Amazing Grace Baptist Church Bible Study material on the meaning and significance of prayer and fasting
Text: Matthew 6:16-18
Memory Verse: Psalm 69:10
The meaning and significance of fasting in matters of faith cannot be overemphasized. What this means is that fasting is not an exclusively Christian discipline. For all the major religions of the world recognize its importance. Islam has fasting as one its five pillars. Zoroaster practiced fasting as did Confucius and the Yogis of India. Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle all fasted. Even Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, believed in fasting.
Within Christianity, the Scripture identifies some key persons who fasted. Some of them are Moses the lawgiver, David the king, Elijah the prophet, Esther the queen, Daniel the seer, Anna the prophetess, Paul the apostle, Jesus Christ the incarnate Son. Also, many of the influential Christians throughout church history also fasted and testified to its significance. Among them were Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd and Charles Finney.
In today’s lesson, we purpose to study Jesus’ instruction on fasting in Matthew 6:16-18. Issues for our discussions from the passage include the meaning of fasting, fasting as one of the spiritual disciplines, kinds of fasting and rewards (significance of fasting) of fasting.
The meaning of fasting
In a specific biblical sense, to fast means to abstain from food for spiritual purposes (Matthew 6:16). Fasting involves abstaining from food and not water as seen from the example of Jesus as recorded in Luke 4. In a broad sense, however, Richard Foster, defines fasting as “the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.” It stands in distinction to the hunger strike, the purpose of which is to gain political power or attract attention to a good cause. It is also different from health dieting which stresses abstinence from food for physical purposes. In contemporary times and in a broader sense, however, apart from abstaining from food, one may need to fast from involvement with other people, the media, the telephone and sleep for spiritual purposes.
Fasting as a spiritual discipline or a devotion to God
Jesus’ instruction on fasting is situated in the context of his teaching on giving and prayer. As such, prayer, giving and fasting are all to be part of Christian devotion. By Jesus’ use of the phrases “And whenever you fast,” and “But you, when you fast,” and his instructions on what to do and what not to do when we fast (Matthew 6:16-17), Jesus teaches that his followers are supposed to fast and so they fast. This assumption implies that fasting is and should become part of our devotion to God. Similar expressions are used about prayer (Mt. 6:5-7: “And when you pray, …But you, when you pray, . . . And when you are praying…) and giving (Mt. 6:2-3: “When therefore you give alms, . . . But when you give alms…). Thus, just as we are to give and to pray, so also Jesus implies that it is our obligations as his followers to fast. Similarly, Jesus says of His followers in Matthew 9:15 that after He leaves and returns to Heaven “then they will fast.”
Kinds of fasting
The kind of fasting in Mt. 6:16-18 that Jesus talked about could be regarded as a private fast. That explains the reason why Jesus emphasizes proper attitude that we are to anoint our heads and wash our faces so that we will not appear to men that we are fasting. In the Bible, however, different kinds of fasting could be identified:
a. A normal fast involves abstaining from all food, solid or liquid but not from water (Mt. 4:2; Lk. 4:2).
b. A partial fast is a limitation of the diet but not abstention from all food (Dan. 1:12; Mt. 3:4).
c. An absolute fast is the avoidance of all food and liquid (Ezra 10:6; Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9).
d. There is also a description of supernatural fasts of Moses (Deut. 9:9) and Elijah (1 Kin. 19:8)).
e. A congregational fast (Joel 2:15-16)
f. A national fast (2 Chr. 20:3)
g. An entire city Fast (Jonah 3)
h. A regular fast (Lev. 16:29-31; Lk. 18:12)
i. Occasional fasts (Mt. 9:15).
The rewards and importance of fasting
In Matthew 6:18, Jesus assures the believers of an open reward when fasting is observed in a proper way. To begin, fasting helps us to maintain our focus on God. Sometimes there is much stress on the blessings more than the giver of blessings. We are therefore not to use fasting for our own ends. Fasting must centre on God. Like the Prophetess Anna, we are to love and worship God with fasting (Luke 2:37). Fasting and Worshipping the Lord must be the same.
Next, fasting reveals what is controlling our lives. David said in Psalm 69:10 that I humbled my soul with fasting. In this case, anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife and fear that are hidden within us surface during fasting. Moreover, fasting reminds us that we are sustained by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. God sustains us and so through fasting we are feasting on the word of God.
Other significance of fasting can be identified from diverse scriptural references. Some of which are to strengthen prayer (Ezra 8:23; Neh. 1:4; Acts 13:3); to seek God’s guidance (Judg. 20:26-28; Acts 14:23); to seek from God deliverance or protection (2 Chr. 20:3-4; Ezra 8:21-23; Esther 4:16; Ps. 109:21-26), to express repentance and the return to God (1 Sam. 7:6; Joel 2:12; Jonah 3:5-8); to humble oneself before God (1 Kings 21:27-29; Ps. 35:13); to express concern for the work of God (Neh. 1:3-11; Isa. 58:6-7; Dan. 9:3); to minister to the needs of others (Isa. 58:6-7) and to overcome temptation and dedicate ourselves to God (Mt. 4:1-11).
Our studies on Matthew 6:16-18 reveals that by Jesus’ instruction that when you fast, he appears to make assumption that believers will fast, and consequently give instructions on how to do it properly. In the words of Martin Luther, “It was not Christ’s intention to reject or despise fasting, …it was His intention to restore fasting.” Thus, these words from Jesus do not constitute a command, rather he was giving instruction about a proper exercise of a common practice of his day. And that when fasting is properly done, it is richly rewarding.
Questions for application
1. What does it to mean to fast?
2. Are some Christians exempted from fasting? Give reasons for your answer?
3. What kind of fasting are appropriate to our situations as Christians in diaspora?
4. Narrate any personal testimony that confirms the significance of fasting that you have learnt.