The Proper Day for Fasting
“People came and said to [Jesus], ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.’ ”- Mark 2:18–20
Jesus frequently caused a stir, as we have seen in the religious leaders’ questioning of His willingness to dine with sinners (Mark 2:13–17). But our Lord’s adversaries were not the only ones who found His acts perplexing. Even the average Jewish citizen who had not necessarily formed an opinion for or against Jesus was at times confused by what He did, as is evident in today’s passage.
The episode recorded in today’s passage pertains to the rite of fasting and Christ’s apparent rejection of the practice, at least in the eyes of the people. Both John the Baptist and the Pharisees were known for engaging in fasts (v. 18). John’s fasting fit with His role as the final old covenant prophet whose message centered on repentance. After all, there are several examples of fasting in the Old Testament wherein people abstained from food while they repented for sin (Neh. 9:1–3; Jonah 3). We do not find this surprising, as the one mandatory fast prescribed in the Old Testament occurred in conjunction with confession of sin on the Day of Atonement (see Lev. 16:29–34, where “afflict yourselves” is equivalent to fasting). With regard to the Pharisees, first-century Jews regarded fasting as a mark of general piety, not just repentance, and the Pharisees were known for fasting on Mondays and Thursdays. Despite the onerous burdens the Pharisees created with their interpretations, the common people held a favorable view of them. So, it makes sense why they would question not only why Jesus’ disciples did not fast as John’s disciples did, but also why they did not fast as the Pharisees did.
Notice that in our Lord’s response, He did not say that fasting was inherently improper. Neither did He condemn the Pharisees for their additional fasts, though He certainly would have stood firm against any attempt to mandate their additional fasts as something God required for everyone. Instead, we see that Christ viewed their fasts as taking place during the wrong time. Likening Himself to a bridegroom, Jesus reminded them that no one in His day ever fasted during a wedding celebration, which could involve feasting for as many as seven days (Mark 2:19–20). A time for fasting would come— when the bridegroom was gone—but it was not yet. He was referring to His return to the Father’s right hand after His resurrection.
Finally, let us not miss the significance of Jesus’ comparing Himself to the bridegroom. It is an implicit claim to deity, for the bridegroom of ancient Israel was God Himself (Isa. 62:5).
John Calvin comments on today’s passage that “fasting and prayers are adapted to sorrow and adversity.” When the bridegroom was present, it was time to celebrate, and we will celebrate at the marriage supper of the Lamb when we see Jesus face-to-face (Rev. 19:1–8). Until then, while He is visibly absent, fasting is appropriate when we want to indicate the serious nature of particular prayers. While we wait for Christ’s return, there are right times to fast.
Passages for Further Study