Esther, also known as Hadassah, the cousin of a Jew named Mordecai, became the wife of the Persian king, Ahasuerus. She was providentially (even miraculously) placed in that position by God in order to save Israel from genocide. Haman, an anti-semite, was able to convince King Ahasuerus to order the destruction of the entire Jewish race. The only person who could save Israel was Esther. But not even the queen could just walk into the throne room to tell the king he was making a mistake. She rarely ever saw her husband. There was no family chatter around the table at lunch every day. For Esther to talk to the king uninvited would most likely have meant her execution. Mordecai convinced her that she would have to trust God and risk her life in the defense of Israel. He said, “Think not within thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews.” “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed.” Mordecai, as a good Bible believer, knew that God would keep His promises to preserve Israel, whether or not Esther did her part. Then came Mordecai’s most famous words, “and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Thousands of sermons have been preached from that scripture. At that point, Esther, who was not a great woman of faith, asked her Jewish friends to pray for her. “Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.”
Esther is a good EXAMPLE of faith for us, because she was NOT a great woman of faith. Her faith was like ours often is – less than perfect. Nevertheless, out of duty, she was determined to lay her life on the line, and I commend her for that. “I am going to go out knocking on doors, making cold calls, for the Lord, and if I perish, I perish.” “I am going to risk my job by telling the boss about my Saviour, and if I loose my job, I loose my job.” Her last words were less than exemplary: “and if I perish, I perish.” That doesn’t sound like strong faith. But it does sound a lot like things that float around in my head – in our heads – as I try to serve the Lord.
This message today does not fit perfectly into our series on practical faith, but it is related. It is an addendum. It is about faith and about a desire for God’s blessings. Both of which I greatly desire for all of us. This message is about risking one’s life the way that Jonathan did in attacking the Philistines and in the way that David and Abishai risked their lives when they crept into the camp of Saul to steal his spear. We could use this event to illustrate revival, because it was the means of Israel’s preservation and growth. This is a message about practical faith, but at the same time I want to leave the body of that study, as I focus on one of the words that Esther uses. She told Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and FAST ye for me… and I also and my maidens will FAST likewise.” There is no way to confuse what Esther means: “Fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day.”
Our question this afternoon is this: How essential is fasting to a victorious Christian life?
I am yearning for God’s blessing in my life and in the life of our church. I have been praying that the Lord would empower us for His glory. I want us to possess and use real, practical, earth-shattering faith. I want the people of our Thessalonica to say, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also.”
The question is: is fasting an essential step toward those blessings? How necessary was it for the Jews at Shushan fast in order for Esther to be protected by the Lord? If there had been no fasting, would she still have accomplished her God-given purpose? Was she led of the Holy Spirit to make this request of her cousin and his friends or was this her own idea? Was it essential for Esther to stop eating for three days before she could actually trust God to perform an important miracle? The answers to these questions are not easy, and there are disagreements between men better than I am.
Several days before starting to think about this message, I pulled out a book which has been in my library since 1975. It is called “Why Revival Tarries” by Leonard Ravenhill. Ravenhill rips apart modern Christianity for it’s worldliness and worthlessness. He lays out several important and obvious reasons for Christendom’s impotency. He talks about prayerlessness, cheap modern gospels, stealing God’s glory and so on. But the word “fasting” is not anywhere in the pages of this book. A man who is considered by some to be an expert on revival, doesn’t say a word about fasting; not one.
On the other hand, I spent thirty minutes on the internet looking at other people’s opinions, and I came up with just the opposite. Wellspring Christian Ministries, is a quasi-Baptist organization, with a strong internet presence. In one of their articles they say, “If God has burdened your heart for the state of our nation, and you long for a spiritual awakening and revival in our land, we are asking you to join us in a day of prayer and FASTING to petition God to send a revival and turn our nation back to Him.” Going on, they wrote, “2 Chronicles 7:14 is our theme verse as we seek Revival in America. This verse says, ‘If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, forgive their sins and heal their land.’” Wellspring implies that II Chronicles teaches fasting, and that without it there will never be revival. I’m sorry, but I don’t read the word “fasting” in that verse. It is not in my Bible. And it is not in the RSV, ASV or ESV, but I can see how it might be read into what God was saying. It is not good exegesis, because fasting cannot be pulled out of the verse. It has to be read into it.
The second website I perused was something called Christian Union. Their article authoritatively declared, “If a Christian isn’t involved in fasting, then it is hard to make a biblical case that such a person is considered humble before God. Furthermore, such a person or people would also forfeit the incredible promises in the second half of 2 Chronicles 7:14. Almost anywhere a Christian revival and awakening has come, fasting came first.” So, according to these people, no one can be humble without fasting. It’s a wonder they didn’t say we can’t be spiritual without fasting. We are spiritual drones without fasting. It’s a wonder they didn’t say, “We are Pharisees of the Pharisees,” so we know what you must do. I will not deny that in Christian history we see sometimes a connection between fasting and revival. But we’ve recently looked at a dozen events in Biblical history, and not once have we yet seen any fasting.
One more reference comes from an organization called Revival Library. “Fasting releases the power of God through our prayers like nothing else can!” Again, my question is: Does God require fasting before He will keep His promises to bless and empower His people? Is fasting more important than faith? Is fasting the fast track to faith? In my rather quick internet search, no one gave me a chapter and verse which makes such statements.
So my first conclusion is that “fasting” is a confusing subject, producing differences and conflict between brethren. There are professed experts with differing opinions. And no matter what I say this afternoon there will be people who are going to disagree with me. And yet I will press on, because you have a right to know that I think about the subject.
To try to answer my earlier questions, let’s start with the Biblical history of fasting.
We find that Genesis never speaks of fasting. The subject doesn’t start with any of the Patriarchs. We have no record that Noah, Abraham, Isaac or Jacob ever fasted in order to have a closer fellowship with the Lord. In other words, unlike tithing, fasting was not set in place prior to the introduction of the law at Sinai. Following that, I can’t find fasting in any of the other books of the Pentateuch either. It isn’t a part of the law – moral or ceremonial. It is not found in Exodus or Deuteronomy. Not even the Jews were required by God to abstain from food.
The first reference to fasting comes up on page 314, Judges 20:26 – “Then all the children of Israel, and all the people, went up, and came unto the house of God, and wept, and sat there before the LORD, and fasted that day until even, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.” The first reference to fasting in the Bible is not a command or even a suggestion that God’s people ought to fast. It is only a statement of fact; the record of an event in Israel’s history. The context tells us that this was in the midst of a very sad event which grieved almost everyone. Simply put: the people had no appetite, no desire to eat, as they poured out their hearts to the Lord. The focus was not on starving themselves, but on their grief.
The second reference to fasting is found in I Samuel 7:6, and again, it is just a statement of fact: “And they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day, and said there, We have sinned against the LORD. And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh.” Samuel judged the people of Israel, but he didn’t command them to fast as a part of that judgment. The reason they didn’t eat was that they had been brought to see their vile, sinful condition, and it grieved them so much they had no appetite. Their fasting was a result, not the cause, of God’s conviction and their repentant hearts.
Next, at the end of I Samuel, David lead Israel in mourning and fasting in memory of Saul and Jonathan. Despite his ascension to the throne, David the king, didn’t command Israel to abstain from food. It was just that he personally spent that day without eating, and Israel followed his example.
The next reference, was David’s fasting and prayer for Bathsheba’s baby. II Samuel 12:16 – “David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth. Then the child died. At that point, “Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread. And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” The first half dozen Biblical references to fasting contain no commands – only statements of fact.
But admittedly, after that – later in the Old Testament – there are some fasting commands given to Israel. Esther, Queen of the Medes and Persians, ordered that during the days of Purim, Israel should fast. And what does Purim commemorate? Not only don’t Christians hardly know what Purim is, but they are never commanded to keep it. It was established to memorialize Israel’s deliverance from the wrath of Haman and the edict of Ahasuerus. Esther’s command has absolutely nothing to do with Christians today.
The Book of Joel is one of the very few places in God’s Word where we read distinct commands to fast. “Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry unto the LORD, alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is at hand…” – Joel 1:14-15. Joel 2:12 – “Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments and turn unto the Lord you God. Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly…” Remember that the context of these commands is the nation of Israel standing at the doorway to “the day of the Lord.” It is a stretch of logic to apply these commands to New Testament Christians. And by the way, offsetting these verses, come the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah which condemn way that Israel practiced fasting, when their hearts were not right with the Lord.
I admit that we can find fasting – abstaining from food – in a very limited way in the Old Testament. Moses for example, spent forty days at the top of Sinai without eating, but it could hardly be called a religious rite or ceremony. I am not convinced that any Old Testament fasting was necessary in order for God to shower His blessings down on the nation or any individual. It was not in order to receive God’s blessing, but rather because of sin and judgment.
But what does the New Testament say?
The first reference we find is simply a statement that Anna practiced fasting. This was the elderly lady who met Mary and Joseph when they brought their infant son into the temple. “She was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.” Anna was given to prayer and fasting, and there was certainly nothing wrong with her doing it. But she didn’t have a command from Moses, or an exhortation from David to do so. Furthermore, it doesn’t appear that she led anyone else to join her. This was a private matter between her and the Lord.
The next set of references point out that Jesus fasted for forty days prior to His temptation by Satan. Some people, calling themselves scholars, say that Jesus’ fasting means Christians must fast. But that connection is ludicrous, especially if they are saying that fasting is necessary for God’s blessings. Jesus’ fasting and temptation are not related to praying for power or revival. His was in preparation for the severe testing which He endured on our behalf. It was a unique situation.
Later, after the arrest of John the Baptist, “then came to (Christ Jesus) the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?” – Matthew 9:14. During the lifetime of Christ, the disciples did not fast, and the reason was because Christ didn’t direct them to do so. “Jesus said unto (the disciples of John), Can the children of the bridechamber 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.” The Lord ties fasting with mourning, just as we often see it in the Old Testament. Again, some experts say that this verse gives them authority to demand that Christians practice fasting. But the words, “when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast” is not a command, but another statement of fact. Yearning for the presence of the Saviour and for the power of the Holy Spirit may lead people into forgoing food for prayer and introspection, but again, I don’t see Christ commanding it.
During His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to fasting, and He implied there can be a blessing in it. But even there the Lord doesn’t command us. Rather it is direction that if we do fast, we do it properly. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and 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” – Matthew 6:17-18. Christ doesn’t condemn or discount fasting, and neither do I, but neither did the Lord command it.
There is no doubt that the church in Antioch and their evangelists practiced fasting. Acts 13:2 – 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.” Acts 14:23 – And when they (Paul and Barnabas) had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” These verses are, in my estimation, the strongest arguments for you and me to fast. But again, I point out that there are no commands or exhortations here – only examples. And related to that, Paul twice tells us that he often fasted – II Corinthians 6:5 and 11:27.
Believe me, I want our church to experience – to regularly and consistently – experience the power of God. I yearn to see people saved through our ministries, and I want to see us be a blessing to other churches. I want the Holy Spirit to turn Post Falls upside down – to use us to ignite spiritual fire. But I don’t see in the Bible where abstaining from food is essential to these things.
But, I will admit, there may appear to be a problem with my opinion in Mark 9:29 and Matthew 17:21. When Jesus, James, Peter and John came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, they found the rest of the disciples in distress. A man had brought his demon-possessed son to them to be exorcized, but they failed. They asked the Lord, “Why could not we cast him out?” Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith and then added, “Howbeit, this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” Apparently, over confident, Andrew and the others just assumed they could order the demon out of the boy. But it didn’t happen, because they hadn’t humbly besought the Holy Spirit in the matter. Their failure was not due to eating breakfast, but rather to a lack of faith and submission to the Lord.
If abstaining from food for a day would guarantee that we could experience a second Pentecost, then I would immediately schedule weekly or monthly days for fasting and prayer. But I find no direction in the Word of God for me to do that. And by the way, Acts 1 and 2 say nothing about fasting before the first great day of Pentecost.
Here are some other questions to consider:
Do examples have the same authority as commands? And do we see Biblical examples of fasting connected to periods of great revival and the blessing of God? Are we told that Paul and Silas fasted before entering Thessalonica and beginning their gospel ministry there? They very well may have, but the Bible doesn’t tell us so. And therefore I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is leading us to fast. Where do we read, or see, that fasting is a requisite part of a strong faith? Is there a Biblical connection between fasting and faith? Again, is fasting the fast track to faith? Not one of the examples of great, practical faith we’ve considered over the last few weeks has included fasting.
Here are a few “nots” to keep in mind about fasting. Biblical fasting is not just about food. It includes other pleasant or pleasurable things. Check out I Corinthians 7:5. In other words, simply not to eat dinner on your Friday Date Night shouldn’t be considered fasting. And this kind of fasting should not be thought of as a dieting method. And in that regard, remember, many people cannot fast due to medical conditions. It is necessary that diabetics, for example, eat regular meals. Does that mean that people with blood sugar problems can never be filled with the Spirit, or greatly used in God’s service, because they can’t go for 24 hours or 12 hours without eating? Fasting is not intended to punish the body or to redirect the flesh toward the Lord. It can be, but it is not necessarily a part of the denial of the flesh. It’s not another aspect of self-flagellation for the glory of God. It must not be thought of as an effort to coerce God into doing something special for us. The longer we fast the more power of God will be given to us. It is not a method of bribing God. And it is definitely not a means to appear more spiritual than the next person. In fact, according to Jesus’ instruction, the next person probably should not know we are fasting. Please don’t come telling me you fasted all day yesterday so that God’s power would be on me today. I don’t need to hear that. It smells like pride. Drawing nigh unto God, in whatever way it is done, should be personal and private. If you choose to spend next Saturday in prayer and fasting, I won’t discourage you, but don’t come telling me that you have done it.
You may think that I’m trying to discourage people from fasting in their pursuit of God’s blessings. I am not. I sincerely desire that you be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. And if the Spirit leads you to spend a day on your knees with the nothing but the Word of God in front of you, then I am all for it. Do it. But remember to keep first things first. Intentionally misquoting Matthew 6:33 – “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” If seeking the Lord and His righteousness occupies your life to the degree that you have no time or desire to eat, I praise the Lord. But don’t seek to starve yourself in order to obtain His righteousness. Putting the Lord first, the Holy Spirit might temporally remove food from your life. But He might replace it with things like reconciliation with estranged brethren, a burden for souls, and excitement about the Lord’s return. “Set your affection on things above, and not on things on earth.” Don’t put your denial of the flesh above actually seeking of the Lord.
Again I say, I really, really want to see us all filled with the Holy Spirit and His power. And I know that in order to receive that filling we need to be sufficiently empty. But more important than an empty belly is a heart which is empty of pride, envy, greed and self-glory. There are probably a lot of things we should be willing to give up for the Lord, and food may be one of them, but generally speaking there are other things – sinful and worldly things – which need to go first.