One of the hallmarks of modern western culture is that we need to exercise not only to stay fit, but to keep our weight in check. That’s not something everyone in the world has to worry about – many worry about trying to get enough calories to sustain life at all. For most of them, fasting (going without food) is normative. For many, going without food for the purpose of spiritual enrichment is normative. For most of us in the west, neither is – even though Jesus Himself modelled fasting. Matthew 4:2 states, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”
We might not all be called to fast for forty days and forty nights, but we are all called to fast – even if it is a small fast. Forty days is not a small fast. A small fast is skipping a meal. A 24 hour fast is significant for most, and in our culture, a three day fast is unusual. A seven or ten day fast is almost unheard of in Western circles. Forty days is not only unusual to the point of being bizarre, it is pretty much the limit before death by starvation becomes an imminent threat.
Yet this is what Jesus does.
Why is that? Possibly because it is an echo of the forty days and forty nights Moses spent fasting before God on Mount Sinai to receive the Mosaic Law, “Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.” Possibly because it is an echo of the forty years Isreal spent in the wilderness for their subsequent disobedience. As Dueteronomy 8:2-3 says, “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
Or possibly – just possibly – it is because Jesus took that long to think, meditate and pray through His own response to Moses’ exhortation to Israel, especially in light of the fact that He was shortly to engage in a dramatic spiritual war for the glory of the Father:
“Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. Do not test the Lord your God as you did at Massah. Be sure to keep the commands of the Lord your God and the stipulations and decrees he has given you. Do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight, so that it may go well with you and you may go in and take over the good land that the Lord promised on oath to your forefathers, thrusting out all your enemies before you, as the Lord said.”
Shortly, Jesus would need all these Scriptures to overcome His enemy. If He needed that so early in His ministry, and if He found fasting useful to that end, how much more so do we? The late Rev. Julio Ruibal once noted, “Fasting provides an environment for tuning our lives to God. It is not that the Lord speaks louder when we fast, but that we are better able to hear what God is saying.” Fasting is not unlike the old tuner dial on a receiver. It allows us to better perceive what is happening in the spiritual plane.
No one can doubt that Jesus could do that well and that He could hear God well, even without fasting. But we see in that He fasted – and in that He fasted so long – the Lord identifying with us and our great need (just as He did in baptism), His own determination to make the incarnation a most holy act (just as He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness), and a stark reminder of our great need to likewise and in very practical ways prepare ourselves for spiritual conflict by making the Father the greatest priority of our lives.
Let us use all aids which can advance us in likeness to Christ, and remember that all religious services which have not this result, whatever else they may have to recommend them, are but as “sounding brass and a tinkling cymbol.”J.G. Rogers
When did you last fast? What happened as a result? Is the Lord calling you to practice the spiritual discipline of fasting on a more regular basis?