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Fasting

How to Grow: Developing Spiritual Disciplines  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Prayer

Why Should we Fast?

To begin, let’s consider two broad definitions of fasting:
There are 2 types of fasting that we can see in Christianity today:
The most inclusive definition of “fasting” is “abstinence from anything that is legitimate in and of itself, for some special spiritual purpose” (Martin Lloyd Jones). So, we could be fasting from food, but it could also include sports, TV, telephone, etc.
Fasting from food or drink
A narrower definition of fasting is voluntary abstinence from physical nourishment—food and drink—for special spiritual purposes. This study will deal only with this type of fasting, which is what the Bible refers to.
Fasting from anything that could take our focus from God
A. Fasting in the Old Testament
Why is this even a topic?
1. Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement
Why is this even a topic

It’s a big deal Throughout the Bible

OT
1. Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement
This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or an alien living among you.
Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement
2. After the Exile, four other annual fasts were observed on particular months
This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or an alien living among you.
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.”
2. After the Exile, four other annual fasts were observed on particular months
3. Sometimes, individuals or the nation would fast in relation to specific circumstances
Individual:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.”
3. Sometimes, individuals or the nation would fast in relation to specific circumstances
He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who
Individual:
Knows? The LORD may be gracious to meand let the child live.””
(David Hoping his child wouldn’t die
Corporate:
22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.””
Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD.
Corporate:
A narrower definition of fasting is voluntary abstinence from physical nourishment—food and drink—for special spiritual purposes. This study will deal only with this type of fasting, which is what the Bible refers to.
4. At times, fasting gave expression to various heart attitudes
Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD.
Grief
NT
Jesus fasted in to show us that we can overcome temptation even in the worst of circumstances.
They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the LORD and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
A. THE CHURCH AT ANTIOCH -
THE CHURCH AT ANTIOCH -
Penitence
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
. They fasted and prayed in preparation to sending out Barnabas and Saul -- Fasting, when accompanied with prayer, can done as a group when involved in serving the Lord
3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
c. Paul Fasted in to receive God’s guidance

It takes away distractions to bring us closer to God

Every time you read about fasting in the Bible, it goes with someone wanting to get closer with God or get wisdom from God
Jesus (praying about His upcoming ministry)
Paul to receive God’s guidance
Church at antioch (to decide for church leadership)
David (TO plead with God not to take his son)
Whenever you see fasting in the Bible it is usually accompanied by prayer—fasting takes away secondary things so that our view can be on God
We’re choosing not to do something that we enjoy or a desire that God has put inside of us, so that we can grow in our relationship with God.
We’er choosing not to play video games so we can have more time to pray
we’re choosing not to watch tv
not to be with friends
not to do any of our desires, so we can become closer to God!

When should we fast?

Jesus didn’t command us to fast, but he did imply it when He said ““And when you fast”
The Bible has a lot of different times when people fast…it’s really up to you!
Maybe you want to do it when you have to make a big decision about something
Maybe you want to do it when you have a big trial in your life and you want to completely have your focus on God
Maybe you want to do it when you’re inside temptation, and instead of focusing on yourself, you want to remind yourself that God will lead you out of temptation
Maybe you haven’t been in the word recently, and you want to do this to get back into the word! That’s a fantastic reason.
There are a lot of reasons to fast, just make sure you’re doing it!
4 I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed:
“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, 5 we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.

How should we fast?

Don’t make it known (do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.)—Our natural tendency would be to let other people, this is between you and God…other people don’t need to know.
Humility
Fasting shouldn’t just be not eating something because then it could become temptation to sin and go overboard with what we are depriving ourselves of. Rather, we must be using this time to grow closer to God
The Bible Exposition Commentary Chapter Five: The King’s Principles: True Worship (Matthew 6)

Fasting helps to discipline the appetites of the body (Luke 21:34) and keep our spiritual priorities straight. But fasting must never become an opportunity for temptation (1 Cor. 7:5). Simply to deprive ourselves of a natural benefit (such as food or sleep) is not of itself fasting. We must devote ourselves to God and worship Him.

There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.
c. We can’t be like the hypocrites—we need to fast the right way!
Hypocrisy robs us of reality in Christian living
5. Fasting was often directed towards securing the guidance and help of God
The Bible Exposition Commentary Chapter Five: The King’s Principles: True Worship (Matthew 6)

We substitute reputation for character, mere words for true prayer, money for the devotion of the heart. No wonder Jesus compared the Pharisees to tombs that were whitewashed on the outside, but filthy on the inside!

Hypocrisy robs us of spiritual rewards- Instead of the eternal approval of God, we receive the shallow praise of men. We pray, but there are no answers. We fast, but the inner man shows no improvement. The spiritual life becomes hollow and lifeless. We miss the blessing of God here and now, and also lose the reward of God when Christ returns.
There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.
B. Fasting in the New Testament
Hypocrasy robs us of spiritual influence- The Pharisees were a negative influence; whatever they touched was defiled and destroyed. The people who admired them and obeyed the Pharisees’ words thought they themselves were being helped, when in reality, they were being hurt.
robs us of spiritual rewards. Instead of the eternal approval of God, we receive the shallow praise of men. We pray, but there are no answers. We fast, but the inner man shows no improvement. The spiritual life becomes hollow and lifeless. We miss the blessing of God here and now, and also lose the reward of God when Christ returns.
The Pharisees were a negative influence; whatever they touched was defiled and destroyed. The people who admired them and obeyed the Pharisees’ words thought they themselves were being helped, when in reality, they were being hurt.
d. We must fast in secret
We shouldn’t make fasting a public show like the pharisees. This is something between us and God.
e. Expect rewards (And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. )
God promised rewards to those who faithfully and obediently follow him.
When we do God’s will He rewards us for no other reason than because He is good and only good
When we fast we must follow through on this covenent we made with God so as to receive our reward
Our reward could be anything from help through a trial to help overcoming a temptation. It could be anything, but the one thing we know is that we will definitely get one!

Practical Christian Fasting

What does fasting look like practically?
Alone time with God
Giving up our own time, talents, energy, enterttainment to grow our relationship with GOd
Are you willing to do this?
God promised help to those who ask for it, and He promised rewards to those who fast. Are you ready to live radically for God?
1. Even in the NT, we still see Jewish religious practice, which involved fasting, continued:
The annual fast of the Day of Atonement
Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast. So Paul warned them,
The Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday
11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
Anna the prophetess, who prophesied over the infant Jesus at the Temple
36 There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
2. Jesus fasted
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
3. Jesus assumed His disciples did and would fast
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
4. Acts: leaders of the church fast when choosing missionaries (13:2-3) and elders (14:23)
1 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
5. Paul twice refers to his “fastings,” in & 11
Components of Fasting
There are at least four components of fasting. Fasting is described in terms of what is given up, who participates, the duration of the fast, and how often the fast is conducted.
A. Degree of Abstinence
We can abstain from food and drink to various degrees.
1. Normal Fast
The avoidance of all food and drink.
2. Partial Fast
A partial fast is a limitation of diet, but not abstention from all food.
B. Number of Participants in the Fast
1. Private Fast
A private fast is what Jesus was speaking of when, in His Sermon on the Mount, He said that we should fast in a way not to be noticed by others.
17 ...when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father
2. Small Group Fast
We can fast with other Christians as a shared commitment
1 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
3. Congregational Fast
A fast can be conducted by an entire congregation of God’s people. describes a fast of all the Jews in Susa. describes a fast by the entire nation of Israel. is a third example.
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. 16 Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber.
C. Length of Fast
The Bible doesn’t give any commands about length. It includes fasts that cover part of a day (), one day (), three days (, ), seven days (), 21 days (), and supernatural fasts of 40 days (, , ). The Bible also records many fasts without mentioning their length (e.g., , , ).
D. Frequency of Fasts
How often, i.e., on what schedule, is the fast occurring.
1. Regular Fast
On a repetitive schedule, e.g., Israel’s fast annual fast on the Day of Atonement (). The Pharisee in congratulates himself for fasting twice a week.
2. Occasional Fast
These occur whenever a need is perceived. Most of the fasting examples in Scripture seem to fall into this category.
3. Continuous Fast
Example: John the Baptist. In , we read, “His food was locusts and wild honey.”
These ways of describing fasts are largely independent of each other; you can specify one characteristic without constraining the others.
QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS ON THE BASICS OF FASTING
Should Christians Fast?
Before we answer this question, it might be helpful to consider what the New Testament has to say in general about food and eating. Food is spoken of as a good gift from God.
A good example is this passage from :
1 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
Note here what Paul says about food. It is part of God’s good creation, he says, and not meant to be abstained from if it is received with thanksgiving. Paul is eager to warn against a kind of asceticism that exalts fasting in such a way that the goodness of God in the gift of food is overlooked or distorted.
Christian fasting, to be clear, is not asceticism. In , Paul warns against that kind of severe lifestlye, saying that it dishonors Christ by rejecting the sufficiency of His person and work.
20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
John Piper says about those words: “This is a strong warning against any simplistic view of fasting that thinks it will automatically do a person spiritual good. It is not that simple. ‘Severe treatment of the body’ may only feed a person’s flesh with more self-reliance.”
Paul regards eating or not eating as a matter that is non-essential in itself, but which gains value insofar as it expresses love and contentment to God, or lack of love and discontentment to Him (; ).
We’ve seen that the Old Testament commanded one annual fast during the Day of Atonement. But fasting is nowhere commanded in the New Testament. Yet it seems clear in Scripture that Jesus assumed that His followers would fast.
We saw this a little while ago in , part of the Sermon on the Mount. If you have your Bibles, turn there for a moment. Jesus said:
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
There are a few more things to note in this passage. Christ gives us a negative command, a positive command, and a promise.
Negative command: Don’t look somber, like you’re suffering. Positive command: No one should be able to tell you’re fasting by your appearance. The only observer of your fast should be God. Promise: “…your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Notice also that Jesus gives no specific command about when, how often, or how long we should fast. Fasting is not to be a legalistic routine. It is a privilege and an opportunity to seek God’s grace. We should not neglect it, but decisions regarding the specific characteristics of our fasts are to be Spirit-led, as He helps us understand God’s Word and He applies those truths to our hearts in particular circumstances.
John Piper calls the most important passage on fasting in the Bible. It says,
14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. 16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Who is the bridegroom? When is He taken away from His disciples? Jesus means that after His death and resurrection, He will return to His Father in heaven, and during that time the disciples will fast. John Piper says:
It is true that Jesus has given the Holy Spirit in his absence, and that the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of Jesus”. So in a profound and wonderful sense Jesus is still with us… Nevertheless, there is a greater degree of intimacy that we will enjoy with Christ in heaven when this age is over. So in another sense Christ is not with us, but away from us (; ). In other words, in this age there is an ache inside every Christian that Jesus is not here as fully and intimately and as powerfully and as gloriously as we want Him to be. We hunger for so much more. That is why we fast.
New wine, in other words, calls for new fasting. What distinguishes Judaism from Christianity is that the longed-for kingdom of God is now present as well as future. The King, Jesus Christ, has come. What’s new about Christian fasting is that it rests on the finished work of the Bridegroom. Its intensity comes not because we have never tasted the wine of Christ’s presence, but because we have tasted it so wonderfully by His Spirit, and cannot now be satisfied until the consummation of God’s kingdom arrives when Christ returns.
QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS ON WHETHER OR NOT CHRISTIANS SHOULD FAST?
IV. Reasons to Fast
Christian fasting, let us be clear, has a spiritual purpose, a purpose that is closely aligned to our relationship with Christ. If fasting is done for worldly purposes, such as weight control, a pre-operation dictate, physical training, saving money, or political protest, then it isn’t a Christian fast!
The biblical accounts of fasting make it clear there are at least ten reasons to fast. And, none of these purposes involve earning God’s favor. We can’t use fasting as a way to impress God. We are made acceptable to God through the work of Jesus Christ alone. Fasting has no eternal benefit to us unless we first repent of our rebellion against God and surrender to Jesus Christ in faith.
Having said that, here are some good reasons to fast:
A. Fast to Strengthen Prayer
,
21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.
23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.
Now, the Bible does not teach that fasting is a kind of spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding. Fasting does not change God’s hearing; it changes our praying. Christians who pray while fasting communicate that they are truly in earnest and are expressing that earnestness in a divinely appointed way.
B. Fast to Seek God’s Guidance
26 Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD. 27a And the Israelites inquired of the LORD…
Fasting doesn’t ensure clear guidance, but it does make us more sensitive to God, helps us tune out the world and focus on the Lord, so that we might listen more attentively to His Word. Think of the leaders in Acts fasting before they sent out Paul and Barnabus. They wanted to be sensitive to be more to the Spirit's leading, so they fasted.
C. Fast to Seek Deliverance or Protection
2 Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A vast army is coming against you from Edom, from the other side of the Sea… 3 Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. 4 The people of Judah came together to seek help from the LORD…
Fasting should be a line of defense against persecution from family, schoolmates, neighbors, co-workers, or other Christians.
D. Fast to Express Grief
The Bible contains many examples of fasting to express grief over sin or calamities that befall God’s people.
11 Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. 12 They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the LORD and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
As we learned last week, confession of sin isn't a simple mouthing of words. Biblical confession involves grief for the sin committed, and inasmuch as fasting can be an expression of grief, it is never inappropriate. Don Whitney says in his book, “There have been a few occasions when I grieved so deeply over my sin that words alone seemed powerless to say to God what I wanted. And though it made me no more worthy of forgiveness, fasting communicated the grief and confession my words could not.”
But we want to reject the temptation to think that our fasting somehow is paying for our sins. As says, “18For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Our fasting should include much praise to God for how he has promised that "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
E. Fast to Express Repentance and a Return to Trust in God
Closely related to expressing grief for sin, fasting can also signal a commitment to obedience and a new direction.
“Even now,” declares the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
F. Fast to Humble Yourself Before God
27 When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.
28 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: 29 “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”
John Calvin said about fasting, “Since this is a holy exercise both for the humbling of men and for their confession of humility, why should we use it less than the ancients did in similar need?”
G. Fast to Express Concern for the Work of God
2 I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. 3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
Now, we wouldn’t want anyone to leave thinking that we should fast all day every day as an expression of concern for all of God’s work, but God does, on occasion, give us so great a concern for His work that the Holy Spirit communicates to us we should fast.
H. Fast to Minister to the Needs of Others
Fasting cannot be compartmentalized from the rest of our lives. The spiritual disciplines, as we have said before, are not only for our sake, but for the sake of others, too.
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
If we give up some meals by fasting, we can use that time and money to minister to others.
I. Fast to Overcome Temptation and Dedicate Yourself to God
Fasting is a good exercise in self-discipline. Refraining from eating food can strengthen our ability to refrain from sin when we are tempted. If we train ourselves to accept the small “suffering” of fasting willingly, we will be better able to accept other suffering for the sake of righteousness.
J. Fast to Express Love and to Worship God
To fast means that you love God more than food. You deny your hunger for food to pursue your hunger for God. Seeking more of Him is more important than eating. When you feel a hunger pang, let it remind you that your stomach is not your God and that your fasting honors the true God.
So, to summarize this section on good reasons to fast, remember that fasting must always have a spiritual purpose – a God-centered, not self-centered, purpose.
QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS ON THE PURPOSES OF FASTING?
V. Conclusion
Fasting tests where our heart is. It helps us focus on God and feast on Him and His Word more fully. It communicates that our hearts are with God, and not with this world.
Take some time sometime soon to consider the reasons for fasting we just went through. Maybe you need God’s guidance on an important matter. Maybe your prayer life has been dulled by worldly concerns. Maybe you struggle with the sin of gluttony. Whatever the issue, fasting may well be a means of God’s grace in helping you with your need and in pointing you towards the sufficiency of God.
To close, consider John Piper’s words on the essence of Christian fasting: “We ache and yearn—and fast—to know more and more of all that God is for us in Jesus. But only because He has already laid hold of us and is drawing us ever forward and upward into “all the fullness of God.” Introduction
To begin, let’s consider two broad definitions of fasting:
The most inclusive definition of “fasting” is “abstinence from anything that is legitimate in and of itself, for some special spiritual purpose” (Martin Lloyd Jones). So, we could be fasting from food, but it could also include sports, TV, telephone, etc.
A narrower definition of fasting is voluntary abstinence from physical nourishment—food and drink—for special spiritual purposes. This study will deal only with this type of fasting, which is what the Bible refers to.
A. Fasting in the Old Testament
1. Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement
Leviticus 16:29
This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or an alien living among you.
2. After the Exile, four other annual fasts were observed on particular months
Zechariah 8:19
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.”
3. Sometimes, individuals or the nation would fast in relation to specific circumstances
Individual:
2 Samuel 12:22
He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who
Knows? The LORD may be gracious to meand let the child live.””
Corporate:
Judges 20:26
Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD.
A narrower definition of fasting is voluntary abstinence from physical nourishment—food and drink—for special spiritual purposes. This study will deal only with this type of fasting, which is what the Bible refers to.
4. At times, fasting gave expression to various heart attitudes
Grief
2 Samuel 1:12
They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the LORD and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
Penitence
Daniel 9:3-5
3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
4 I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed:
“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, 5 we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.
Humility
Ezra 8:21
There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.
5. Fasting was often directed towards securing the guidance and help of God
Ezra 8:21
There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.
B. Fasting in the New Testament
1. Even in the NT, we still see Jewish religious practice, which involved fasting, continued:
The annual fast of the Day of Atonement
Acts 27:9
Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast. So Paul warned them,
The Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday
Luke 18:11-12
11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
Anna the prophetess, who prophesied over the infant Jesus at the Temple
Luke 2:36-37
36 There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
2. Jesus fasted
Matthew 4:1-4
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
3. Jesus assumed His disciples did and would fast
Matthew 6:16-18
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
4. Acts: leaders of the church fast when choosing missionaries (13:2-3) and elders (14:23)
Acts 13:1-3
1 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Acts 14:23
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
5. Paul twice refers to his “fastings,” in 2 Corinthians 6 & 11
Components of Fasting
There are at least four components of fasting. Fasting is described in terms of what is given up, who participates, the duration of the fast, and how often the fast is conducted.
A. Degree of Abstinence
We can abstain from food and drink to various degrees.
1. Normal Fast
The avoidance of all food and drink.
2. Partial Fast
A partial fast is a limitation of diet, but not abstention from all food.
B. Number of Participants in the Fast
1. Private Fast
A private fast is what Jesus was speaking of when, in His Sermon on the Mount, He said that we should fast in a way not to be noticed by others.
Matthew 6:17-18
17 ...when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father
2. Small Group Fast
We can fast with other Christians as a shared commitment
Acts 13:1-3
1 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
3. Congregational Fast
A fast can be conducted by an entire congregation of God’s people. Esther 4:16 describes a fast of all the Jews in Susa. Nehemiah 9:1 describes a fast by the entire nation of Israel. Joel 2:15-16 is a third example.
Joel 2:15-16
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. 16 Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber.
C. Length of Fast
The Bible doesn’t give any commands about length. It includes fasts that cover part of a day (Judges 20:26-28), one day (Jeremiah 36:6), three days (Esther 4:1, Acts 9:8-9), seven days (1Samuel 31:13), 21 days (Daniel 10:2-3), and supernatural fasts of 40 days (Deuteronomy 9:9, 1Kings 19:8, Matthew 4:1-2). The Bible also records many fasts without mentioning their length (e.g., Matthew 9:14, Luke 2:37, Acts 13:3).
D. Frequency of Fasts
How often, i.e., on what schedule, is the fast occurring.
1. Regular Fast
On a repetitive schedule, e.g., Israel’s fast annual fast on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31). The Pharisee in Luke 8:12 congratulates himself for fasting twice a week.
2. Occasional Fast
These occur whenever a need is perceived. Most of the fasting examples in Scripture seem to fall into this category.
3. Continuous Fast
Example: John the Baptist. In Matthew 3:4, we read, “His food was locusts and wild honey.”
These ways of describing fasts are largely independent of each other; you can specify one characteristic without constraining the others.
QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS ON THE BASICS OF FASTING
Should Christians Fast?
Before we answer this question, it might be helpful to consider what the New Testament has to say in general about food and eating. Food is spoken of as a good gift from God.
A good example is this passage from 1 Timothy 4:1-5:
1 Timothy 4:1-5
1 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
Note here what Paul says about food. It is part of God’s good creation, he says, and not meant to be abstained from if it is received with thanksgiving. Paul is eager to warn against a kind of asceticism that exalts fasting in such a way that the goodness of God in the gift of food is overlooked or distorted.
Christian fasting, to be clear, is not asceticism. In Colossians 2:20-23, Paul warns against that kind of severe lifestlye, saying that it dishonors Christ by rejecting the sufficiency of His person and work.
Colossians 2:20-23
20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
John Piper says about those words: “This is a strong warning against any simplistic view of fasting that thinks it will automatically do a person spiritual good. It is not that simple. ‘Severe treatment of the body’ may only feed a person’s flesh with more self-reliance.”
Paul regards eating or not eating as a matter that is non-essential in itself, but which gains value insofar as it expresses love and contentment to God, or lack of love and discontentment to Him (Rom 14:3-6; 1 Cor 8).
We’ve seen that the Old Testament commanded one annual fast during the Day of Atonement. But fasting is nowhere commanded in the New Testament. Yet it seems clear in Scripture that Jesus assumed that His followers would fast.
We saw this a little while ago in Matthew 6:16-17, part of the Sermon on the Mount. If you have your Bibles, turn there for a moment. Jesus said:
Matthew 6:16-18
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
There are a few more things to note in this passage. Christ gives us a negative command, a positive command, and a promise.
Negative command: Don’t look somber, like you’re suffering. Positive command: No one should be able to tell you’re fasting by your appearance. The only observer of your fast should be God. Promise: “…your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Notice also that Jesus gives no specific command about when, how often, or how long we should fast. Fasting is not to be a legalistic routine. It is a privilege and an opportunity to seek God’s grace. We should not neglect it, but decisions regarding the specific characteristics of our fasts are to be Spirit-led, as He helps us understand God’s Word and He applies those truths to our hearts in particular circumstances.
John Piper calls Matthew 9:14-17 the most important passage on fasting in the Bible. It says,
Matthew 9:14-17
14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. 16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Who is the bridegroom? When is He taken away from His disciples? Jesus means that after His death and resurrection, He will return to His Father in heaven, and during that time the disciples will fast. John Piper says:
It is true that Jesus has given the Holy Spirit in his absence, and that the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of Jesus”. So in a profound and wonderful sense Jesus is still with us… Nevertheless, there is a greater degree of intimacy that we will enjoy with Christ in heaven when this age is over. So in another sense Christ is not with us, but away from us (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). In other words, in this age there is an ache inside every Christian that Jesus is not here as fully and intimately and as powerfully and as gloriously as we want Him to be. We hunger for so much more. That is why we fast.
New wine, in other words, calls for new fasting. What distinguishes Judaism from Christianity is that the longed-for kingdom of God is now present as well as future. The King, Jesus Christ, has come. What’s new about Christian fasting is that it rests on the finished work of the Bridegroom. Its intensity comes not because we have never tasted the wine of Christ’s presence, but because we have tasted it so wonderfully by His Spirit, and cannot now be satisfied until the consummation of God’s kingdom arrives when Christ returns.
QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS ON WHETHER OR NOT CHRISTIANS SHOULD FAST?
IV. Reasons to Fast
Christian fasting, let us be clear, has a spiritual purpose, a purpose that is closely aligned to our relationship with Christ. If fasting is done for worldly purposes, such as weight control, a pre-operation dictate, physical training, saving money, or political protest, then it isn’t a Christian fast!
The biblical accounts of fasting make it clear there are at least ten reasons to fast. And, none of these purposes involve earning God’s favor. We can’t use fasting as a way to impress God. We are made acceptable to God through the work of Jesus Christ alone. Fasting has no eternal benefit to us unless we first repent of our rebellion against God and surrender to Jesus Christ in faith.
Having said that, here are some good reasons to fast:
A. Fast to Strengthen Prayer
Ezra 8:21, 23
21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.
23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.
Now, the Bible does not teach that fasting is a kind of spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding. Fasting does not change God’s hearing; it changes our praying. Christians who pray while fasting communicate that they are truly in earnest and are expressing that earnestness in a divinely appointed way.
B. Fast to Seek God’s Guidance
Judges 20:26-27a
26 Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD. 27a And the Israelites inquired of the LORD…
Fasting doesn’t ensure clear guidance, but it does make us more sensitive to God, helps us tune out the world and focus on the Lord, so that we might listen more attentively to His Word. Think of the leaders in Acts fasting before they sent out Paul and Barnabus. They wanted to be sensitive to be more to the Spirit's leading, so they fasted.
C. Fast to Seek Deliverance or Protection
2 Chronicles 20:2-4
2 Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A vast army is coming against you from Edom, from the other side of the Sea… 3 Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. 4 The people of Judah came together to seek help from the LORD…
Fasting should be a line of defense against persecution from family, schoolmates, neighbors, co-workers, or other Christians.
D. Fast to Express Grief
The Bible contains many examples of fasting to express grief over sin or calamities that befall God’s people.
2 Samuel 1:11-12
11 Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. 12 They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the LORD and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
As we learned last week, confession of sin isn't a simple mouthing of words. Biblical confession involves grief for the sin committed, and inasmuch as fasting can be an expression of grief, it is never inappropriate. Don Whitney says in his book, “There have been a few occasions when I grieved so deeply over my sin that words alone seemed powerless to say to God what I wanted. And though it made me no more worthy of forgiveness, fasting communicated the grief and confession my words could not.”
But we want to reject the temptation to think that our fasting somehow is paying for our sins. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, “18For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Our fasting should include much praise to God for how he has promised that "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
E. Fast to Express Repentance and a Return to Trust in God
Closely related to expressing grief for sin, fasting can also signal a commitment to obedience and a new direction.
Joel 2:12
“Even now,” declares the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
F. Fast to Humble Yourself Before God
1 Kings 21:27-29
27 When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.
28 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: 29 “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”
John Calvin said about fasting, “Since this is a holy exercise both for the humbling of men and for their confession of humility, why should we use it less than the ancients did in similar need?”
G. Fast to Express Concern for the Work of God
Daniel 9:2-3
2 I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. 3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
Now, we wouldn’t want anyone to leave thinking that we should fast all day every day as an expression of concern for all of God’s work, but God does, on occasion, give us so great a concern for His work that the Holy Spirit communicates to us we should fast.
H. Fast to Minister to the Needs of Others
Fasting cannot be compartmentalized from the rest of our lives. The spiritual disciplines, as we have said before, are not only for our sake, but for the sake of others, too.
Isaiah 58:6-7
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
If we give up some meals by fasting, we can use that time and money to minister to others.
I. Fast to Overcome Temptation and Dedicate Yourself to God
Fasting is a good exercise in self-discipline. Refraining from eating food can strengthen our ability to refrain from sin when we are tempted. If we train ourselves to accept the small “suffering” of fasting willingly, we will be better able to accept other suffering for the sake of righteousness.
J. Fast to Express Love and to Worship God
To fast means that you love God more than food. You deny your hunger for food to pursue your hunger for God. Seeking more of Him is more important than eating. When you feel a hunger pang, let it remind you that your stomach is not your God and that your fasting honors the true God.
So, to summarize this section on good reasons to fast, remember that fasting must always have a spiritual purpose – a God-centered, not self-centered, purpose.
QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS ON THE PURPOSES OF FASTING?
V. Conclusion
Fasting tests where our heart is. It helps us focus on God and feast on Him and His Word more fully. It communicates that our hearts are with God, and not with this world.
Take some time sometime soon to consider the reasons for fasting we just went through. Maybe you need God’s guidance on an important matter. Maybe your prayer life has been dulled by worldly concerns. Maybe you struggle with the sin of gluttony. Whatever the issue, fasting may well be a means of God’s grace in helping you with your need and in pointing you towards the sufficiency of God.
To close, consider John Piper’s words on the essence of Christian fasting: “We ache and yearn—and fast—to know more and more of all that God is for us in Jesus. But only because He has already laid hold of us and is drawing us ever forward and upward into “all the fullness of God.”
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