Summary: There’s some confusion around whether Christians should fast and why. In this message we look at why Christians should fast and why it’s so valuable.
ILL: A few months ago my son got into an extension class that was working on making a clay movie animation. This completely captured his imagination to the extent that one day he came home with his lunch uneaten. Who needs food when you’re consumed with a project you love?
Fasting is a topic that vexes many Christians. We sort of have this vague idea that it’s in the Bible. But on the other hand we’re not really sure whether it’s relevant for today. Some of the teens are doing the 40 hour famine this week or next, and we can sort of see the point to that, but does it really have any spiritual value apart from testing how cranky low blood sugar can make me?
1. SHOULD WE FAST?
We read quite a bit about fasting in the OT, but does it apply to us?
If you’ve been around at EBC a while you might have heard us talking about a key to applying the OT today. The NT handles OT teaching in one of four ways:
Some things are fulfilled in the cross and are no longer part of our practice. An example is the OT sacrifices which have been fulfilled in Jesus.
Some things are modified so that we do them differently. So, in the OT the Sabbath is Saturday, but in the NT Christians observed the ’Lord’s day’ on Sunday.
Some things intensify so that they are bigger in scope. So adultery is prohibited in the OT, but Jesus takes it further and says don’t even fantasise about it.
And then some things just continue through unchanged. So in both the OT and NT we’re commanded to honour our parents.
So then, what do you think we find about fasting in the NT? Jesus and the apostles pretty much assumed that Christians would fast and taught us how to fast. It just continues right on through to the NT.
Mark 2.18-20 we read how, ’"Some people came and asked Jesus, "How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?" Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast."’
So this is something that you and I can get a hold of and is still very helpful today.
2. WHY AND WHEN SHOULD WE FAST?
So then, what’s the point of fasting and suffering all that discomfort?
In Ezra 8.21 we read how the Jews who were in exile in Babylon were preparing to return home. Ezra, who was leading them, called everyone to fast. He say, "I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey…"
So at it’s most basic level, fasting is a powerful expression of humility before God. We’re recognising that we need God even more than we need food or, in extreme cases, water. We’re so desperate for him that we’re willing to make this sacrifice.
It’s powerful because of the way God views humility. In Isa 66.2 God says, "These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word."
This is why fasting is also linked to repentance. In 1Sam 7.6 the Israelites got a wake up call when they were defeated and Philistine temporarily captured the Ark of the Covenant. So they came together to repent and return to God, and it says, ’On that day they fasted and there they confessed, "We have sinned against the Lord."’ In fact, while they were assembled the Philistines attacked them, but God personally intervened and the Philistines were defeated. Was it because the Israelites fasted? Only inasmuch as it was a fast of deep humility and repentance.
This idea of humility and repentance is also linked to what some old writers called the ’mortification of the flesh’. We read about this in Rom 8.12-13 and 1Cor 9.25.
In Rom 8.13 Paul is talking about the Spirit-filled life and says, "If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live."
And in 1Cor 9.27 Paul writes, "I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."
Many people have found fasting really helpful in this process. It’s not a magic formula - it doesn’t do anything if it’s just a religious ritual. But as an expression of humility and repentance it can be very powerful in giving the Spirit room to move in our lives.