What God Says About Fasting
March 8th, 1964 @ 10:50 AM
WHAT GOD SAYS ABOUT FASTING
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-8-64 10:50 a.m.
On radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the 11:00 o’clock morning message entitled What God Says about Fasting. In the fifth chapter of the Third Gospel, beginning at verse 33:
And they said unto Him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but Thine eat and drink? You do not ever fast.
And He said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them?
But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.
"While I am here My disciples cannot fast;" it is like a wedding, you do not fast at a wedding, you feast; you have a bridal supper. There is to be a marriage supper of the Lamb. You do not fast in the presence of the bride and the bridegroom. "And while I am here My disciples do not fast. But the day is coming when I shall be taken away, and when I am taken away then shall My disciples fast." But I never did it in my life. Jesus said we would but, I never did it in my life. Nor have I ever been a member of a church that did it. Nor have I ever looked upon a congregation that did it. Yet the Lord said, "The time is coming when I shall be taken away and then shall My disciples fast."
I have thought of it for years and years. In 1950, fourteen years ago, the executive secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention and I made a trip around the world, visiting our mission fields. When we landed at Istanbul, and had gone through customs there, there was standing in the rain at the door of the customs house in Istanbul, a tall, handsome, young Greek. He had an umbrella over his head standing in the rain. And as the long file of those who had landed at the airport and had gone through customs, as they went through the door and outside to the city, that young Greek standing there with the umbrella in his hand said to all of the passengers who went out the door, "Are you the Baptist missionaries from America? Are you the Baptist missionaries from America? Are you the Baptist missionaries from America? Are you the Baptist missionaries from America?"
We were toward the end of the long line and I said to Dr. McCall, "I believe that young man has been told of our coming and he is seeking us." When we got to the door he inquired of us, "Are you the Baptist missionaries from America?"
We said, "We are Baptist preachers and we are on a trip around the world visiting our mission fields. It might be you have heard of us and have come to meet us. Who told you?"
And he said, "There is a man in Dallas named Tom Holloway and he wrote to the American Bible Society that you were coming to our city, and I have been meeting the planes and asking all who landed here if they were the Baptist missionaries from America."
So we were his guests. We took a taxi into the city, and that night he took us to a favorite restaurant, a Turkish restaurant, and ordered a sumptuous meal for my companion and me. When the waiter came and set the table there were only dinners for two. And I said, "But there are three of us, there are three of us." And the young Greek replied, "No, for today is my fast day. Every Wednesday I fast and pray for my people and for this city."
After we had broken bread and had attended the service, he said, "Every Wednesday night we have a prayer meeting in my home. Would you come and share it with us?" We answered affirmatively. The young man lived in Asia on the other side of the Bosporus Strait. We got in a boat; we crossed the Bosporus Strait. That was our first time to set feet on the soil of Asia. In a streetcar we found our way beyond and up to his home, met his father, met his mother, met his two older sisters. There came in two Armenian couples. We praised the Lord. We prayed. We read the Bible. We testified. We shared that prayer meeting together. Then his two oldest sisters had refreshments. He did not eat. For that day was his fast day in which he prayed for his people and for the city of Istanbul. For fourteen years that has been in my mind and memory and heart, fourteen years.
Does fasting have a place in the Christian life? Is it like the sacrifices of the Old Testament? Like the ritual in the temple it belongs to another dispensation. Having the substance we no longer look for the shadows. Does fasting have a place in this day, in this dispensation, in the new covenant of this New Testament?
We go for our answers to two sources, first, to Jesus. Second, to the practice of the churches as their life is outlined in the Holy Word I hold in my hand.
First to the Lord Jesus, what did He say about fasting? Moreover, in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6, verse 16:
Moreover when ye fast, not if you fast, 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, not if you fast, when thou fastest anoint thine head, 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.
Our Lord made just one request, when you fast do it sincerely. Do not do it as the hypocrites do, in order that they might be known as holy men, in order that strangers and passersby and people on the street might say there goes a holy and a godly man. In order for that, they put ashes on their head and beard, smeared it on their faces and looked lugubrious, sad and melancholy. Not that, said the Lord, but when you fast, when you fast, you comb your hair and wash your face and shave and dress and look triumphant as though God were answering prayer and this Christian life is a victorious and an overcoming life. And God who sees will honor your requests and will listen to you when you pray and bless your life.
Our Lord made only one request, that when we fast we be sincere, that is all, that is all; that we not do it for show. That applies to anything in the Christian faith. In the same Sermon on the Mount our Lord said, "When you pray, when you pray do not stand on the street corner in order that men might say, ‘Look at the holiness and godliness of that man.’" He said when you give do not sound trumpets in order that people might say what a generous philanthropist. When you fast do not be like those hypocrites who disfigure their faces that they might appear unto men to be holy and humble. But do it unto God in sincerity. That is all the Lord asks when you fast.
Now, there is a lot of hypocrisy, of course, in the methods of religion, in the expressions of religion. In the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Luke our Lord spoke of the Pharisee who went up to the temple and prayed by himself saying, "Lord, I thank Thee I am not like other men. I fast twice in the week." You see the devout, pious Hebrew fasted not by commandment, there was no commandment to fast, but the devout, pious Hebrew fasted because it was the expression of his devotion to God.
Anna, the prophetess, who was a widow for four and eighty years, fasted day and night in the Temple when the baby Jesus was brought before the Lord. But the Pharisees took the thing and made a system out of it, and they fasted every second day, that was Monday, and every fifth day, that was Thursday; because the Talmud said that Moses went up to Sinai on the fifth day, on Thursday, and after forty days he came back down from Sinai on Monday, the second day. And they made a system out of their fasting.
In order to appear holy and godly in what they did they disfigured their faces and put ashes all over them. I copied a sentence from the Talmud. "Whoever makes his face black," that is a common expression among Jewish rightists for fasting, "Whoever makes his face black on account of the law in this world, God will make his blackness to shine in the world that is to come." So every Monday and every Thursday you could see all the Pharisees and all the rest of the hypocrites walking around. They were fasting. And when they gave they blew trumpets. And when they prayed they enlarged the phylacteries and the borders of their garment and stood on the street corners that they might appear unto men to be godly.
The Lord said when you give, you do it as unto Me, and when you pray, you do it for the ears of God to hear, and when you fast, and when you fast,. But I never did it in my life, nor have I ever been connected, or, nor have I ever shared in revival meeting or visitation, nor have I ever been with any people who fasted.
I take it now to the churches of the New Testament. Did they fast? Is this something in the Christian life? Is it? It was in the life of our Lord. Is it in the life of our New Testament churches?
When Saul of Tarsus was struck down by the blind glory of that midday Syrian sun they led him by the hand into the city of Damascus and he was there three days and three nights without eating, without drinking. Fasting and praying to God. And in the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Acts:
Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Saul.
As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost 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.
The church of Jesus Christ at Antioch under the ministry of Barnabas and Paul.
I turn the page; at the conclusion of their first missionary journey through Asia Minor they went back retracing their steps, 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. I never heard of a church doing that in my life nor have I ever seen it. When they called a pastor, these churches needed pastors. Here they are called presbyteroi, elders. When the churches needed pastors, some places they are called episcopoi, overseers. Some places they are called poimēn, or pastors, shepherds. All three words refer to the same thing. When they called pastors they knelt down and prayed with fasting.
What a different way we do today. What an amazingly different way we call a pastor today. I cannot tell you the number of calls and letters and personal interviews I have regarding calling a pastor. Practically all of them want a young man about thirty-five years of age. Practically all of them want an orator. Practically all of them want a good looking young man. Practically all of them want one that can get along with the young people. And they have got a whole lot of other things, a lot of other things.
But I have never had anybody ask me yet about the Spirit of God in him, about the Holy Ghost upon him, about his fervency in prayer, about his hold on heaven, never in my life. What a different way.
And when they had ordained them, elders in every city, in prayer and fasting. Why, it is another world, it is another life that we live today. Following the apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth he speaks of his stripes and his imprisonment and his watching and his fastings, plural. And in the same letter again, in weariness, in painfulness, in watching often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Why I have never entered into that, nor have I seen any ministers who have, nor have I seen any church. We hardly know what these men are speaking of. Our lives are filled with the worldliness of this day.
But what of the Spirit of God and the dynamic from heaven and the moving of the presence of God, who alone is able to change and to subvert and to revolutionize and to make over and again and anew. What of the power from heaven? Why, we disregard it. Man with all the steam we have ever known and all the electricity we have every known and all of the atomic energy we have ever known, there is no power like the Lord God who made those things by fiat, by the word of His mouth, fasting.
I had you read. James, the Lord’s brother was the pastor of the church at Jerusalem, "Be afflicted and mourn and weep: that your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to heaven. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He shall raise you up." [James 4:8-9]
I want to talk about that for a moment, fasting, best I could I had studied it, and I thought upon it so long. Where does that come from? Why is it people of God have given themselves to it?
There are four reasons.
One, there is something in human nature, its roots in human nature. There is something in human nature the way God created us. There is something in human nature, roots deep down in the soul that in times of affliction and grief or hunger for God, the man God made just fasts and intercedes and prays and beseeches. He just does.
In the twenty-seventh chapter of the Book of Acts, the story of that terrible storm at sea, Paul said to the mates on the ship and the prisoners with him on the ship, "You have fasted for two weeks, two weeks." Every day they thought they were going down to the deep. You ever read the sinking of the Titanic? They were a dancing and a carrying around and carousing and drinking, then that awful shudder that shook the ship from stem to stern, then began to list, and the cry of the ship going down. Well, what is a matter with the ball? Well what is the matter with the dance? Well what is the matter with the orchestra? Well what is the matter with the drinking? Well what is the matter with the rioting? Well what is the matter with the orgy? Is it not strange how God made the man? It is distasteful. It is not appropriate.
Well, what did they do? The ship went down like this and the orchestra went as far up, went as far up on the bow as they could. And as the people prayed, the orchestra played, "Nearer My God to Thee".
Nearer to Thee!
Even though it be a cross
That raiseth me;
Nearer my God to Thee.
["Nearer, My God, to Thee," by Sarah F. Adams]
And the ship went down as the orchestra played, "Red Hot Mama," "Red Hot Henry Brown"? The orchestra was playing "Nearer My God to Thee." You cannot get out of that. That is in you. That is a part of you.
And Jonah entered into the city of Nineveh and he cried saying, "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed." And word came to the kings ears and he sent out a proclamation that there should be a fast and that every man and every beast should be dressed in sackcloth and in ashes. And the city cried unto God. The Lord turned. It is in human nature. If you are ever stricken enough, deep enough, grieved enough, food does not have any appetizing look or invitation; that is in human nature.
That is the first reason.
The second reason, it was mandated from God. It was a commandment of the Lord. In the old dispensation every convocation of the people was a feast, Passover was a feast, Pentecost was a feast, Tabernacles was a feast, New Year’s was a feast, Dedication was a feast, Purim was a feast.
There was one fast. In the twenty-seventh chapter of the Book of Acts it is called the fast; it was the Day of Atonement. And a Jew today, he will disregard likely every one of those feasts. He may not go to the synagogue three hundred and sixty-four days out of the year, but if he is a Jew there is one day that he appears before the Lord God. That is the day of the fast. They call it Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was commanded of the Lord God.
A third reason why the people of God fast, because of the example, of the example of the holy men of the Lord, and Moses fasted forty days and forty nights on Mt. Sinai, and Elijah fasted forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, and our blessed Lord, driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, fasted forty days and forty nights, and Daniel in the misery of the captivity, praying for his people, fasted full three weeks.
Then a fourth one, somehow it is a natural response to God in hours of great seeking and searching.
One, in bereavement, in sorrow. Hannah, Hannah wept and did not eat. And Elkanah, her husband, said, "Hannah, Hannah, why do you cry? And why do you not eat? Am I not better to thee than ten sons?" But Hannah wept and cried and prayed and did not eat. David lay all night long upon the earth, fasting. [1 Samuel 1:1-2:10] Maybe God would spare the life of the little child. [2 Samuel 12:16] David fasted at the death of Jonathan and Saul slain on the Mountain of Gilboa. [2 Samuel 1:12] David fasted at the murder of Abner, captain of the hosts. [2 Samuel 3:35]
Bereavement, fasting in the hour of sorrow.
Again, fasting in national crisis, fasting for the welfare of the nation. I wonder what would happen in America if our people were to look to God, and refusing to eat, pour themselves out in intercession and prayer to the Lord God. Joshua and the elders of Israel fell down before the ark and fasted as they cried to God in the defeat at Ai. [Joshua 7] Jehoshaphat, when the land was invaded by the hoards from Moab and their confederates, Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast and he cried saying, "Lord, we have no might against this great company that cometh out against us, even know what he want to do. But our eyes are upon Thee." And the next verse says "And Judah, and Judah stood before the Lord with their little ones, with their wives and their children, fasting, asking the help and intervention of the Almighty God." [2 Chronicles 20:1-13]
Esther, Esther, when Haman, when Haman the Agagite, when Haman encompassed the death of the Jew, the whole nation to be destroyed, Mordecai sent word to his niece Esther. "You will not escape," he said. "You will not escape." You are a queen and you are in the palace but you will not escape. When we die, you shall die to. Intercede with the king, intercede." Esther said, "For one to go into the king unbidden is death, except the golden scepter is extended. If I perish, I perish. I will enter in. Have the people fast and pray." And all Judah fasted and prayed against the day when Esther entered in to make supplication on behalf of her people. [Esther 4:12-17]
And in times of great need, looking to God for help, there was fasting. And Ezra said, "I am ashamed to ask the king for an escort. I am ashamed to ask him for soldiers as we cross this howling wilderness and this desert land going back to Jerusalem to captivity from Babylon. I am ashamed", said Ezra, "to ask for an escort for I have told the king that to those who trust in God, God is a shield and a defender and I am ashamed to ask the king for a military escort to conduct us and to protect us." And at the river Ahava, Ezra proclaimed a fast and all of the people of the captivity fasted and prayed and the Book says, "And God was entreated of His people and they made that long, dangerous journey across the desert sands without mishap, the favor of God upon them. [Ezra 8:21-23]
Fasting, there is something in human nature and there is something in our relationship to God, fast.
Now we come to us. What are you proposing, pastor? As I read the Book and hold it in my hand, and as I have studied it and poured over its pages, I am announcing that the eighteenth day of the month of March, from 7:00 o’clock in the morning until 7:00 o’clock the next morning there shall be a service twenty-four hours in length in this sacred and holy place. And to those who will join the pastor you are invited to come and to fast and to pray, and to read God’s Word, and to confess our sins and our derelictions and our weaknesses unto heaven, just as it is here in the Book, fasting and confessing our sins:
And the men of Kirjathjearim came and fetched up the Ark of the LORD and brought it into the house of Abinadab. And they consecrated Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD.
And it came to pass, while the Ark abode in Kirjathjearim, that the time was long, it was twenty years: the time was long, and the people of Israel mourned after God.
[1 Samuel 7:1-2]
We have not seen a revival. And God seems to be taking away His Spirit of power from His people. And if ever there was a time in the life of the churches and of the nation when God seems to be withdrawing His power from us it is now, it is now. Our churches are becoming powerless. Our ministers are becoming robots and mouthings. And they are talking about things and things and things but they do not have the power of God upon them!
Very few people are saved anymore. Very few turn to God anymore. The increment we have is from the birth rate and from the children christened into the church. But when have we seen a great outpouring and a mighty revival and a great visitation from heaven? And the time was long and Israel lamented. Where is God? Where is God? And Samuel said, "If you yearn after the Lord come to Mizpeh and let me pray for you. And the people gathered to Mizpeh and drew out water and poured it before the Lord and they fasted and said, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’" [2 Samuel 7:5-6]
"Oh but preacher you do not understand me. I ain’t killed nobody. I ain’t murdered nobody. I ain’t robbed no bank. You mean to tell me I am to confess my sins?" My brother, sin is a condition in which we are born and in which we live, and if you do not feel it, it is because you are a clod you are an animal. Any man created in the image of God feels the brokenness of that image. I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I could have been. I am not, by God’s grace, what I can be. I fall short in a thousand ways.
The cock of the walk in a home that looks at himself as being superior, he never makes a mistake, he never sins. The judgment of God is upon that pride and egotism. And it will destroy. Same way in an office, same way in a school system, same way in a government, the number one of all the virtues that crowns a man made out of the mud of the dirt is for the man to be humble, made out of dust and ashes. "Oh, God I have taken upon myself to speak unto Thee, I who am but dust and ashes."
That, that is the place of a man who is a sinner, down on his face, down on his knees before the great high God. You do not walk up to God like man to man, "Hello, buddy, buddy God." There is an offensiveness about familiarity with God. I can describe my reaction. The place of a man made out of dirt. The place of a man covered in his sin is on his knees and on his face, "Lord, Lord. I have sinned." And while they were praying the armies of the Philistines came against them and they were filled with fear. "And Samuel took a sucking lamb, and offered it for a burnt sacrifice and prayed to God. [1 Samuel 7:9] And the Lord thundered from heaven and blessed them with a victory. And Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpeh and Shiloh and called the name of that stone Ebenezer. [1 Samuel 7:10-12] Hitherto has the Lord helped us.
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I come;
And I hope by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
["Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," by Robert Robinson, 1757]
Lord, weak and sinful I am no adequate match for the providences and exigencies of life. And when death comes I am so helpless. Oh God, help the helpless and give strength to the weak and forgiveness for the sinful. Here I raise mine Ebenezer. And they fasted and prayed saying, "We have sinned against the Lord."
That is one thing. Fasting and confessing.
The second thing, and we must hasten. Fasting and praying. Fasting and reading God’s Word. In the ninth chapter of Nehemiah, and the seed of Israel stood and confessed their sins, "and fasted with sackcloth and earth upon them. And they stood up in their place, and read in the Book of the Law of the LORD their God," [Nehemiah 9:1, 3] fasting, reading in the Book of the Law of the Lord. That was the Old Testament, the only Bible they had. And in Jeremiah thirty-six:
And it came to pass that Jeremiah said to Baruch,
He said, I am shut up in this prison and I cannot go into the house of the LORD:
But you go and read the Words of the LORD in the hearing of all Israel on the fast day.
And it came to pass in the fifth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, in the ninth month, that they proclaimed a fast before the Lord.
And Baruch read in the Book the Words of God in the house of the Lord.
Reading in the holy place, God’s meeting place with us, reading from the Book, fasting and reading from the Book.
And then the third thing, fasting and praying, "And it came to pass when I heard these words that I sat down and wept and mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. [Nehemiah 1:4] Nehemiah was God’s layman. He was no priest. He was no preacher. He was a layman. He was the cupbearer of the king. He was the prime minister of his country, Shushan. Nehemiah, there was a, there was a kinsman who came from Palestine. And Nehemiah said, "And how is Jerusalem? How is the remnant that is returned from Babylon and how is the Temple and how are the walls?" And the man replied, "Oh, Nehemiah, Nehemiah, I cannot describe the sorrow of this case. The Temple is waste, its great stones broken. The great wall is in threads. And the people live beneath big stones and like animals they burrowed in the earth. Nehemiah, I cannot describe the sadness of it."
Let Thine ear be attentive and Thine eyes open that Thou mayest hear the prayer of Thy servant.
[Nehemiah 1:4, 6]
Fasting and praying. Oh, we have not time to mention it. In the first year of Darius, says Daniel in his ninth chapter:
In the first year of his reign reading the Bible I came to know what the prophet Jeremiah had said seventy years, seventy years until this is accomplished and My people shall come back.
And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting
And I prayed unto the LORD my God,
And then follows that marvelous, incomparable prayer of intercession and confession on the part of Daniel, God’s servant, praying and fasting.
Well, preacher, do I have to do that? No. No. No. There is nothing coercive about it. There is no commandment in the Bible to fast, none at all. You do not have to fast. You do not have to. No sir. No. Do I have to do that? No, exclamation point, No! All that it would mean is that this is a time set aside for more prayer, more searching of soul, more getting near to God. We are entering the season of revival, that day of the eighteenth our divisional revival for our parents and children who are young, our Junior Division begins.
That night we shall have the Lord’s Supper and our church covenant from 9:00 to 10:00 o’clock. The Lord’ Supper for this month of March is that day of fast at 9:00 o’clock at night. It is still a supper, remember, a supper. It is not a lunch or a brunch or a dinner or an afternoon tea. It is still a supper. It was instituted at night. We will have the Lord’s Supper that night. We are going to repeat our covenant that night.
Then the following week our service at the Palace Theater, the forty-fifth consecutive year, and oh God help us. And Easter Sunday night we are down there at the great auditorium, at the great auditorium. Lord, what if we go in man’s strength and in the wisdom of the flesh and our effort falls to the ground? Oh, God, I would rather not go. I would rather not go. Lord, if you do not go with us I would rather not go.
How do you have the power of God? How? How? How? I do not know any way but to beseech and to confess and to intercede and to pray and to read God’s Word and to lay a hold on His promises. And the day of fast maybe will help me. Could it help somebody else? You will not be any better because you are hungry. Nor do we commend ourselves to God because we have not eaten. It is just having read the Book and meditated upon it for so long, "I have come to the conclusion, I want to see for myself what God would do with my recalcitrant spirit and my hard heart, what God would do with me if I fasted and if I prayed?"
I would like to know what Jesus meant when He said, "I have meat to eat that you know not of." He was weary, seated on the well. Weary and the disciples had gone to Sychar to buy food. And when they came back they brought Him His meat, His food. He had not eaten all day. He was weary. And they said, "Master, eat. Master, eat." "No," He said, "I have meat to eat that you know not of. My meat is to do the will of My Father that sent Me" [John 4:31-34].
I would like to know what that is. I would like to experience that. And I am going to try. And if anybody will come for twenty-four hours in this holy place, beginning at 7:00 o’clock Wednesday week, the eighteenth of March through the following twenty-four hours there will be a service in this church, praying, reading God’s Word, testifying, confessing, beseeching, asking the Lord remembrance of His people. And if you will join us, welcome. As we bow before the great God together and just see what God does.
Now we sing our song of appeal, somebody this morning to trust Jesus as their Savior, somebody to put his life in the fellowship of the church. A family, a couple, a youth, a child, one somebody you, while we sing this song of appeal, come, come, make it now, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.