Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
What is the Purpose of Fasting?
by Tony Warren
In afflicting themselves in a fast, God's people lowered themselves to the ground, thus demonstrating their attrition. This act of self denial was a sign of a contrite spirit in their lowly position of humility. An example of this is illustrated in 2nd Samuel in the fast that David undertook. The purpose of David's fast was not for health, for spiritual growth or to be invigorated, it was to show humility and contrition so that God might in turn answer His prayer and save his son.
Though some Christians make the claim that several different fasts promote good physical health (which may, or may not be true) or are to help one concentrate or give Godly requests energy, nowhere in Scripture is there any validation that these were or are Biblical reason for fasting. They are all personal opinions, assumptions and private interpretations but are not from scripture. The biblical definition of fasting is found to be illustrative of an act that people did to show humility. In other words, in afflicting and denying themselves while mourning before God in a show of repentance, they hoped their God would see their contrition and penitence and their prayers would be heard. However, many Christians today speak of fasting as a way to subdue the flesh in order to strengthen themselves spiritually, or so that they might "feel" more invigorated or to cleanse the body for to God. This has never been the fast of Biblical record. Far too many people view the fast as an accomplishment or work of contrition, which they (consciously or unconsciously) think God will look favorably upon. Nevertheless, Biblical theology cannot righteously teach fasting in any way as an act that brings God's favor upon man. Physical fasting cannot be a source of God's reward or a spiritual magnet to draw one closer to God, nor is it a goad to becoming pious. That may be man's understanding of the Christian fast, but the fact God has chosen is something infinitely more rewarding than the act of afflicting ourselves through starvation.
The Hebrew word for fast is [tsowm] and literally means to cover or close the mouth, and thus by implication, to "not eat" (Esther:4:3). In the Greek the word is [nesteuo], which again literally means to "not eat." We know that there is a Spiritual purpose for every Biblical deed and most certainly there is a true purpose that the physical act of fasting pointed to. When we search the Scriptures we find that fasting is seen as a voluntary act of self affliction in someone denying themselves food and/or drink. The purpose of this denial or self abasement was to demonstrate that by this work of our humbled position, God might deem one worthy of His Grace and Mercy. If God's servants wanted their prayers answered, they would often fast or afflict themselves, looking for God's grace and mercy.
- "Surely he scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly."
2nd Samuel 12:16-17
David afflicted himself by rejecting food and all comforts of a bed, choosing instead to lower himself and lie all night upon the hard cold earth. This gives us a clear indicator or sign of this humbling of himself before God. The purpose was that God might look upon his suffering or affliction and in grace answer his prayer and save the life of his child. This was the purpose of the Biblical fast--the affliction, denial and suffering in pangs of hunger that some prayer might be answered. But truly it is the spiritual fast that the Lord takes note of, as these physical fasts did nothing to curry the Lord's favor.
- "David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.
- And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them."
Physical fasts didn't bring God's favor, spiritual fasts did. We cannot expect to do these works of fasting for God's favor because those physical fasts and afflictions "looked forward" to a better act of sacrifice and suffering that is God's chosen fast. The only one that could truly bring the favor of God upon His people. In the incident illustrated in 2nd Samuel 12:16-17, David's fast and prayer for his child did not bring the favor of God that He would save the child's life. Truly this portrait of God characterizes the deeper spiritual truth that the only work/fast that will save a child of David, is the chosen fast in the humility of the broken body of Christ. Only in 'this fast,' will God deliver the child of David from death. The Spiritual truth is that only in the denial, affliction, suffering and sacrifice of Christ, could the child of David be saved from death. It is only when the bridegroom (the bread of life) is taken away and the comforter is sent, that the church can truly partake in the Lord's chosen fast.
- "Yahweh said to me, Don't pray for this people for [their] good.
- When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and meal offering, I will not accept them; but I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence."
While it is certainly true that some things are not easily understood, a physical fast for favor of God should throw up red flags immediately to the conscientious Christian. We may not readily understand this, but the notion of man's suffering in hunger or thirst that he might grow closer to God or obtain favor is really no different than the cults in South America who believe that by afflicting or physically beating themselves for God, they will somehow be brought closer to Him. The acts are different, but the same principle is at work in both cases. In other words, the misguided view that physical suffering for God will make one a better or more spiritual person. Tribulation works patience, but self affliction works ego. The real affliction that was suffered to make man a better and more spiritual person was not in physical fasting (which merely pointed to Christ's affliction and suffering for us), but in the power of the chosen fast or affliction and denial of Christ. He is the bread that was taken away so that we might find favor and be in communion with God. It is in this fast that we are made regenerated, rejuvenated, revitalized, reinvigorated and spiritually awakened. It is in this fast in Christ that our prayers get answered, and in whom we are anointed by the Holy Spirit. A fast in Christ Jesus is the true fast whereby our earnest requests and supplications are brought perfectly before God and are heard. In His fast only do we come in the true position of humility, mourning for our sins, and His Spirit brings our prayers perfectly before God.
This is the chosen fast wherein we pray that the bonds of wickedness be loosed and the captives be set free. This is the east wherein we pray those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are fed and the spiritually naked might be clothed. This is the real fast God has chosen for His servants. Unfortunately, many theologians only look upon this question of fasting historically and superficially. Seldom are these pertinent questions concerning fasting addressed in a circumspect and Biblically studious manner. One theologian speaking of the fast that he had instituted in his life, put it this way:
- "Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
- And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God."
"Whenever we faced serious difficulties, we fasted and sought the Lord in humility and repentance and by this experienced God's deliverance."
To put it in simple terms, he is actually declaring that 'by this' work of physical fasting, he experienced a reward from God. Moreover, let us not confuse supplication with fasting as some theologians have done. They are two different things. Praying earnestly is very different from afflicting ourselves bodily by rejecting food or drink that we gain some type of higher blessing thereby. God works through our prayers, but the "work of fasting" to bring favor or answers to prayers, only Christ can accomplish this for us. It is not by our prayers and fasting that we earnestly seek to be closer to Christ, but by Christ that we earnestly grow closer to Him through God's chosen prayer and fast.
Neither health, favor, holiness or closeness to God is achieved through our works of ascetic practices. There is no physical practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from forms of indulgence for religious reasons that bring us favor from God. There is no fast we can perform that will bring us closer to God or God's Grace or favor. While there are "many" reasons given by Christians today for fasting, they are not justified by Scripture, nor are they the chosen fast that God talks about. They are merely fasts of the flesh or body. We grow in spirituality and nearness to God through Christ's Spiritual fast, by His obedience, and in this we find fellowship and communion with God. We grow in selflessness and spirituality 'because' we are indwelled by His Spirit, not because we participate in a physical fast. This modern view of fasting is not taught anywhere in Scripture. Nearness to God most certainly cannot be acquired by the work of physically abstaining from foods or drink. Communion with God is through the physical denial and work of Christ, not our own. Our denial of ourselves for Christ's sake is man's duty, but Christ's denial for man is God's power in us. It is by His affliction on our behalf that we have a growing relationship with Him. It is through the work of His affliction that brings about our spiritual healing. Of course we understand that Christians are often afflicted and persecuted, but we do not physically afflict ourselves. We understand that Christ already fulfilled "the type" in the "true" fast, and that has given us the power of God go forth as His ambassadors. It is by His affliction alone that our prayers are answered and that we are brought closer to God.
- "That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.
- For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
- Not of works, lest any man should boast."
1st Peter 2:24
The way we live and grow is through Christ, not through physical fasting. Those who fast thinking that for this work of self denial (and it is a work) it will strengthen the intensity of prayer, they will be rejuvenated or receive some spiritual benefit from God, are in error. We are rewarded by the fast of Christ, or more clearly stated, its benefits are derived from his self affliction, as opposed to ours. The fact that He was the bread that was taken away so that our prayers might be answered is the reason that we are healed and receive grace of God. That's why there wasn't a physical fast while He wa with the disciples. It was because it pointed to Him and He was there with them. The only reward man receives for his own physical fasting is (perhaps) the belief that he "feels" better about himself. God does not reward man for taking away bread in an act of starving himself, as this is not the chosen fast that God wants. The physical fasts recorded in Scripture merely characterized the fast God instituted. There is not one single record in Scripture of anyone fasting for any perceived health reasons, or that a fast strengthens the intensity of prayer. People fasting so that they might appear holy, pious or conscientious before other men is obviously warned against by God. This caveat does not only apply to fasting that one physically appear holy, but also against "boasting that we fast" in order that we might be looked upon as holy or righteous people. We probably all know Christians who boast about physical fasting and what it has done for them. Indeed, they have their reward--but it has nothing to do with blessings from God.
- "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed."
In other words, your fast is not to starve yourself, to afflict yourself, to beat down the body. It is a fast where you look exactly as you would look if you were not fasting, because it is a spiritual fast. What does anointing your head with oil and washing your face have to do with physical fasting? Consider that in the gospel message, these things have everything to do with spiritual fasting of a nature of the anointing of the Spirit and the washing of regeneration. A fast that only God can see. A fast that looses chains and frees slaves and saves sinners. A fast that appears unto God in the inward man, but not in the outward man. Because God sees in secret, in the heart, not in the flesh. Anointing and washing are spiritual terms of the gospel and is not concerning the "physical look" of those fasting. It is the appearance of true Christians to who are fasting in the knowledge that Christ Jesus went away for them. Their fast is in the power of the Spirit He sent, not in refraining from eating physical food. That is how we partake in the chosen fast. God says our heavenly Father sees our fast in secret and rewards us openly. But fasts today are anything but secret. It is true that many have surmised that because Christ mentions fasting in this verse, this validates their belief that it is biblical to physically fast. But this verse no more supports this idea, as Jesus mentioning the six stone pots of purifying water means that we should collect those also to purify ourselves today. These old Testament rituals and works were "shadows" or a [skia] that looked forward to their New Testament realities. The stone water pots, the sackcloth and ashes, the anointing oil, the trips to Jerusalem, the fasts, etc., they all prefigured some aspect of the work of Christ. Moses was a "type" of Christ, and in the Old Testament he fasted for forty days and nights on Mount Sinai. It was there He receives the law from God signifying that fasting was a representation of the institution of God’s word to His people.
- "Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
- But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
- That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly."
Christ came as the anti-type to fulfil this fast, and thus the law of the Covenant of God. When He came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized of John in Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended upon him and a voice from heaven said, "Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And immediately the Spirit drives him into the wilderness." In the temptation of Christ, our Lord mirroring Moses, fasted 40 days and nights while the devil tempted him. This fast is a portrait of His selflessness and discipline as He denied Himself the life sustaining natural desires of the flesh. This sacrifice in fasting was a portrait illustrating the Covenant of God with His people, and confirming that the Moses' fast was a shadow or example that looked forward to Him.
- "And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.
- And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments."
Christ again links His fast to the commandments by which man is to live by, just as Moses fast in the wilderness was about the Ten Commandments. Again a clear evidence that the true fast was all about Him as the fulfilled word of God concerning the Covenant.
- "And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.
- And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.
- But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."
As the fast of Moses and the bringing of the Covenant law followed as the children of Israel died in their wilderness journey, so Christ fasted to illustrate that it is He that would bring true deliverance and substance to the law where they would not die in confirming the Covenant of Grace. In other words, the fast symbolized the New Covenant of Grace in Christ that the law was schoolmaster bringing knowledge of. This is the acceptable chosen fast of the Lord.
- "And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him."
In Matthew 6:16 when Jesus says, 'they have their reward [misthos],' it is illustrating that their "work" of fasting has its payment in their worldly glory between and before men, but the true work of fasting has its reward secured by the "work" of Christ. In the true fast, this is the work that has our heads truly anointed. In 'this fast' only is our faces truly washed. Moreover, that word translated 'reward' in Matthew chapter 6, is the same word translated wages or hire, because the fast is indeed a work. And the fast that the Lord has chosen is in the "work" of Christ, not in our own physical abstentions. A fast where Christ is sacrificed so that God's servants can deal their bread to the hungry. A fast in which our work is not done that we may strengthen the intensity of our prayers or keep us in good health or make us feel a great rush, but because we are born of God and are empowered by Christ's righteousness. We loose chains and feed the needy unto God, because of the work of Christ that was accomplished in us. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus said that the righteousness of his disciples must exceed that of these Scribes and Pharisees. This can ONLY be accomplished in the righteousness of Christ, and never in our own works or physical fasts (also works) that the Pharisees practiced. '..He who hath an ear, let him hear.'
True holiness and conscientiousness comes when we serve for love of God, not for love of fasting, alleged greater intensity of prayer or to be seen of men as holy. The parable of 'the hypocritical Pharisee and the Publican' in Luke chapter 18 demonstrated that the Pharisee, (thinking that his work of fasting and praying made him holy) was still dead in trespass and sin for all his physical fasting. Though he physically fasted, he was unaware that his fasting meant nothing to God. Faith without works is dead and works without faith is dead. Without the faith of Christ, works are just deeds performed without satisfaction. They show that man is depending upon his own acts (fasting) to cause some benefit, rather than depending upon the chosen fast in Christ. Whether recognized or not, this is an act of pride rather than true humility, servility or searching for God.
The publican illustrated the true fast of the heart, not of starving himself thinking that would mad him holy. Unlike the Pharisee, he relied upon God's mercy in unmerited favor, rather than his own physical fasting to bring blessing. This parable teaches us that men who depend on their own works, are depending upon dead works. Living works are only in the faithfulness of Christ. This Pharisee prayed, God, I thank thee, I fast twice a week, I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. In other words, he was trusting in his own (perceived) good work of fasting and tithing. He pridefully looked upon himself as good because of what he did. But God reveals his physical fasting and giving of tithes meant nothing in regards to it being a help in any way. On the contrary, it was the sinner who did not physically fast but in "true humility" recognized he wa a sinner and knew that no work or fast that he could do would save him or make him a better Christian. It was the Publican who went up justified, rather than the religious man who physically fasted and prayed. His dependance was 'entirely' on the work of Christ, and this is a lesson for us all. In this parable we should see that God is illustrating that good things from Him cannot be obtained by physical fasts, it is obtained only by unmerited favor from God. He will be justified in the deeds of Christ only. We must therefore be careful that we do not think that God delights in our punishing the body by denying it food and water, or the punishing it by observing Old Testament rituals or dietary abstinence. Is God delighted in our physically afflicting ourselves, falling to the earth and throwing dirt over our heads in mourning as the prophets of old did? This is what God's servants did in Scripture, and for the same purpose as fasting. Is God's delight in seeing man deny himself food and water that God might look on this work with favor? God delights in obedience and the spiritual things of the heart. He does not delight in our denying ourselves foods that He has graciously provided thinking it merits something, but in our spiritually denying ourselves and abstaining from the paths of the wicked. This is the sacrifice far greater than beans and rice.
- "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
- I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
- And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
- I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
God's not saying pick up a physical cross and get crucified. Nor is God saying deny yourself food in a physical fast. He is saying 'this' spiritual denial for His sake is the chosen fast that He requires. Spiritual abstinence from the wickedness of the world so that you might feed the spiritual hungry. This is the fast that may cause you affliction and tribulation in the world because it is in the chosen fast in Christ. It is not necessarily a physical sacrifice, but it most certainly is a spiritual one. Physical fasts of Scriptures were pictures illustrating the character of the work and accomplishment in the affliction of Christ. This truth is put forth gloriously in Isaiah chapter 58 as God defines the specific type of fast that "He" delights in. And Christians would do well to listen. God Himself unambiguously asks them (and you) the question. Is this (physical) fast the one I require? And He declares the true fast that He has chosen, which is very different from man afflicting his own soul in a physical nature thinking that this might make his voice heard on High.
- "And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me."
Here God unambiguously contrasts the physical fasting his people did with His chosen fast. Notice that the fast that He has chosen consists of "loosing bands, lifting heavy burdens, and releasing captives, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked." What does all of this have to do with fasting? Everything if we understand the true fast and nothing if we do not understand that God is not speaking of His people practicing a physical fast. Did their physical fasting break yokes from anyone? Did their physical fasting bring all poor out to their house? Did physical fasting clothe the people of Israel or deal their bread to the poor? These are all Spiritual 'figures' or pictures of salvation in Christ. In other words, Blessed are the hungry, for they shall be filled, the naked will be clothed and the widows will be housed. When we share the gospel, we are inviting the poor in spirit to come into our house (1st Tim. 3:15). When we preach the gospel we coming with the robe of Christ's righteousness as a covering to those who are naked (Revelation 3:18) in trespass and sin to cover them. Modern Christians spend a lot of time reading Scripture, but very little time hearing what they read. Is a physical fast going to make our voices heard on high? Here in Isaiah chapter 58, God answers that with an unequivocal no! It's not a physical fast that make our prayers heard on high, but by the physical work of Christ wherein the Spirit takes our imperfect prayers 'perfectly' before the Lord and God answers them. Again:
- "Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.
- Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness:
ye shall not fast as ye do this day,to make your voice to be heard on high.
- Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
- Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
- Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out, to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?"
It is the Spirit that takes our "imperfect" prayers and transforms them that they may be brought before God as perfect prayers, according to his will. It is not fasting that strengthens the intensity of prayer or that transforms prayer into a richer, more personal experience, but the Spirit itself taking our stinking sin-tainted prayers and brings them before God as the smoke found in the sweet smell of incense. No fasting required. It's not because of anything we do in denial that makes us prayers spiritual, it is the Spirit. God has unambiguously told us in Isaiah 58:3-7 that His fast is not for us to afflict our souls in denial, not for man to bow down his head as a bulrush, not for man to spread sackcloth and ashes under him. No this is not the fast God chooses for us. Why aren't we listening to Him? God asks rhetorically, 'wilt thou call this a fast and an acceptable day to the LORD?' These physical things are works signifying the true chosen fast. The fast that looses the bands of the wicked, the undoing of heavy burdens, free the oppressed, break the yokes and the setting of the captives free are 'figures' of setting the wicked free from bondage to Satan. Comparing Scripture with Scripture, the question for us is, which does God say is the 'true' chosen fast and which is not the fast that He delights in?
- "Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
- And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God."
Many Christians will look to the Old Testament for justification of physical fasting in the New, and the new for justification of this practice now. However, they don't understand that the fast symbolized things that were pointing to work by which God would address and answer our prayers. Throwing dirt on their heads, afflicting themselves, mourning, these were all pictures of the humility and affliction which would be seen in the work of Christ, and in Him the reason God answers prayers. Ultimately, our work of fasting can only be accomplished in Him. These fasts of the Bible characterized this. From fasting for mercy (2nd samuel 12:21), for help (Ezra 8:21-13), for victory in war (Judges 20:26), or for mourning (1st samuel 31:13), they all 'looked forward' to the chosen fast which would accomplish all these things, spiritually. Even the fast of Acts 27 is a spiritual picture of the day of atonement, and the language of 'when the fast was finished, sailing was dangerous' all carry great spiritual implications about end time apostasy. All through Scripture, when we read of fasts (example, Jonah 3) it is the picture of being afflicted and sitting in sackcloth and ashes to illustrate the sacrificial work of humility in our total repentance and mourning for our sins. It is an intimate relationship, because all those who are being Saved by God in the work of Christ, do thereby mourn for their sins.
We go forth with the gospel with tears because, being spiritually enlightened, we now understand that there are so many who are under the wrath of God. And because of this work of Christ within us, we mourn for these dear souls. And we love our neighbor as ourselves, meaning we desire for them the same that we have been given of God. Mourning with fasting is a picture of our being made spiritually alive in the work of Christ.
- "Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
Here is the captivity set free, and the yokes broken in the chosen fast. Fasting signifies our mourning and repentance and sowing (working) because of Christ. God all through Scripture identifies fasting with the gospel of Salvation for this is the fast God has chosen, and not our physical work. We shall not fast as they did of old to make our voice to be heard on high, it is heard on high through our spiritual fasting in Christ, who is the bread that went away that the Holy Spirit would come whereby we would sow in tears. Because He went away, we go forth with power, loosing the bands of the wicked and freeing the captivity. It was specifically for this purpose that Christ went away, that we could have 'THIS' chosen fast!
- "Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south.
- They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
- He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him."
When Christ was taken away, then the church fasts. Because Christ was afflicted and He (the bread of Life) was taken away. In this work of being taken away is the chosen fast given power to set captives free and bread being dealt to the hungry. By this we have the ability to preach the gospel with power, by virtue of the Holy Spirit that came thereby. God's bounty in sending of the Gospel out comes only when Christ went away, and there was the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in world wide evangelizing that was prophesied of old. Christ was preparing the disciples for just this 'task' of delivering the gospel to all the world, by the chosen fast characterized in taking away bread.
- "And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?
- And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.
- But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days."
When Christ went away, then the fast that God has chosen could come and the disciples could fast in the way that God always intended. Then as Isaiah declared, are the bands of wickedness loosed, then are the heavy burdens undone, then are the oppressed set free, and then is every yoke broken and the captivity set free. That's what the disciples were commissioned to do when Christ went away. That is the fast that would occur when Christ went away. We do this when we send forth the gospel. Yes, just as God declared, this 'is' the fast He has chosen. Not in afflicting ourselves by abstinence thinking we will be better heard on high, but by the loosing of bonds and the release of those in captivity, the hungry filled, and the naked clothed. Truly these things are spiritually discerned.
- "Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you."
Theologians have also often surmised that Mark chapter 2 says very plainly that the Lord's disciples would physically fast after He left earth, but if this indeed spoke of a physical fast, why then could they not fast as John's disciples did? Why did they have to wait until Christ went away? The answer is seen clearly in those Scriptures. It is because it's not referring to the Physical fast, but to a spiritual fast which could "ONLY" occur when Christ (the bread) left earth. If it was talking about a physical fast, there was nothing preventing them from fasting while Christ (the bread) was there. But the truth is, when Christ went to the cross, then would they have the 'kind of fast' God has chosen. It was by 'this fast' that they would go forth to the world with power (Acts 1:8) and be able to cast out demons, move mountains, and cast them into the sea. Only then would they have the faith of Christ by the work of Christ. It's why God talked about the "POWER" that came only by prayer and fasting. He was certainly not declaring that human fasting would work physical miracles, (it won't) but the fast of Christ would work miracles. Read these Scriptures carefully with an 'ear' to hear exactly what they are really saying.
Christ had to cast out Satan by His work on the cross. Then when the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, the disciples would have the power to loose the captives. Is this verse saying that if we fast physically and pray, we can move literal/physical mountains? Again, that is not what God is teaching here. For the fast that will remove mountains and in which nothing is impossible to us, is the chosen fast where the "Kingdom" of Satan is moved and Satan conquered. It is wherein our faith is in the Mustard seed, which is Christ. It is His Kingdom which started out small in that He died and was put into the ground, and now grows into a great kingdom spread over the whole world. Again, these things are spiritually discerned. Mountains symbolize kingdoms. This faith which casts the Kingdom of Satan into the depths of the sea and sets men free from the yoke of bondage, is in Christ. This kind comes not except by prayer and fasting. The fast that casts out Satan is obviously the chosen fast. And it just as obviously "cannot" be a literal physical fast! For with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. 'He who hath an ear, let him hear!'
- "Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?
- And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
- Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting."
When Jesus told the disciples that they couldn't cast out the demon because this kind cometh not but by prayer and fasting, this is what Christ was illustrating. Most certainly He didn't speak of physically abstaining from food, as if that work could accomplish such a miraculous task. Unfortunately, many Christians have not considered all these things carefully, and thus this misguided idea that fasting will give them strength, can work miracles, or make them more righteous, allow them to concentrate more, or become a better person before God, seems ingrained in them. Without the Spirit, nothing will dissuade them from this belief. But the truth is, neither fasting, nor any other religious effort, ritual, or ceremony can make a man more powerful, Holy, or acceptable before God. As evidenced by the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees.
Nevertheless, many Christians keep asking the question, 'why the fasts of Scripture then?' The answer is, to characterize Christ's work. It is because they are a token or figure of how the church would fast when Christ was taken away, because He is the bread of life by which men live. This picture is the same as the 'physical' miracles that were done. It doesn't mean that we should or can do physical miracles today just because the Disciples did them. No, they were to characterize certain aspects of Christ's salvation. For example, healing the blind was a picture of the spiritually blind being made to see. What Biblical Christian would think that he can make people physically see? Feeding the 4000 with 7 loaves was a picture of the church feeding those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. What Biblical Christian would think he can feed 4000 with 7 loaves today? Healing the deaf was a picture of the elect being given ears that people would hear the gospel. Christ having Peter walk on water was a picture of Christ upholding us that we not sink in the depths of hell. Likewise the ships in safety on the sea, fishers of men, casting out demons, etc., etc. These things all characterize salvation and do not mean that we should attempt to do these works today. Wisdom is in understanding this.
These Scriptures which speak about the 'true' fast and purpose which God assigns it are not passages that should be discarded or taken lightly as they all have a spiritual story to tell. The Lord Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness, which is a picture of His going away to Heaven when we would have our wilderness journey on earth (see Revelation 12) on our way to the promised inheritance. It is a picture of us in the chosen fast where yokes are broken and the captivity freed. The little becoming a great Kingdom. The number 40 in Scripture signifies trial, or testing. These are all great truths which to some seem as foolishness, but to the spiritual, they are made manifest by God. Let no one think that they have plumbed the depths of the knowledge of the Almighty to 'arrogantly' declare these things untrue. Let man never deny what God has said, when he has said it, nor affirm what God has said, when it is not written in the Holy Scriptures. Let him honorably, as the Bereans, search the Scriptures, to see if these things are true.
In conclusion, the fact is, nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to fast. That is a fact. So while God does not prohibit fasting for health or any other reason (besides a work looking for blessing from above), there is no command to physically abstain from eating in service to God. If someone wants to go without food for a time, and it's not harmful, let him go without food. But there is no real spiritual merit at all from the act or work of going without food or afflicting the body by fasting in the Biblical sense.
- "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter."
What is the purpose of fasting and how should we apply the principle in our Reformed devotional practice? The answer is we simply receiving it as the fulfilled type, the chosen fast, the denial that represents the acceptable day of the Lord. We need not abstain from food or water in order to strengthen intensity of prayer, concentrate on spiritual problems or needs, and it indeed may even be a hindrance to fellowship. This because the consequences of considering the outward as the 'real,' may be that many people falsely think that it brings them closer to God. For health reasons, who knows, it may or may not be beneficial depending upon our state of mind, and our health. But there is no Biblical reason for doing it. No such works or deeds can give us peace of mind, favor, or bring grace. Only the work of Christ can. We should not look to physical fasting anymore than we should look to other old pictures, rites, feasts, abstentions, or ceremonies which point to Christ's work. We shouldn't abstain from food anymore than we would abstain from putting two types of seeds or two types of threads together (leviticus 19:19) today, as those things were spiritually fulfilled. You won't see theologians claiming we should go to Jerusalem 3 times a year because it's a everlasting command in Scripture will you? You don't see them pointing to these Scriptures and saying we should do this because it's in Scripture 'because they understand' that these were figures or types pointing to a bigger 'Spiritual Picture.' And indeed, so was fasting!
May the Lord who is Gracious above all, Bless us as we study His most Holy word, and guide us into its Glorious truths.
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Copyright ©2001 Tony Warren
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