Fasting is a Part of Obedience

“Fasting is a Part of Obedience” Zechariah 7:1-7 God desires obedience that comes from a life that is fully dependent upon Him. Concentrating on the Lord Confirmation of Submission Concentrating on the Lord Zechariah 7:1-3, NKJV 1 Now in the fourth year of King Darius it came to pass that the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Chislev, 2 when the people sent Sherezer, with Regem-Melech and his men, to the house of God, to pray before the Lord, 3 and to ask the priests who were in the house of the Lord of hosts, and the prophets, saying, “Should I weep in the fifth month and fast as I have done for so many years?” Do I need to fast? This is a question asked by many people as they grow in their faith in Christ Jesus. In order to properly answer the question concerning whether the followers of Christ need to participate in fasting or not, it is vital that we understand what fasting is before being able to properly implement it into a person’s lifestyle. This passage in Zechariah is a great passage to begin to understand what fasting is in God’s opinion. Fasting was part of obedience to God on the Day of Atonement as the people celebrated God’s provision of forgiveness when God commanded, “29 “This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you” (Leviticus 16:29, NKJV emphasis added). One way the people of God would afflict their soul was through depriving themselves of the necessities they needed such as food, water, and physical comfort. The Lord specifically called His people to fast through the Prophet Joel for the purpose of mourning for the devastation of their land, 14 Consecrate a fast, Call a sacred assembly; Gather the elders And all the inhabitants of the land Into the house of the Lord your God, And cry out to the Lord. (Joel 1:14, NKJV) This plague devastation the people saw God bring upon their land was only a warning of the future pouring out of God’s wrath on the Day of the Lord. God wanted them to contemplate their lives, their sinful and unrepentant hearts, and turn to Him in submission to receive God’s forgiveness. These are the only times God has commanded a time for the people to afflict themselves where fasting was part of what the people did, or called for the people to specifically fast in a time of mourning. During the seventy year exile the leaders instituted fasts in order to remember the history of how they came to be in captivity. These traditional times of fasting during the exile commemorated the first attack on Jerusalem by Babylon on the tenth day of the tenth month (2 Kings 25:1); the fall of Jerusalem on the ninth day of the fourth month (2 Kings 25:3); the murder of Gedaliah on the second day of the seventh month (2 Kings 25:23-25); and the destruction of the temple on the tenth day of the fifth month (Jeremiah 52:12). The fasts reminded the people of what their sin had caused. Now, having returned from the exile, the people sent representatives to the priest in Jerusalem asking specifically if they should still fast in commemorating the destruction of the temple in the fifth month. Their focus was on the results of their sin and rebellion against God rather than God who had brought about their captivity to discipline their unrepentant hearts. Fasting is part of obedience because it has always been designed to direct attention to God rather than upon self or that which brings misery and condemnation upon the heart. A fast before God is more than simply going without food for a set period of time as a spiritual ritual to show devotion or penitence. Fasting is deliberately turning focus off of something of self or the world and turning to concentrate on the Lord. The people were using the fasts to focus on the tragedy of the temple. God’s desire was for them to understand in their time of exile how they had been disobedient to His Word; they placed more emphasis on the physical temple than they did upon the God who the temple was dedicated to grant them an ability to worship in one physical location. Jesus spoke about fasting in this same way during His ministry. Jesus specifically taught that fasting was something done before God alone. “16 “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16-18, NKJV). Receiving recognition from people certainly increases their opinion of the fasting person’s piety, but nothing should be expected to be received from God. In the same way there are things which take place between a husband and wife in marriage that should not be seen by others, fasting is one of those private intimate times with God that must not be shared with others. The idea of fasting as an intimate time between God and His child can be seen in the lives of those who fasted. Moses reminded the people as they prepared to enter into the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership, 9 When I went up into the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the Lord made with you, then I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water” (Deuteronomy 9:9, NKJV). Esther and the Jews of Susa fasted for guidance and strength to follow God’s will, 15 Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” (Esther 4:15-16, NKJV) Nehemiah fasted to receive hope and direction on what to do about the vulnerability of Jerusalem, 4 So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:4, NKJV) There were also many listed in Scripture who fasted for themselves without any true connection or to simply get their way with God. King Darius fasted because he feared for Daniel’s life after he had placed him in the lion’s den. 18 Now the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; and no musicians were brought before him. Also his sleep went from him. 19 Then the king arose very early in the morning and went in haste to the den of lions. (Daniel 6:18-19, NKJV) David fasted before God over the sickness of his child born to Bathsheba who was dying in an effort to get God to change His mind over the consequences of David’s sin against God. 13 So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.” 15 Then Nathan departed to his house. And the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became ill. 16 David therefore pleaded with God for the child, and David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground…22 And he said, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who can tell whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ (2 Samuel 12:13-16, 22, NKJV) The Ninevites’ fasted and momentarily humbled themselves before God to temporarily avoid the judgment of God, without truly turning to Him in genuine trust and faith. 5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. 6 Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. 7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish? (Jonah 3:1-9, NKJV) Fasting is part of obedience when it is done before God for the purpose of drawing closer to Him; it is longing for God’s influence to be increased, His likeness to be seen more clearly in the life of His child, and strength to live more fully for Him rather than for self. The person who enters into a time of fasting is literally sacrificing their fleshly needs and desires in order to focus more on the Lord to grow in knowledge of and love for Him. Confirmation of Submission Zechariah 7:4-7, NKJV 4 Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying, 5 “Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me? 6 When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves? 7 Should you not have obeyed the words which the Lord proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?’ ” God’s response to the question about continuing to fast in the fifth month was answered with a question, as Christ did when people asked Him questions during His earthly ministry. However, God included the fast on the seventh month commemorating the murder of the governor Gedaliah as well as the fifth month which was asked about by the people. Once it is accepted that fasting is part of obedience to God in drawing personally nearer to Him, the reason behind the purpose of fasting can be truthfully evaluated by those who are participating in fasting. The method or how a person will fast can also be clearly defined when drawing closer to God in a more submissive way is the reasoning behind entering into a time of fasting. Therefore, God inquires of those who came before Zechariah whether they fasted during the captivity all those years for God or for themselves. God asked, “…did you really fast for Me—for Me?” ” (Zechariah 7:5, NKJV). The Lord desired the people to examine their motives behind their fasting, but helped them to realize that fasting as part of obedience is about carrying out faithfully the will of the Father in their public lives from strength gained in purposefully drawing closer to Him in their private. This is why God asked the second question through Zechariah, “Should you not have obeyed the words which the Lord proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?’ ” (Zechariah 7:7, NKJV). Fasting does not bring about outward obedience, but fasting is part of obedience in the lives of those who are living out the will of God publicly. The evidence of drawing closer to God is visibly seen in how people live among others in the world. God has proclaimed this by describing fasting as, 6 “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7, NKJV) The fast God has chosen for His people is denial of self to help people emotionally, physically, and spiritually. These things that God has called His people too can only be accomplished when they are intimately drawing closer to Him privately. These outward actions are confirmation of a life that is submissive to God. The definition of a fast as it is used here in Isaiah 58:6 refers to an act of worship that is external in the way people are loved and cared for while entreating God privately in the heart of a person. God  proclaims this in his response to the people’s question of whether they ought to consider continuing to fast religiously during certain times throughout the year. God makes His point clearly. If they would have obeyed the commandments of God while they lived in the land, there would have been no exile. The external worship in the temple went on daily. Every appearance gave the impression of a people that worshiped God, but their hearts were growing farther and farther away from God with each passing day. God said through Isaiah, 2 …they seek Me daily, And delight to know My ways, As a nation that did righteousness, And did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; They take delight in approaching God. 3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, And exploit all your laborers. 4 Indeed you fast for strife and debate, And to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, To make your voice heard on high. (Isaiah 58:2-4, NKJV) The people maintain an outward appearance of worship and devotion to God without an inward submission to His commandments, or any satisfaction in simply rejoicing in knowing God on a personal level as no other people could possibly know Him. This was revealed when they felt God did not notice or had seen they were purposefully going without food, drink, and other comforts for God’s benefit. The attitude of the people before the captivity and after the captivity appeared to be the same: being obedient is doing God a favor for which He ought to be grateful and show appreciation to them for doing it. Thinking that God should show any favor for obedience by His people is as arrogant an attitude toward God as can be, yet it is the posture of many who claim to worship God both in the past and still today. Jesus revealed how extreme the arrogance of people can become before God when He spoke out against the Pharisees and scribes, 1 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. 4 For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. 5 But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7 greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ 8 But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. 11 But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-10, NKJV) The religious leaders of Jesus’ day appeared to have a good standing with God. They made sure everyone knew the rules and followed them. However, they saw fit to exempt themselves from abiding by the same standard as they forced the people to live by personally. Jesus commanded; the authority held by the religious leaders needed to be obeyed, even though they personally did not live by what they told other people to do. The fasting the Pharisees and scribes did was a fast which concentrated upon themselves. Their fasting never brought them any closer to God personally, but caused their hearts to be hardened. The people of the exile participated in fasting which was to mourn all the tragedies they faced, but refused to turn to the Lord. The submission that would have been visible in their lives was proven to be illegitimate by the disunity between what they said and how they actually lived. Fasting needs to be part of the life of the follower of Christ in order to help them consciously focus on the Lord each day. This means fasting can be denying nourishment to the body, but it is not limited to food and drink. Fasting should be thought of in the life of Jesus’ disciples as denying oneself the urge to take control of things in their lives to fully depend upon the Lord by turning to Him daily to make a determined effort to focus their hearts and minds upon Him. Jesus described this best when He proclaimed, “26 “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. 27 And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26-27, NKJV). Fasting is part of obedience because a person chooses to deny themselves and depend upon the Lord to sustain them during their time with Him and while they care for the business of living life in this world as His ambassadors who have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).

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