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Chapter 1 The Primary Purpose of Fasting
A lost key to successful Christian living that is found throughout the Bible has been set aside and misplaced by the church of today. That key is fasting.
Fasting, as I would define it, is "voluntarily abstaining from food for spiritual purposes." Sometimes people fast not only from food, but also from water; however, that is the exception rather than the rule. Fasting from food only is exemplified in the fast of Jesus in the wilderness before He began His public ministry. Matthew 4:2 says this: And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. (Matthew 4:2 NAS)
Clearly Jesus did not abstain from water for those forty days because anyone who has fasted from water will become thirsty before they become hungry. So the fact that the Scripture does not say, "He became thirsty," but just states, 'He then became hungry," indicates that Jesus abstained from food but not from water.
Fasting seems unfamiliar and even frightening to many people, yet this attitude is strange. Fasting was regularly practiced by God's people throughout the Bible. Fasting is also an accepted part of most other major world religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.
Fasting for Self-Humbling
Primarily, the purpose of fasting is self-humbling. It is a scriptural means ordained by God for us to humble ourselves before Him. Throughout the Bible God requires His people to humble themselves before Him. Many different passages of Scripture emphasize this. Here are four from the New Testament: "Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18.4 NIV) "For whoever exalts himself will be hum-bled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Matthew 23:12 NIV) "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up." (James 4:10 NIV) "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time." (1 Peter 5.6 NIV)
One important feature of all these Scriptures is that the responsibility to humble ourselves is placed upon us. We cannot transfer that responsibility to God. To pray, "God, make me humble," is unscriptural, because the reply of God in Scripture is always, 'Humble yourself "
In the Bible God has revealed to us a specific, practical way to humble ourselves. David reveals that fasting was the way that he employed to humble his soul, or to humble himself.
"'I humbled my soul with fasting...(Psalm 35.13 NAS)
Consider some historical examples where God's people humbled themselves in this way. First, we read in the book of Ezra about how Ezra is preparing to lead a band of returning Jewish exiles from Babylon back to Jerusalem. They have before them a long, arduous journey through country infested by brigands and occupied by their enemies. They are taking with them their wives and children and the sacred vessels of the temple. They are in desperate need of safe conduct. Ezra had two alternatives: he could appeal to the emperor of Persia for a band of soldiers and horsemen, or he could trust in God. He chose to trust in God and this is what he says:
"There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, 'The good hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.' "So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. (Ezra 8.21-23 NIV)
Ezra had two alternatives: one carnal, the other spiritual. He could have resorted to the carnal and asked for a band of soldiers and horsemen. It would not have been sinful, but it would have been on a lower level of faith. But he chose the spiritual alternative. He chose to look to God by invoking God's supernatural help and protection. Ezra and the Israelites with him knew exactly how to do this. It was something they already understood. They fasted and humbled their souls before God. They petitioned God, and God heard them and granted them the safe journey for which they asked.
In 2 Chronicles we read the record Of an incident in the history of Judah when Jehoshaphat was king: Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, "A vast army is coming against you from Edom...It is already in Hazazon Tamar" (that is, En Gedi). "Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from the LORD; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him. (2 Chronicles 20.2-4 NIV)
Then Jehoshaphat prayed a prayer invoking God's help. In the last verse of that prayer, which is very significant, Jehoshaphat concludes by saying: "our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you." (2 Chronicles 20:12 NIV)
Here are the key phrases: "...we have no power .. we do not know what to do..." So they had to turn to God for supernatural help and they knew the way to turn. They renounced the natural to invoke the supernatural.
For another clear example of the practice of fasting in the Old Testament,, we turn to the ordinances for the Day of Atonement, what the Jewish people call Yom Kippur: "'And this shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; [NOW, where this translation says, 'you shall humble your souls, 0 another translation says, You must deny yourselves, -and, alternatively, "YOU must fast," Then the Passage continues:] "for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for YOU, that You may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute." (Leviticus 16.29--31 NAS)
We know, historically, that for 3,500 years the Jewish people have always observed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as a day of fasting. We also have the New Testament authority for this. A passage in Acts that describes Paul's journey to Rome by sea says: Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast.(Acts 27.9 NIV)
'The Fast" mentioned here is the Day of Atonement, which always fell at the end of September or the beginning of October, just when winter was setting in. We see from the New Testament that the Day of Atonement was always celebrated as 'the Fast." God required His people to humble their souls before Him by collective fasting. That was the appointment, the ordinance, for the Day of Atonement, the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar.
Notice two facts: First, in this case, fasting was man's response to God's provision of forgiveness and cleansing. God provided the ceremony by which the High Priest went into the innermost sanctuary of the temple and made atonement. Second, that atonement was only effective for those people who accepted it through fasting.
In other words, God did His part, but man had to do his. This is true in many transactions with God. God does His part, but He expects a response from us. Many times the response that God expects from us is to fast.
God absolutely required fasting of all His people under the old covenant. Anyone who did not fast on the Day of Atonement was to be cut off and was no longer to be a member of God's people. So we see that God attached great importance to fasting as the appointed way for His people to humble themselves before Him and so to qualify for the blessing that He wanted to provide.