Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day (Mark 2:18–20 ESV).
Fasting. Just doesn’t sound all that fun does it? Not something you’re gonna invite your buddies into—“Hey guys, we’re going to do some fasting next week, want to join in?” Yeah right. I’ll take a rain check on that. Hand me my Big Mac, fries, and Coke! What is this fasting thing all about? Is it biblical? Should Christians do it? If so, how do we do it?
One of my favorite theological journals is the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS). In the most recent volume, there is an article from Sigurd Grindheim, a professor of New Testament at Fjellhaug International University College in Oslo, Norway. The article title is “Fasting That Is Pleasing to the Lord: A NT Theology of Fasting” [JETS, 58/4 (2015) 697–707]. Professor Grindheim addresses the passage above from Mark 2, and extends a challenge to traditional Christian thinking on the spiritual discipline of fasting.
His article seeks to discern whether the NT spiritual life calls for either exceptional or habitual fasting. The exceptional fasting approach is rare rather than routine, and attached to largely significant moments, decisions, or spiritual efforts in the will of God. The habitual fasting approach is routine rather than rare, and in so doing, prepares a person for those bigger moments needing discernment in the will of God. One may say that the exceptional approach is more impulsive, and the habitual approach is more preparatory. In saying this, I don’t mean anything necessary negative about one or the other. For one may say that being impulsive is negative because its reactionary, but another may say being habitual is negative because it is legalistic.
Professor Grindheim attempts to argue for a new kind of fasting, not merely for exceptional practice, but also at the level of motive. He describes Old Testament fasting as accompanying (1) prayer, (2) mourning, (3) humility, (4) repentance of sins, and (5) direction from the Lord (cf., 2 Sam. 12:16–23; Esth. 4:16; 1 Sam. 31:13; 1 Chron. 10:12; Ps. 35:13; 1 Kgs. 21:27–29; 1 Sam. 7:6; Jon. 3:5; Neh. 9:1; Judg. 20:26; Dan. 9:3). The only required fast of the OT accompanied the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27–32). Later on in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, the Jews are practicing the discipline more regularly as indicated by the very early Christian document called The Didache,
And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week; but do ye keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation (the sixth) day”(Didache 8:1 AFL-E).
Jesus himself references this regular practice of the Jews in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9–14.
Out of this regular practice flows the dismay of both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist when they approach Jesus in Mark chapter 2:18–20. In other words, they are asking Jesus why his disciples don’t fast twice a week like the rest of us? Most likely for both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, they participated in regular fasting, which was motivated by eschatological and messianic hopes. So, their question to Jesus is not merely about religious practice but also an indirect inquiry about his identity. So as to say, “Have they stopped fasting because they believe you are the Messiah? Are you the Messiah?”
Whereas the Old Testament (OT) devout were characterized by their longing for the presence of God, New Testament (NT) believers are characterized by their joy at his presence. OT believers were yearning to experience God’s favor; NT believers rejoice that they always enjoy his favor through Jesus Christ (698).
He goes on to explain that Jesus would fulfill the Day of Atonement on his cross. Therefore, Jesus’ presence includes the complete forgiveness and removal of sin, so that his presence is marked by joy and exultation, not mourning or grief.
We can all agree with such thinking. We can all agree that the disciples had no reason to fast because Jesus was present with them—the bridegroom was there with them—
Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” But what does Jesus mean when he says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day?
Professor Grindheim argues that this is a matter of debate among scholars,
Scholars debate whether this refers to the relatively short period between Jesus’ death and his resurrection, or whether it refers to the long period between Jesus’ death and his second coming (699).
He spends the next several paragraphs in his article choosing and defending the former interpretation over the latter; that is, the bridegroom’s “taking away” refers to the three days in the tomb, not to the time between Jesus’ ascension and second coming. He references texts such as John 16:20 about the disciples’ grief being transformed into joy. He also appeals to the many promises of Jesus to be with his disciples (eg., Matt. 28:18–20). He claims that the mediated presence of Jesus to the church through the Holy Spirit (John 14:23; Eph. 2:21–22) is also reason to believe that the church age is not a time of mourning for Jesus’ presence, but rather a time of rejoicing because we are indeed experiencing Jesus’ presence. He further and finally builds one final evidence of Christ’s presence with his church—the fellowship of suffering. Grindheim doesn’t see suffering as a sign of Jesus’ absence, but rather as a sign of his presence and intimate fellowship with his people as they suffer for their identification with Jesus (Rom. 8:17; Phi. 3:10; Col. 1:24; 1 Pet. 4:13); further still, such suffering is a cause for joy, not a cause for mourning.
From Grindheim’s perspective, when Jesus calls for “new wine to be put in new wineskins,” he is saying that the old mindset (i.e., anticipating Messiah and eschatological realities) and old practices (twice weekly routine fasting) are obsolete. Now, as I believe Grindheim would say, we have a new mindset (i.e., new wine = the Messiah has come) that requires new practices (i.e., new wineskins = a new kind of fasting).
He then spreads his discussion beyond the Mark passage into the rest of the New Testament and a little bit into the early church writings and practice of fasting. Regarding the early church, he only quotes The Didache 8:1 (see above), which he dates much later than the most recent scholarship would suggest, which would place it possibly in the 40’s. Therefore, the Christian practice of regular fasting on two days a week is very early. It’s early practice doesn’t necessarily make it correct, but it can’t be dismissed because it is late, as Grindheim seems to suggest. It is also demonstrable that a period of fasting accompanied the act of baptism (Did. 7:4).
He takes on several NT texts on fasting (Matt. 4:2; 6:16–18; Col. 2:20–23; Acts 9:9; 13:2–3; 14:23). Regarding the temptation of Jesus, he argues that the 40 day fast is not example for us to follow, but rather a unique undertaking by Jesus to prepare himself to be the second Adam and faithfully endure the temptations of the devil and continue his Messianic mission. In Matthew 6, Jesus is giving instruction about the practice of spiritual disciplines and the danger of hypocrisy. Grindheim is too strong when he writes, “Jesus’ point is not to instruct his disciples to fast, but to warn them against hypocrisy” (703). No, Jesus isn’t teaching them to fast; he assumes that they will fast, so much so that he commands them how to do it regularly without being hypocrites. Paul in Colossians is not directly dismissing fasting as a practice; rather he is dismissing wrong motives behind fasting as a practice—self-imposed piety has no value in opposing self-indulgence. Paul is clear in Romans and Galatians that what the law could not accomplish through the sinful flesh, God himself has accomplished through his Son and by the Spirit. The motive of fasting must be a desire for the control of the Spirit over the flesh, a desire for the word of Christ to dwell in us richly and to become our “food.” Paul’s own practice of fasting in Acts 9:9; 13:2–3; and 14:23 finally forces Grindheim to admit that there are some, exceptional occasions when fasting is legitimate and appropriate for the Christian and the church.
However, in the very next paragraph, Professor Grindheim goes on to say,
The baseline for Christian piety must therefore be that fasting is not an appropriate expression of Christian devotion to the Lord. NT differs from OT piety in that God has now come near in his Son and through his Holy Spirit. Even though believers long for the Second Coming of Christ and the visible manifestation of his rule (Matt. 6:10; 1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20), NT piety is characterized by intimacy, not distance. The predominant sentiment of believers living in the age of fulfillment is joy, not grief (Phi. 3:1; 4:4–7; 1 Thess. 5:16). They therefore have no occasion for fasting (705).
My difficulty with Grindheim is that he struggles to see how joy and fasting can be in continuity and continuation into this new age—a new age to which I feel he attributes too much fulfillment, nearly eliminating some forms of Christian practice and piety. The dominant message of the NT writers is that the kingdom is both already and not yet here, which he finally does acknowledge at the end of his article,
The Christian fulfillment of fasting should therefore be to spread the joy of Christ’s presence and to demonstrate it in action by sharing with the needy (cf. Isa. 58:3–7). Nevertheless, while joy has replaced fasting as a habitual expression of Christian piety, fasting is not prohibited in the NT. Christian experience is still characterized by the tension between the already and the not yet, between the realized and future eschatology. Normal Christian experience will therefore still have room and need for other expressions than manifestations of joy (parentheses mine, 707).
It would be interesting to know whether or not Grindheim feels we should pray habitually or give offerings habitually, or only exceptionally? Proportionately, prayer is spoken of far more in the NT than fasting, and I think that guides us some in our practice of spiritual disciplines. No one disagrees that Mark 2:18–20 is transforming the way that we must think about and practice fasting. It must not become religious ritual that seeks the reward of other religious people, and it’s motive and practice must adjust to the realities of Christ’s work in death and resurrection. It must come—whether habitually or exceptionally—out of the joy and longing we have because of and for Christ. And there is no reason to be rigid in our practice of the discipline, but rather a practice rising from our love and liberty. Isaiah, the OT prophet understood these things,
“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to oppress himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:3–7).
So what about you? Have you ever fasted before? What is your motivation to fast? Do your motivations sync with the NT transformation of fasting in light of Jesus’ person and work? What are the exceptional times that you feel require a season of fasting? Do you think habitual fasting is appropriate sometimes? If so when, and how do you prevent it from becoming an empty ritual? May the joy of the Lord become your utmost hunger, and may the Lord renew your minds to discover his aim for you in Christ, using every detail of your life, until the kingdom fully and finally comes.