THE MISUNDERSTOOD ART OF FASTING”
From the “SERMON ON THE MOUNT – AND BEYOND !!!”
Jeremy Stopford, Semi-Retired Pastor
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16-18).
If you were ever to visit quaint little (under 8 thousand residents) Norwich, NY, you would immediately be drawn to the little red caboose in the business section on East Main Street, not very far from our local post office. For decades this caboose housed “Millie’s Diner”, with Millie herself as its chef! The food was good (serving breakfast and lunch Monday-Saturday), and the company even greater.
I remember the day as if it were yesterday. One of my privileges back then was to go to Millie’s each day just before noon to find out what the day’s special was for the employees at City Hall, located just across the street from the restaurant. That day I relayed to the front office folks that “Today’s special at Millie’s is chicken and biscuits.” Immediately I was told, “LEAVE RIGHT AWAY! Don’t you remember that this is the first day of the office diet?”.
FASTING. Today we would simply interpret that as “not eating for a certain season.” But what did it mean in Jesus’ day? Why was it so important to include in His valuable Sermon on the Mount? There are at least 3 good definitions of “to fast”:
1. To be without food or hungry; to suffer hunger
2. The temporary refraining from food for religious purposes
3. To be empty
Remember definitions #2 and #3, as they will be quite helpful in this study!
TOO FAST OR NOT TOO FAST Now THAT’s funny, especially to a car driver! Let’s try again.
TO FAST OR NOT TO FAST Funny how two added “o’s change the entire intent! How was this an important part of Jesus’ day, so important that His listeners knew right away what people to whom He was referring?
They knew there was a wrong way (verse 16) whereby the religious leaders had an outward show to give an appearance of spirituality. The Savior then taught (verse 17) “but when YE fast”, showing the true intention of this art which was thus most misunderstood. And then? It is to be done BEFORE GOD ALONE and not as before men or for their favor. It was A DENYING OF SELF. Hence comes the title, “NOT ME” (verse 18).
There are many Biblical helps or usages of “fasting” which give us the how and why of fasting. I like to refer to them as our “SEVEN SOUND SUPPORTS FOR THE SERVANT SEEKING FOR SUSTENANCE FOR THE SOUL”. (Honestly, Dr. Becker pays me WAY too much!)
1. Esther 4:16 A mourning for national sin through the avenue of faith
“Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!”
Esther was in a position of political importance, the queen for the king. I would encourage you to read the entire book of Esther in one sitting. In the face of extreme political (and spiritual!) opposition, Queen Esther called for a season of fasting. This would be a national turning to true faith in the Living God!
I remember that 50 years ago, in my freshman year (and only year, before transferring to Bible School) at a liberal arts college in upstate New York, the student body was invited to give up an evening meal. In exchange, the school would donate the cost of that meal toward a ministry which was providing food for the poor, starving people of Bangladesh. It was my first exposure to true Biblical fasting. I spent the entire night in God’s word. And whenever I felt the hunger urge, I immediately bowed my head in prayer for the people of Bangladesh (and for those ministries there with which I was familiar).
2/3. (Read Dan. 6:16-18 where fasting [by the king] was for the purpose of overturning seemingly impossible circumstances [Daniel thrown into the lion’s den]
Daniel 9:1-3 When confronted with God’s Word
“In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the lineage of the Medes, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans— 2 in the first year of his reign I, Daniel, understood by the books the number of the years specified by the word of the Lord through Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem. 3 Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.”
This is a most fascinating piece of Scripture! The prophet Daniel – note the words: THE. PROPHET. DANIEL. The one and only. Servant of the Lord who both forthtells and foretells God’s Word. Daniel himself, most well known servant. Daniel was reading the Bible for himself! In particular, he was reading the scroll of Jeremiah in what we call today Jeremiah 25:10 [you may not realize that chapter and verse divisions are not considered inspired but added by spiritual men of God for the intent of making Bible reading much easier]. Daniel was a Jewish captive in Gentile – and idol worshiping – Babylon. By reading the Word of God, he learned God’s plan for Israel was to be in captivity for a total of 70 YEARS! When confronted in both his heart and mind with this truth, he immediately resorted to FASTING for his nation. Would we?
4. Jonah 3:5 A purging of personal, and thus national, sin
“So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.”
Jonah had preached the Word of God to the wicked people of Nineveh [not long after Jonah’s side trip in the belly of the great fish]. Jonah knew the Word of God would be effective, yet it bothered him that the enemies of Israel would be given the grace of God. In response to the Word of God, the people of Nineveh called for a personal season of fasting. And as a result, a personal fasting brought a purging of national sin.
What would happen in the nation where you readers live IF you spent a personal season of fasting? What would happen to you? Your family? Your community? Your nation? Nineveh repented. They knew, they just KNEW, that the God of Israel IS the true God. He ALONE is worthy to be worshipped! Do we understand that for OUR nation?
5. Luke 18:9-14 True fasting
“9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Do you remember our important 2 definitions of fasting? It is the temporary refraining from food for religious purposes AND it is evidenced by being empty. In Jesus’ wonderful and most familiar parable, He illustrated fasting in a most tangible way. Fasting is NOT to be an outward religious observance (as shown by the Pharisee). Rather it IS a dying to self, [as wonderfully displayed by the tax collector].
There are many other uses of “FAST” or “FASTING” in the Scriptures. I would encourage you to check out:
Matthew 17:14-21: a seeking of God’s power, thus blessing the prayer life
1 Cor. 7:1-5: a seeking of God’s holiness, thus blessing the home
NOT ME! As we close, let’s ask ourselves: what is the underlying theme in God’s purposes for fasting?
A GRIEF FOR SIN !
Do you believe this?
Then set aside time a time of fasting for God alone:
– for the nation
– for the need (and the needy)
– for the family
– for the individual heart
For what? THAT GOD WILL HAVE FIRST PLACE!