Let him who has love in Christ keep the commandments of Christ. Who can describe the [blessed] bond of the love of God? What man is able to tell the excellence of its beauty, as it ought to be told? The height to which love exalts is unspeakable. Love unites us to God. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love beareth all things, is long-suffering in all things.12 There is nothing base, nothing arrogant in love. Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony. By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God. In love has the Lord taken us to Himself. On account of the Love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls.
—1 Clement 49, ~A.D. 97
And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Look at the Lord who did precisely what he commanded. After so many things … committed against him, repaying him evil for good, did he not say as he hung on the cross, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing”? … When he was praying as he hung on the cross, he could see and foresee. He could see all his enemies. He could foresee that many of them would become his friends. That is why he was interceding for them all. They were raging, but he was praying. They were saying to Pilate “Crucify,” but he was crying out, “Father, forgive.” He was hanging from the cruel nails, but he did not lose his gentleness. He was asking for pardon for those from whom he was receiving such hideous treatment.
—Augustine, Sermon 382.2
The very idea of fasting is foreign to the vast majority of western Christians. It ought not to be viewed as a mystical means to greater piety or a deprecated vestige of medieval traditionalism or asceticism. Fasting is a biblical practice of saints that, for various reasons, voluntarily choose to express their humble devotion to God with a particular purpose in mind.
Under the Old Covenant, the Day of Atonement was the only public day of fasting (“literally ‘you shall afflict yourselves,’ chiefly by fasting, as testified by Isaiah 58:3, 5, 10” [Jacob Milgrom, JPS Torah, 246]) prescribed by the Law (cf. Lev 16:29; 23:26-32; Num 29:7-11). Fasting always has as its highest aim, worship (cf. Luke 2:36-37). It is a peculiar expression of creaturely humility, dependence, and weakness. Moreover, it is most predominantly exercised in concert with prayer (cf. Judg 20:26–28; 2 Sam 12:16; Ezra 8:21–23; Neh 1:4-11; Est 4:3, 16; Ps 35:13; 69:10; 109:22–25; Jer 14:12; Dan 9:3; 10:2, Joel 2:12; Acts 9:8–11). It should be noted that fasting without genuine faith and repentance is meaningless (cf. Is 58:1-10; Jer 14:10-12; Lk 18:9-14). Also, fasting does not replace our God given responsibilities (cf. Zech 7:1-14).
Fasting is the act of total or partial abstinence from food for a limited period of time in express devotion to God. While the principle is most fundamentally that of self-denial, food is the most precise object of fasting in the Bible. Therefore, while we may choose to ‘fast’ from various other enjoyments in life, food has a particular attachment to the purpose of fasting. The Hebrew verb sum is the only term used to describe fasting and conveys the explicit meaning “to abstain from food” (Merrill, EDBT).
While the purpose of fasting is never explicitly stated in Scripture, there are several very plain reasons inferred and derived from the contextual situations wherein fasting is rightly performed:
1. An Act of Worship in Express Humility and Dependency — “Fasting increases our sense of humility and dependence on the Lord (for our hunger and physical weakness continually remind us how we are not really strong in ourselves but need the Lord)” (Grudem, 390).
2. A Tangible Reminder that We Are Living Sacrifices to God — Just as we temporarily sacrifice some personal comfort to live unto God, so fasting serves as a tangible reminder that we are to live as living sacrifices unto God (Rom 12:1-2).
3. Self-Discipline for Spiritual Training — Fasting is meaningless without its spiritual counterpart. It is an exercise in self-discipline, the active refrain of something we would naturally desire. In this, fasting reminds us to practice self-discipline in the face of temptation, that we might actively seek to strengthen our ability to deny temptation’s ‘hunger pain’. “If we train ourselves to accept the small ‘suffering’ of fasting willingly, we will be better able to accept other suffering for the sake of righteousness (cf. Heb. 5:8; 1 Peter 4:1–2)” (Grudem, 390).
4. An Aid for Focusing on Eternal Spiritual Realities — Fasting is also very effective to aid us in focusing on eternal spiritual realities (cf. Col 3:1-2). It heightens our spiritual and mental alertness and sensitivity to God and His purposes in our lives. Indeed, fasting aids our efforts to discipline our thought life to more consistently glorify God and therein find our deepest satisfaction.
The New Covenant does not stress fasting, nor does it lay down any regulations concerning its observance. However, Jesus clearly implies that His disciples will fast when He says, “And when you fast” (Matt 6:16). It is interesting that when asked why His disciples did not fast according to the customs of the Pharisees during His ministry, Christ responded, “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” (Mt 9:15). The time when the disciples of Jesus fasted, was to come with His departure.
Christians exercised fasting corporately and personally when facing substantial decisions (cf. Acts 13:3; 14:23) and entreating the Lord’s will in general (cf. Acts 9:8-9). History reports to us that from the second century on, the church devoted times of fasting in preparation for Good Friday and Resurrection Day.
In light of our study in John and particularly are recent meditation on the primacy of God’s glory (John 11:1-16), let us entreat the Lord, in unusual manner, to work in us a deeper understanding of our purpose in life to glorify Him. Let us wisely consider how we might fast and pray, especially this Good Friday, for the purpose of confessing our sins and earnestly seeking a renewed sense of grace in Christ. May we earnestly pray and seek the face of God, considering how we might more consciously pursue, see, and appreciate His glory in the circumstances of our lives.
Richard Baxter commended the church to fast and pray on special occasions, whether for thanksgiving, or on occasion of great sin and lack of devotion to God. He wrote:
It is meet that in public, by fasting and prayer, we humble ourselves before the Lord, for the averting of his displeasure; and on such occasions it is the pastor’s duty to confess his own, and the people’s sins, with penitence, and tenderness of heart, and by his doctrine and exhortation, to endeavour effectually to bring the people to the sight and sense of their sin, and the deserts of it, and to a firm resolution of better obedience for the time to come, being importunate with God in prayer for pardon and renewed grace.
—Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter: Volume XV (London: James Duncan, 1830), 498-99.
We strongly reject, therefore, every explanation of the death of Christ which does not have at its centre the principle of ‘satisfaction through substitution’, indeed divine self-satisfaction through divine self-substitution. The cross was not a commercial bargain with the devil, let alone one which tricked and trapped him; nor an exact equivalent, a quid pro quo to satisfy a code of honour or technical point of law; nor a compulsory submission by God to some moral authority above Him from which He could not otherwise escape; nor a punishment of a meek Christ by a harsh and punitive Father; nor a procurement of salvation by a loving Christ from a mean and reluctant Father; nor an action of the Father which bypassed Christ as Mediator. Instead, the righteous, loving Father humbled Himself to become in and through His only Son flesh, sin and a curse for us, in order to redeem us without compromising his own character. The theological words ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’ need to be carefully defined and safeguarded, but they cannot in any circumstances be given up. The biblical gospel of atonement is of God satisfying Himself by substituting Himself for us.
– John Stott
“Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved you! Behold, you were within me, while I was outside: it was there that I sought you, and, a deformed creature, rushed headlong upon these things of beauty which you have made. You were with me, but I was not with you. They kept me far from you, those fair things which, if they were not in you, would not exist at all. You have called to me, and have cried out, and have shattered my deafness. You have blazed forth with light, and have shone upon me, and you have put my blindness to flight! You have sent forth fragrance, and I have drawn in my breath, and I pant after you. I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst after you. You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace.”
–Augustine, Confessions X. 27.