The objections which were made against Christ and his disciples gave occasion to some of the most profitable of his discourses; thus are the interests of truth often served, even by the opposition it meets with from gainsayers, and thus the wisdom of Christ brings good out of evil. This is the third instance of it in this chapter; his discourse of his power to forgive sin, and his readiness to receive sinners, was occasioned by the cavils of the scribes and Pharisees; so here, from a reflection upon the conduct of his family, arose a discourse concerning his tenderness for it. Observe,
I. The objection which the disciples of John made against Christ’s disciples, for not fasting so often as they did; which they are charged with, as another instance of the looseness of their profession, besides that of eating with publicans and sinners; and it is therefore suggested to them, that they should change that profession for another more strict. It appears by the other evangelists (Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33) that the disciples of the Pharisees joined with them, and we have reason to suspect that they instigated them, making use of John’s disciples as their spokesmen, because they, being more in favour with Christ and his disciples, could do it more plausibly. Note, It is no new thing for bad men to set good men together by the ears; if the people of God differ in their sentiments, designing men will take that occasion to sow discord, and to incense them one against another, and alienate them one from another, and so make an easy prey of them. If the disciples of John and of Jesus clash, we have reason to suspect the Pharisees have been at work underhand, blowing the coals. Now the complaint is, Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but thy disciples fast not? It is pity the duties of religion, which ought to be the confirmations of holy love, should be made the occasions of strife and contention; but they often are so, as here; where we may observe,
1. How they boasted of their own fasting. We and the Pharisees fast often. Fasting has in all ages of the church been consecrated, upon special occasions, to the service of religion; the Pharisees were much in it; many of them kept two fast-days in a week, and yet the generality of them were hypocrites and bad men. Note, False and formal professors often excel others in outward acts of devotion, and even of mortification. The disciples of John fasted often, partly in compliance with their master’s practice, for he came neither eating nor drinking (Matt. 11:18); and people are apt to imitate their leaders, though not always from the same inward principle; partly in compliance with their master’s doctrine of repentance. Note, The severer part of religion is often most minded by those that are yet under the discipline of the Spirit, as a Spirit of bondage, whereas, though these are good in their place, we must pass through them to that life of delight in God and dependence on him, to which these should lead. Now they come to Christ to tell him that they fasted often, at least they thought it often. Note, Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness, Prov. 20:6. There is a proneness in professors to brag of their own performance in religion, especially if there by any thing extraordinary in them; nay, and not only to boast of them before men, but to plead them before God, and confide in them as a righteousness.
2. How they blamed Christ’s disciples for not fasting so often as they did. Thy disciples fast not. They could not but know, that Christ had instructed his disciples to keep their fasts private, and to manage themselves so as that they might not appear unto men to fast; and, therefore, it was very uncharitable in them to conclude they did not fast, because they did not proclaim their fasts. Note, We must not judge of people’s religion by that which falls under the eye and observation of the world. But suppose it was so, that Christ’s disciples did not fast so often or so long as they did, why truly, they would therefore have it thought, that they had more religion in them than Christ’s disciples had. Note, It is common for vain professors to make themselves a standard in religion, by which to try and measure persons and things, as if all who differed from them were so far in the wrong; as if all that did less than they, did too little, and all that did more than they, did too much, which is a plain evidence of their want of humility and charity.
3. How they brought this complaint to Christ. Note, If Christ’s disciples, either by omission or commission, give offence, Christ himself will be sure to hear of it, and be reflected upon for it. O, Jesus, are these thy Christians? Therefore, as we tender the honour of Christ, we are concerned to conduct ourselves well. Observe, The quarrel with Christ was brought to the disciples (Matt. 9:11), the quarrel with the disciples was brought to Christ (Matt. 9:14), this is the way of sowing discord and killing love, to set people against ministers, ministers against people, and one friend against another.
II. The apology which Christ made for his disciples in this matter. Christ might have upbraided John’s disciples with the former part of their question, Why do ye fast often? “Nay, you know best why you do it; but the truth is, many abound in external instances of devotion, that scarcely do themselves know why and wherefore.” But he only vindicates the practice of his disciples; whey they had nothing to say for themselves, he had something ready to say for them. Note, As it is wisdom’s honour to be justified of all her children, so it is her children’s happiness to be all justified of wisdom. What we do according to the precept and pattern of Christ, he will be sure to bear us out in, and we may with confidence leave it to him to clear up our integrity.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me. Herbert.
Two things Christ pleads in defence of their not fasting.
1. That it was not a season proper for that duty (Matt. 9:15): Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? Observe, Christ’s answer is so framed, as that it might sufficiently justify the practice of his own disciples, and yet not condemn the institution of John, or the practice of his disciples. When the Pharisees fomented this dispute, they hoped Christ would cast blame, either on his own disciples, or on John’s, but he did neither. Note, When at any time we are unjustly censured, our care must be only to clear ourselves, not to recriminate, or throw dirt upon others; and such a variety may there be of circumstances, as may justify us in our practice, without condemning those that practise otherwise.
Now his argument is taken from the common usage of joy and rejoicing during the continuance of marriage solemnities; when all instances of melancholy and sorrow are looked upon as improper and absurd, as it was at Samson’s wedding, Jdg. 14:17. Now, (1.) The disciples of Christ were the children of the bride-chamber, invited to the wedding-feast, and welcome there; the disciples of the Pharisees were not so, but children of the bond-woman (Gal. 4:25, 31), continuing under a dispensation of darkness and terror. Note, The faithful followers of Christ, who have the Spirit of adoption, have a continual feast, while they who have the spirit of bondage and fear, cannot rejoice for joy, as other people, Hos. 9:1. (2.) The disciples of Christ had the bridegroom with them, which the disciples of John had not; their master was now cast into prison, and lay there in continual danger of his life, and therefore it was seasonable for them to fast often. Such a day would come upon the disciples of Christ, when the bridegroom should be taken from them, when they should be deprived of his bodily presence, and then should they fast. The thoughts of parting grieved them when he was going, John 16:6. Tribulation and affliction befel them when he was gone, and gave them occasion of mourning and praying, that is, of religious fasting. Note, [1.] Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom of his Church, and his disciples are the children of the bride-chamber. Christ speaks of himself to John’s disciples under this similitude, because that John had used it, when he called himself a friend of the bridegroom, John 3:29. And if they would by this hint call to mind what their master then said, they would answer themselves. [2.] The condition of those who are the children of the bride-chamber is liable to many changes and alterations in this world; they sing of mercy and judgment. [3.] It is merry or melancholy with the children of the bride-chamber, according as they have more or less of the bridegroom’s presence. When he is with them, the candle of God shines upon their head, and all is well; but when he is withdrawn, though but for a small moment, they are troubled, and walk heavily; the presence and nearness of the sun makes day and summer, his absence and distance, night and winter. Christ is all in all to the church’s joy. [4.] Every duty is to be done in its proper season. See Eccl. 7:14; Jas. 5:13. There is a time to mourn and a time to laugh, to each of which we should accommodate ourselves, and bring forth fruit in due season. In fasts, regard is to be had to the methods of God’s grace towards us; when he mourns to us, we must lament; and also to the dispensations of his providence concerning us; there are times when the Lord God calls to weeping and mourning; regard is likewise to be had to any special work before us, Matt. 17:21; Acts 13:2.
2. That they had not strength sufficient for that duty. This is set forth in two similitudes, one of putting new cloth into an old garment, which does but pull the old to pieces (Matt. 9:16); the other of putting new wine into old bottles, which does but burst the bottles, Matt. 9:17. Christ’s disciples were not able to bear these severe exercises so well as those of John and of the Pharisees, which the learned Dr. Whitby gives this reason for: There were among the Jews not only sects of the Pharisees and Essenes, who led an austere life, but also schools of the prophets, who frequently lived in mountains and deserts, and were many of them Nazarites; they had also private academies to train men up in a strict discipline; and possibly from these many of John’s disciples might come, and many of the Pharisees; whereas Christ’s disciples, being taken immediately from their callings, had not been used to such religious austerities, and were unfit for them, and would by them be rather unfitted for their other work. Note, (1.) Some duties of religion are harder and more difficult than others, like new cloth and new wine, which require most intenseness of mind, and are most displeasing to flesh and blood; such are religious fasting and the duties that attend it. (2.) The best of Christ’s disciples pass through a state of infancy; all the trees in Christ’s garden are not of a growth, nor all his scholars in the same form; there are babes in Christ and grown men. (3.) In the enjoining of religious exercises, the weakness and infirmity of young Christians ought to be considered: as the food provided for them must be such as is proper for their age (1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12), so must the work be that is cut out for them. Christ would not speak to his disciples that which they could not then bear, John 16:12. Young beginners in religion must not be put upon the hardest duties at first, lest they be discouraged. Such as was God’s care of his Israel, when he brought them out of Egypt, not to lead them by the way of the Philistines (Exod. 13:17, 18), and such as was Jacob’s care of his children and cattle, not to overdrive them (Gen. 33:13), such is Christ’s care of the little ones of his family, and the lambs of his flock: he gently leads them. For want of this care, many times, the bottles break, and the wine is spilled; the profession of many miscarries and comes to nothing, through indiscretion at first. Note, There may be over—doing even in well—doing, a being righteous over-much; and such an over—doing as may prove an undoing through the subtlety of Satan.