In the previous post, we looked at the beginnings of fasting and why the Israelites fasted. In this post, we will see why Jesus and the early church fasted.
When Jesus Fasted
Did you know that Jesus fasted? There is only one recorded account of Jesus fasting, but it was recorded by all three of the Gospel writers (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to fast for 40 days. During His time alone with no food or water, Jesus was repeatedly tempted by Satan. Jesus, God in human form, experienced all of the same temptations we face and experienced the weakness of his human body (Hebrews 4:15). He was able to overcome the temptation to be both an example for us in His life and a sacrifice for us in His death. Jesus used the words of God to resist temptation and was strengthened. It is recorded that Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.
A New Type of Fast
Jesus fasted to be strengthened and demonstrate power over the flesh, and He expected His followers to fast as well. His instructions on fasting begin with the words, “When you fast..” (Matthew 6:16) Jesus does not say, “if you fast”. It is assumed that His followers will fast. (We’ll look at Jesus’ specific instructions about fasting in the next post.). However, Jesus does say that his disciples were not fasting during the time while He was with them on the earth (Matthew 9:14). Why not?
Fasting was heavily associated with mourning or desperation often due to sin or threat of danger. In the Old Testament (Old Covenant Promise), God is called the husband of Israel, but here we see Jesus claiming to be Israel’s Bridegroom. Israel had been longing for the coming of the Messiah who would deliver them from their oppressors. They were desperate for him to save them, and finally Jesus is saying, He is here! The Messiah is here! God is here! This is an amazing claim; one that Jesus makes throughout the Gospel writings.
If we are followers of Jesus under this New Covenant Promise, we have God’s presence with us and in us through His Holy Spirit. So does that mean we no longer fast? If we finish reading the passage, Jesus says, “but there will come a time when the Bridegroom will be taken away. Then my followers will fast.” Here Jesus is referring to His human form being taken away when He ascends to heaven. Then his followers will fast.
Why Do We Fast?
Jesus goes on to say that new wine can’t be put into old wineskins. The fasting we are to do now is not one of Old Testament tradition (old wineskins). There is a completely new motivation for our fasting because there is a new order of things (new wine). When we read these passages about fasting, we can see that Jesus is saying that fasting is taking on a new form. There is a New Covenant (a New Promise) – God is with us through his Spirit. Jesus is not telling us to throw fasting out completely, rather He’s telling us that our motivation for fasting should be different because of this new reality.
Unlike the Israelites, who fasted because they were waiting for the Messiah, we fast because we have experienced the transforming work of God in our lives and we desire all that He has for us. We do not long for His presence because we already have it! We long to know Him better, we long to know His will, we long to submit ourselves to Him, because we know He is good and we recognize Him as King and Saviour (Philippians 3:7-11). We position our hearts toward Him and His ways. We focus on our relationship with Him and hearing His voice during our time of fasting.
The next post will focus on Jesus’ instructions for fasting and how fasting was practiced in the early church.