“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.”
As the Sermon on the Mount continues, it must never be forgotten that Jesus intended for His followers to live out what He was teaching. Though the principles are high and holy, they are within reach for the sincere disciple of Christ.
Jesus wants us to pray.
Jesus wants us to be forgiving.
Jesus wants us to fast, on occasions, as a form of spiritual discipline.
The subject of fasting may be a little unfamiliar for many Christians. Fasting as a spiritual exercise, is not frequently taught, or even discussed. Sometimes it is ridiculed by those who should know better. For several years I sat under the ministry of a prominent Bible teacher in the South, who would belittle the concept of fasting, and say it was nothing more than dieting. Such thinking, I believe, is unfortunate. The Word of God has much to say about fasting. Jesus provided principles and guidelines for fasting, because the Lord expected His disciples to practice this form of spiritual discipline. “Moreover, when ye fast…” (Matt. 6:16). Jesus did not say, “IF ye fast,” but, “when ye fast” indicating that sometime in the Christian experience, fasting would be part of one’s life. Because of this, let us consider the general Biblical Fasting for the Family of God. As a form of showing sincere devotion to God, fasting has been practiced throughout history, by those who call upon the Lord. Consider the evidence.
Fasting took place during the period of the Judges. Before Israel established a monarchy, God ruled His people through Judges. This Theocratic Period lasted about 325 -350 years (c. 1350 – 1000 BC). Unfortunately, there were times when God’s people acted so badly, the hand of the Lord was lifted against Israel. Thousands of people were caught up in a foreign war as a form of Divine discipline. This led to national repentance. “Then all the children of Israel, and all the people went up and came unto the house of God, and wept and sat there before the Lord, and fasted that day until even, and offered burnt offerings” (Judges 20:26).
At another time in Jewish history, when the aggressive Moabites, Ammonites, and other tribal nations, combined against the fourth king of Judah, Jehoshaphat (25-year reign, c. 873 to 848 BC) to subdue the nation, we are told he, “set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah gathered themselves together, to ask help of the Lord” (2 Chron. 20:3, 4).
In still another time of national calamity, in the 9th century before Christ, the prophet Joel cried out to the Jews, “Sanctify you a fast, call a solemn assembly…and cry unto the Lord” (1:14).
Jonah and Nineveh
When Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh (c. 760 BC), “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” the Bible says that the people of the great city believed God, they proclaimed a fast, “and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them (Jonah 3:5-9).
In American history, some of our political leaders have called upon the country to fast and pray.
The Assembly of Virginia passed a resolution on June 1, 1774 to be a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer.
On February 28, 1795, Samuel Adams, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts called for fasting, humiliation, and prayer.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed three fasts:
the last Thursday in September, 1861;
the 30th of March, 1863;
the first Thursday of August, 1864.
It is good when a nation fasts and prays to God.
On a personal level, fasting has also taken place. God is earnestly sought for a special blessing, or the supply of some great need. As individuals, we fast to humble ourselves, we fast to seek Divine guidance, we fast to ask God to supply our needs. We fast for the sake of our children (Ezra 8:21).
When his child was dying, we are told how David “sought God for the child; and David fasted, and went and lay all night upon the earth” (2 Sam. 12:16).
So, we learn there is national fasting, there is personal fasting, and then there is intercessory fasting. We fast that others might be saved.
When Nehemiah was informed that many of his people left in the Babylonian captivity in the provinces were “in great affliction and reproach,” and the walls of Jerusalem were broken down, and its gates burned with fire, he “sat down and wept and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven” (Neh. 1:4).
As a Believer-Priest, we are to fast on behalf of others, making intercession before God. When Daniel desperately desired the deliverance of the children of Israel from their captivity in Babylon after 70 years, he “Set his face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplication, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3).
In addition to national, personal, and intercessory fasting, there is fasting as part of one’s private devotional life.
In the days of the New Testament, we read of Anna, that, “She departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37). Time and again, fasting is spoken of in the Bible to show what a large theme it is.
So, what is fasting?
Simply enough, fasting is a volunteer abstinence, from meat and drink, but not in a way that will harm the body, for that is forbidden (Col. 2:23). Martin Luther writes of how he almost ruined his health by excessive fasting. “If ever there was a monk who could be saved by ‘monkery,’ it was I,” said Luther.
It is at this point that care must be taken, according to Jesus, because the Lord does not want His disciples to be like the hypocrites of His day (Matt. 6:16). What did the hypocrites do?
First, they put on a sad face in public to let everyone know how serious they were. Perhaps you are familiar with the “puppy dog” face, an expression that invites attention and sympathy. There is also the pious face, which is marked by a sanctimonious attitude.
Second, the hypocrites let everyone know they were fasting. Nothing needed to be said, but the gestures were clear when food was offered. A hand was held up, the head was waved sideways, and everyone knew. No food. The person was fasting. Jesus said that such a person had their reward. People thought they were very spiritual. But, in the sight of God, they were hypocrites for they fasted only for the public.
In contrast, biblical fasting always has a holy purpose, and is pleasing to God.
First, the purpose of fasting is to express sincere sorrow for sin. The Psalmist said, “I wept and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach” (Psalms 69:10).
Second, fasting is designed to stir up our devotion to God, and enhance our minds in the study of the Bible, and in prayer. When our stomach is full, the body and mind are less likely to perform spiritual duties. That is one practical reason why we worship first, and eat later. Some of us want to go to sleep after we eat a good Sunday dinner, or maybe watch a football game.
Third, by fasting we are reminded of our unworthiness to partake of the mercies of common grace. In the Fall, we lost any claim to God’s goodness. The sin of rebellion is a forfeiting sin. Adam and Eve were willing to pay the price of rebellion, even to the point of being cast out of the Garden of Eden, where the provisions of God are in abundance. Every fruit bearing tree could be eaten of, with one exception. But that one exception became the source of temptation, and the forfeiture of the right to partake of the mercies of common grace. When we fast, we tell the Lord, we realize, we do not deserve His mercies, but are grateful they are renewed each morning (Lam. 3:23). We will eat again, but first, we fast, as the Spirit leads.
Fourth, by fasting we can wisely make important decisions. In the early church, a group of men had an important decision to make. “As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” (Acts 13:2).
How often should a person fast?
The answer to that is not stated in the New Testament. In the Old Testament the Law required only one fast, and that was on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27-29). The fast was to last from sunset to sunset. In order to appear more pious, the Pharisees instituted a weekly fast.
The New Testament guideline for fasting is simply, as the Spirit leads. There is a final observation. We as Christians will want to avoid the dangers inherent in fasting.
There is the danger of spiritual pride.
There is the danger of overdoing a good thing. Anorexia in the guise of spirituality is not the will of God.
There is the danger of accepting a lesser blessing for a greater one. This happens when word is let out that one is fasting often.
Because of these dangers, Jesus said fasting should be done primarily in secret, and not before men. There are blessings to be obtained because of fasting.
First, there will be greater spiritual power over the forces of evil. Before Jesus began His public ministry, before He resisted the Devil and cast out demons, He fasted.
Second, there will be an increase of faith in God. The Lord draws near to those who are willing to spend time with Him.
Third, fasting sends a signal to heaven the soul is longing to have serious spiritual fellowship with God. Fourth, fasting brings about a dying to self. Much of our lives is spent on self. We feed, clothe, bath, and protect self. We pamper self and entertain self. Fasting is one way to break out of total self-absorption and focus on other things that transcends time.
The conclusion of the matter is this. Fasting is not only a Biblical practice, but it is a pathway to blessing. Jesus fasted, and provided principles for us to follow in this matter. God’s people have tried fasting as a spiritual discipline, and found it to be a wonderful experience. In the days ahead, “when you fast, your Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward you openly.”