I made an interesting discovery recently: Fasting has been the bread and butter of normal church life for 2000 years! In fact, according to my research, it appears to have been one of the major factors in releasing the power of the Holy Spirit in times of Revival.
I was so taken back with my discovery that I trawled through scores of church history and revival books (electronically!) looking for references to fasting. What I found was astounding! There is clear, documented evidence that all the great leaders and revival movements of church history used this amazing key to add power to their prayers! In one collection of church history documents the software I used refused to reveal its findings, stating ‘the search exceeds the 5,000 limit of this software!’
Could it be that fasting is a vital, but missing ingredient in the 21st century church?
Matthew Henry said “Fasting is a laudable practice and we have reason to lament that it is generally neglected among Christians.”
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones “I wonder whether we have ever fasted? I wonder whether it has even occurred to us that we ought to be considering the question of fasting? The fact is, that this whole subject seems to have dropped right out of our lives and right out of our whole Christian thinking.”
In the early church
In the early Christian Church they fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. The early church fathers like Jerome, Athanasius, Clement of Rome, John Chrysostom – all I could find - practiced fasting. One day a week, twice a week, whole weeks, even whole months! Martin Luther was criticized because he fasted too much. John Calvin fasted and prayed until most of Geneva turned to God. John Knox fasted and prayed and the wicked Mary, Queen of Scots said she feared no weapon like she feared John Knox’s prayers.
Jonathan Edwards who was God’s instrument in the revival in New England, fasted and prayed. He fasted for 22 hours prior to preaching his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” John Wesley fasted twice a week. Charles Finney one of the greatest revival leaders in history was a man who fasted and prayed. D. L. Moody was not unfamiliar with fasting and praying. During the Prayer Revival in America in 1859, Christians fasted during their lunch hours and attended prayer meetings in churches near their places of employment. In two years 1 million people came to Christ!
Richard Riss who has documented the mid-twentieth century evangelical awakening in America quotes George Hawtin: “The truth of fasting was one great contributing factor to the revival. One year before this we had read Franklin Hall’s book, entitled ‘Atomic Power With God Through Fasting and Prayer.’ We immediately began to practice fasting. Previously we had not understood the possibility of long fasts. The revival would never have been possible without the restoration of this great truth through our good brother Hall.”
Hall’s book on fasting and prayer was a major influence in the ministries of Oral Roberts, William Branham, A. A. Allen, O. L. Jaggers, David Nunn, Tommy Hicks, W. V. Grant and other healing evangelists who were raised up in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.
Even in our own nation (Britain) the greatest revival (of conversion growth) in my lifetime was during Billy Graham’s crusades in the early ‘50s. He reports fasting and praying during his voyage to England before the great work began!
Even this small selection is an impressive testimony of the power of fasting.
Jesus is our example of fasting
Immediately after being baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit to spend forty days fasting in the wilderness, Luke 4:1-2. During this forty day period Jesus came into direct spiritual conflict with Satan. Is it possible that Satan knew from history that fasting releases God’s power and that Jesus was now preparing for the ultimate decisive battle? Satan certainly did his utmost to thwart Jesus plans at this point.
The text is revealing. In Luke 4.1, it says “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit ....” but afterwards, in Luke 4.14 we read: “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit”
It seems that the potential of the Holy Spirit’s power, which Jesus received at the time of His baptism in Jordan, only came into its full manifestation after He had completed His fast. Fasting was the final phase of preparation through which He had to pass, before entering into His public ministry. Fasting in the wilderness obviously took Jesus to another level of effectiveness.
Jesus made an interesting comment in Mark 9:29. Remarking on the inability of the disciples to cast out a spirit from a boy, he says that ‘this kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.’ This means that some special situations which are being troubled by satanic powers are better handled by adding fasting to prayer. Again, fasting releases God’s power.
Jesus’ teaching on fasting
In Matthew 6.1-18 we read of instructions Christ gives to His disciples on three related duties: giving to the needy, praying, and fasting. In each case He places His main emphasis upon the motive and warns against religious ostentation for the sake of impressing men. With this qualification, He assumes that all His disciples will practice all three of these duties. This is indicated by the language which He uses concerning each.
In verse 2 He says, “When you [singular] give to the needy . . . .” In verse 6 He says, “When you [singular] pray . . .” (individually); and in verse 7, “When you [plural] pray . . (collectively). In verse 16 He says, “When you [plural] fast . . .” (collectively); and in verse 17, “When you [singular] fast” (individually). In no case does Christ say, if, but always when. The inference is clear. Christ expects that allHis disciples will regularly practice all three of these duties. Giving is a private affair you do on your own. Prayer and fasting are activities that are done regularly, both privately and collectively!
This was not a surprise to the first disciples, for fasting was an accepted part of religious duty among Jews in Christ’s day. They had practiced it continuously from the time of Moses onward. On a number of occasions in the Old Testament we see the entire nation called to fasting. Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast in 2 Chron 20; Ezra proclaimed a fast in Ezra 8:21-23; a fast was employed to release God’s will in Esther’s day. Even non-believers proclaimed a fast at Nineveh and thereby changed God’s intention to destroy them. This was a big issue in their history. It brought the blessing of God down in the most difficult circumstances.
Both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist fasted regularly. The people were surprised that they did not see the disciples of Jesus doing the same, and they asked Him the reason. Like ‘How can you expect the blessing of God if you don’t fast? Their question, and Christ’s answer, is recorded in Mark:
Mark 2:18-20 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.”
The bridegroom, as always in the New Testament, is Christ Himself. The guests of the bridegroom are the disciples of Christ (about whom the question had been asked). The period while the bridegroom is with them corresponds to the days of Christ’s ministry on earth, while He was physically present with His disciples. The period when the bridegroom will be taken from them commenced when Christ ascended back to heaven, and will continue until He returns for His church. In the meantime the church, as a bride, is awaiting the return of the bridegroom. This is the period in which we are now living, concerning which Jesus says very definitely, “And then shall they [the disciples] fast in those days.” In the days in which we now live, therefore, fasting is a mark of true Christian discipleship, ordained by Jesus Himself.
Fasting should be put back on the menu by all those who desire to see another wave of kingdom power sweep their land!
The Practice of the Early Church
Fasting played a vital part in Paul’s ministry. Immediately after his first encounter with Christ on the Damascus road, he spent the next three days without food or drink (Acts 9.9). Ananias was visited by the Lord and given orders to go to such and such a place where he would find Saul of Tarsus. Paul saw Ananias in a vision and when he arrived Ananias laid hands on Saul to receive the Holy Spirit and was then catapulted into the most effective ministry in the early church. We have to ask the question ‘Did Paul’s fast have anything to do with these dynamic results?’
Thereafter fasting was a regular part of his spiritual discipline. In 2 Corinthians 6.3-10 Paul lists various different ways in which he had proved himself a true minister of God. In verse 5 two of the ways listed are: ‘in watchings, in fastings.’ ‘Watching’ signifies going without sleep; ‘fasting’ signifies going without food. Both these disciplines were practiced at times by Paul to make his ministry fully effective.
In 2 Corinthians 11.23-27 Paul returns to this theme. Speaking of other men who set themselves up as his rivals in the ministry, Paul says: “Are they ministers of Christ? ... I am more . . . .” He then gives a long list of the various ways in which he had proved himself a true minister of Christ. In verse 27 he says: “In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often . . .” Here again Paul joins ‘watching’ closely with ‘fasting’. The plural form, ‘in fastings often,’ indicates that Paul devoted himself to frequent periods of fasting. ‘Hunger and thirst’ refers to occasions when neither food nor drink was available. ‘Fastings’ refers to occasions when food was available, but Paul deliberately abstained for spiritual reasons.
Also ‘fastings’ probably reflects that he practised different sorts of fasting. Sometimes a total fast of food and water (like all orthodox Jews do once a year on the Day of Atonement); sometimes a fast of just food (as Jesus did); sometimes a partial fast like Daniel who took no ‘choice’ foods; sometimes a daily fast, sometimes many days; sometimes alone and sometimes with others. One of these latter fasts is recorded in Acts 13:1-3.
In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
In this local congregation in the city of Antioch five leading ministers—designated as prophets and teachers—were praying and fasting together. This is described as ministering to the Lord. The majority of Christian leaders or congregations today know very little of this aspect of ministry. Yet, in the divine order, ministry to the Lord comes before ministry to men. Out of the ministry to the Lord, the Holy Spirit brings forth the direction and the power needed for effective ministry to men.
So it was at Antioch. As these five leaders prayed and fasted together, the Holy Spirit revealed that He had a special task for two of them—Barnabas and Saul (later called Paul). He said, “Separate for me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” In this way these two men were called out for a special task.
However, they were not yet ready to undertake the task. They still required the impartation of the special grace and power that were necessary for the task ahead. For this purpose, all five men fasted and prayed together a second time. Then, after the second period of fasting, the other leaders laid their hands on Barnabas and Paul, and sent ‘them forth to fulfil their task.’
So it was through collective prayer and fasting that Barnabas and Paul received, first, the revelation of a special task, and second, the grace and power needed to fulfil that task. At the time they all prayed and fasted together, Barnabas and Paul—like the other three men—were recognized as prophets and teachers. But after being sent forth to their task, they were described as apostles (see Acts 14.4, 14). We may therefore say that the apostolic ministry of Barnabas and Paul was born out of collective prayer and fasting by five leaders of the church at Antioch.
In due course this practice of collective prayer and fasting was transmitted by Barnabas and Paul to the congregations of new disciples which were established in various cities as a result of their ministry. The actual establishment of each congregation was accomplished through the appointment of their own local elders. This is described in Acts:
Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
So there we have it! Fasting releases the power of God through our prayers like nothing else can! It is normal for every Christian to fast. Jesus practiced this method and the early church followed suit. Of course there is much more teaching on the subject in Scripture but we have to conclude that there is hardly anyone who saw the intervention of God and great advance of His Kingdom, whether in the Bible or since the Bible was first penned, that did not use this dynamic addition to their prayer lives. They fasted!
Charles Spurgeon, the London pastor from a century ago, said, ‘Our seasons of fasting and prayer at the Tabernacle have been high days indeed; never has Heaven’s gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer the central Glory.’
Men and women that God has used mightily throughout history, have similarly believed this. They saw God’s glory manifest in their day. The possibility of joining their ranks is offered to every believer today. Right around the world thousands of believers are practicing prayer with fasting. The Lord is preparing his great army for a glorious and final outpouring of his Spirit to restore the glory to the church and in the world, before his return. Let’s put fasting back on our menu!
Tony Cauchi, Librarian