We're going to turn in our Bibles to Isaiah chapter 58, Isaiah chapter 58. And you'll remember that, over the past Lord's Day mornings, we've been thinking on the subject of prayer. We began a few weeks ago with the subject of 'The Lord Jesus Christ And Prayer'. We looked at His example, we looked about how He lived, what He did in relation to prayer. Then last Sunday morning we thought on the subject of 'Answers to Prayer' - and we thought there that it is the prayer of faith that God answers. We don't just pray generally, but we pray specifically - we can't just simply pray for anything, but we must pray in the will of God, and we know the will of God by His revealed will within the word of God. So it is when God gives us a word to pray for something, when God gives us a promise to pray for something - it is only then that we can be sure that He will answer our prayers.
But this week we're going to think on the subject of 'Fasting And Prayer'. Isaiah chapter 58: "Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God. Wherefore" - why? - "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? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day: And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in. If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it".
We're turning, just for a moment, to Matthew chapter 6, Matthew chapter 6 and we're beginning to read at verse 16. Matthew chapter 6 and verse 16 - this is recorded within the Sermon on the Mount, where the Lord Jesus Christ laid down rules - principles rather - for those who followed Him. In verse 16 He begins to talk about fasting, He's been talking about prayer and now He turns to the subject of fasting - verse 16: "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".
Matthew chapter 17, Matthew chapter 17 and verse 21 - and you'll remember here there is a story about, as the Bible calls it, a lunatic boy who was healed. You remember, the disciples came and tried to heal this young man, and they had no spiritual success - in verse 21 the Lord Jesus resounded to them, first of all He said 'You have little faith', and then in verse 21 He says: "Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting". And then, quickly, Hebrews chapter 11, Hebrews chapter 11 and verse 6 - the great chapter upon faith, the writer to the Hebrews says this, verse 6: "But without faith it is impossible to please him" - God - "for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him".
Last Sunday evening, and even in the morning, I alluded to a sermon* that was preached by a man called Jonathan Edwards. I don't want to repeat myself unnecessarily, but save to say this: that you remember, when this man stood - who was half blind - and read his sermon off a piece of paper, that those people felt the very presence of God in such a way, that they mounted the pews for fear that the ground would open and that hell would swallow them. What I failed to tell you last week was simply this: that before Jonathan Edwards got into that pulpit, before he preached that message, his diaries tell us that for three days before it he fasted and he prayed. He did not let a morsel of food go through his lips, in fact he had three sleepless nights - as without food, without sleep, without the normal resources of life, he got on his face before God, he sought God in answer, to answer his prayers - and the result was that men and women had the conviction of sin, the conviction of the Holy Spirit falling upon them, and they could see hell with their very mind's eye -- and many were saved. Those who witnessed that scene said that as he mounted the pulpit, as he looked in the congregation, he looked as if he was a man who had stared for days into the very face of God - and he needed not even to speak a word, because as he looked at those people with the look of God in his eyes, conviction fell upon all. He fasted and prayed.
*The sermon Pastor Legge is referring to - “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” - can be read in our Book Store.
We've been thinking, these weeks, about praying - but there is a discipline that is found in the word of God, in both the Old and the New Testament, that I read and that I find, but I find that within the church of Jesus Christ, within our lives today it may well be a forgotten discipline. I wonder is it - is fasting - is it a forgotten discipline? The hunger strikers did it, that's right, they fasted. They didn't eat food, some of them didn't drink water - they did it for political reasons, I know that, but they still were fasting. And in Isaiah 58 and verse 6, that we read this morning, we read about those who do it for strife, those who do it for the wrong reason - Satanists fast - did you know that? In our land, this very week, many Satanists, on Friday gone by, would have been fasting and praying to their god - Lucifer - for the downfall of Christendom, and for the break-up of many of your marriages here today. They do it, why do they do it? They do it - and they do it error, they do it, as Isaiah 58 says, in strife, they do it for all the wrong reasons and the wrong motives - but they do it because they know that it works! There is something about fasting that works.
Matthew Henry says: 'Fasting is a laudable practice, and we have reason to lament it, that it is so generally neglected among Christians today' - and that was in his day. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says: 'I wonder whether we have ever fasted. I wonder whether it has ever occurred to us that we ought to be considering the question of fasting. The fact is, is it not, that this whole subject seems to have fallen right out of our lives, right out of our whole Christian thinking'. Now let's be honest with ourselves here this morning: how many of us, gathered here today, fast and pray? How many of us, is [it] a regular practice in our lives that we daily, perhaps one day, perhaps several days, but somehow we fast for God, we pray to God? Do you know what I find - over these past weeks as I have been studying the word of God with relation to prayer, and now in relation to fasting, in relation to blessing - do you know what I find? You could sum it all up in one sentence: we cannot have apostolic power without apostolic practice. You cannot separate the ends from the means, with regard to prayer and blessing, with regard to this subject of fasting and blessing. And if we ignore the practices of the Apostles - the early disciples, elders and deacons, the people of God in the New Testament and Old Testament - and we look around and we wonder why God does not bless us, we charge God in our foolishness.
There are several questions that I want to ask this morning with regard to fasting. First all: what is fasting? Secondly: who is to fast? Thirdly - and I would encourage you to take notes because I can't remember all these, so I don't think you will either - thirdly: how to fast? How do we fast? Why do we fast? And finally: when do we fast? What do we fast? Who is to fast? How do we fast? Why do we fast? And when do we fast?
The first question is this: what is fasting? A simple definition of fasting, from the word of God now, is this: 'abstaining from food for spiritual purposes'. Many writers today think that fasting can be fasting from sexual relations, they think it can be fasting from things that you normally do like watching the television, or reading a book - some people think it can be fasting from sleep. But as we look at the word of God we find that that is not, specifically, what fasting is in the word of God - but fasting, specifically, is fasting, abstaining from food - food - for spiritual reasons. I wonder, men, have you ever been in the garden, or maybe you tamper with cars, and maybe you've been in the garage, or maybe you've been doing something in the workshop - and the wife has called you for tea, your dinner is ready, and you're out there, and you're in the middle something, you're engrossed in something, and you can think of nothing else but the thing that you're doing, and you wait! You wait till you have finished. It might be half an hour, it might be an hour, it might be several hours - and the wife's still calling, and still asking [you] to come for the dinner - but you have something more important on your mind! Friends today, that is what fasting is. That, in simple layman's terms, is what fasting is: that your mind is so taken up with God, or your heart and your soul is so engrossed in what you want God to do in answer to your prayers, that you cannot find time even to eat. God has burdened your heart so much that you find the necessity to leave food aside, to leave perhaps one meal aside, or a few meals aside - why? Because it maybe takes an hour of your time, that you feel that you could spend more appropriately, and profitably, in prayer before God. That is what fasting is. And do you know what it is? What we've been repeating week, after week, after week - it is showing to heaven, and it is showing to hell, that you are serious about your prayer!
What is that wee word that we have used so often? Persistent prayer, persevering prayer, insistent prayer - in other words, you're showing by the fact that you're not willing to be easily beset or laden down, even with food for a few moments, to call upon God in prayer - you are coming showing your determination, your perseverance, that you want God to answer. That is what fasting is. If we had time this morning, we would be able to look at chapter 6 of Matthew, [where] we read about fasting - and it's interesting to look that when Jesus, the Lord Jesus Christ, talks about prayer, He talks about fasting in a similar way. How do we pray? We pray individually, don't we? You pray - I hope - individually - at home you go, as the Lord said in Matthew chapter 5 and 6, into your closet. You lock away the world and, by closing the door on the world, you're opening the door to the Saviour, and you have sweet communion with Him. But of course, where else do you pray? Well, you pray with the people of God, and in this assembly we come together on a Wednesday, and then on a Friday in the winter, and we meet together to communally - together - unite and call upon God in prayer. We pray regularly, don't we? At least we should pray regularly - but there are times, [aren't] there, when there are crises that enter our lives, or enter an assembly, or enter our land, that we feel the burden that we ought to come together for a special season, for a special time of prayer. In the same light, we ought to fast individually, we ought to do it in our closets at home - but I believe that we ought to do it, and the word of God teaches, we ought to do it unitedly, together, communally, as the people of God, calling upon God for His blessing, calling upon God that we may see His hand. We ought to do it regularly, if we have to pray regularly - and we even insist on praying daily, don't we? Surely we ought to fast regularly, individually speaking - and then there ought to be special times, like special times of prayer, when there is a need, there is a crisis, there is a burden, that we all come together with the one burden and bear it to God in fasting and prayer. That is what fasting is.
The second question is this: who is to fast? Well, I'm quite aware that there are medical reasons, and various other reasons why certain people should not fast. It is hard - in fact it is nigh impossible - for a diabetic to fast. It is hard for other people, with dietary disorders, to fast - and I'm not accusing, or I am not pointing the finger at them, or I'm not asking you to do something this morning that you can't do, medically speaking. But who is to pray and fast? Was it something for the Old Testament saints? Was it something for the apostles or the disciples - and it is not for today? Well, if you look into the Old Testament, you find that on the Day of Atonement, every person in the nation of Israel [was] to fast for that day. One day in the year - no exemptions, everyone had to do it, they didn't look at one another and say, 'Well, you're more spiritual than I am', or 'You're in the Lord's work, you're the priest, you're in the tribe of Levi', they didn't say that. Each one of them, every single one, fasted before God. We read that Moses fasted, David fasted, Elijah fasted, many of the kings fasted - and ordered fasts in the whole land, some of which went to also the beasts, that they were to fast from eating their fodder daily. We read in the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ fasted, the early Church in the Acts of the apostles fasted - in fact, church history teaches us, that in the early Church they fasted every Wednesday and every Friday, and many of them fasted before the Lord's Supper on the Sunday - all day Saturday they fasted. Oh, we try to emulate the early Church, don't we? We try to emulate it in its blessing, in its abundance of gifts and fruit and salvation - but if we ignore the means, we will not have the power! The apostles fasted, the early Christians fasted when they were appointing elders, when they were sending missionaries and apostles out, they fasted when they had to make important decisions, they fasted when they needed guidance. Wesley, John Wesley, would not ordain a man to the ministry unless he covenanted with him and with God to fast on a Wednesday and a Friday till 4 p.m. in the afternoon. The church fathers fasted, the reformers fasted, the revivalists fasted - what about us? Do we fast?
Who is to fast? Well, if you look quickly at Matthew chapter 9 and verse 15, you read this: 'And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast'. The disciples were asking, perhaps, the same question that you are asking this morning: should I fast? The Lord Jesus said to them, 'You don't need to fast now because I am with you. But when I go, then you ought to fast' - when the bridegroom goes. We'll be looking this evening in the Gospel, at Matthew chapter 25 about the ten virgins - and you remember, five of them were foolish, but it says not just about the five of them but about all of them, that when the bridegroom tarried they all - all of them - slumbered and slept. I wonder was it an allusion to fasting? As the Lord says in verse 13: 'Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh' - and as we wait for Him, as we watch for Him, as we work for Him, surely it is our imperative to fast as the children and the people of God.
Thirdly: how do we fast? I wish we had more time to deal with it this morning, but how do we fast? Well, we read in Matthew 6 and verses 17 to 18, that we're not to do it before men, we're not to try and look gaunt and look smelly, as if we're fasting and we're abstaining from everything. We're not to draw attention to it, we're not to stand on the street corner and have a sign around our neck, 'I am fasting for God'. But we are to fast in quiet, in secret - and God says that those that fast in secret will be rewarded openly. That's a promise! Hebrews 11 verse 6 that we read, says that we are to fast in faith: 'He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him' - why do we fast? As I said already, like Paul said to Timothy, that a soldier that is warring can't be entangled with the things of this world. And oh, there's some men of God that I believe that if they could live without food totally, they would have done it! But you can't, so fasting is for a special time - where you come before God and all you can think about is God and the prayer that you need to be answered, and you grab upon Him, and fast.
There are three fasts that we find in the word of God. The first fast is the total fast. That means you don't eat bread, you don't eat food, and you don't drink water - a total fast. Moses fasted like that, Elijah fasted like that for 40 days the word of God says. In Acts chapter 9 and verse 9 we read that, after his conversion, Paul fasted like that - a total fast - for three days. Now I want to say this: that when Moses fasted like this, and when Elijah fasted like this for 40 days - if you do it tonight, and start it, you'll die. Because they were in the direct, intimate presence of God when they fasted like this. This was a supernatural fast, and unless you have a word from the Lord to do this - and I'm not ruling that out - but unless you have a special word from the Lord, you're advised only to fast like this for maybe a day. Total fast - and this type of fast does the most damage to the devil.
The second type of fast in the word of God is the partial fast. We find it in Daniel chapter 10 and verse 3, the partial fast. We read there that Daniel - you remember, he did not take of the king's delicacies, of the delicacies of the kings table - he didn't eat the meat and he didn't drink the wine. It was a partial fast, he still ate, he still drank, but he didn't eat certain foods. That may be a fast for those that have dietary problems - cutting out certain things to call upon God.
And then thirdly, and quickly, there is the most common fast within the word of God, and that is the normal fast. In Matthew 4 and verse 2 we read of the Lord Jesus Christ - Matthew 4 and verse 2 - that for 40 days in the wilderness He fasted. The normal fast is not eating, but drinking water - not eating, but drinking water. There are men - and need I say, I'm not one of them - who have stood in this pulpit and have fasted 40 days. Needless to say, they are men who have seen blessing on their ministry. How do you fast? Take your pick. How long do you fast? Well, listen: that's not really the question - and there isn't this idea that the longer you fast, the more spiritual you are, and don't get that into your head - and neither, don't get into your head the fact that you should be punishing yourself, or denying yourself something that is good - that is not what fasting is about! It's not about how long you fast, but what it is about is our attitude as we get before God, our motive, our sincerity as we beg before Him. I would advise you to fast in small amounts, and then as God leads you, you be led.
That's how to fast. But quickly: why do we fast? Why do we fast? Simply: we fast for results! Now I don't know whether that's too simplistic for some - and maybe it's too unspiritual for some - but that is why we read in the word of God that there is only one prayer, one prayer in the Bible, that does not ask God for something. Only one. Why do we pray and fast? Isaiah 58, that we read, turn to it very quickly - Isaiah 58 and if you look at verses 8 and 9, Isaiah 58 verses 8 and 9, and verses 11 and 12, you read all of these things: that if you fast the Lord's fast you will receive light, you will receive health, you will receive righteousness, you will become closer to God, you will receive the glory of God in your life, you will receive answered prayer, you will receive - listen to this! - continual guidance, you will receive satisfaction in your spiritual life, you will receive refreshment, you will receive work and fruit that endures - and finally you will receive, if you need it, restoration. What do you get if you fast? If you look at Psalm 35 and verse 13, you read this: 'I humbled my soul with fasting'. Matthew 5 and verse 4 says: 'Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted' - there is humility in fasting. You are coming before God, you are debasing yourself before Him, and you are crying in humility to God to answer your prayer. You get closer to God when you fast, for in James 4 and verse 8 we read: 'Draw near unto God, and he will draw near unto you'. Ephesians 6 and verse 18 - we see that fasting can be used for spiritual battle, for the battle with the forces of darkness - and sometimes I wonder have forgotten that they're there! For Paul says to the Ephesians: '...with all prayer...', once you've put on the armour of God you've to take all prayer, praying with all types of prayer and kinds of prayer - and one of those is praying and fasting.
Then there is guidance - this is marvellous! Ezra 8:21 says this: 'Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance'. They sought the Lord together, fasting for guidance for the future. In Isaiah 58 and verse 8, in Matthew 17:21 [it] speaks of healing - and we read in the Gospels that, before Christ went into His ministry of healing and deliverance, He spent those 40 days fasting and praying. For crises that come into our church, or into our life, there is an intervention from God by fasting - 2 Chronicles chapter 20, we read about King Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah, and they were up against an enemy that they could not beat, and what they did was they got on their faces, they fasted and prayed, and God dealt with their enemies and they didn't need to lift one weapon.
And we can fast for others. My friend, listen to this: who has loved ones that are not saved? Who has those dying in their sins, with no thought of God - and, as far as you can see, no hope of God? And maybe you have been praying for years for them - can I ask you: could it be that prayer won't answer it? God is waiting for you to fast and pray - why? Why fast and pray? Why is that different? Because when we are weak - and don't ask me to explain all of this - but when we are weak, God is strong! And when we humble ourselves, God exalts Himself through us! And this is a doctrine, this is a teaching that is far from the philosophies and the wisdom of men in today's age - they feed the flesh, but if God wants us to hear our prayer's answers, we must starve our flesh! Can I say: are stomachs are too full, and our souls are starving, and the world around us is starving - but we need to get on our knees, we need to get before God, and before God with empty stomachs - realising our weakness, realising our physical weakness - we must cry to God, and God will answer our prayers! The flesh is debased, and when we fast before God we are made more aware of the spiritual.
Quickly, and finally: when do we fast? Matthew chapter 6 and verse 2, we read: 'Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward', then verse 5, 'And when you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the street corners...I say to you, They have their reward'. But when should we fast? Verse 16: '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...' - when ye fast, not if ye fast, not if that's your calling, or if that's your gift, or if the Lord leads you to do it - but when ye fast!
My friends, I have said all that God has given me to say today - but, God, teach us, Lord instruct us to fast and pray. Our Lord, we remember that when that immoral woman broke the alabaster box that the ointment flowed forth. And it is not until the alabaster box of our flesh is broken, our appetites, our pride, our desires are crucified - and it may be through the medium of fasting - it's not until then that the ointment, the release of the Spirit will be effective, and seen of men in our homes, in our workplace, in our fellowship and in our world. Lord, teach us to fast and pray. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the third tape in his short series on Prayer, titled "Fasting And Prayer" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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