Someone incorrectly, but nonetheless humorously, defined a Puritan as “a person who suffers from an overwhelming dread that somewhere, sometime, somehow, someone may be enjoying himself.” That definition is incorrect because the Puritans had as their purpose “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Since God is absolutely good, truly enjoying Him is the greatest joy possible.
But we all have met someone who fits that incorrect definition of a Puritan—a religious person who only seems to be content when everyone else is miserable. They put starch in their underwear and they want to make sure that everyone else lives the same way! These folks are like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Lutherans, who are suspicious of a place like Hawaii that doesn’t have harsh winters. Those Minnesota winters are good for you because they make you tough. These folks will have trouble adjusting to heaven if it doesn’t have harsh winters!
Two of the biggest spiritual killjoys have been ascetics and legalists. Ascetics deliberately make life tough on themselves and think that pleasure is evil or, at least, tends toward evil. They wouldn’t feel quite right to enjoy life. Legalists delight in keeping their lists of rules and judging those who don’t have or keep the same rules. Invariably, their rules are not the weighty matters of God’s Law, such as love, justice, mercy, and matters of the heart. Rather, they congratulate themselves for keeping manmade standards dealing with external things and they judge those who ignore these things. Ascetics and legalists are gospel killjoys.
In our text, Jesus encounters some who tended toward asceticism and some who were legalistic, especially with regard to Sabbath observance. These events probably did not occur chronologically next to each other, but Luke places them in this context to show the supremacy and authority of Jesus over the old system and to show the growing hostility toward Jesus from the Jewish religious leaders. They grumbled when He forgave the sins of the paralytic (5:21). They grumbled some more when Jesus and the disciples ate and drank with tax-gatherers and sinners at Levi’s house (5:30). And they were unhappy about Jesus’ disciples plucking, rubbing, and eating the heads of grain on the Sabbath. Jesus’ defense shows us how to avoid these two gospel killjoys:
To avoid the gospel killjoys of asceticism and legalism, focus on the joy of a personal relationship with Christ.
Satan wants to promote the mistaken idea that Christianity is a joyless, grit-your-teeth-and-endure-it sort of religion. If people think that, they will turn to something or someone other than God as the source of their joy. God’s purpose is for His creatures to glorify Him. A joyless Christian or someone who finds his greatest joy in something other than God, does not glorify God. We only glorify God when we find true joy in Him. Thus asceticism and legalism are both enemies of the good news Jesus came to bring.
Everyone who seeks after God recognizes the problem of controlling the flesh. Due to the sin that indwells us all, we all are drawn after many of the sinful pleasures that God forbids in the Bible. Asceticism is the attempt to conquer these sinful passions through self-denial of some form. This can include fasting (abstaining from food), celibacy (abstaining from marriage or marital relations), poverty (renouncing any accumulation of worldly goods), and other similar practices. But asceticism differs from the self-denial Jesus advocated in the realm of motive.
Outwardly, it would seem as if John the Baptist lived an ascetic lifestyle. He remained single, he lived on a meager diet, he dressed simply, and he lived a Spartan life for the sake of God’s kingdom. Although the Pharisees were generally opposed to John the Baptist’s ministry because he confronted their hypocrisy, they found common ground with John’s disciples on the practice of fasting. So they sought to use this against Jesus and His disciples, who seemed to be more into feasting than fasting.
The Law of Moses only prescribed one fast per year, on the Day of Atonement, although Jewish custom had added four yearly fasts. But the stricter Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday. You could tell they were fasting because they whitened their faces, put ashes on their heads, wore old clothes, and looked as sober as possible. They had the idea that you couldn’t be spiritual unless you looked and felt miserable. And, they wanted to impress everyone else with how spiritual they really were. Jesus attacked this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:16-18) when He said,
And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
So fasting, if it stems from our heart as a means of devoting time to be alone with God to seek Him in prayer, can be rewarding. The motive is crucial. John the Baptist and his disciples no doubt fasted out of the proper motives, whereas the Pharisees and their disciples did not.
But in our text, Jesus doesn’t draw lines between John’s disciples and the Pharisees. Instead, He defends His disciples by asking rhetorically whether you can make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is present. The answer is, “Obviously, not. A wedding is a time of feasting, not fasting.” Thus while Jesus the Bridegroom was with them, His disciples were not called to fasting. Then Jesus (for the first time in Luke) alludes to His own impending death. In that day His followers would fast.
Jesus follows this with three short explanatory illustrations that make the point that He is ushering in a new day spiritually. No one cuts a patch from a new garment to patch up an old one. This would ruin the new garment and it would not match the old one. Nor does anyone put new wine into old wineskins. The old, brittle skin would burst, losing both the old skin and the new wine. With these two illustrations Jesus claims that He is offering something new and distinct from the old dispensation of the Law. As Messiah, He is ushering in the new day. While there is obvious continuity, in that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament promises regarding Messiah, there is also a definite transition. Judaism had become encumbered with many manmade traditions. Jesus had to cut these away in order to offer the new wine of gospel joy.
The third illustration (5:39) is probably both a warning and an explanation. The person who is used to the old wine will not desire the new, but will be content with the old. The Pharisees would resist Jesus’ ministry because they were so entrenched in their traditions. The point of this illustration is not that the old ways are better than the new, but rather that a person who is used to the old ways will be prone to resist the new. But the Pharisees would have to break with their old, ascetic and legalistic ways if they wanted to follow the new way of joy that Jesus was offering.
The key point, especially with regard to fasting, is that the person of Jesus stands apart from and in contrast to the old way of the letter of the Law. Later (Luke 9:23) Jesus clearly teaches the need for self-denial if a person wants to follow Him, and so He is not negating that here. Rather, He is emphasizing the motive of His presence and the difference of relationship over ritual (more about that in a moment).
Should Christians practice fasting? There are no direct commands to fast in the epistles, but there are examples of Paul and others fasting in times of personal crisis, in special times of seeking the Lord, or when they needed God’s guidance (Acts 9:9; 13:2, 3; 14:23). Fasting can be helpful if you need to repent of sin or if you sense that you’ve drifted from the Lord and need to draw near again. Fasting can be appropriate during a time of grief; to seek deliverance or protection; to express concern for God’s work; to minister to the needs of others; to overcome temptation; and to express love and devotion to God (see Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life [NavPress], pp. 151-172). So, fasting is not commanded, but it is commended as a means of seeking God.
It’s interesting that both self-discipline and joy are listed as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23). Again, motive is crucial. If the Lord prompts us to fast for one of the reasons just mentioned, then we should obey. But we always need to be on guard against pride and the flesh. God is not impressed with outward ritual or anything that feeds our pride (Isa. 58:1-12). If we’re not careful, fasting can turn into asceticism, which kills the joy of the gospel. If we fast, we must do it as unto the Lord, not to impress others.
Luke presents the Pharisees’ confrontation with Jesus’ disciples over their picking grain on the Sabbath to show the growing tension between the Jewish leaders and Jesus and to show that He is Lord of the Sabbath. The Law of Moses allowed for picking the grain as you walked through a neighbor’s field (Deut. 23:25). The problem, in the Pharisees’ minds, was that picking grain was reaping, rubbing the grain was threshing, blowing away the husks was winnowing, and the whole process was preparing food. All this was work according to their rules, and thus forbidden on the Sabbath. So the disciples were not breaking God’s Sabbath commandment, but rather the rabbinic refinement of that commandment. Jesus and the disciples were challenging pharisaic custom.
But surprisingly, Jesus did not point out that His critics were following the commands of men rather than the commands of God. Instead, He took an incident from the life of David (1 Sam. 21:1-7) in which he violated the letter of the law in order to meet human needs. David and his men were fleeing from Saul. They came to the Tabernacle, where David asked the priest for the consecrated bread, which was put on the table of shewbread and replaced each Sabbath. The priests could then eat the old bread (Lev. 24:9). But in this case, David and his men, who were not priests, ate the bread. Jesus’ point is that legitimate human need (hunger) superseded the letter of the ceremonial law. People take precedence over ritual, even if that ritual is ordained by God.
His critics were probably thinking and about ready to ask, “What makes you think that you can compare yourself with David?” But then Jesus makes the stunning claim that He, the Son of Man, is the Lord of the Sabbath! Since God had instituted the Sabbath at creation (Gen.2:1-3), as well as stipulated it in the Ten Commandments through Moses, Jesus was saying that He was above Moses and was in fact on the same level as God who originated the Sabbath command! As the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus had the authority to interpret the force, intent, and limits of the Sabbath law. As the next incident and many others in the Gospels show, Jesus challenged the legalistic approach of the Pharisees, which was not God’s intent in giving the Sabbath law.
Legalism always kills the joy of the good news that Jesus came to bring. It is a common problem in our day, but there is a lot of confusion about it. So we need to be careful to understand what it is and what it is not. In the first place, obedience to God’s commandments is not legalism. Jesus often emphasized the importance of obedience to God’s Word. The Bible is full of various rules, some negative, some positive, which God has commanded for our good. Keeping them is not legalism. Being under grace does not mean that we are free to disobey God or hang loose with regard to His moral commandments.
Secondly, keeping manmade rules is not necessarily legalism. There are many areas not specified in the Bible where we need some rules to function as a Christian family or church. While these human rules are not as important as the commands of Scripture, there is a proper place for them and keeping them is not tantamount to legalism. For example, if your parents set a curfew for you, they are not being legalistic and you are not free to disregard their curfew because you’re “under grace”!
So what is legalism? Essentially, it is an attitude of pride in which I congratulate myself for keeping certain standards and condemn those who do not keep them. Usually the legalist thinks that his conformity to these rules makes him acceptable to God, either for salvation or sanctification. Invariably, these standards are not the great commandments of the Bible, such as loving God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Most often they are external things which the legalist is able to keep (see Matt. 23:23-28).
The legalist judges spirituality by external conformity to certain rules. “Do you keep the Sabbath as we have defined it? Very well.” It doesn’t matter whether your heart is full of pride or lust or greed. What matters is that you keep the Sabbath rules. Legalists ignore motives and inner righteousness. What matters to them is outward conformity. God hates that sort of thing, because it stems from the flesh (Isa. 1:11-14). God is concerned that we please Him from our hearts.
What about this matter of the Sabbath? Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath? Are we required to observe it as the Jews observed Saturday? If not, does it apply in any way to us? After all, it is one of the Ten Commandments, and all of the others apply to us! If you want a more detailed treatment, I refer you to my message, “God’s Day of Rest” (Gen. 2:1-3 [12/17/95]). But briefly, I think that in reacting against legalism concerning the Lord’s Day, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water. The principle of setting one day in seven apart for worship and rest is a gift that God has given to the human race for our benefit. “The Sabbath was made for man.” If we treat every day the same, except that on Sunday we attend a church service, we’re missing the blessing God intended by giving us the Sabbath commandment. We should set apart the Lord’s Day as a special day for worship and for rest from our normal duties. If we do not, we will suffer for it.
Clearly, we are not under the rigorous regulations which applied to the Jewish nation, where God demanded that a man caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath should be stoned (Num. 15:32-36). But neither are we free to shrug off the Sabbath principle completely. Some say that Christ is to be Lord of all our time, so we don’t have to set apart one day a week to Him. That’s like saying that since all our money belongs to God, we don’t have to give regularly. God knows how we’re made and that we need one day a week to worship, to rest, and to reflect on spiritual matters. There is a biblical basis for arguing that that day should be Sunday.
So even though we are not under the letter of the Jewish Law, there is an abiding principle of setting apart unto the Lord one day each week. We don’t do it to earn points with God or to check it off our list to prove that we’re spiritual. We don’t take pride in our observance of the Lord’s Day and condemn those who are not up to our level of spiritual insight. But we should set aside the Lord’s Day out of love for Him, in order to honor Him.
So, asceticism and legalism kill the joy of the gospel Jesus came to bring. But how do we get and maintain that joy?
Jesus refers to Himself here as the bridegroom. Remember, He was talking, at least in part, to some disciples of John the Baptist. So Jesus picked up on something John had said just prior to his imprisonment and used it to frame His answer. John had referred to himself as the friend of the bridegroom and to Jesus as the bridegroom. John said that his joy was made full by hearing the voice of the bridegroom (John 3:29). So here Jesus uses this analogy and points out what was obvious to anybody in that culture, that the soberness of fasting was incongruent with a wedding feast.
Jewish weddings lasted for seven days and were to be a time of joy and festivity. Even if the wedding week occurred during the most strict of Jewish fasts, the Day of Atonement, the bride could relax one of the ordinances. All mourning was to be suspended. Even the obligation of daily prayers ceased. To make the bride and groom happy was seen as a religious duty (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Eerdmans], 1:663). So Jesus says, “You cannot make [them] fast while the bridegroom is with them.”
As we’ve seen, there are times when fasting is appropriate. There are times when the most spiritually mature Christians will be sad, when they will grieve, when they won’t be marked by joy. But Jesus is the bridegroom and when He is with His people, they normally will not be marked by the gloom of fasting, but rather by the joy of the wedding feast. The joy of the Christian life is being personally related to our loving Bridegroom!
The picture of Christ as our Bridegroom is a beautiful one. I’ve never yet performed a wedding where the bride was standing there thinking, “I dread getting married to the creep standing next to me.” It’s written all over her face that she thinks this guy hung the moon. Of course, she will find out otherwise very shortly! But she loves her groom and she can’t suppress her joy. If you’ve lost the joy of your Christian walk, you’ve got to get back to your first love for your Bridegroom, who gave Himself on the cross for you.
You can’t patch Jesus unto a joyless system of asceticism or legalism. You can’t pour the new wine He brings into the old wineskins of keeping manmade rules as the basis of your relationship with God. Darrell Bock comments on verse 35: “What is key about the change of perspective is that it all turns on Jesus’ presence. He is the issue that defines the practice…. The groom is what really matters, and the audience needs to see that he—Jesus—is the key point” (Luke [Baker], 1:518). The joy of the gospel is based on a personal relationship with our loving Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Marla and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary next year. Suppose you saw me looking kind of glum and asked me what the matter was. I said, “I’ve got to spend some time with my wife. When we got married, she made me agree to spend at least ten hours a week with her, and I’ve only spent five so far this week. So I guess I’d better do it. I know it’s for my own good, even though I don’t like it.” I think you’d have good cause to wonder if my marriage was very healthy. I’ve just described a relationship based on asceticism and legalism. There’s no joy in that.
In a marriage based on love will there be self-denial? You bet! Will I obey my marriage vows, even when it’s tough and I don’t feel like it? Yes, every time! But it won’t be a grit your teeth and take your medicine kind of denial and obedience. Rather, it’s marked by joy because of the love relationship I enjoy with my wife. While there is the normal ebb and flow of emotions in our marriage, there is a deep undercurrent of joy when I am with her.
It ought to be the same in your relationship with the Lord Jesus. If you know the joy of a personal relationship with Him, there will be times when you fast. You will discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness. You will obey His Word. But your motive will not be to earn right standing with Him or to impress others with your spirituality. Your motive will be the joy of knowing and pleasing your Bridegroom. Don’t let the gospel killjoys of asceticism and legalism rob you of the joy of an ongoing relationship with your loving Bridegroom. He is the source of our joy!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation