An excerpt from a sermon titled “Where Is Your Treasure?” from Matthew 6:19-20. Download mp3
There’s a lot of confusion out there on the nature of fasting—what it is and what it involves. Search the word “fasting” on Amazon.com and the first page of books will include titles like these: Fasting: Opening the Door to a Deeper, More Intimate, More Powerful Relationship with God; Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program for Conquering Disease; The Fast Diet: Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, and Live Longer with the Simple Secret of Intermittent Fasting; and Fasting: An Exceptional Human Experience. So, some people believe fasting is a way to a more powerful relationship with God, some believe it’s a good way to lose weight and be healthy, and others that it’s a way to have an exceptional human experience.
I want to give what I consider to be three common misunderstandings of the nature of fasting both in the secular culture and in the church, and then offer what I think is a biblical answer to the question “What is fasting?”
Three Misconceptions of Fasting
1. The Diet View
The first misconception of biblical fasting is what I call the diet view. This is the view represented in many health books out there that call for fasting because of its supposed health benefits. One such book advertises that fasting prevents premature aging, makes you more energetic, helps break harmful habits like eating salty foods, drinking coffee, and using tobacco and alcohol, and increases clarity of thought. All these things might be true, but they are not why we as Christians fast.
2. The Mechanical View
This is what D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls “the penny in the slot view” of fasting. It’s the idea that we fast in order to get something in return, like spiritual growth, defeat of sin in our lives, and a better chance of having our prayers answered. This view treats God like a cosmic vending machine. We put our money (fasting) in the slot and we expect to get something in return. It’s a view that not only misunderstands the nature of fasting but that demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of God as well.
3. The Self-Discipline View
This is one of the most common Christian views of fasting. It’s the position of many Christian authors and commentators, and was the primary way I thought about the subject for a long time before I studied in depth the biblical pattern of fasting. It’s the view that fasting is a way to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. We fast because we lack self-control in some area of our lives, and we believe that by fasting we can develop greater degrees of self-control in those areas. The tricky thing about this view is that its basic premise is probably correct for many people. Forcing oneself to go without food for an extended period of time might help a person develop self control. As we grow in our ability to suppress our desire for food, we might be able to grow in our ability to suppress other desires (sinful ones) as well. The problem, however, and the reason I believe this is a misconception of fasting, is that nowhere in Scripture do you see fasting done as an act of self-discipline with the goal of developing greater degrees of self-control. It’s not that fasting should never be done for these reasons, it’s just that these are not the reasons the Bible gives for fasting.
What Is Biblical Fasting?
Here is the definition of fasting that I believe captures the biblical use of the concept: Fasting is prayerful abstinence from food in response to a severe situation. Fasting is prayerful. A study of fasting throughout the canon of Scripture shows that prayer and fasting are almost always linked. Fasting is prayerful abstinence from food. You cannot do a biblical fast from television, or the internet, or riding your bike. You might need to refrain from these types of things for a while, but to do so is not “fasting” in the biblical sense of the word. Biblically, fasting is always abstinence from food. Furthermore, fasting is prayerful abstinence from food in response to a severe situation. This is the part that distinguishes a biblical understanding of the nature of fasting from the self-discipline view. The pattern of fasting in Scripture shows that fasting is not something we’re meant to make ourselves do because it’s good for us. Instead, the biblical pattern is that fasting is always a kind of natural and fitting response to severe situations in the life of the believer. Most frequently, it’s a response to mourning. For example:
- The public fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27) was a time to mourn over the sin in the lives of the Israelites for which atonement would be made by the high priest.
- Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai for forty days and nights (Exod 34:28), not as a spiritual discipline, but as a response to the weightiness of what it meant to behold God’s glory and receive God’s law.
- David fasted when his son by Bathsheba got deathly sick (2 Sam 12:14).
- Esther fasted, and called all the Israelites around her to do the same, before she went in to seek audience with the king and attempt to save her people from slaughter (Esther 4:3)—a severe situation indeed.
- Nehemiah fasted in response to the news that the city of Jerusalem was in ruins (Neh 1:4).
- Jesus fasted forty days and nights in the wilderness while being attacked with severe temptations from the devil (Matt 4:2ff).
- Paul fasted for three days in response to the Lord striking him with a blinding light on his way to Damascus (Acts 9:9).
- The early church fasted and prayed in the context of Paul and Barnabas being set apart and sent off on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1ff).
Interestingly, all of these examples, and many others not mentioned in this list, occur in the context of severe and weighty situations, and are almost always a response to the severity and weightiness of those situations. One of the passages that shows the link between fasting and severe situations most clearly is Matthew 9:14-15. Here the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus’ response is, “Can the wedding guest 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.” The reason Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast while he was with them is because his being with them was a cause for rejoicing not mourning. But when Jesus was taken away from them (through his ascension) they would fast again. Why? Because then they would have reason to mourn once more—to long for his return, to groan because their king and bridegroom is away and all is not as it should be.
And this is the time we, the 21st century church, are living in today. We fast because we mourn. We mourn, as is appropriate (Matt 5:4; 1 Cor 5:2), because all is not as it should be. And all is not as it should be because our king has not yet come again. We fast because we are still in a time when we must cry, “Maranatha, come quickly Lord, Jesus!” We fast because, as John MacArthur puts it, “fasting is the body’s response to the heart’s anxieties.”
When it comes to fasting, what we need is not to go out there and fast more; to try harder not to eat so that we can become a more disciplined people. What we need is to mourn more. What we need is to walk with God in such a way that we grow more and more sensitive to things that ought to grieve us, but that don’t because we’ve become desensitized to them. We need God to soften our hard hearts and cause us to be more easily moved by the severity of things like sin, death, tragedy, war, poverty, and the weighty matters of the kingdom of Christ. And when we become more deeply sensitive to these things that ought to move us, we will find that sometimes our body’s natural response will be to become so grieved by them that we will not even want to eat, because everything within us is devoted, body and soul, to mourning and prayer. The more our hearts are moved, the more we will fast.
I recently wrote of review of Daniel Block’s, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship for The Gospel Coalition. Here’s the introduction to the review. If you want to read the rest, head over to TGC’s website.
Daniel Block. For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 432 pp. $34.99.
Do you get frustrated at the shallowness of some contemporary evangelical worship? Do you need help understanding a full-orbed biblical view of worship and communicating such a view to the people to whom you minister? If so, Daniel Block’s For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship is a book you should read.
As the subtitle suggests, Block wants to “recover” a biblical theology of worship. Why does a biblical theology of worship need to be recovered? First, he doesn’t like the pragmatism of much of today’s evangelical worship and believes the pragmatic approach can be remedied with deep biblical reflection on the subject. Second, he observes that many Christians tend to skip over the Old Testament (OT) when thinking about worship. Block, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College outside Chicago, believes a true biblical theology of worship must incorporate all of Scripture, including extensive interaction with OT worship forms and principles. In other words, he wants to give people a biblical theology of worship, not just a New Testament theology of worship.
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One of the major arguments used to support multi-site church structure (one church in multiple locations) is that the idea of covenant is what constitutes a group of people as a church, not the idea of assembly. In other words, as long as a group of believers have covenanted together it really doesn’t matter if they all assemble together or not, they can still consider themselves a church. Pastor J. D. Greear has made this argument. In a 2009 article for 9Marks, he wrote:
Some argue that since a local church is by definition an assembly, a multi-site strategy fundamentally skews the nature of a local church. The essence of a New Testament local church, however, is not “assembly” but “covenant body.” . . . “Assembly” is a much-needed function, but “covenant” is the essence.
He recently tweeted about it again, which prompted me to write this post. Let me explain what I consider to be the main problem with this argument.
The main problem with the argument that the essence of a church is “covenant body” and not “assembly” is that the biblical pattern reveals that covenant and assembly go hand in hand. More than that, the pattern is that a covenant is in fact established in the context of an assembly of the covenant partners. In other words, those entering into covenant with one another do so in the context of an assembly.*1*
To give an Old Testament example, when God established his covenant (the Mosaic Covenant) with Israel at Mt. Sinai, he did so in the context of an assembly of all the covenant partners. All Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the presence of God in a solemn assembly to receive the stipulations of the covenant (the Law). And it was in the context of this solemn assembly that the covenant was made. This gathering at Mt. Sinai was later referred to in Deuteronomy as “the day of the assembly” (Deut 9:10; 10:4; 18:16). It was on this day that the people of God were constituted as “the assembly of the Lord” (Num 16:3; Deut 23:1, 2, 3, 8; 1 Chr 28:8; Mic 2:5). The day the covenant was established was also the day the assembly was established—in fact, it was established in assembly. And this original covenant assembly of all Israel at Sinai became the basis for the other worship assemblies throughout the year when Israel would gather again in the Lord’s presence (Exod 23; Lev 23). Here’s the point of this example. The reason Israel could consider itself “the assembly of the Lord” was not only because it was a “covenant body,” but also because it was a group that was characterized by actually assembling together in one place—the assembly component was just as essential as the covenant component.
This would be a good place to respond to one of the key points in Greear’s argument against the church-as-assembly view. Greear believes that “if the local church is essentially an assembly, then it only exists when it assembles and only when all the members are present” (see the article mentioned above). This is simply not true. Israel is frequently referred to as “the assembly of the Lord” or “the congregation of the house of Israel” throughout the Old Testament whether they are actually in an assembled state or not. The reason for this is that the congregation or assembly of Israel is characterized by assembling together on a regular basis (first at Sinai, and then at other times every year). This is common sense, really. When we say Israel is the “assembly of the Lord” we mean that they are the group that is characterized by assembling together. In the same way, a New Testament “assembly” (church) is called an “assembly” (ekklesia) because it is a group that is characterized by assembling together.
Now this discussion of the Sinai assembly is not some random Old Testament example that has no bearing on the nature of the New Testament church. Without going into a lot of detail, let me simply say that the New Testament word for “church” (Greek: ekklesia, “assembly”) is based on the idea of Israel as the “assembly of the Lord” in the Old Testament. As Tom Schreiner puts it, “The term ‘church’ (ekklēsia) reaches back to the OT term qāhāl, denoting Israel as God’s assembly.”*2* In fact, I would argue that there is an entire biblical theology of the people of God as the “assembly of the Lord” that starts with Israel at Sinai and that is fulfilled in the “assembly” Jesus is building now (Matt 16:18), the New Testament “church.” This New Testament assembly, like it’s Old Testament counterpart, is an assembly of all the covenant partners (i.e., the new covenant). Spiritually, all of those new covenant partners are assembled right now in the heavenly places in Christ (Hebrews 12:18-24; note the comparison here to the Sinai assembly). Physically, that one heavenly assembly is manifested on earth in the form of multiple local assemblies or churches, each of which is a microcosm or manifestation of the one heavenly church.*3*
So, the old covenant assembly of the Lord was constituted as one assembly by virtue of the fact that the covenant partners were characterized by assembling together in one place—assembling together was essential. And the new covenant assembly of the Lord in its ultimate form (the universal church) is constituted as one assembly by virtue of the fact that the covenant partners are assembled right now in the heavenly places in Christ—the assembly is essential. So, the question is, why would we expect anything less from each local manifestation/microcosm of the new covenant assembly? It’s true for the Old Testament “assembly” (ekklesia in the Septuagint), and it’s true for the universal “assembly” (ekklesia) of the New Testament; so why when we see the New Testament authors referring to each local manifestation of this as an “assembly” (ekklesia throughout the New Testament) would we not assume that being characterized by all assembling together is essential if a group is to consider itself a local assembly? Yes, each local church is a “covenanted body” (a microcosm of the larger new covenant body), but each local church is also an “assembly” (a microcosm of the larger new covenant assembly).*4*
The pattern from Scripture is that for a group of people to be constituted as one assembly (or church) they must not only covenant together, but must also be characterized by assembling together as well. Covenant is essential, but assembly is too.
1. Peter Gentry argues that “a formal and solemn ceremony,” which is what the Sinai assembly was, is what gives a covenant its “binding and quasi-legal status.” See Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant, 152.
2. Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, 694.
3. This is why, for instance, Paul can call the church in Corinth “the church in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2) and “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). As John Hammett states,“The local church is not regarded here [1 Cor 12:27] as merely a part of a larger body of Christ, but as the body of Christ in that place.” See John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 37. Hammett goes on to say, “This is another support for a proper understanding of the autonomy of the local church. No local church should be isolated, but no local church needs a larger body to complete it or enable it to function. It is the body of Christ, possessing full ecclesial status” (ibid.). Each local church is a local manifestation of the whole body of Christ and of the whole assembly of Christ. See chapter 4 of my dissertation on how the NT assembly is a fulfillment of the OT assembly, and see especially pages 76-90 on each local church being a manifestation in time and space of the ultimate heavenly church. The dissertation can be downloaded here.
4. I argue that local churches in the New Testament were in fact characterized by whole church gatherings in chapter 5 of my dissertation.
Colt McCoy and Matt Carter. The Real Win: A Man’s Quest for Authentic Success. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2013. 224pp. $19.99.
Regretfully, many men in church pews are passionless observers of Christianity. They’re content to maintain life goals that are no different than those of unbelieving men around them—make some money, enjoy my family, and have a little fun before I die. If this describes some of the men in your church, then The Real Win will be a helpful resource for your ministry. McCoy and Carter’s book can challenge your men, reorient their minds, and put them well on their way to passionately pursuing Jesus in every area of their lives.
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