Another Controversy: A Rabi Who Feasts with Sinners?

Sermon Passage: Mark 2:13–22 | Preached to Sovereign Grace | 04/25/2021

By Peder Kling

An Authority That's Not Stifling 

As we are beginning to get deeper into Mark’s gospel, we are beginning to really form a picture of who Jesus is in his identity, authority, and practical ministry. The gospel’s first verse opens up with a very clear word about Jesus’s identity—he is “Jesus Christ [i.e., the Messiah], the son of God”. Mark doesn’t wait a single sentence to tell us this. He’s the Messiah.

 

Then, as Jesus’s ministry begins to pick up in chapter 1 verse 21, it becomes very clear that the Messiah arrived with an uncompromised authority. He spoke with authority in his teaching as he called people to repent and believe in his gospel about the kingdom; and he demonstrated his authority over the curse every time he exorcised a demon, or healed a sick person. So far, so good. People are excited about him, and asking questions. 

 

Then, starting in chapter 2, Jesus’s authoritative ministry begins to raise controversy. Between chapter 2 verse 1 and chapter 3 verse 6, we find that Jesus’s ministry raises five different controversies. He claims authority to forgive sins (something only God can do); he hangs out with tax collectors who, in that day, would have actually made a man unclean; he doesn’t fast like a good Jew was required to do at the time; and he breaks the Sabbath regulations of the day. With each of these claims, the Jews became increasingly upset.

 

Now, what’s the big deal in all this? I could think of a number of important take-aways. He’s claiming to be God in some of the things he says and does in these controversies. He’s claiming authority over these stifling Jewish laws and traditions. He’s even claiming that some of them are entirely about him—today, we’ll see that he regarded fasting and feasting as directly tied to his person.

 

But perhaps more than this, we would do well to keep our perspective more broad. Jesus is establishing his authority—and, Jesus’s authority is something many Christians don’t want to hear about. They want to hear about his salvation, but not his authority over their lives, as their Lord. His authority is often regarded to be stifling, or restricting, to our freedoms and desires. But read what this passage is saying! Is Jesus’s authority not good for you?! Would you rather be left to yourself, or to other religious institutions like Judaism or Islam or our secular culture? Consider Jesus’s authority in this passage, and see how wonderful it is for you—authority that turns back the curse, and invites you to feast rather than fast. This isn’t a stifling authority. It’s an authority that, as we’ll see next week, makes the Sabbath into something that’s refreshing and good for you, rather than stifling and restrictive to you as many often regard the Sabbath and Sunday worship. Do not let Jesus’s authority grow tired in your life. 

 

Fasting and Feasting Under Jesus’s Authority

So with that, today’s passage requires us to consider Jesus’s authority over fasting and feasting, and what it means for us today. We’ll walk through our passage in three points—

 

1. The Pharisee’s Stifling Religion of Fasting

2. Jesus’s Liberating Arrival of Feasting

3. What Are We Going to Do About it?

 

1. The Pharisee’s Stifling Religion of Fasting

Let’s take a moment to consider the stifling religion of the Pharisees and their fasting. In our passage—after we read about Jesus feasting with sinners at Levi’s house—we read in verse 18, 

 

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”

 

So, we see in this question that the normal religion at the time included some degree of regular fasting. John’s disciples fasted, and the pharisees fasted. The reason why they fasted was not because the law required them to. In the Old Testament law, there was only one fast required for all the people—and, that was on the annual day of atonement, once a year. We’ll talk about the significance of that fast again in a little while. But for now, it’s worth seeing that Israel had established a religious culture and expectation of fasting—and, you see that expectation in this question addressed to Jesus, don’t we? The people essentially said, “We’re all fasting according to our wise and learned tradition and interpretation of the law. Why aren’t you and your disciples?”. 

 

Now, why did this culture of fasting develop in the Jewish religion? Let me give you two reasons.

 

Fasting unto the Praise of Man

One of the reasons which Jesus regularly picks up on, and warns us about, is that everyone desires to be accepted, acknowledged, and praised. People fasted to feel self-righteous and “better than thou”, as we often say. It wasn’t about God or repentance. They did it to be seen, praised, and be regarded as righteous. 

 

You might think of Jesus’s words in his sermon on the mount, Matthew chapter 6, verses 2–16. There, Jesus goes right through a number of religious works that can be seen by men, and he says, “when you give alms (verse 2)… when you pray (verse 5)… when you fast (verse 16)…do not [do it] like the hypocrites”, who express these things to other men rather than to God. They would parade themselves as they gave alms; they would talk loudly in their prayers; they would walk all gloomy-like every Monday and Thursday—the designated days for fasting. Jesus says of these people in Matthew, “they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

 

The momentary feeling of being praised by men is dangerously appealing and justifying, isn’t it? It makes you feel righteous—and in the eyes of the people praising you, you are righteous. The praise of man is a terrible desire of the flesh to pursue. It gives you a false security, and a fleeting reward in a momentary acceptance by men. Acceptance is something we need—God made us for fellowship with him and with others. That’s why everyone is demanding to be accepted today, regardless of what they believe or say about themselves. But if you are seeking this from the world, and not from God, your still guilty before God, aren’t you? If you are seeking security and peace-of-mind in being declared righteous by the world, then you are still guilty before God—and people who live this way know deep down that there is still a problem. People-oriented justification and religion never satisfies. You will always have to bow down to the next cultural standard, or the next expectation from your boss or your spouse or father or children. How many times have you heard someone say that they are still wounded and hurt because they could never make their father proud? People were created for fellowship and acceptance—only, this fallen world can’t give it. Only God can. Through Jesus, he offers a justification—an acceptance—that cannot be taken away because it is offered on the basis of Jesus’s blood and righteousness. Your unacceptable impurities are washed with his blood, and you are adorned with the very righteousness of Christ. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God”, to be accepted (1 Pet 3:18).You know what this sort of acceptance does? It gives you what Paul calls a “peace which surpasses understanding”—you are wholly accepted by your maker. What’s the point of seeking the praise and acceptance of man when you have this? What reward are you truly seeking in life? Fellowship with God and his blessings, or fellowship with this fallen and unpredictable world? When you are satisfied in being accepted by God, you are then free to be unacceptable before this world. 

 

Fasting with a Misplaced Zeal

So, the first reason why the Pharisees fasted was because they were seeking to be accepted and praised by other people. Now, this makes them sound like they were completely irreligious and cold against God. Believe it or not—they weren’t. They really were seeking God’s approval in their fasting. Paul tells us in Romans 10 that they “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”. They were zealous for God—very zealous. Only, their zeal did not lead them to God, but to hell. In a word, they thought they could earn God’s approval by becoming separated from this world. That’s literally what the word “Pharisee” means—"separated” from this world, to God, through their high piety and religion. They thought they could hasten the Messiah’s arrival with their self-righteous purity.

 

Now, if you adopt this kind of religion, your going to end up going overboard with your laws. A paranoid conscience always does—there’s safety in more laws, isn’t there? To keep yourself from breaking the big law, you start building up smaller laws to keep you out of compromising situations, or to give yourself some cushion by going “above and beyond”. That’s what the Pharisees were all about. The law requires only one fast each year, but they require it twice a week because they think it will make God happy. They are going above and beyond the standard, right? In reality, God hated them more for it. It brought them to love themselves and their traditions more than they loved God and his grace. 

 

In fact, their traditions eventually would overtake and nullify God’s actual standards for them. When you turn ahead in Mark’s gospel to chapter 7 verse 9, Jesus says to these people, “You have a fine way of rejecting the [actual] commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” He gives the example of how the Pharisees skirted around the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother”. The Pharisees essentially said that if you didn’t want to take time to care for your parents in their old age, you were allowed to give to God in the temple whatever you would have given to your parents. So, in the name of good-hearted piety and service to the Lord, you could just forget the 5th commandment altogether. You’re doing something more radical—your giving your things to God, not your parents. I’m sure God was pleased, wasn’t he? It’s what I call safe-guard legalism. You think you’re setting up safe-guards around God’s law by going beyond his law with more righteous behavior, but in reality your neglecting the law altogether.

 

I have found many Christians do this sort of thing with sins that they cannot kick—they put up safe-guards, and do drastic things in order to change their behavior or feel a little safe, secure, or pure for some time. Some men who struggle with purity put safe-guards on their computers. Yet, as the story goes, they often have a sneaky way to get around those safe-guards, don’t they? When I worked in a drug rehab facility, I remember alcoholics and drug addicts telling me that they would regularly pick up and move to the next town where they didn’t have any influences. But, there’s always the next town’s dealer, isn’t there? In fact, one man told me he left his hometown to escape alcoholism, but as he was driving away, he had an flask in his cupholder. These drastic measures aren’t bad, necessarily. They’re often wise. But they can’t save you. Safe-guard legalism cannot save you—whether its fasting twice a week, or doing some other drastic measure to keep yourself from sin. In fact, they often give you a false sense of righteousness and security because you did something radical. In the end, only Jesus saves you. Jesus claimed authority over sin when he pronounced to the paralytic (in the previous chapter), “son, your sins are forgiven”. We must repent by humbling ourselves before him and rest in his power and righteousness rather than our own. He gives you his word, Holy Spirit and prayer—three weapons that are far more powerful against your sin than any safeguard you might put up. As Jesus said to Paul, “my grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in your weakness”. And, there’s freedom there. There’s acceptance and hope there—in Jesus’s blood-bought forgiveness and fellowship and care for you. Don’t let your repentance and tactics against sin become worldly. You’re going to stifle yourself with methods that can’t save you, and make you right with God.

 

Do you see, now, how stifling, and restrictive the Pharisee’s religion was? At the surface level, they were seeking their God-given desire for acceptance in man rather than in God. They were enslaved to the praise of man. But more than this, they were slaves to their own paranoid conscience. In an effort to keep themselves right with God, they set up a whole system that was designed to quiet their paranoid and guilty conscience with man-made religion. Fasting will do the trick! And of course—in all these man-made traditions to please the crowds and quiet your paranoid conscience, you end up neglecting God’s law altogether. You stop loving and serving God in the ordinary lifestyle he calls you to—you don’t love your parents or your friends as he calls you to because you have a more radical way to serve God. 

 

The Real Meaning of Fasting on the Day of Atonement

Now, I said we would come back to the fact that the law required fasting only on the day of atonement. Why would that day, of all days, be a day of fasting in Israel? The law doesn’t give an explicit reason, but I think we can presume two reasons—really, two of the most obvious reasons why we should fast. First, the day of atonement was a day of dealing with sin. Sin is ugly—when a person feels the full weight of their sin, they aren’t going to be eating. They are faced with God’ wrath and anger. Perhaps you have heard really hard news, and your stomach churns so that you say at lunch time, “you know, I’m just not really cut out to eat at this moment”. Sin is a reason to fast—and sin is brought to everyone’s attention on the day of atonement as all the sins of Israel are brought to God for consumption on the altar. 

 

Then of course, the second reason to fast is to express that true food and strength is given to us by God and his grace. The first time I discovered the Bible as edifying to my soul in high school, I skipped meals because it was so new and refreshing to me. I didn’t want to take the time to eat! For a few days, people said they were worried about me! On the day of atonement, the people’s food was not physical, it was grace. After the sacrifice was consumed, they would go to bed that night feasting upon a clear conscience, knowing that God accepted them.

 

Now, how does that not force you to recognize that fasting is about God, and not yourself? The greatest problem with the Pharisee’s fasting is that they thought it was all about them—their righteousness and separation from this world. They didn’t recognize that it’s actually about God—his stomach-churning wrath against your sin, and his supremely edifying grace in Christ.

 

So, there’s the problem with the Pharisee’s fasting. It sought the praise of man, and it sought to earn God’s favor through false devotion and piety. It was focused on themselves, not on God. And so, it was a stifling way to deal with an ever paranoid and guilty conscience. 

 

That’s where Jesus steps into this mess with a liberating arrival. Only, he doesn’t fast. He brings a feast.

 

2. Jesus’s Liberating Arrival of Feasting

Now, why didn’t Jesus and his disciples fast? Jesus gives his answer in verses 19–22, where he goes through a list of three metaphors. Let’s consider the first metaphor, here. 

 

Jesus’s First Metaphor on Fasting

In verses 19–20, Jesus says that his disciples do not fast because—

 

Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day

 

I love this imagery. Jesus is saying that his arrival is akin to a life-long wedding party. His whole life was a party—no fasting. Just feasting! “What a friend we have in Jesus”, right? As long the disciples had Jesus, the bridegroom, they would feast as if they were wedding guests. So here, Jesus says it’s time to feast.

 

In fact, Jesus uses this metaphor to say that it would actually be inappropriate to fast while he’s around. Verses 18 and 19 even asks this in the form a question—“can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? … the cannot fast”. That’s not just a reference to social courtesies of the day. It’s a reference to the Pharisee’s religion and traditions. John MacArthur points out that there were actual rules against fasting at weddings. It seemed that there used to be a problem of Pharisees fasting at celebrations like weddings—they would be your 1st century wedding crashers with their gloomy faces and their self-righteous hypocrisy. You don’t fast at a wedding.

 

But then, verse 20 hangs over this whole wedding imagery with a dark and curious cloud. Jesus says “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day”. This was not an easy thing to say. In some ways, I’m sure it put a damper on the whole festive metaphor. The word is a strong word—“taken away, snatched violently and mercilessly”. Isaiah 53:8 actually tells us that “by oppression and judgment [the Messiah] will be taken away… cut off from the land of the living”. The wedding feast is going to end in bloodshed. This is Jesus’s first reference to his upcoming sacrifice for sins.

 

And boy, I can’t imagine the fasting that his disciples endured after he was taken away for three days. I’m not talking about the fasting that the Pharisees were doing as they were focused on themselves and their righteousness before God. I’m talking about real fasting—the sort of stomach-churned fasting that was expected when sin was exposed to God on the day of atonement. The fasting that was brought about naturally, through real pain and sorrow. The Lord—the bridegroom—was taken away mercilessly and unjustly. Here, the fasting Jesus predicted when he was taken away would be entirely about him, as fasting should be. 

 

But, the glory of Jesus is that he doesn’t leave his people fasting for long. After he was raised from the dead, he appeared to his disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke chapter 24. After walking with Jesus for awhile, we are told that they invited Jesus into their homes for the night. At this point, they still did not recognize that they were speaking with their resurrected Lord. Through the whole conversation, they thought they were talking to a stranger about their Lord’s death. This is where Pastor John MacArthur points out that it was Jesus who had to give them food—you know, in the same way you might have to make sure a really sad person eats? Verse 30 tells us, “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And [when they took it] their eyes opened, and they recognized him.” Just like that, the time of fasting was over—and, they had in their hands bread to feast upon, prepared by the Lord himself. 

 

And the feast continues. Before Jesus ascended, he gave his disciples the promise of his presence with them to the end of the age. More than that, he gave us his supper—the Lord’s Supper—as a sacrament to feast upon, and all his grace to be satisfied with eternally. And we of course look ahead to the marriage feast of the lamb, wherein we will feast to the Lord’s final victory over sin, death, and the devil. Jesus, our bridegroom, loves to feast.

 

The Last Two Metaphors on Fasting

Now, this bridegroom metaphor gives us a clear enough answer to why Jesus’s disciples didn’t fast. But what about the next two metaphors? How do they help us understand why Jesus’s disciples don’t fast? 

 

First, Jesus talks about stitchwork and patchwork. If you want to patch an old piece of clothing, you first need to shrink the patch before you stitch it onto your torn pair jeans. If you don’t, your patch is going to shrink after you stitch it onto you jeans, and it’s going to make a worse tear in your jeans. 

 

The second metaphor gets at the same thing. People at that time would store wine in wineskins—a bladder made out of animal skins. As a new wine fermented, and gasses were released, the wineskin was able to expand without being burst by the fermenting wine inside. Now, what if you took new wine and put it into an old wineskin that had already been stretched? The wineskin would burst and you’d lose both your wineskin and your wine.

 

With both of these metaphors, Jesus is saying that it’s time to receive Jesus and his new order of religion. He’s saying to the self-righteous, fasting, Old Testament Jews— “I am the new wine, and you are playing the part of an old wineskin with your mosaic laws and fasting. If you want to recieve me, a new wine, you must become new lest I burst you to pieces." Or to use the other metaphor, Jesus was saying—"I am the new patch, and you are the old garment. If you want me to piece you together, you must be made into a new garment lest I tear you apart."

 

Jesus came, and he came to liberate us from sin, and a lifestyle characterized by fasting and mourning. He came as a new wine, ready to feast. So, receive him as a new wineskin. 

 

This really is an awesome way to think about it Jesus’s kingdom, here. Jesus saying that he’s the only way to life and salvation—you have to let go of your old ways. I’m not talking about the Jews here, anymore. This same message comes to us, today. If we are to receive Jesus and the gospel, the new wine, we must let go of our worldly ways and religions. Pride, self-righteousness, self-seeking pleasures—they all have to go because they are incompatible with Jesus and the gospel. If you pour Jesus into a wineskin made of anything but true, humble, faith and repentance, then you’re going to burst. The only wineskin that can hold the fullness of Jesus Christ and his blessings in the gospel is the wineskin of spirit-wrought faith and repentance. Jesus won’t have it any other way. If he did allow it, there would be people feasting in pride and self-righteousness and anger before the bridegroom. But as it is, the feast is all about the bridegroom, with all eyes on him.

 

3. What Are We Going to Do About It?

So, what are we going to do about all this? There are three points of application, here. 

 

First, we must seek to be renewed by Jesus, and receive him by faith. Jesus and the gospel calls us to die to ourselves, and live to Christ by faith in his righteousness, joy, and peace. We must seek to always get rid of our old self, and receive the new self by faith in Christ’s transformative work upon our souls. This is not something we do as a self-improvement project. It’s something he does upon us as we go to him by faith in his blood, righteousness, and transformative work of the Spirit. As Paul famously said, “he who began a good work in you will carry it out until the day of completion” (Philippians 1:6). That’s our hope in Christ. And, the more work he does, the more wine we can hold for our greater joy, peace, and contentment in him. 

 

Second, we will fast. Now, I feel like I have struck a blow against fasting throughout this sermon. I want to make it clear that Jesus expects to fast—only, not like the Pharisees. In Matthew 6:16, Jesus says “when you fast”—not if, but “whenyou fast, [do not do it like the pharisees]”. So, we fast. We fast like Christians; like new wineskins seeking to deny our old self, and to receive Jesus. We fast because we love God, and we are grieved when we sin against him. We fast because we recognize our true sustenance is spiritual, in the bread of life (sometimes fasting helps you remember that). And we fast when we need wisdom—there are a few examples of that in Acts. Those are some reasons why Christians fast.

 

But in all this, we must remember our third point in application. We must feast well. While the bridegroom has left us bodily, he has not left us spiritually. He is with us today through his Spirit—and, he is doing a good work in us and around us every day. He is still turning back the curse, and moving his kingdom forward by his Spirit. He is still feeding his disciples through his word and sacraments. Quite literally, he left us instructions to enjoy the Lord’s supper—a sacred feast wherein he edifies our souls, by faith, with real food that resembles his body and blood. As the saints of Old feasted upon grace on the day of atonement when they fasted, so we feast upon grace over the Lord’s Supper with bread an wine. It’s greater blessing and feast, is it not?

 

And beyond this, don’t hesitate to establish within your life—and your family—a culture of feasting unto the Lord. Colossians 2:16–17 tells us that the feasts of the Old Testament pointed forward to Christ’s victory. This means that the driving reason for the Old Testament feasts is here with us, today. The victory is won—and, it’s a victory that should never grow tire of celebration. I believe sin overcomes many Christians because they never learned how to live a life of gratitude and feasting unto the Lord’s ever-present victory. Your guilt is atoned for, God’s wrath is satisfied. The Spirit is upon us, and we are accepted, protected, and blessed by God with every spiritual blessing he ever promised for his people. Set your minds on things above and celebrate with gratitude and joy! Do not set your minds on things of this earth, that you should utterly despair of sin and the curse.

 

Now, I don’t mean to be unrealistic. This isn’t always easy. Get practical. Every Saturday evening for dinner, in preparation for the Lord’s Day the next day, our family feasts to Christ’s victory. We sing regularly in the home—especially when we have a particularly sulky day. That’s the life of a Christian: fighting for joy, because victory has been won. So, feast and sing to the Lord, and never grow tired of his victory. 

 

Conclusion

So, there we have it. We first considered the Pharisee’s stifling religion of fasting. There, we learned that seeking God’s approval on your own merit does not do good things to your soul. Don’t trust in safeguards for your salvation. Trust in Jesus’s power and authority over sin—go to him for deliverance. Plead before him if you have to. 

 

Then, there’s Jesus’s liberating arrival of feasting. The new has come, and it’s so much better than the old. Do not hang onto your old ways. Receive Jesus’s free offer of salvation, life, and peace. 

 

And in all this, be sure that you seek the Lord—by faith—in your fasting and feasting, that he might be filled with gratitude as he renews you from the inside out. That, right there, is an authority worth submitting to. It’s not stifling, but liberating.