On May of 1776, in the throes of the conflict of the birth of our country, General George Washington sent this order to his army:
“The Continental Congress having ordered, Friday the 17th. Instant to be observed as a day of “fasting, humiliation and prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God, that it would please him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions, and to prosper the Arms of the United Colonies, and finally, establish the peace and freedom of America, upon a solid and lasting foundation”–The General commands all officers, and soldiers, to pay strict obedience to the Orders of the Continental Congress, and by their unfeigned, and pious observance of their religious duties, incline the Lord, and Giver of Victory, to prosper our arms.”
George Washington and the first Americans recognized the importance of prayer and fasting, and they turned to it when they needed a breakthrough in the fight for the independence of the colonies. But we have not had such a decree in many years in America — not from Presidents Democrat or Republican. But sadly, not only has our nation as a whole forgotten the importance of seeking God through fasting, most of the people in God’s church have as well.
I have been convicted as I have been praying and studying for our messages in Matthew 4 that we should not leave this passage without looking together at the fact that Jesus fasted and prayed at this crucial time in His ministry. He was about to experience a breakthrough in His ministry, and it is not coincidence that He fasted and prayed and sought the Father in a special way. In the same way, I believe that we have many people here in our church — and perhaps some of you who are guests today — who are looking for a spiritual breakthrough in your life — or maybe you have a burden for a loved one who needs a powerful touch from God — and God’s word for you today is that you need to seek a spiritual breakthrough to Him, and from Him, in fasting and prayer.
I. The Example of Fasting For Spiritual Breakthrough
One of the things we see in this passage is the example that Jesus gave us in fasting for spiritual breakthrough. It is very obvious that this was a strategic time in Jesus’ ministry: He had just been baptized and then anointed with the Holy Spirit for ministry; He was being led out into the wilderness where He was going to be tempted by the devil — and as one of our class members pointed out Sunday night in our discipleship class, if He had committed just ONE sin, our salvation would have been lost!; and then in a few short verses we are going to see Him His public ministry break forth. This was a crucial and strategic time — and Jesus showed how much He took it seriously by fasting for 40 days as He began it.
And Jesus is not the only one in scripture whom we see doing this. A number of God’s people have fasted and prayed and sought Him during strategic times in their lives and ministries:
– Exodus 34:28 says that when Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to get the 10 Commandments from the Lord, “he did not eat bread or drink water”, but fasted the whole time he was with God getting those foundational commandments.
— Nehemiah 1:4 tells us that when Nehemiah heard about of the distress of Jerusalem, he fasted and prayed to God for the city and his people. This led to the “spiritual breakthrough” of the return of the Jews to the Promised Land after their exile.
— Esther 4:3 tells how during the crisis when some of the Persians wanted to exterminate the Jews, that Mordecai and Esther and others among the Jews fasted and sought God, and He delivered them in a powerful way.
And importantly, we find plenty of New Testament references to fasting as well:
— Not only here in Matthew 4:1-2, but then in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said to His disciples in Matthew 6:16, “WHEN you fast …”, thus assuming that His followers would practice fasting.
— In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John asked Jesus why His disciples were not fasting like they were, and Jesus said “the attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them … but they days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then THEY WILL FAST.” So there Jesus definitively declared that His disciples would be found fasting. And indeed after His ascension we see several places in the Book of Acts where His disciples fasted during crucial times of service:
— Acts 13:2 says that the church at Antioch was “ministering to the Lord and fasting”; and immediately afterwards, the Holy Spirit commanded them to set Paul & Barnabas apart for their mission to the Gentiles, and the missionary movement of the early church began. It was a huge breakthrough in world missions, and it happened in response to their fasting and prayer.
— Acts 14:23 tells us that when Paul & Barnabas appointed elders in every city, they did it “having prayed and fasted” before they made this crucial decision to set these leaders aside.
Now I think it’s important to note that nowhere in the New Testament does the Lord “command” us to fast at specific times; but the example of these godly people in these situations is “a word to the wise.” When Jesus, or Paul, or the Early Church, were seeking God’s direction, or needed an extra “something” for a spiritual breakthrough, they sought the Lord through fasting.
I was reading this week from a book which detailed some of the beliefs and practices of the early church in the first 300 years of Christianity, and there several pages of small print in this book on what they taught on fasting. Fasting was a big part of the worship and practice of Christianity in its first 300 years.
When the Pilgrims first came to America in the early 1600’s, they had a difficult time. Over half of them died the first couple of years. The 3rd year brought a spring and summer that was hot and dry, and the crops were dying in the fields. Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting and prayer for the Pilgrims — and soon after, God did send them rain. They celebrated what God had done for them with a day of Thanksgiving on November 29th — which is the origin our Thanksgiving Day. But significantly, they were giving thanks to God for what He had done for them in response to their seeking Him in fasting and prayer.
So Jesus fasted; the saints in both the Old & New Testaments fasted; the Early Church fasted; the pilgrims fasted; George Washington and the first Americans fasted — do you think we might be missing something, that fasting is virtually absent from the practice of Christianity in America today?
Jesus said to His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, “WHEN you fast …”. “WHEN” you fast. Each of us who claims to be His disciple should ask ourselves then: WHEN do I fast? Am I following the example of the Lord and so many others, by fasting when I need a spiritual breakthrough?
II. The Purpose of Fasting For Spiritual Breakthrough
As we talk about fasting, we need to understand what Christian fasting IS and what it ISN’T.
First of all, and perhaps most importantly for us to understand, fasting does NOT somehow give us “credit” with God towards salvation. One of the things that separates Christianity from all the other religions of the world is that Christianity does NOT teach that we do a bunch of religious deeds like fasting, in order to give us credit with God, in order to save us and take us to heaven. This is what most of the world’s religions teach: fast, pray, give alms, do various good deeds, and you will justify yourself before God and you will get to go to heaven. But Christianity teaches that no amount of good works can save us. We are sinners, every one of us, by nature and by choice, and everything in our lives is tainted by our sin. Even our best good works have mixed motives — of pride, or self-righteousness, or seeking the approval or favorable comparison with others, etc. And the One True God is a Holy, Holy, Holy God. Our sinful good works won’t get us to heaven with Him. We needed something more than what we could do to save us. That is why God sent Jesus to die on the cross, to pay for our sins, so that He would wash our hearts through His Holy Spirit, and make us perfectly clean in His sight, and able to go to heaven to be with Him. That is what it means to be “saved.” So fasting — or any other good work — does not “save” us, or give us credit towards heaven. We need to make sure we understand that, and not have a wrong motivation for our fasting. So although many world religions fast, to paraphrase a verse in another context: “We don’t fast like those who have no hope.” We fast for a different reason than they do.
So for what purpose DO we fast as Christians? Christian fasting is the setting aside of food (and sometimes other things) for a period of time in order to seek the Lord in a special, more concentrated way. Fasting is NOT starving yourself in order to gain some kind of “credit” with God, or to “twist His arm” and change His mind to get Him to give you something you really want.
Fasting is saying to God — and maybe most importantly, to YOURSELF: there is something I want that is more important to me even than my daily food; that during this time, seeking God and doing His will is more important to me than eating.
I have been reading from John 4 in my quiet time. That chapter tells the story of how Jesus ministered to the Samaritan Woman. When she ran back to town to tell the men there about Jesus, the disciples were concerned that Jesus had not eaten during that time, but He told them: “I have food to eat that you know not of ….”. They all looked at each other and said, “No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?” And Jesus told them: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me.” So Jesus was “fasting” in a sense here, but it wasn’t what some would call a “formal” fast. It was just that there was something more important than food in His life right then. Visiting with that Samaritan woman was more important than eating. Leading that village to the Kingdom of God was more important to Him than food.
I had a little occasion like this a few weeks ago: I was on my way to make some visits a good distance away, and I was trying to “chart my course” for the rest of the day. I was hungry, but I was on a bit of a tight schedule, so I was trying to figure out: should I go home and eat, which I knew would take some time; or should I just run through the drive-thru of a fast-food restaurant on the way, which would save time, but it would also blow our family budget, and that food’s not really good for me anyway. I’ll be honest with you: I did something I don’t always do, but which I need to do more often: I decided to PRAY about what I should do. We should pray about everything, but unfortunately too often I just “figure out” with my mind what I should do — but thank God, this one time I did pray, as I was driving, “Lord, what should I do?” Should I go home? Should I do the drive-thru? Immediately after I prayed, a verse came to mind: and it was from this passage in Matthew 4: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” I thought, OK; God gave me the answer. It’s “neither”: I don’t need to go home OR eat out; I need to see that there is something more important than food: and that is walking with God and doing His will. So you could say I “fasted” that afternoon, but it wasn’t what I would call an “official” fast; it was just that God showed me that I had something more important to do with my time that afternoon than eat.
And that may be the best kind of fast — just that our hearts are somewhere other than our stomachs. We have something going in our lives right then that is more important to us than food. It is not that by our fasting we are trying to “wrench” something out of God’s hands that He won’t give us otherwise; rather we are saying by our fasting that there is nothing more important to me in my life right now than seeking God; not even my food. My time will be spent seeking God, not eating.
And are there not things in our lives, church congregation, which are more important to us right now than food? Haven’t you heard the old expression, “How can you eat at a time like this?” Some of us would say we’re at such a time:
— Some of you have a lost husband or wife; how can you eat knowing if they were to die right now they would not be with you in heaven? It’s time to say that they are more important to you than your food.
— Some of you have children right now who are rebelling against the Lord and His way; this isn’t a time to eat, but to be be desperately seeking their return to God in prayer & fasting.
— Some of you have an important decision to make; and praying for that needs to be more important than your next meal.
— We all live in a country that no longer fasts & prays regularly like its founders did; if things don’t change, soon the nation we so love will be lost, and “The Star Spangled banner will no longer wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Aren’t some of these things more important to us than food?
So fasting is not just “not eating”; it is also taking the time that you might have spent on eating, to seeking God in a fervent way for the special request that is on your heart. So when you fast, use the time you WOULD have been eating, to pray instead. Take your breakfast time for extra prayer; take your lunch time to pray and seek God. On top of that, let your hunger be a reminder for you to pray all through the day. When I fast, I generally make it my goal that whenever my stomach rumbles, I will pray for that special request that I am fasting for. Often times people use “prayer wrist bands” or a dot on their watch face to remind them to pray for a special request every time they look at it. In fasting, your stomach can be your reminder. If you’re like me, it’s gonna remind you a lot, and you are going to end up praying all the time! So let your hunger pangs be a “call to prayer” for whatever the Lord has burdened you to pray about.
So fasting is a time to focus on the Lord, to say that there is something more important to you than food, and to focus your time on praying for an important request. But remember that it is not a “badge of spirituality”; it does NOT “earn” you any credit with God, and it is NOT “twisting His arm” to get Him to give you something He otherwise does not want to give you.
III. “Rules” of Fasting For Spiritual Breakthrough
You’ll notice I put the word “rules” in quotes, because one of the most important “rules” for fasting as a Christian is: Don’t get caught up in a bunch of rules! Don’t become legalistic about it. Nowhere in the Bible does it give us a whole list of “rules” that govern the way that we are to fast. Jesus just says in Matthew 6, “WHEN you fast …”, implying that as His followers, we WILL, at some points, fast. And He does command us in Matthew 6 not to neglect our appearance and make ourselves appear forlorn to everyone when we fast. But other than that, there are really no “rules” for New Testament fasting.
In fact, as I was reading that literature from the history of the Early Church, I was struck by the variety in their practices of fasting:
— some fasted on the 2nd and 5th days of the week, because those were the traditional Jewish days of fasting; others said, no, Jesus condemned those Jews as hypocrites, so we Christians will fast on the 4th & 6th days instead!
— some fasted from everything, or from everything but water
— Interestingly, a Christian letter called “The Shepherd of Hermas”, written about 150 A.D. said: “In the day on which you fast, you will taste nothing but bread and water. Then, reckon up the price of the meals of that day that you intended to have eaten, and give that amount to a widow, or orphan, or some person in need.” So their “fasting” was just restricting themselves to bread & water but nothing else — and they used their leftover money for benevolence.
— Tertullian, who lived about 200 A.D., wrote that they would generally fast during the day until “the 9th hour”, 3:00, according to the time when Peter went up to the Temple in Acts. So each day they fasted only until later in the day, and then they might eat at night.
So since the early church practiced fasting in a number of different ways, I think we are safe in saying we shouldn’t be too adamant or legalistic about how and when we should fast — evidently there is room for a lot of variation in it, as the Lord leads each person.
There is a good principle here — and it applies to a LOT of areas in the Christian life, not just fasting: when the Bible is silent on some issue, you shouldn’t be too adamant about it one way or the other. If God doesn’t give us specific commands about something, then that means that we are probably able to exercise some Christian freedom in that area. And I think that definitely applies to fasting. There’s not a bunch of rules about it in the New Testament; so do it as the Lord leads you to:
— you may want to fast from everything — or everything but water.
— Others have done fasts from solid food, but they supplement water with some juices. I had a staff member in our church in Louisiana who did a 40-day fast, and he did have some fruit and vegetable juice each day. Sadly, I knew of some people looked at him and said that he “wasn’t really fasting” because he drank some juice. But I think in light of scripture and church history, that that is a very narrow-minded, and legalistic stance.
— some may fast only from certain things they enjoy.
— some fast for 40 days, or some other number of consecutive days;
— some might fast a meal a day for a certain period of time, or like some of the early churches, until 3 or 6 o’clock each day
— some fast for a 24-hour day, nothing to eat from one morning to the next
— others fast for the evening before until the evening meal of the next day, following the Genesis account where it says: “the evening and the morning were one day.” I believe there is room for a lot of variation in the way we fast.
I read where one minister (Elmer Towns) studied the fasts in the Bible, and he gave them each names: The “Elijah fast” and the “Daniel Fast” and the “St. Paul” fast, etc. and he listed the details of each one, as if they were each different specific fasts the scripture recommends that we could adopt. But I think that is taking it a bit too far. I think what the Bible is showing us with these variations of fasts is that there is no “one right way” to do it; that you are free in the Lord to fast in all kinds of different ways, for all kinds of different reasons, and they are all good in God’s sight if you are doing it for the right reasons.
So if God calls you to fast about something, do it — and don’t let anyone else tell you that is not the “right” kind of fasting; or that you need to do it a certain way instead. (I almost hate to say it, but with the low level of spirituality in our country today, I imagine the Lord would just happy to see some us fast in almost ANY way! I think He’d be happy just to see some of us put anything spiritual ahead of our food; and glad that we were disturbed enough about some person, or some situation, to inconvenience ourselves and seek Him in any kind of fasting & prayer!
So our challenge today from God’s word is this:
— Many godly people in scripture and history have fasted and prayed when they had a special need, or needed a spiritual breakthrough.
— We don’t do it to “pry” something out of God’s hand, but to give that request priority in our lives, and to seek God in a special way.
— And there are no “rules” we have to keep in doing it.
Understanding this, I want to challenge you to do something: Easter Sunday is 2 weeks away. I hope you will NOT fast on Easter Sunday. Jesus said there’s a time to fast; when the Bridegroom is taken away — but on Easter, we are celebrating the Bridegroom! Let’s get together with our families and celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus with all kinds of feasting. I would encourage you NOT to fast on Easter Sunday — or even the Saturday before, as we have church activities that day. (In fact, I read in the early church history in the Apostolic Constitutions (written around 390 A.D.) that “He who fasts on the Lord’s Day will be guilty of sin, for it is the day of the Resurrection … or in general, whoever is sad on a festival day to the Lord will be guilty.” I think that’s a pretty good rule: Don’t fast on a day of celebration. Rejoice in the Lord — and we’ll do that Easter weekend.
But there are two weeks between now and Easter Sunday. Would you pray about devoting SOME portion of these next two weeks as a time of fasting & seeking God for a spiritual breakthrough, for yourself, for someone on your heart, for our country — or for whatever God lays on your heart?
And remember there’s no “rules” about it: you can fast the whole 2 weeks, or some length of days in those 2 weeks, or one day in those two weeks, or some part of a day or days in those 2 weeks, or one meal a day for those 2 weeks — whatever — you do whatever and however God convicts and leads you to do.
But I believe there are many of us here today would say: I have someone; I have something on my heart today, for which I need to seek God in a special way right now. NOT because I am going to change GOD in this time; but because I am going to be changed through this; and I need to show God — and more importantly, myself — that there is someone or something on my heart right now, that it more important to me than food.
— The invitation today is for you to talk with the Lord about how He might be calling you to fast in the next two weeks.
— And during this invitation time, you can begin to seek God in prayer right now for a special need in your life; for a special person; a special prayer request.