History as a subject was made/broke for me throughout school by my teachers. I know, I know, true academics love their study because of the nature of study, but most of us were inspired to our field of study by a favorite prof or teacher who made the subject come alive. My European history teacher in High School did that for me. But in Seminary, getting to study the history of the Church really opened my eyes to things I had never before considered. We know the church as it is today, and as we have personally experienced it, but tradition and liturgy have taken fascinating forms throughout the last two-thousand years. For example, did you know that for hundreds of years after Jesus returned to Heaven that the Church, as a whole, had a practice of fasting two days a week? Epiphanius, a bishop in the fifth century in Cyprus, made this statement:
“Who does not know that the fast of the fourth and sixth days of the week are observed by Christians throughout the world?”
Is there a habit or tradition by which you would identify Christians “throughout the world”? Perhaps that they gather on Sunday mornings for worship? There was a book called the Didache that was written in the mid to late first century that helped Jewish-Christians outline their beliefs and identity, and taught pastors how to help Gentiles (non-Jews) to best represent Christ in this tricky period of fulfillment of Judaism. Some call it the first catechism of the faith. In the section on fasting and prayer, the first verse or instruction reads:
“Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”
– Didache, Ch. VIII, V. I
So by the end of the first century there had already been developed a fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but it was a fast of hypocrites – like the Pharisees – fasting for honor among men and not to seek God. Thus the first century Church set themselves apart to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, to do so differently than those who sought the honor of men, and the tradition was established so deeply that four hundred years later it marked “Christians throughout the world”.
Shortly thereafter, however, Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, and believers were no longer the persecuted minority. It became political. Much of the fervor was lost. Such that by the 15th century, by the time of the reformation, fasting had been lost as a discipline that marked all believers – though it was still present. With the Church tied to politics, however, there are historical occasions of nation-wide fasting recorded such as in Britain in 1756. The King called for a day of prayer and fasting regarding the impending invasion by the French, and it is recorded that the churches were full and the nation petitioned God for His protection. The French did not invade!
What does this matter? As culture continues to spiral downward into a narcissistic selfish focus, we might forget how dramatically things can and do change. Specifically, we as a church might become fatalistic in our outlook on the future of the church. A mere fifteen years ago, many churches had Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services where faithful members came to learn, to pray, and to serve. Nowadays we do well to get people in for one service a week. Does that mean that God cannot and will not revitalize a passion in people and call them to committed service? Most assuredly not! He can reclaim His people and their passions. He can restore Himself on the throne of the Church, on the throne of people’s hearts. He can replace entertainment because He alone fully satisfies.
So let us consider specifically the discipline of fasting. Do you fast? Does your church fast?
Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”
– Matt 9.14-17
Fasting has been a discipline of the Jewish people for centuries. When Jesus came to the Earth as the Messiah, He Himself began His earthly ministry by 40 days of fasting in the wilderness before being tempted by Satan. But then for a few short years, the bridegroom was present on the Earth. Israel had been called and identified as the bride of God throughout the Old Testament, and the Jews understood clearly that Jesus was calling Himself God when He declared Himself the bridegroom. And Jesus’ argument was simple: Fasting is for mourning and for seeking God’s presence and word, so why would the disciples mourn and seek Jesus when He was with them? However, once Jesus returned to Heaven and we were left with the Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations, they (and we) would be left to fast until the end of the age – but we would fast with new habits: new wineskins.
The Church at Antioch fasted when the Holy Spirit set aside Paul and Barnabas for their missionary work (Acts 13.1-3). Jesus taught the disciples that some demons are only overcome by fasting (Matt 17.21). And Jesus taught us how to fast – not as an outward show for those around us, but to dress normally and to keep it between ourselves and God (Matt 6.16-17). This does not mean that we cannot or should not fast corporately, it means that we should not fast for recognition from men. We both can and should fast corporately, as the church did for hundreds of years.
Have you never fasted? Do you not have anyone in your community who fasts? That is just fine because God only needs one willing person to start a movement. Jesus taught us how to fast and prophesied that we would fast, so let’s get busy about following His example and doing it!
Let us not despair. God is in the business of redeeming cultures and peoples. He is in the business of making all things new (Rev 21.5). And He has given us instructions for how to live, how to worship, and how to spend our time and energy. Are you the only one you know who is committing yourself to these teachings? Great! Be the change that you want to see, and set an example. God can revitalize the church to commitment. My guess is that in another one hundred years, we will not recognize the church as it is today, because the health and wealth Gospel, mega-movements and a trendy front do not last. A life-changing encounter with almighty God lasts. And that is what will remain throughout the ebbs and flows of culture. God has always kept for Himself a remnant and He will continue to take His Gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation. Let us seek to be a part of that body that is known by prayer, by worship, by fasting, by love.