Matthew 9:14-17

Most would describe this passage of Scripture by saying, “Now we come to the problem of fasting.”  And even many Bible translations – the ones that have the sub-topics inserted – caption these four verses as “the question of fasting.”

But, as you look very carefully at the Words of our Lord, the subject isn’t fasting after all.  In fact, this has very little to do with fasting – even as a sub-topic or peripheral issue!

But Jesus uses the question – this time by the disciples of John the Baptizer – as the precipitant to further separation of the portrayed nation of Israel and its leaders!  As we’ve so clearly seen in previous Sundays, Jesus has depicted the inclusion of the Gentiles and the casting off of Israel.  And each Sunday as we preach through another passage we see the progressive revelation of the person and work of Christ and the deliberate shunning of the unfaithful harlot as Jesus prepares for the destruction of the old covenant nation.

And, as I said, this Sunday it’s a question by the disciples of John the Baptizer.  And John – with his disciples – must be seen at this point as the forerunner to Christ – the announcer of the coming of the Lamb of God – and he is to be understood as the greatest – and last – in a line of prophets in the Old Testament to be ignored, mistreated and killed by the leadership of Israel.  In other words, his lot was to be the last one to announce the coming of Messiah to be slaughtered by this degenerate nation – and one who was the capstone, the last in a line, the final straw, the one who caused God’s wrath to burn with finality.

And remember, he and his disciples have not been addressing the issues of the coming Kingdom and its victories – John was announcing the coming Christ!  John was preaching the Gospel of repentance, and Jesus was preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom!  John was the announcer and forerunner of Christ the coming Messiah.

And, at this point in time, John had been arrested and he was in prison.  And his disciples had been left to themselves (we see two of them again in chapter eleven).  And, as a forerunner of Christ, and a transition from the old covenant nation to the new one, John had not dealt with issues such as this with his disciples.  So, with regard to the issues which fasting represented here, they were still in the same camp with the Pharisees!  He was preaching last-minute repentance; and, at this point, must be seen as being a part of them – at least with regard to Jesus’ reply to them.

To mitigate that rather tough position, though, it must be said that John’s disciples did approach Jesus Himself, with an attitude of perplexed inquiry, rather than, as the Scribes and Pharisees usually did, either trying to spread dissension in the ranks of Jesus’ disciples, or approaching Jesus with trickery and arrogance.

But, nevertheless, with regard to the issues surfacing in this event, John’s disciples have to be seen in the same category with the Pharisees.  And, because of that, are representative of the old, and only transitional to the new.

Now, as we read this first verse, verse fourteen, we must see that not only was this a deliberate occasion for the further separation of the nation, but it also was a natural outcome of the flow of history.  Because what better time for the fasting question to arise than right after an occasion of feasting!  Indeed, it looks as if the question is brought up because they just had the feast!

And it must have been one of those bi-weekly occurrences of fasting which the Pharisees had set up – extra-biblically – in order to continue their pretense to holiness, hypocrites that they were.  And I say “extra-biblically” because the Scriptures prescribe one fast annually – Atonement day.  And the fact that there were two fasts a week prescribed by the Pharisees attests to the fact that the leadership of Israel had both added to the ceremonial requirements of the Law, and they had made a means of mourning and sadness into a mechanistic exercise of hypocrisy.

Some of you might remember the three kinds of public hypocrisy which Jesus condemns back in chapter six of this Gospel.  And we said then that these three things each represented a whole complex of hypocrisies.  They were alms giving, prayer, and fasting.  And fasting represented the mortification of the flesh which is required of all men because of our depravity and our iniquity and our breaking of God’s Law.  Fasting was always to be a very personal humiliation of self before God because of:  1) personal sin or, 2) national disgrace.  And the underlying issue was always the honor and integrity and reputation of God and His Kingdom!

And here in the text, verse fourteen, are the disciples of John, standing in the transition between the destruction of the old and the establishment of the new.  And the question is:  Why isn’t this one whom John calls the Lamb of God – the One prophesied called the Messiah – the Son of Man / Son of God – why isn’t He following the prescribed Jewish liturgy?  The prophet of God, John the Baptizer, had said who He was, but, as they observed Him, all they could see for themselves was that Jesus was eating and drinking while the Pharisees (Israel’s leadership) were fasting!

And, as I said a few minutes ago, Jesus only uses the question about fasting as a means of further self-revelation, and a means of preaching the Kingdom, and a means of further separation of this harlot nation!

 The question doesn’t generate an answer from Jesus concerning fasting, does it?  He doesn’t say, “Well, fasting is this… and fasting is that… and this is when you do it, and this is what it’s for….”  In other words He doesn’t attempt to correct the points where the Pharisees had gone astray.  He doesn’t say, “I am God’s Son, and this is what He says you’re doing wrong… you have to do this better!”

Because Jesus didn’t come to make corrections in the system, did He?  For seven hundred years God had sent prophet after prophet to this stiff-necked people, and they had killed them.  All the prophets, including John the Baptist, had brought words from God for repentance and change.  But at this critical point in history the sin of Israel had been filled up, and God’s patience had run out.  The “adopted son,” Israel, was about to be disinherited, and the Begotten Son was about to take His place as Sovereign King of the nations.

And here are the words of Matthew as he describes this transitional meeting between the old covenant nation and the new:  “Then there were approaching Him the disciples of John, saying ‘what is the reason that we and the Pharisees fast but your disciples do not fast?’”

Now, I think you can see that this question is one of perplexity rather than one of arrogant trickery.  I think it’s a real question on their minds – they really wanted to know the difference!  But, as the text implies, they themselves put themselves in the same camp with the Pharisees with regard to this issue.

On the other hand, it is required for us to say that Jesus in no way broke the Law – His Own Law – concerning fasting, did He?  He’s certainly not breaking any Law by not observing the Pharisees’ pretentious hypocrisy!  But Jesus has already taught about fasting.  As I mentioned a few minutes ago, Jesus taught the proper way of fasting – and for the proper purposes – back in chapter six.  And, since He’s already done that, it’s obvious here that there are no occasions for fasting, because He’s not doing it!  And neither are His disciples!

So He uses something the religious leaders of Israel do all the time – and which He and His disciples never do – to further the transition from old to new.  And He uses the transitional prophet – and his disciples – in order to accomplish it!  Listen to His answer to them.  It comes in the form of a rhetorical question – one in which there is an obvious negative answer:  “And Jesus said to them, ‘Should the sons of the bridal chamber have to mourn while the bridegroom is with them?’”

You see, fasting is a vehicle for mourning, isn’t it? – mourning over personal sin or national tragedy.  But this whole issue here in the text isn’t one of fasting is it?  The whole cosmic confrontation over fasting isn’t about fasting – it’s an announcement!  An announcement of such great importance!

An announcement about the Bridegroom being here for His bride!  The “Sons of the bridal chamber” isn’t the wedding guests, as the King James and other versions have it, but the attendants to the bridegroom!  They were the ones who wooed the bride to be; and they were the ones who joyfully prepared for the wedding – especially the wedding night!  And they were the ones who, without shame – and with great joy – went into the wedding chamber to bring out the evidences of virginity after the union of the bridegroom and his bride!  The blood!

Why should these people be in mourning?  This is an occasion of great joy!  The bridegroom is here!  And the feasting and festivities are in process!  Not fasting – FEASTING!

The exact opposite was really happening from what the Pharisees were doing.  They were pretending to be mourning while the nations were about to be made virgins by the blood of Christ – HIS blood being the evidences for their virginity – they were being brought to Him as His bride; He had come to claim them, and the Pharisees were over there pretending to be mourning!  They were arrogant and condemnatory – and the disciples of John were perplexed – while the nations were joyously being brought to their Lord!  He had come to make them His bride!

And people, I mentioned a few minutes ago the flow of history; do you see the reason that this event should occur at this point in time and be recorded now in Matthew’s text?

You remember last week Jesus was at the feast at Matthew’s house and the Pharisees condemned Jesus and his disciples for eating with tax collectors and half breeds!  And Jesus crushed them by quoting from Hosea – the bridegroom of a whore!  Israel was the whore, and the Pharisees knew it!

And now He’s saying to them that the true Bridegroom is here for the real bride, and it’s so obvious that you’re not her!  He says to the disciples of John that the wedding feast is in process already, and Israel is over there to the side mourning and waiting for its destruction – which is sure to come!  Jesus walks up to Matthew and says, “Follow Me” and Matthew puts everything down and rises and follows Him.  And they invite friends and go to Matthew’s house to feast with eating and drinking and joyous celebration, for the nations and the half-breeds and even hated segments of the religious Jewish society are brought into the wedding feast – while the leadership of Israel is mourning twice a week in order to increase its status before the public!  They had been so thoroughly cast away into outer darkness that they were doing and thinking the exact opposite things than what Jesus was doing and thinking.

And then Jesus, in the last part of verse fifteen, actually predicts His death to these disciples of the Baptizer. Listen:  “…but there shall come days when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them; and then they shall fast.”  Jesus prophesies very mournful days when the disciples will mourn, for He will be taken away, and be in the tomb.  Then they shall fast – and no one will need to tell them to do it.

Looking at verses sixteen and seventeen you can clearly see that fasting hasn’t been the real issue, can’t you?  The real issue, which is the destruction of the old covenant nation and the institution of the new Kingdom, is clearly the issue in verse fifteen.  And when we get to sixteen and seventeen the whole passage becomes non-sensical if the central point is fasting!  But since the central issue of the whole Gospel is the salvation of the nations – the world – from sin, and the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ, therefore verses sixteen and seventeen make perfect sense!

Sixteen says, “…moreover….” – which lets us know that he’s continuing the same thought process – “…moreover, no one sews a patch of unused cloth on to an old garment, for the filling of it tears away from the garment, and the tear becomes worse.”

In other words, discard the old robe and get a new one!  You can’t patch the old up – it’s useless.  It’s rotten.  It’s decayed and rotted and old, and it’s been separated out and cast away.  There is already a new one.

As far as Israel is concerned, there have been a cloud of witnesses sent to them; God Himself loved them and sheltered them and protected them – and even visited them; He gave them laws and separated them out as a holy nation; He gave them His written Word to keep and read; He prophesied His Messiah for them – not only in words but in the whole ceremonial system itself; and He covenanted with them.

But yet this nation would not believe or be faithful.  Again and again it played the harlot with other religions and philosophies and systems of thought.  And it pandered to every illicit and immoral behavior known to man!  And their sins were filled up.

And Jesus says here that the old is passed away.  Behold all things are become new!  You can’t partially patch something that’s all used up and dead.

And then He advances that thought further in the next metaphor – verse seventeen:  “Neither do they put young wine into old skins! – else the skins are burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed.  But they put young wine into newer bottles, and both are kept safe and sound.”

It’s not very important here that everybody understand this, but young wine continues to ferment.  And if the skins used to contain it are older and already stretched out, then they’re liable to burst.  But the skins that are new.  They aren’t yet stretched out.  They’re able to stretch some with the additional fermentation of the wine.

But this is a further illustration of that original thought about the patches – that the old covenant nation is being separated out and all the nations are being brought in.  And not only can the old not be retained by adding a little new patching, but neither can it be retained by combining all of the new with it!

In other words, Jesus is saying that Israel cannot be retained!  Period!  It can’t be patched up, and it can’t be saved by adding all of the new to it!  It is worthless, and it has to be cast away!  It can’t get better again!  It won’t do any good to add just a little newness to it; and it won’t even help to fill it up with something new!  It has to be destroyed in order to make way for the new.  You can’t patch it – it won’t fix!  And you can’t fill what’s there up with something new!  All the old has to go!

Now, finally, there are a number of allusions to the “Bridegroom” in the older testament prophetic Scriptures.  In fact, some say that the entire Song of Solomon is a very intimate, searching figure of Christ and the Church using extremely metaphorical language.

And, of course, there are the famous New Testament passages which clearly liken a man and his wife to the Divine pattern of Christ and His bride – the Church.  Among those you might read are Second Corinthians chapter eleven and Revelation chapters nineteen, twenty-one, and twenty-two.

But the most beautiful and most revealing prophesy in the Old Testament Scriptures – of the Real Bridegroom and the true bride – is found in the prophesy of Isaiah.  In the midst of a two chapter description of the salvation to come for the New Zion (the Kingdom of Christ) – chapters sixty-one and sixty-two, we read this:  “You shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name….” (This is the New Covenant Kingdom being spoken of here.)  “You shall also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  You shall no more be called ‘forsaken;’ neither shall your land any more be called ‘desolate;’ but you shall be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.  For as a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons marry you; and as the Bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall Your God rejoice over you.”

We’ve seen the name Hephzibah once before.  It means “My delight is in her.”  It is the name for a virginal, beautiful, faithful wife – a bride – One whom the bridegroom delights to cover with his own garment.  And this is the nature and character of our Lord Jesus Christ that’s being revealed to us in this passage.

He loves the Church.  And He died for His Kingdom.  And His spilled blood is shown to the world as the evidence that His bride is, indeed, virginal.  She is pure and clean and holy – nobody can deny it, the evidence is there; there’s the blood!

The joyful, shameless attendants to the Bridegroom have gone in and retrieved the evidence of the bride’s virginity; and they’ve brought it out for all to see!  And everybody rejoices!

You see, that’s the whole point of the Bridegroom/bride allegory in all of Scripture!  It’s the blood of Christ, placed to our account, that evidences our virginity – our cleanness!  He was pierced; and the blood flowed, and the evidence of our virginity is held up for everybody to see!