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In Luke 5:33 Luke begins to record a series of Jesus’ teachings that differed from the common religious view of the day. The first topic is that of fasting.
33 And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers; the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same; but Yours eat and drink.”
The people took note that Jesus was less strict than John in his practice of fasting. His own disciples “eat and drink,” a Hebrew idiom for normal life, or (in this case) for not making food and drink part of their religious practice. John and his disciples fasted often, probably two days a week as was recommended by the zealous ones (Luke 18:12). Jesus did not criticize John for fasting often, but gave the reason for His different practice.
34 And Jesus said to them, “You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 35 But the days will come, and when the bridegroom is taken away [apairo] from them, then they will fast in those days.”
There is a time to fast and a time to eat and drink. Jesus knew that He was the Bridegroom, so He and His disciples did not fast. This was obviously a deliberate policy, which implied that He was the Messiah. No doubt He made no mention of this until some people questioned Him. When He did, He left some room for interpretation. Did He really mean to imply that He was the Bridegroom? Or was He merely illustrating the principle and comparing Himself generally to a bridegroom?
His answer, no doubt, was the source of public controversy, especially when He followed through with the cryptic statement about the bridegroom being “taken away.” The Greek word apairo means to be taken away or removed by something or someone else, perhaps even forcibly. It shows that Jesus understood long in advance that His ministry would be short. This forcible removal came first at His arrest and crucifixion, and then secondarily at His ascension. In both cases He was “taken away.”
In the immediate sense, Jesus ministered apart from John, and John identified himself as a “friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29). So John’s disciples fasted, because Jesus was not near John and had separate ministries. In the broader sense, when Jesus ascended to heaven, His disciples began to fast, even though He promised to be with them always (Matt. 28:20). It is clear, however, that His spiritual presence after His ascension was not enough to keep them from fasting.
Likewise, since John’s ministry represented that of Elijah, wherein He prepared the way for the presence of Christ, fasting can be seen as part of the Elijah ministry—or the Elisha ministry, as we prepare for Christ’s second coming. The need for fasting itself implies that we lack something, whether it be a lack of Christ’s personal presence or of some revelation or understanding that He could readily provide if He were present. Fasting, then, is generally done to receive revelation, direction, or understanding from heaven.
This principle is seen also in Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 4:1-14, where he speaks of disputes among the believers. Revelation is needed to resolve such disputes. The context in the first two verses shows that Paul was being condemned for his revelation of the mysteries of God:
1 Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. 3 But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.
The “mysteries of God” are inevitably examined, questioned, and disputed because they are truths that were previously unknown and kept secret in the mind of God. Kingdom understanding has always been revealed progressively over the centuries. Paul was one of those “stewards” of such previously-unknown truth as the church sought to understand the law and the changes from the Old Covenant to the New.
Paul was telling the church not to oppose or resist the truth but to seek God for confirmation in a Supreme Court ruling. In fact, Paul did not even presume to judge his own revelation. “I do not even examine myself,” he says, “but the one who examines me is the Lord” (vs. 4). In Rom. 14:4 he adds, “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls.” Then Paul lays down a most important principle of biblical law in 1 Corinthians 4:5,
5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.
In our fractious denominationally-divided church today, this principle of law has all but been neglected, forgotten, or rejected outright. Here, too, is where fasting may become important, for it often accompanies an appeal to the Supreme Court for a ruling about some belief or teaching. Fasting is designed to clear our minds and hearts as we wait for the divine verdict, so that we may hear it with greater clarity.
The day will come, of course, when the divine court will be set up in a more earthy setting. But at the present time, the Supreme Court remains in heaven, so it requires greater discernment to hear the verdict. Paul says that we are to “wait until the Lord comes” with this decision. When He renders the verdict, He also reveals “the motives of men’s hearts.” Those who dispute truth may have hidden motives, as we see in the case of the Pharisees in their attempts to trap Jesus.
Fasting may be a way for all parties to know their own hearts and to deal with any wrong motives prior to the decision of the divine court. It is inevitable that those who have hidden ulterior motives and yet refuse to pray and fast will not be able to hear or accept the Supreme Court decision when it is rendered.
So this is an extension of the principle laid down in Luke 5:34, 35. There is no need to fast when the Bridegroom is present or when the word of the Lord is clearly known. Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh and manifested in flesh. After His fleshly manifestation ended, the Holy Spirit was sent so that we might continue to receive the revelation of the word continuously. But realistically speaking, we all have various degrees of difficulty in hearing the revelation of the word, and so fasting is one way of preparing our hearts, overthrowing heart idolatry, and clarifying our spiritual senses. That way, when the Lord comes—that is, when His word comes to us to render divine court rulings in any controversy, we are ready and able to hear that word and to conform to His verdict.