(I gave this message last on July 6, 2014 at First Christian Church Wilton Manors, Florida. You may view the PowerPoint slides of this message on Microsoft OneDrive here.)
In his book, The Happen Stance How To Make Things Happen in Your Christian Life Pastor K. Neill Foster includes a chapter on fasting. Here is the opening paragraph of that chapter.
"Fasting the delightful discipline. Is this a contradiction in terms? No! The practice of fasting is geared for results. Far from some somber truth dressed in drabness, fasting is a vibrant, radiant, yes, delightful Christian discipline."
Now, that might sound counter intuitive to some of us. Fasting is delightful? If we are honest some of us would respond to the thought of fasting with words like sacrifice, self-denial, hunger, self-discipline or hardship, rather than delight.
One cannot go far in either the Old or New Testament before finding references to fasting. The incidents of fasting recorded in the Bible provide a wealth of information from which to understand what Biblical fasting is all about.
This morning it is not my intention to present a comprehensive teaching on fasting but touch on some of the truths relating to God's call to fast.
Note first of all, the mandate to fast. This answers the question "should we fast?" Let's turn to Jesus first for the answer. On at least two occasions, Jesus spoke about fasting. First, Jesus assumed his disciples would fast. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,
“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. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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." (Matthew 6:16-18 ESV)
Twice, in this passage Jesus says "when you fast" not "if" you fast. It wasn't a matter of "if." It was a matter of "when." Jesus clearly taught that the day would come when his disciples would fast.
Secondly, we are to fast in His absence. On another occasion He was asked why his disciples did not fast. Mark chapter two, verses 18-20,
"Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, 'Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?' And Jesus said to them, 'Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day."
Jesus expected that his disciples would fast after he departed from them.
Secondly, some thoughts on how to fast. Notice that, motive is key. Back to Matthew 6. Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of those who fasted to be seen by others; those who fasted to gain the attention of those around them. Remember he said, when you fast, don't look "gloomy." Don't "disfigure' your face, to be noticed by others. Rather anoint you head and wash you face. In other words act and look normal. Don't draw attention to yourself because you're fasting.
He went on to say, you should be fasting to be seen by your Father who is in secret. After all, He is the one who will reward you. You don't fast to embellish your reputation or to feed your spiritual pride and ego. On the contrary fasting is an act of humility. David said, "I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting." (Psalm 35:13)
Arthur Wallis, in his book His Chosen Fast, writes, "...fasting is a divine corrective to the pride of the human heart. It is a discipline of the body with a tendency to humble the soul."
And one of the key spiritual principles repeated throughout Scripture, finds application here. As Peter stated it, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." (1 Peter 5:5) Fasting is an opportunity to humble ourselves before God. When we come to Him in a spirit of humility, contrition, and repentance we position ourselves to receive an out-pouring of His grace.
That's what fasting is all about. Getting in touch with God. Think of it this way. Through fasting we give God our undivided attention so He can do what He would otherwise not have the opportunity to do. Fasting is giving God a chance to do a work in our lives that only He can do, if we allow Him to do it. Andrew Murray said,
"Fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifice ourselves to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God."(With Christ in the School of Prayer)
You see, fasting helps us focus on God. Fasting is a practical way of narrowing our focus. Here's what I mean by that. When we fast, we set aside a legitimate and very powerful biological and physiological desire, our appetite for food, so that we can focus on the spiritual. We set aside something that is tangible and physical to gain something that is intangible and spiritual.
As you know, we live in material world. We relate to that world by what we see and hear, touch, taste and smell. We rely on these five senses to function in the physical world that we live in. But God lies beyond those five senses, beyond the material, beyond the empirical in the realm of the unseen. Ordinarily, we do not relate to him with these five senses. He is Spirit and can only be known by spirit.
The apostle John put it this way, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” (John 4:24) hence the great value of fasting. Our appetite for food is one of the strongest of human desires that competes for our attention.
Fasting helps us move from a fixation on the material and physical world that dominates our senses and life, and focus on the spiritual, which is unseen. Fasting gives our spiritual life the advantage as it were, as it competes with the physical. As Jentezen Franklin says, "Simply stated, biblical fasting is refraining from food for a spiritual purpose."
Remember Dr. Foster's premise? Fasting is a delightful discipline. Are you beginning to see why?
Fourthly, when we fast we should be led of the Spirit. We look at Jesus' example. Let me put Jesus 40 day fast in its context. I believe there were three things of great significance that took place before Jesus began his public ministry. First, He was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River where the Holy Spirit descended on Him and God's voice from heaven declared, "You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased." (Luke 3:21) Submitting to John's baptism was an act of consecration on the part of Jesus. As Arthur Wallis points out, "His baptism in the Jordan was His dedication unto death in anticipation of the cross." (His Chosen Fast) But his baptism was also where the Holy Spirit of God "descended" upon Jesus Christ "in bodily form," "like a dove" writes Luke. (Luke 3:22) This certainly speaks of the empowerment, of the Holy Spirit, and the call and anointing for ministry.
Secondly, Jesus begins a 40 day fast. Luke writes,"And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [where he was baptized] and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.' (Luke 4:1,2) Notice that the text says Jesus was "led of the Spirit" to the wilderness for the 40 day fast. Mark's account is even more straightforward. After His baptism, Mark writes, "The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan." (Mark 1:12) Clearly Jesus began the 40 day fast in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Our motive for fasting has always been of great importance as we noticed when looking at Matthew 6.
The prophet Isaiah wrote one of the most valuable passages in the Bible on fasting. In chapter 58, the prophet, among other things, deals with motive for fasting. He first indicts his readers for their wrong motives. The people asked why God was ignoring their fast. "Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?" (Isaiah 58:3) To which God replies, "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.
Arthur Wallis, commenting on this passage writes, "God reminds his people that the acceptable fast is the one which He has chosen. Fasting, like prayer, must be God-initiated and God ordained if it is to be effective. Prevailing prayer begins with God; He places upon us a burden by the Spirit, and we respond to that burden. Prayer that originates with God always returns to God. So it is with fasting." (God's Chosen Fast)
You see, being Spirit led in our fasting helps guard against the temptation to try and gain merit from God by an act of self-denial. It prevents us from turning fasting into a "good work," a way of bribing God, if you will. John Wesley sounded the warning this way,
"Let us beware of fancying we merit anything of God by our fasting. We cannot be too often warned of this; inasmuch as a desire to 'establish our own righteousness,' to procure salvation of debt and not of grace, is so deeply rooted in all our hearts."
I trust you will not underestimate the significance of the sequence of events that took place in Jesus' life at this point. First, He submits to the baptism of John the Baptist in an act of consecration. Second, He is empowered by the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Third, the Holy Spirit- then led Him into the wilderness to begin a 40 day fast where he is tempted by Satan. It was only then that Jesus returned to Nazareth "in the power of the Spirit." to begin his public ministry.
Notice it was during the 40 day fast that Jesus engaged Satan in spiritual warfare. May I suggest to you that this alone is reason to fast. Ephesians 6:12, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."
Down through Biblical history Satan has opposed the redemptive purposes of God that ultimately led to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Time would not allow us to trace that thread down through the Biblical record. Suffice it to say, having risen out of those waters of baptism and consecration where Jesus received the affirmation of the Father and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the only one who stood in the way of Jesus Christ carrying out the mission assigned to Him by the Father was Satan himself. Satan knew it. Jesus knew it. The Father knew it. And the Holy Spirit knew it. Hence Jesus was thrust into the wilderness to engage His enemy, not only His enemy, but our enemy; the enemy of every human being that has ever lived or will ever live on this earth.
So Jesus was in the wilderness forty days without food. And Luke says He was hungry. It was in that vulnerable state that he was tempted by the devil, the first temptation being to turn a stone into bread. That was predictable. Satan always tempts us at our point of weakness where we are most vulnerable. Please note, he was tempting Jesus with more than having lunch. As G. Campbell Morgan writes, "The suggestion behind the temptation is that all that humanity needs is the physical, and the material supply of that..."
By the way, nothing has changed. That is the big lie today. It's called secular humanism, and it's offspring moral relativism . This is the dominant philosophy - religion if you will - of our western culture today. Morgan continues, "Said the Devil: Man is only an animal, highly developed possibly; but bread is the one thing necessary."
You see, that is the inevitable conclusion of naturalism, man's attempt to live apart from God, to live as if there is no God. That is social Darwinism. Matter is all there is. Life is all about the survival of the fittest, in a world without God, without the purpose, meaning and fulfillment, that come from knowing God through faith in Jesus Christ. If you are here this morning and have never trusted in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins could that be where you are spiritually?
You're probably familiar with Jesus' response to the temptation to turn a stone into bread as well as the other two that followed. He stood his ground using the Word of God to overcome each of Satan's temptations. "It is written: Man does not live on bread alone," was Jesus' reply to the Devil.
Again G C Morgan, "Said Jesus: Man is not an animal. He does not live as animals live. His life cannot be sustained on that level." If we are ever tempted not to fast or for that matter not to seek the Lord, not to obey the Lord, not to worship the Lord, not to give our lives to the Lord, may I suggest that this could be at the root of the temptation. Living in a material world we are continually being tempted to buy into the big lie of Satan that what we can see and hear, touch, taste and smell is all there is to live for and all we need to find fulfillment and satisfaction as human beings.
Jesus exposed that lie by refuting the first of the devil's temptations. He went on to resist two more temptations, and the devil left Him. Luke says, Jesus returned to Galilee "in the power of the Holy Spirit" (Luke 4:1) where He began his public ministry. Dr. Foster, writing of Jesus' 40 day fast says, "It is significant that He did this [the 40 day fast] before His ministry began and before the miraculous began to occur." Then he makes this observation, "The absence of the miraculous among many of today's Christians could be traceable to the lack of this forgotten discipline." As Arthur Wallis has written, "In New Testament times fasting was a channel of power." (God's Chosen Fast)
Lastly, note that fasting is your telegram to God. Jeremiah 29:12,13, "Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart."
Fasting is a means of declaring to God both the sincerity and urgency of your heart. By its very nature fasting expresses a deep sense of need on the part of the one fasting. As Pastor Foster wrote, "The practice of fasting is geared for results."
I don't know how many of you are old enough to remember the era when telegrams were used. I remember as a boy growing up in Japan in the 1950's and 60's that my parents used them. Remember, back then there was no internet, no skyping, no emails or texting. It took several weeks to get an airmail letter to or from the States. There were telephones of course, but we rarely received or made phone calls to the States because it was cost prohibitive, about $25 a minute. So telegrams were used to send a message of importance that were time sensitive.
When the man came to the door and delivered the telegram, it wasn't set aside to be read at a later time. No, if a telegram came you knew it was important, perhaps even urgent. You opened it and read it immediately. I remember seeing some of those telegrams. Since you paid for a telegram by the number of words used, there was no concern for proper syntax, just the minimum number of words necessary to get the message across. When you fast, you are sending a telegram to God. Again, Arthur Wallis, "Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven." (God's Chosen Fast)
As Ezra testified, having called a fast before he led the remnant on that dangerous journey from Babylon back to Jerusalem, "...we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayers." (Ezra 8:23)
Two and a half years ago I brought a message from 2 Chronicles 20 from the life of Jehoshaphat King of Judah. He and his people were facing this massive army headed their way from the south. Upon hearing the news of the approaching army, the King was "alarmed" and "afraid." Perhaps you remember that King Jehoshaphat's first response was to call a prayer meeting. He called his nation to prayer and fasting. You see, fasting communicates urgency of desire. Apparently King Jehoshaphat was desperate in light of this threat to his nation so he and his people sought the Lord in prayer and fasting. Arthur Wallis, " When a man is willing to set aside the legitimate appetites of the body to concentrate on the work of praying, he is demonstrating that he means business, that he is seeking with all his heart, and will not let God go unless he answers." (God’s Chosen Fast)
How desperate are you for God this morning? desperate to know His presence in a deeper, and more intimate way. Perhaps, you're spiritually dry. The world and all it has to offer has left you empty and unfulfilled. Or you are in urgent need of victory over a besetting sin. You're in a struggle with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes or the pride of life. Perhaps this morning, you need direction, guidance from the Lord for a decision you must make. Though it happened years ago when I was just a boy, I can still picture in my mind the image of my mother and father kneeling at the living room sofa seeking the Lord as they fasted and prayed over the noon hour. I have shard this with you before; when I fast, this is what motivates me: "I need God more than I need food."
Dr. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade For Christ and a man of prayer and great insight- into fasting has written, "Fasting is the most powerful spiritual discipline of all the Christian disciplines. Through fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit can transform your life."
I close with this illustration. King Jehoshaphat's father, King Asa, faced a similar crisis as his son as recorded in 2 Chronicles 14. As a vast army of Cushites threatened his nation King Asa called upon the Lord, "...Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. Lord, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.” (2 Chronicles 14:11) After the Lord "struck down the Cushites," the prophet Azariah brought this word of encouragement from the Lord, “The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you” (2 Chronicles 15:2) May I suggest to you that is the theological basis for fasting.
Pastor K. Neil Foster, “Fasting is the quickest way to get yourself into the position where God can give you what He wanted to give you all along."
© James P McGarvey All Rights Reserved