“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret;
and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
— Matthew 6:16–18 —
This Sunday our church comes to Jesus’s words about fasting in Matthew 16:16–18. In preparation, I have read many commentaries and articles on the subject, but one question lingers: How does the new covenant impact fasting?
In his immensely helpful chapter on fasting, Donald Whitney identifies fasting as numerically greater than baptism—77 uses of fasting in the Bible, compared to 75 uses of baptism. Yet, does that mean fasting is equally important for the new covenant Christian?
I am not sure. While the Bible regularly talks about fasting, most of the occurrences are found in the Old Testament. And while every word of Old Testament is useful for our instruction, I wonder how fasting relates to the covenants? Or to turn it the other way, is there a difference between fasting under the Law and fasting under the Gospel (i.e., the Law fulfilled)? Could that explain the difference in emphasis? That is what I will try to answer below.
A Paucity of Fasting in the New Testament
As any concordance study can show you, the New Testament speaks of fasting in only a few instances, and it is never addressed in the Epistles. In his commentary on Matthew, R. T. France observes,
In the NT as a whole there is little explicit instruction on fasting; it is simply mentioned occasionally (and never in the epistles) as something Christians sometimes did. Jesus himself fasted (involuntarily?) in the wilderness (4:2), but there is no other record of his doing so subsequently, and indeed it was the lack of fasting by him and his associates which was commented on in 9:14, though in his reply Jesus does envisage his disciples fasting at a future date (9:15). In Acts we are told of prayer and fasting on two occasions as an accompaniment to important decisions (Acts 13:2–3; 14:23), but not of any regular pattern of fasting. . . . Not until Didache 8.1 (late first century?) that we find instruction on regular fasting for Christians—twice a week, like the Pharisee in Luke 18:12. (The Gospel of Matthew, 254)
From this “paucity of evidence” in the New Testament, France concludes, “it is hard to decide whether the fasting Jesus here assumes is expected to be a regular practice (as in the Didache) or only on special occasions as in Acts. [Jesus] simply comments on the familiar Jewish practice with the expectation that his disciples will continue it” (254).
Certainly, France’s observation is correct that Jesus did not come to wholly abolish fasting (cf. Matthew 5:17). His words, “when you fast,” like “when you give” and “when you pray,” all employ the Greek word hotan (when) not ean (if), and thus, Jesus expects that fasting will continue. Yet, Jesus’s words also mark a distinct break from the old covenant, where in the Old Testament fasting is often conjoined with visible displays of affliction.
Putting on sackcloth and covering the head with ashes were the normative practice for repentant fasting in the Old Testament (see e.g., Psalm 35:13; Nehemiah 9:1; Ezra 4:3; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:5). Yet, now Jesus is explicitly stating, “Do not put on a gloomy face!” Rather, wash your face and anoint your head with oil, so that others do not know you are fasting. This is a remarkable change, and one that should best be understood in the shift from old covenant to new covenant.
Again, in the Old Testament individual and corporate lamentations were often accompanied by fasting. Likewise, in the only legislated fast, the people of Israel afflicted themselves on the day of atonement (see Lev. 16:29–31; 23:27–32). In short, because of God’s absence, the people of Israel fasted. This would also explain why the disciples of John the Baptist fasted. He was, in Jesus’s words, the greatest son born under the old covenant (Matthew 11:11), but now that the bridegroom has come, fasting has been replaced with feasting. This is exactly the point of Matthew 9:14–15,
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 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.
Just as John the Baptist himself said: Jesus is the bridegroom, John is the friend of the bridegroom, the one who prepares the way for the groom to receive his bride (John 3:25–30). Hence, the relationship between John and Jesus—and the difference between John’s fasting and Jesus’s feasting, is eschatological and covenantal. It is not simply a matter of personal ministry styles. Accordingly, when Jesus answers the question about fasting, he reveals an important truth—his presence means the cessation of fasting.
In fact, this is the very promise of Zechariah 8:19. Looking to a day when God would restore the kingdom to Israel, Zechariah says of fasting, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. Therefore love truth and peace.”
Clearly, Zechariah anticipates a day when the presence of the Lord, the redemption of Israel, and the establishment of a new covenant will turn fasting—a lamentation for God’s absence—into feasting. Why? Because the Lord has come.
This is Jesus point, as well. As long as he is with his disciples, they cannot fast, because that would indicate that the Messiah has not come. Yet, Jesus also speaks about a time when the bridegroom will be taken away and the disciples will fast again. The question is: When was the bridegroom taken away?
When Will Jesus Be Taken Away?
Answering that question, Donald Whitney says, “That time is now. Until Jesus, the Bridegroom of the Church returns, He expects us to fast.” And he may be correct, or at least partially correct. However, there are two important things to consider—one that contrasts his statement; another that confirms it.
First, the last thing Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel is “I will be with you always to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). If this statement means anything, it means Christ is NOT absent from his disciples. Rather, the bridegroom is present by means of his Spirit and his Word. Thus, with the kingdom present, the feasting which Zechariah 8:19 foretold has come and continues. In fact, the Lord’s Table is a (weekly) reminder of the presence of our Lord. Moreover, the best interpretation of “when the bridegroom is taken away” (Matthew 9:14–15) is not Jesus’ exaltation and ascension, but his arrest and crucifixion.
To be sure, Jesus has gone away to the Father’s right hand, but in another sense, he has not gone away. Unless we deny the unity of the Trinity and the testimony of the Scripture, we cannot believe Jesus has left his people. Rather, the “taking away” Jesus speaks of here is the forthcoming “violent and unwelcome removal” that Jesus will experience in the Garden of Gethsemane (France, Matthew, 356). Thus, the most likely reference to Jesus’s words is not the current state of the church, but the three days between death and resurrection.
Yet, while Jesus has not gone away en toto, his physical presence is undeniably absent. And this is the second observation, which coheres with Donald Whitney’s point: the marriage that has been promised by God to his people, has not yet been consummated. Even in Matthew’s Gospel, the image of marriage reappears twice in Matthew’s Gospel (see 22:1–14 and 25:1–13), and in both instances the parables Jesus tells are speaking of the eschatological future—a time when the bridegroom will return to claim his bride. Accordingly, in the present there is an ongoing desire for his presence and an abiding context for lamentation at Christ’s physical absence.
To better understand fasting therefore, we must understand Christ’s kingdom in its present and future aspects. And using the imagery of marriage, which Jesus does in Matthew 9:14–15, we can see clearly that we are the betrothed bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2), but we have not yet experienced the joy of the Lamb’s marriage supper (cf. Rev 19:6–9). Accordingly, there is an on-going place for fasting, as we await the Lord. John Piper calls this “new fasting,” a “dissatisfied contentment in the all-sufficiency of Christ,” that presses believers to feast on the Lord through the practice of fasting (A Hunger for God, 36–44).
Fasting in the New Covenant
Truly then, this new covenant, Spirit-empowered fasting is fundamentally different than fasting under the old covenant. For starters, we are not lamenting the absence of God, but looking to enjoy more of his presence. In other words, we do not fast in order to get God back into the land, like the Jews of the Old Testament. In Christ, we already have him and will never lose him.
Yet, we fast because in having an unbreakable covenant relationship with God, we also lament the ongoing sin in our lives and the temptations that pull at us to abandon our first love. Fasting, therefore, teaches us how strong sin is in us and how much we need the Spirit of Christ to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and strength. It’s in this way that we fast, and it is this covenantal shift, I believe, that explains Jesus’s words in Matthew 6:16–18.
Remember, in the Old Testament, the presence of the Lord was an external reality—Yahweh dwelt in the temple and the saints of old practiced their righteousness in external ways. In fact, many prophets rebuked Israel and their fasting, because it was only external (see Isaiah 58). Now, however, with the Spirit dwelling with his people and forming Christ in us, the temple of the living God, true fasting is not an external show of righteousness. It is instead, a practice of the heart and the body, which heightens our awareness of God and our need for him.
Indeed, for Christians to go around depicting gloom on our faces—whether we are fasting or not—actually tells a false gospel. Even those suffering the greatest sorrow can rejoice (2 Corinthians 6:7), because God has not left them or forsaken them. Paul can say that in plenty or poverty, he has learned to be content (Philippians 4:11–13). And out of that experience, he can say to all Christians, no matter their circumstances, “Rejoice in the Lord! I say it again, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
Paul’s command us to rejoice in what we have, not to fast in order to get what we need. Amazingly, in Christ we always have what we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3–4). Fasting therefore is not a practice that calls forth greater blessings from God; we have every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:1). Rather, fasting is a practice of recalibration and reawakening, so that the children of God might know what we have and what we need in the Lord.
Back to Matthew 16:16–18
Truly, this seems to be the correction Jesus is giving in his words recorded in Matthew 16:16–18. It explains the change in externals from the old covenant to the new. And it motivates fasting with the great reward of the Father’s presence.
In this way, fasting in the New Testament is not wholly abolished, but neither does it continue as it did in Israel. Accordingly, I believe we should practice fasting—the bodily denial of ourselves—in order to experience more of the Lord. Yet, such a practice is probably best expressed in heart-felt devotion and personal liberty, not a required regiment of weekly fasts. In the New Testament, we never find a mandated fast, as in the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16 and 23), nor do we find instructions about it from the Apostles.
At most, we see that it is a practice that happens on specific occasions (cf. Acts 13:1–3; 14:23), and in response to certain traumatic events (Acts 9:9; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27). As Jesus speaks in Matthew 16:16, he expects his followers will fast, yet his teaching is more about the heart of the practice and not its regimented continuation. Indeed, for those who practice fasting today, it certainly the motivation and intention which is most important.
Sunday, I will talk more about that in the sermon on Matthew 6:16–18. Until then, let me know what you think. How have you practiced fasting? How have you considered the way the new covenant impacts the practice of fasting? And what is missing from the observations made above? I’d love to here.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
Photo by Kamil Szumotalski on Unsplash
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