Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 9:15c “. . .as long as the bridegroom is with them?. . .”
In Jesus’ day, wedding festivities lasted seven days. For oppressed, poor, working people, the wedding celebration provided many the only week of sheer joy they would experience in a lifetime. Jesus could not have drawn a more vivid word picture to describe the pure gladness He intends us to enjoy in His presence. Are you happy in Jesus? If not, find out why, and rediscover the joy of salvation.
Matt. 9:15d “. . .but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken
from them,. . .”
While basking in the full glow of Christ’s presence, fasting would be inappropriate, but an appropriate time was coming. Though Jesus is celebrating as the bridegroom at a wedding, “across the light there flits a shadow” (Maclaren). “Be taken from” portends a violent removal. Christ would be jerked from the twelve.
Jesus saw the menacing cross looming large before Him. From His betrayal on Thursday night until His return on Sunday night, the twelve would be seemingly alone in hostile surroundings, sheep without a shepherd in the midst of wolves.
The contrast between their three glorious years with Jesus versus their three nightmare days without Him could hardly have been starker. Their mourning will be short-lived, but real nonetheless (JN 16:20). Jesus felt the need to warn them. Resurrection will bring joy, but the agony of crucifixion will have to come first.
This early prediction by Jesus of His death reminds us the cross was not a failure He stumbled into, but His reason for coming. The cross was fulfillment, not disappointment. He came “to give his life a ransom for many” (MT 20:28).
Most reformers who die for a cause start out hoping to succeed, but then disappointingly watch the tide turn against them. Joan of Arc, Nathan Hale, and John Brown eventually died for their causes, but all three at first intended to win.
Jesus, though, never had any illusions. His inevitable death at Calvary was before Him the whole time. Christ always saw the cross threatening at the end of His road, yet never swerved one step from the path of duty. Jesus knew what horror awaited Him, but for you and me, stayed to the course. He taught us that walking the path of duty always requires courage. Fear is ever an obstacle we have to overcome to be effective for God–fear of ridicule, failure, the unknown, being wrong. Faith often entails not removal of fear, but moving forward despite fear.
Matt. 9:15e “. . .and then shall they fast.”
Just prior to the joy of resurrection, in those three horrific days of rejection, the twelve would be so overwhelmed with emotion that food would lose its appeal. Be careful to note, Jesus’ prediction here was merely a statement, not a command.
The New Testament nowhere makes fasting a commanded observance. The first believers decided fasting did have genuine spiritual value for us, but when to fast, and whether or not to fast, was left totally to each individual’s own discretion.
The Apostles and other early Christians did fast on various occasions, but it was never done as a ceremonial rite to earn merit or impress God. Believers are to fast voluntarily, and for two reasons: to aid concentration and to express concern.
Fasting aids concentration by helping calm sensory overload. When tuned in too much to the five senses, we have trouble experiencing the sixth sense, faith. Often we read a chapter in the Bible, only to realize after the last verse we cannot remember anything we just read. Our mind was elsewhere. This is in microcosm what happens too often in life at large. We’re not zeroed in on spiritual things.
When setting aside leaders for the first missionary journey, the church at Antioch needed clear focus, thus they fasted (AC 13:2). When ordaining elders for local churches, Paul and Barnabas fasted to aid their concentration (AC 14:23). If a married couple desires a closer walk with God, they are allowed to abstain for a stated amount of time from sexual intimacy in order to fast and pray (1 Cor. 7:5).
Often we are unsure of God’s direction. Fuzzy times call for us to focus, to zoom in. Spiritual concentration comes by intent, not accident. We can be so busy and preoccupied with affairs, pleasures, and burdens that we lose sensitivity to God’s presence. We sometimes forget (2 Peter 1:9) who we are and what we are about. Fasting helps drown out competing noises, and thus aids concentration.
Believers fast to express concern. Cornelius, troubled about his relationship with God, and desperately wanting to know God for sure, was fasting when the angel came to him (AC 10:30). Saul, knocked to the ground by a bright shining light, blind and trembling, having had the props of life kicked from under him, fasted three days (AC 9:9), until Ananias came with a comforting word from God.
At times believers need to show concern. Christ is never absent from His children in fact, but can be in feeling and blessing. We should be grieving over the impotence of the North American church. We ought to be sad about the ineffectiveness of North American Christians (that’s you and me). Am I overstating the case too much by saying God seems to be far away? In these days when we sense God’s power in us waning, retreat to pray and fast. It’s time to get serious.
If we feel He is mourning toward us, we should lament. Our concern over this should be so great that food does not matter. In fact, nothing should matter except regaining the consciousness of God’s full presence. John Newton is right,
How tedious and tasteless the hours, When Jesus no longer I see!
Sweet prospects, sweet birds, and sweet flowers
Have all lost their sweetness to me.
The midsummer sun shines but dim;
The fields strive in vain to look gay;
But when I am happy in Him, December’s as pleasant as May.
Dear Lord, if indeed I am Thine, If Thou art my sun and my song,
Say, why do I languish and pine? And why are my winters so long?
O drive these dark clouds from my sky;
Thy soul-cheering presence restore;
Or take me unto Thee on high, Where winter and clouds are no more.
When did we last languish over the lack of God’s power in our lives? When did we last say if we cannot enjoy His fullness here, then take us on to Heaven? To kindle and keep alive the warmth, intimacy, passion, and power of our relationship with Christ, we ought to be willing to do whatever it takes, including fasting.
A word of caution: if we choose to fast, whether for concern or concentration, be sure it springs from genuine inner compulsion. A fast is meaningless if done solely as a ritual. Inner conditions should determine outer circumstances. Our deeds are bogus if not matched by a strong inner spiritual motivation. “Wherever in religion we do what is unnatural, we tend to become artificial” (Glover).
Our text is an interesting study, combining in one verse the opposite themes of gladness and sadness. In the best and worst of times, the spiritual realm yields plenty of opportunities to display the full gamut of emotions. At any stage in life, there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh (EC 3:4). If sad, fast. If glad, feast.
Feel free to enjoy happy days. Celebrate when and what we rightly can. “Disservice to ourselves is not necessarily service to God” (Glover). On the other hand, when God’s sensed presence fades, set self to discipline and refocusing.