Intro: This evening we are going to investigate one of the most neglected subjects of the Bible. At least this seems to be so among Christians. Have you seriously considered whether or not God wants you to fast? Would it seem extreme to you if other Christians fasted?
Why is this neglected subject?
- Many in religion have exalted religious fasting beyond what the Bible teaches. As a result Christians may fear that fasting will make them appear fanatical or associate them with false religion (Islam, etc…)
- It touches upon a subject very dear to us – FOOD. It is counter-cultural in such a “food- oriented society” (land of the “golden arches”) we do not eat to live, but live to eat.
- Some ignore the subject because they see it as unnecessary or as a tradition.
What does the Bible teach about fasting?
It is a biblical topic that needs our attention. The list of Biblical persons who fasted becomes a “Who’s Who” of Scripture: Moses, Daniel, David, Anna, Elijah, Esther, Jesus, & Paul.
- There is more teaching in the NT on fasting than repentance and confession!
- Jesus taught more on fasting than on baptism and the Lord’s Supper!
I. What is fasting? – A biblical definition of fasting is “a voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.” It is voluntary in that fasting is not to be coerced, nor a natural loss of appetite. It is abstinence with a purpose.
A. The normal means of fasting involved abstaining from all food but not water. But sometimes the fast was partial – a restriction of diet but not total abstention – the friends of Daniel abstained from the King’s food – cf. Dan. 10:2-3
1. On rare occasions there was the ABSOLUTE fast, as in the case of the people of Nineveh, who also included the animals in their fast – (Jonah 3:5-10) and in the case of Queen Esther in Esther 4:16.
B. The length of a fast was often a single day, from sunrise to sunset, and after sundown food would be taken.
a. The fast of Esther continued for 3 days, day and night; At the burial of Saul, the fast was seven days (1 Sam 31:13; 1 Chron. 10:12) David fasted seven days when his child was ill – 2 Sam 12:16-18
b. The longest fasts recorded in Scripture were the 40 day fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus
II. Fasting in the Old Testament
A. There was only one fast commanded by the Law in the O.T. It was to be observed on the tenth day of the seventh month or on the feast called the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16:29-31 – 29 “This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you.30 For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD.31 It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever.
1. The phrase that identifies the fast is the phrase “afflict your soul”. These words were understood to refer to fasting. The Psalmist said – “When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting, that became my reproach.” (Psalms 69:10). The terminology seems to point out that fasting was to affect the soul, not just the body.
B. There were others fast in the O.T. as well, even when God did not specifically command it. These fasts were connected with certain events and purposes.
1. The Threat of War (Israel fasted at Bethel in the war against the Benjamites (Judges 20:26) and at Mizpah in the Philistine war (1 Sam. 7:6).
2. Death and bereavement (David fasted when his young son was near death – 2 Sam. 12:16-23. The men of Jabesh-gilead fasted seven days in mourning the death of Saul – 1 Sam. 31:13; David and the people also fasted for Saul and Jonathan – 2 Sam. 1:12)
3. They fasted in repentance and sorrow for sin.
- Moses fasted forty days because of the sin of Israel – (Deut. 9:15-18); Ahab fasted to be forgiven – 1 Kings 21:17-29; Nineveh fasted at the preaching of Jonah – Jonah 3:4-10; Daniel fasted as he confessed the sins of Israel – Daniel 9:3-5; The general fast at the communal reading of the Law by Ezra was an act of penitence – Nehemiah 9:1-3 – 1 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads.2 Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.3 And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God.
4. Some fasted when they were faced with danger or desired an intervention from God. (In this context fasting is often associated with prayer)
- Ezra led a fast when seeking the favor of God toward his return from exile – a journey fraught with danger (Ezra 8)
- Nehemiah fasted when he heard of the state of Jerusalem (Neh 1:4)
- The Jews fasted when they heard that Haman had obtained the king’s decree against them –Esther 4:3 – 3 And in every province where the king’s command and decree arrived, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes. Esther and Mordecai fasted before she went before the king – Esther 4:16
5. During and after the Exile special fasts were observed on the days the calamities had befallen Jerusalem.
III. The Purpose of Fasting – These events of fasting help us understand the purpose of fasting in the O.T.
- Some fasting was a natural reaction to grief over the loss of a loved one (like the men of Jabesh-gilead and David) But more often, fasting was done to” afflict the soul” or “chasten the soul”
- The purpose was to “humble” the soul (Ps 35:13), and not for any effect it might have on the body.
- This humbling was to incur the favor of God and cause Him to be more receptive to their pleas. Ezra 8:21-23 – 21 Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions….23 So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer.
- Because they were seeking God’s favor, fasting was almost always associated& accompanied with prayer.
IV. Warnings concerning fasting… fasting can easily turn to an external show of piety and ritualism. When it did God always condemned it.
A. More than ceremony: Read Isaiah 58:3-9
1. In contrast to simply an external display of bowing one’s head like a bulrush and spreading sackcloth and ashes, the Lord would rather they “loose the bonds of wickedness; Let the oppressed go free; Share bread with the hungry; Bring the poor into one’s house; Cover the naked – Then they should be heard in their prayers.
B. Fasting without true repentance is fruitless. It defeats the purpose of fasting: to have your prayers heard by the Lord! This one of the points we noticed this morning in Zech. 7 – They sorrowed over their difficult circumstances, rather than repenting and doing the will of God. Zechariah 7:7-10 – 7 Should you not have obeyed the words which the LORD proclaimed through the former prophets … “Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Execute true justice, Show mercy and compassion Everyone to his brother. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, The alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother.’
V. Fasting & Jesus: Jesus taught more about fasting than baptism or the Lord’s supper. Jesus also fasted Himself:
A. Jesus Fasted – Matthew 4 records one of only three 40 day fasts in the Bible. Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Matt 4:1-2 – Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Luke 4:1-2 –Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry. Throughout this forty day period of temptation, Jesus felt it appropriate to fast.
B. Jesus Taught on Fasting – Matthew 6:16-18 “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
1. Jesus said “when”, not “if”; assuming his disciples WOULD fast. His words suggest that fasting was like prayer and giving alms – an act of righteousness done to please the Father.
a. When done properly a person would be rewarded by the Father. Fasting appears to have a place in the righteousness expected of those who would be citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
2. When questioned by John’s disciples Jesus described a time when His disciples would fast. –Matthew 9:14-15 – 14 Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?”15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.
a. Jesus indicates that it is inappropriate to fast when the occasion does not call for it. — Fasting would have a place in the disciples’ lives, but only on appropriate occasions (not a ceremonial rite)
3. Jesus taught that there were times when prayer and fasting were necessary to accomplish things that faith alone could not. Matthew 17:14-21 – And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water.16 So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.”18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.21 However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
II. Fasting & the New Testament Church: We should not be surprised to find fasting in the life of the N.T. church. Again we find the practice aligned with prayer and circumstances that demanded it.
A. The church at Antioch – Acts 13:1-3 – 1 Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.2 As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”3 Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.
1. They were fasting as a group while ministering to the Lord
2. They fasted and prayed in preparation to sending out Barnabas and Saul.
3. This indicates that fasting, when accompanied with prayer, can done as a group in response to serious considerations in the Lord’s work.
B. The churches of Galatia – Acts 14:21-23 – 21 And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch,22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”23 So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
1. Again, an example of fasting and prayer as a group; in conjunction with the task of appointing elders.
2. Notice that this was done “in every church”, not just in one or two churches, and not just in what might be consider “Jewish” churches where fasting might be considered “just a Jewish custom”.
III. Fasting & the Apostle Paul: Fasting was a significant mark of his ministry. We have already noticed where he fasted with several churches, but notice also:
A. In 2 Corinthians 6:5 Paul lists it among the things that he saw as marks of his ministry.
B. He lists fasting again in 2 Cor. 11:27, separate from normal hunger and thirst.
C. He also taught that fasting might have a place in the lives of others as they faced difficult circumstances. To husbands and wives he wrote: 1 Corinthians 7:5 – 5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
IV. Should Christians Fast Today?
A. In view of the significance of fasting throughout the N.T. my conclusion is “yes”
1. Jesus said, when, not if. He taught his disciples how to fast properly. He even referenced a time when his disciples would fast.
2. There examples of fasting in the N.T. church should not be easily dismissed. As we face the difficult decisions, such as appointing elders, would it be inappropriate to fast?
3. If we are commanded to imitate the apostle Paul as He imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), should we not follow their example in fasting?
B. Why Should Christians Fast? – People fast today for various reasons. Some fast purposefully, for health reasons. Some fast without thinking, in times of grief and sorrow. Others fast in an effort to gain some kind of self-control. But these are not the reasons Christian should fast in their service to God –
1. Christians should fast because there are times when we desperately need God’s help. This helps us answer the question of “When should Christians fast?” The fast is driven by the circumstance, in response to a need, not as a religious rite.
a. This is consistent with the majority of fasting in both the O.T. and N.T. They fasted when they faced difficult circumstances and sought God’s intervention.
2. Such fasting is should be done in conjunction with prayer- fasting is designed to humble and chasten the soul and the prayers of a humble person are more likely to be heard! – cf. Ezra 8:21-23
V. How should Christians fast?
A. NOT TO BE SEEN OF MEN – it is important that we not do it for “show”
B. NOT AS SOME REGULAR RITUAL – It should be done only when the occasion calls for it / with prayer
C. NOT WITHOUT TRUE REPENTANCE – All the praying, all the fasting, is of no avail if not accompanied with penitent obedience.
CONCLUSION – It may be that we need to more seriously investigate the place of fasting in the life of the Christian. It certainly had an important place in the prayer life of those who served God in the past. It may be that we are failing to receive the blessings we seek through prayer because we have neglected fasting.