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Do you long for intimacy with God? Do you desire to feel His presence, to hear His voice, to sense His pleasure? If drawing near to God is the desire of your heart, then we invite you to join us in an invigorating study of the discipline of fasting.
Since ancient times, fasting has been considered an essential means of deepening one’s faith and connection with God. But in recent years it has become an increasingly rare—and often misunderstood— practice. Many wonder if fasting is an outmoded form of spiritual discipline, something modern-day Christians needn’t bother with. Others are convinced this discipline is only for the super-spiritual. And some see it only as a bizarre ritual connected to other faiths.
The Bible refers to fasting more than fifty times, and in this six-week study we’ll examine many of those passages to learn what the Word of God teaches about the topic. We’ll consider what fasting involves and what it means to the average Christian. As you discover for yourself the biblical principles behind this practice and observe its impact on the lives of the faithful throughout history, you’ll discover the unique role fasting plays in the life of the church. And by the end of our time together, you’ll be equipped to decide how you will enter into the discipline of fasting as a means of deepening your walk with God.
Let’s start our study of fasting by examining what Jesus said on the subject in His Sermon on the Mount. Then we’ll look at some Old Testament references to this practice to see what we can learn about its nature and purpose.
The Sermon on the Mount records Jesus’ teaching about the basics of righteous living. Let’s look specifically at what He said about fasting.
Leader: Read Matthew 6:1, 16–18 aloud. As you read, have the group say aloud and…
• underline every occurrence of whenever or when you.
• circle every reference to fasting. As you read the text, it’s helpful to have the group say the key words aloud as they mark them. This way everyone will be sure to mark every occurrence of the word, including any synonymous words or phrases. Do this throughout the study.
The word fast in this passage is translated from the Greek word nesteuo, which means “to abstain from food or drink.”
• What did you learn from marking whenever and when you? What did you learn from marking the references to fasting?
• From what you read in this passage, did Jesus seem to expect His listeners to fast? Explain your answer.If you’ve ever fasted, describe your experience. What prompted you to fast and what was the outcome?
We’ve seen what Jesus expected of His followers when it came to fasting, but did He ever observe this practice Himself?
Leader: Read aloud Matthew 4:1–4 and have the group….
• mark each reference to Jesus, including pronouns, with a cross:
• circle the word fasted.
• What did you learn from marking the references to Jesus?
• What does this passage reveal about His perspective on fasting?
Now let’s go to Isaiah 58, the most comprehensive passage about fasting in the Bible. This message originally was given to God’s people, the Jews, yet we know from Romans 15:4 that “whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction.” The context for this passage is that God’s people had been fasting in the wrong spirit. Though they outwardly seemed sincere, God knew their hearts and saw through their attempts to manipulate Him.
Leader: Read Isaiah 58:1–3a aloud. As you read, have the group…
• underline all references to My people, including pronouns and synonyms such as the house of Jacob.
• circle the word fasted.
• What did God tell Isaiah to do in verse 1?
• What did you learn from marking the references to God’s people? What was happening with them?
• In verse 3, what action is described as a parallel to fasting?
• God’s people look sincere and eager; however, would He call what they were doing sin if they were truly sincere? Explain your answer.
• The people went to the temple, obeyed God’s laws, fasted, and appeared eager to seek the Lord; but their worship was only an outward show. What does that tell us about the condition of their hearts?
• From what you have seen, is God more concerned about our outward appearance or the condition of our heart?
Let’s continue observing Isaiah 58.
Leader: Read Isaiah 58:3b–5 aloud and have the group…
• underline the words you and your.
• circle each occurrence of the word fast.
• How did God describe the way in which Israel was fasting?
• What kind of practices did Israel engage in when fasting, according to verse 3?
• What did God admonish the people about in verse 4? Were they truly humble as they claimed earlier? Explain your answer.
• Did God find Israel’s outward practices acceptable? Why or why not?
• According to what you’ve read, is the external ritual of fasting enough to be heard by God Explain your answer.
Let’s listen as the Lord continues speaking in Isaiah 58.
Leader: Read aloud Isaiah 58:6–12 and have the group do the following:
• circle every reference to fasting.
• mark every reference to the Lord, including pronouns, with a triangle:
• underline every reference to Israel, including pronouns such as you, your, and yourself.
• What did God tell Israel was the right kind of fast? What would be the result of such a fast?• Contrast this with Isaiah 58:3b–5. Which kind of fasting reveals a heart truly concerned with spiritual matters? Explain your answer.What did God promise to do if Israel would fast according to His desires?
The keeping of the Sabbath was a barometer of one’s faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant. A person who observed the Sabbath according to the Law was acknowledging his dependence on God by seeking Him above his own desires.
Leader: Read Isaiah 58:13–14 aloud and have the group do the following:
• double underline every reference to the Sabbath, including any pronouns and the synonym holy day.
• underline every reference to Israel, including the pronouns you and your as before.
• mark with a triangle each reference to the Lord, including pronouns.
• What did the people of Israel need to do in order to please God in the way they kept the Sabbath?
• What would God do for Israel if the people observed the Sabbath with a right attitude?
• In these verses about keeping the Sabbath, what similarities do you find related to the previous passages about Israel’s behavior and attitude toward fasting?
• Discuss what principles, if any, you can discern from these passages regarding God’s response to a person’s attitude or heart.
Because of the depraved state of the nation, God would have to initiate salvation. Again God spoke of the people’s sin and how it was preventing Him from saving them.
Leader: Read Isaiah 59:1–2 aloud and have the group…
• mark every reference to the Lord, including synonyms and pronouns, with a triangle.
• underline each occurrence of the words you and your.
• What did you learn from marking you and your?
• What did you learn from marking the references to the Lord?
• What point was the Lord making? Is it that He cannot hear or save?
• From all we have seen in this lesson, what have you learned about fasting?
What does it take to be close to God and hear from Him? We saw that Jesus expected fasting to be a regular part of His followers’ lives, something that would be rewarded by God. In addition He Himself fasted in the wilderness.
The people of Israel thought they could be right with God simply by performing the ritual of fasting. But they didn’t hear from God, and they didn’t understand why.
The answer was sin! Sin had separated them from God so that He would not listen to their cry. God was concerned with their motives as well as their behavior. Fasting would have no effect until they dealt with their sin.
The perspective of eternal God has not changed since the days of Isaiah. He wants us to obey from our hearts, not merely follow a ritual. If we are living in disobedience, then fasting won’t draw us close to God. He won’t listen. It’s not that God can’t hear, but that He chooses
not to listen to the cry of the unrepentant sinner.
What is your response to this warning from God? Will you respond by, saying, “I’m okay. The Lord knows my heart.” Or will you fast, examining your heart and your ways to see if there be any way in you that is displeasing to the Lord (Psalm 139:23-24)?
If you truly want to draw closer to God, you’ll find you can only connect with Him according to His Word.