One of the things that I have been challenged to do as an effort to nurture a hunger for God’s word is to study Jesus’ replies to the questions/accusations that were raised by His opponents. Matthew 9 is one such passage that fascinates me because of the seemingly enigmatic (at least in my mind) replies that Jesus gave in response to the disciples of John. It seems as if Jesus was ‘side-stepping’ the question when asked why His (Jesus’) disciples did not fast as the Pharisees or they themselves did (Matthew 9:14).
The reason the issue was a point of contention for the disciples of John was because fasting and praying was a strict religious practice exercised by those who had repentant hearts and were devoted to spiritual discipline. The practice of fasting was also prescribed in the Old Testament for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29, 31; 23:27, 32) and to do so was an act of obedience and submission.
In other words, when Jesus’ disciples were not fasting, in the mind of John’s disciples, it indicated that they were not interested in or committed to spiritual matters. Moreover, for a spiritual leader to allow his disciples to ‘chill’ in such ‘fundamental practices of faith’, would call that leader’s credibility (at least in the aspect of religious devotion) into question… in this case, Jesus.
Jesus’ reply was fascinating because Jesus did not give reasons simply to answer the question or the underlying accusations. Rather, Jesus corrected the fundamental ideas of John’s disciples. Essentially, in His reply, Jesus does not negate the importance of fasting; at that point of time, it was just not an appropriate time to fast.
Jesus explains further by identifying Himself as the bridegroom mentioned in Isa 54:5: “For your Maker is your husband, The Lord of hosts is His name; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel; He is called the God of the whole earth.” Isa 62:5: “…And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” Hosea 2:19-20: “I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me… I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.”
Therefore, since the ‘bridegroom’, the reason for fasting, is here… it would be inappropriate for His disciples to fast. Jesus further explained the intensity of that inappropriateness with the examples of using an unshrunk cloth to patch old clothing and to fill new wine in old wineskins (youth, ask your parents or YD teachers to explain this to you… or for the really inquisitive, maybe it could be a mini-experiment under adult supervision). But more than that, Jesus also stressed that He would not be ‘patching up’ or ‘filling’ the old Jewish traditions (they had served their purpose); rather, He had come to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). One commentator mentions, “…new forms are needed for His kingdom and new practises must accommodate the new life of discipleship to Jesus… discipleship to Jesus supersedes rigid legalistic adherence to traditional practises of Judaism.” (Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary, 368-369)
Today, this passage serves as a reminder that I need to be watchful about why I study the Bible, pray, fast, come for corporate worship on Sunday — because the truth of the matter is that sometimes these could very well be the practices that are ‘expected’ of a ministry staff or a Christian or, worse, just items on a to-do list. The message that Jesus is highlighting here is that when it comes to being His disciple, it is more than these practices, it requires a true and personal relationship with Him; it is a heart issue.
I will be praying for you. Will you pray for me?
Timmy Ng Kewen
A brother in Christ