Now let's look again at Matthew 6 because we did not have time to cover it all. Jesus here is correcting the way the Jews were fasting which is different from the way Christians fast. In our world today, we do not fast the way they did. It isn't a common thing.
Now let me review what we discussed last Sunday. Number one, we talked about the principle of fasting. And this is what we said in summary. Fasting is total abstinence from food and it is to humble oneself before God in the midst of a spiritual struggle. But it's not an end in itself. It is a corollary to spiritual struggle.
Secondly, we talked about the period of fasting. Since fasting is completely spontaneous, completely voluntary, there was only one fast commanded in the Bible, that was the Day of Atonement and at the cross the Day of Atonement was set aside, so no specific fasts times are commanded.
Thirdly, regarding the priority of fasting we talked a little about the fact that the Lord assumes we will fast. He says when you fast, assuming it'll happen. Also in Matthew 9:15, the Lord said, "When the bridegroom is taken from you then you will fast."
Fourthly, and this is where we stopped, the reasons for fasting. What is it that urges us to fast? What is that spiritual struggle that makes fasting a very natural response? Well, we named several. Number one, lamentation, sorrow causes fasting.
And we discussed that your physical body responds to the anxiety of your soul. When a person is deeply concerned, when their spirit is grieved, when there's a tremendous awareness of God in a spiritual struggle, the body will accommodate the heart. There will be no desire for food.
Secondly, protection was another reason, fear causes fasting. There are times when such fear grips the heart as to make food a remote thought. We're fearful over something that might happen. We're fearful over a person hanging in the balance between life and death. We're fearful over some impending calamity or danger that grips us and cannot eat.
Think of Joel 2 where Joel says that Assyria is going to come in judgment on the people of God. And he says they're going to come like a fire. And they're going to come like great horses leaping on the mountain tops. You should read Joel 2, because this is a tremendous, dramatic, overwhelming picture of the Assyrian invasion.
And then it says the people of God came together and wept and fasted. Why? They were in fear. And they were so consumed with fear that there was a total loss of any need for food. In fact, it was something they couldn't handle.
A third reason was humility. Guilt over sin produces such an anxiety and intensity that fasting occurs. And this comes in all kinds of forms. Guilt and sin brings a humility that very often means there's no appetite.
That was the great dramatic lesson of the Day of Atonement, not to eat when you're confessing your sin. When you're drawing into the presence of God over the evil of your life that's the time there ought to be such confession, such repentance, there's no thought for food.
Fourthly, another reason for fasting is revelation. At times when God's people were either going to receive God's word or proclaim God's word, we frequently see a fast. In other words, like Jesus said, "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God."
And at the moment of receiving the word of God, that's when you best know that man does not live by bread. “In the first year of his reign,” Daniel 9:2 says, "I Daniel understood by books the number of the years concerning which the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet that he would accomplish 70 years in the desolation of Jerusalem."
Now Daniel was reading Jeremiah and he got an idea that God was going to perform something over a period of 70 years, but he hungered to know the fullness of this. So he says in verse 3, "I set my face unto the Lord God to seek by prayer and supplications with fasting and sack cloth and ashes. 4Then I prayed to the Lord my God and made my confession.”
Verse 21-23, "yes, while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, reached me about the time of the evening offering. 22 And he informed me, and talked with me, and said, “O Daniel, I have now come forth to give you skill to understand. 23 At the beginning of your supplications the command went out, and I have come to tell you, for you are greatly beloved; therefore consider the matter, and understand the vision.”
Now listen, he fasts and he prays and the angel says all right Daniel God has heard you, God has seen you, and God is going to give you the word here it comes. And in verse 24, he gets the most incredible revelation of the ‘70 weeks of Daniel’ that we know lays out the theme of the prophetic history of the world. In anticipation of a revelation from God he fasted in order that he might better understand the words of Jeremiah.
In Daniel 10:1-3 is written, “In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia a message was revealed to Daniel. The message was true; and he had understanding of the vision. 2 In those days I, Daniel, was mourning three full weeks. 3I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled."
On another occasion when God was to give him a great revelation, he fasted again. Now fasting to receive the word of God is simply this. If you fast, it doesn't mean you're going to get a new word of God. It means that when you are so consumed with seeking to understand what God has revealed, you have no thought of food until you come to know and understand what it is that God's word says.
When was the last time you were so intense in Bible study that you did not let food interrupt it? In Acts 10, Peter was praying and fasting when he saw a vision to go to the Gentile Cornelius with the gospel. In Exodus 24, Moses had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before God gave him His holy law. There are many occasions in the Bible where in the midst of a seeking heart, where food is no concern, God's word is revealed.
The reason people don't understand the Bible is because so often, they don't study the Bible with the intensity that it takes to really comprehend it. But it's there if you're willing to dig it out. Sometimes you might have to skip a meal and your heart will want you to do that.
Not only is there fasting in connection with revelation received, but also with revelation giving. There seems to be a fasting associated with a preaching or teaching of the Word. Paul said that he fasts often and maybe some of those fasts were before he preached. We see our Lord fasting 40 days and 40 nights before He begins His preaching ministry.
Fifthly, condemnation drives people to fasting. The fear of divine judgment, not only for themselves, but for others causes one to fast. There should be Christians in this world who are willing to fast and pray on behalf of all sinners in this world.
In Jonah we have an illustration of this. In Jonah 3, the message was given to the people of Nineveh that God was going to judge them. And what was their response? The people of Nineveh believed God and proclaimed a fast. They were afraid of the judgment of God.
We don't have enough messages like that today. If you preach the judgment of God, people get mad at you. And the people that get mad at you are not the unsaved, they're the saved ones. They say you don't have any love. If somebody's going to die and perish and go to hell, the loving thing to do is to warn them, don't you think?
But we don't really care at their demise as we should. When was the last time you skipped a meal because you were so concerned in your spirit over our nation which is condemned to hell without Christ? Over your neighbors, over somebody you know and love? Nineveh at least had the sense to fast and pray so fearful were they of the word of God.
Sixthly, in addition to lamentation, protection, humility, revelation and condemnation, is selection of leaders. When the time came in the early church to call special people for special tasks in spiritual leadership, fasting was a part of it. Nothing is more important than the leadership of the church. If the leadership is right, the church is right. If the leadership is wrong, the church will go wrong.
And so when the early church went about to select leadership and ordain people and set them aside for the gospel ministry and to use them for God's purposes it was not done frivolously. It was not done politically. They didn't select people because people liked them or had a power base in the congregation. They selected people with prayer and fasting!
Acts 13:1-3, " Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, having fasted and prayed and laid hands on them, they sent them away.”
Is it any more important then than it is now to have the right people in leadership or to send the right missionaries? If it was a task then that demanded such intense prayer that they fasted, is it any less for us now that God would ordain the right people and send them out from us? Not just those who wish, but those who deserve by God's grace and His calling to be sent.
In Acts 14: 23, it continued to be that way. It says, "So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” When we select a deacon, it's as important as if they were ordained by Paul and Barnabas themselves. These things demand prayer and fasting.
A seventh reason for fasting is direction. There are times in the Scripture when people who sought direction, sought it with such deep anxiety that they fasted. In Genesis 24 it is when Abraham’s servant was to find a bride for Isaac, he was so concerned that God would show him the right lady that he fasted and prayed.
Paul said in 2 Corinthians 11:27 that he was “in fastings often.” He was fasting while he was waiting for the unfolding of the will of God. Some of you face critical decisions, who to marry, where to work, how to handle your family, whether to stay here or move to another place, and where to use your spiritual gift. How are you handling it? Is there a yearning in your heart to know the will of God that you want to fast like others did before you?
It is for those times of deep struggle where the tug on the truly consecrated heart is so powerful that as you are pulled into the presence of God, all thought of the world passes. You should fast with such intensity not only in things regarding yourself, but those regarding others and even your enemies.
Lastly, fasting is always linked with prayer. Prayer is not always necessarily linked with fasting. You can pray without fasting but you cannot fast without praying. There are no times in the bible where fasting is without praying.
Fasting then is not an end in itself, but is a spiritual struggle that draws us into the presence of God. The man who prays with fasting, you see, is giving heaven notice that he's really in earnest. That he will not give up. That he won't let go until God blesses.
And true fasting always comes out of a pure heart. That's so important. You say well, what do you mean by that? Well, I mean, this that if your heart isn't right, your fasting is also not right. It's a sham. It all begins with your heart. If your heart is totally committed to God, then it will pray a true prayer, and you will be able to fast.
You see the Lord is after an inward thing and God, it says in Matthew 6:18, "who sees in secret," because He lives in that secret world that no man knows, He will see the reality of that fast. And He's the only one who needs to know because He's the only one who gives a real reward, right?
Let us close with the most specific fasting passage in the Bible, Isaiah 58. They had fasted and thought themselves to be so good because they did it and said in Isaiah 58:3, "Why have we fasted and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?”
Why don't you answer us? God says, "In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. 4 Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high.”
5 Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?” Just because you've got the ashes and the sack cloth and the bull rush and you're bowed down but your hearts are evil does not make it acceptable.
Isaiah 58:6-7, "Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?”
The promise for fasting, Isaiah 58:8-11, “Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ “If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness.”
10 If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. 11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”
God says you really want to be blessed? Fast, but fast out of a true, pure, obedient heart. If your character is right and your life is right, some times in your prayers there will be such intensity for one thing or another that fasting will be a very natural addition to prayer.
And in those times, God will honor and bless not because you fasted but because your heart was so pure your fast was a chosen fast. God blesses that kind of heart. Let's pray.