Matthew 6:16-18; 9:14-17; other Selected Scriptures
January 17, 2016
Lord’s Day Worship
Watch the video of the service.
The sermon starts at 16:24 in the audio file.
Or, A Gospel Discipline to Anchor Our Appetites in God
For the last few years we’ve put feasting on the front burner of our thinking as a way to heat up our fear the Lord. Not only should we not feel guilty when the Lord gives us good things, we ought to receive them with thankfulness and enjoy them as a way to glorify God. His gifts don’t need to fight Him for heart space. Learning how to eat or drink, or do whatever we do, in gladness to the glory of God has been a key emphasis for the vine of Trinity Evangel Church.
We even mulled wine as a cup of His blessing to us last Lord’s Day. We observed from His Word that God gave wine to gladden the heart of man. Wine enhances celebration and it’s part of the reason that Jesus raised a glass of wine, not unfermented juice or water, as the sign of His blood at His Supper.
But we may still be nervous about feasting and celebrating and using the things of earth. Even reading the book by that name seems like it must not be spiritual. What about sacrifice and suffering? What about loving God and not the things of the world? What about Job who demonstrated his faith when everything was taken away?
It’s both, isn’t it? We want to grow up and feast with greater intensity and we also should learn how to fast with greater intensity. Joy in God is not the mean between the two. We don’t walk a middle road of mediocre gladness between the ditches of feasting and fasting. As I said, we’ve made a concerted effort to loosen our feasting belts including being glad with and gladdened by wine. It is also true that we ought to tighten our fasting belts, to be glad with God no matter what else we’ve got.
The ladies at Titus 2 talked about this at their last meeting. In chapter 6 of The Things of Earth Joe Rigney wrote about the varieties and rhythms of godward-ness. There are appropriate times to engage with God through what He’s made and other times to focus on God directly (122).
Recognizing the rhythms of feasting and fasting keeps us from elevating one over the other, as if one was inherently more holy. 9125)
Fasting, along with corporate worship and concentrated devotion, is like an “anchor point” that keeps our appetites attached to God. At least a few of the ladies were interested to learn more about fasting. I also have been looking over some notes related to fasting to prepare for a prayer seminar I’m teaching in February. And, Jesus connected wine with fasting in Matthew 9.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:14–17)
The Pharisees, as representatives of men tied to ceremonial practices, criticized the disciples for not making themselves miserable. To the Pharisees, that’s what fasting was. Customary fasting (at least twice a week on certain days like the Pharisee in the parable in Luke 18:9-14) was obvious by the degree of pinch on a man’s face. The disciples of Jesus had no pinch which meant they must not be fasting. Jesus explained that they couldn’t be miserable, not now. The Groom was with them.
When the groom was gone, then they would have reason to fast again. But, and this is key, their fasting wouldn’t be like it had been before. Enter the wine illustration. New wine refers to wine in the earlier stages of fermentation when bubbles and gases are being released. An old wine skin would have no more stretch so it couldn’t expand with the gases and would burst. New wine belonged in new wine skins that could expand.
Now fasting goes with the gospel of Jesus. New fasting doesn’t fit in the wineskins of Pharisees’ version. Fasting isn’t just for mourning but for rejoicing in Jesus. Fasting isn’t the opposite of feasting in this sense, it is a part of a disciplined life of pursuing gladness in God.
God commands us to seek our ultimate satisfaction in Him. His glory requires that He be the only One in whom we seek contentment and fulfillment. The reason for that is because we glorify whatever we pursue for peace and pleasure. He promises to provide everything for us that we need, and when we get all we need in God, He gets all the glory. Sometimes we receive means from Him, sometimes we focus directly on Him.
So how can we increase our appetite for God? How can we become desperate for Him if we’re not? How do we know if we’re dependent on the invisible God or on the visible things around us? One neglected help in the Christian arsenal is the spiritual discipline of fasting.
Fasting is not a popular practice among “regular” Christians. When I was growing up I heard the word or read it in the Bible but I can’t say I knew anyone who actually did it. Fasting seemed like something far away from long ago, something that those “religious” people did who didn’t understand that Christianity was about a “relationship.” I don’t remember anyone teaching about it or calling others to practice it. Any non-Gandhi, Protestant fasters I heard about were fasting because they were in a dire situation. Their child or spouse was critically injured or diagnosed with cancer. For all those reasons, and probably because it just seemed miserable, until about ten years ago, fasting was not a part of my structured spiritual exercise program. So today and next Lord’s Day we’re going to talk about it.
That’s a good question. In some cases I’m sure it’s ignorance; people don’t know about it. They don’t know that it’s something modern Christians could or should do, let alone how to do it. In other cases, like mine, they may have received misinformation about it and were steered away from it for “spiritual” reasons.
Then I read A Hunger for God by John Piper. His answer to the question of why we don’t fast is that we settle for less than God. Our longings for God are too weak and, as he often preaches, we’re satisfied with God’s gifts rather than the Giver Himself.
I understand that God gives great things to His people as signs of His blessing and for our joy. Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights, and what father doesn’t want good things for his kids? I also understand that it is dangerous to forbid things and make rules regarding things that perish, rules that have “an appearance of wisdom in promoting…severity to the body, but are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20-23). I also understand that deceitful spirits and teachings of demons have led to requiring abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:1-5). I understand that it is possible to fast, motivated by pride with a desire to parade one’s self-righteousness (Matthew 6:16-18). Those persons will have their reward.
But I want the reward of God, and apparently there is a God-given reward from fasting if we do it right (Matthew 6:18). I want you to have that reward as well. I want you to pant for God “as the deer pants for flowing streams” (Psalm 42:1), and be satisfied with the Living fountain (Jeremiah 2:13), to have your mouths filled by Him (Psalm 81:10, 16).
We pant for football and Facebook. We spend serious time thinking about it. We can’t wait to check the scores or see the new status updates. We pant for good grades. We slave over schoolwork and study to get high scores in hope that all kinds of income will be added to us. We pant for work; we’re workaholics, finding our worth and satisfaction in our product. We pant for food. Have a hard day? Make sure to invite over Ben and Jerry.
We’re surrounded with God-substitutes, meaning that we’re surrounded with temptations to idolatry. If we love those things more than, and certainly instead of, God, our hunger is in the wrong place.
The weakness of our hunger for God is not because He is unsavory, but because we keep ourselves stuffed with “other things.” (Piper, A Hunger for God, 10).
We put food, relationships, computers and gadgetry and Internet, sports, music and movies–things that can be properly enjoyed in their place–before God. Fasting may help us. It provides a test to see what we really love, what we will depend on for our gladness. Fasting is an “anchor point” for our appetites.
Here’s a definition for us to work from: fasting is a God-appointed means to humble ourselves and turn physical hunger for food toward spiritual appetite for God.
Fasting is a conscious choice to take away a good something that we may be tempted to lean on instead of God. Fasting isn’t turning away from something foolish, let alone sinful. Fasting that increases our appetite for God is done for God’s sake and not the doctor’s. Fasting says, “I want God more than that (good thing).”
Fasting from food is the original idea. Food is good. It is a gift from God. More than good, it is necessary for life. People often respond, “But I don’t feel well when I don’t eat.” Right. Jesus said “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face” so that it isn’t as obvious that it’s difficult. Of course if you have a medical condition, be wise. But don’t conclude it isn’t for you just because your stomach growls or you get a headache or your legs feel thick.
There are other things that a person could give up for a time, but the point is to willingly give up something we depend on to help us learn to depend on God more. You may fast from TV or the Internet, but you probably won’t feast with TV (binge watch) for His sake.
Prayer and fasting go together. Skipping a meal isn’t necessarily spiritual or godly. Models and wrestlers skip meals on purpose. Feeling hungry isn’t sanctifying. It’s using the physical pains and signals from our body to remind our body that it is not God. We normally pander and pamper our bodies but they will rule us if we let go of discipline. Depending on God during a fast reminds us that He is a more rewarding master than our bodies.
In saying that fasting is God-appointed, I’m saying that God revealed examples of and instructions about fasting in His Word. He never tells anyone to injure and inflect pain on themselves (though some of the prophets became quite uncomfortable as incarnate visual aids). God may train us to depend on Him using suffering, but we are not to pursue physical hurt or harm as a discipline. We do have examples of giving up food for a while.
In 2 Chronicles 20:1-4, Jehosphaphat “was afraid” when he heard that a “great multitude is coming against you from Edom” and that they were close. His response was not to call his generals or set the army in order (which would have been an acceptable and measured response). Instead, he “set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” Fasting was a way to focus the attention of a nation toward God. God heard their prayers, promised that He would be with them and told them, “You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on [your] behalf” (verse 17). When they went out the next morning, “they looked toward the horde, and behold, there were dead bodies lying on the ground; none had escaped” (verse 24). It took them three days to gather the spoil (verse 25).
In 2 Samuel 12:15-23, David fasted when his newborn son was sick. David even “afflicted himself with fasting” when his enemies, those who were “malicious witnesses”, were sick (Psalm 35:11-14).
In Ezra 8:21-23, Ezra proclaimed a fast that the people would “humble [themselves] before God, to seek from Him a safe journey” for themselves and their families.
In Esther 4:16, Esther asked for all the Jews to fast with her on her behalf for three days, night and day, before she entered the presence of the king.
These are just some of the Old Testament examples.
When we come to the New Testament the first example we have is Jesus.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:1-4)
Piper makes this striking observation:
Here is Jesus, standing on the threshold of the most important ministry in the history of the world. On His obedience and righteousness hangs the salvation of the world. None will escape damnation without the ministry of obedient suffering and death and resurrection. And God wills that, at the very outset, this ministry be threatened with destruction–namely, the temptations of Satan to abandon the path of lowliness and suffering and obedience. And of all the hundreds of things Jesus might have done to fight off this tremendous threat to salvation, He is led, in the Spirit, to fast. (Piper, 55)
The Son of God was anchored to His Father.
Jesus explained that when the bridegroom (Himself) was taken away, the disciples would fast again (Matthew 9:14-17). The motivation for fasting would be different, a new wine fasting, a living discipline driven by the gospel.
Jesus assumed that His disciples would fast (“when you fast”) and provided instructions about the dangers of wanting to be seen by others (Matthew 6:16-18). His point was to confront possible pride in fasting, not to discourage the spiritual practice of fasting. Reward is at stake, and how we go about our fasting shows from whom we desire the reward.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:2-3)
The church at Antioch desired to know the Lord’s direction for their ministry, so they sought the Lord in worship, in prayer, and in fasting. Once they received the answer, they prayed and fasted again, presumably in thanks and also to seek the Lord’s blessing on Barnabas and Saul’s work. God used this fasting to change hearts and history.
Some have argued that fasting is unnecessary after Pentecost with the coming of the Spirit. Apparently not. Others have argued that fasting where anyone else knows about it is worthless. But it would be impossible to fast in a group without the others knowing it, and there are Old and New Testament examples of national/group fasting. On a practical note, it is impossible to fast through too many meals and not tell your family. As is the question with many spiritual issues, and as Jesus challenged in Matthew 6, what is the goal of the heart? The reward of men or of God?
There is more of the definition to work through as well as some practical suggestions to consider about fasting next week. There is a rhythm to our godward-ness and fasting is a gospel discipline to anchor our appetites in God.
Piper’s sermon Prayer, Fasting, and the Course of History is a fantastic resource. It is also chapter 5 in his book mentioned above. See also Acts 14:8-18.
Stand firm in the Lord, beloved, the Lord is at hand. Don’t be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication (and fasting) with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. This is your peace, your contentment, and your strength. What I’m telling you is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and excellent. Think, pray, and live as fragrant offerings to God who promises to provide for you.
And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (Philippians 4:19-20, 23 ESV)