Wednesday, November 2, 2016

True Spiritual Fasting

(This message was preached at Heritage Baptist Church on Wed. eve, 11-2-16:

THESIS: To give us a Scriptural understanding of fasting, and how it is a benefit to our lives as Christians.

18 And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?  19 And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  20 But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. 

Here we have a question posed to our Lord about a practice that is not so well understood today.  Back in the early 90’s I recall a Christian ministry which promoted a formal 40 day fast.  I remember thinking – 40 Days!  I could never do that.  Yet this ministry did present the question to me.  What is fasting? Should Christians do so today?  What is the reason to do it?  If you do a google search on it there are literally 12 million results!  Of course it is popular today to consider it in a medical or physiological manner – but the question before us is not physical, it is a highly spiritual one.  My goal is to give us a Scriptural understanding of fasting, and having done that, determine if and when it is right for us to do so. 

There are about 76 verses, or better – 40 passages in the whole Bible which explicitly refer to fasting.  Pretty slim pickings if you ask me. Less than ¼ of 1 percent of the Bible directly uses one of the 4 biblical words for fasting. Further – explicit teaching on fasting occurs in only 2 places.  That’s simply amazing folks!  If you were to listen to the spiritual gurus of the day – one might think there are whole books in the Bible given over to it.  Nothing in the Law of Moses speaks explicitly to fasting – but there is allusion to it in Leviticus and Numbers.  And the 2 places we do have explicit teaching are not all that well rounded or full.

What do we read?  In our passage today in Mark (and its parallels) Christ is responding to a question.  In the answer we learn only this, that it is assumed as a normal action for a disciple, and that we will do it (when the Lord is not here).  Nothing to tell us why or how or what.  In the Sermon on the Mount we read the only significant instruction on fasting which is explicit in nature. Matt 6:16-19 says, “Moreover when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; 18 that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.[1] 

We do not learn why we fast in this verse – only that our motivation should be heavenly – to please the Lord.  We do not fast to gain a reward from men – or if we do, we should not expect anything of the Lord in respect of our effort.  We also learn that there is an apparent reward.  But what is that reward?  We are not plainly told here. 

The other explicit teaching is found in 1 Corinthians where Paul is instructing husbands and wives. “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[2] Here we get just one small bit of positive instruction – we ought to give ourselves to fasting and prayer on occasion.  We are again not given a reason to do so. 

We have to answer the question of what it is, and why we do it, from examples throughout Scripture.  First of all, Fasting is tied to prayer and humility, and seems to be oriented toward a specified goal.  There are many examples of this.  We see this in Psa. 35:13, 69:10; Neh. 1:4, 9:1; Est. 4:3, 16; Dan 9:3; Jonah 3:5-10; and Luke 2:37.  Psalm 35:13 reads, “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; And my prayer returned into mine own bosom.”[3] Oftentimes we read of the affliction of soul and body in the Scripture.  The Jews seemed to associate fasting with affliction, and especially, the Day of Atonement.  We read in Lev. 16:29, “And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you[4] But you say it never says fasting in that verse.  That’s true, but later in Acts 27:9 a reference to ‘the Fast’ is used to reference the season of year it was – when Paul and his sailing companions were shipwrecked.  Clearly we are to see the Jews made affliction of soul equivalent to fasting. 

The account of David in 2 Samuel 12 is one of the better examples of fasting and its use in the Bible.  Please turn to 2 Samuel 12:15,

And Nathan departed unto his house. And the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bare unto David, and it was very sick.  16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.  17 And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.  18 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead?  19 But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead.  20 Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.  21 Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.  22 And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live?  23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.

What do we learn from David’s actions and explanation?  First of all, his fasting was directly related to his petition, we read that he besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.  Note his posture – he was laid out on the earth. This is a position of humility.  David did not lay down upon his bed.  Have you ever laid down on the floor – even if it is carpeted, it is not so comfortable? 

Secondly – notice that the elders of the house were not told of his fasting.  They went in to arouse him from apparent sleep, but he wouldn’t come.  That’s how they discovered he was fasting.  And he did this for 7 days!  The whole time that his child was still alive – David ate nothing, but brought himself low before the earth and prayed.  When the child died – they feared to tell him, because they didn’t understand the nature of his fast.  Listen to this in verse 18b, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead? They assumed the worst! Maybe David would take his own life?!  They did not grasp the purpose for David’s fast. 

Our 3rd lesson is just that, David had a very specific purpose in his fast, and we have the record of that purpose in the account before us.  Hear David’s words, “While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live?  23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” His purpose was that the child might live.  And since the child did not live we learn a further lesson – our fasting is not a guarantee that we will get what we desire!  And David’s response was not a fatalistic one.  He still honored God.  The fact that he did not respond in a negative manner proves this.  He washed his face, anointed himself and worshipped God!  Then he ate. 

Turn to Isaiah 58 and we will hear from the Lord what he thinks of hypocritical fasting.  From verses 2 through 7 we read specifically of God’s opinion on Israel’s fasting.  Please let me read this from the ESV,

Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.

Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself?

Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”[5]

What we just heard is very important.  We see that fasting, as a practice, with no desire to do right, avails us nothing.  Verse 3 is extremely presumptive, don’t you think?  ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Beloved – do you see how quickly we can revert to a works based righteousness?!  The people did fast.  They did afflict and humble themselves – God never questions the act itself.  What He does, is question the heart behind the affliction.  These people were not a people who did righteousness and turned away the judgment of their God.  Instead, they aroused it against them! 

We read of a similar account in Zec 7:5 – God calling out the people for letting their fasts become meaningless and meritorious for 70 years! 

Humility is hard work.  Not only is the physical act of withholding food physically weakening – the act of spiritually rehearsing your sin and the sin of those in your charge is wearying.  Pleading before the King is not a small matter. But that is exact place He wants you to be! Remember how Esther approached the King? To our view, it might appear presumptive to approach the throne-room uninvited.  Yet she did prepare.  We read in Esther 4:16, “Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish!”[6]

Real humility recognizes the place of men before a sovereign God.  Are you prepared to sacrifice like this – humbling yourself before a God who may turn away from your request?  David did.  He looked to this God – One who owed him nothing, and trusted that perhaps He would hear his prayer.  And when God’s answer was in the negative, he did not question God like the people in Isa. 58 did. 

I think the reason David’s response was so good, was he was under the conviction even yet, for his sin.  It was less than a year since the evil had passed between him and Bathsheba. 

When Daniel prayed in Daniel chapter 9:3 we read that his prayer was with sackcloth and ashes and fasting.  In Daniel 10:2 we read that he had went three weeks without pleasant food, wine or meat and was in mourning. Later in verse 12 – 13a we read that his effort was indeed rewarded: “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard; and I have come because of your words. 13 But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days…[7]

We ought never think that our effort – even extreme effort – is of some meritorious nature.  But done rightly, that is to say, in secret, with the glory of the Lord in high regard, it does indeed please our Lord.  The question is, are you seeking the Lord’s will, or seeking to impose upon Him, your will?

We read of another angelic report in Acts 10:30. Listen to the angel speaking to Cornelius, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God.”[8] Have you thought about how your prayers are a sweet smelling savor to the Lord?  Perhaps if we kept that mindset, when we pray, we might actually pray with a greater fervency!

Also fasting is a sanctifying grace.  Listen to Joel 2:12-16,

Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:

13and rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.

14Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him; even a meat offering and a drink offering unto the Lord your God?

15Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly:

16gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that suck the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet.” 

Verse 13 tells us to rend our hearts and isn’t this a sanctifying act?  We should keep our hearts tender toward the Lord, and one way to do it is by the humbling of fasting before our God.

Many of your know that I attend a weekday Bible study and a few weeks ago a brother in the Lord, Carlos, gave testimony of God’s goodness to him in helping his family through a great crisis with his newborn daughter.  And he had brought the wife and baby, as well as his mother along to do so.  Carlos is a relatively new believer, and he is growing like crazy.  Such testimony is always a great thing for us to hear.  But I enjoyed the testimony of his mother and how she prayed for him for 13 years, during his rebellion. 

A couple weeks later I went over to him to tell him how much I appreciated his mother’s testimony, and he told me that she set aside Wednesday as a day of fasting for her son’s sake.  And that it was very hard.  He told me that in the beginning she would fast, and those were often the very days he would be arrested, or have some other crisis occur.  Yet she persisted, and he is very thankful today for this persistent mother. 

Did you notice how she never told any of us that she had fasted those 13 years? We were told only that she prayed for him. I only found out through Carlos later.  This is a true act of Spiritual fasting, and I contend, look at my brother Carlos, who is here today because of the grace of God in that work.

So let’s consider the question given to the Lord on why his disciples did not fast.  The Pharisee’s did it and taught their disciples to do so.  John and his disciples did it.  So what does Christ mean when he tells us that while the bridegroom was with them they could not fast?  The simple answer is that He – being the bridegroom – was in their presence.  And he did end up leaving them, for the 3 days in the ground.  They certainly mourned and fasted and grieved like no other time!  But how does this instruct us today?  Is our Lord, being in the throne-room of God no longer with us – and therefore we should fast?  Well that is a bit of a trick question!  Of course our Lord is with us, through the Word and through the Spirit, but we really ought to avail ourselves of prayer and fasting.  The Book of Acts has the most New Testament accounts of fasting and that by itself is instructive since we are New Testament believers.

I’d like to address the one significant theological matter.  We’ve looked at what the explicit commands regarding fasting are in Matt. 6:16-18, and 1 Cor. 7:5.  We are to give ourselves to fasting at times, and that we really ought to keep this a matter of privacy.  And this secrecy isn’t simply because our Lord said so.  That would be enough – but I want to give you some further reasons to fast, and to do so in secret.

When Christ answered the question posed, he did so, by referencing the Bridegroom – i.e. himself.  But this begs the question, who is the bride?  And we all in this congregation know immediately that it is the church.  We are the bride of Christ, and we ought to be keeping our lamps full of oil, in preparation for his return.  And serious matters between husband and wife ought to be handled in secret.  Not only that – but it ought to be the case that we do give ourselves to prayer and fasting since that is one significant way we can be close to our husband. 

But brethren – how does fasting impact our relation to the Lord? 

I’d like to bring one further historical case before you – the case of Hannah and Elkanah in 1 Sam. 1:4-19.  We don’t really have time to read the entire matter – but let me paraphrase the backdrop.  Elkanah had 2 wives – Peninnah & Hannah.  Elkanah made yearly trips to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice to the Lord, and because he favored Hannah, he gave her a double portion of the offering which he brought for sacrifice – he did this even though Hannah was barren and Peninnah had both sons & daughters.  So – as you might imagine Peninnah was jealous.  We’ll pick up the account in verse 7, “And as he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, so she (Peninnah) provoked her (Hannah); therefore she wept, and did not eat.”[9] Jump to verse 10, “And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore.”[10] Finally to verse 17, “Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him. 18 And she said, Let thine handmaid find grace in thy sight. So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.  19 And they rose up in the morning early, and worshipped before the Lord, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah: and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the Lord remembered her.”[11]  In this account we see affliction of soul – but we also see a trust in the answer – we are told that BEFORE she knew if the answer was positive she was no longer sad.  She worshipped the Lord (v. 19).  Folks, it takes a special kind of relationship with the Lord to no longer be sad – even though the answer had not yet been disclosed.  The kind of relationship between a husband and wife.  Do you have a confidence that the Lord really DOES have your best interests and those of your loved ones, in mind?

When the woman of Samaria was confronted by Christ she tried to deflect her sin by bringing up the question of the place of true worship.  The place is not the central matter according to Christ – but rather the manner of approach.  We read in John 4, “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. 24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.[12] 

True worship of God, spiritual worship of God, may sometime require fasting.  Such affliction demonstrates to yourself (not the Lord – he knows already) that you really are serious about the matter you have before you.  It also testifies in heaven before the angels of God (and the demons) that God is worthy.  Which by the way, is one of the definitions of worship – the worthiness of our God.  Are you willing to bring the matter before the Lord – in secret – that the Father may be glorified and will you be willing to accept even a negative answer – despite the affliction of soul you put yourself under?  This is evident love for God which the world does not understand. 

Folks – we are not given an explicit command to fast on a regular basis – but we are told we ought to give ourselves to it, should a serious matter arise.  What are matters serious enough to fast?  I will leave that to you – Hanna did so for a child, so did King David.  Perhaps the salvation of a loved one, as my brother Carlos’ mother thought. 

Are you troubled about some matter?  Bring it before the King!  Are we not told that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose?[13]  Trust the promise because it is given upon the ground of a loving relationship with an all-powerful, all loving God who cares for your soul.  Be willing to afflict yourselves when serious matters arise – that He might have the glory – and perchance, as David reasoned, he might hear and grant your petition – because he is so good!

Next time I preach Lord willing we’ll take up the matter of new cloth and new wine.


[1] The Cambridge Paragraph Bible: Of the Authorized English Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1873), Mt 6:16–18.
[2] The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 1 Co 7:5.
[3] The Cambridge Paragraph Bible: Of the Authorized English Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1873), Ps 35:13.
[4] The Cambridge Paragraph Bible: Of the Authorized English Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1873), Le 16:29.
[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Is 58:2–7.
[6] The Cambridge Paragraph Bible: Of the Authorized English Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1873), Es 4:16.
[7] The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Da 10:12–13.
[8] The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Ac 10:30.
[9] The Cambridge Paragraph Bible: Of the Authorized English Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1873), 1 Sa 1:7.
[10] The Cambridge Paragraph Bible: Of the Authorized English Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1873), 1 Sa 1:10.
[11] The Cambridge Paragraph Bible: Of the Authorized English Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1873), 1 Sa 1:17–20.
[12] The Cambridge Paragraph Bible: Of the Authorized English Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1873), Jn 4:23–24.
[13] The Cambridge Paragraph Bible: Of the Authorized English Version (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1873), Ro 8:28.

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