Matthew 9:14-17 — Bridegroom Fasting (Week 24)
PLEASE READ: Matthew 9:14-17
Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom of the corporate Body of Christ which consists of all global believers, otherwise known as “The Church” (see Ephesians 5:21-32). In this passage we see that John’s disciples questioned Jesus about the lack of fasting among His own disciples. Before we can fully explore the context of this passage, we need to understand the purpose of fasting from a Hebraic perspective, and why John’s disciples would have asked such a question.
Understanding the Purpose of Fasting
Jews fasted according to the Lord’s Feast Days, namely upon Yom Kippur, which is the highest and holiest day of the year. Fasting, if literally interpreted in the Hebrew is actually best translated as “self-affliction”. There was no work done during a fast. There were no sexual relations. And there was no food eaten, and drink (if permitted) was minimal. All acts of pleasure or leisure were forbidden.
Fasting was considered a type of mourning. During a fast God calls for a rending not only of our garments, but our hearts (see Joel 2:13). Therefore, let us understand that fasting was a type of self-affliction that was a solemn and consecrated time before God for the purposes of repentance and prayer in the mourning for one’s sin. In Isaiah 58:1-14 we see the type of fast the LORD actually desires and requires, which best outlines how it is to be practiced. In the midst of our own self-affliction, God requires that we be careful not to afflict others. Nor are we to forget or neglect the afflictions of others. He wants us to act with justice, mercy, and benevolence upon behalf of our own kindred and even the stranger. Only then will our light break forth, deliverance be granted, and justice be enacted by God on our behalf.
Furthermore, it is important to understand that Jews did not fast of their own volition. They fasted strictly according to the calendrical feasts and the times ordained by God. To fast was an act of obedient mourning before God for one’s sin, and to seek His face for redemption and forgiveness. It was intended to bring an individual into a place of brokenness which ultimately achieved healing and redemption. Fasting as an act of piety was not something the Jews were commanded to practice. Therefore, to do so overtly for public attention as the Pharisees did was entirely contrary to its intended purpose. This type of fasting was not received by God, and Jesus openly addressed such public acts of piety “when men disfigure their faces” as hypocritical in His Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 6:16-18). God intended fasting to accomplish a change of heart — not appearance. It was a private and consecrated affair between the individual and God alone. This brings us to the question proposed by John’s disciples, who no doubt, were fasting as God intended according to John’s discipleship.
John came preaching a passionate and bold message of repentance to all of Israel in preparing the way for the Lamb of God, the promised Messiah, who was Jesus Christ our Lord. He both declared and baptized Jesus Christ in the presence of many witnesses with a heavenly confirmation from the Father and the Holy Spirit (see Luke 3:21-22). In our core text we see that John had clearly established his own following. John’s central purpose and divine mandate was to effect repentance in the hearts of his hearers. His was sent by God to prepare the way of the LORD. Israel, who had endured a long spiritual drought in that no word from God had been spoken for four centuries, desperately needed to prepare their hearts. John was anointed and chosen to achieve that mission distinctly. He came in the anointing of Elijah to turn the hearts of the people back to the Father as prophesied in Malachi 4:5-6. With this in mind, it is understandable why John’s disciples would be fasting so often, as his message was one that required a rending of the heart before God. So, for them to see that Jesus’ disciples were not fasting, we now understand, seemed entirely contrary to God’s purposes. Their question, therefore, was legitimate and very appropriate, and certainly came from genuine hearts who longed to prepare the way of the Lord in their own lives in receiving the promised Messiah.
Yet the response of their Messiah was not what they expected.
In response to the question proposed by John’s disciples, Jesus maintains that fasting is indeed an act of mourning rather than piety. That much, He confirms. Yet He makes it clear that the context for fasting is intended during the absence of the Bridegroom. And therein lies the distinction. When we understand the purpose of fasting, we can then understand why He would make this statement. Now that He is fully present with His disciples, Christ shifts the focus from His first coming to that of His second — making a clear reference to Himself as the Bridegroom who will be taken away and one day return. This type of fasting, one of mourning and self-affliction, is therefore precisely that which is consistent with the preparation of all believers for His second coming, which He taught about prolifically. His teaching on this topic, without fail, centered upon the importance of being prepared for His return. We see this in the parable of the servants, the ten virgins, the marriage supper, and the sheep and goats. Those who were not prepared were cast out. It is while the Bridegroom is absent that we are to prepare. Without that type of fasting, it is quite possible that our hearts and lives will not be found ready at His appearing. Fasting, will therefore, be necessary if we are to prepare for Christ’s coming, and be found ready as He intended — worthy to stand before the Son of Man. With that said, it is understandable why Christ’s disciples did not fast. He was ever-present with them in constant unbroken fellowship. He kept them faithfully. But once He was taken away, fasting was something they practiced consistently, even as we see in Acts.
And we need to practice it as well.
Prepared for the Bridegroom
And so we come to the issue of preparation.
Our goal in fasting is to be prepared for the Bridegroom when He comes. The children of the bridechamber were traditionally the bridegroom’s friends. In this context, we would understand that to mean Jesus’ own disciples. We are clearly told that He’s looking for the Bride who is without spot or wrinkle (see Ephesians 5:27). And as the Apostle Paul openly expounds — that reference is to the Church; the corporate Body of Christ. The “spot” and “wrinkle” mentioned here are implied within the following prophetic verse, which speaks clearly of John the Baptist and the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ:
Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness,” (Malachi 3:1-3, KJV).
Fire and fuller’s soap. This purification can indeed be painful. These are not kind or gentle elements. God intends that fasting be something we practice if this refinement be accomplished within our hearts and lives. It requires surrender. Again, this is a mourning for our sin in an act of self-affliction by which we rend our hearts before God.
Interestingly enough, in the next portion of our passage, the Lord begins to talk about the garment and the wine skins. Should we be surprised? Absolutely not. No Hebrew wedding — in the very least — was complete without wine and the proper garments. Jesus speaks in context. His reply is very apt. It is clear He is referencing a wedding. Therefore, as the Bridegroom, He gives two examples for us in reply to John’s disciples: (1) the garment, and (2) the wine skins, both which are key elements for any Jewish wedding. With that in mind, let’s take the time to revisit His parable on the Marriage Supper before we continue to dissect our core passage.
And Jesus answered and spake unto them again by parables, and said, The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, And sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and myfatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests. And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen,” (Matthew 22:1-14, KJV).
Jewish garments were traditionally made of linen or wool. We will discuss both. But, the reference here is clearly to linen. And wine bottles were made of animal skins. Both were subject to brokenness and wear. In both instances He contrasts the new with the old. The preservation of wine required a new skin. But the preservation of the garment required old cloth.
The Lord’s examples are dichotomous. Yet in both, He desires the outcome of refinement and preservation. Let’s discuss how that is achieved. We will explore both of His examples. I think you’ll be surprised by their commonalities.
New cloth will tear an old garment, making the rent worse. God never intends that we worsen any tear, but that we be made whole, and also bring wholeness to others. Let’s consider the application and how that happens, all the while keeping in mind Christ’s parable, with the understanding that the garment worn at a wedding was of critical importance. He wants us properly clothed in Christ.
Most natural fibers will shrink when laundered, especially with hot water washing and drying. That is especially true of natural fibers such as linen or cotton. In biblical times, linen was a staple fabric and is used to describe the garments of the saints in the book of Revelation:
And a voice came out of the throne, saying, Praise our God, all ye his servants, and ye that fear him, both small and great. And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God,” (Revelation 19:5-9, KJV).
Linen is a resilient natural fiber which comes from the flax plant. It’s one of the oldest fabrics in history, making it one of antiquity, dating back to Egypt as far as 4000 BC. Linen is a fabric God commanded the priests to wear, specific to the ephod, which was not to be woven with any other fiber, specifically that of wool (as we read on we’ll understand why). When Israel came out of Egypt in their exodus, there is no doubt they were accustomed to and had acquired fine Egyptian linen. It’s a very cool breathable fabric native to that region, which makes it the fabric of choice in a hot desert climate. Its color is inherently tan, grey, or ivory. White linen is hard to achieve, which requires bleach laundering. Although linen is an exceptionally durable and non-elastic fiber, it is subject to shrinkage — up to fifteen percent, which is quite high. It is also subject to wrinkling — more so than nearly any other fiber. In fact, creases and wrinkles can become virtually permanent within a linen garment, being almost impossible to remove if they’ve been repeatedly ironed in an area, or present for a long time. In these characteristics alone we can understand the references in Malachi 3 with the mention of “fuller’s soap”, and the “wrinkles” in Ephesians 5.
As you can imagine, linen is not an easy fabric to maintain. It’s rather troublesome to keep clean, white, and wrinkle free. Quality linen is very expensive and also high maintenance, which is why garments made of linen usually require the expense of dry cleaning. Because linen is an exceptionally durable non-elastic fiber, it has long been the fabric of choice for commodities such as napkins, tablecloths, and even certain types of upholstery which endure heavy use. It is also resistant to pests such as moths. If you purchase a quality linen garment — it will last a lifetime. But you must be able to care for it properly.
Another fabric common among the Jews was wool. This was also appropriate for the desert climate, as nights were cold, and winters were no less harsh. There are many types of wool with differences in color and texture inherent within the fibers. Certain breeds of sheep and goats were designated for specific types of garments, while others were more suitable for blankets, curtains, and rugs. Wool fibers vary widely, coming in a variety of textures and colors depending upon the animal. It is a very durable fiber — equally as durable as linen. But its fiber is extraordinarily elastic, and it is subject to pests. Wool is also a highly breathable fiber worn for warmth, in contrast to linen which is worn for its cooling effect. Wool is also heavy and is difficult to launder. However, among all its differences from linen, the most notable is its origin: it comes from an animal, unlike linen which comes from a plant.
As you can see, wool is far different than linen both in character and origin, which explains the practical element behind God’s command in the torah for the construction of the ephod. These fabrics and their fibers are entirely incompatible.
As we can see, Christ’s reference is to linen. So what is the application?
We must be able to submit and mold to the work of the Holy Spirit. When He launders us with His “fuller’s soap” and irons us with His “fire” to remove the deep and otherwise permanent wrinkles, we need to be able to submit and change. Fresh new fibers are always more subject to change than the old. The manner in which those fibers respond can bring drastic changes. How willing are you to respond to God in the presence of His “fuller’s soap” and “refiner’s fire”?
He wants a fabric that can accommodate a garment in need of some patchwork. That hole is a vulnerable area of weakness, brokenness, or perhaps a void. It’s an area uncovered, which remains spiritually naked. To be made whole we must be able to shrink with some heat and endure some heavy laundering — or we’ll worsen the tear.
The garment speaks to one that is properly clothed in the Lord. They are no longer spiritually naked or exposed in any area. They are white without spot or wrinkle, being laundered by the fuller’s soap. And any areas of vulnerability or weakness are made whole.
The Wine Skin
New wine will destroy an old wine skin, at the expense of both the wine and the skin. God never intends that we lose what He’s poured into us, but that we be a vessel of honor in His house pouring out to others. Let’s look at how that happens.
Wine was the staple drink among Jews in Israel. Because Israel was a desert, fresh water was scarce, requiring deep wells to be dug. People commonly drank wine of varying types with their meals, and still do so today in Israel. It is a cultural drink that has historically been tied to sustenance, ceremony, feasting, merriment, covenant, and of course, our Lord’s Supper. Scripture does not condemn the drinking of wine. It simply condemns becoming drunk with it and thereby overcome. In this regard, the Apostle Paul says not to be drunk with wine, but to be filled with the Spirit (see Ephesians 5:18). That scriptural allegory is not new. Throughout the ages, wine has been associated with the Holy Spirit’s anointing and power, which brings joy and renewal. The most prominent example of this is in Acts chapter 2 when Peter addresses the crowd at Pentecost after an accusation of being drunk.
Wine was indispensable for the celebration of any Jewish wedding. We see this in the wedding at Cana in Galilee where Jesus’ mother begs Him to remedy their shortage (see John 2:1-12). Jewish wedding feasts were lengthy. The whole town gathered, and people came out of the woodwork to attend, many times from distant areas. Traditional Jewish weddings lasted for seven days with feasting and drinking. So we need to understand — the need was indeed dire. In fact it was so desperate that Jesus performed the requested miracle for the couple despite the fact that it was before His appointed time. To run out of wine at a wedding was a shameful and embarrassing disgrace. Point and case: Jesus Christ made sure the wine did not run out. Let that rest upon us as we consider Christ’s response and the application here.
The chemical changes in the fermentation process help determine the wine’s flavor, odour, and ability to make one of “merry heart”. There are differing alcohol percentages depending on how long the wine has ripened (fermented). Wine distinctions vary greatly depending upon what kind of grape was selected, its amount of sugar, the type of yeasts incorporated during the fermentation process, and finally the kind of skin used to house the wine. The skin is made of flesh, and is therefore fragile and expendable. A new wine skin is soft and moldable, allowing it to “surrender” to the changes inherent during the fermentation process. The skin is subject to the changes within the wine as it ferments. The skin must be able to “bloat” or expand during the fermentation process. The skin’s ability to accommodate those changes will determine whether or not it can house the wine securely. That is a clear picture of surrender and submission. If the skin can’t accommodate the fermentation process, it will break. Any skin exposed to the fermentation process once cannot endure it again. What is the application here?
We must be able to change with the moving of the Holy Spirit, which God pours into us. Fasting is what enables that to happen effectively. We surrender, even as the wine skin submits to the wine within it. Our bodies (flesh) are His temple (see 1 Corinthians 6:19). We house Him. God made it clear that He no longer dwells in temples made with hands, but within us (see Acts 7:48-51). We must be able to accommodate Him. If God moves and we can’t change — or aren’t willing to change, His investment will be lost.
The Lord must make us new if we are going to house the anointing of His Spirit. That requires a new “skin”. When the Lord pours His Spirit into us, His expectation is that we will ripen and mature as His Spirit does His work in us (fermentation). A new skin is one that is soft and pliable, being able to surrender to the molding of God. An old skin is brittle, and is no longer pliable. It is wholly unable to accommodate change and will break before any molding can take place.
The wine skin speaks to one who is not only filled with His Spirit, but is also ripened to maturity and sanctified by His transforming power (fermentation) within. The moving of God’s Spirit will break us if we are not moldable to Him. That is without dispute. But a new tender skin will house Him, mold to Him accordingly, accommodate maturity, and effectively pour out His new wine to others.
Christ intends that we be able to accommodate the moving of His Spirit becoming purified, refined, and transformed into His image. Fasting is what enables that to happen.
When we position ourselves to surrender and yield, He can accomplish that work within us to accommodate the wine that needs fermentation or the garment that needs mending. The Lord wants to “preserve” us unto the Day (see 1 Thessalonians 5:23, KJV), making us ready for Him at His appearing, so we may stand before Him.
He is returning for a Bride without spot or wrinkle who is ever-filled with His Spirit and ready to meet Him. We are to be clothed in His righteousness. And may we never find ourselves short of His wine.
That is what Bridegroom fasting is all about.
Cheers & Shalom,
Post updated: March 16, 2018