Prayer, Fasting, and the Course of History
By John Piper
"Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus."
I begin this morning a series of messages on the biblical practice of fasting. This is not new for us at Bethlehem. We have taught on it before and we have called for fasting especially during Prayer Week in years gone by. But when we did the survey in the morning service several weeks ago, we found that 40% of those in attendance that morning had been at Bethlehem three years or less. Which may mean that fasting is a biblical discipline you have not thought about much and have practiced even less, since it isn't a widespread corporate practice in the evangelical movement.
Hungering for God's Leading in Antioch
You may understand better why I believe this is God's will for us now if we get right into our text. The situation is that Saul (Paul) and Barnabas and some of the other leaders in the church in Antioch were worshiping—ministering to the Lord—and fasting (v. 2). Judging by what happened we may assume, I think, that the burden that drove them to fast was this: "Where do we go from here as a church?" They were fasting to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit in the direction of their mission. You could call it Master Planning if you want to. The upshot was more magnificent than any other Master Planning effort the church has ever undertaken.
They were hungry enough for God's leading that they wanted to say it with the hunger of their bodies and not just the hunger of their hearts. "We want your leading, O God! O Holy Spirit, what is your will for the mission of this church?"
Do you know what boggles my mind about Master Planning at Bethlehem. Most of the questions we need to answer are not answered explicitly in the Bible. The ones with clear biblical answers don't require a Master Planning team to discern. The questions that press on us are the kind of questions that the leaders in Antioch faced: "Lord, shall we begin a world mission venture? Should it be now? Should we send some of our own teachers? Should it be Saul or Simeon or Niger or Lucius or Barnabas? Should we send two or three or four? Which way should we send them: by land or by sea? Should we fund them fully or expect them to work for their keep or hope that there will be sons of peace in the towns where they go who will feed them? Should other churches join with us?" Etc.
Most of the questions that planning teams have to answer are of that kind. Where will we get the answers? Do we have anything to learn from the fact that these deeply spiritual early Christians worshiped and fasted and prayed as they sought the leading of the Lord?
Consider four observations from Acts 13:1–4.
1. After Christ's Coming
This fasting was after Christ's coming.
I simply point this out lest someone say that fasting was a part of the Old Testament spirituality but not of New Testament spirituality. We will tackle this issue head on next week and ask, "Is fasting part of the old wineskin that needs to be discarded so that the new wine of the kingdom will not burst the wineskins and be lost?" The apparent answer is that Saul and Barnabas and the others in Antioch did not think fasting was the old wineskin.
2. By a Group Together
This fasting was done by a group together.
Another concern with fasting is that Jesus warned against fasting to be seen by men (Matthew 6:17–18). He said, "Your Father who sees in secret will reward you." But Saul and Barnabas evidently do not take Jesus to mean that group fasting is evil, even though people often know you are fasting when you are doing it as part of a group—as when a church-wide fast is called, the way I am calling for a fast on Wednesdays through the month of January.
Evidently the church leaders at Antioch take Jesus to mean not that we sin if someone knows that we are fasting, but that we sin if our motive is to be known for our fasting so that men applaud us. Group fasting has marked God's people all through biblical and post-biblical history.
3. An Occasion for the Spirit's Special Guidance
This fasting proved to be an occasion for the Spirit's special guidance.
Verse 2 says,
And while they were ministering to 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 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
In reporting it this way, Luke clearly wants us to see a connection between the worship, prayer, and fasting on the one hand, and the decisive guidance of the Holy Spirit on the other.
Without evidence to the contrary I would say that this teaches us the value of worship-fasting-prayer in the earnest pursuit of God's will for our lives and the life of our church.
4. Changed the Course of History
This fasting changed the course of history.
It is almost impossible to overstate the historical importance of this moment in Antioch in the history of the world. Before this word from the Holy Spirit there seems to have been no organized mission of the church beyond the eastern seacoast of the Mediterranean. Before this, Paul had made no missionary journeys westward to Asian Minor, Greece, or Rome, or Spain. Before this Paul had not written any of his letters which were all the result of his missionary travels beginning here.
This moment of prayer and fasting resulted in a missions movement that would make Christianity the dominant religion of the Roman Empire within two and a half centuries and would yield 1.3 billion adherents of the Christian religion today with a Christian witness in virtually every country of the world. And 13 out of the 29 books of the New Testament were the result of the ministry that was launched in this moment of prayer and fasting.
So I think is it fair to say that God was pleased to make worship and prayer and fasting the launching pad for a mission that would change the course of world history. Is there not a lesson there for us?
It had happened before and it would happen again and again in history.
It Happened in 2 Chronicles 20
For example, in 2 Chronicles 20 the Moabites and Ammonites and Meunites came against Jehoshaphat the king of Judah. It was a terrifying horde of violent people. What could the people do? What direction should they turn? Verse 3 says,
Jehoshaphat was afraid and turned his attention to seek the Lord; and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. 4 So Judah gathered together to seek help from the Lord; they even came from all the cities of Judah to seek the Lord.
So there was a great nationwide fast for divine guidance and deliverance. In the midst of that fasting assembly, verses 14–15 say,
the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel . . . and he said, "Listen, all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: thus says the Lord to you, Do not fear or be dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours but God's."
The next day when the people of Judah went out, they found that the people of Moab and Ammon had destroyed one another, and it took them three days to gather the spoil, there was so much. What looked like defeat and calamity was overnight turned into stunning triumph.
Again the course of history was changed through the fasting of God's people.
It Happened in Britain in 1756
John Wesley tells us in his journal of a similar kind of deliverance in 1756. The king of Britain called for a day of solemn prayer and fasting because of a threatened invasion of the French. Wesley wrote,
The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquillity.
Then in a footnote he added later, "Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted." It would not be difficult to multiply story after story from the Bible and after the Bible to show that fasting and prayer have changed the course of history. We will see in the coming weeks that this is especially true in the way fasting figures into times of great revival.
But let me try to put our focus on fasting and our call to fast in the wider context of what God seems to be doing today, and then what he may be doing at Bethlehem.
What God Seems to Be Doing in the World Today
In November one of you came to me and said you thought God might be calling us to a day a week of fasting as a church. Would I pray about it and try to discern if this was of the Lord for us at this time? I had recently been invited by Bill Bright, the head of Campus Crusade, to join 600 others in Orlando, December 5–7, for two days of prayer and fasting for awakening in our land and for the advance of the kingdom around the world.
I decided to go, with the desire that God might lead me concerning how fasting should figure into this present moment in the history of our church. Bill Bright said that he had completed a 40 day fast last summer and had felt led to call this time of fasting and prayer in the hope of rekindling the practice of fasting-prayer throughout the church in America.
The Resurgence of Worship and Prayer but Not Fasting
One of the insights I got in Orlando was that there are three elements in Acts 13:1–3—worship, prayer, and fasting. In our day there has been a remarkable resurgence of worship and prayer. Tens of thousands of congregations around the world are experiencing more vibrant, freer, more engaging worship in the last 20 years. And the prayer movements around the world are unprecedented in number and scope. In our own state the Minnesota Prayer Coalition is unprecedented in pulling the body of Christ together to pray for the reviving of Christ's church and the advance of his kingdom.
But there is not yet a comparable resurgence of the practice of fasting as there has been with worship and prayer. Bill Bright suggested that God may will that all three be in place and that the church be humbled and hungry with fasting before he blesses us as fully as he means to. It is remarkable how neglected this spiritual practice is.
A Growing Hunger for Fasting
The first thing they did in Orlando was open the microphones for some of the people to say why they had come. I was listening with my ear attuned to our situation here and the question of whether we should call for a day of fasting each week. The second person to stand up said he was from Promise Keepers and that he was there because he believed fasting was crucial and that Promise Keepers were seriously considering calling the men to fast a day a week, namely, Wednesday. Later in the meeting Paul Cedar of the Free Church said that historically the church has often made weekly fasting a part of her life. He wondered if we should again.
When I got back, Bob Hamlett showed me that Promise Keepers were in fact born in the atmosphere of fasting. In the fall publication of Men of Action it says,
In 1990 Coach McCartney asked 72 men to commit to pray and fast through lunch every Wednesday [which is what I am calling for], praying specifically that Almighty God would stir the hearts of men to pursue Jesus Christ. The board, leadership team, and many of the staff are recommitted to this end, and we invite you to join us.