By Derek Prince
The best starting point for a study of the Christian discipline of fasting is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:1-18 Christ gives instructions to His disciples on three related duties: giving alms, praying, and fasting.
In each case He places His main emphasis upon the motive, and warns against religious ostentation for the sake of impressing men. With this qualification, He assumes that all His disciples will practice all three of these duties. This is indicated by the language which He uses concerning each.
In verse 2 He says, "When thou doest alms..." In verse 6 He says, "When thou (singular) prayest..." (individually); and in verse 7, "When ye (plural) pray..." (collectively). In verse 16 He says, "When ye (plural) fast..." (collectively); and in verse 17, "When thou (singular) fastest..." (individually).
In no case does Christ say, "if" but always "when." The inference is clear. Christ expects that all His disciples will regularly practice all three of these duties.
In particular, the parallel between prayer and fasting is exact. If Christ expects His disciples to pray regularly, then by the same token He expects them also to fast regularly.
Fasting was an accepted part of religious duty among the Jewish people in Christís day. They had practiced it continuously from the time of Moses onward. Both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist fasted regularly. The people were surprised that they did not see the disciples of Jesus doing the same, and they asked them the reason. Their questions and Christís answer are recorded in Mark:
"And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto Him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Thy disciples fast not?
"And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the Bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the Bridegroom with them they cannot fast.
"But the days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken from them and then shall they fast in those days" (Mark 2:18-20).
The answer of Jesus is given in the form of a simple parable. It is important to interpret the parable correctly. The Bridegroom, as always in the New Testament, is Christ Himself. The children of the bridechamber are the disciples of Christ (about Whom the question had been asked). The period while the Bridegroom is with them corresponds to the days of Christís ministry on earth, while He was physically present with His disciples.
The period when the Bridegroom shall be taken from them commenced when Christ ascended back to heaven, and will continue until He returns for His church.
In the meanwhile, the church, as a bride, is awaiting the return of the Bridegroom. This is the period in which we are now living, and concerning which Jesus says very definitely, "And then shall they (the disciples) fast in those days."
In the days in which we now live, therefore, fasting is a mark of true Christian discipleship, ordained by Jesus Himself. Fasting is endorsed not merely by the teaching of Jesus, but also by His own personal example. Immediately after being baptized in Jordan by John the Baptist, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit to spend forty days fasting in the wilderness. This is recorded in Luke:
"And Jesus being full of the Holy Spirit returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being forty days tempted of the devil, and in those days He did eat nothing: and when they were ended, He afterward hungered" (Luke 4:1-2).
The record says that Jesus did not eat at all during those forty days, but it does not say that He did not drink. Also it says that "He afterward hungered," but it does not say that He was thirsty. The probable inference is therefore, that He abstained from food, but not from water. During this period of forty days, Jesus came into direct spiritual conflict with Satan.
There is a significant difference in the expressions used by Luke to describe Jesus before and after His fast. At the beginning in Luke 4:1, we read: "And Jesus, being full of the Holy Spirit, returned from Jordan...." At the end, in Luke 4:14 we read: "And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee."
When Jesus went into the wilderness He was already full of the Holy Spirit. But when He came out again after fasting, He returned in the power of the Spirit. It would appear that the potential of the Holy Spiritís power, which Jesus received at the time of His baptism in Jordan, only came forth into full manifestation after He had completed His fast. Fasting was the final phase of preparation through which He had to pass, before entering into His public ministry.
The same spiritual laws that applied in Christís own ministry apply also in the ministry of His disciples. In John 14:12 Jesus says, "...He that believeth on Me, the works that I do shall he do also..." By these words Jesus opens the way for His disciples to follow in the pattern of His own ministry. However, in John 13:16 Jesus also says, "...the servant is not greater than his Lord; neither he that is sent, greater than He that sent him." This applies to the preparation for ministry. If fasting was a necessary part of Christís own preparation, it must play a part also in the disciplesí preparation.
The Practice of the Early Church
In this respect Paul was a true disciple of Jesus. Fasting played a vital part in his ministry. Immediately after his first encounter with Christ on the Damascus road, Paul spent the next three days without food or drink (see Acts 9:9). Thereafter fasting was a regular part of his spiritual discipline. In 2 Corinthians 6:3-10 Paul lists various ways in which he had proved himself a true minister of God.
In verse 5, two of the ways which he lists are: "in watchings, in fastings." Watching signifies going without sleep; fasting signifies going without food. Both these disciplines were practiced at times by Paul to make his ministry fully effective.
Again, in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, Paul returns to this theme. Speaking of other men who set themselves up as his rivals in the ministry, Paul says: "Are they ministers of Christ?...I am more..." He then gives a long list of the various ways in which he had proved himself a true minister of Christ. In verse 27 he says: "In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often...." Here again Paul joins watching closely with fasting. The plural form in fastings often, indicates that Paul devoted himself to frequent periods of fasting. Hunger and thirst refers to occasions when neither food nor drink was available. Fastings refers to occasions when food was available, but Paul deliberately abstained for spiritual reasons.
The Christians of the New Testament not merely practiced fasting individually, as a part of their personal discipline. They also practiced it collectively, as a part of their public ministry to God. This is attested by Lukeís account in Acts:
"Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
"As these ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away" (Acts 13:1-3).
In this local congregation in the city of Antioch five leading ministers -- designated as prophets and teachers -- were praying and fasting together. This is described as ministering to the Lord. The majority of Christian leaders or congregations today know very little of this aspect of ministry. Yet, in the divine order, ministry to the Lord comes before ministry to men. Out of the ministry to the Lord, the Holy Spirit brings forth the direction and the power needed for effective ministry to men.
So it was at Antioch. As these five leaders prayed and fasted together, the Holy Spirit revealed that He had a special task for two of them -- Barnabas and Saul (later called Paul). He said, "Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." In this way these two men were called out for a special task.
However, they were not yet ready to undertake the task. They still required the impartation of the special grace and power that were needed for the task that lay ahead. For this purpose, all five men fasted and prayed together the second time. Then after the second period of fasting, the other leaders laid their hands on Barnabas and Paul, and sent them forth to fulfill their task.
Thus it was through collective prayer and fasting that Barnabas and Paul received, first, the revelation of a special task, and second, the grace and power needed to fulfill that task. At the time they all prayed and fasted together, Barnabas and Paul --like the other three men--were recognized as prophets and teachers. But after being sent forth to their task, they were described as apostles (see Acts 14:4,14). We may therefore say that the apostolic ministry of Barnabas and Paul was born out of collective prayer and fasting by five leaders of the church at Antioch.
In due course this practice of collective prayer and fasting was transmitted by Barnabas and Paul to the congregations of new disciples which were established in various cities as a result of their ministry. The actual establishment of each congregation was accomplished through the appointment of their own local elders. This is described in Acts:
"And...they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith...And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed" (Acts 14:21-23).
In Acts 14:22 these groups of believers in each city are referred to merely as disciples. But in the next verse the writer refers to them as churches. The transition from "disciples" to "churches" was accomplished by the appointment of the local leaders for each congregation, who were designated as "elders." In each case, when elders were appointed, "they prayed with fasting." It is therefore fair to say that the establishment of a local church in each city was accompanied by collective prayer and fasting.
Taken together, chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Acts indicate that collective prayer and fasting played a vital role in the growth and development of the New Testament church. It was through prayer and fasting together that the early Christians received direction and power from the Holy Spirit for decisions or tasks of special importance. In the examples which we have considered, these were: first, the appointment and sending forth of apostles; second, the appointment of elders, and the establishment of local churches.
How Fasting Works
There are various ways in which fasting helps a Christian to receive direction and power from the Holy Spirit. In one sense, fasting is a form of mourning. Psychologically, no one welcomes the thoughts of mourning, just as physically, no one welcomes the thought of fasting. Nevertheless, there are times when both mourning and fasting are beneficial: mourning has its place among the beatitudes. In Matthew 5:4 Jesus says, "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted." In Isaiah 61:3 the Lord promises special blessings to those who "mourn in Zion." He promises them "beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness..."
Mourning in Zion is neither the self-centered remorse, nor the hopeless grief of the unbeliever. Rather, it is a response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit through which the believer shares in some small measure Godís own grief over the sin and folly of humanity. When we consider our own failures and shortcomings, as Christians, and when we look beyond ourselves at the misery and the wickedness of the world around us, there is indeed cause for this kind of mourning.
In 2 Corinthians 7:10 Paul contrasts the godly sorrow of the believer with the hopeless sorrow of the unbeliever: "For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death." Godly mourning of this kind is followed in due season by the oil of joy and the garment of praise.
Under the old covenant God ordained for Israel one special day in each year in which they were to "afflict their souls." This was the Day of Atonement. In Leviticus 16:31 the Lord instructed Israel concerning this day: "It shall be a sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls by a statute for ever." From the time of Moses onward the Jews have interpreted this as a Day of Atonement which is referred to as "the fast."
Nineteen centuries later, under its Hebrew name Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is still observed by Orthodox Jews all over the world as a day of fasting.
In two of his psalms David also speaks of fasting in this way. In Psalm 35:13 he says, "I humbled my soul with fasting...." The word here translated to humble is the same that is translated to afflict in the chapter on the Day of Atonement. Again, in Psalm 69:10 David says, "I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting...." We may combine the various expressions used and say that fasting, as here practiced, is a form of mourning, and a means to humble oneself and to chasten oneself.
Fasting is also a means by which a believer brings his body into subjection. In 1 Corinthians 9:27 Paul says: "But I keep under my body, and bring it unto subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." Our body, with its physical organs and appetites, makes a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. Therefore it is necessary to keep it always in subjection.
I once heard this well expressed by a fellow minister who said, "My stomach does not tell me when to eat, but I tell my stomach when to eat." Each time a Christian practices fasting for this purpose, he is serving notice on his body: "You are the servant, not the master."
In Galatians 5:17 Paul lays bare the direct opposition that exists between the Holy Spirit of God and the carnal nature of man: "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other..." Fasting deals with the two great barriers to the Holy Spirit that are erected by manís carnal nature. These are the stubborn self-will of the soul and the insistent, self-gratifying appetites of the body. Rightly practiced, fasting brings both soul and body into subjection to the Holy Spirit.
It is important to understand that fasting changes man, not God. The Holy Spirit, being Himself God, is both omnipotent and unchanging. Fasting breaks down the barriers in manís carnal nature that stand in the way of the Holy Spiritís omnipotence. Thereafter, with these carnal barriers removed, the Holy Spirit can work unhindered in His fulness through our prayers.
In Ephesians 3:20, Paul seeks to express the inexhaustible potential of prayer: "Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us..." The power that works in and through our prayers is the Holy Spirit. By removing the carnal barriers, fasting makes a way for the Holy Spiritís omnipotence to work the "exceeding abundantly above" of Godís promises.
There is indeed only one limit to Godís omnipotence, and that is Godís eternal righteousness. Fasting will never change the righteous standards of God. If something is outside the will of God, fasting will never put it inside the will of God. If it is wrong and sinful, it is still wrong and sinful no matter how long a person may fast.
There is an example of this in 2 Samuel, chapter 12. David committed adultery. Out of this a child was born. God said that part of the judgment was that the child would die. David fasted seven days, but the child still died. Fasting seven days did not change Godís righteous judgment on Davidís sinful act. If a thing is wrong, fasting will not make it right. Nothing will do that.
Fasting is neither a gimmick nor a cure-all. God does not deal in such things. God has made full provision for the total well-being of His people in every area of their lives--spiritual, physical, and material. Fasting is one part of this total provision.
Fasting is not a substitute for any other part of Godís provision. Conversely, no other part of Godís provision is a substitute for fasting.
In Colossians 4:12 we read that Epaphras prayed for his fellow believers that they might stand "perfect and entire in all the will of God." This sets a very high standard for all of us. One Scriptural means provided for us to attain to this standard is fasting.
Excerpted from Shaping History Through Prayer and Fasting by Derek Prince, ©1973, Derek Prince Ministries-International. Readers are invited to visit the Derek Prince Ministry website at www.derekprince.org.