Prayer and Fasting
November 4th, 1984 @ 10:50 AM
PRAYER AND FASTING
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-4-84 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas bringing the message entitled: Fasting and Prayer, Prayer and Fasting. Our text is in Matthew, the First Gospel, chapter 9, beginning at verse 14. Matthew 9:14:
Then came to Jesus the disciples of John the Baptist, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Thy disciples do not fast?
And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.
There will come a time when the Lord is taken away up into heaven, and we will be left as pilgrims in the earth. And when the Lord is taken away, then will His believers and followers and disciples fast.
I look at that, and I think of my own life and ministry. I cannot ever remember preaching a sermon on fasting. I cannot remember it. I have been reminded that about twenty or more years ago we had a fast day in our church. But I have forgotten it.
I do not practice fasting. It sounds almost strange to our twentieth century ears that one would fast. I do not think of a more emphatic illustration of that than our word breakfast. Do you know anyone that when he says, breakfast, he means breaking a fast? Yet that is the exact word: break, break-fast.
In the Book of Daniel it says that Darius the king of the Persian Empire fasted all night long [Daniel 6:18]. Breakfast: it never occurs to me to identify it with breaking a fast. Our mind set does not include the practice of fasting. But as I read the Word of God, I am constantly introduced to it. In the passage that I have just read, nēsteia, that’s a substantive form of a verb. Nēsteuō, nē, a little inseparable negative particle, and esthio is to eat. So, nēsteia, nēsteuō is you do not eat, fasting.
Now, what does that effect? What is the effect of our not eating upon the human anatomy, the body? Apparently it is therapeutic. It is helpful. And I wanted to settle that in my mind before I began expounding fasting in the Word of God. For example, Plutarch a Greek biographer and philosopher—who was a contemporary of the apostle John—Plutarch said, “Instead of using medicine, fast.” A papyrus in the Edwin Smith Collection, which is 3,700 years old, quotes an ancient Egyptian doctor. He said, “Man eats too much. Then he lives on only a quarter of what he consumes. And the physicians however live on the remaining three quarters.”
In this modern day, James Morrison, writing in the magazine Christianity Today, quote: “There are a multitude of diseases which have their origin in fullness and might have their end in fasting.” And even the Bible speaks of that healthful side of not eating. In Isaiah 58, verses 6 and 8, I quote: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? [Isaiah 58:6]. Then thy light shall break forth as the morning, and thy health, thy health shall spring forth speedily” [Isaiah 58:8].
But we are not in anywise seeking to present a lecture on good dietary habits or the felicitous, salutary, salubrious effects, good effects, of fasting. In the Bible always it is presented as a religious exercise, as a spiritual outreach toward God.
And as I study the Word of the Lord and read its pages, it seems to me that there is a very decided persuasion in the Word of God that eating can be identified with carnal fleshly desires. Look at it in the beginning. In the temptation of Eve and in the fall of our first parents—and with it the tragedy of the judgment upon the human race—it came about through eating. When she saw that the fruit of the tree was good, she partook of it, ate it and gave likewise to her husband [Genesis 3:1-6]. The fall of humanity, of mankind, was in a succumbing to the desire to eat.
When I read the story of Isaac, his two sons, Esau and Jacob, Israel, it says that Isaac greatly preferred, was partial to his son, Esau, because he ate of his venison [Genesis 25:28]. He liked what Esau provided for his father to eat. It was in eating that he found preference for Esau. In the twelfth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, there is an expatiation upon Esau who for a mess of pottage sold his birthright [Hebrews 12:12-16; Genesis 25:29-34]. He was hungry and sold it for a mess of meat, pottage, something to eat.
When I read the Book of Exodus and the Book of Numbers, I am overwhelmed by the people of the Lord who delivered out of Egypt, in the wilderness, are lusting now, lusting for the onions, and the garlic, and the cucumbers, and the fleshpots of Egypt, saying to Moses: “Would to God we were back there where we could eat to our full of all of these prepared dishes when we sat by the fleshpots of Egypt” [Exodus 16:3; Numbers 11:4-5]. And out of an answer to those carnal desires of the flesh, the Lord sent them manna from heaven [Exodus 16:4-19]. And in the Book of Numbers, they are saying to Moses: “Our souls doth loathe this manna” [Numbers 21:5]. Tired of it; and they murmured against God and against Moses for the weariness of eating angels’ food [Psalm 78:25; Exodus 16:12-15].
That made a profound impression upon Israel. For hundreds and hundreds of years later, I read of it in the Book of Psalms. For example, in Psalms 78: “God rained down manna upon them to eat, and God gave them corn of heaven. And man did eat angels’ food” [Psalm 78:24-25]. Isn’t that a beautiful way to describe that? Now look at it. “But they were not estranged from their lust: but while their food was yet in their mouths, the wrath of God came upon them” [Psalms 78:30-31].
Now I turn again in the one hundred and sixth Psalm: “They lusted exceedingly in the wilderness,” longing after the onions and the garlic and the cucumbers and the fleshpots. “And God gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul” [Psalm 106:14-15]. Isn’t that a remarkable observation? In the Bible—I have to go on—in the Bible, in a summation, food is an epitome, it is a symbol of the carnal desires of the flesh.
Now, when I look at the response of the saints of God toward heaven, and toward the will of the Lord, it is a frequent thing that I find the saints of the Lord fasting. They are not eating for religious purpose. For example, there is a commanded fast day in the Mosaic covenant not to eat. It is called Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, we say. Yom is the Hebrew word for day, yom. And kippur is the Hebrew word for covering, atonement, the Day of Atonement. And on that day they were to afflict their soul [Leviticus 16:29, 31]. And Ezra defines afflicting the soul: fasting [Ezra 8:21]. That was commanded of the Lord. And if there is any kind of a faithful Jew in this earth, he will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—the fast day. It is commanded of the Lord.
When you look at the people of the Lord in their fasting, sometimes it would be one day. In the Book of 1 Samuel, the great prophet calls Israel together at Mizpeh. While they are there, they are attacked by the Philistines. They are fasting and the Lord delivers them [1 Samuel 7:6-11]. And Samuel erects a monument to God in memory of His intervention, and he called it Ebenezer: Hither by Thy help, I have come [1 Samuel 7:12]. Here I raise mine Ebenezer, a fast day, one day.
Sometimes they would fast three days. When Esther was encouraged by Mordecai to go into the presence of the king uninvited to make intercession for her people, she asked that all of the Jews in Shushan, in Susa, the capital of the Persian empire, that all of them fast for three days, interceding for her as she goes into the presence uninvited to the king [Esther 4:16].
Sometimes they would fast seven days. And one of the most poignant and tragic stories in the Bible is the defeat of the armies of God at Gilboa and the suicide of Saul, King Saul, and the slaughter of Jonathan, one of the purest men who ever lived. Jonathan and the sons of Saul, all of them slain [1 Samuel 31:1-6]; and when the Philistines did dispite to the bodies of Saul and Jonathan and his other sons [1 Samuel 31:8-10], the men of Jabesh-Gilead came and took the bodies away and buried them and fasted over the sorrowful loss of the people of God. They fasted seven days [1 Samuel 31:11-13].
Sometimes, once in a while, there will be a supernatural fast, such as Moses on the mount talking to God and receiving the Ten Commandments. It’s a miracle. He did not eat, nor did he drink water for forty days [Exodus 34:27-28]. It’s a supernatural fast. A like fast is found in the life of our Lord as He began His public ministry. He fasted for forty days [Matthew 4:1-2]. These things are in the lives of God’s people.
Sometimes they fasted because they were seeking God’s help. We have the story in Chronicles of King Jehoshaphat surrounded by a vast and bitter army [2 Chronicles 20:2]. He called together all of the priests, all of the temple people, all of the elders of the land, all of the families of Israel. And it says, they stood before the Lord with their wives and with their little ones, and they fasted, pleading with God to deliver them [2 Chronicles 20:3, 13-19]. Isn’t that a picture? Even the little children, standing by their parents before God, fasting. Fasting!
We’re told that Ezra, before he began his journey across the hot, inhospitable and blistering desert, taking his few captives back to the Promised Land, before he began, he fasted. They all fasted, asking God’s blessings upon them in their journey [Ezra 8:21-23].
There is a magnificent passage in Joel, chapter 2, before—and we don’t know what it was—but before a great, great national crisis, Joel writes from the Lord: Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land and the house of the Lord your God and cry unto the Lord [Joel 2:15-16].
Now saith the Lord: Turn ye even to Me with all of your heart, and with fasting.
And—a magnificent word—rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God . . .
Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly.
Wherefore, should it be said among the heathen: Where is their God?”
That is so true of a people who know the Lord. In the time of a great crisis, in an appeal to heaven for help, they fast. I have here in my hand a copy of…and I read the heading: “A Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day.” It is dated March 30, 1863, by the President of the United States of America; and signed by Abraham Lincoln:
Whereas the Senate of the United States devoutly recognizing God has by a resolution requested the President to designate and set apart a day for national prayer and humiliation.
Now therefore in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this proclamation designate and set apart Thursday, the thirtieth day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer.
All this being done in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country.
Done at the City of Washington, this thirtieth day of March, in the year of our Lord 1863—and signed by Abraham Lincoln.
This is in the religious purview of God and of His people. Fasting! We see it again in Holy Scriptures and in the life of God’s people, fasting, praying, interceding for divine wisdom and direction, for a word from heaven, for God to speak to us.
In the ninth chapter of Daniel, and the ninth chapter of Daniel is the number one prophecy in all of the Bible. It purviews, it outlines the entire course of human history, the coming of the Messiah, His crucifixion, the Diaspora, the return and the ultimate establishment of the kingdom of God.
Daniel, reading the Bible, and especially Jeremiah, sees in the Holy Scriptures the promise of the Lord that after seventy years, He will visit His people [Jeremiah 29:10: Daniel 9:2]. And Daniel now has himself been a captive in the land of Babylon for seventy years. And Daniel sets himself with fasting and prayer to know the mind and word and will of God [Daniel 9:3]. And the Lord answered Daniel. And that great prophecy is written out for us in the ninth chapter of his book [Daniel 9:24-27]. It came while he fasted and prayed [Daniel 9:20-23].
In the tenth chapter of the Book of Acts, it was while Cornelius, the Roman centurion, was fasting and praying that God answered him and said: “Send down to Joppa for one Simon who is staying in the house of a tanner who will come and tell thee words whereby thou and thy house may be saved” [Acts 10:30-32].
It is in fasting and prayer that they appointed elders, pastors, in the churches on Paul’s first missionary journey—fasting to know the mind of God [Acts 13:2-3]. I haven’t time, though I have prepared it, to speak of fasting in the fifty-eighth chapter of the prophet Isaiah—fasting in order to do God’s work [Isaiah 58:1-14].
I just point to one other, fasting to avert the national judgment of God upon a people. When Jonah entered Nineveh and lifted up his voice and cried, saying, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed” [Jonah 3:4] when the word came to the king, he clothed himself in sackcloth. The people put on sackcloth. They even covered their animals with sackcloth, and they fasted and prayed to God” [Jonah 3:5-10].
You know, there’s a marvelous thing in heaven. When a man repents as concerning his sin, God repents as concerning His judgment. When a man changes, God changes. God doesn’t change in His character, but He changes in His attitude and judgment toward us. And it was that fasting and praying unto heaven that delivered Nineveh and Assyria in the days of the prophet Jonah [Jonah 2:10].
“Well, pastor, how does that pertain to us? What makes you think that we should fast?” I am just following the Word of the Lord. I am not an originator. I am a voice. I am an echo, that’s all. Just reading the Word of the Lord and expounding it to our dear people. God says: “When I return to heaven, then shall My people fast” [Mark 2:20].
I have not done that. He said that His people would fast. I belong to the Lord. I’ve given Him my heart and my soul. And you belong to the Lord. We are a people of the Book. We are a people of the faith. We are a people of our Lord Christ. And He said, “When I go away, My people will fast” [Mark 2:20]. So, we shall set ourselves, and our hearts, and our church, and our lives in the way of the Lord.
“Now, pastor, why do you think that the Lord would have us fast and pray?” Well, just to say a few of the fundamental, basic, dynamic reasons why the Lord would have us fast and pray: one, in behalf of the lost that they might be saved. The great chapter of the Book of John in which is John 3:16 closes with these words: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: He that believeth not on the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” [John 3:36].
Oh, oh, oh, the judgments of God upon families, upon souls who spurn the mercies and grace of our Lord, we fast and pray that they might be saved. The great missionary to the lost of the Roman Empire, the apostle Paul, in the sixth chapter of 2 Corinthians [2 Corinthians 6:5] and the eleventh chapter of 2 Corinthians [2 Corinthians 11:27], speak of his “fastings often,” “fastings often,” “In fastings often.”
We ought to fast and pray and intercede for the lost that they might be saved [Romans 10:1]. If we were to take out of our association report the number of our baptisms that are done by our twenty-two chapels, our children that grow up in the church, we win hardly anyone. It’s sad. It’s tragic. It’s unthinkable. If I were to ask you, “When was the last time you came down the aisle and brought somebody to the pastor that you won to the Lord, what would you say?” If I were to ask you if ever in your lifetime, did you ever win anybody to the Lord and bring him down to the pastor and say, “Pastor, this is a soul that I won to Jesus.” In a lifetime, did you ever do it? We need to fast that the lost might be won.
Another reason why we need to fast and to pray; because of the colossal indifference of God’s people, we . . . what is it a care to us? What is it a burden to us? I think of Nehemiah when Hanani came to visit him in Shushan, in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire. Nehemiah was the prime minister under the king. And Hanani came and said to him: “Nehemiah, after one hundred forty-three years, the city, the Holy City lies in ruins. The walls are broken down, and the gates are burned with fire” [Nehemiah 1:1-3]. And when Ezra returned, he had a pitiful little struggling group [Ezra 8:1-20]. Why? Because his people had settled in affluence, and they by nature are affluent. They’re good traders and marvelous professional people. They had settled in affluence in Babylon. And they couldn’t care less that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down and that the gates were burned with fire. And the Book says that Nehemiah wept before the Lord and fasted and prayed [Nehemiah 1:4]. The indifference of the people of God—why we fast.
Why do we fast? Because we plead for or shut up to the convicting, converting power of the Holy Spirit of God. We don’t convert anyone. The smallest, littlest, humblest little child that would come to me and say, “I want to know how to be saved,” I could not save the child. I can point to Jesus. And I can speak of what it is to give your heart in trust to Him. But the Holy Spirit of God must convert the soul [Titus 3:5]. We are dependent, shut up completely to Him. And when the Spirit is poured out, conviction comes with His presence [John 16:8]. In the second Pentecostal chapter of Acts, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on those strangers and inhabitants of Jerusalem [Acts 2:14-36], they were cut to the heart, the Bible says, and they cried saying: “What shall we do? Men and brethren, what shall we do?” [Acts 2:37].
That’s the convicting power of the Holy Spirit of God [John 16:8], and without His presence, we’re like sounding brass or a clanging symbol. We meet and we pray and we fast for God’s Holy Spirit to meet with us in grace and convicting power.
May I mention just one other? Why should we fast? We fast that we might receive in prayer God’s best for us. Oh, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, how little and how barren and how sterile to be content with the cheap rewards and stipends of this life, when we could have heaven itself and the Lord in all of His gracious fullness. To fast, to ask God’s presence in our midst and the blessings in His gracious hands: in the sixty-ninth Psalm:
When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, with fasting;
As for me, my prayer is unto Thee, O Lord, in an acceptable time: O God, in the multitude of Thy mercy hear me, in the truth of Thy salvation.
[Psalm 69:10, 13]
That’s what we seek. When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting, then Lord, hear me; bless me; help me; strengthen me; enrich my soul and my life. We need to fast and to pray [Psalm 69:10, 13].
Now I must close. I would like in God’s grace and goodness, I would like to rediscover the secret of God’s ancient saints. I’d like to implement it. I’d like to reincarnate it.
Moses, on Sinai’s mount, with radiant face,
To intercede for heaven’s grace
Upon a stubborn, wayward race,
David, once lifted from the miry clay
When opposition came his way,
The soldier-king would often pray,
Daniel, a seer, possessed of vision keen,
Who told the troubled king his dream
Had light on God’s prophetic scheme,
Anna, the prophetess in Temple court,
Beheld the Babe the two had brought,
For Him she long had prayed and sought,
Jesus He came to break the yoke of sin,
But ere His mission could begin,
He met the foe and conquered him,
The apostles, “Set these apart,” the Spirit bade.
A spring, that soon vast rivers made,
Broke ope’ by men who as they prayed,
The church, so shall they fast when I am gone.
Was this no word to act upon?
Ask countless saints who fought and won,
Now of us, when we shall stand on that great day
And give account, what shall we say
If He should ask us did you pray,
[adapted from “God’s Chosen Fast,” Arthur Wallis]
They fasted, the saints of God. Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, they fasted.
Grant us the will to fashion as we feel,
Grant us the strength to labour as we know,
Grant us the purpose ribb’d, enhanced with steel.
To strike the blow.
[“A Prayer,” John Drinkwater]
From Charles Wesley
From strength to strength go on, wrestle and fight and pray,
Tread all the powers of darkness down and win the well fought day.
With prayer and fasting.
[adapted from “Soldiers of Christ Arise,” Charles Wesley]
So I thought in the providences and mercies of God we shall begin. We shall begin first with us who are on the staff. We shall announce a day of fasting and prayer for the staff and their families. And anyone that wishes to join us in this God’s house as we fast and pray; you will be welcome. But it is especially for us who are on the staff. Then we shall announce a day for the deacons and their families. We shall gather and fast and pray. Then we shall set aside a day for our Sunday school and all of its leadership and membership, and we shall fast and pray. Then we shall set a time for our women, especially led by the Woman’s Missionary Union. And we shall meet and fast and pray. Then we shall set a time for our church; all the members of our family, God’s family, and we shall fast and pray.
We shall look to heaven as I have tried to preach this morning hour, “Lord, save the lost.” It is an awesome thing, God’s Word says, as they face the judgments of Almighty God [Hebrews 10:31], that the lost might be saved [Romans 10:1], that we might be delivered from our material, secular, worldly indifference, that we might be the children of God, that the Holy Spirit might come in convicting power and saving grace, and that we might receive from God’s hands, God’s best for us; to fast and to pray.
In this moment now we are going to sing an invitation hymn. And as we sing that song, a family you to put your life with us in our dear church, come, and welcome. A couple you, a one somebody you up in that balcony round, down a stairway, in the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “Pastor, this is God’s day for me. He has spoken to my heart, and I am answering with my life. I am coming now.” May angels attend you in the way as you come, make you glad in Him. Make the decision now in your heart, do it now, and that first step you make will be the most precious and meaningful in your life. Decide for God now and then openly, unashamedly avow that decision before angels and men. God bless you. The Spirit attend you in the way as you come. All of us will be here. No one will leave this precious moment. We will pray. We will wait. We will rejoice with those in heaven as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
A. Never preached
it, never practiced it
B. Greek word for
fast, nesteia, nesteuo
C. Can fast
for therapeutic reasons (Isaiah 58:6, 8)
in Bible as a religious exercise, spiritual outreach toward God
identified with carnal desires of the flesh (Genesis
3:6, 25:28, Hebrews 12:16-17, Exodus 16:3, Numbers 11:4-6, Psalm 78:24-31,
II. Religious reasons for fasting
One day commanded of God for Israel – Yom Kippur (Leviticus
1. They were to
afflict their soul, to fast (Ezra 8:21-23)
one day, sometimes more; sometimes supernatural (1
Samuel 7:6, 2 Samuel 12:16, Esther 4:16, 1 Chronicles 10:12)
To importune God’s help (2 Chronicles 20:1-5,
13, Ezra 8:21, 23, Joel 2:12-17)
National fast day appointed by Abraham Lincoln
C. To receive a
word from the Lord (Daniel 9, Acts 10:36, 13:3,
D. To do the work
of the Lord (Isaiah 58)
E. To await
the judgment of God (Jonah 3:3-10)
III. Our religious reasons for fasting (Mark 2:20)
A. For the
lost (John 3:36, 2 Corinthians 6:5, 11:27)
B. Because of our
colossal indifference (Nehemiah 1:4)
C. Pleading for
the convicting power of the Holy Spirit (Acts
D. That we
might receive in prayer God’s best for us (Psalm