Let me start off by profiling myself in regards to my denominational background. I am a protestant, mostly likely on the evangelical side of the spectrum. Fall towards the middle on the conservative/liberal scale. Have attended Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist & Non-Denominational through out my life. Seen people speak in tongues and was baptized 3 times myself. Have done communion in probably every fashion possible. And yet in all my years of protestant experience, I can not recall a single sermon from the pulpit on the discipline of fasting. Not one. I asked my buddies at work. Not one.
If you step outside of the protestant circles, you will probably run into it more frequently. Especially since we are in the middle of Lent. I thought is was peculiar that there seemed to be these polar opposite approaches: either not mentioned at all or part of the formal liturgy where you are required to participate.
Naturally, I turned the Scripture.
Lens of Scripture
So here’s the kicker. It is never mentioned explicitly as a commandment anywhere in Scripture. The closest phrase we have to a commandment is found in Leviticus 16, concerning what to do on the Day of Atonement:
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you— because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of Sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community.
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”
And it was done, as the Lord commanded Moses.
The commandment was subtle and you probably didn’t catch it. It was the phrase for “deny yourselves” which is the Hebrew word teannu, which shares the meaning of the verb afflict. To this day, Jews will afflict themselves during Yom Kippur by fasting.
But let’s not get to hasty in complete rejection of the discipline. I like how Richard Foster put it in the Celebration of Discipline: “There are simply no Biblical Laws that command regular fasting. Our freedom in the Gospel, however, does not mean license; it means opportunity.”
I think this is true. In fact, it would seem that Christ shared a similar opinion. When He approached the crowds concerning fasting, it is as if Christ assumed the audience already practiced fasting:
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. – Matthew 6:16-11
Fasting in the scriptures was usually associated with an event in Scripture. Nehemiah fasted in mourning when he heard about the all (Neh. 1:4). When told that the land would be invaded, Jehosophat fasted for protection (2 Chronicles 20:3-4). When Paul was converted, he fasted 3 days (Acts 9:9). When Moses received the Law, he fasted 40 days and nights (Exdous 34:28).
I encourage you to stick around this week and maybe the hunger pains won’t get too bad as we dive into this discipline.
Discipline of Fasting Series
- Spiritual Discipline: Fasting
- Fasting: Lens of Tradition
- Fasting: Lens of Reason
- Fasting: Lens of Experience