027 Matthew 06v16-18 Fasting

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Presentation 27
To date we have examined two of the three
spiritual exercises mentioned by Jesus in the
Sermon on the Mount – giving and prayer.
We deal now with the third of these spiritual
exercises - fasting!
Notice that all three spiritual exercises have one
thing in common; they were not to be publicly
exhibited in order that the general populace
might applaud their performer, rather their
display can be likened to a gallery that gives
private viewings and to which
only God is invited.
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Fasting In Scripture And History
In order to appreciate the relevance of fasting it will
be helpful to see how the subject is dealt with in
scripture and to review how the practice has been
approached by the church. In the O.T. fasting was
commanded on only one day of the year - the day of
On that day Israel’s attention was focused in two
directions; on her own sin and on God’s provision of
for that sin. It was a day when Israel humbled herself
before God. This idea of humbling oneself under the
hand of God is absolutely basic to fasting: the Heb.
word for ‘fasting’ carries with it the idea of
‘humbling oneself under God’s hand’.
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Fasting In Scripture And History
There are also a number of voluntary fasts in the O.T. and the unifying
element in them all is that of humbling oneself before God. We find fasting
associated with a national revival under Samuel in 1 Sam. 7v6, in Esther’s
plan to prevail with God to prevent the destruction of the Jews, Esther 4v6.
and when Ezra sought God’s protection for the Jews making their way
home from exile, Ez. 8v21.
In each case we find God’s people
humbling themselves and seeking
God for some spiritual good.
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Fasting In Scripture And History
Fasting is also found in the N.T. where it often
proceeds a major advance in God’s work. During
a period of prayer and fasting Peter was convinced
that the gospel message must be proclaimed to the
Gentiles [Acts 10]. After prayer and fasting the church
set apart Paul and Barnabas for mission [Acts 13].
Paul engaged in fasting 2 Cor. 6v5 and Jesus fasted
immediately before he entered public office. It is
clear from our passage that Jesus expected his
followers to fast for the phrase ‘when you fast’ v16
assumes this to be the case while Jesus expected
this practice to begin after his death and
resurrection. Matt. 9v15.
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Fasting In Scripture And History
Fasting has been practiced by the church for
many years. This was the case in the life of the
early church, in the monastic movements, the
reformation, and during the period of Puritans.
When Britain was threatened with a French
invasion in 1756 King George III called for a
national day of prayer and fasting. And at that
time it was said of London:
‘Every church in the city was more than full and
a solemn seriousness expression found on
every face... Humility was turned to national
rejoicing when the threatened invasion by the
French was averted’.
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Fasting In Scripture And History
Many overseas churches have woven fasting
into the discipline of their spiritual lives. But it
is a practice that by and large has been
neglected by the church in the West.
As far as I am aware between the years of
1861 and 1954 not a single book was been
printed on the subject. Fasting had gained a
bad reputation because of a misleading
emphasis made by some or, because it was
associated with excessive ascetic practices or,
with a mere mechanical performance. Can we
recover the biblical doctrine of fasting?
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A Wrong Approach To Fasting
First, we need to understand something of the
abuse of fasting that existed in Jesus’ day cf. v16.
For many of the Jews this was a real attention
grabber. They fasted twice a week and ensured
the public noticed by employing their version of
punk make up. They covered their faces with ash
which captured the sickly pallor of the spiritual
acetic asa they drew attention to themselves that
they were making great personal sacrifices in the
service of God. How they loved to hear the folk in
streets nudge each other and say, ‘What spiritual
giants they must be!’.
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A Wrong Approach To Fasting
Instead of treating fasting as a means of humbling
themselves before God they saw it as a means of
exalting themselves before men. This same spirit
has haunted the church down the centuries. Not
least in the Middle Ages where one’s spirituality
was measured by the number of days one fasted.
But of equal concern was the use made of Paul’s
words to the Corinthians about buffeting the body.
The assumption was made that the body is
essentially and inherently evil an idea owes more
to Greek philosophy than to Biblical theology. But
it caused people to attempt to punish their bodies
and fasting as well as flagellation were the means
they used.
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A Wrong Approach To Fasting
Others have approached fasting in a purely
mechanical fashion. It is viewed as a means
to an end. If you want some favour from God
then you earn that by fasting.
This view of God’s dealings with us turns him
into a kind of heavenly slot machine; feed in
a few days fasting at one end, pull the lever,
and out pops the desires of your heart at the
other. In effect this whole approach is saying,
‘God can be bought if the price is right’. It is
precisely this situation that we find Isaiah
addressing in Isa. 58v1-7....
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A Wrong Approach To Fasting
The people of God were presumptuously knocking at the door of heaven and
saying, ‘Pay up God. We have fasted now give us what we want!’
Had they approached fasting correctly they would have
humbled themselves under God’s hand and placed
themselves in a position where they could see the
sin in their lives they needed to repent of before
God could restore the blessings of his grace.
Fasting must never be treated as a spiritual shortcut
to convincing God to give us what we want - though
this is precisely the thrust of a number of books
currently on the market.
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A Wrong Approach To Fasting
Some adopt a ritualistic approach to fasting and they make
the discipline an end in itself and that is always dangerous.
M. L. Jones perceptively comments:
‘Discipline in the Christian life is a good and essential thing.
But if your main object and intent is to conform to the
discipline that you have set yourself it may very well be the
greatest danger to your soul. Fasting and prayer are good
things; but if you fast twice a week or pray at a particular
hour every day merely in order to carry out your discipline
then you have missed the whole object of fasting and
praying... If during that time my poverty of spirit is not
greater, my sense of weakness is not deepened, my
hunger and thirst after righteousness is not greatly
increased then I might as well not have done it at all.’
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A Wrong Approach To Fasting
It’s also a mistake to confuse fasting with
other activities. Some for economic or health
reasons decide they can go without the odd
meal, others show their solidarity with the
poor by setting apart the money they might
have spent on food for famine relief.
None of these activities are under criticism
but we should not confuse them with fasting.
Nor is the refusal to eat food, as Ghandi did,
in order to exert some sort of social or
political pressure, to be confused with the
fasting that Jesus commends.
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A Right Approach To Fasting.
The fact that fasting has been abused and emptied of its biblical
significance should not cause us to cast it on the spiritual scrap heap.
John Wesley identified two extremes that existed in his day he
wrote: ‘Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all
scripture and religion; and others have utterly
disregarded it.’
It is the strategy of Satan to push us to extremes.
One group of Christians over reacts to a particular
teaching causing others to over reacts to their
over reaction. Jesus expected fasting to have a
valid place in the life of his followers. He did not
advocate, an attention grabbing, presumptuous,
mechanical or ritualistic approach.
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A Right Approach To Fasting.
What did Jesus teach? Jesus limits his instruction to the manner in which we
fast. We are to guard against drawing attention to ourselves in a way that
seeks to win the sympathy or the applause of men. ‘I would dearly love a slice
of your chocolate cake but I am fasting today...’
But the question many people are asking is when should we fast and what are
the benefits?
1. Fasting strengthens self discipline.
It lessens the hold of material things upon us.
It demonstrates to God that we mean business as we approach him.
It weakens the power of habit in our lives.
It enables us to seek God without distraction.
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A Right Approach To Fasting.
Secondly, it is important to recognise that biblical
examples of fasting take place in the context of
crisis, perplexity or, deep spiritual burden. Fasting
is a response to such needs. It might be
undertaken by the backslider who sets time
apart to humble himself before God. Christians
beginning a new sphere of service might fast as
they seek God for guidance . Situations of danger
may also cause us to fast.
By fasting and praying the Christian indicates the
priority of his burden and concern. He is able to
seek God’s face without the distractions of food
or other legitimate calls upon his attention.
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A Right Approach To Fasting.
Through the centuries the church has recognised that it
can easily become enslaved by her appetites. And
abstinence for a period of time is a means of keeping
those appetites in check. William Secker the Puritan
By fasting the body learns to obey the soul; by praying
the soul learns to command the body.
This was a development of Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor.
9v27 ‘I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I
have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified
form the prize’. The practice of abstinence during Lent
was, in part, intended to ensure that Christians were not
mastered by their appetites. This while an issue of great
spiritual importance is not the primary focus of fasting.Presentation 27
A Right Approach To Fasting.
Fasting and prayer are invariably linked in scripture. It
involves not simply, doing without food but laying aside
many legitimate things for a time in order to give oneself
to prayer. O. Hallesby writes:
‘Fasting is not confined to the abstinence from eating and
drinking. Fasting really means the voluntary abstinence for a
time from the necessities of life such as food, drink, sleep, rest,
association with other people and so forth... Fasting in the
Christian sense does not involve looking upon the necessities
of life, as unclean or unholy... Fasting implies merely that at
certain times our souls need to concentrate more strongly on
the one thing needful than at other times and for that reason
we renounce for the time being those things which in
themselves, may be both permissible and profitable’.
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A Right Approach To Fasting.
Of course there are practical dangers associated
with this practice as with any spiritual discipline.
Once we have humbled ourselves in God’s
presence and prayed through the issue or burden
of concern, there is no value in seeing how long we
can continue in our abstinence or of involving
others in our fast against their will. Paul had to
warn against this danger in 1 Cor. 7v5 where the
issue is that of the sexual appetite of a husband
and wife, who for a season agree to abstinence
that they might give themselves to prayer. He saw
how Satan could find a springboard for temptation
in a situation like that. We need to be wise by
setting limits on any period of fasting.
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Many Christians consider fasting an anachronism
belonging to a bygone age yet Jesus expected his
Disciples, under exceptional circumstances, to fast. Not
like the Pharisees in order to gain the approval of men but
in order to humble themselves before God as pressing
issues were brought before him in prayer. It would be a sad
commentary upon us if we never saw any pressing spiritual
need that would convince us to fast, and seek God’s face.
‘Jesus has many who love his heavenly kingdom, but few who
bear his cross. Many want consolation, but few desire
adversity. Many are eager to share Jesus' table, but few will
join him in fasting’. THOMAS A KEMPIS
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