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A Christmas Message in an Unexpected Text -- Fasting and the Incarnation (Isaiah 58-61; Matthew 2; Philippians 2:1-8)

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December 19, 20041

Introduction

I should probably begin by explaining the process by which this message came about. I had been invited to speak at the National Missions Conference of the Indian Evangelical Mission in Nasik, Maharashtra, India. The theme of the convention was “Prayer and Fasting.” I chose to focus on the topic of fasting, a subject and practice which has been somewhat “foreign” to me. My third and final message was from Isaiah chapter 58, a passage which I had come to look upon as perhaps the most definitive text on fasting in the entire Bible.

In teaching that message I had to grapple with something that had always puzzled me. I could not see the relationship between the first 12 verses of Isaiah 58 and the 2 concluding verses (vss. 13-14). What did observing the Sabbath have to do with fasting? The answer came to me as I was preparing to speak at that missions conference in India. It was not until I returned home from my travels in Asia that I began to see the connection between Isaiah 58 and the following chapters in Isaiah. This led me to a further connection with Matthew’s account of our Lord’s birth and Paul’s teaching on the incarnation. Imagine it – a Christmas message that starts in an Old Testament passage on fasting and keeping the Sabbath!

I am going to ask for your indulgence as I attempt to teach this lesson, because these connections between Isaiah 58, fasting, and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ will not be immediately apparent. It is my intention to demonstrate these connections by the end of this lesson.2

Let us first read the passage:

1 “Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet!
Yell as loud as a trumpet!
Confront my people with their rebellious deeds;
confront Jacob’s family with their sin!

2 They seek me day after day;
they want to know my requirements,
like a nation that does what is right
and does not reject the law of their God.
They ask me for just decrees;
they want to be near God.
3 They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast?
Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’
Look, at the same time you fast,
you satisfy your selfish desires,
you oppress your workers.
4 Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls,
and fist fights.
Do not fast as you do today,
trying to make your voice heard in heaven.
5 Is this really the kind of fasting I want?
Do I want a day when people just humble themselves,
bowing their heads like a reed
and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes?
Is this really what you call a fast,
a day that is pleasing to the Lord?

6 No, this is the kind of fast I want.
I want you to remove the sinful chains,
to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke,
to set free the oppressed,
and to break every burdensome yoke.
7 I want you to share your food with the hungry
and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people.
When you see someone naked, clothe him!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise;
your restoration will quickly arrive;
your godly behavior will go before you,
and the Lord’s splendor will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call out, and the Lord will respond;
you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’
You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you
and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.
10 You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed.
Then your light will dispel the darkness,
and your darkness will be transformed into noonday
11 The Lord will continually lead you;
he will feed you even in parched regions.
He will give you renewed strength,
and you will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring that continually produces water.
12 Your perpetual ruins will be rebuilt;
you will reestablish the ancient foundations.
You will be called, ‘The one who repairs broken walls,
the one who makes the streets livable again.’

13 You must observe the Sabbath
rather than doing anything you want on my holy day.
You must look forward to the Sabbath
and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect.
You must treat it with respect by refraining from your normal activities,
and by refraining from your selfish pursuits and from making business deals.
14 Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord,
and I will give you great prosperity,
and cause crops to grow on the land I gave to your ancestor Jacob.”
Know for certain that the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 58:1-14, NET Bible).3

The Structure of the Text

Verse 1 sets the stage for the reader. It informs us that this chapter will be an indictment against Israel on account of her sins. This is an especially important fact when we come to verses 2-5. If not read in the light of verse 1, verses 2-5 could be viewed as a description of sincere religious devotion in the form of fasting. Now we know that there must be something very wrong, very sinful, with Israel’s fasting. We should be looking for the explanation of this in verses 2-5. Indeed, we will find out why Israel’s fasting was offensive to God. Verses 6-12, on the other hand, go on to describe the kind of fasting which is pleasing to God. Verses 13 and 14 then turn to the subject of observing the Sabbath. We can outline the argument of Isaiah 58 in this way:

 

Verse 1

God indicts Israel for her sins

Verses 2-5

Phony Fasting: Fasting which offends God

Verses 6-12

The kind of fasting in which God delights (and to which He responds)

Verses 13-14

The Sabbath and fasting

 

Isaiah 58:1
Israel is Confronted Because of Her Sin

“Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet!
Yell as loud as a trumpet!
Confront my people with their rebellious deeds;
confront Jacob’s family with their sin! (Isaiah 58:1)

Verse 1 is important because it sets the theme and the tone for the entire chapter (and beyond). The first verse informs the reader that this chapter is an indictment of Israel for her sins. The hypocrisy of Israel’s religious rituals is soon to be revealed. The nation’s sins in relation to fasting and the Sabbath are the reason why her prayers remain unanswered. This chapter is a call to repentance, not an exhortation to try harder. This is a very important observation as we approach verses 2-5, because they could otherwise easily be misunderstood.

Isaiah 58:2-5
Phony Fasting

2 They seek me day after day;
they want to know my requirements,
like a nation that does what is right
and does not reject the law of their God.
They ask me for just decrees;
they want to be near God.
3 They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast?
Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’
Look, at the same time you fast,
you satisfy your selfish desires,
you oppress your workers.
4 Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls,
and fist fights.
Do not fast as you do today,
trying to make your voice heard in heaven.
5 Is this really the kind of fasting I want?
Do I want a day when people just humble themselves,
bowing their heads like a reed
and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes?
Is this really what you call a fast,
a day that is pleasing to the Lord? (Isaiah 58:2-5, emphasis mine)

Rightly understanding verse 2 is crucial to the interpretation and application of our text. While the NET Bible renders it precisely, it is possible for the reader to miss the subtle meaning that is conveyed here. A look at this verse in the NIV may prove helpful:

2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God (NIV, emphasis mine).

The New Living Translation (NLT) of verse 2 is even more of a paraphrase, but it certainly conveys the sense of the text:

2 Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to hear my laws.
You would almost think this was a righteous nation that would never abandon its God.
They love to make a show of coming to me and asking me to take action on their behalf (NLT, emphasis mine).

The first sin that God exposes with regard to Israel’s fasting is hypocrisy. They wish to appear pious, but they are not. Israel was play acting; their religious celebrations were not genuine. They sought to give the impression that their hearts were right with God, and that they were sincerely seeking to know His will, so that they could walk in it. As one reads these verses in Isaiah, he cannot help but think of our Lord’s words of warning regarding the rituals of alms-giving, prayer, and fasting in Matthew 6:1-18. I am also reminded of Jeremiah 42:1-43:7, where the army officers who remained in Judah sought to learn God’s will from Jeremiah, with assurances that they would obey His instructions. But when they heard God’s word through Jeremiah they rejected it, fleeing to Egypt and forcing the prophet to go with them.

Israel’s fasting accompanied their prayers for national restoration and blessing, but these prayers were not answered. The Israelites protested, because they assumed that God was obliged to answer prayers that were offered with fasting:

3 They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast?
Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’ (Isaiah 58:3a)

Israel’s fasting was manipulative, as well as hypocritical. They assumed that any prayer offered with fasting must be answered. Fasting was a way to get God to do what they wanted. But God did not give them what they prayed for, and they felt cheated. Why was God ignoring their petitions? In the following verses God answers their question, explaining why their fasting is not only phony, but futile:

Look, at the same time you fast,
you satisfy your selfish desires,
you oppress your workers.
4 Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls,
and fist fights (Isaiah 58:3b-4a)

We used to use the expression, “Heads I win; tails you lose.” That certainly applies to Israel’s fasting. You would assume that when one fasts they do without food. That did not seem to be the case with Israel. Isaiah indicates that while fasting they were satisfying their selfish desires. That is hypocrisy. The appearance is that they are sacrificially doing without food; the reality is that they are satisfying themselves. Appearances don’t match reality. One gets the impression that the external indications of fasting were worn publicly as a badge of spirituality and sincerity, while privately food is ingested in abundance. Let’s just say that these Israelites weren’t losing any wait as a result of their prayer vigils.

It may be that Israel’s hypocrisy is a bit more subtle. The prophet indicts Israel because they “satisfy their selfish desires” at the same time that they fast. That is, they indulge themselves at the same time they are doing without. It may be that they are doing without one thing, while indulging in some other pleasure. One could, for example, satisfy a deep desire for self-approval and praise by actually giving up food, but in such a way as to gain the approval and applause of others -- something he desires even more than food. I suspend one fleshly appetite in order to indulge in another, which is hardly what fasting is about.

Israel’s sin is worse than simple hypocrisy, as the last part of verse 3 indicates. Those who were fasting were satisfying their own desires while at the same time their workers were suffering oppression. I believe that Isaiah is telling us that those who fasted were gaining at the expense of their workers. They were seeking God’s blessings by prayer and painless fasting, while at the same time they were oppressing their own workers. How could they ask God to give, while they were taking from those who needed it most?

It only gets worse as you continue to read the indictment against Israel. Their fasting is hypocritical; it is also detrimental to others (their workers). In addition, it somehow results in violence – in fist fights. How could this be? Let me pose a hypothetical example. Let’s suppose that I owned a large company, with many day laborers. I declare a “week of prayer and fasting,” asking for God’s blessings on my company. I shut down the company for a week. During that week I take my family on a vacation, where we “live it up.” But during that week my employees go without pay, because they cannot work. My workers become so enraged that they literally riot, and thus all kinds of violence results. My “week of prayer and fasting” is harmful to others, profitable for me, and repulsive to God.

The last thing that is wrong with Israel’s fasting is that it was merely an outward ritual, without the reality. Fasting is a symbolic act, and thus the ritualistic act may be an empty one if the heart is not reflected by the ritual. Fasting is a symbolic profession of humility and dependence upon God, but God said that Israel’s rituals lacked reality:

5 Is this really the kind of fasting I want?
Do I want a day when people just humble themselves,
bowing their heads like a reed
and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes?
Is this really what you call a fast,
a day that is pleasing to the Lord? (Isaiah 58:5)

When we turn to our Lord’s indictment of ritualistic fasting, prayer, and alms giving in Matthew chapter 6, His words serve as a commentary on our text in Isaiah 58:

16 “When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. 17 When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

We are also reminded of our Lord’s scorching words against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 23:

27 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

And so according to our text Israel’s fasting was phony in three ways. First, it was not really a time of self-denial, but a time of self-satisfaction. Second, fasting was done at the expense of others. Third, fasting was an empty external ritual, without any of the reality it was intended to symbolize. No wonder God did not answer the prayers that accompanied this kind of fasting.

The Kind of Fasting God Desires
Isaiah 58:6-12

6 No, this is the kind of fast I want.
I want you to remove the sinful chains,
to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke,
to set free the oppressed,
and to break every burdensome yoke.
7 I want you to share your food with the hungry
and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people.
When you see someone naked, clothe him!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise;
your restoration will quickly arrive;
your godly behavior will go before you,
and the Lord’s splendor will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call out, and the Lord will respond;
you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’
You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you
and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.
10 You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed.
Then your light will dispel the darkness,
and your darkness will be transformed into noonday.
11 The Lord will continually lead you;
he will feed you even in parched regions.
He will give you renewed strength,
and you will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring that continually produces water.
12 Your perpetual ruins will be rebuilt;
you will reestablish the ancient foundations.
You will be called, ‘The one who repairs broken walls,
the one who makes the streets livable again.’

Verses 6-12 focus on the correction of the fatal flaws of fasting that were described in verses 2-5. The kind of fasting that delights God is that fasting which comes from the heart and seeks to serve others, to their benefit. Isaiah assures Israel that fasting for the benefit of others will result in God hearing their prayers and granting their petitions for restoration and the return of divine blessings. It is these two elements (fasting in a way that pleases God, and God’s response to Israel’s petitions) that dominate verses 6-12.

Verses 6 and 7 describe the kind of benefits fasting should bring to others. Godly fasting should remove the chains of bondage, so as to set free the oppressed (verse 6). Fasting is self-denial with a higher purpose in mind. Merely doing without food for a short time in order to indulge later is hardly noble. Doing without food so that you can give it to those in need is noble. Somehow the “fasting” of the people of Israel was of no benefit to others, but rather to their detriment. Let the hungry be fed by the righteous doing without. Let me do without for those who truly are without. This is what touches the heart of God. I should also be touched by the needs of the homeless (verse 7). It is then that Israel’s “light” will brightly shine, and God will guide them as He did at the exodus (verse 8). Then God will hear and respond when His people call out to Him (verse 9).

Since I preached this sermon hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States, wiping out countless homes and businesses. The city of New Orleans became a virtual ghost town. Our state (Texas) became home for thousands of refugees. It provided the opportunity for Christians to take Isaiah literally and seriously.

Verses 9-12 reiterate the same message, thus emphasizing its importance, and certainty. God’s people must remove “the burdensome yoke” and stop finger-pointing accusations (verse 9). They must feed the hungry (verse 10a). Then their darkness will turn to bright light (verse 10b). Then God will lead and feed His people, renewing their strength and providing the rains necessary for life and prosperity (verse 11). Then God will rebuild their ruins (verse 12).

I think that the inference is clear. As Israel seeks to accomplish the designated tasks for the benefit of others God will likewise work for the benefit of those who sacrificially meet the needs of others. God deals with His needy people in the same way that they deal with those in need.

 

A Perplexing Passage
Isaiah 58:13-14

13 You must observe the Sabbath
rather than doing anything you want4 on my holy day.
You must look forward to the Sabbath
and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect.
You must treat it with respect by refraining from your normal activities,
and by refraining from your selfish pursuits and from making business deals.5
14 Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord,
and I will give you great prosperity,
and cause crops to grow on the land I gave to your ancestor Jacob.”
Know for certain that the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 58:13-14).

 

I must confess that the last two verses of Isaiah 58 have always perplexed me. Fasting is never specifically mentioned, only the Sabbath. What does observing the Sabbath (verses 13-14) have to do with fasting (verses 1-12)? These concluding verses are not misplaced. Indeed, since they are the concluding verses to the chapter, they must bring home and specifically apply the teaching of verses 1-12. In the first 12 verses, those who fast properly are assured that God will hear their prayers and will once again prosper their land. In verses 13 and 14, those who keep the Sabbath are assured the same thing. There must be a connection between verses 1-12 and verses 13-14, but what is it? I believe it is this: keeping the Sabbath is a form of fasting.

According to verse 13 observing the Sabbath is also fasting. Fasting is the setting aside of certain desires and satisfactions for the fulfillment of higher desires and satisfactions. Fasting is setting aside some of my personal pleasures, so that I might serve others, freeing them from bondage and meeting their physical needs. Now, fasting is not viewed in terms of one’s relationship to his neighbor (verses 6-12), but rather in terms of one’s relationship with God.

The connection between verses 6-12 and verses 13-14 is to be found first in terms of the self-gratifying pleasures that are subordinated to a higher goal, and second in terms of the benefits that result. The Sabbath is not merely a mandatory cessation of our daily labors (though it is that); the Sabbath is the setting aside of our pursuit of certain earthly pleasures in order to better pursue the higher goal of finding pleasure in God.

Fasting is not a negative activity, but rather a positive one. It is the subordination of our fleshly desires for the pursuit of higher pleasures. It is the subordination of our fleshly desires so as to minister to the needs of others (Isaiah 58:6-12). It is the subordination of our fleshly desires in order to take pleasure in God (Isaiah 58:13-14). The Sabbath is not a day to dread, a duty to shun, a time when “God won’t let us do what we want to do.” The Sabbath is the day we should look forward to, the day when we can lay aside lesser matters and focus our attention and affection on God. If our hearts are right before God, keeping the Sabbath should be more than a duty; it should be our delight.

Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord (verse 14a).

These last two verses of Isaiah chapter 58 really help me understand the “Sabbath controversy” in the gospels. Jesus was accused of being a Sabbath-breaker when He healed on the Sabbath. Let’s consider this example in Matthew chapter 12:

1 At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on a Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pick heads of wheat and eat them. 2 But when the Pharisees saw this they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is against the law to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry— 4 how he entered the house of God and they ate the sacred bread, which was against the law for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law that the priests in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are not guilty? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:1-8, emphasis mine).

If keeping the Sabbath is a fast, then it is the setting aside of self-serving activities so that I can better love God and others. The self-righteous Pharisees thought of the Sabbath only in terms of what one must not do on the Sabbath. Isaiah 58 speaks in terms of what one should do when fasting. Jesus showed compassion toward His disciples by allowing them to eat on the Sabbath. This is consistent with Isaiah 58:

7 I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! (Isaiah 58:7, emphasis mine)

10 You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed. Then your light will dispel the darkness, and your darkness will be transformed into noonday (Isaiah 58:10, emphasis mine).

Far from breaking the Sabbath, Jesus was fulfilling what it was meant to be – a time for serving God and for serving others. The Pharisees interpreted the Sabbath legalistically; Jesus interpreted and applied the Sabbath in terms of its intent.

Israel’s Hope: Not More Effort, But Messiah
Isaiah 59-61

I hope the reader will understand that the scope of this message will allow only a cursory handling of the next chapters in Isaiah. Chapter 58 began with an indication that the chapter was an indictment of Israel for her sin. Israel’s fasting was flawed, and served as evidence of why God did not hear or heed Israel’s prayers for restoration. When we turn to chapter 59 we are reminded that Israel’s pitiful condition is not to be explained by any failure on God’s part, but rather by Israel’s sin:

1 Look, the Lord’s hand is not too weak to deliver you;
his ear is not too deaf to hear you.
2 But your sinful acts have alienated you from your God;
your sins have caused him to reject you and not listen to your prayers (Isaiah 59:1-2).

Isaiah 59:3-15 describe Israel’s sinful condition as the cause for their trials and tribulations (which are an outworking of divine judgment). Isaiah then summarizes Israel’s hopeless and helpless condition:

The Lord watches and is upset, for there is no justice. 16 He sees there is no advocate; he is shocked that no one intervenes. So he takes matters into his own hands; his desire for justice drives him on (Isaiah 59:15b-16).

Israel is hopelessly bound by her own sins. There is no way that any Israelite will be able to attain to God’s standard of righteousness by the works of the law.6 Worse yet, there is no one who is worthy to intercede for Israel.7 Therefore, God Himself intervenes and comes to the rescue and deliverance of His people:

17 He wears his desire for justice like armor,
and his desire to deliver is like a helmet on his head.
He puts on the garments of vengeance
and wears zeal like a robe.
18 He repays them for what they have done,
dishing out angry judgment to his adversaries and punishing his enemies.
He repays the coastlands.
19 In the west, people respect the Lord’s reputation;
in the east they recognize his splendor.
For he comes like a rushing stream
driven on by wind sent from the Lord.
20 “A protector comes to Zion,
to those in Jacob who repent of their rebellious deeds,”
says the Lord.

21 “As for me, this is my promise to them,” says the Lord. “My spirit, who is upon you, and my words, which I have placed in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth or from the mouths of your children and descendants from this time forward,” says the Lord (Isaiah 59:17-21).

Our Lord Himself intervenes in human history, bringing about a deliverance that no mere man could achieve. You may recognize the words of verse 17 as those taken up by Paul in Ephesians 6:14. Israel was, so to speak, dead in her transgressions and sins (compare Ephesians 2:1). What she could not do, God Himself did in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

And so it is that Isaiah can respond in the following chapter:

1 “Arise! Shine! For your light arrives!
The splendor of the Lord shines on you!
2 For, look, darkness covers the earth
and deep darkness covers the nations,
but the Lord shines on you;
his splendor appears over you.
3 Nations come to your light,
kings to your bright light.
4 Look all around you!
They all gather and come to you—
your sons come from far away
and your daughters are escorted by guardians.
5 Then you will look and smile,
you will be excited and your heart will swell with pride.
For the riches of distant lands will belong to you
and the wealth of nations will come to you.
6 Camel caravans will cover your roads,
young camels from Midian and Ephah.
All the merchants of Sheba will come,
bringing gold and incense and praising the Lord
. . . .
9 Indeed, the coastlands look eagerly for me,
the large ships are in the lead,
bringing your sons from far away,
along with their silver and gold,
to honor the Lord your God,
the sovereign king of Israel,
for he has bestowed honor on you (Isaiah 60:1-6, 9, emphasis mine).

I cannot read these verses without thinking of Matthew chapter 2 and its report of the coming of the magi, to worship the King of the Jews. They were guided by a great light, and they brought “gold and incense.” I believe that Isaiah’s description of Messiah is given to prepare us for Matthew’s account.

Now look at these verses in Isaiah chapter 61:

1 The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has chosen me.
He has commissioned me to encourage the poor,
to help the brokenhearted,
to decree the release of captives,
and the freeing of prisoners,
2 to announce the year when the Lord will show his favor,
the day when our God will seek vengeance,
to console all who mourn,
3 to strengthen those who mourn in Zion,
by giving them a turban, instead of ashes,
oil symbolizing joy, instead of mourning,
a garment symbolizing praise, instead of discouragement.
They will be called godly oaks,
trees planted by the Lord to reveal his splendor.
4 They will rebuild the perpetual ruins
and restore the places that were desolate
;
they will reestablish the ruined cities,
the places that have been desolate since ancient times (Isaiah 61:1-4, emphasis mine).

The first verses of this chapter are those which our Lord Himself cited as proof of His identity as Israel’s Messiah:

16 Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and the regaining of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to tell them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read” (Luke 4:16-21, emphasis mine).

Let us first consider these verses in Isaiah chapter 61 in terms of Isaiah chapter 58:

6 No, this is the kind of fast I want.
I want you to remove the sinful chains,
to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke,
to set free the oppressed
,
and to break every burdensome yoke.
7 I want you to share your food with the hungry
and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people.
When you see someone naked, clothe him!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise;
your restoration will quickly arrive;
your godly behavior will go before you,
and the Lord’s splendor will be your rear guard (Isaiah 58:6-8, emphasis mine).

Isaiah chapter 59 makes it clear that no one can live up to the standard declared in chapter 58. That is why God Himself must act to deliver lost men (59:15b-16). Chapter 61, cited by our Lord Himself in Luke chapter 4, informs us that Jesus is the Messiah, God Himself come to save lost and sinful men. It is He alone who can “remove the sinful chains” and “tear away the ropes which bind us” (Isaiah 58:6). We should not be surprised to find our Lord feeding the hungry, as He did in the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14) and the 4,000 (Matthew 15). It is He whose coming was signaled by a great light. He is the light of the world (John 8:12).

Conclusion

At first glance, Isaiah chapter 58 appears to have little relevance to Christians today, but with some reflection we can see this is not true at all. Paul wrote these words to the Colossians:

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days— 17 these are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ! (Colossians 2:16-17)

The Old Testament is filled with imagery that speaks of the coming Messiah. There was the manna in the wilderness, which we know foreshadowed the “true bread,” our Lord Jesus (John 6:30-33). The Passover Lamb was a picture of our Lord Jesus as well (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7). Now we find that the Sabbath was also a prototype of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath, when He actually fulfilled it.

Similarly, consider that our Lord Jesus was the fulfillment of fasting. True fasting was the setting aside of certain privileges and pleasures in order to pursue higher pleasures. Refraining from eating was true fasting when it was done for the glory of God and when others benefited from it. Refraining from the normal pleasures of life was fasting when God was glorified and others were served.

Have you ever thought of our Lord’s incarnation as a form of fasting on His part? Think of this familiar text in that light:

4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. 5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross! 9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow —in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:4-11).

When we fast (in regard to eating) we cease to eat for a certain period of time, so that we may devote ourselves to something even greater. Often fasting might be done so that one can devote himself to prayer. But think of how our Lord “fasted” in order to come to this earth to provide the only means by which men may be saved. As the Second member of the Godhead, our Lord possessed honor and glory in fellowship with the Father. He was served by the angels and lived in the comfort and bliss of God’s presence. Think of all He set aside as that which He chose to do without (as a fast) so that we could receive the blessing of salvation. No one will ever “fast” to the degree that He did, and no one will ever be blessed to the degree lost sinners are blessed, as a result of what He set aside and what He endured.

Most often, Christmas is a time of self-indulgence. As we celebrate Christmas this year, let us think of Jesus as the ultimate example of fasting, and let us choose to walk in His steps, voluntarily setting aside certain fleshly pleasures in order to be of great spiritual blessing to others.


1 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on December 19, 2004. Anyone is at liberty to use this edited manuscript for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel. Copyright 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081.

2 I do not wish to imply that this will be a thorough exposition of the texts dealt with in this message. At best this lesson will be an overview of the main points of these passages, and an attempt to show the connections between them.

3 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

4 I prefer the more literal reading, “doing your desires,” as indicated in the footnote of the NET Bible.

5 Literally, “from finding your desire and speaking a word.” See the footnote in the NET Bible.

6 Compare Romans 3:20.

7 There is no Moses, who would intercede for Israel and dispel God’s wrath, as Moses did in Exodus 32-34 and at other times.

Related Topics: Fasting, Christmas