“When You Fast”

Moreover, when you fast, do not look gloomy as the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so that they may appear to men to be fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Mt 6:16-18).

These were the first words that Jesus spoke concerning fasting during His ministry. At the time, fasting was a common practice among the religious leaders of the Jewish culture, and thus, it was only natural that He would explain fasting in reference to the disciples’ response to His lordship in their lives.   And since it was common for all religious leaders to lead in the behavior of fasting, there would later come some complaints as to why Jesus’ disciples did not fast during His ministry (See Mt 9:14,15). But in the Sermon on the Mount in this context, Jesus wanted to establish some behavioral principles that should later characterize the fasting of His disciples.  

The statements that Jesus made here in reference to fasting should be considered in the context of His introductory statement concerning prayer that He previously made in the text: “And when you pray …” (Mt 5:5). Jesus assumed that His disciples would pray. Prayer would be a part of their lives as His disciples. It was not “if” they prayed, but “when” they prayed.   They would be a discipleship that continued to lay their requests before God (1 Th 5:17). There was no need, therefore, to command prayer, as there was no need to command fasting. It was simply something that His disciples would do as His disciples.

With almost the same statement that Jesus used to introduce prayer, He also introduced fasting: “Moreover, when you fast ….” It was not “if” the disciples would fast, but “when” they would fast. Jesus assumed that His disciples would in the future fast as a part of their discipleship. Fasting would be the natural response of those who would respond to His lordship.

Since this specific teaching of Jesus on fasting took place early in His ministry, we must assume that His disciples were somewhat confused concerning the traditional manner of fasting that was common among religious leaders. The religious leaders had established a traditional schedule and manner of fasting.   The Pharisees fasted twice a week, once on Monday and again on Thursday (Lk 18:12). They had also established an outward appearance of fasting that would identify to the public that they were in a fast. Jesus explained that they “disfigure their faces so that they many appear to men to be fasting” (Mt 6:16). We would assume, therefore, that Jesus gave His instructions on fasting in this context in view of the concern of some among His disciples who saw the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in their fasting.

Since fasting would be the natural response of those who would seek to depend on God’s work in their lives, then Jesus in this context seeks to enjoin on His disciples some simple instructions concerning fasting. The Jewish religious leadership often let their hair go uncut when they had lengthy fast. They would put ashes on their heads and show a disfigured face in order to be publicly identified to be in a fast. But none of this behavior would be characteristic of His disciples when they were in a fast.

The contemporary religious leaders’ emphasis on fasting was not primarily to plea for God to work in their lives, but to manifest the meritorious performance of fasting as a religious rite. By an outward show they sought to lead the people to fast regularly. However, by fasting in such a manner, and for such purposes, the only reward they received for their fasting was the praise of men. Their outward show in fasting nullified God’s response to their requests. They were perceived by the public to be spiritually minded because they put on a “fasting show.”   What they forgot was that in fasting one must focus on the inner self, not on an outward portrayal of a legal code of religiosity. They nullified the purpose for fasting by their theatrical performances in fasting.

One fasts in order to take his or her mind off the physical needs of the body in order to focus on the spiritual needs of the inner man. When the outward man has continuously overindulged in food, it is time for the inner man to overindulge in the spiritual. Obsessive eaters have need of obsessive fasting in order to readjust their thinking from focusing on the physical to focusing on the spiritual.   But in this transition of focus, fasting must never become a show time performance. Therefore, Jesus instructed His disciples in their fasts, “Anoint your head and wash your face” (Mt 6:17).

It is not the desire of the disciples of Jesus to fast meritoriously, nor to fast in order to draw attention to one’s performance of religious rites. In fasting one focuses on the inner man in order to reconnect this man with God.   By concentrating on the inner spiritual part of man, the disciples of Jesus should give no outward indication of their struggle to reconnect with God through fasting. The purpose of fasting is to humble oneself inwardly before God in order to call on God to work in his or her life.

The fact that one was not to give an outward appearance of fasting indicates that one can fast during his normal function of life. He or she does not have to go to a desert place, but can carry on with a normal life while fasting. At least this seems to be what Anna was doing at the temple. The only time others would know that he or she is fasting is when he or she allows the food tray to pass.

It is noteworthy that Anna fasted in a public place at the temple. But there seems to be no indication that she put on any intentional show of her fasting.   Everyone simply knew that this was her personal ministry in reference to the coming of the Messiah. We assume also that she was not the only one fasting and praying for the coming of the Messiah. It is not wrong to inform others that one is in a fast.   It is pretentious, however, to expect others to give one glory for his or her fast.

In the statement, “so that you do not appear to men to be fasting,” means that our fasting should be in secret, and thus seen only by our “Father who is in secret” (Mt 6:18). If there is any showmanship before men in fasting, then we defeat the very purpose for our fast. If we focus on some outward appearance in order to manifest the conviction of our fasting, then the purpose of “afflicting our soul” through fasting is defeated. The disciples of Jesus seek only to be noticed by their heavenly Father. In fasting, therefore, they seek to call the attention of their Father to focus on their pleas.

[Next lecture in series: August 1]

Fasting To Focus

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Now when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread” (Mt 4:1-3; see Mk 1:12,13; Lk 4:1-13).

As previously suggested, this may have been a somewhat involuntary fast on the part of Jesus because He was in a wilderness where there was no food. However, He knew the environmental circumstances of the wilderness. He knew that there would be no food and little water. He thus voluntarily allowed the Spirit to lead Him to the wilderness where there was no food. Jesus voluntarily placed Himself in an environment where He had to fast for forty days and nights in preparation for His ministry.

When God starts great movements among men on earth, His messengers are often called to a wilderness to fast. Moses, Elijah, Jesus and Paul all went to the desert before going to the people. In the case of Jesus, it was God’s will that He be placed in an environment that would present the opportunity for Him to be tempted in all ways as those He would save (Hb 4:15). In fact, the text says that the Spirit led him to the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil.” He was thus led to the desert in order to fast forty days, which fasting was followed by the temptations of Satan. This occasion of fasting on the part of Jesus was meant to be more than going without food. It was to place Him in a physically weak state where He would be most vulnerable to temptation.

Matthew mentions that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at His baptism that preceded His time in the wilderness (Mt 3:16). Luke recorded, “And Jesus, being full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Lk 4:1). At His baptism, He had received the miraculous power of the Spirit in order to manifest the works of the Father throughout His ministry. However, being filled with the Spirit did not guard Him from yielding to the temptations of the devil. Neither did He use His power to create fish and bread when He became hungry during His fast (See Mt 14:13-21).

Matthew emphasizes the fact that Jesus was led to the wilderness specifically for a period of fasting. Our fasting must be specific. In fasting one is able to focus specifically on what is set before him.   Because we know that fasting aids in our mental processes to focus clearly on what is before us, we would assume that Jesus’ time in the wilderness was for the purpose of focusing on the purpose for which He came into the world. “I do not seek My own will,” He said to His disciples, but the will of the Father who sent Me (Jn 5:30). On another occasion Jesus said, “For I came down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me (Jn 6:38). We would assume that one reason why Jesus allowed Himself to be led into the wilderness was to focus on His destiny. These forty days of fasting were the initiation to begin His ministry that would conclude with the cross.

If fasting helped Jesus to focus on the will and work of the Father through Him, then we would conclude that fasting would accomplish the same in our own lives. We sometimes have a difficult time determining what we should do in our ministry for the Lord. This is the time for fasting. Through fasting our thinking becomes clear and focused. If we feel that in our ministry we have come to a dead end, then it is time to end our food intake. Before He started His ministry, Jesus wanted to focus clearly on the purpose for which He was sent into the world. He came “to save the world” (Jn 12:47). He thus allowed Satan the opportunity to dissuade Him from this destiny.

If we have lost our way, or forgotten our purpose as a disciple of Jesus, then it is a time for fasting. It is a time to go into a wilderness place in order to remind ourselves of our destiny for Jesus as His disciple. What is significant about this fast of Jesus was that He went to a place where He could be alone. He stayed there alone for a long time in order to prepare Himself for what lay ahead.

For spiritual growth, and refocusing our lives, there is no experience like the experience of a prolonged fast in a wilderness place. In a social world where people feel almost afraid to be alone, fasting alone in a wilderness place is an opportunity to reconnect directly with God without the aid of someone else.   In the mission of Jesus to the cross, He would lead alone. His disciples would be with Him on the pathways of Palestine. But when it came to the final journey of His mission to the cross, all His disciples would forsake Him. Fasting in the wilderness is an opportunity to discover what it is like to be alone with God.

Many people fast while carrying on with their regular schedule and with their fellow acquaintances. This is the normal environment in which most people fast.   But the challenge with this environment of fasting is that we are often distracted from the One on whom we are to be focusing when we are fasting. Fasting in a wilderness place is for the purpose of not being distracted by friends and family. We remember one time when we secluded ourselves alone for three days in the desert in order to think clearly concerning a challenging mission that was set before us. After the three days in the desert, we had the opportunity for a reality check, and thus reevaluated clearly what God would have us do in our ministry to His glory.   Even if one does not fast in a wilderness place, being in such a place with God alone helps one to clarify his or her destiny.

There is no experience like being alone with God in a desert. It is a spiritually exhilarating experience. When all distractions are alleviated from one’s thinking and environment, the task of focusing on an objective is easier. In a modern urban life, such environments for fasting are quite difficult to find. But if one does have the opportunity to fast in the wilderness, it will be a memorial experience that will change one’s life.

In the case of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, the text says that He became hungry. Satan came to Him at a time when He was weakest. One must keep in mind, therefore, that when fasting, Satan will seek to stop one’s fast with the temptation of food. Satan will seek to take our minds off that for which we are fasting and place it on the physical craving for food.

We must not think that Satan does not know the spiritual benefits of fasting. Therefore, we must keep in mind that the purpose for fasting is to focus on our spiritual goals, not on our physical needs. In fasting we are disciplining our minds to focus on that which is greater than the physical. In order to accomplish the goals of our fast, it is good to set a specific number of days or time of fasting. One of the first goals to accomplish in fasting is to fulfill one’s determined goal for his or her time of fast.

Jesus went without food for forty consecutive days and nights. Moses did the same (Ex 34:28), as well as Elijah (1 Kg 19:8). We are not told why Jesus fasted specifically for forty days and forty nights, unless there is some significance to the forty years the nation of Israel wandered in the wilderness of Sinai because of their refusal to immediately conquer the land of promise. It may be that the significance is only in the length of time. Regardless of the reason for the forty days, Jesus evidently had set a goal for the time He would fast.

One can physically go without water at the most for three or four days, and without food for about six weeks, depending on one’s body mass. But in each situation, one cannot carry on with the normal place of life during a prolonged fast. Jesus was not in a situation where He maintained an active schedule during His forty days of fasting. The text says that He went only without food during this time, though water may have been limited in the wilderness.

Because Jesus was vulnerable during and immediately after His days of fasting, Satan continually tempted Him in order to make Him turn from both His fasting and the destiny of His ministry (Mk 1:13). It was at the end of His fasting that Jesus would be most vulnerable to any temptation. In the same manner as he tempted Eve in the garden of Eden (Gn 3), Satan tempted Jesus after the lust of the eyes and flesh, and the pride of life (1 Jn 2:16). However, even at this time when Jesus would have been most vulnerable to yield to temptation, He did not give in to the lure of Satan’s temptations. At the end of His fasting, He was clearly focused on His destiny, and thus, Satan had no chance of changing Jesus’ walk to the cross.

One of the purposes for fasting is to place one in a vulnerable situation in reference to the lust of the flesh. If one can prove to himself that he can conquer the lust of the flesh for a determined period of time, then one gains great confidence by the disciplining of the body. It is food that is often our worst enemy in destroying our self-discipline. And thus one of the serendipitous results of fasting is that we become more disciplined in controlling the intake of food. We become more reassured that we are in control of our physical and spiritual being.

[Next lecture in series: July 30]

The Ministry Of Fasting

Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age and had lived with a husband seven years from her marriage. And she was a widow of about eighty-four years. She did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day (Lk 2:36,37).

 Anna, as the other Jews who were contemporary with her, lived under the Sinai covenant and law. She was aware of the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah and that these prophecies were nigh unto being fulfilled. All the Jews sensed that the fullness of time was upon them, and thus, she too prayed and fasted in order to encourage God to bring forth the Messiah and “the redemption of Israel” (See Gl 4:4,5).

It is significant to note that Anna was of one of the tribes of the northern ten tribes of Israel who were formerly taken into Assyrian captivity in 722/721 B.C. In fulfillment of the promise of God to return a repentant remnant to Palestine, Cyrus of Persia released captives of all twelve tribes of Israel in 536 B.C. As a result of the decree by Cyrus, some of the ancestors of Anna had returned to Palestine with either Zerubbabel, Ezra or Nehemiah. Therefore, a remnant of the tribe of Asher, as well as a remnant of all twelve tribes of Israel, were at the time of the coming of the Messiah, in Palestine and waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise of a new covenant. Anna, as well as all Jews, realized that the return of the remnant of Israel would signal the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecies that related to the coming of the Messiah.

Once the repentant remnant was restored, God promised that He would establish a new covenant with His people. This covenant would include all nations (See Jr 31:31-34).   At the time Anna was fasting and praying, the restored remnant was also fasting and praying for the coming of the Messiah of Israel who would deliver the people from the oppression of Roman occupation. The coming of the Messiah meant freedom for all Israel, though the Jews did not understand what this freedom entailed. Because most Jews were looking for a physical redemption, instead of a spiritual redemption, they had a difficult time understanding the true meaning of the promise of the “redemption of Israel.”

Depending on the translation of verse 36, Anna was either a widow unto her age of eighty-four, or she had been a widow for eighty-four years, thus making her at this time in her life an aged woman of ninety-one years. Regardless of our understanding of her age, it is evident that she was an aged woman who had given herself to prayer and fasting at the temple in reference to the hope of Israel. Hope for the redemption of Israel was the impetus for her prayers and fasting.

The text says that Anna “served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Lk 2:37). She had thus given herself to a specific ministry for the Lord. It was a ministry that aged believers could do.   According to this statement, fasting is a service (ministry) to God. Older brothers and sisters who cannot give themselves to the physical demands of some ministries, can at least give themselves to the ministry of fasting and praying. This is a ministry that older brothers and sisters can do on behalf of those who are engaged in conflicts with the forces of evil throughout the world. In other words, write a world evangelist and tell him that you are fasting and praying for the success of his efforts.

Faithful Jews came to Jerusalem every year for the annual Passover and Pentecost. When they came, there was a great deal of discussion concerning the coming of the Messiah.   All Jews who came to Jerusalem were looking for the “redemption of Israel,” that is, that Israel would be restored to her former glory as an independent state. Though their ambitions were wrong, these faithful Jews were living in anticipation of something to come. They did not understand all the implications of the “redemption of Israel.” Nevertheless, they prayed and fasted in order that God fulfill His promise. We do not believe that Anna was unique in her ministry of praying and fasting for a future that she did not completely understand.

It was a common hope among the oppressed Jews that God would eventually bring forth the Messiah in order that the Jews be delivered from the occupation of foreign powers, which in this case was the Roman Empire. Even Jesus’ immediate disciples had this hope (See At 1:6). Though their hope was in reference to physical nationalism, our hope as Christians is in view of being delivered from this physical world. Our fasting and prayer today would be for the coming of Jesus to deliver us from this world of struggle (See Rv 22:20).   And though we do not understand all that will transpire when Jesus comes, we hope and pray and fast for His coming.

Whenever God promised something in the future of His people, He never gave all the details of what was coming. Therefore, His people have always hoped for that which was promised, but also, they had anticipation about that for which they hoped.   We do not have to understand completely that for which we hope.

There was purpose in the prayers and fasting of Anna. We would glean from her ministry that in our prayers and fasting that there must also be purpose. In the case of Anna, she knew the promises of the prophets in reference to the coming of the Messiah. A similar purpose would be applicable to Christians today in reference to the coming of Jesus. We know the promise of Jesus that He will come again. To the apostles, and to the rest of us, Jesus promised, I will come again and receive you to Myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn 14:3). And He will come again (1 Th 4:13-18; 2 Th 1:6-9). In view of this promise, both Paul and John urged Jesus to come even in their lifetime in the first century, though it is more likely that their prayer for the immediate coming of Jesus was that He come “in time” in judgment on the persecuting Jews, and later, the Romans (See 1 Co 16:22; Rv 22:20). But we should do the same in reference to Jesus’ final coming. Though Jesus may not come until after we die, as He did not come in time until both Paul and John died, He will come. Anna had no assurance that the Messiah would come in her lifetime.   Neither are we assured that Jesus will come in our lifetime.

If Anna prayed and fasted that the Son of God come in the flesh as the Messiah of Israel in her lifetime, then certainly it would be a time for aged brothers and sisters today to pray and fast that Jesus come again, though He may not come until after we are dead. Our prayers may not always coincide with God’s calendar of events.

After we once preached a sermon several years ago on the final coming of Christ, an aged sister came up and said, “I am not sure I can pray for Jesus to come again right now. There are some things in my life I would like to get straightened out first.”

It is always a time to pray, with fasting, that Jesus hurry up with His program to come again. If we do not have things straightened out in our lives, then it is a time for prayer and fasting in reference to our repentance. Anna believed that her fasting would lay her prayers before God to bring the Messiah into the world in her lifetime. This aged woman had no promise that she would be alive when the promise was fulfilled. Nevertheless, she continued to fast and pray. It would be a good ministry to do the same today that Jesus come again to bring our hopes into reality. It is not necessary to know God’s calendar of fulfilling promises in order to pray for the fulfillment of His promises.

Jesus will certainly be coming in order to deliver us from this world of trials and tribulations. Who would not want this? Unfortunately, it is a manifestation of our love for this present world that hinders our prayers and fasting in reference to the termination of this world. Our love for the shopping mall often supersedes our love for the new order that Jesus promised He would bring. The fact that we enjoy this world too much is evidence of our lack of prayer for the realization of what Jesus will bring. We must ask ourselves, when was the last time we came into fellowship with the hope of Paul and John who urged Jesus to come quickly?

Paul and John made their requests over two thousand years ago. They did not know, as we know today, that Jesus would not come for over two thousand years after they died. Nevertheless, they made their requests by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the requests were recorded in inspired literature. The Holy Spirit did not deceive them into believing that Jesus would come in His final coming in their lifetime. However, Jesus did come in time in judgment on the persecuting Jews, and eventually, the Romans. Their prayer for the “coming” of Jesus was answered.

We have an advantage over Paul and John today in reference to the final coming of Jesus. We know that our redemption from this world is closer today than it was when they lived. It would be reasonable to concluded, therefore, that we should be urging the Lord through prayer and fasting that He come in His final coming in order to deliver us out of this world of trials and persecution. How bad will things have to become in this world in order to drive us to prayer and fasting for Jesus to come and deliver us? Are we too comfortable with this world to urge Jesus to come and disturb us?

At the time of Anna, all the Jews were suffering under the oppression of Roman occupation. It was surely the stifling of their freedoms that compelled them to pray and fast for deliverance. Since freedom is the ultimate impetus to drive us to yearn for deliverance, maybe our prayer and fasting for the “redemption of the church” into eternal glory will happen only when we lose either our freedoms.

In the context of Luke 21, Jesus was speaking specifically of the redemption of the church from Jewish persecution when He would come in time in judgment on Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jesus came in time in judgment on Jerusalem in order to deliver His people from Jewish persecution. He did the same in reference to the Roman Empire. He will do the same for His people at the end of time in His final coming. The following statement that He made in reference to His coming in judgment on Jerusalem in A.D. 70 would illustrate what He will do for His people when He comes in His final coming:

And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up and lift up your heads, for your redemption draws nigh (Lk 21:27,28).

And for this we would pray and fast in reference to Jesus coming again for our deliverance from the oppression of this world. Yes, we would sit beside Anna in the ministry of prayer and fasting that the Son of God show up before the calendar of our life runs out.

[Next lecture in series: July 28]

Transition To The New Covenant

From this point on in our study we seek to look into the fasting behavior of Jesus and the early disciples.   Fasting was a part of the religious behavior of those who lived under the Sinai covenant that God established with Israel. There were national fasts, specifically in reference to the Day of Atonement (Lv 16:29,31; 23:27-32; Nm 29:7; see At 27:9). There were also many individual fasts (Jg 20:26; 2 Sm 12:22; Ne 1:4; Dn 9:3; Jl 1:14).   But other than the national fasts in reference to the Day of Atonement, and the four fasts initiated after the reconstruction of the temple and city after the captivity, there is little evidence of Jesus fasting during His ministry. In fact, He was accused of not regularly fasting on a personal basis as the established religious leadership of the time. His opponents accused, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a winebibber” (Mt 11:19; see Lk 7:34).

This statement should be understood in the context of the fasting of the self-righteous behavior of those who were making the accusation. The Pharisees fasted twice a week on every Monday and Thursday (Lk 18:12). Since Jesus ate His food as others, their accusation against Jesus would have been that He was not living up to the standard that they had set for themselves as religious leaders concerning the behavior of a “rabbi.”

At the beginning of His ministry, it is stated, “Now when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry” (Mt 4:2). We assume that this was a voluntary fast because Jesus voluntarily went to the wilderness where there was little food. But we must also consider that this “fasting” was involuntary simply because there was little food in the wilderness. This may have also been the situation with Moses (Ex 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kg 19:8), who also “fasted” in the wilderness.

The word “fast” is also used in the New Testament in reference to involuntary fasting, that is, going without food simply because of the circumstances in which one found himself. When Paul spoke of his hardships in preaching the gospel, he spoke of being “in weariness and hardship, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Co 11:27). “Fastings” in this context would have been voluntary only indirectly in the sense that Paul voluntarily dedicated himself to the preaching of the gospel (See At 14:22).   His going without food (fasting) on many occasions would have been involuntary. Such could also have been the case when he mentioned “fastings” in the context of 2 Corinthians 6:4-7.

There is questionable manuscript evidence for the word “fast” to be retained in four scriptures in the New Testament (See Mt 17:21; Mk 9:29; At 10:30; 1 Co 7:5). Later versions of the Bible rejected the inclusion of the word in these texts because of weak manuscript evidence. However, the fact that the word “fast” was included in these texts indicates that fasting was a vital part of the behavior of some Christians in the early centuries when the manuscripts were produced.

Jesus’ ministry was to the Jews who lived under the Sinai law, and before the institution of His new covenant with His disciples after the cross. During His ministry of teaching, He dwelt on the subject of fasting only twice (See Mt 6:16-18; 9:14-17). In fact, there are only four references to fasting in the New Testament era that would be indisputable references to voluntary fasting by Christians. Two were mentioned by Jesus, and two in the book of Acts that refer to the behavior of the disciples (At 13:1-3; 14:23).

Some might wonder why there is less emphasis in the New Testament by Christians on fasting than with the Jews under the Sinai covenant. This may be easier to understand than first thought. For example, consider the annual fast that was required in reference to the Day of Atonement (Lv 16:29,31; 23:27-32; Nm 29:7). This was a national voluntary fast that was held in conjunction with the remembrance of sins by people as a nation. But in reference to the redemption that Christians enjoy under the grace of God after the cross, consider the annulling of this fast in reference to the following statement in the book of Hebrews:

“… who [Jesus Christ] does not need daily as those high priests [under the Sinai covenant], to offer up sacrifice, first for His own sins, and then for the people’s, for this He [Jesus] did once for all when He offered up Himself (Hb 7:27).

And again: “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hb 10:10).

Jesus was the termination of the Day of Atonement when He offered up Himself for all our sins. This was the meaning of what Paul wrote: “You also became dead to the law through the body of Christ” (Rm 7:4). There need be no more offerings for sin, and thus, there need be no more fasting on the Day of Atonement, for the Day of Atonement was annulled by the redemption of Christ on the cross (See Rm 7:1-4).

When the temple and city of Jerusalem were reconstructed after the captivity, God instituted fasts of thanksgiving in reference to the feast of rejoicing over God’s fulfillment of His promise to rebuild the temple and city after the captivity (Zc 8:19). The church is now the temple of God (1 Co 3:16; 1 Tm 3:15).   There is no longer any physical temple of God, for the disciples are the temple. Therefore, there are no longer any fasts in reference to any physical temple of God. And just in case some Jewish Christians might forget this, God destroyed the temple and Jerusalem in A.D. 70 through His proxy judgment of the Roman Empire. Christians are not obligated to fast in reference to any physical things of this world.

All national fasts in reference to Esther and the feast of Purim are no longer applicable. Paul reminded all Christians, especially Jewish Christians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek” when discussing the present temple of God (Gl 3:28). “For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gl 3:28). Physical Israel no longer exists as a chosen people to bring the Messiah and Savior into the world. The Savior has arrived, and thus the vehicle through whom God brought the Savior into the world, national Israel, was no longer needed. God has fulfilled His promises to the Jewish fathers (Lk 24:44; Jn 19:28-30; 2 Co 1:20). The blessing through the seed of Abraham has been fulfilled (Gn 12:1-4). We have been delivered spiritually from the bondage of sin by the cross of Christ, and thus the vehicle of national Israel through which the Savior was brought into the world was dissolved in Christ.

All national fasts of Israel have now been dissolved. They are not binding on Christians today. Fasts of the Old Testament that were individual and voluntary are now only an example for us today. Those fasts that were voluntary and individual, as David’s for his son, Daniel’s and Esther’s for the nation of Israel, and Nehemiah’s for the reconstruction of the city of Jerusalem, were individual fasts that were characteristic of their lives for specific purposes. However, the purposes for which they fasted are long gone. These individual and voluntary fasts are a good example for us today. “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning …” (Rm 15:4). It is not wrong to refer to the fasts of the Old Testament heroes as an example for fasting today. However, we must keep in mind that their fasts are only an example for us today.   Their example is not a mandate that Christians should fast today.

The fulfillment of the promises of God in Jesus was the end of those fasts that were held in conjunction with the coming of the Savior. Fasts that were enjoined on the Jews as a special covenanted people with God at Mt. Sinai are also gone because God dissolved Israel in the church.

When we work our way into the New Testament, we must keep in mind that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are recorded histories of Jesus’ ministry to the Jews in order to bring them to Him as the Messiah and Savior of the world. These books are actually Old Testament books, for Jesus, and the Jews to whom He ministered, were living under the Sinai law. When Jesus speaks of fasting in these books, we must keep this in mind. This brings us first, therefore, to the fasting of the aged woman Anna at the temple. Her’s was an individual and voluntary fast in reference to the coming of the Messiah.

[Next lecture in series: July 26]

The Fast Of Faith

There are three types of fasting that are mentioned in the Bible: (1) Fasting without food and water, (2) Fasting from food only, and (3) Fasting from specific foods. All fasting in the Bible involved going without food. In the case of Daniel, the third fasting characterized his eating habits at a particular time in his life when he realized that God’s promises of Israel’s restoration were coming to fulfillment.

The first mention of Daniel’s fasting in reference to the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore Israel took place in the first year of Darius, “who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans” (Dn 9:1). It was at this time that Daniel …

… understood by scrolls the number of the years revealed as the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem (Dn 9:2).

Daniel understood that the end of the seventy years of captivity were coming to a close. He understood that it was now time that the people of God be restored to the land of promise in fulfillment of the prophecy that was made by Jeremiah (See Jr 25). It was a glorious realization to know that Israel was going to be nationalized again in their homeland of Palestine. The response of Daniel to the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy moved him to prayer, supplications and fasting:

Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make requests by prayer and supplications, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes (Dn 9:3).

Though Daniel knew that God would bring about the fulfillment of what He had promised, he still prayed and fasted. Sometimes fasting is for the purpose of giving thanks to God for fulfilling His promises.

Daniel’s prayers and fasting, however, were based on his confession of the sins of the people of God for what led to their captivity.   “We have sinned and have committed iniquity,” he prayed. “And we have done wickedly and have rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and from Your judgments (Dn 9:5). He continued, “Neither have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God to walk in His laws that He set before us by His servants the prophets” (Dn 9:10).

As many other prophets who realized that the apostate state of God’s people resulted from the turn of the people from the commandments of God, Daniel responded with mourning, prayer and fasting (See 1 Sm 31:13; 2 Sm 1:12; 3:35; Ne 1:4; Ps 35:13,14). His mourning, prayer and fasting for joy was first introduced, as other prophets, with a confession of sins on behalf of the people (See 1 Sm 7:6; 1 Kg 21:27; Ne 9:1,2; Jh 3:5-8). Daniel, as other prophets, first sought to humble himself through fasting, and then, in this case rejoice over God’s promise to restore His people to the land of promise (See Er 8:21; Ps 69:10).

In cases of rebellion against God’s word, prayer and fasting must be based on a true confession that one has rebelled against God. Unless one is willing to restore his life to obedience of the word of God, all prayers and fasting to be restored to God are in vain. The greatness of Daniel was that his prayers and fasting were in view of the fact that the nation of Israel must first return to God by returning to the law of God.   Fruitful fasting is founded upon this realization: “Yes, all Israel has transgressed Your law, even by departing, that they might not obey Your voice (Dn 9:11).

God yearns for the repentance of His people.   In Israel’s case, the people were to fast, weep and mourn over their rebellion. When Israel was in rebellion before the captivity, the Lord pleaded with them: “‘Now, therefore,’ says the Lord, ‘Turn to Me with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping and with mourning’” (Jl 2:12).   In captivity, this is exactly what Daniel did for the people. His mourning over their previous rebellion, combined with prayer and fasting, revealed the sincerity of the repentance of the people. When one realizes that he has strayed from the word of God, it is a time for prayer and fasting. If one seeks to secure the help of God to be delivered from the despair of the world, it is a time for prayer and fasting (See Ex 34:28; Dt 9:9; 2 Sm 12:16-23; 2 Ch 20:3,4; Er 8:21-23).

People who rebel against the word of God are unprofitable. This was the problem with Israel before they found themselves in captivity for seventy years. Daniel wrote, “Yet we have not made our prayer before the Lord our God so that we might turn from our iniquities and understand Your truth” (Dn 9:13). Before the captivity, the people fasted, but they sought to live in rebellion to the righteousness of God. Isaiah wrote of their state of rebellion:

“Why have we fasted,” they say, “and You [God] do not see? Why have we afflicted our soul and You do not acknowledge it?” Behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure and exploit all your laborers. Behold, you fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness.   You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high (Is 58:3,4).

If one is not willing to turn from his way of iniquity, his fasting will be in vain. God will not hear the voice of one’s prayer. The unrighteous will not, through fasting, bring forth a repentance that will restore him to the word of God (See Is 58:5-12; Jr 14:11,12; Zc 7,8).   There is no profit in fasting if one refuses to be led in belief and behavior by the word of God.

People who are not students of the word of God are people who pray and fast in vain. One cannot pray about where to go unless he follows the road map of God’s word.   Before fruitful prayer and fasting begin, therefore, there must be a commitment to follow the will of God.   Before we begin our prayers and fasting, we must open the word of God in order that we not be following after our own desires. When prayers and fasting are combined with one’s study of the word of God, then the fasting reveals the sincerity of the repentant.

In the third year of Cyrus, king of Persia, God sent another message to Daniel. The message was one of “great conflict” that was to come in the future of Israel after they were restored to the land (Dn 10:1). It would not be a conflict that they would bring upon themselves, but a conflict that would prevail between the nations that surrounded Israel. The Jews would suffer as a result of the wicked foreign rulers of Egypt and Syria who struggled for power over Palestine before the Roman Empire brought peace to the land.

Daniel understood the message of conflict, and because he did, he began to mourn and fast, which mourning and fasting continued for three weeks (Dn 10:2). Daniel later wrote of this period, “I ate no delicacies, nor did meat or wine come into my mouth” (Dn 10:3). This was a fast for three weeks from specific foods.

What is interesting about this time of mourning and fasting is that Daniel fasted and prayed by faith. There was no answer from God. But “in the twenty-fourth day of the first month” Daniel saw a vision (Dn 10:4-6). God finally showed up with an answer to Daniel’s prayer and fasting. For three weeks, therefore, Daniel had prayed and fasted in faith that God would reveal something.

In answer to his prayer and fasting, God sent a vision that was so overpowering that there was no strength left in Daniel (Dn 10:8). Daniel wrote, “For my natural color turned to a deathly pallor, and I retained no strength” (Dn 10:8). “And when I heard the voice of his words, I fell unconscious with my face to the ground” (Dn 10:9).   It was a “powerful” vision in the sense that Daniel was physically affected. God need not answer our prayers and fasting with a vision as He did Daniel. But our reconnection with Him through fasting can be quite powerful.

What is significant about this event in the life of Daniel was the result of Daniel having committed himself to prayer and fasting in faith on behalf of God’s people. Nothing had happened from his initial prayers and fasting from the first of the month. But on the twenty-fourth day the vision came that was an answer to his prayers.   Daniel 10:12 is significant in reference to this period of God’s silence throughout the days of Daniel’s prayers and fasting. God encouraged Daniel,

Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and to discipline yourself [through fasting] before your God, your words were heard and I have come in response to your words (Dn 10:12).

And how powerful is that. God listens to those who offer their prayers and supplications that are offered to Him on an empty stomach. It took three weeks of fasting before an answer came, but it eventually came. What is important to remember is that when we start praying and fasting God starts to work, though we might not realize His work in our lives until much later.   But He will come when we pray according to His will. God started to act upon Daniel’s requests on the first day of his fast, but did not show up until the twenty-fourth day of fasting.

God does not work on our timeline in reference to our fasting. Fasting that is combined with prayer is always a walk of faith. However, we must remember that simply because we fast and pray does not mean that God will give the answer that we expect of Him.   James exhorted the one who expected God to answer every prayer: “For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord” (Js 1:7). Prayer and fasting do not obligate God. We are not as the ancient Greeks who created gods after their own imagination, which gods could be manipulated by the whims of the worshipers.

The prayer of faith that is according to the word of God will avail much. But foolish prayers for material blessings should not be uttered in order to obligate God to satisfy our carnal desires. “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (Js 1:8). Those who try to focus on the carnal things of this world, while at the same time they seek to live spiritual lives, will find that their prayers for carnal things will go unanswered.

Fasting reveals that one is seeking to keep his or her mind focused on the spiritual. Fasting reenergizes the spiritual part of man. It rejuvenates the spirit by suppressing the carnal.   And in this transforming experience our minds are turned from the carnal to the spiritual. If one fasts for spiritual strength, but at the same time prays for carnal things, then the contradiction will annul God’s answer.

[Next lecture in series: July 24]


David Leads The Way

Remember when Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt 5:44)? He said that we do this so that we “may be the children of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:45). This is hard. Our resentment seeks to lash out against our enemies with an “eye for an eye” and a “blow for a blow.” But Jesus enjoined on us the attitude that when we are persecuted for doing good, we should respond positively: “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (Mt 5:12).

David took this one step further. We struggle under the instructions of Jesus to love and pray for our enemies. The carnal side of our humanity seeks to retaliate with equal harm to our enemies.   But what if the Holy Spirit called on us not only to pray, but also to fast for our enemies? This is what David, the “man after God’s own heart,” did in response to his enemies. We humbly listen to the Holy Spirit speak to us through David in Psalm 35:

They [David’s enemies] rewarded me evil for good to the sorrow of my soul. But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth. I humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer returned to me unanswered. I behaved myself as though he [my enemy] had been my friend or brother. I bowed down heavily as one who mourns for his mother (Ps 35:12-14).

Would we mourn in sackcloth with fasting for those who lash out against us? David turned his enemies over to the Lord through prayer and fasting. “And let the angel of the Lord persecute them” (Ps 35:6). But as for him, he would fast for them as one would fast for his own brother or mother.

In view of one’s struggles through fasting, we find it amazing that David would behave so toward his enemies. It is easy to utter a momentary prayer for an enemy and move on. We comfort ourselves that we have legally satisfied Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies. But with a lingering and prolonged fast, it is not so easy to dismiss our responsibility to “pray for those who persecute us.”

A prayer is for a moment, but a fast is for a prolonged period of time during which one is self-inflicting oneself on behalf of his enemy. In this behavior we realize the longsuffering of God who lingers for us when we go astray from Him. We begin to understand how, not why, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). In fasting for our enemies, we are given a brief glimpse into the longsuffering of God that the Holy Spirit sought to explain through Paul in the following statement: “But God demonstrates His love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8).

David was a person who identified himself so much with the character of God that he put himself in the place of God in this world.   He sought to be a child of His Father who was in heaven. He wrote, For the zeal of Your house has eaten me up. And the reproaches of those who reproached You are fallen on me” (Ps 69:9). David was so in tune with God that the unrighteous could not comprehend the spirit and purpose of his fasting. When I chastened my soul with fasting,” he wrote, men jeered at me (Ps 69:10).

In fasting, the righteous will often be ridiculed by the unrighteous today because they do not understand the spiritual purpose for which the righteous fast. If one does not believe this, then try fasting at the time when there is an office party. Try to maintain a fast during a family reunion or during a birthday party.

We have found that it is quite difficult to have a lengthy fast in a world that seems to consider the eating of food on a continual basis a necessary part of connecting socially. The world jeers at the one who would discipline himself in a prolonged fast. There is no respect for the one fasting because those around him are deep into the world. Imagine drinking no coffee at the office for a week. It would be as David said, “I made sackcloth also my garment, and I became a proverb to them (Ps 69:11).

When in a prolonged fast in these modern times, it will be sometimes as David, who lamentably wrote during his fast for his enemies:

Reproach has broken my heart, and I am full of heaviness. And I look for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (Ps 69:20).

Nevertheless, one’s fast must continue if he or she has determined to reconnect with God in deliverance from the foes of this world.   We must fast until we feast on the sweet morsels of spiritual energy that flows freely from the throne of our Father. David would walk us through this journey. My knees are weak through fasting,” He wrote, “and my flesh fails of fatness” (Ps 109:24).

David fasted to the point that his body was manifesting to those around him the loss of weight. This was not a day fast. It was not for two or three days. It was a fast that could be identified by his loss of “fatness” over a long period of time. But in such a fast, one must be prepared for the jeering of the unrighteous. David again wrote, “I have become also a reproach to them [the unrighteous]. When they look on me, they shake their heads” (Ps 109:25).

There may be times in our lives when we should fast to the point that unbelievers shake their heads concerning what we are doing to ourselves. At least this was what David did. Our unbelieving friends will never understand why we would go on a fast to the point that our bodies would show a tremendous loss of weight. The non-spiritual have no idea what the spiritual are trying to accomplish through fasting. If there were a time when the spiritual are not on the same page as the non-spiritual, it is in the realm of fasting.

Fasting by the spiritual proclaims to the world that our Father reigns in our lives. The one who fasts, however, must not put on a show of their fasting as the hypocrites. Jesus said of them, “Do not look gloomy as the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so that they may appear to men to be fasting” (Mt 6:16). The righteous must wash and cloth themselves in an ordinary manner in order to manifest to the world that their fast is inward, not outward (Mt 5:17,18). Fasting is never to be for the purpose of manifesting one’s self before the world, lest the purpose for fasting be defeated.

It is interesting to note what David concluded should be one of the outcomes of a prolonged fast: So that they may know that this is Your hand, that You, Lord, have done it (Ps 109:27). We would fast until the unbeliever comes to the conclusion that we fast in order to reconnect with our Father in heaven.

[Next lecture in series: July 22]

Fast In Face Of Calamity

The historical setting for this fast by Mordecai and Esther came as a result of Haman orchestrating a scheme to have the Jews killed throughout the Medo-Persian Kingdom.

When Mordecai perceived all that was done [by Haman], he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes. And he went out into the middle of the city and cried out with a loud and bitter cry (Et 4:1).

What was happening was a potential national calamity for the Jews. They were about to be exterminated from existence. The King’s decree to kill all the Jews went throughout the entire Medo-Persian Empire and there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting and weeping and wailing (Et 4:3). When a nation of people are about to suffer a great calamity, it is time for national mourning and fasting.

In this case, the Jews were innocent. The calamity was not their making. There was an outside evil that was coming upon them because “of the sum of the money that Haman had promised to pay to the king’s treasuries for the Jews in order to destroy them” (Et 4:7).

Queen Esther was informed of the wicked scheme of Haman. Now Esther was in a dilemma.   It was the law of the land that no one could approach the king unless he held out the golden scepter so that the one who approached him would live (Et 4:11). But Mordecai exhorted Esther, “Do not think that you will escape in the king’s house more than all the Jews” (Et 4:13). Her life, too, was in danger, for she was a Jew. It was a time for Esther to risk her own life for her nation. Mordecai encouraged her with the words, “And who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Et 4:14).

Esther’s response to the calamity was heroic. “Go,” she said to Mordecai. “Gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me. And do not eat or drink three days, night or day (Et 4:16). Esther would take her life into her own hand by approaching the King without an official invitation. “I will go in to the king that is not according to the law.   And if I perish, I perish” (Et 4:16). And she did not. The Jews were saved from an ethnic cleansing at the hand of wicked Haman when the king realized that the genocide scheme was against some of the people of his kingdom, particularly the Queen.

When righteous people rise up and realize that calamity is upon them as a people, it is a time for mourning, fasting and petitions to God. When the decree of the king went throughout the Empire, the Jews knew that they were in trouble. In this case, the people against whom the evil was intended were the people of God. It was an evil scheme of Satan to terminate the fulfillment of the promises that God had made to the fathers concerning the coming of the Redeemer into the world through the Jews. When schemes are engineered on earth to thwart the eternal plans of God, then God’s children must renew their commitment to God, for God is about to act through some unknown manner.

Mordecai knew that the genocide of the Jews could not happen because he knew the promises and plan of God through Israel.   For this reason he said to Esther, “For if you hold your peace at this time, then relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place (Et 4:14). Though we may know the plan of God to act in whatever way He chooses, this is not an excuse to sit by in idleness. It is a time for fasting and praying. For example, God promises to forgive and remember our sins no more. But we still must pray and confess our sins (1 Jn 1:9). Knowledge of the plan of God is no excuse for neglecting fasting and prayer for that which will come. We know that Jesus is coming again. This is certain. However, it is something about which we fast and pray in order that He come now (See 1 Co 16:22; Rv 22:20).   We would, therefore, fast and pray for that which the Lord has promised He will do. Fasting and prayer put us on the side of God who will carry out His plans for the redemption of His people.

We can think of no better way to conclude this chapter than with the words of a great American President, Abraham Lincoln .   President Lincoln made the following proclamation while the United States was in the throes of a civil war that divided a nation. Senator James Harlan of Iowa, who was the son-in-law of President Lincoln, introduced a unique Resolution in the Senate of the United States on March 2, 1863.   A request was made of President Lincoln to proclaim a national day of prayer and fasting for the United States of America during its time of national division. The Resolution was subsequently adopted on March 3rd and was later signed by President Lincoln on March 30th. This was one month before the day of fasting was observed on behalf of the nation. Notice carefully the spiritual language of the Resolution. We wonder if such a Resolution could ever be introduced into the present Senate of the United States.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

Whereas, the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God, in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day of National prayer and humiliation.

And whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.

And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!

It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this my proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this thirtieth day of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty seventh.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward, Secretary of State

[Next lecture in series: July 19]

Fast For Favor

When concerned people realize that things are not right, they mourn, fast, pray and take action. Such were the actions of Nehemiah in reference to the spiritual condition of God’s people while they were residing in the land of their captivity and the condition of a remnant that had returned to Palestine.

When a delegation of men eventually came from Palestine to Nehemiah, who was the cupbearer for the King in the palace of Shushan, Nehemiah asked them concerning the condition of Jerusalem and the returned remnant of God’s people who were in the land of Palestine. The delegation replied through Hanani,

The remnant that is left from the captivity in the province is in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down and its gates are burned with fire (Ne 1:3).

Godly people are not insensitive to the deplorable situation in which God’s mission sometimes exists at any place or time in history. It was God’s plan to work through Israel in the haven of the promised land to eventually bring the Messiah and Savior into the world. But according to the report of Hanani who testified concerning the condition of the people of God in the land of Palestine, the situation was deplorable.   Those who were in the land were composed of those who were left in Palestine after the captivity of 586 B.C., as well as a remnant of captives that joined them with the restorations led by Zerubbabel in 536 B.C. and Ezra in 457 B.C. Restoration in those days was started on the city, but was eventually terminated.

Godly leaders respond, as Nehemiah, to situations that are wrong in reference to the work of God.

Now it came to pass when I heard these words that I sat down and wept. And I mourned many days, and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven (Ne 1:4).

The historical setting of this report is crucial in reference to Nehemiah’s response. With the return of captives to Palestine that were led by Zerubbabel and Ezra, the rebuilding of the temple was completed in 515 B.C. (Ez 6:13-16).   However, opposition arose against the returnees to the point that they ceased rebuilding the city (Ez 4:1-5,24).   God then sent Haggai and Zechariah to motivate the people to continue the rebuilding of the city (Ez 4:24; 5:1ff).   But because of opposition, the rebuilding was still not completed. It was not until the coming of Nehemiah in 444 B.C. that the city reconstruction was started again and completed. This was over ninety years after the initial return of captives in 536 B.C.   Now we can better understand Nehemiah’s tearful response to the report of Hanani that the city was still in ruins.*

In his weeping prayer and fasting to God in response to the report of Hanani, Nehemiah first confessed the sins of the people that had led to the condition in which they existed in the land (Ne 1:6).   He prayed, “We have dealt very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments (Ne 1:7).

Nehemiah confessed that their predicament was the result of their own sin. In his confession, he remembered the pronouncement that God had made to Israel through Moses before they entered the land over one thousand years before:If you transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations” (Ne 1:8). But in the warning concerning transgression and exile, there was also a promise.

 But if you turn to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though your outcasts be in the uttermost part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place that I have chosen to set My name (Ne 1:9).

Nehemiah realized that if the people of God would be restored to their mission to continue the purpose of God, then it was a time for mourning, confession, fasting and prayer. The sincerity of Nehemiah’s prayer for the restoration of Israel was revealed in his mourning and fasting over the past sin of the people. Because of his intense emotional response to the report of the men from Palestine, he took a lead in setting the example for the people to do likewise. His reaction to the report was a call for mourning, fasting and prayer on the part of the people.

Nehemiah realized that he must first lead in mourning and fasting for the people in order to plead with God that restoration occur. Nehemiah’s prayer, therefore, was backed up with the intensity of his fasting. After he had fasted, he prayed,

O Lord, I beseech You, let now Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name. And make Your servant prosper today and grant him compassion before this man [the King of Persia] (Ne 1:11).

Results happened in answer to Nehemiah’s fasting and prayer. Nehemiah subsequently was released from his duties as cupbearer to the King in Shushan. He then led a group of repentant captives back to Palestine.   Ezra had previously led in restoring captives to the land not long before Nehemiah’s restoration. It was a time in Israel’s history for rejoicing.   It was a time of reading from the word of God in the land. But it was also a time for action. Prayer and fasting produce results when those who pray and fast do their part.   The theology to pray and fast, and then wait on God to act is a self-deception. James was right, “Faith without works is dead” (See Js 2:17).

In order to activate the request of their desires, the people gathered together in the land for a special assembly. They called on Ezra to bring and read the law of the Lord (Ne 8:1-3). The people also assembled with fasting and with sackcloth and dust on them (Ne 9:1). For one-fourth of the day at this special assembly, Ezra “read in the book of the law of the Lord their God” (Ne 9:3). The people realized that their obedience must be according to the word of God.

The people also realized that their situation in captivity was the result of their fathers’ forsaking of the word of God.   And now that they were restored to the land, they understood that in order to stay in the land to accomplish the work of God through them, they must stay close to the word of God. Fasting and prayer for restoration can be profitable and sure only when people are driven to the word of God for direction.   It is only the word of God that will keep people close to God, and consequently, God close to their desires to work to His glory.

All these events happened in fulfillment of a promise that God made to Israel many years before when they were still in the midst of apostasy in the land. God promised through Isaiah, the prophet at the time, that upon their return to Him, they would be restored from captivity:

Then your light [after captivity] will break out like the dawn and your health will speedily spring forth. And your righteousness will go before you. The glory of the Lord will be your reward. Then you will call and the Lord will answer. You will cry and He will say, “Here I am.” (Is 58:8,9).

Because of Nehemiah’s righteous leadership, he and the captives saw in their lives the fulfillment of God’s promise through Isaiah.   In captivity, the people mourned over their sin. They prayed and fasted and the Lord heard. When they were restored to the land, they fasted and prayed in thanksgiving.   They made a commitment to stay close to the word of God, lest they repeat the apostasy of their fathers.

God had answered their prayer for restoration because they mourned and fasted over their apostasy from Him. The people, through the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra, committed themselves never to make the same mistake of turning from the word of God. The sincerity of their commitment was based on the intensity of their prayers and fasting. It could be concluded that their fasting kept them in prayer and their prayer kept them close to the word of God. And when people stay close to the word of God, they stay close to God.

We glean a great deal from the events of this historical account of Nehemiah in reference to the importance of fasting in our lives. Prayer was the communication of the people to God concerning their repentance and desires. But it was fasting that communicated to God the intensity of their requests. Their requests through the communication of prayer was made sincere through their fasting, and by fasting their prayer was made complete.

Through fasting they were able to clearly focus on their goal of rebuilding the wall of the city.   We might conclude that the success of their focusing through fasting was that “the wall was finished in the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days” (Ne 6:15).

[Next lecture in series: July 16]

Fast For Life

(2 Samuel 12:1-23)

Because he allowed himself to be tempted, David committed adultery with another man’s wife. The prophet Nathan confronted David on the matter with a parable, and with the following concluding words: “You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon” (2 Sm 12:9). Nathan’s judgment of David was not unfruitful. David repented with the words, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sm 12:13).

But this story was not over with the repentance of David. When Nathan departed from the house of David, “The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife [Bathsheba] bore to David, and he was very sick” (2 Sm 12:15). Whether David knew that the Lord had taken a direct hand in the matter to strike the child sick, we are not told. We are told, however, that David “inquired of God for the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground (2 Sm 12:16).

David evidently concluded that this was a life-threatening sickness. His love for the child moved him to fast in his petitions to the Lord on behalf of the child. A parent who has not had this experience cannot fully understand the helplessness that David felt for his child. We are told that he fasted.   Whether intentional, or because of intense worry, we are not told. But a parent who has a child who wavers between life and death will feel no desire to eat. We view David’s fast in this context to be both the result of intense worry that was combined with his intense prayer that God save the child.

David’s fast was prolonged. “The elders of his house arose and went to him, to raise him up from the ground. But he would not, nor did he eat bread with them” (2 Sm 12:17). Realizing that David was as a mourning father on the ground before his sick child, the elders sought to comfort him by raising him from the ground. The elders offered to eat with him in order to bring comfort to this concerned father.

“Now it came to pass on the seventh day that the child died (2 Sm 12:18). We assume that this was the seventh day after the child first fell sick, and for the same amount of time, David was on the ground before the child in fasting and agonizing prayer.

There are those times in a parent’s life that fasting is the right thing to do. When our children are in danger, it is a time for agonizing prayer that is coupled with fasting. We would fast as David until a solution is realized. Unfortunately, in David’s situation, the result of the sickness of the child was death. Since it was God who struck the child with sickness, we wonder why He allowed the child to remain alive for seven days before he died. It could be that God wanted to impress on David the great shame that he, the king, had brought on the people of God through his adultery with Bathseba, and subsequent elimination of Uriah, the husband of Bathseba, by death in battle (See 2 Sm 12:14). The sin was grievous, and thus the time for sorrow was also to be grievous.   And because we have a biblical record of this sin, God would admonish each one of us never to involve ourselves in such a scheme, which in this case, led to the death of both an innocent man, Uriah, and an innocent child.

[Next lecture in series: July 13]

Mourn, Fast and Attack

(1 Samuel 7:1-12)

The context of this event of fasting on the part of God’s people is explained in 1 Samuel 7:2:

Now it came to pass while the ark remained in Kirjath Jearim that the time was long, for it was twenty years.   And all the house of Israel mourned after the Lord.

Samuel’s answer to test the sincerity of the mourning of the people was his following mandate:

If you do return to the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the Lord, and serve Him only. And He will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:3).

 Realizing that one has strayed from the Lord should stimulate sincere mourning. But in order to mourn sincerely, one must know the Lord from whom one has strayed.   And there is only one way to know the Lord. “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Rm 10:17). One can mourn in ignorance of the word of God, but such mourning is useless in “putting away foreign gods.” Acceptable mourning must be founded upon the word of God from which one has strayed. Sincere mourning is characteristic of those who hunger and thirst after the word of God (See Mt 5:3-6).

In the case of the people in the historical event of 1 Samuel 7, Samuel commanded that the people turn from the gods they had created after their own imagination (1 Sm 7:4). Their next action was to take action. Samuel directed, “Gather all Israel to Mizpeh and I will pray to the Lord for you” (1 Sm 7:5). The people immediately obeyed the orders of Samuel to gather at Mizpeh. And they fasted on that day and said there, ‘We have sinned against the Lord’” (1 Sm 7:6). Their mourning provoked fasting and confession that they had strayed from the will of the one true and living God. Therefore, in order to prepare their hearts and bodies for war, they fasted This was a day fast, probably ending in the evening, for on the following days they were going into battle (See Jg 20:26).

In preparation for this fast, they first took ownership of their sin that they had forsook God. They were mourning over something that was wrong in their lives, that is, they had forsaken the will of God for the will of foreign gods. As a result of their apostasy, God allowed the ark of God to be taken from them. The objective of their fast, therefore, was first to restore themselves to God, and then, restore the ark of God to its proper place.

When righteous people realize that they are not spiritually right with God, it is a time for mourning. But mourning must be followed by action. Feelings profit nothing if they are not objectively carried out in our lives. Once the people of Israel heeded the call to do that which was right, they fasted an entire day in order to prepare themselves in body and mind to engage the Philistines in battle.

This incident reminds us of the physical benefits of fasting that the people surely knew at the time of this conflict. It was not a time to gorge oneself with a heavy meal, and then try to engage the enemy on the battlefield. It would be quite difficult to go into battle and pursue an enemy on a full stomach. The imminent conflict called for a fast in order to energize their bodies and minds for battle.

When the Philistines heard that Israel was serious about retrieving the ark of God, they were terrified. Israel was empowered both mentally and physically through their fasting. They prepared themselves to run great distances in pursuit of the Philistines.   They “went out of Mizpeh and pursued the Philistines. And they smote them down as far as below Beth Car” (1 Sm 7:11). The end of the story was recorded in 1 Samuel 7:12:

Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpeh and Shen. And he called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us (1 Sm 7:12).

If the saints of God today would raise a stone to commemorate their victories for God, then mourning and prayer over that which is not right in their lives must begin. Next comes action and fasting, and action again. Our fasting objectively reveals the sincerity of our mourning and prayers. If we would have God heed the call of our prayers, then our mourning must be in response to His word and will. Religious people who are ignorant of the word of God have no idea what the will of God is, and thus, their pleas to God to act in their lives goes unanswered. And thus, their mourning is in vain in that it is not in response to the word and will of God.

Many years later, Israel again sinned. And again God punished them. On this particular occasion, King Saul had taken apostate Israel into battle with the Philistines. In this battle, the Philistines won because Saul had moved away from the will of God. Consequently, King Saul and his sons were slain in the battle. To disgrace Saul and his son, the Philistines hung their bodies on a wall at Beth Shan.

Fortunately, there were some valiant men in Jabesh Gilead who “arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth Shan.   And they came to Jabesh and burnt them there” (1 Sm 31:11,12). When these righteous men had accomplished this good deed, they fasted seven days (1 Sm 31:13; 1 Ch 10:12). This fasting was in respect of God’s anointed, but also their cleansing from handling dead bodies. The sincerity of their deed was manifested for seven days in their fasting. When good men to do good things, a fast in appreciation for God working through them to accomplish good works for His glory is in order. The valiant men of Jabesh Gilead would teach us a lesson on fasting when we accomplish good things because God worked in our lives.

[Next lecture in series: July 10]