Jesus Fasted – Yes, the Man Without Sin Really Fasted!
The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent is the account of what is usually referred to as “The Temptations of Jesus in the wilderness” [Matthew 4]. From the fact that Jesus fasted for a very long period we can gather two important truths:
He was truly a man. Not only did he appear to be a man but also he was man, with a human digestive system. He felt hungry! That fasting has value apart from any relation to its use in mastering or overcoming the effects of sinful human nature. As the Man without sin, and as a man who lived in constant communion with his Father in heaven, Jesus fasted.
Jesus went into the solitude and loneliness of the wilderness not merely as the prophet from Nazareth but as the Messiah of Israel. This unique vocation rested heavily upon his shoulders. He knew that he had to recapitulate the historical experience of Israel before her God, the LORD, and thus where Israel had failed and sinned as the covenant people of God he had to be victorious over temptation in their place. As the new Israel, he had to offer to the God of the covenant a perfect obedience in childlike trust and humility for the whole people in the very area where they had failed.
Thus the testing through temptation which he faced at the end of the forty days can be seen as both a re-living the historical experience of the tribes of Israel, the people of God, in the wilderness of Sinai and his facing the major temptations that this people faced there, in order on their behalf to resist the tempter and to worship God, the LORD, alone.
In this spiritual journey and battle, Jesus as Man needed to be fully in control of himself and fully submitted to his heavenly Father. This is where the fasting with prayer and in meditation upon the Torah [Books of Moses, especially Deuteronomy it seems] had their special place. His body had to be totally in harmony with his mind/spirit and his mind/spirit had to be totally in harmony with the revealed will of the LORD. All that he faced were real temptations for Israel/the Jews and he had to overcome them in his own human nature, as representative and vicarious man, so that his victory could be appropriated by the people of the covenant and then by the people of the world.
Fasting – as a basic abstaining from food -- was a duty, required by the Law and called for by the prophets, that a pious Israelite offered to the God of the covenant and its primary purpose was to make the relation with God more accessible and possible, through the mastery of the appetites and desires of the soul and body. Fasting for Jesus was not a means for the overcoming of the power of sin in his own soul, but it did certainly include a reaching out to God his Father, as he, the new Adam and the new Israel, carried the burden of the sins of his people on his own soul and as he overcame temptations in their place.
Human nature even when it does not include the principle of sin [original sin] needs the active determination of the will in order to be committed to the highest good. And the determination of the will to the highest good is enhanced and energized by the practice of fasting with prayer. For by fasting the mind gains greater control over the natural desires, appetites and affections of the human body and nature; and by prayer the mind enters into the contemplation of God and his will.
Temptation for sinners goes through three basic stages – by suggestion, by delight and by consent. The first stage is external to us but the second and third occur within our souls. Wherever the suggestion to sin comes from --- the world or the devil --- we find some pleasure in it and we soon consent. There is usually some resistance within our souls but all too often moved by pleasure we consent.
In contrast, Jesus faced temptation only at the first stage. Certainly the suggestion was powerful, clear and attractive but since he was without sin there was no delighting within his soul.
Yet, if Jesus as the new and second Adam needed to fast to come to clarity of the meaning of his vocation and to accomplish the work of our salvation, then we need to fast in union with him for the sake of our salvation and sanctification.
Thus the Collect for the First Sunday of Lent, which is addressed to the Lord Jesus himself, sees reliance on and union with him as the basis for our fasting in order that we shall by grace overcome temptation and obey and trust the Father as he did :
“O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty night; Give us grace to use such abstinence that our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness….”
The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon, Vice-President & Emissary at Large of The Prayer Book Society of the USA.
St Valentine’s Day 2002