Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord? (Isaiah 58:5, NASB)
These three questions put by Isaiah to his contemporaries paints a picture of a generation stuck on ritual, external appearances, and personal bodily punishment.
Yeshua’s take on a popular practice
Fasting is a private matter, and his recommendation, apart from any audience query, instructed his disciples to avoid human notice. Skip the public show! But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:17-18, NASB) Noone needed to know they were fasting.
Responding to a question
Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?Matthew 9:14, NASB
The Lord frames his reply within the time in which people were living; the prenuptial days of the bridegroom and his friends. It lands one step short of saying “We have no need”, and that would be a premature conclusion.
THE DAYS OF THE BRIDEGROOM
And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”Matthew 9:15, NASB
The bridegroom’s attendants cannot be expected to mourn (=fast). Preparing for a wedding is right next to the wedding itself on the joy scale. Who are these persons; bridegroom and attendants? Whose marriage is imminent?
The Wedding must be near
The certainty that the friends of the bridegroom will fast when the bridegroom goes away means that this wedding is neither the Communion Service nor the Lamb’s marriage supper, which we understand is scheduled for the end of the age. The bride, in her final state, is called heavenly Jerusalem. However, sticking with the traditional prenuptial separation of the bridegroom from the bride, we recognize that Christ’s return to glory is felt with real grief by his companions, and we note that receiving the Holy Spirit is an occasion of unprecedented joy. Yet it is matter of personal experience and deep affection that believers want to be with the Incarnate Word, even though they have the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit. There is a [re]union that occurs when Christ sends the Holy Spirit and another that happens at the general resurrection where all the saints are united with the Lord-groom. “So”, says Paul, “shall we forever be with the Lord”.
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, NASB
Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.Revelation of John 19:7, NASB
Presenting to Himself the church in all her glory, (Ephesians 5:27, NASB)
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,Ephesians 5:25-26, NASB
Having received the Holy Spirit
The sadness and despair that the disciples felt when their Lord died cannot be explained with words. Clearly they were disillusioned and thought that the tales of his resurrection were just that; mere tales. But on the day of Pentecost everything changed. They were with the Lord again by means of the presence of the Holy Spirit whom the Lord had designated “another Helper”, someone to help them just as he had, but with better resources since he, the Son of God, was after all a human being limited somewhat by space and time.
Isaiah’s query redirected from self-interest
Isaiah’s questions about the type of fasting God accepts anticipate an answer about what we do for others, not what we do to ourselves, namely (1) loosening the bonds of wickedness, (2) undoing the bands of the yoke, (3) letting the oppressed go free (4) breaking every yoke? (5) dividing your bread with the hungry (6) bringing the homeless poor into the house (7) seeing the naked, to covering him and (8) not hiding oneself from one’s own family (Isaiah 58:6-7, NASB).
Fasting then is not a thing we do to exorcise demons and get God to pay attention to our requests and needs. We can be certain that God is always listening and his gifts have no strings – such as afflicting our bodies. God has left us no instructions about bodily maintenance. The early church fasted (1) when appointing leadership (Acts 14:23, NASB) and (2) at the local church in Antioch appointing a team for the Gentile mission (Acts 13:2, NASB). Unmet needs are a symptom of either greed, inappropriate desires, or irrelevant requests. Praying without tiring is perfectly efficient and does not expose as being apathetic or inactive when the interests in Isaiah’s query are present in our communities.