"Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but Thine eat and drink?" (Luke 5:33.)
The question proposed regarding these three companies of disciples is deeply interesting, and - with the answer of the Lord to it - will well repay our attention. He Himself testified on another occasion, "The disciple is not above his Master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his Master." We may judge, therefore, the character of the disciples and their actions from the master, of whom they learned.
The Pharisees are well known to every reader of Scripture. By them the flesh was religiously cultivated to its highest perfection. Hence we may easily judge the reason for their fastings and prayers. They thought to gain the favour of God by their religious activity and self-denial. A true idea may be formed of them by the prayer of the Pharisee, of which our Lord speaks in Luke 18:10-12. His prayer was not an expression of "man's weakness waiting upon God," but rather a statement of his own religious goodness, and in this his fasting twice in the week occupied a prominent place. No more then need be said. It is clear that the Pharisees fasted and made prayers in their religious self-occupation, desiring in this way to win the favour of God.
Now the goodness and religiousness of the flesh had no place in the ministry of John the Baptist, by which his disciples were formed. The Pharisees, along with the Sadducees, he denounced as a "generation of vipers." He insisted that there should be fruits brought forth meet for repentance. He said, "Begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." Along with this he announced imminent and unsparing judgment. Those whom he baptized owned the claims of God, and how utterly they had failed as a nation to comply with them. In repentance they confessed their ruin, and stood in self-judgment before God.
Doubtless then all this gave the reason for the frequent fastings and prayers of John's disciples. Unlike the Pharisees, who engaged themselves with the supposed goodness of the flesh and sought to bring it to perfection, these had constantly before their minds its badness, and their utter failure. In the sense of this they withdrew themselves from the pleasures and resources of the flesh, and mourned, and waited upon God.
But the disciples of the Lord ate and drank, and this perplexed the wise scribes and religious Pharisees. "Thine eat and drink." Was it then, as they in their reasonings might suppose, that His teaching, which formed His disciples, lowered the claims of God's holiness, or made light of the people's failure? Surely not. All that John brought from God was true, and all that his ministry produced in his disciples was right and becoming. But the disciples of the Lord had advanced one step further. Instead of being engaged with the badness of the flesh (much less its supposed goodness) their hearts were gained by Him who was all the delight of the heart of God. So answered the Lord, "Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the Bridegroom is with them?" It was He Himself who filled their hearts with joy; there was no fasting in His presence.
It is a blessed theme for meditation. Man had entirely failed and broken down beyond remedy. Then came the blessed Son of man, who was openly declared to be God's beloved Son, in whom was all His pleasure. From that moment everything depended on Him, and not upon the broken-down creature. He would fulfil all God's will, and secure His perfect delight. But He would not do this by patching up the old character of things, or by infusing new joy into the old system. He who came to do God's will could only fulfil His pleasure, and secure everything unfailingly and eternally, by taking away the first order of things connected with man's responsibility and failure, and establishing a second order, in which all things are new and according to God. This He would accomplish in His holy sacrifice, by which He glorified God in respect to sin.
It was not all accomplished at the time the scribes questioned and the Lord answered, but HE was there, the Accomplisher, Himself the delight of God's heart, and the One upon whom all now depended. The joy of that new order of things was felt by those whom He brought to share in His company (although they could in no way have explained it), and they delighted in Him who was God's delight. All was before His own eye, and He knew how to impress the hearts of His poor disciples with the unfading joy of the sphere to which He belonged, and into which He would bring them, in fulfilment of the gracious purpose of God concerning them.
Then why did not these very scribes feel the blissfulness of His presence, and also rejoice in Him? Alas! they were so thoroughly imbued with the "old wine" that they had no taste for the new. Their minds were so completely filled with thoughts of the flesh - its capabilities, its improvement, its hoped-for ultimate perfection - that they could not appreciate His presence who morally superseded it all, that everything might centre in His own Person, and all joy be found in His own sphere.
These three companies of disciples have their representatives in our own day. Many, alas! are devoted disciples of the Pharisees, and accordingly fast and make prayers, hoping by these means to win the favour of God and secure His pleasure. How vain is this!
Others there are who seem to be diligent disciples of John, for they are ever mourning over man's badness (it may be, their own in particular) and the breakdown of everything which has been entrusted to him. Shall we make light of man's incorrigible wickedness and weakness? Or shall we endeavour to overlook the failure as of small consequence? God forbid. Such mourning we must all pass through to reach, in truth and reality, the peace and blissfulness of the presence of Jesus. But it is a blessed thing to advance beyond it.
Now in the glory of God sits the blessed Son of man. Through His holy sacrifice He is the Accomplisher of God's will. He gives effect to it by placing us as His companions before God in the place and relationship which God had purposed for us, and He leads us by the Spirit into all the exquisite joy of it. If His disciples could not fast in His company here on earth, as they were made to taste the joy which belonged to His presence, how much more may we feast as brought into all the reality of the boundless bliss which finds its centre in Him. Blessed, deeply blessed it is, having confessed the entire failure of man, to find rest and joy in His company, brought by Him to His Father and God, and knowing that all that God has purposed is fully secured by Him.
"The days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days." The more fully we enter into the joy of His company the more shall we feel His absence. In the sense of this our abstinence from the joys and resources of the earth will be far more complete than that of those who are engaged either with the goodness, or with the badness of man.
May it be granted to us to know more fully the joy of His own company, and the new character of all that into which He brings us in association with Himself. J. R.