15. Mastering A Plan for Formal Time Together—Fasting
IA. A Bible Study on Fasting
1B. The Nature of True and False Fasting
1C. Isaiah 58:1-9a
58:1 “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! 58:2 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. 58:3 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. 58:4 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. 58:5 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? 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. 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! 58:8 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. 58:9 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.
2C. Jeremiah 14:12
14:12 Even if they fast, I will not hear their cries for help. And even if they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will kill them through wars, famines, and plagues.”
3C. Zechariah 7:1-5
7:1 In King Darius’s fourth year, on the fourth day of Kislev, the ninth month, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah. 7:2 Now the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melech and their companions to seek the Lord’s favor 7:3 by asking the priests of the sovereign Lord’s temple and the prophets, “Should we weep in the fifth month, fasting as we have done over the years?” 7:4 The word of the sovereign Lord then came to me, 7:5 “Speak to all the people and priests of the land as follows: ‘When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and seventh months through all these seventy years, did you truly fast for me—for me, indeed?
4C. Matthew 6:16-18
6:16 “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. 6:17 When you fast put oil on your head and wash your face 6:18 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.
5C. Luke 18:11-12
18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’
6C. Questions for Thought
1. What does Israel want from God in Isaiah 58:1-2? What is the connection between fasting and desiring to “hear” from God regarding his will and the establishment of justice?
2. If God does not condemn them for their fasting, what does he nonetheless say? What are some of the sins they were committing while they were fasting and what did God say about it?
3. What does this passage from Isaiah 58 teach you about God, his requirement of holiness, the human heart, and fasting?
4. The Israelites were fasting in order to have their voice heard in heaven. This is a good thing, but not when it is done in a hypocritical fashion; God will not tolerate this kind of foolishness. As Paul says, “let us call on the Lord with a pure heart…” (2 Tim 2:22).
5. If we do fast with a pure and single-minded heart (cf. Matt 6:16), dealing ruthlessly with known sin (after all, Paul did say to put it to death) by the power of the Spirit (Rom 8:13), and returning kindness and justice in our land, what is God’s promise to the church in Isaiah 58:8-9?
6. Read the context of Jeremiah 14:12 (e.g., chapter 14). How does this passage relate to that in Isaiah 58? How serious is God about our sin? What does God promise the nation of Israel after he had disciplined them and they repented (see Jer 31:31-33)? What does he promise us as well (see 1 John 1:9)?
7. When we fast (not “if” we fast) what is a question we must keep before us according to Zechariah 7:5?
8. According to Matthew 6:16-18 who is the One we are truly seeking when we fast? What does God promise us if we fast only to please him?
9. In Luke 18:11-12 what is the problem Jesus has with the Pharisee’s fasting? It was certainly not that he was fasting, per se, for even in the new wine of the kingdom there is a need for fasting until the consummation and our reuniting with the bridegroom (Matt 9:14-17)? But, Jesus says that in light of his coming, fasting must be done in the present experience of the kingdom and with the power of the Spirit (see below).
2B. The Church and Fasting
1C. Matthew 9:14-17—New Fasting in Light of Jesus’ Return to the Father
9:14 Then John’s disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t fast?” 9:15 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast. 9:16 No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, because the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be worse. 9:17 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the skins will burst and the wine will pour out and the skins will be destroyed. Instead they put new wine into new wineskins and both are preserved.”
2C. Luke 11:20/17:20-37—The “Now/Not-Yet” of Kingdom Experience
11:20 But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come on you.
17:20 Now at one point the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming, so he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, 17:21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”17:22 Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 17:23 Then people will say to you, ‘Look, there he is!’ or ‘Look, here he is!’ Do not go out or chase after them. 17:24 For just like the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 17:25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 17:26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. 17:27 People were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage—right up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. 17:28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot, people were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building; 17:29 but on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. 17:30 It will be the same on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 17:31 On that day, anyone who is on the roof, with his goods in the house, must not come down to take them away, and likewise the person in the field must not turn back. 17:32 Remember Lot’s wife! 17:33 Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it. 17:34 I tell you, in that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 17:35 There will be two women grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” 17:37 Then the disciples said to him, “Where, Lord?” He replied to them, “Where the dead body is, there the vultures will gather.”
3C. Colossians 2:16, 20-23—Fasting Not Merely Asceticism
2:16 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…2:20 If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to them as though you lived in the world? 2:21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” 2:22 These are all destined to perish with use, founded as they are on human commands and teachings. 2:23 They have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility, by an unsparing treatment of the body, but they are thoroughly useless when it comes to restraining the indulgences of the flesh.
4C. 1 Timothy 4:1-5—Food Is Good
4:1 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the later times some will desert the faith and occupy themselves with deceiving spirits and demonic teachings, 4:2 influenced by the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. 4:3 They will prohibit marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4:4 For every creation of God is good and no food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. 4:5 For it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
5C. Questions for Thought
1. What does Jesus say about fasting in Matthew 9:14-17? Does he say that his disciples will fast when he departs? What then can he mean when he says “no one pours new wine into old wine skins”? He cannot mean that fasting is no longer necessary since that makes v. 15 virtually unintelligible. He must be referring to a new and better way of fasting, i.e., fasting and mourning for his return and the full realization of the kingdom. It is acceptable to fast for Messiah’s coming in any situation, whether for his first advent, as in the case of John the Baptist, or in the hope of his second coming, as in our case today. But it is not necessary to fast while he is here, and that is what John’s disciples misunderstood and the Pharisees rejected.
2. What do you learn about the kingdom of God in Luke 11:20? Was it present in Jesus’ ministry? So Jesus (and Paul; Col 1:13-14) spoke about the inaugural form of the kingdom and the coming of the Spirit (cf. John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-14).
3. What does Jesus say about the kingdom in Luke 17:20-37? This passage refers to a future consummation of the kingdom—a greater and permanent realization of its presence, power, and transforming nature—at the return of Christ. See Matthew 8:10-11; Rom 8:23.
4. Read Colossians 2:16, 20-23 and describe the problem in Colossae. Relate this to what you have learned about fasting. Do the same with 1 Timothy 4:1-5. What are some dangers to be avoided here?
3B. The Purpose and Blessing of Fasting
1C. To Seek God with all Our Hearts and Minds
We fast because our hearts are hungry for him alone and because we know that food, while a good thing in God’s sight, can become an idol (cf. Matt 5:6; 1 Cor 6:12-13; Phil 3:19; 1 Tim 4:4-5), blunting our experience of the Spirit’s Christ-centered ministry. Thus people do not need to wait until a crisis to fast—though proper fasting at these times is very important—we can and ought to fast as often as we want to and feel we need to. In short, when we fast (food or whatever), we are fasting with our hearts directed toward him because we love him, we want to hear his voice more clearly (cf. Dan 9:9-14; John 10:4-5), experience his power more intimately (cf. Phil 3:10-11), walk with him in greater obedience, and see our prayers for personal, family and societal change answered (cf. 2 Chron 7:14).
2C. Weaken the Flesh
Fasting, from both food and other pleasures in life, can bring us in touch with our frailty and neediness as creatures before God. Insofar as this is our experience, we can realize a greater nearness to the Lord in prayer and worship. This is, in part, the purpose for fasting; it weakens the flesh and its power over our wills.
3C. To Focus Our Prayer Life
Again, to the degree that fasting softens our heart and does not elevate in arrogance (cf. Luke 18:11-12), it helps to focus our awareness on the presence of the Lord when we pray. This can lead to an incredible sense of the Spirit’s presence and power. This, of course, ought to be translated into prayer and praise, obedience to Christ, and gracious ministry to others, lest fasting become an end in itself.
4C. To Quicken True Guilt for Sin
Unconfessed sin has a deadening effect on our conscience, mind, will, emotions, and spiritual vitality; it separates us from intimate fellowship with our God and it seriously impairs our God-given mandate to minister grace, truth and love to those within the Christian community and those outside. Sincere, scripturally informed, and Spirit-led fasting should usher in a confession of all known sin, repentance from it, and a desire to live righteously and with justice and mercy in the world. In this sense true fasting quickens true guilt for unconfessed sin and when directed by the Spirit leads to deeper love for Christ, his people, and his purposes in the world. Cherishing known sin in our hearts while we claim to be truly fasting is at best incomplete and at worst hypocrisy of the sort that received some of the sternest words of our Lord; for those who engage in it today, there still remains his warning and his loving (but heavy) hand of chastening.
5C. To Foster Greater Intimacy with and Dependence on Christ
True fasting ultimately leads to a deeper intimacy with Christ and a consciousness of dependence on him for any spiritual good in our lives (cf. John 15:5).
4B. Examples of Fasting
1C. 2 Chronicles 20:1-30
20:1 Later the Moabites and Ammonites, along with some of the Meunites, attacked Jehoshaphat. 20:2 Messengers arrived and reported to Jehoshaphat, “A huge army is attacking you from the other side of the Dead Sea, from the direction of Edom. Look, they are in Hazezon Tamar (that is, En Gedi).” 20:3 Jehoshaphat was afraid, so he decided to seek the Lord’s advice. He decreed that all Judah should observe a fast. 20:4 The people of Judah assembled to ask for the Lord’s help; they came from all the cities of Judah to ask for the Lord’s help.
2C. Acts 13:1-4
13:1 Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul. 13:2 While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 13:3 Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off. 13:4 So Barnabas and Saul, sent out by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
3C. Acts 14:23
14:23 When they had appointed elders for them in the various churches, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the protection of the Lord in whom they had believed.
4C. Questions for Thought
1. In what connection did Jehoshaphat proclaim a fast? What are some situations in which we as individual believers and especially as communities of believers should come together to fast and seek God. I think we should be fasting and seeking him for our personal lives, families, communities, nations, and indeed his world. Let us mount up, by his grace, and seek him with all our hearts! Let us come before the Lord with righteous fasting and pleading for his will to be done in our homes and nations (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-6).
2. What did God do for the church in Antioch when they worshiped and fasted? What was the result of the Spirit selecting Paul and Barnabas (read the rest of the book of Acts!).
3. How did Paul go about the process of choosing elders for the churches in Acts 14:23? What other factors besides fasting were involved?
IIA. Synthesis, Practical Applications, and Training
1C. Ongoing Applications
1D. Fast (food) one day a week for several weeks.
2D. Fast (T.V.) for one week
2C. Special Applications
1D. Extended fasts because of important decisions
2D. Extended fasts in light of missions thrust
3D. Extended fasts because of personal and family problems
4D. Extended fasts for times of national crisis and church struggles
3C. Training Objectives and Applications
Objective: The disciple will understand and appreciate the Biblical role of fasting and will regularly practice it to the glory of God.