II. The Necessity to Accept the New (vv. 19-20)
a. Jesus is the Bridegroom
Jesus, of course, did not let this questioning go by without a response. He answered these disciples directly by explaining exactly why His disciples were not participating in the fasts, and in doing so He revealed the necessity for accepting His “new message.”
First of all we see that Jesus’ disciples were not fasting because Jesus is the Bridegroom and He was present with them. Mark records Jesus’ words in v. 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.” To understand what Jesus is talking about here we must first understand a first century wedding feast. Kent Hughes helps us in this regard:
After an ancient Jewish wedding, the couple did not honeymoon, but stayed at home for a week of open house in which there was continual feasting and celebration. For the hardworking, this was traditionally considered to be the happiest week in their lives. The bride and groom were treated like a king and queen that week (sometimes they even wore crowns). They were attended by chosen friends known as “guests of the bridegroom,” which means literally, “children of the bride’s chamber.”
These “children of the bride’s chamber” are the people that Jesus is referring to here in this passage. For these individuals to fast during this great feast would have been totally inappropriate. They would have been behaving more like they were pallbearers and a funeral then attendants at a wedding feast.
The point of this analogy is clear. The disciples are the wedding guests and Jesus is the groom. Jesus, with His new message of of salvation by grace alone, was a great source of joy for those who followed Him. For the disciples to fast while they were with Him would have been duplicitous. How could they externally show sorrow through fasting while internally experiencing the joy of being in the presence of Christ? They had the Bridegroom with them that is why they didn’t fast!
John’s disciples certainly should have understood this point. In John 3:29ff John the Baptist himself said this to his disciples:
The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Despite what their own teacher said, these disciples of John reject the new message of Christ. They refuse to let go of the old in order to accept the new, and we must not make this same mistake. We must do away with the old way of working for our salvation and we must put our faith in the bridegroom-Jesus Christ-in order to receive the eternal life that John spoke of.
b. Jesus will be “taken away”
Verse 19 is not the only thing that Jesus says in response to the question posed to Him. In v. 20 Jesus goes on to say, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” Here we see that Jesus did not prohibit His disciples from fasting, in fact there was coming a time when it would be appropriate for them to fast. Jesus predicted that He would be taken away from His disciples and at that time His disciples would fast. There is something unusual about this though. At a wedding feast it would not have been the bridegroom who would have left his guests. The guests would have left the groom to be with his wife in their new home. Yet, Jesus says that He, the Bridegroom, will be taken away. Additionally, the word that He used here implies that He would be taken away forcefully.
The people listening to Jesus on that day most likely did not understand the full implications of what Jesus was saying, but clearly we see now that He was referring to His death on the cross. His words are strikingly similar to the words of Isaiah 53:8 where the substitutionary death of the Messiah was predicted by the prophet. There it says, “By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” This is exactly what happened to Jesus. He was taken away and He was crucified on a cross where He bore the sins of many. It was through this substitutionary death that Jesus finally and completely ushered in the new covenant of grace. Jesus made it possible for us to be saved through His work, and He confirmed the futility of using the old way to try and earn our salvation.
As we contemplate this sacrificial death there is certainly a measure of sorrow with which we look back on it. Thus, as we are physically absent from Jesus because of the crucifixion there are times when it will be appropriate for us to fast. However, there are a few things that we need to note about fasting:
1. Fasting must also be an outward sign of an inward attitude. Our fasting must never be “showy,” or done before the eyes of man.
2. The sorrow that is normally associated with fasting should not be our normal state-of-being. We have the confidence that even though Jesus was physically taken away from us He will be back (John 16:16-22).
3. Fasting is not an obligation that we must perform in order to be right with God. We do not earn anything by fasting, and there are not fasting requirements that we must meet.
This is how fasting is to be viewed under the new covenant, which Jesus initiated through His death on the cross. All of this, however, implies that we must first accept this new message of Jesus before we can properly participate in fasting. Unfortunately the disciples of John and the Pharisaic group were not willing to do this.
R. Kent Hughes, Mark : Jesus, Servant and Savior, Preaching the Word (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1989), 77.