Day 20 – How Jesus Fasted
Effective Prayer Podcast, by Colin Dye
Now when we look at Jesus’ fast, we read about it in Luke’s Gospel chapter 4 and various other Gospels, we find it was a forty-day fast, which seems to my mind to recall the fast of Moses on the mountain and the fast of Elijah. Remember Elijah, when he fled from Jezebel and he said, “I want to die,” and the angel gave him some bread and he went in the strength of that food for forty days. It was a very important time of renewal for him.
And I believe when Jesus was fasting in the wilderness He was doing two things: First of all, He was preparing for ministry. He was preparing for His ministry. He was recently anointed, but He goes out in preparation before He ministers in public. The second thing is that Jesus is dealing with the devil. He is fighting the devil, which shows us that fasting is a very powerful means of deliverance and a powerful means of dealing with the devil.
A story, I recall a story in this church, a number of years ago, when on a Sunday somebody was brought forward in the church service who was demon-possessed, or certainly demonized. When we come to ministry in the Spirit, we’ll draw a distinction between these terms, but this person was demon-afflicted, and I began to pray with that person and it wasn’t going very well and time was running out. It was not the right context. So I said, “Listen, what I want you to do is to make an appointment with you to come in the week and bring this man and I will minister to him.” And in the meantime we were heading for a church fast. And then come by Wednesday, two or three days into the fast, that man was brought in and there was a very powerful deliverance, because during that time I had prepared myself and prepared my heart and the Spirit was really powerfully upon me, and there was an instant deliverance.
Mind you, I also recall—I don’t get into bondage over that one—I also recall a story told by Pastor Ray McCauley about when he was ministering and there were visiting speakers around and it was in a conference and they went out for lunch and came back, having eaten a massive steak, ready for the afternoon session, and then there was in the prayer line somebody who was demonized, and he went to pray for him and the demon said, “I don’t come out except by prayer and fasting,” and Ray McCauley said, “Well, what am I going to do, I’ve just had a massive steak? I haven’t been fasting.” But then he said the Holy Spirit said to him, “But I have, Ray. Get on with it.” And that demon came out.
So let us not make these an opportunity for the devil to exploit, but I want to say fasting is a powerful means by which we can deal with the devil. Luke’s Gospel chapter 4 records how Jesus, after He was filled with the Spirit, went into the wilderness, thrust out by the Holy Spirit to deal with the devil, but He came back full of the Spirit. There is a difference between being full of the power of the Spirit and simply as being full of the Spirit. Being filled with the Spirit or full of the Spirit is one thing, but being filled with the power of the Spirit is something else.
In other words, fasting will bring out that latent power of the Holy Spirit within you and bring that power into manifest levels. So the Holy Spirit who is powerful in you, when you fast, that power is manifested through you in a very, very strong way. now I have fasted all my Christian life—I’m not saying that to be arrogant, but I am teaching you today—and when I say all my Christian life, I mean I have had the occasional meal in between. I mean I’m saying that I have developed this habit of fasting, practice of fasting, throughout my Christian life, and I have found it to be one of the major means by which I can maintain the spiritual victory that Jesus has given me and break through into the things of God.
Now, as I said I would talk to you about fasting in the early church. we can understand in the Gospel period that Jesus might be talking about fasting in a special Jewish context to some of His followers, as they were practicing Jews at the time. But when we see how the church fasted, we know that God intends His Body, the Body of Christ, to fast. Now it seems to me that the early church, as seen in the Book of Acts, valued fasting. It had an important place in the life and practice of the church. it seems to me, also, that few decisions were made of a leadership nature or a nature of directing the church without prayer and fasting.
For example, they fasted when they chose missionaries. In Acts 13:2-3 it shows there that, “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.” So when they chose missionaries they waited upon God, and when they were ministering to people in leadership level, they waited upon God with prayer and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke, and they continued to fast and sent them out.
In Acts 14:23 we see that they appointed elders through fasting, “So when they had appointed elders in every church and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” So we also see that in Paul’s apostolic ministry there was much fasting.
Now we can’t tell whether this fasting was always deliberate or it just had to happen because there was no food to eat, but in 2 Corinthians 6:5 it says, “in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings.” Paul is describing the rigors of his apostolic ministry, and it could be that this fasting, this going without food, was because he was on the road, he was shipwrecked, and sometimes he had to go without food because he put himself on the front line of Christian ministry. But also I guess it would also have been for him something serious as a spiritual discipline as well as the natural outcome of the choice of his ministry being of that rigorous apostolic nature.
So following this it seems that fasting should have a prominent place and a voluntary place, both in our private lives and our public lives as believers. And as individuals we should be doing it, and as churches we should be doing it to rediscover the purpose of fasting and the value and place of fasting in our lives.
Now I want to show you a few things which tell you what fasting isn’t. I’m going to come on to say what fasting is, but I’ve also got to show you what fasting isn’t, because of centuries of church tradition and religious ideas about it.
First of all, fasting is not asceticism. Now what this word means, asceticism, is “rigorous or unnatural self-denial.” It’s an unbiblical practice. If you do this, it harms the body, it dishonors the Lord, who created the body to be the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Now ascetic ideas came into the church, in part, through erroneous Greek philosophy, and there was also a form of false teaching which came very strong in the second century called “Gnosticism.” That had two forms: it was Gnosticism through self-indulgence, or Gnosticism through asceticism. And what this was saying was that the body was bad. The body was either bad or irrelevant. It was the soul or the spirit that was important.
And so in the ascetic forms they would say you deny the body in a very real way. it came to self-inflicted pain and wounds—flagellation, whipping yourself, and wearing hair shirts and beating the body physically into subjection, and vigils to starve the body of sleep, and fastings to starve the body of food because you were putting the flesh down so the spirit could come out. That is very bad teaching.
Then the others went to the other extreme and said you could do as you want, feast, stuff yourself as much as you want to, sexual immorality not problem at all because what you do with the body doesn’t matter; it’s only the spirit that matters. So either way these ideas came out of the wrong philosophy that the body is either wrong or sinful, that the spirit is all that is important. God created you body, soul, and spirit. You are a total being, and so anything that you do that damages the body, whether it’s smoking and drinking that brings about ill health, or whether it’s fasting, trying to be super-spiritual to the point of hurting your body and abusing yourself, that’s not glorifying to God.
When we see Colossians 2:23—I told you I’d come back to the Book of Colossians and show you how these people believed that excessive fasting, excessive vigils and maybe all other forms of these things, they thought that they were spiritual, and in Colossians 2:23 the Apostle Paul says, “These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body,” but he says these things have no value—no value at all—“against the indulgence of the flesh.”
In other words, this doesn’t deal with the real flesh, because the flesh that God is talking about is not the flesh of this body; He’s talking about the flesh of the inside, the part of you that is resisting God. It’s that sinful tendency in you and you can fast as much as you like and you cannot deal with that sinful tendency at all. The only way you deal with it is through crucifixion; something far more radical than fasting. You can go on a diet, you can stave, but the old man stays strong, the old man stays strong. The only way you get rid of the old man is to crucify the old man.
Thank God that the old man and the flesh have been crucified by the cross of Jesus Christ and upon the cross of Jesus Christ, and you maintain that attitude of crucifixion, you deny the self. It’s not self-denial, but you deny the self, and going without chocolate or going without food doesn’t deny the self. It’s self-denial. The two things are very, very different, and we find that this is misplaced zeal at the least, but at the worst it can be positively demonic, because asceticism is frequently found in pagan religions, among cults and occult practices. Satanists fast—oh yes they do—and they fast in very rigorous and ritualistic ways. Now we need to fast as led by the Holy Spirit, not through any other forms of rigor or discipline which is not found in the Scripture.
There are a few verses here which I just want you to take them to one of them and then you can look at the rest yourself. Leviticus 19:28, this is part and parcel of the same pagan practices of dealing with the body. “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.” here is a reference to the kind of pagan practices and God says, “Don’t do it.” So this idea that you cut the flesh and beat the body and that’s going to make you spiritual or give you power with God is wrong. That is demonic. That is not right, and all forms of religion, even if it’s professing Christian religion that teaches that, that opens you up to the demonic realm. It’s false religion at its worst, and it’s at it’s worst because it calls itself Christian. No, it is not for ascetic purposes.
Neither is it for self-mortification. As I have just been saying, these two points blend into one. Fasting has no value at all as a means of dealing with flesh or the pull toward sin. In fact, when you fast like this you are fasting in the flesh. You are puffing the flesh up. You are becoming more fleshly by doing it. It’s a very dangerous thing to fast, as indeed, to doing anything outwardly spiritually if you’re doing it for the wrong motive.
In fact, this kind of fasting demonstrates indulgence of the flesh, which delights in showy forms and external forms of so-called spirituality. When Jesus taught His people to fast, He said, “Do it in secret.” Although fasting does not deal with the flesh as such, it doesn’t…it’s not wrong to fast over some particular aspect of the flesh, to come before God and say, “I’m fasting before you because my pride is so strong. I want to humble myself before you. I am fasting, Lord, because there is this bondage in my life. I want to be set free from it.” I’m not teaching against that; I am saying that simply by fasting it doesn’t deal with it, because it’s not a holy act that takes away sin. What takes away sin is repentance, my friend. What takes away sin is if you turn away from sin.
You can pray from here ‘til Jesus returns. You can fast now forty days a week—forty days a week, yes, try that—you could fast forty days at a time, six weeks at a time. You can fast even beyond that. You can even end up destroying your life by fasting, and that doesn’t make you holy. The only thing that makes you holy is when you separate yourself from sin, when you put off the old man and put on the new things that glorify Jesus. That’s what makes you holy. Interesting, isn’t it?
So, however, when we fast in the right spirit over situations, that will give us sometimes the insights we need and the spiritual will involved to rise from that place of fasting, having repented in our hearts, to live a new life for Jesus Christ.
Also I need to tell you that fasting is not a form of self-merit. No, it’s not. It’s foolish to think that by fasting you’re going to win God’s grace. No way. And God’s not going to answer your prayers because He says, ‘Oh, you’re fasting, so you deserve an answer.” No. We don’t deserve an answer. The only thing that gives us the justification for an answer in the eyes of God is the name of Jesus and the blood of Jesus Christ and His free grace in our lives.
And then finally, fasting is not a means of self-aggrandizement. The Pharisees had an ostentatious approach to fasting, as they did to every other religious practice. They drew attention to their twice-weekly fasting in a forceful way. They were spiritual show-offs, and Jesus condemned this and said, “You have your reward. You’ve got to learn to fast with the right motives and your Father in heaven who sees you in secret will reward you.”
So those are the things that fasting is not. Now, what is fasting? Well, fasting can be good for health reasons—let’s deal with the practical first—and in the West the average person consumes far too much food, and so let’s deal with the physical benefits of fasting. Yes, and there are many other health benefits of that. You also should never fast without medical supervision and advice, because there are physical conditions which militate against it.
But anyway, by and large, we probably eat too much food anyway, but fasting also can benefit others. If every believer in Britain went without one meal a week and gave the money that they save for that meal to world missions, it would double what the church in Britain gives to missions. It would double it. So it can benefit other people.
But the principle reason for fasting is a spiritual one. Fasting is all about seeking God; not just for health reasons, and it’s a good reason to fast for those financial reasons I mentioned, but no, this is not the heart of fasting. Fasting is a spiritual exercise. It is primarily directed towards God. It’s directed towards God as an expression of sorrow for sin. We’ve seen that in some of the Old Testament references. Nehemiah was devastated over the state of the nation—he fasted.
Fasting can be a legitimate expression of sorrow—Matthew 5:4, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We’ve seen one of the ways in which we mourn is by fasting. When we come and fast for the state of the nation, we are in mourning for the nation, because of the sin of the nation.
And so often fasting like this can be mourning for sin, mourning for sin. And when somebody is mourning the loss of a loved one, they don’t usually want to eat. Have you ever seen that at a funeral service? Very often the people who are suffering the most, the family members, they don’t eat much. Have you noticed that? They don’t eat much because they are all churned up inside, and in the same way if we are mourning for something in the Spirit, you will find that the spirit will lead you into a fast and food is not important to you. How can you feast at a time like this, when the nation is slipping into godlessness and despair? But that can only be awakened by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit can bring you that sense of spiritual mourning.
And also it is there as an expression of seriousness with God. Throughout the Bible, fasting is linked to prayer. It’s not merely enough to fast. The whole purpose of fasting is to create more time to pray and to show a seriousness of praying, to show how serious you are in praying. In other words, when you fast under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, when you fast like this, you are saying, “Lord, more important to me now than food, more important to me now than that is what I’m doing now, is seeking you. It’s more important than anything else to me right now.” So it expresses that you are very serious with God.
And thank God that He promises us a blessing. It’s a blessing. Fasting is a blessing. Yes, it is. Jesus says, “though your Father who sees you in secret,” Matthew 6:18, “He will reward you openly.” And so there is something powerful about fasting when you come to God with the right motives and you seek His face.
And in James 4:10, it says the right motive, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” Isaiah 40:31, “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” And I have found it time and time again at times of spiritual weakness, fasting increases your strength. You rise up and you are strong in Jesus’ name.
So when should we fast? In one sense, you don’t decide that. The Holy Spirit decides that. The Holy Spirit will lead you into a fast. He will tell you when it is right to fast. Now two things I want to say about that: Fasting and everything we do for Jesus must be Spirit-directed and Spirit-filled. Then it will be Spirit-empowered. Okay?
But that doesn’t mean to say that it’s wrong to call a fast. For example, sometimes in the church life I have called a fast and some have said, “Who are you to call a fast? The Holy Spirit tells me when to fast.” And you say, “Well, you’ve missed the point. If I’m the leader and God has called me to call you to fast, that is the Spirit speaking f it’s from the Lord.”
And the other thing that you can say is that some people have a discipline of fasting. They will fast, you know, one day a week, every week, or they might fast for one week each month, and they make that a spiritual discipline. And you say, “Well that’s not really being led by the Spirit, is it?” But if the Holy Spirit has led you to do that, it is.
So we don’t just sit and wait until the Holy Spirit comes and tickles you and says, “I’ve got a fast coming.” You wait upon God and ask Him, “How do you want me to fast, Lord? When do you want me to fast?” Tell Him, “Lord, I’m ready for You to nudge me in this direction any time and show me what Your pattern is for me,” and that’s a personal one. It will be different for everybody.
And I find that people who commit themselves to fasting on a regular discipline, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, are very powerful people. And in fact I don’t know anybody who is moving in the power of the Holy Spirit at these levels, especially in prayer and intercession, who doesn’t always fast as a practice as the Spirit leads them.
Now before we close I want to share with you some practical points about how to fast. These are suggestions that you don’t find them in the Bible; they’re just experience and I want to share them with you. Take them exactly as that: good, godly advice.
First of all, I suggest if you’re beginning this ministry, fast for shorter periods at a time to begin with. Long fasts, anyway, can be dangerous, and you need to approach them with much caution, and they should never be more than forty days. You say, “Well, forty days is a big, big lot,” but I know some people who have pushed it beyond that. It’s very dangerous to fast beyond forty days. Your body cannot sustain life without food for more than forty days, and that is in a good, healthy situation. Some people’s tolerance may be lower than that. And if you are ever led beyond that, you’ve got to make sure you really are led and you’ve got to be very, very careful, because all kinds of things happen to your body and eventually you die.
Also I want to tell you don’t go without fluids. I usually make this a basic, general advice: Never go on a fast without fluids. Now there is such thing as an Esther fast, where they did it for three days and for three nights and the way the Jews counted it was slightly less than our 24-hour clock, as a result of that. So be careful of that. And physically the human body cannot go without fluid for more than thirty-six hours, for more than three days, really, without getting into very deep trouble. And I won’t say don’t ever go off of fluids, go on a fluid fast, because the Bible teaches that in one respect, but you have to be very, very sure that God is leading you in that direction and be very, very careful.
And anyway it’s not going without food that counts; it’s your heart that counts. And there are also very many powerful fasts which are partial fasts. This was Daniel’s practice. In Daniel 1 we read about Daniel actually refusing to eat the food that was sacrificed to idols and as a result of that he couldn’t eat meat or choice food, and God kept him.
In Daniel chapter 10, one of the most powerful fasts of the whole Scripture, there we have Daniel on a partial fast. He abstained from choice food, he abstained from meat, and he abstained from wine.
Now many people go on a permanent fast of wine, and they believe it is the right way of doing it. don’t titter at that; that’s a very serious point. But there is certainly a place of abstinence in each of these things, as the Holy Spirit leads you.
One or two other practical points: Headaches can occur, and sometimes it’s due to caffeine withdrawal, and that’s why I’m a caffeine-free person. When it comes to other withdrawal symptoms, you have carbohydrate withdrawal, so in other words, even just having been on a normal diet and then fasting, even without caffeine withdrawal, you can have other withdrawal symptoms. so be careful about that and understand what is happening to your body.
And then finally, remember food is God’s gift. Times of feasting can be as spiritual as times of fasting, and we must ensure that our fasting does not lead to any kind of spiritual imbalance or even nutritional imbalance. Let’s be wise about these things.
Well there we are. I’ve tried to blend together in this session some of the spiritual principles of fasting and the practical purposes and principles as well. God bless you. Let the Holy Spirit lead you in this ministry of fasting.