Sunday, August 16, 2015

The New Way of Fasting in the New Covenant Era

Have you ever read Mark 2:18–22 and scratched your head wondering what on earth Jesus is talking about? I have. Repeatedly. What do his illustrations illustrate? What's with these garments and wineskins? Why does Jesus give us these illustrations when he speaks of fasting? And what do they mean? How do they apply?

Some scholars, sensing a disconnect, suggest that verses 21–22 didn't originally belong with verses 18–20, or that perhaps they ought to be taken as an independent bit of instruction. But such suggestions undoubtedly miss Jesus' point, miss the connection, misunderstanding biblical theology, the gospel of the kingdom, and the nature and relation of the covenants. And so we need not posit the kinds of things scholars are apt to posit when they cannot see how a passage hangs together.

Furthermore, some scholars, who grant a connection, think the old is Judaism, and the new is Christianity. Though there is undoubtedly some truth to this, inasmuch as Judaism was a way of practicing the old in the first century when Jesus gave this instruction, yet it focuses too narrowly on one slice of what Jesus is addressing. John and his disciples are also part of the old (v. 18), however we understand the old. And John and his disciples, we have no reason to doubt, practiced, more or less, old covenant spirituality, and did so in a way that was no doubt God-glorifying. So they point to some practices that align more nearly with faithful old covenant spirituality. But Jesus, to whom John points, goes beyond old covenant spirituality, and supersedes it. And thus viewing the old as narrowly referring to the Judaism of the first century doesn't quite seem to get at the contrast between the new that Jesus' brings over against the old that's gone before.

So here's how I think it works. The illustrations of verses 21 and 22 seem clear enough. The new cannot be put on the old; the new does not fit into the old. The new rips the old; the new bursts the old. The new in some sense is distinct from the old. That's plain. Isn't it? But what's not as plain is how these illustrations illuminate how we're to practice fasting—and, particularly, fasting in the new covenant era.

So, how shall we understand these illustrations with respect to fasting in the new covenant era? Well, I think I've finally understood Jesus, after years of head scratching, and here's my attempt to answer the question. Think it over, and you judge for yourself whether or not you think I've got it right.

You cannot fast the way the saints fasted in the old covenant era. That fasting did not focus on the Bridegroom the way fasting in the new covenant era does. "The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day" (v. 20, italics mine). Is this simply saying that disciples will resume fasting again? No, no. That misses the new element. Fasting in the era of the new covenant purchased with Jesus' blood is Christ-centered. It's oriented on the gospel of the kingdom, a kingdom that dawned in the coming of the incarnate King, a kingdom that comes in all its fullness in his coming again in glory with the holy angels.

So fasting after Christ's first coming longs for Jesus' return. It yearns for the King to bring the kingdom in all its glorious fulness (Matt. 6:10). It strives for God's will to be done on earth as it is being done in heaven (Matt. 6:10). It wants—more than it wants anything—for God's name in Christ to be hallowed and adored and praised and blessed and esteemed above all else (Matt. 6:9). And it pants after the river of God's pleasures that passes through the new Jerusalem (Rev. 22:1–2; Ps. 36:8–9), that is, for God's Spirit poured out in fullness in a new heavens and new earth.

Fasting in the old covenant era did not look like this. And so the new way of fasting, if it does not go beyond the garments and containers of the old, rips and bursts the old. The old is old: it cannot wear the new, cannot contain the new. The new is new: it needs new garments, needs new wineskins. The glory of gospel garments far exceeds the glory of the old garb. The glory of gospel fine wine far exceeds the glory of the old wine. The old had glory; but the new far greater glory. And so it must go on in a new way, a new and living way, centering on Jesus, focusing on the his coming kingdom, longing for the fullness of his fellowship. Having been given the engagement ring in the gift of the Spirit, the new way of fasting longs for that Wedding of all weddings.

We might even be able to extrapolate and make applications more broadly to spiritual disciplines generally: the spiritual disciplines of the old covenant era cannot wear or carry the spiritual disciplines of the new. Christ's coming changes everything. The old had its place in God's plan. And it still does, as it continues to point forward to the realities of the new, as it continues to provide the categories for embracing the King and his new covenant kingdom. But now, with the cataclysmic coming of the new age into and driving out the old, the new age and her crowned King must be the center of all our devotion.

"Then they will fast in that day" (Mark 2:20). Now is "that day." Now is the day of salvation. Now is on the edge of eternity. So come, Lord Jesus. Come! For you we wait. For you alone we long. For your glory we pray. Sweep us off our feet, and take us over the threshold of the new Jerusalem into the everlasting kingdom of God. Forever, and ever. Allelujah! Maranatha!