Are All Biblical Examples Binding on Believers?
by Patricia Backora
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I read examples of how Christian believers either became ill or died trying to imitate Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness. These believers reasoned that because Jesus fasted this long, this feat was also expected of them because they had to follow His example in everything. Interestingly, no other period of fasting is attributed in Scripture to Christ. In fact, His own disciples drew criticism for not fasting, and He was accused of being a winebibber and a glutton. Exaggerated charges, but completely ridiculous to even raise the accusation if Christ habitually ate like a sparrow and never touched wine. Jesus plainly said He came eating and drinking, while John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine (Luke 7:33-14). NO command to fast is found in the New Testament epistles, the apostles’ doctrinal teachings to the churches. I believe that fasting is justifiable only as a byproduct of prolonged prayer. I believe fasting is a religious act, not a spiritual act. Most fasting is done to help Christians enter into the Throne Room of God to get His attention and His pity as He sees the physical suffering the fast is causing them. But we ALREADY have God’s approval as believers in Christ Jesus.
Eph.1:6: To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.* * * Christ has won us acceptance by God, not something WE do!
There is NOT ONE WORD in the book of Hebrews about needing to fast in order to attain greater intimacy with God. The words “fasting” and “fasted” don’t appear at all in this book. The word “fast” does appear though.
Heb.3:6: But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold FAST the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.
HEB 4:14: Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold FAST our profession.
HEB 10:23: Let us hold FAST the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)
If you yank the word “fast” out of its context (being part of the phrase ‘hold fast’), maybe you could twist the word and “spiritualize” its meaning to say it just MIGHT point to physical fasting. But these three verses teach us to HOLD FAST (hang onto) our profession (testimony) about what CHRIST has ALREADY done to reconcile us to God. I’ve read lots of stuff about how fasting allegedly unclogs your hotline to God because your meat wagon the body is moved off center stage. Starving your body allegedly frees up your inner man to soar to greater heights to enable you to be “shut up with God in some secret place” in the heavenlies. The book of Hebrews has much to say about our privilege of entering into the holiest. But it’s BY THE BLOOD OF JESUS that this is made possible, not through our fasting to deserve it (Heb.10:19). We are ALREADY seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph.2:6).
Hebrews is perhaps THE most spiritual of all the epistles, in that it paints a beautiful picture of our intimate spiritual relationship with our Heavenly Father and our access to His Presence in heaven.
Instead of teaching us to perform religious acts to make us more holy, the Book of Hebrews does the opposite. Hebrews was written as a rebuke of Jewish Christians who desired to go back to the rituals of Judaism (including religious fasting).
In Galatians 4:9 Paul asks certain Christians (probably Jewish converts to Christ) why they want to return to the “weak and beggarly elements” of Judaism. It wasn’t just the Jews who had this problem, but Gentile believers who were being indoctrinated by Judaizers wishing to stir up trouble and put the Christians back under bondage (Gal.2:4).
Fasting was an old Jewish custom, not a practice most Gentile converts grew up with and understood. Cornelius the centurion, who was converted to Christ in Acts 10, was probably a Jewish proselyte or at least what was known in the Jewish community as a Gentile “God-fearer”. The KJV says that he fasted as well as prayed (Acts 10:30). But many scholars insist that the word “fasting” is not adequately supported by ancient Greek manuscripts. Most English translations omit "fasting" from this verse. Wuest’s translation reads: “I was observing the afternoon prayer hour.”
Isolated examples of religious fasting after Pentecost were instigated by JEWISH disciples from Antioch, the headquarters of the legalistic Judaizers (men who wanted to mix Judaism with the true Gospel). The first fast was done in Antioch (Acts 13:2-3). The second fast, mentioned in Acts 14:23, again involved the Antioch brethren (verse 21). These are the ONLY examples of religious fasting mentioned after Pentecost, and they involved JEWISH brethren, not Gentile converts. After the Book of Acts, the only examples of fasting were FORCED fasts caused by lack of food. This non-religious fasting is included in a long list of other miserable afflictions Paul suffered as he was persecuted by unbelievers or uncared-for by other believers.
Paul wrote the book of Galatians to fight against the influence of false brethren who tried to contaminate God’s Good News with the bad news of legalism. Even the Apostle Peter, who earlier received the life-changing revelation that “he should not call any man common or unclean” and “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:28,34) caved in to legalistic peer pressure and refused to eat with Gentile believers when the Judaizers of Antioch showed up (Gal.2:11).
The Jewish believers who fled the persecution in Jerusalem kept going till some of them settled in Antioch, forming the Antioch church. These Christians made it a point to preach to the JEWS ONLY (Acts 11:19). They would not have taught the Jewish custom of fasting to the Gentiles. An apostolic council was held in Acts 15 to determine which Jewish observances, if any, were binding on Gentile believers. There was no mention of fasting in their verdict.
I wonder why I can’t recall ever hearing Acts 15 preached on! I do recall a lot of Old Covenant imagery sprinkled in the sermons I heard as a new Spirit-baptized believer. I thought this was very exciting at the time and thought there must be something wrong with preachers who didn’t flavor their dull sermons with illustrations from Mosaic Temple rituals, and “deeper truths” spun out of Old Covenant types.
I now realize you’re skating on thin ice by obsessing too much about the Old Tabernacle teachings, because you’re much more likely to dilute grace with Law in your faith, preaching and personal life. In order to focus on one thing you must neglect something else. That “something else” is Christ and His finished work on Calvary.
Paul never once asked members of the Gentile churches to perform fasts like the ones in Acts 13 and 14. During Jesus’ earthly ministry He plainly stated that He had been sent only to the House of Israel (Matt.10:6; 15:24), although other nations would also come into the Kingdom later. In the discourse of Matthew 6 Jesus was addressing JEWS and converts to Judaism only. His main sermon topic? The problem of religious hypocrisy in typical Jewish devotional practices. Some Bible scholars interpret “when you fast” in Matt.6:16 as meaning “whenever you may fast” (subjunctive, not imperative tense) in the original Greek. If this was a COMMAND to all people everywhere to fast, then it’s interesting that Jesus didn’t make His own Jewish disciples fast during His ministry. Jesus did not command His disciples to imitate His forty-day fast in the desert.
Here are all the incidences of the word “abstain” in the New Testament. NONE of them refer to abstaining from food in fasting.
Acts 15:20 but that we write to them that they abstain from the pollution of idols, from sexual immorality, from what is strangled, and from blood. (WEB KJV WEY ASV DBY WBS YLT NAS RSV NIV)
Acts 15:29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality, from which if you keep yourselves, it will be well with you. Farewell." (WEB KJV WEY ASV DBY WBS YLT NAS RSV NIV)
Acts 21:25 But as for the Gentiles who have accepted the faith, we have communicated to them our decision that they are carefully to abstain from anything sacrificed to an idol, from blood, from what is strangled, and from fornication." (WEY NAS RSV NIV)
1 Corinthians 7:1 I now deal with the subjects mentioned in your letter. It is well for a man to abstain altogether from marriage. (WEY)
1 Corinthians 10:28 But if any one tells you, "This food has been offered in sacrifice;" abstain from eating it--out of respect for him who warned you, and, as before, for conscience' sake. (WEY)
1 Thessalonians 4:3 For this is the will of God: your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality, (WEB KJV WEY ASV DBY WBS YLT NAS RSV)
1 Thessalonians 5:22 Abstain from every form of evil. (WEB KJV ASV WBS YLT NAS RSV)
1 Timothy 4:3 forbidding marriage and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (WEB KJV ASV DBY WBS YLT NAS NIV)
2 Timothy 2:19 However God's firm foundation stands, having this seal, "The Lord knows those who are his," and, "Let every one who names the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness." (See NAS)
1 Peter 2:11 Beloved, I beg you as foreigners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; (WEB KJV ASV DBY WBS NAS RSV NIV)
Included in this list are the four prohibitions of Acts 15 which are the ONLY dietary restrictions placed on Gentile disciples by the Apostles. Other verses warn against eating food offered to idols, lest some brother with a weak conscience spot you and conclude that you don’t see anything wrong with idolatry itself. We are also warned to abstain from lusts. Eating normal nutritious meals has nothing to do with lust. If you develop a love affair with fried Mars Bars and start neglecting the Lord, that would be a different matter!
Did you know that Moses fasted for a stretch of 80 days? He went without food and water for 40 days, then came down with the Tables of the Law. He found the children of Israel dancing around the Golden Calf. Moses got angry, smashed the Tables of the Law, then went back up the mountain 40 more days without food and water to plead with God to forgive Israel and receive a new copy of the commandments.
Recently a highly respected theologian, who founded a missionary organization in Cameroon, tried to imitate Moses’ MIRACULOUS 80-day fast and died after only 40 days! Did this man overlook the fact Moses also went without WATER? It’s a scientific fact that while people can live weeks without food, they can’t live more than a few days without water! Yet Moses was strong enough to walk back up that craggy mountain after the first forty days of fasting, a feat challenging even to young, well-fed, well-watered athletes of today. Even more miraculous, Moses climbed down that rugged terrain after forty MORE days with no water or nutrition of any kind. Most people can barely crawl out of bed and walk a straight line after a lengthy fast.
Obviously the departed preacher’s fast was NOT miraculous. All due respect to his love of Jesus, the only conclusion I can draw is the enemy must have deceived him to lead him to an early grave. Satan can appear as an angel of light to deceive God’s people to their own destruction (2 Cor.11:14). Guilt over “spiritual sacrifices” God allegedly demands of believers can be a lethal cattle prod in satan’s hands to drive God’s sheep over the edge of a cliff.
If God had ordered (or needed) that brother to undertake such a long fast, He wouldn’t have let him die in the attempt. In I Cor.3:17 God warns against destroying the Temple of the Holy Ghost (the body of the believer). That deeply spiritual preacher was literally KILLED by legalism in the form of “gotta do” religious fasting! Such feats of self-torture violate Colossians 2:20-22 which warn against being subject to ordinances (laws) against touching, TASTING and handling things. Go on a long, punitive fast where you forbid yourself nourishment (and sometimes water) and you’re putting yourself under law (can’t touch or taste that!) and moving out of the realm of grace.
I read blogs from believers who defended this deadly fast by denying that it was the fasting that killed the preacher. HE MAY have broken his fast too abruptly and shocked his system, etc. And it really was no tragedy, many said in so many words. God rejoiced to see him come home to heaven. Even when you kill your own body through self-starvation, it’s no big deal, many think. The body will die anyway and it’s not so important. That lie of the devil springs from the Greek heresy of Gnosticism, which holds that only the unseen part of a person matters and the material of the body is inherently evil. Then why would God make our BODY the Temple of the Holy Ghost if it’s so repugnant to Him?
It seems fasting is a sacred cow which must be defended even when it takes lives or leads into legalism away from the Grace of God in Christ.
Just about all the preachers who taught me the liberating truths of Romans and Galatians still believed in religious fasting (and unscriptural tithing on cash wages). It only takes ONE link to bind you to Law. There were at least those two links to legalism in my church experience, if not many more.
A little leaven leavens the whole lump. In my early days as a believer, I thought fasting must be THE answer to get all my needs met. In my zeal to “enter into Christ’s sufferings” to earn God’s approval thereby, I took my eyes off Christ and set them on myself and what I could do. I didn’t get more spiritual by fasting, I only got more religious and felt real good about myself. I wondered what was wrong with people who didn’t enjoy running on empty all day, although I was just a college student at the time instead of out working a job. The more I set fasting goals for myself the more oppressed I felt, especially when I DIDN’T take that spirit trip into heaven and found my knees still firmly planted on the floor. This idea is actually a HEATHEN doctrine. Even eastern religion devotees fast to weaken the body’s grip on the spirit so they can fly away in a kind of astral projection!
Eventually I lost the peace and radiant joy of the assurance that God loved me. Inexplicable dark moods came and went, and there were times I even doubted my own salvation, and worried that I wasn’t measuring up to what God expected of me. Legalism does that. Religion (the law) kills, but the spirit ministers life (2 Cor.3:6). When you make up a “letter of the law” for yourself by saying you’ll go 24 hours without food and accidentally eat a cookie, you feel a profound grief inside of you, a real let-down and disappointment, a loss of the light-headed euphoria fasting brings. You think it’s the Lord making you feel light and airy, but it’s just dizziness from hunger or pleasure chemicals in the brain combating the stress of your fast!
When you prematurely break your fast, that’s not God condemning you, it’s the enemy walking all over you for losing sight of your justification in Christ. If God is grieved at all it’s because you’ve demoted His Son from being the ONLY Source of righteousness in your life.
Why do Christians feel bound to emulate the ONE recorded fast of Jesus in Matt.4 but feel guilty about following His example in “The
Son of Man is come eating and drinking” (Luke 7:34)? Admittedly, Christians DO eat and drink, sometimes to excess, and don’t feel very spiritual about it afterward.
Now I’m sure Jesus did lots of other things which aren’t recorded in the Bible (John 21:25). There’s room for lots of speculation on that. But our sole rule book for the Christian life must be the written Word of God, rightly divided, AS IT APPLIES TO CHURCH AGE BELIEVERS. Period. If we must imitate Christ’s scriptural example in fasting, then we need to do like He did and ON ONE OCCASION abstain from food forty full days and nights with the ability to sustain ourselves solely on the Word of God, and thereafter NEVER FAST AGAIN!
To be consistent, if you feel you must imitate all Jesus did, how about these things?
Jesus walked on the water . Don’t try this if you have soft water instead of hard.
Jesus turned water into wine. He didn’t command us to imitate this miracle, and no apostle ever hinted that we ought to try it.
Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. This type of miracle MAY happen in a believer’s life when there is no other way for God to feed us, but there is no record in the NT of any apostle imitating this particular miracle.
In Matthew 23 Jesus chewed out the religious leaders of His community. He really raked those eminent gentlemen over the coals! Christ called them whitewashed tombs, fools, hypocrites and snakes. He told them they’d all fry in hell. In John 8:44 Jesus called them sons of satan. What a reverent way to speak to well-educated, high society churchmen! Would you do that to the leadership of YOUR church if they failed to live up to your expectations?
Jesus saw someone sitting under a tree and even recognized who it was while He was still a great distance away. That was a few years before the Hubble Telescope and Sat Nav were invented. Preachers are good at spotting nitpicking sins in other people’s lives, but I’ve never heard any preacher boast of having telescopic vision.
Jesus commanded a man to offer a sacrifice to a priest to confirm his healing (Luke 5:14). Jesus hadn’t yet gone to the Cross, and so this incident took place in the closing days of the Old Testament. No command is given to NT Church Age Christians to enforce such rituals after people in their churches get healed of leprosy. See Leviticus chapter 13 for the complicated details of the leper-cleansing ritual the man was expected to go through in obedience to Christ.
Jesus sent Peter fishing to find a fish with a coin in its mouth. You hear a lot about preachers fishing for funds today, but never read of Peter doing that again!
Jesus said, Bless them that curse you (Matt.5:44). But Jesus cursed a fig tree that was minding its own business and had never even looked at Him the wrong way. The tree’s crime? Jesus was hungry and it was too early in the season for it to bear figs. Nowhere are we commanded to curse unfruitful trees.
Jesus knitted a whip and charged through a corrupt religious building being used for nonprofit purposes. He knocked over bird cages and chased livestock out of the Temple Court of the Gentiles. That doesn’t mean we must apply this example of Jesus’ ministry to our own life and chase the pastor out the vestibule with a bull whip for profiteering from DVD’s, C.D.’s and self-enrichment books.
If Matt.6:16-18 means fasting is required of New Testament believers, then according to Matt.6:1-4 handing out alms is also required for righteousness. Jesus requires you to love your neighbor as yourself. But are poor believers obligated to give their last cent to other poor people in order to stay on good terms with God? If so, how often must it be done to maintain our righteous standing, and how big does the amount have to be? Our relationship with Jesus is one of grace, not Law. Law is to grace what a virus is to a computer. It doesn’t just take up one itty-bitty corner of your Christian life. It grows and grows till it distorts all the information in the system beyond recognition. One little law begets more laws. A tiny bit of law is yeast which infects the grace of God.
Sometimes one “law” of Christian living seems to conflict with another law and you really need the wisdom of the Lord to know what’s right in a given situation. For example, Jesus said to give to EVERY MAN who asks something of you (Luke 6:30). Now that’s a tall order. But He also said it is not fitting to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs (Matt.15:26). And in I Tim.5:8 God says that anyone who fails to provide for his own household is an infidel and has denied the faith. Paul said to give food even to your enemy (Rom.12:20). To complicate matters, he also says that those who refuse to work shouldn’t eat (2 Thes.3:10). So what if there was this brother who had lost all his money at the camel races and then asked Paul to float him some cash so he could eat? What if Paul said he’d feed that brother if he pitched in with the tent making, and the brother was too lazy to lend a hand? Give to every man that asketh thee. Would Paul apply this in such a situation? I doubt it.
Another dilemma: Suppose this Christian woman won’t get paid till tomorrow and she has a hungry toddler at home. All she has is two dollars to feed her child on. On the way home she encounters a drunk who has spent everything he has on liquor and asks her for spare change. He says he’s hungry. But who deserves that two dollars more, the woman’s child or some stranger who might blow the money on more booze? Must that Christian give that drunk anything he asks for, even her child’s food money? Would God count it as sin if that believer bought her child a meal with that money instead of giving it as alms? Especially if that Christian’s faith wasn’t strong enough to believe the child will be fed some other way tonight? Unless GOD directed her to sacrifice the last of her money, even to a truly needy person, giving away her child’s food money would amount to parental irresponsibility.
Mark 7:10-13 proves that there must be limitations to Jesus’ commandment to “give to every man that asketh of thee”. In this passage we encounter a problem similar to what we see today: Religious leaders coveting money which ought to go to help needy parents (the same principle of family responsibility found in I Tim.5:8). Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees for preventing people from “honoring their father and mother” with financial aid. Instead, these crooked religious con artists demand that people give that money to THEM, designating that gift a “corban”, or a thing CONSECRATED to God (crafty religiousese isn’t new). Obviously these religious leaders had to have been ASKING people for money. But instead of Jesus enforcing His commandment to “give to every man that asketh of thee” He makes it clear that he doesn’t approve of religious charlatans asking people for money they need to live on.
Also, Jesus has this to say on giving:
GIVE NOT that which is holy unto the dogs (unbelievers), neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you (Matt.7:6).
So what if some “dog” asks you to share your pearls with them?
Another case where you cannot “give to him that asketh of thee.”
Although Jesus said to “give to every one that asketh thee” (no mention of race here), there is one incident in Matt.15:21-28 where it seemed Jesus refused to grant healing to the daughter of a Gentile woman. He said He was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, and it wasn’t fitting to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs. The woman gave Jesus a humble but clever answer and won healing for her child.
In Matthew 23:14 Jesus loudly denounces scribes and Pharisees who devour widows’ houses. Jesus was kind and loving. But Jesus was no doormat, and He wasn’t asking His disciples to be one, either. Those religious leaders who devoured widows’ houses must have ASKED for donations. But Jesus didn’t tell widows they had to pay up just because someone asked for their life savings!
How many preachers literally apply THIS example to their own lives?
Mark 6:7-11: And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits;
8 And commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only; no scrip, no bread, no money in their purse:* * *OUCH! No dough, no go!
9 But be shod with sandals; and not put on two coats.* * *If you take these instructions of Christ as being literally binding today word for word, then your footwear must be limited to sandals, even in the most freezing climate. Period. You’re even forbidden to take a change of clothing with you! Better take your deodorant, then! Imagine the problems wearing the same outfit for a whole week would create for image-conscious preachers, especially women!
10 And he said unto them, In what place soever ye enter into an house, there abide till ye depart from that place.
11 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.* * * Jesus commanded His disciples to go stay in people’s houses wherever they ministered. Do modern evangelists normally impose on strangers for free meals and lodging, or do they go to fine restaurants and hotels?
Paul shaved his head to fulfill a vow (Acts 18:18). If we must follow this scriptural example, the church would be full of shiny heads, wouldn’t it?
If you wonder whether you are BOUND to do something, then the“BOUND” element of the question should throw up red flags. That’s a sure sign of legalism, not grace. Ask yourself: Is some particular practice a NECESSARY component of showing love toward God and your neighbor, or is it just a “have to do” thing to avoid the guilt feeling trap? Does starving your body feed a homeless person? Does wearing raggedy clothes to prove how holy you are clothe the naked? Is God more likely to answer a prayer prayed at 5 a.m. instead of 5 p.m., or are you merely being hard on your body to prove you DESERVE God’s free Gift of Salvation? The heart of the matter is this: Whoever has shown LOVE in the things they choose to do has fulfilled the requirements of the spirit of the Law: Love your neighbor as yourself (Rom.13:9; Gal.5:14; James 2:8).
He hath shewed thee O man what is good, and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God (Micah 6:8)?
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