus the self-righteous seek to conform to some legalistic ordinances. Therefore the self-righteous fast as an ordinance, thinking that they are pleasing God by keeping a work called fasting in a certain season or time, as if the purpose of fasting were to get to please God by a work in order to get forgiveness of sins or other rewards. You remember that Pharisee in Luke 18 who stood in the temple and thanked God that he doesn’t need Him… That Pharisee mentioned the fact that he fasts twice per week as a merit in him… Thus they keep a commandment of fasting which is not in accordance with God’s Will, they keep the letter and not the reality of it, adding some traditions and ordinances that God has never instituted, like the forbidding of some foods, as if those foods were sinful in themselves. The Apostle Paul told us about this error of the last days: “forbidding to marry, [bidding] to abstain from meats, which God has created for receiving with thanksgiving for them who are faithful and know the truth.” (1 Timothy 4:3). These people are legalistic. What is sinful in meats? What is sinful in any food? One of the Roman Catholic programs on an official Roman Catholic TV revealed this error as the participant teacher said that what happened with Adam and Eve was the first case of refusal to fast!! He said that Adam and Eve refused to fast when they ate from the forbidden tree… This reveals their misunderstanding about what fasting is and about what that tree was. Fasting for them is an abstinence from some forbidden foods (what is so bad or forbidden in meats?!); they think that not abstaining from those foods is sinful as was the case with the forbidden tree. So according to this corrupted ungodly doctrine, it is okay to eat a forbidden food all along the year! It’s just in times of fasting, like the season of Lent, that they have to abstain from what is forbidden by God! What an ungodly idea! If it’s forbidden, then it is forbidden for always! As if the rest of the year does not belong to the Lord, or as if during the rest of the year the Christian does not belong to Christ and should not abstain from what is forbidden by God!… In the case of the forbidden tree, the fact of not abstaining from that food was the sin, and it was for always, and not just for some season, while not abstaining from meats and other foods is not sinful in itself, because eating of those foods is not sinful in itself. The Lord made this clear when He said: “Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man; but what goes forth out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” (Matthew 15:11)
This legalistic approach to the relationship with God is behind the many false practices that we see today. When fasting is a duty by which you try to earn credits with God, then you will put a high standard for yourself and for others (like a fast of more than forty days, even forty nine days), like the Pharisees who “bind burdens heavy and hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of men“ (Matthew 23:4); but you will then cut the fasting day at 12:00pm, and/or you will forbid some foods to yourself thinking that you are doing a great sacrifice, just like the Pharisees who after placing on people those heavy burdens, “will not move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:4) And this will encourage hypocrisy, as people wait the watch to tick at 12:00pm to rush to eat, or as people abstain from sinful things (like smoking) just for a season, the season of Lent, as if in the rest of the year that sinful act were not sinful…
Then again, there is another serious problem with Lent which is a liturgical fasting linked to the season that comes before another liturgical feast called Easter or Passover: it is the fact of undermining the importance of the Lord’s Day and of the Lord’s Table! Those who fast in Lent as an ordinance bear in mind that they are fasting “before the passion of our Lord which comes before His glorious resurrection”. Oh, but the Lord has died for our sins once for all and has risen on the third day! He is not dying every year, and He is not rising every year! His death for our sins was once for all, and as He has risen, He is alive, and He will not die again! But the liturgical year kills Him again and again every year, and therefore there are schisms because of this heretical approach to the Lord’s death: there is the Eastern Passover and there is the Western Passover, and each year Christ “dies” and “rises” on different days according to your denomination! This is one of the main things that have caused two major wrong reactions: Ecumenism and non-denominational groups. They have invented a liturgical year which is not in the Bible, then they have made a schism because of that non-biblical heresy, and then again they want to solve it with a non-biblical approach like Ecumenism or whatever! And yet Christ died for our sins once for all. We who are in Him have died with Him once for all to rise with Him once for all to newness of life, and all our days are in Him, and not just some season! So a Lent that comes once in a liturgical year and once every year undermines this truth of the once-for-all death of Christ, and by this it undermines the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Table which is the remembrance of that once-for-all death and resurrection. For more details about the Lord’s Day, please read our article The Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.
Those who in Christ have become free indeed from sin know that they are not to be enslaved to those ordinances of men that tend only to glorify the flesh and not God: “Let none therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in matter of feast, or new moon, or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come; but the body [is] of Christ. Let no one fraudulently deprive you of your prize, doing his own will in humility and worship of angels, entering into things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by the mind of his flesh, and not holding fast the head, from whom all the body, ministered to and united together by the joints and bands, increases with the increase of God. If ye have died with Christ from the elements of the world, why as [if] alive in [the] world do ye subject yourselves to ordinances? Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch, (things which are all for destruction in the using [of them]: ) according to the injunctions and teachings of men, (which have indeed an appearance of wisdom in voluntary worship, and humility, and harsh treatment of the body, not in a certain honour,) to [the] satisfaction of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:16-23) The children of God know that their whole life, and not some liturgical season, should be a life of separation from sin and from the world (the sinful system of the world), i.e. a life of death to sin and to the world. For them sin is not something from which we abstain just for a season to return to it later. The whole life of the true Christian is a life of obedience to righteousness, a life of repentance. Paul made this clear when he described his separation from the world in the following powerful words: “But far be it from me to boast save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom [the] world is crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14)
For the true child of God, fasting has a purpose, and we have seen what this purpose is. Whenever there is a serious controversy in the Church, whenever there is a difficult decision to make, whenever there is a council that will decide concerning a serious matter, whenever a minister will be ordained (all of these have examples in the Bible, especially in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles), and in brief whenever there is any difficult and/or urgent matter in the life of the individual or in the life of the Church as a whole or the local church, the believers fast and pray. The individual believer is not separate from the one body, the Church, so the individual believer should fast for community matters, and the Church should also fast for a matter related to an individual believer. The one body should always act as an organism, and not as an organization as many people wrongly imagine the Church today. And fasting is never separate from intensive prayer. The individual believer should be always on the alert, and should be ready to fast and pray intensively whenever he or someone he loves has a seriously hard situation, instead of going to humans for help. The Lord is his help! He should humble himself before the Lord, and he should rely on God alone! He should fast and pray for his beloved, for his neighbors, for his relatives and friends to come to Christ, for his country, etc. The same should happen in the Church as Christ’s body on earth. For instance, no evangelistic work, no ordination of a minister, no missionary work, etc, should happen without fasting with intensive prayer! How we need this today! We should fast in our fight of faith against our sins (the deeds of the flesh)! We should fast for the lost! We should fast and pray for our enemies! We should fast and pray when catastrophes happen, like the one that happened last year in Japan! In all expressions of God’s wrath we should remember that God wants people to repent and to be saved. We should fast and pray for this. The purpose is clear.
As you see, fasting is very important. Yes, many have gone into superstitions, because they have not known the right biblical purpose of fasting. But others have done the other extreme error, again because they did not understand the importance of fasting: they have rejected fasting altogether as unimportant and superfluous. If it were unimportant and superfluous, the Lord would not say that His disciples would fast after He leaves. May the Lord keep us from both extreme errors. We should fight the good fight of faith, and prayer is the tool which God uses to make our spiritual weapons in this fight divinely effective in our lives! And we have seen that fasting is linked to intensive prayer according to its purpose. And do not ever forget that the prayer which is accepted is only that which is done in the Name of Christ, i.e. in accordance with God’s Will, so we should always link fasting to the meditation of God’s Word to seek God’s answer to our prayers.
To read more about this subject:
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