Fasting and Other Forms of Devotion to God

Title: Fasting and Other Forms of Devotion to God


Text: Matthew 9:14-17

Date: January 11th, 2009

After the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s break, we are back in the Book of Matthew continuing verse-by-verse in chapter nine. A couple of months ago I finished with the passage describing the calling of Matthew the tax collector, and now I’d like to pick up with the passage of Jesus being questioned about fasting. Matthew 9:14-17, “Then John’s disciples came and asked him, ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from the; then they will fast. No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.’” When we read a passage like this we finish with the feeling that something profound has been said, we just don’t understand what it means. We are tempted to nod our heads in agreement and then leave shaking our heads and saying, “I should know what Jesus is talking about but I don’t.” In our age today we are likely to grown impatient because the teaching isn’t automatically and obviously “relevant” to our daily lives. Even in the church, the trend today is to “dumb down” every biblical teaching to some immediate and practical application that can give us success or advantage in modern life. If this is the case, the teaching that Jesus gives us today in this passage will disappoint us because it’s dealing not with some principle of success in life for us to master and apply for better living; it’s dealing with the whole topic of how to express devotion to God. Why is our particular expression of devotion to God important? Because in every age and in every cultural context each individual must figure out a way to express himself or herself to God. Language is obviously an important part in expressing devotion to God, but it doesn’t stop there. Other cultural forms are important as well. What we see in this passage is Jesus explaining how time and place and situation and circumstance effects how one expresses devotion to God. In this particular instance, fasting – or the practice of going without food or water or something for the express purpose of focusing attention on God – is used as an example of a particular form of expression of devotion to God. But Jesus shows that this important devotion form, fasting, isn’t always appropriate; sometimes other devotion forms are better. Jesus teaches us the important lesson to keep the main thing the main thing – devotion to God — and not get fixed on a particular form to express that devotion. We need to be flexible in our forms of devotion, but absolute in our devotion to God in whatever form best accomplishes that. What Jesus teaches us is extremely relevant for our devotional lives, inside and outside the church. Let’s look at three points about expressing devotion to God.

First, there were older (B.C., before Christ) devotional forms. Matthew 9:14, “Then John’s disciples came and asked him, ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’” Fasting was a tried and true way of expressing serious attention and focus on God by usually abstaining from eating or drinking, and instead devoting oneself to prayer and reflecting on scripture. For example, it was Moses who fasted for many days on Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. His fasting was an expression of his commitment and devotion to God. The Jews all understood what fasting represented and it was a recognized form of devotion to God. That’s why the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and were curious why his disciples didn’t appear to keep the tradition of fasting. The real question was probably, “Why Jesus don’t you insist on your disciples fasting like the disciples of John and the followers of the Pharisees?” What they were really wondering about was why didn’t Jesus and his disciples follow the same traditional devotional forms that most pious and spiritual Jews followed? That seems like a reasonable question. After all, didn’t abstaining from food and drink focus the mind and improve concentration on God through prayer and reflection? Yes, certainly. Like I said before, fasting was a popular and widely respected devotional form that all devoted Jews practiced. Why didn’t Jesus and his disciples follow such a basic and essential devotional practice? Fasting had actually proven itself to be a very useful discipline in communicating with God. In fact, Jesus used fasting in relating with His Heavenly Father, particularly during his time of temptation in the wilderness where he spiritually battled Satan and defeated him. Without prayer and fasting it’s unlikely that Jesus would have won the victory over sin and Satan. But as for his disciples, Jesus evidently didn’t emphasize or advocate fasting as a form of devotion to God during his earthly ministry. Why not? I’ll explain why in a minute, but for right now, it has to do with what is appropriate. But the Jews, particularly the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees, didn’t understand that just because a devotional form is used in the past with great success doesn’t necessarily mean that it can always be used successfully in all places at all times. There may be times and places where fasting isn’t appropriate, just like all devotion forms, can be appropriate or inappropriate in certain circumstances. We must never absolutize any particular form of devotion just because it has been used widely in the past or because it is tradition. We see this happening in the Christian church when traditional devotion styles or forms are elevated to absolute status — everyone is expected to express his or her devotion to God through traditional forms. We need to recognize that the way people in the past expressed devotion to God may or may not be appropriate for us in our time. For example, just because Abraham built an alter and sacrificed a ram in the Old Testament doesn’t mean we should express our devotion to God by doing so. There may be more appropriate forms for us today to express our devotion to God. John’s disciples and the Pharisees were confused on this point, but we don’t have to be.

Second, there were contemporary (during Jesus’ time) devotional forms. Matthew 9:15, “Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from the; then they will fast.’” What was Jesus’ point? It was that fasting was/is a way of relating to God in the absence of the immediate, visible presence of God. But since Jesus was God-in-human-flesh, fasting wasn’t appropriate as a prominent practice during the earthly ministry of Jesus. Jesus was the Immanuel or God-with-us. The Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth,” John 1:1, 14. So in the context of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ fasting isn’t entirely appropriate. That’s what Jesus means when he explains, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?” Or in other words, how can followers of God act as if God is so far away and utilize forms of devotion that relate with God in his visible absence when he is visible and present among them? Fasting is great in focusing the mind and heart and soul upon God in the absence of his visible presence. But if God is present in human, visible form in Jesus Christ, then fasting would be totally out of place. Why focus the mind on God when one can focus the eyes on the visible Jesus as God? Fasting also is used to avoid normal distractions such as eating and drinking in order to concentrate one’s total self on God. But if Jesus is God and is visible and present, such concentration isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s ironic that Jesus is often found eating and drinking with his disciples instead of abstaining from these things. Why? These activities aren’t distractions if you are eating and drinking with the visible presence of God! The Pharisees actually criticized Jesus for eating and drinking with his disciples because they didn’t understand that he was God-in-the-flesh and that by fellowshipping with him his disciples were fellowshipping with God. Who needs fasting in that context? In fact, it would seem a bit odd if you were in the actual presence of God and excused yourself in order to pray and fast to God! The whole point of prayer and fasting is to better relate to God, but if you are already in God’s very presence you can dispense with the usual devotional forms of prayer and fasting! In heaven I can’t imagine people praying the same way they do on earth, or fasting or other such devotional forms. I’m sure in heaven there’s more direct access to God than these earthly forms. Jesus was trying to teach that devotion to God can take different forms in different times and different places. We need to remember that also.

Third, there were future (A.D., after Jesus) devotional forms. Matthew 9:16-17, “’No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.’” Now Jesus wasn’t saying that there is never a time and place for fasting. In fact, he says, “The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” Or in other words, Jesus was looking forward to the day of his ascension into heaven. He would no longer be in immediate and direct contact with his disciples. Then, they would need to relate to him in a different way than they had for nearly three years of visible contact. At that point, fasting might be appropriate. So then the importance of relating to God never changes, but the devotional forms we take in relating to him do change depending on the time, place and circumstances. Today, obviously, we are no longer able to visibly see the incarnate Word of God Jesus, so we must utilize devotional forms and practices that help us relate to him personally. And these devotional forms may change over time. For example, before the printing press and before the Bible was made available for everyone to own and read, most Christians related to God devotionally through prayer and reflection on Bible passages and messages delivered mostly in church services. Since most people didn’t have access to Bibles they couldn’t sit down and read and reflect on God’s Word on their own in private. So they had to attend church services to hear the Word of God read and explained by priests and pastors. Their devotional lives centered around public church services rather than on private Bible reading and reflection. Then came the Reformation, Bibles, and private Bible study. This changed the devotional lives of many people, because now everyone could own and use the Bible in their own private devotions. For myself, it’s hard to imagine relating to God today without my Bible. I wouldn’t want to go back to the days before the Bible was available to read and study. It’s hard for me to imagine how the millions of Christians before the time of the Reformation in the 1500’s related to God without the Bible. Yet they did, and many related very closely with God, probably much closer than I relate to God with my Bible. But that just goes to show that the point is devotion and commitment to God, not the particular form it takes. I guess I could relate to God without the Bible, but it would be difficult for me. Another point is that sometimes things change and so too must our devotional forms change too. Sometimes churches get stuck in the past, with past worship or devotional forms that don’t help believers much in relating to God. Church should be about helping people relate to God. That’s a little of what Jesus is talking about in our context today.

As Christians we must always be constantly asking ourselves as we relate to God day in and day out, “Am I relating to God out of empty tradition, using past forms of devotion that don’t really express my heart commitment to him? Am I carrying out practices that I learned somewhere from someone that really aren’t very useful to me in relating to God?” The whole point of our daily and weekly devotions to God is to relate to God in a fresh and living way, not in a dry, stale, old or dead way. Now in saying all this I don’t want to give the impression that following old or ancient devotional paths are wrong. If they are meaningful and truly express my heart to God they can be useful and I should use them if they are helpful. But if they are not helpful, I must be willing to look around for another way to express my devotion to God, one that better expresses my heart and soul to God personally. For example, since we already talked about the Bible as an important devotional tool that wasn’t available for a long time before the Reformation, let me explain how even the Bible can become an old form that can lose its power to help me relate honestly with God. If I use the old King James Version of the Bible and can’t understand many of the passages because I simply don’t understand the older English that is used, I’m hindering my own ability to relate personally with God. If this is the case, I need to find a newer translation that puts the words into modern English that I can understand better. Then, I will be able to read and understand and reflect upon God’s Word in a better way and relate to God in a better way. But on the other hand, there are many ancient and old devotional practices that are still very useful today that I can find helpful in relating to God. For example, fasting. Even though Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast while Jesus was present with them, they probably did fast after he had ascended into heaven. Why? Because fasting is usually a pretty good way of focusing mind, body and soul on God without the normal distractions of food and drink interfering. There’s a seriousness about fasting that forces us to concentrate on God in ways we normally don’t. It opens us up to hearing the “still small voice” of God through the Spirit when we pray and read our Bibles. I encourage fasting for everyone as an occasional way of focusing on God. So then our devotions might have a mix of both old and new forms, depending on the specific circumstances of our lives at a particular time. We need to be open to both the past and to the future, to older forms of devotion and to newer forms as well. We need to learn to keep the main thing – relating to God – the main thing, and keep the secondary things – the forms, practices and disciplines of relating to God – secondary. If we can do that we can keep our relationship with God alive and fresh!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: