Bible boy_reading_bibleThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 9:14-17

A Question About Fasting

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast,[a] but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

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In 2013, I wrote an extensive post about Luke’s account of this encounter (Luke 5:33-39) which explains every aspect of understanding what John the Baptist’s followers were asking and why.

Mark’s version (Mark 2:18-22) is included in the three-year Lectionary.

That said, I never heard an adequate explanation of this episode in Christ’s ministry until I read John MacArthur’s sermon and Matthew Henry’s commentary two years ago.

To summarise, John the Baptist was in prison when his followers asked Jesus about fasting (verse 14). John the Baptist told them earlier to follow Christ (John 3:28-30):

28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”[j]

However, not everyone heeded that message.

One reason was their desire to imitate John the Baptist, who fasted. Yet, he fasted because he took special Nazirite vows, which only two other men in the Bible took: Samson and Samuel. My post on Luke 1:5-17 explains more about the austere way of life they adopted with regard to appearance, food and drink. Therefore, fasting was not meant for everyone.

Another reason for John’s followers to fast was that a number of them took on a more legalistic lifestyle, following the Pharisees’ instruction to fast twice a week, even though Mosaic Law specified only one day of fasting a year — on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. John’s people thought they were doing the right thing.

A third reason is that not all of his followers believed Jesus was the Messiah. This was true even when Paul was evangelising. Acts 19:1-7 tells of his journey to Ephesus, where John the Baptist’s followers had evangelised. Ephesus is in modern-day Turkey, so their message had travelled far and wide:

Paul in Ephesus

 1And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. 7There were about twelve men in all.

Returning to Matthew, Jesus asked whether wedding guests mourn at a wedding feast where the bridegroom is present (verse 15). He added that there would be time to fast when He was no longer among them — His crucifixion. In that response, He used John the Baptist’s words in the aforementioned passage from John’s Gospel so that they could better understand it.

The reason a wedding feast and bridegroom were used here is that the Jews would have understood that no one fasted during such a happy occasion.

Jesus went on to employ two more well known analogies, those of cloth and wineskins (verses 16, 17). If you have ever tried to patch old cloth with unshrunk cloth, you’ll see it doesn’t work very well and tears along the stitching. The same held true for leather, which was the ancient receptacle for wine.

New wine had to go into new wineskins. And so it is with following Christ. He came to abolish the old system of legalism. This is what He was telling John the Baptist’s followers.  It is a pity that millions of Christians insist on following their own man made rules of behaviour which go far beyond the New Testament. There is much similarity between them and John’s people.

But there was another issue involved. Jesus was indirectly telling John’s followers that, unlike them, His disciples were unaccustomed to a strict Nazirite system and would not be able to follow it.

Matthew Henry explains:

Christ’s disciples were not able to bear these severe exercises so well as those of John and of the Pharisees, which the learned Dr. Whitby gives this reason for: There were among the Jews not only sects of the Pharisees and Essenes, who led an austere life, but also schools of the prophets, who frequently lived in mountains and deserts, and were many of them Nazarites they had also private academies to train men up in a strict discipline and possibly from these many of John’s disciples might come, and many of the Pharisees whereas Christ’s disciples, being taken immediately from their callings, had not been used to such religious austerities, and were unfit for them, and would by them be rather unfitted for their other work.

If our Lord had imposed such a system on the disciples, they would be unable to pay attention to His teachings and then evangelise.

Jesus showed a great deal of mercy to His disciples. He did not wish to put them — or us — off by instituting all manner of onerous tasks and habits. By exacting too much, they could have fallen prey to temptation. Henry adds:

… such is Christ’s care of the little ones of his family, and the lambs of his flock: he gently leads them. For want of this care, many times, the bottles break, and the wine is spilled the profession of many miscarries and comes to nothing, through indiscretion at first. Note, There may be over–doing even in well–doing, a being righteous over-much and such an over–doing as may prove an undoing through the subtlety of Satan.

This is why so many people from legalistic congregations fall away from the Church. They have grown up with a number of prohibitions. They end up rejecting not only those — and rightly — but then go on make the serious mistake of rejecting the Church and Jesus Christ altogether.

John MacArthur says:

… a true believer forsakes legalism.  Forsakes legalism.  We see that in the remaining part of the passage.  He says no to the…to trying to sew a new patch in an old robe, to try to fill up an old wineskin with new wine.  He sees there’s no connection.  He knows you’re not begun in the Spirit and perfected by the law or by some routine or some ritual.  He knows you don’t get entangled again with a yoke of bondage…

Let us pray that those escaping a legalistic upbringing do not reject the Bridegroom or His Bride. May they continue to pray, study the Bible and find a denomination which emphasises Christ’s infinite grace, mercy and love.

Next time: Matthew 9:18-26

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