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Acts 13:1-3 by Robert Dean
Our scene is in Antioch in a well-established, conservative congregation, about 15 years after Pentecost. Antioch thrives with commerce and the decadent culture of the times. It also has a large Jewish population, within which are Christians, viewed as a sect of Judaism. Teachers and prophets gather to minister to the Lord and fast. What does it mean to minister to the Lord? What does fasting accomplish? Today a fast can be an initiation into a weight-loss program, a systemic purge, a social protest or a mystical manipulation of God. What was fasting about as it was practiced scripture? Is it a prescribed ritual for us? Is Biblical fasting an anachronistic term in our modern culture. Should we fast?
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:1 hr 4 mins 19 secs

Fasting and Prayer. Acts 13:1-3


In evangelicalism there has been a mystical wind blowing and this has been the case for several decades. There has always been a trend of mysticism, a sort of thin veneer of mysticism, in a lot of evangelicalism but is has become very pronounced and is promoted by many formerly well-respected theologians. In just the last ten years there are numerous examples of seminary students and professors who have made a formal shift away from beliefs that they had regarding the Scripture alone, or as the Reformation emphasized it, Solar Scriptura—the Bible alone is our authority, to add tradition or some sort of mystical insight.

There is something that is important in understanding the significance of fasting. In the ancient world eating took a lot of time, preparation wise, and was a factor in what we see in people fasting. It is because something so overwhelming, so serious, so tragic has taken place that they just don't have time to eat, to go through the food preparation and all that was involved, that they are giving all of their attention to the crisis at hand and not wasting time eating. Today we can take time out from almost any crisis, put food in the microwave, and are done eating within two minutes.

Acts 13:1 NASB "Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was {there,} prophets and teachers: …" So we are introduced to the leadership functioning in the church at Antioch. "… Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul." The day of Acts chapter thirteen is in roughly the spring of AD 48 and extends to all of 49, so this is fifteen years after the establishment of the church in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. It has been a tremendous growth that has taken place and now we see a large well-established, well-organized congregation located in Antioch.

There was a large Jewish community at Antioch that built a solid business and trade community. Many of them came up from Judea at different times when there were famines and other things that took place, and many of the Christians who lived in Judea and around Jerusalem left there and moved to Antioch when persecution broke out. So there was a large Jewish community as well as a thriving Christian community that was a subset of the Jewish community, because at this time there is not a division between Jew and Christian. The Christians were just viewed as a sect of Judaism.  

Antioch, we are told, was the first place where believers in Jesus Christ are called Christians—Acts 11:26. In Acts chapter six we are told that Nicolas, one of the seven chosen there, was a proselyte from Antioch. We are also told that the Antioch church grew large enough to give very generous financial aid to their fellow believers in Jerusalem when a famine broke out. Later on this church became one of the largest and most influential churches in early Christianity. It started off being the home base for the apostle Paul in his missionary activity. Later, by the end of the second century and into the third century, it became one of the five major centers or bishoprics in the early church. Jerusalem after AD 70 becomes less and less significant as a population center. There was also a major center in Constantinople which later became the capital of the Roman Empire, and then there was Rome itself.

What is interesting in church history is that the church in Antioch tended to be very orthodox. When there were the major controversies over the hypostatic union and the deity of Christ in the 3rd and 4th century Antioch took a strong historical, rational, biblical approach and the Alexandrians are the ones who were out in mystical la-la land with their allegorizing and spiritualizing of the Scripture. 

Of those who are mentioned Barnabas is well known. He is Jewish, a Levite from Cyprus. He is an uncle to John Mark and he has a reputation as being one who encouraged others in their Christian life. The second person mentioned was Simeon/Niger. The combination of names indicates that he was Jewish but is he African. Many have tried to identify him as Simon of Cyrene but there is really not enough evidence to support that, and we don't know anything else about him. Then there is Lucius of Cyrene. Cyrene was a colony of Rome. Then Manaen is mentioned, the Greek form of the Hebrew Menachim, e.g. Menachim Begin, former Prime Minister of Israel. Manaen was very well connected politically and was brought up on the home of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great.

Acts 13:2 NASB "While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said…" There are three things there that are interesting we should pay attention to: What does it mean to be ministering to the Lord? Fasting? How did the Holy Spirit say this? Here we have an indication of verbal revelation, and remember, these men are said to be prophets and teachers. We must understand what a prophet was in its Old Testament background. If all you knew was the Old Testament and somebody came along after the day of Pentecost and said they were a prophet you would understand that within its Old Testament context. The reason for pointing this out there are a number of people who try to interpret the New Testament gift of prophet in some other vein than that of its historical foundation in the Old Testament. They will often say that preaching is the role of a prophet. No, the role of a prophet was to disclose divine revelation. Being a prophet had nothing to do with the form of address, rhetorical style or anything else. He was responsible for giving divine revelation; a teacher was one who explained divine revelation and gave instruction on how to understand it and how to apply it. So these men in Acts 13 were all called prophets and teachers. We don't know if some were prophets, some were teachers, of all of them had both gifts; it is not indicated, both nouns are without an article in the Greek, which doesn't give us any help. They are just a group of prophets and teachers here. So one of them is given new revelation, specific direct revelation from the Holy Spirit: "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."

This shows the important role of the Holy Spirit here, that He is the one who called them in conjunction with the Lord Jesus Christ, especially with the apostle Paul at the time that Jesus Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus and outlined his mission as an apostle to the Gentiles. It also shows the personality of God the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit communicates. That is not a doctrine that is fought over today, but a hundred years ago it was a doctrine that was fought over. Liberal theologians tried to deny the Trinity and argued that the Holy Spirit was a force or an expression of God the Father, not a separate person. But the fact that the Holy Spirit speaks and the fact that the Holy Spirit can be grieved and quenched are all related to things that show His personality, that He is a person. 

They "ministered to the Lord" and "fasted." What do these terms mean? The phrase "ministered to the Lord" is a phrase that is used in whole or part many times in the Old Testament. It is used in the Torah for the service of priests and Levites in the tabernacle. Exodus 28:35, 43; 30:20. Ministry before the Lord had to do with fulfilling the divine role for their position. Exodus 35:19 NASB "the woven garments for ministering in the holy place, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons, to minister as priests." This idea of ministry before the lord indicates that their role in the worship of the congregation. So in Acts 13:2 they were in a role where they were ministering the Word, probably in the meeting of the church in Antioch, and in the midst of this the Holy Spirit communicates through one of the prophets to separate out Barnabas and Saul. But they are ministering to the Lord, which would also include prayer, and "fasted."

Fasting is one of those doctrines has become popular and is often distorted and misused today and not very well understood. We are talking about fasting within a religious context and related to one's spiritual life. We need to investigate what the Scripture says about fasting. We recognize that contemporary practice is increasingly popular as mystical spirituality spreads out among people. Mysticism grabs hold of people when there is very little biblical teaching and context. People substitute emotion and feeling for biblical truth. It is a lot easier to just say God has impressed me to do X, Y or Z than to study the Word to determine what it is that God expects of us. So as we get into more and more into forms of mysticism in modern evangelicalism we see more and more "pop Christianity" practices. They are popular with the uninformed masses but they don't have anything to do with biblical instruction.

The second thing we must recognize is that the Bible neither condemns nor commands fasting. It recognizes its legitimacy and in several places warns against excesses and misapplication. It never prohibits it or says it is a wrong practice but it never commands it either. But we have to understand it within its original historical and cultural context if we are going to properly understand it.

There are 43 instances of fasting recorded in the Old Testament. Not all of those are fasting by believers or a positive thing. There are pagans who fasted, Ahab fasted, and there are other examples of fasting that are not from someone who is a believer seeking forgiveness from God or seeking answers to prayer. There are fifteen examples of fasting in the New Testament. It is mentioned many times. It is mentioned in historical narrative as an observation of what people do. But telling us what people did is not telling us that we should do the same thing. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It describes what happened in the early church but it is not saying that these things should be normal in the church age.

It is important to examine keys words. It is very simple when we look at this doctrine in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament the verb is som and the noun is sum. It simply means to fast and to go without eating. The Greek form is nesteuo [nhsteuw] and it simply means not to eat.

In the Old Testament fasting seems to be related to the idea of humbling one's self before the Lord. It is translated by the nkjv "afflicting" one's self. It referred to a ritual where fasting played a part as one humbled one's self under the hand of God. Leviticus 16 is a passage dealing with yom kippur. Leviticus 16:29 NASB "{This} shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls [NKJV: "afflict yourselves"] and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you." The basic meaning of this word anah used here for "humble" or "afflict" is the idea of forcing someone to submit—enforced humility. The verb has the idea of putting someone in a humble or lowly position. It is used in a number of ways. It describes the discomfort Sarah inflicted upon Hagar in Genesis 16:6. It talks about what the lawless do to the law-abiding, defenseless people in Exodus 22:22. It talks about the pain afflicted upon Joseph's ankles when he was in chains. So the word has a range of meanings but when it comes to a spiritual context it talks about the adversity or affliction that God brings into people's lives to cause them to turn to Him and to submit to His authority. The way that the people afflicted themselves in relation to Leviticus 16:29 was to not do any work. 

There are other examples in the Old Testament of the fact that fasting really was just a superficial ritual that didn't have any impact on their relationship with God whatsoever. In Isaiah 58:3 the people say, "Why have we fasted and You do not see? {Why} have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?' Behold, on the day of your fast you find {your} desire, And drive hard all your workers." Fasting in this context is related to humbling one's self or submitting to the authority of God.

Psalm 35:13 NASB "But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting …" So one way in which in the Old Testament they showed that they were submitting to God in humility was through fasting—not eating.

Definition of fasting: To fast is basically to abstain for a limited period of time from any kind of food. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights up on Mount Sinai. Then Jesus fasted in the wilderness.

There is a human viewpoint that predominates numerous cultures and that is always the idea of asceticism: that if we give up something then that is something that impressed God and motivates Him to do something for us, and we are able to bargain with Him because we are not eating.

In the ancient world there was a lot of superstition. They believed that fasting was a way to be free from any sort of demonic possession or influence, and so they mixed fasting with various forms of magic, incantations and drugs. The Greek word for drugs is pharmekeia [farmekeia] which had to do with various forms of hallucinogenic drugs that were used in these kinds of religious rituals for religious purposes.

Passages in Scripture for us to see the context for some of the events of fasting. Exodus 34:27 NASB "Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.'" Moses was on Mount Sinai forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. He didn't do that to manipulate God to appear to him; he didn't do that to get God to give him the covenant with Israel; he is not there refraining from eating and drinking because he is trying to get something from God, he is up there not eating and drinking because of the seriousness of the circumstances. And that is such a mundane activity when you are in the presence of God. Nothing else mattered but being in the presence of God and so he probably gave no thought to eating or drinking. So this is the first example of a fast in Scripture.

The next example come in Judges 20:26. This is part of one of the appendices talking about the impact of the carnality among the people. In this chapter we see a rebellion that takes place because of carnality on the part of the tribe of Benjamin. NASB "Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel and wept; thus they remained there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening. And they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD." They are not fasting to try to impress God; they are fasting because they are so overwhelmed with grief that they don't have any desire to eat. They are not fasting as a mechanism to impress God and to manipulate Him into answering their prayer. And they don't have the time to go out and do everything necessary to prepare a meal. They are totally focused on appealing to God to intervene in their lives. The fasting is a part of their prayer, a sign that they are humbling themselves under the authority of God and submitting to Him; it is not a tool of manipulation to answer their prayers.

There is another example in 1 Samuel 7:6 as they gather together at Mizpah. There again they are coming before the Lord, are confessing their sins, and this is after the ark has been returned to Israel. "They gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day and said there, 'We have sinned against the LORD.' And Samuel judged the sons of Israel at Mizpah." They fasted that day because they were overwhelmed by their circumstances and by the fear of divine discipline and judgment, and so hunger is not an issue, eating is not an issue. They go without food to focus on the Lord and they confess their sins.

We see fasting related to sorrow at the end of 1 Samuel in 31:13. This after Saul and Jonathan had died and the people mourned. NASB "They took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days." They are in grief and so are expressing that in fasting. In 2 Samuel 1:12 we see the same thing being restated NASB "They mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and his son Jonathan and for the people of the LORD and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword."

In the New Testament there are passages like the one we are studying in Acts 13, and then in chapter 14 when Paul and Barnabas are travelling back through the towns where they had established congregations they are appointing leaders, helping them structure their congregations. Acts 14:23 NASB "When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed." So it is legitimate, not condemned; neither is it mandated.

Acts 13:3 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.