As we continue in the Galilean ministry of the Lord, we come to:
Within this third section of chapter 2, we see that the meal that Levi had organized was also a point of concern for the disciples of John. Mark’s account does not specify exactly who asked the question, but Matthew’s account clearly attributes it to the disciples of John, Matt. 9. 14. They had been brought up on the austerity of John’s ministry and found the Saviour, in the words of the scribes and Pharisees, ‘eating and drinking with publicans and sinners’.
Their basic enquiry was, ‘Why do … thy disciples fast not?’ Whether the question was fuelled by the antagonism of the Pharisees, or not, cannot be ascertained from the verses. What seems clear is that they were fasting at that time.1 Although there was no specific requirement in the law, other than on the Day of Atonement, these disciples had voluntary fasts at least twice a week.2 It seemed incongruous, at best, for the Lord and His disciples to be feasting on the day that they were fasting.
The Lord’s ministry in Matthew chapter 6 teaches that fasting, like personal prayer, was to be a private matter. It was not to be done with a desire to draw attention to the one fasting, ‘that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret’, Matt. 6. 18. This did not fit with the practice either of the disciples of John or of the Pharisees.
The Lord answers their question with a question of His own, ‘Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them?’ v. 19. This indicates the Lord in His character as the Bridegroom and His disciples as the Groom’s attendants. It also portrays a scene, not of sadness and sorrow for sin, but of joy in the presence of the Saviour. This was essentially the Baptist’s witness in John chapter 3 verse 29, ‘He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice’. Wiersbe comments, ‘Our Lord had performed His first miracle at a joyous marriage feast, John 2. 1-11. Now He was inviting people to come to the wedding!’3
But in these statements of the Saviour, there was also the clear testimony that ‘the bridegroom shall be taken away’, v. 20. There is no room for doubt, ‘the days will come’. The Lord knew that and did not hide it from His disciples. The words also indicate that the taking away would be by violent means.4 He knew the way in which the opposition of men was moving and what would be the ultimate outcome of that hatred. That day would be the moment for His disciples to mourn. Hiebert comments, ‘When His removal has become a sad reality their resultant sorrow will provide a proper occasion for fasting as the appropriate expression of their true feelings’.5
In these two illustrations used by the Lord, He shows that the old system and teaching were past and done. The forms and rituals of Judaism could not be mixed with the gospel. The two are incompatible. What the Lord brought was not something that could be built into the old but that which was altogether new and dynamic.
In the first illustration of the garment, Judaism is portrayed as something old and worn out by use. It has been weakened to a point where it cannot be repaired or improved. To add in the new, the unshrunk piece of cloth, would be to destroy the old cloth. The lesson is that the new cloth cannot be sewn into the old; the gospel cannot be bound into Judaism.
In the second illustration, the new wine symbolizes the joy and power of the gospel. New wine cannot be contained in old bottles or wine skins. They do not have the flexibility or elasticity to contain it. Equally, Judaism cannot contain the Christian faith. One is based upon the observance of laws and rituals, whereas the other is based upon faith in Christ. A double loss would ensue, as the bottles and the wine are both lost.
This brings us to the last section within chapter 2.
As the Lord and His disciples went through the cornfields, this event opens a section that deals with incidents on the Sabbath. In the first chapter, 1. 21, the Lord had delivered the man possessed of an unclean spirit. Here, the plucking of the corn from the corn fields, and then, 3. 1-6, the man with the withered hand healed on the Sabbath, are a combination of actions which draws out the opposition and hatred of the Pharisees.
The accusation of the Pharisees is clear from verse 24, ‘Why do they on the Sabbath day that which is not lawful?’ The law stated that on the Sabbath day they were not to do any work, Exod. 20. 10. The definition of what is meant by work is not given in this instance. There was only scriptural instruction given pertaining to various situations that could arise, particularly in respect to a man’s animals. To fill this perceived void in the regulation of the law, the Pharisees had developed their own additional ‘laws’. These had become handed down and enshrined in tradition, carrying equal weight as the law in the minds of the Pharisees. What the disciples were being accused of was reaping the corn and threshing it with their hands. Vincent comments, ‘The offence given the Pharisees was the preparation of food on the Sabbath’.6 Cole adds, ‘it is very noticeable that they were not able to bring anything against Jesus personally, not even the most trivial charge of breach of the ceremonial law’.7
The Pharisees pressed their case. On the significance of the word ‘said’, Hiebert states it ‘is in the imperfect tense; they continued to press their objection’. Whilst the Pharisees thought the disciples guilty, they desired to hold the Lord responsible for the actions of His followers.
The Lord again poses a question that gets to the heart of the problem. Was their interpretation of the law of God appropriate and justified? Whilst the Lord could have mentioned the beast that had fallen into a pit that could be got out on the Sabbath without breaking Sabbath regulation, He chose to deal with the case of David. The beast in the pit could be rescued in order to preserve its life. David went into the temple and asked for the shewbread and did so to preserve life. The Lord’s words were, ‘when he had need and was an hungered’, v. 25. The compassion and care of David for his followers was emphasized. However, the law that David broke was not pertaining to the Sabbath. It was a serious violation of that which was set aside as holy and for the priests alone. What was David’s punishment? On this, scripture is silent.
We might note that the Lord takes the Pharisees up on their own charge. They had accused the disciples of that ‘which is not lawful’, v. 24. The Lord says of David that he ‘did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat’, v. 26. The present case raised by the Pharisees was an interpretation of the law. The other was a definite violation of the scriptural law. How much more serious was David’s case!
There is a significant parallel in the example that the Lord uses. The eating of the shewbread by David and his followers was brought about because he was being hunted by Saul. Saul had vowed to kill David and the rejected king sought sustenance from the House of God. The Lord was the rejected King in the midst of the people and the Pharisees were, in their turn, planning His death.
It is sad to see that what God had provided for the rest and blessing of men had been turned, by the Pharisees and other religious leaders, into something that was a burden. The law had provided evidence of the humanitarian and compassionate grounds upon which the law of the Sabbath could be legitimately broken. A strict, legalistic interpretation was in total opposition to this principle, ‘the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath’, v. 27. But more than this! The Lord teaches that the interpretation of what is and what is not lawful on the Sabbath is not the prerogative of the Pharisees and scribes but of the Lord Himself, ‘the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath’, v. 28. Wuest comments, ‘The word [also or] “even” points to the Sabbath as so inviolable in the eyes of these formalists who strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel’.8
Sadly, the scourge of legalism did not cease with the Lord’s death and resurrection. Believers can add to the scriptures today. It may be for what are claimed to be good reasons, but taking an unflinching stand on principles that are not underpinned by scripture is a dangerous and potentially destructive approach. Indeed, such are not often biblical principles. They are little more that personal preferences and preserving them becomes a burden to the saints. May the Lord enable us to preserve biblical principles but also seek the welfare and blessing of His people.
Other translations give this sentence as: ‘The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting’, NKJV, JND. That an actual fast was taking place is also indicated by the RV and ESV.
See Cole, op. cit., page 71, et al on this point.
W. Wiersbe, Be diligent: Mark, David C. Cook, Logos software resource.
See John D. Grassmick, op. cit.
D. E. Hiebert, op. cit., pg. 78.
M. R. Vincent, op. cit.
A. Cole, op. cit., pg. 72.
K. Wuest, op. cit., pg. 61.
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