The Distinctiveness of Jesus – Mark 2:18-22
Good morning! If you can grab a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark. We are continuing in our sermon series on Mark, looking at Mark 2:18-22, this morning.
I’m just going to read the passage, and then we will dive in. Mark 2, beginning 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?’ 19 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. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.’”
I’ve titled this sermon, “The Distinctiveness of Jesus,” because we see, in this passage, a discussion about the inability of the gospel of Jesus Christ to be mixed with false religion. And the question that brings all of this to a head is the question about fasting.
Earlier this week, in preparation for this message, I took a day to fast. Now, if you don’t know what fasting is, if this is a foreign concept to you, the word for “fasting” in Scripture, literally means, “to abstain from food.”
Recently, I have read all kinds of articles on fasting and the health benefits of it and how it helps to detoxify your body. And I always find it interesting whenever I see a biblical practice adopted by the non-Christian culture. It’s all fine and good to fast for the health benefits, but that’s not the intent of Christian fasting.
Christian fasting is the voluntary denial of a physical need in your life, because you recognize that there is a spiritual need in your life that needs to be met. We fast from what we can taste and see, because we have tasted and seen the goodness of the invisible and infinite God, that’s the essence of Christian fasting.
When I was in my first year of Bible College, one of the courses that I was taking allowed for the opportunity to fast. I had fasted a few times before, for different Youth Group events, so I thought that this would be a good opportunity to participate in something that I don’t normally do.
So, I got together with this guy who wanted to do the same thing, and we decided to go without food for three days. Each day, during meals, he and I would get together to read Scripture and pray. And while I enjoyed the experience, I will say that food has a greater hold on our lives than we think or even care to admit.
My job at school that year was working in the kitchen. Every weekday afternoon, I would help get food ready for supper or for the weekend. But as I worked in the kitchen on an empty stomach, I could feel the pull to eat the veggies that I was cutting up. I don’t normally like veggies, but these looked amazing.
And you would think that there’s nothing wrong with eating one carrot. It’s healthy and it’s not a lot of food, what harm could it possibly cause? And the problem is that we have become so desensitized to the control that food has over our bodies that we are more willing to obey food in moments of hunger than to obey God.
That’s a big problem in our culture. So, what I realized back then, and what I realized this week, is that fasting is a distinguishing mark for the follower of Jesus. It is counter-cultural in our consumerist society to abstain from food.
And so, what we are going to focus on, for our time together, this morning, is the distinctiveness of Jesus and how Christian fasting sets the follower of Jesus apart from false religion.
Let’s look at our text. In verse 18, some people have a question for Jesus. It says that they came to Jesus and said to Him, “Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus is often presented with questions, pitting Him against the religious leaders of His day. But notice that their question is more of an accusation than a general inquiry. They aren’t interested in hearing why Jesus does what He does; they want to know why Jesus isn’t doing what they think He should be doing. In this case, the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but why aren’t Jesus’ disciples fasting, as well?
And it’s here where we need to ask the question: Why were the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fasting in the first place? And the reason why they were fasting is because, in the book of Leviticus, God commanded His people to fast on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16:29 says that, on the Day of Atonement, the people of God were to “afflict yourselves,” literally, they were to fast—they were to go without food for that day.
The Day of Atonement was a once-a-year day on which sacrifices were made to atone for the sins of the people of God. And God commanded His people to fast, as a means of mourning over sin and as a means of longing for the day when God would provide the once-for-all sacrifice for sin. In a very real way, fasting was longing for Jesus to come.
Now, even though this was a one-day-a-year fast, throughout the Old Testament, you see God’s people constantly fasting for various reasons, because they were desperate for God to come through in the situations that they were facing.
And while that’s not entirely bad, as many of these instances included a longing for God and not simply just a longing for what God could do for them, you start to see this delineation into fasting as a means of getting God to do what you want.
In Isaiah 58:3, God repeats back to His people the words that they spoke to Him. Listen to their audacity. They say to God, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”
God’s reply to them? “Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?”
The people of God had forgotten what fasting was meant to produce in them, and that is, mourning over sin and longing for the Messiah to come.
When you get to the time of Jesus, it had become customary for groups, like the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees, to fast twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays.
We see this, in Luke 18:12. The Pharisee is in the temple with a tax collector off to the side, and the Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
And here we see the quantity of fasting has increased to more than what God commanded of His people, but we also see the quality of fasting has decreased. Fasting had become this ritualistic tradition, where the religious leaders would use it as a pious demonstration to show how holy they thought they were.
It’s why Jesus addresses the issue of fasting in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:16-18. Jesus says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
What the religious leaders are doing by asking the question of fasting to Jesus is they are trying to score points against Him. They see His popularity and all the amazing things that He’s doing, and so their aim is to bring Jesus done a peg, so that they look really good.
They’re wanting to protect their tradition of fasting—what fasting had become for them—so they ask Jesus why His disciples don’t fast to see if He will oppose what God commanded them to do. And what Jesus does instead is He uses three illustrations to expose their ignorance.
Look at verses 19-20. Jesus says 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.”
Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I’ve been to a number of weddings. But there have been some weddings that I’ve been to, where the wedding reception hasn’t started on time, because the bride and groom are off getting pictures done or because they’re doing some kind of activity.
But I’ll tell you one thing, when the bride and groom finally arrive, no wedding reception that I’ve ever been to has had people fast during the reception. There is always food at a wedding, right, and that’s because it’s a celebration. It’s a momentous occasion to be celebrated with feasting.
And that is why Jesus’ question is rhetorical. It would have been out of the question for the wedding guests to fast while the bridegroom was with them, because the bridegroom being there meant that it was time to celebrate.
But what Jesus is really getting at is that He is the bridegroom. Jesus is revealing to them that He is the long-awaited Messiah—He is the long-awaited once-for-all sacrifice for sin.
The religious leaders are fasting as they await the coming of their Saviour, and Jesus is going, “I’m here. I’m the One whom you have been fasting for, all of these years. I’m the bridegroom who has arrived at the wedding party. This is not the time for fasting; it’s the time for feasting.”
By Jesus’ disciples not fasting, they were testifying to the fact that the bridegroom had come and was in their midst. It is what distinguished them from the religious leaders who were still waiting for the Messiah to come, because that’s the only other option, isn’t it? Either Jesus is the Chosen One of God, or He isn’t. And the religious leaders, by fasting, are saying that He isn’t.
It’s like they're fasting at a wedding reception, which would be lame, wouldn’t it? Everyone around you is eating, but you’re not. You’re piously waiting for the time when you can celebrate. And Jesus is showing how ridiculous this would be.
And what's astounding about this is who is fasting. Look back at verse 18. It says that “John’s disciples… were fasting.” This is in reference to John the Baptist. Now, if you remember: John the Baptist was the one, back in Mark 1, who was baptizing people upon repentance of their sins. He was the one preparing people for the coming Messiah and the kingdom He was bringing.
All of these people who were baptized by John were disciples of John. They were eager Jews who were honest about their sin and who did not want to miss the coming of the Messiah. But they don’t necessarily shift their allegiance to Jesus when He comes.
And we would think they would, right? We figure that the disciples of the Pharisees will embrace the ritualistic tradition that fasting had become, because the Pharisees loved following rules, but how easy would it have been for the disciples of John to see Jesus and hear John the Baptist say that this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and to follow Jesus?
John was not the destination; he was the signpost pointing the way to Jesus. That was his sole purpose in life. And yet, what we see in our text is that these people don’t identify as disciples of Jesus; they identify as disciples of John.
Here’s the thing: All that has really happened to the disciples of John is that they have simply become more religious. There’s no real brokenness over their sin and no recognition of the Messiah. All they’ve done is just added a kind of religiosity to their lives like a side dish.
They’re pursuing a relationship with God through their own works, which causes them to become deeply disturbed that Jesus’ disciples aren’t fasting. And Jesus is going, “You’re the ones whom we should be deeply disturbed about. You’re the ones who are completely out of touch with God and with what God is doing.”
There is coming a day, Jesus says, when He will no longer be with His disciples, and when they will once again be longing for Jesus to come. In those days, they will fast. But until then, there is no need to long for what they already have.
We need to realize that Mark is writing to a particular people in a particular place during a particular time. He’s writing after the time of Christ to Christians in Rome who are enduring intense persecution at the hands of the evil Emperor Nero. You think that they aren’t fasting during this time? You think that they aren’t in mourning because Jesus is no longer with them? You think that Mark isn’t calling them to be distinguished from the consumerist culture around them?
The reality is that Jesus is promoting fasting, but not in the way that the Jewish leaders were expecting. The Jewish leaders made fasting about their own self-righteousness; Jesus made fasting about the gospel. The Jewish leaders were proud of their religiosity; Jesus preached humility. The Jewish leaders were about external performance; Jesus was about internal transformation.
What this question about fasting is doing is it’s exposing the hearts of those who trust in false religion—those who trust in their own efforts to become right with God. If this is us, Jesus is saying that we are devoid of any relationship with God.
And Jesus continues to make clear to them and to us the distinctiveness of Jesus from false religion, by giving them two very similar illustrations. Verse 21: “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.”
For our Anniversary, I bought Helena a traditional wool sweater from the Aran Islands in Ireland. Helena and I like to buy each other gifts according to the traditional anniversary gift for that year. In this case, our options were either wool or copper. So, I went with the wool option, because Helena’s background is Irish and I wanted to be creative.
But when I bought this wool sweater, there were instructions on how to wash it and how to store it and how to get the sheep smell out of it. That sort of thing. And the thing about wool is that it can shrink when washed.
So, you want to be careful to wash it as seldom as possible and to air it out frequently. There are proper steps to dealing with this kind of material. And Jesus says the same thing. He says that you can’t sew “a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment.” You can’t do that, or else when the patch is washed, it will pull away from the garment, and a worse tear will result.
Jesus continues with the illustration of the wineskins, in verse 22. He says, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
When wine is new, it is in a state of fermentation. It bubbles and expands as the fermentation gases are released. A fresh, pliable wineskin could absorb such expansion and slowly age with the wine until the fermentation process was complete. Old wineskins, on the other hand, were no longer pliable, and as such, they were brittle and prone to cracking, so that any new wine poured into them would cause the old wineskins to burst.
What Jesus is doing here is not just giving us a lesson on sewing or how to make wine. He is giving us a lesson on the incompatibility of the gospel with works-based religion.
As one commentator put it: The question posed in these illustrations “is not whether disciples will… make room for Jesus in their already full agendas and lives. The question is whether they will forsake business as usual and join the wedding celebration; whether they will become entirely new receptacles for the expanding fermentation of Jesus and the gospel in their lives.”
You see, Jesus is not interested in patching up the old system of works; He came to bring something new. Jesus came to bring a message of repentance and forgiveness by grace that cannot be mixed with works-based righteousness. It’s like putting a new piece of cloth on an old garment or like putting new wine in old wineskins. It doesn’t work. You can’t just add the gospel to works-based religion. The two are entirely incompatible.
We live in a day where religious pluralism—the belief that all religions are equally true and valid—is prominent. The exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ does not allow for this. When Jesus says, in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” you can’t say, “Well, that’s one way but you can get to God another way.” It’s the only way.
The only way of salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus alone. It’s the distinctiveness of Jesus, do you see? It doesn’t matter if we fast and fast often, if we’re doing it as a means of earning some kind of moral currency with God, then we will always be trying to mix the gospel with works-based religion—two things that don’t mix.
And I don’t know where each one of you are at, but I know that there is a tendency in me to want to mix these two things. In fact, as I was fasting this week, I would constantly ask Helena, am I allowed to have tea, am I allowed to have cream in my tea, am I allowed to have a protein shake, am I allowed to have some orange juice to bring my sugar levels up because I’m hypoglycemic? What am I allowed to do and what am I not allowed to do?
And her response to me was a short and gentle rebuke of my attitude towards God and fasting. She said, “That’s between you and God.” And she’s right.
We have the tendency to make something like fasting complicated with rules and regulations, because we’re trying to be like the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees, and we’re wanting to do it right, or else God won't accept us.
And the reality is that we are not acceptable before God based on anything we do. What makes us acceptable before God is who we are in Christ. Since Jesus is acceptable to God, if we have put our faith in Jesus, then we are acceptable to God, but on the basis on Jesus’ righteousness, not our own.
And this is where Christian fasting points us to the gospel and not to false religion. Jesus says that as long as His followers have Him with them, they cannot fast. Him being there with them defeated the purpose of fasting.
But there would come a day when Jesus would be taken from them, and He would be beaten and scourged and put to death on a cross, where He would bear the penalty of sin. And He would be put in a tomb, and three days later, He would be raised from the dead in victory over sin and death. And He would ascend to the right hand of God the Father, where He intercedes for us on our behalf, not according to our righteousness, but His righteousness.
And so, since Jesus is not here with us today, we fast. We fast, not as a pious demonstration of how holy we think we are or as a means of gaining favour with God, but because we have concerns so deep that food simply does not matter and we are longing for Jesus to come back.
Fasting turns our attention away from ourselves and on to Jesus. It’s what distinguishes followers of Jesus from the consumerist culture, because it is markedly counter-cultural to deny yourself food.
You don’t even need to necessarily go without food to fast. You can fast from television or social media or any other thing that occupies your attention. Fasting is the voluntary denial of a physical need in your life, because you recognize that there is a spiritual need in your life that needs to be met. And if there is a physical need that is occupying our attention, whatever it might be, it might be something that we could deny ourselves for a day for some spiritual purpose.
As one article that I read, put it: “Christian fasting seeks to take the pains of hunger and transpose them into the key of some eternal anthem, whether it’s fighting against some sin, or pleading for someone’s salvation, or for the cause of the unborn, or longing for a greater taste of Jesus.”
The question is: Do we long for more of Jesus? That’s ultimately what all of this boils down to. Are we discontent with our sinful selves and do we long for more of Jesus? Are we wanting Jesus to come back? Do we believe in the life to come? Do we desire to join in the wedding celebration, becoming new receptacles for the gospel to enter, or does Jesus need to fit into our lives, where we are content with patching up old garments and holding on to old wineskins?
Here’s the good news: Fasting is temporary. When Jesus returns, we won’t be fasting; we’ll be feasting. Revelation 19 gives us this picture of the marriage supper of the Lamb, when a great multitude, those who have been invited, are rejoicing because they are with the bridegroom.
Church, this is for all those who have put their faith in Jesus. There is coming a day when fasting will be irrelevant. We won't be longing for Jesus anymore, because we will forever be with Him.
But in the meantime, we need all kinds of reminders that take our focus off of ourselves and our desire for food, and on to Jesus. That’s where our focus needs to be, and fasting is one of the God-given ways that accomplishes this.
Jesus said, “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.”
Church, do we long for more of Jesus? Are we willing to fast one day this week or one day this month? May we fast to the glory of God, as we await the day when Jesus will return and our hunger pains will be no more, but will be satisfied by Him. Let’s pray…