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“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”” (Matthew 9:14, ESV)
When the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus, they ask Jesus what is different about His teaching than that of John’s or the Pharisees. As disciples of Jesus, the disciples are following the conduct of Christ and adhering to what he is teaching. When John’s disciples come to him, they note that they engage in fasting as well as the Pharisees. The question they have is why Jesus is not also teaching his disciples to fast similar to John and similar to the Pharisees.
Both John’s and the Pharisees’ practice of fasting stems from what they believe. It seems clear that the practice of fasting that the disciples of John the Baptist were following is similar to the practice the Pharisees were using. Therefore, in order to understand Christ’s response, we need to have a better familiarity with who John’s disciples were, and what they believed. We also need to have a better familiarity with who the Pharisees were and what they believed.
Let’s look first at the Pharisees. Every time we encounter the Pharisees we see people who are always attempting to derail what it is that Jesus is doing. As a result, we tend to get this notion in our mind that they are the ‘bad guys.’ This isn’t wrong, but we can’t embrace the simple caricature of them as the, “bad guys.” They are the bad guys. They do oppose Jesus. True enough. But the question we have to ask ourselves is, “why?” What is it that they believe which leads them to do what they do? In other words, what is the Pharisees’ worldview?
To understand the Pharisees you would need to know from where they came. Two hundred years before the birth of Christ there was tremendous upheaval in the land of Palestine, and a great civil war ensued. This civil war was brought about as the result of foreign influence into the life of Palestine and the interior of Israel. Following the death of Alexander the Great and the decline of the Macedonian Empire, two of his leading generals began to fight for territory, the leftover remnants of the Macedonian Empire. These two families fought each other tooth and nail for control over Palestine.
One family, the Seleucids from Syria, gained control over Israel and began to aggressively introduce Greek culture and thought into Jewish life. At one point, the ruler of the Seleucids, a man by the name of Antiochus Epiphanies, halted temple worship in Jerusalem, profaned the Holy of Holies by sacrificing pigs on the altar, and he even went so far as to demand that the Jews worship him instead of the Lord. This is elsewhere referred to in the Scriptures as the, “Abomination of Desolation.” It was the introduction of pagan Greek culture with its accompanying panoply of gods and goddesses, the corruption of the Temple, the halt of the true worship of the Lord, and the commanded false worship of an ordinary man that brought about a great civil war in Israel.
There were two sides to this conflict: those that argued for the embrace of the new trends from Greek culture and Greek life and the halt of the old worship of the Lord, and the rebels who insisted that the nation reject the new Greek fashions and trends and remain true to only worshipping God. It is from this latter group, known at that time as the Hasideans or the “holy ones,” that the Pharisees emerged. 1
The Pharisees were born in a time where they had to make the choice between rebuilding and further destruction. They stood at a point in history where they could look back on the faults and the failures of a previous generation that sinned horribly against God and inevitably were lead into exile because of it. At this same point in history they were confronted with the forceful domination of a godless pagan who demanded they worship him. At this crossroads, it is at this juncture, this decision between repeating the mistakes of the past or being killed for faithfulness to God, that the Pharisees chose to be faithful!
As a result of the pressure that was being exerted upon them, they had to figure out what they were willing to live for and what was necessary to defend, even at the cost of their own lives.
As a result of this pressure, they came to the conclusion that they had to reject the demand to forsake the worship of God. They had to reject some of the new trends and fashions of Greek culture that were being forced upon them. They had to do this in order to fulfill the call of God on their lives. The Pharisees came to see their struggle against the demonic forces of this world as necessary in order to be a light to the world.
But the question becomes: for what should I give my life? Nobody wants to die for something that is arbitrary. So how did the Pharisees discern what they should stand for? In order to arrive at a correct understanding of what faithfulness to God meant, they looked at two things in order to discern what was true, and then they developed a formula for how to apply those truths. Berndt Schaller makes the comment,
“They took as their standards the traditions and biblical expositions of their leading scribes. Their eschatologically oriented goal was to actualize the people of God as “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6) by strict conduct in accordance with biblical directions (e.g., keeping the Sabbath and paying tithes) and by the applying of laws for priests to the everyday life of the laity (Mark 7:1–4; Matt 23:25–26). Pharisaic piety, however, was not exclusively cultic but involved practical matters (see Matt. 6:1–18 on charitable giving or alms, prayer, and fasting... (italics and emboldened added).” 2
So they looked for two things:
Did you notice what was missing in their pursuit of truth? The Scriptures. They looked for truth in two places, the traditions and the commentaries of their leading scribes and teachers. And the method they employed for how to apply these things to everyday life came from a passage found in Exodus 19:6, which says that the nation of Israel was to be a, “…kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” So they wanted everyone in the nation of Israel to live as pure of a life as the ritual purity that was demanded of the High Priest. No where in Scripture is this expectation ever placed upon the people of Israel!
The inevitable result of this drive to push the nation of Israel into a form of purity consistent with a purity expected only from the high priest was the introduction of a never ending cadre of rules and regulations in order to ensure, if at all possible, the ritual purity of the entire nation of Israel. This is the birth of legalism. The Pharisees were aware that people often failed in perfectly implementing the rules of ritual purity, so they devised more rules to account for that. They taught that fasting should not be done merely one day a year on the day of Yom Kippure. Rather, people should fast twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays.
When the Pharisees fast, they are fasting as an expression of contrition and sorrow over their sin. Fasting becomes a form of penance where they afflict themselves in the hope that God will reward their efforts for being righteous. Their fasting is an act of earning favor with God.
John the Baptist also fasts. But he is an interesting character, because he clearly takes steps to distance himself from the Pharisees and the temple establishment in Jerusalem. He clearly was an ascetic who preferred to live a simple life with simple clothing and a simple diet, eschewing life in Jerusalem despite his priestly heritage. His followers, in the same manner, followed him out into the desert and typically shunned the religious life of the city, abandoning the trappings of the high liturgical practices and ostentatious customs of the Temple compound.
Why? At the heart of John’s ministry was the call for people to repent and prepare their hearts for the coming Messiah. Luke 3:1–3 tells us that in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 28/29), John came on the scene with his call for “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (Mark 1:4). Since, according to both the Gospels of Matthew (Matt. 3:11 and 26:28) and John, John’s baptism does not actually confer forgiveness, his original call for people to be Baptized in the wilderness had a prophetic (end-of-days) character to it. He wasn’t actually forgiving them of their sins or suggesting that fasting or any other practice could make people right with God, but he was preparing their hearts to receive the soon-to-arrive Messiah who could forgive them of their sins!3
When the disciples of John the Baptist fast, they are fasting as an act of longing and yearning for the one who can actually forgive them of their sins and make them holy. Their fasting is an act of hoping for God's favor, not an attempt at earning God's favor.
The Pharisees fasted as an act of contrition in order to show their sorrow for their sin to God. But they believed that in doing the fast of contrition they were making themselves righteous before God. In other words, the Pharisees are making themselves holy through the fast. John the Baptist’s disciples fasted in a similar custom as the Pharisees. Exactly like the Pharisees, they fasted as an act of contrition in order to show their sorrow for their sin to God, but they did so with their eyes on the horizon as they looked for the Messiah who could actually deliver them from their sins.
But none of this type of fasting is the type of fasting that should accompany the followers of Jesus. To hear or read a full sermon on this passage, please click here.
 See F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing Co. 2000),pg. 44-52.
 See Geoffrey Bromiley and David Barrett, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 4: “Pharisees,” by Berndt Schaller. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing Co. 2005), 173-174.
3Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 3, “John the Baptist.” (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999–2003), 71-73.