Spiritual value and mandating what Jesus doesn’t

We are currently going through a series in Matthew’s gospel. This past Sunday, we reached a section that included Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners along with a bit about John’s disciples asking why Jesus and his followers don’t seem to fast regularly. The section in Matthew 9:9-17 is really about the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. It is addressing two questions: (1) who belongs to the kingdom; and, (2) what are the obligations on the kingdom’s citizens?

In the first half, Jesus insists that repentant sinners are the ones who belong to the kingdom and that those who are self-righteous – that is, righteous in their own eyes – are necessarily excluded. Jesus welcomes Matthew – a repentant, sinful tax collector who became his follower – but rejects the Pharisees who, simultaneously, reject him because they are convinced they have no need of a saviour. Just as doctors don’t encourage sickness by hanging round with sick people, Jesus doesn’t encourage sin by hanging around sinners. Rather, doctors see the sick in order to make them well and saviours hang around sinners in order to save them. The citizens of Jesus’ kingdom are those repentant sinners who realise they need a saviour and recognise Jesus as the only one capable of doing any saving.

The second half of the section is more concerned with the obligations of kingdom citizenship. What does Jesus actually demand of those in his kingdom? The presenting issue that raises the question is that of fasting. More particularly, regular fasting as opposed to the only fast demanded in the law on the Day of Atonement. The subtext to John’s disciples’ question is, if Jesus is so holy and his disciples doing what is right, why don’t they fast like them and the Pharisees?

Jesus’ answer is simple enough: fasting is linked to mourning (typically mourning over sin). He quotes Hosea, which pictures God as a bridegroom and Israel as his bride. Mourning over sin was natural because that very sin is what separated God from his people. But Jesus insists the bridegroom is now here. The problem of sin (and its related problem of death) will be resolved now the messiah has come, the bridegroom is come to dwell among his people. So, Jesus says, what is there to fast and mourn about? He is here, he is with them, sin and death will be resolved. This is no time to mourn and fast, but a time to rejoice and be glad.

He does add that a time is coming when the bridegroom will be taken away, and then they will fast. This seems to be an obvious reference to Jesus’ death. Not least, Matthew himself ends his gospel – the one that lands on this very comment about fasting – with the statement from Jesus, ‘I am with you always even to the end of the age’. This comment coming after Jesus’ death. If the reason not to fast is specifically because the bridegroom is with them, and Jesus is with them to the end of the age, then there is no reason to fast in the New Covenant. This seems to be specifically in view in what Paul also says in Colossians 2. Let me reproduce what he says there with some comment in square brackets:

Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ. For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ, 10 and you have been filled by him, who is the head over every ruler and authority. [Paul is explicit here that Christ dwells in his people now so that he is with us always, per Matthew’s comment at the end of his gospel.] 11 You were also circumcised in him with a circumcision not done with hands, by putting off the body of flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive with him and forgave us all our trespasses. 14 He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him. [Again, in line with Jesus’ comments in Matthew 9, Jesus has dealt with the problem of sin and there is, in Christ Jesus, no cause for mourning over it any more.]

16 Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ. [It is hard to see how Paul could be any clearer that the result of Jesus being with us forever and having paid for sin – as per Matthew – is that food and drink in particular i.e. fasting is no longer required of us. Indeed, Paul says these are a shadow of the coming of Jesus i.e. they point to Christ and are not required now he is here.] 18 Let no one condemn you by delighting in ascetic practices [again, ascetism is literally going without food and drink i.e. fasting.] and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm. Such people are inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind. 19 They don’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God.

20 If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: 21 “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? [again, ascetic practices such as fasting are evidently in view] 22 All these regulations refer to what is destined to perish by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines. 23 Although these have a reputation for wisdom by promoting self-made religion, false humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence. [Paul insists these practices have no value. Fasting i.e. asceticism may appear wise or spiritual, but it is not. He insists it has no spiritual value. This is the specific outworking, he says, of Jesus being with his people and his having cancelled the debt of sin against us. This seems fully in line with what Jesus says in Matthew, rendering fasting null and void in the New Covenant.]

Why, then, do we see anyone fasting in Acts? The Jewish believers were continuing a Jewish custom, not unlike maintaining the kosher food laws. These were customs they were free to do culturally, but that had no particular spiritual value and, therefore, no reason to be imposed on Gentile believers. In light of Paul’s words in Colossians 2 and Jesus’ comments in Matthew, we have to work very hard to read it in as a New Covenant obligation or “spiritual discipline”.

Why does Jesus insist they will fast when he is not with them? Again, I think this refers clearly to the cross. At the point of his death, the Apostles believed Jesus’ mission was a failure. He was not with them, he was dead, and this was cause for mourning. His death (in their mind) meant sin had not been addressed, which was a cause for mourning. His ministry, to which they had dedicated three years of their lives, appeared to be an abject failure and warranted mourning. The discipled slunk off and went back to their fishing. There was real cause to fast then. But three days later, Jesus appears to his Apostles. Their mourning was turned to joy. Sin and death had been conquered. Indeed, later, Paul insists believers are to “rejoice in the Lord always”. The cause for mourning in the New Covenant has gone and the reason to fast – those shadows of the things to come – have been removed because the substance is Christ and he is now here, with his people, having conquered sin and death.

This means fasting is no longer required. Indeed, it has no spiritual benefit Paul says. Even claims of it being a good “spiritual discipline” seem misplaced. Of course, like Jewish believers, one is free to do it if they want. But it is without specific spiritual benefit. No one is sinning by fasting, that much seems clear, but equally nobody is adding anything of spiritual benefit either according to Paul any more than keeping kosher does. Do it if you like, but don’t claim it comes with specific spiritual value or ought to be done by anyone in particular.

The wider lesson to take from this, no matter how helpful a practice may be to you, no matter how subjectively beneficial you think something may be, if Jesus doesn’t demand it, you ought not to demand it either. If Jesus says there is no particular spiritual benefit, we ought not to guilt those who take him at his word.