It was a special day in the life of the church in Antioch. Already a congregation that had broken new ground. They were now, for the first time, sending out cross-cultural missionaries. The commissioning involved preparation by prayer and fasting by the Christians in that congregation. Serious prayer in Scripture is often accompanied by fasting. Yet it is often ignored in the church today. In Matthew 6:16–18 Jesus warns against the abuse of the practice.
Do not abuse fasting. Fasting is an important biblical practice. The Old Testament required fasting on the annual Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16:29–34. “Deny yourselves,” more literally, “afflict yourselves,” apparently is a reference to fasting, see Psalm 35:13. This was the one fast required in the Old Testament (see also Leviticus 23:27-32). Later, other days of fasting were incorporated into Israel’s worship, see Zechariah 8:19. Fasting was used as a part of sincere prayer, involving repentance and seeking the Lord’s blessing in particularly difficult circumstances: David, 2 Samuel 12:22; Israel, Judges 20:26; Ninevah, Jonah 3:5–9; Daniel 9:3, and could accompany grief, 1 Samuel 31:13. Part of the purpose of fasting may have been to free oneself from the extensive labor involved in meal preparation in order to concentrate on prayer, in an era before “fast food,” see Genesis 18:3–8. More importantly, it involved humbling oneself, and setting the time apart to pour out one’s heart to the Lord. Jesus allowed for fasting. Our text does not command you to fast, but it does tell you how to do it if you are fasting. The Messianic presence kept the disciples from fasting, but Jesus seems to expect that his departure would be an indication for them to –resume the practice, Matthew 9:14–17. The early church practiced fasting on particularly solemn occasions, Acts 13:3; 14:23 (“It is also recommended that a day of prayer and fasting be observed in the congregation previous to the day of ordination.” OPC Form of Government XXIII.7.) “Fasting, like almsgiving and prayer, is to be between the disciple and God. No one else should know. (Perhaps that is why we know so little of early Christian practice in this regard.)” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p 255).
Do not let fasting become superficial. Not only did the Old Testament annual fast become more frequent (the Pharisees fasted twice a week, Luke 18:12), but it also became mechanical and superficial. People expected that God would hear them because of their fasting, and regardless of their lives of obedience, or lack thereof, Isaiah 58:3,4. Beware of empty forms. The Pharisees, against whom Jesus warned, fasted to be seen by men, and the reaction to their public display was the extent of their reward. Muslims “fast” during Ramadan, but actually consume more that month than other times. Portions of the Christian church have adopted “fasts” that abstain from certain foods, more an effort at earning righteousness than a giving of the whole time to prayer and communion with God. Even when practiced by evangelical Christians, fasting can give the impression of being a mechanical process that must produce results from God. That attitude is less bloody than the prophets of Baal on Carmel, but grows out of the same manipulative heart.
Humble yourself before your Father. Should you fast? With the passing of the Old Testament sacrificial system went the requirement to fast on the Day of Atonement. Jesus allows fasting, and prohibits abuse, but does not command it. Nor is there a specific command to fast in the Epistles. Purely medical fasting is beyond the scope of Jesus’ command, see v.1. If you are diabetic, hypoglycemic, or if fasting just makes you concentrate on your rumbling stomach instead of on the Lord, you would be wise to avoid the practice. Notice the kind of fasting that Isaiah calls for. A heart that is truly broken before God will lead to a life that glorifies him. To go through the outward form of fasting while ignoring God’s command to love your neighbor makes a mockery of fasting and its purpose. “The true fast is to loose the bonds of injustice (Isa. 58:3–6; Jer. 14:12). In large part the struggle of the prophets is directed against the external, self-righteous worship of the people. Accordingly, the essence of the new dispensation is that the Lord will make a new covenant with his people. He will give them a new heart and write his law on it. He will pour out his Spirit on all so that they will love him with their whole heart and walk in his ways….” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, p. 659).
Let your fasting lead to feasting! Note the place of fasting in redemptive history, Matthew 9:15.
Much fasting was associated with repentance from sin, mourning because of its effects, or petitioning because of problems in this sin-cursed world. The presence of Jesus kept his disciples from fasting.
You live in an ambiguous time. The messianic King has come, and yet he is coming. There is still a place to fast, though even now you can anticipate the feast of the consummation. Look at how Isaiah 58 ends. When God’s people fast, not just going through the motions to be seen by men, but turning to him with all their hearts, God listens! The begin to celebrate God’s sabbath rest, not as a burden, but as a delight, enjoying fellowship with him. And that leads, in the concluding verse of Isaiah 58, to feasting, to joyful celebration of God’s presence! Isaiah 25 promises a rich banquet when the shroud of death is removed. In Revelation, the ushering in of the new heavens and earth involves the wedding feast of the Lamb, to which all of God’s people are invited. God even gives you a foretaste of that as you come to his Table.
Pour out your heart to your Father. If you fast, don’t be obvious about it. The important thing is your relationship with God, not the opinion of people around you. Do turn to your heavenly Father with all your heart. “If a man is living entirely to the glory of God, you need not prescribe for him when he has to fast, you need not prescribe the sort of clothes he has to put on or anything else. If he has forgotten himself and given himself to God, the New Testament says that man will know how to eat and drink and dress because he will be doing it all to the glory of God.” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Vol. 2, p. 44), Even though events in your life, and in this world around you may cause you to fast, do it with an eye on the final feast to which those who have humbled themselves in repentance are welcomed..
Yes, you may benefit from fasting, but keep your eye on the Savior, who invites you to the great, final feast.