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In Good Company (Part Two): Fasting in the Early Church

in good company
Fasting was a vital part of the New Testament church, which practiced fasting both as individuals and as collective groups. Combined with prayer, fasting contributed to the growth, development, and power of the church.

The Holy Spirit gave the direction and the power needed for effective ministry in the New Testament as a result of the believer’s prayer and fasting. God has not changed—when we minister to Him through prayer and fasting, He responds by equipping us with the direction, grace, and power we need to reach and effectively minister to people.

Paul

Paul was a genuine disciple of Jesus. Fasting was vital to his ministry. Paul fasted for three days after his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:9). Afterward, fasting remained a constant part of his life and ministry.

The following is an excerpt from Shaping History Through Prayer and Fasting, by Derek Prince

In 2 Corinthians 6:3-10, Paul listed various ways in which he had proved himself a true ministry of God. In verse 5, two of the ways that he listed are: “in watchings, in fastings.” Watching signifies going without sleep; fasting signifies going without food. Both were practiced at times by Paul to make his ministry fully effective.

In 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, Paul returned to this theme. Speaking of other men who set themselves up as his rivals in the ministry, Paul said, “Are they ministers of Christ?…I am more” (v. 23). He then gives another long list of ways in which he had proved himself a true minister of Christ. In v. 27, he said, “In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often.”

Here again, Paul joined watching 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 were available. “Fastings” refers to occasions when food was available, but Paul deliberately abstained for spiritual reasons.

The Church at Antioch

The New Testament Christians not only practiced fasting individually, as part of their personal discipline, but also practiced it collectively, as a part of their corporate ministry to God. This is attested to by Luke’s account in Acts:

“Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy [Spirit] said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. 3 And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:1-3, AKJV).

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 of 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, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which 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 needed for the task that lay 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 fulfill their task.

Thus, 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 fulfill 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 Barnabus and Paul was born out of collective prayer and fasting by five leaders of the church at Antioch.

Barnabus and Paul Transmit the Practice of Prayer and Fasting to New Disciples

In due time the practice of collective prayer and fasting was transmitted by Barnabas and Paul to the congregations of new disciples that 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:

“And…they returned again to Lystra and to Iconium and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples and exhorting them to continue in the faith…. And when they had ordained elders in every church and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they believed” (Acts 14:21-23, KJ21).

In each case, when elders were appointed, “they…prayed with fasting.” It is therefore fair to say that the establishment of a local church in each city was accompanied by collective prayer and fasting.

Taken together, chapters 13 and 14 of the book of Acts indicate that collective prayer and fasting played a vital role in the growth and development of the New Testament church. [1]

Questions:

  • Did you know that collective prayer and fasting played such a vital role in the growth and development of the New Testament church? Does it play a vital role in your church?
  • Do you practice fasting as an individual? Like Paul, do you devote yourself to frequent periods of fasting?
  • How does it change your expectations for fasting and prayer to see how common it was for New Testament Christians, and what a vital role it played in the growth and development of the New Testament church?

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES

FASTING DAY SEVEN FROM THE ARCHIVES

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  1. Derek Prince, Shaping History Through Prayer and Fasting (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2002), p. 97-99


 


 

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