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Why We Fast on Atonement

The Day of Atonement is the only day in the year when God commands us to Fast. Why?

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We’re together in small groups all around the world today to observe one of the seven annual biblical festivals, as observed by the New Testament Church. This day, in the Old Testament, is called the Day of Atonement and it is referred to, in the New Testament, as The Fast by Paul in Acts, chapter 27.

I remember the first time I mentioned fasting to my parents back in the 60s. They were staunch, old-school Americans, who knew, for certain, that, if a person did not eat for a day – two, at the most – he would surely starve to death. So they were very worried about my observance of the festival. Of course, these days, fasting is much more common and understood as a health benefit. And even more Christian groups know about it than they used to. But it’s still not a part of life for most Christians – or most Americans. And yet God has a purpose for fasting on the Day of Atonement. Do you know what it is?

Well, I’ve got five purposes. How many do you have? Do you know what they are? If somebody learned that you were fasting today, and they were curious, and asked you why you were doing that, what would you tell them? How would you explain it to them? How do we explain it to our children so they understand what’s going on? That’s what we’re going to think about today – why we fast on Atonement.

But, in order to do that, we first need to understand, somewhat, about the meaning of this day. Let’s go to Leviticus 16, and verse 2, and read how it was observed in the Old Testament by the Israelites. Now Leviticus 16, in time, is while Israel had not long been out of Egypt and had just come to their inheritance.

Leviticus 16:2 – The LORD said to Moses, “Tell your brother, Aaron, not to come whenever he chooses to into the most holy place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die…” Well that’s pretty clear, right? God doesn’t want him in there just whenever he wants to be there. “…because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover. This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area – with a young bull for a sin offering and ram for a burnt offering.” And then it talks a little bit about how he had to put on his priestly clothes. And then, in verse 5, it says:
V-5 – “From the Israelite community, he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering, to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. So he is to cast lots for the two goats – one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat – whose lot falls to the LORD – and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by the lot, as a scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement, by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat. “

And then in verse 15, it says:

V-15 – “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people, and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood. He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. And in this way he will make atonement for the most holy place, because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the tent of meeting, which is among them, in the midst of their uncleanness. No one is to be in the tent of meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the most holy place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself and his household, and the whole community of Israel. And then he shall come out of the altar that is before the LORD, and he shall make atonement for it.” So there is a lot of atoning going on here. And we’re getting the picture that the blood of these animals is to kind of atone for, or make up for, or expunge, the sins that the people had committed. Even Aaron – to be able to go into God’s presence – had to have an animal sacrificed for him, so that he would be clean.

V-20 – “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the most holy place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it, all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and to put them on the goat’s head. And he shall then send the goat away into the desert, in the care of a man appointed the task. The goat will carry on itself all the sins into a solitary place, and the man shall release it in the desert.”

So that’s what they did on the Day of Atonement. And then it says, in verse 29:

V-29 –This is to be a lasting ordinance for you. On the tenth day of the seventh month, you must deny yourselves.” And the little a, in my Bible, beside that, says, “afflict your souls, or fasting.” “Do not do any work, whether native born or an alien living among you, because, on this day, atonement will be made for you – to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of rest and you must afflict your souls. It is a lasting ordinance.”

V-34 – “This is to be a lasting ordinance….” it says in verse 34. Now He says that three times right in a few verses. “…to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites” – to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites. And it was done as the LORD commanded Moses. 

So the sin offerings that were offered there were to restore people back into relationship with God. And we’ve said many times that the word atonement can be hyphenated to be at-one-ment, because that is what the word means – to restore them back into relationship with God – a drawing back on God’s part after they have wandered off to do their own thing and to break God’s law. And it was a commanded assembly. And they were to fast on that day from sunset to sunset.

Now many people think this day was a Jewish holy day. And it was. But notice something incredible in the New Testament. Let’s go to Hebrews, the 9th chapter, and verse 1. Here’s Paul talking to the entire church – at least, we think it was Paul – and he’s writing to the Hebrews – all the church.

Hebrew 9:1 – Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and, also, an earthly sanctuary. We just read some of the things that they did in that sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread. This was called the holy place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the most holy place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. So those are some very important things. Above the ark were the cherubim of the glory, overshadowing the atonement cover – so there’s the word again – but we cannot discuss these things in detail now. I thought he was. When everything had been arranged like this, the priests went into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins of the people – that they had committed in ignorance.

So what’s he talking about? Well, he’s talking about what we read there in Leviticus, isn’t he? He’s talking about the Day of Atonement. He’s talking about what it means. Right? Let’s see what his point is. Verse 8:

V-8 – The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the most holy place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. So what’s to be made of this? All those people thought that the most holy place was a place that had been torn down by the Romans just a few years earlier. So he’s saying that that was just a symbol for something that is in heaven. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshipper. They are only a matter of food and drink…. What does that mean? It means there were food and drink offerings that were offered. …and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

Now notice what he said were the things that were only applied temporarily. It was the offerings and the washings. Right? External regulations. Notice that he didn’t say that the day itself was no longer necessary – only the sacrifices and temple service.

V-11 – When Christ – verse 11 – came as High Priest of the good things that are already here, He went through a greater and more perfect tabernacle – that is not manmade – that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by the blood of goats and calves, but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who, through the Eternal Spirit, offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death so that we may serve the Living God?

And then you can read some more in verse 23:

V-23 – It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a manmade sanctuary that was only a copy of the true on, He entered heaven itself – now to appear for us in God’s presence. So there it’s revealed that the holy place was where God dwelt in heaven. Nor did He enter heaven to offer Himself again and again, the way the high priest entered the holy place every year with blood that was not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself. Just as a man is destined to die once, and after that to face the judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people. And He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.

So guess what? The Day of Atonement is all about Jesus Christ and His plan of salvation. Isn’t that the most amazing thing you’ve ever read in your life? And here all us Christians – I won’t say all of us, but many of us – have a bias against Judaism. We talk about Judaizers in the first century in the New Testament. But it’s also interesting to notice, if you read Acts 27, and verse 9, it says in verse 9:

Acts 27:9 – Much time had been lost and sailing had already become dangerous, because by now it was after the Fast. So there’s a reference to the Fast – capitalized – and all the commentaries that have the little letters beside them will tell you that it is a reference to Atonement, which came in the fall – after which, the Mediterranean became very dangerous to sail in those days, because of the storms. That doesn’t say that they were keeping it, but Acts – I think it’s 18 – says that Paul had to get to Jerusalem to keep it. So he was doing that. He didn’t think that because the rules of sanctuary and the sacrifices were done away that the day didn’t need to be kept anymore. That’s throwing the baby out with the bath water. It’s still a day to remember what they did back then and what it means for us today. And there’s even a greater meaning than that once we understand it.

So that’s a little bit about the meaning of the day. Why would that necessitate us to fast? Well, for one, fasting generates humility. If we’re going to be at one with God, we must be humble. Jesus Christ was humble when He was here on the earth. And it says in Psalms 9:24:

Psalms 9:24 – My knees give way from fasting. My body is thin and gaunt. So fasting shows us our physical weakness. When our metabolism is well fed, it’s somewhat of an illusion that we can live forever. But when we fast, we soon realize that, without a lot of maintenance, we would not exist.

It says in Psalms 66:18:

Psalms 66:18 – If I had cherished sin in my heart, the LORD would not have listened. So fasting helps us to understand our separation from God – that He is eternal, we’re mortal. We sin, He does not. We’re separated from Him by our sins. It’s very important to remember that.

So okay, it shows us our physical weakness. It shows us our carnality and points out our separation from God. There’s one of them, okay?

The second one: fasting is a type of Christ’s suffering when you do it on this day. We know that Christ suffered on the cross and agonized beforehand. And it says, in Romans 18:17:

Romans 18:17 – Now, if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed, we share in His sufferings, in order that we may also share in His glory.

So, if you want to get there, you have to be willing to suffer. Paul said that he gave up everything. He lost everything to follow Christ. So suffering helps us to be at one with Jesus Christ. Fasting helps us understand suffering for Christ’s sake.

Are you hungry right now? Maybe you have a headache. Maybe you feel weak. Maybe you’re nauseous. Is that anything compared to crucifixion? Fasting on the Day of Atonement is a cake walk compared to what He did for us. But it is a voluntary act on our part to acknowledge what He did for us. We can do that, can we not? The New Testament Church did. Okay, that’s the second one.

The third one is that it pictures spiritual strength. Isn’t that interesting? To picture spiritual strength, we have to feel weak. This is one of the great spiritual ironies of the Bible. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul tells us that he was given a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from exalting himself. He said that he had to ask God three times to take it away from him. And finally God told him…well, let’s just read what He said. It’s in 2 Corinthians 12:9.

2 Corinthians 12:9 – But He said to me – after he’d begged him three times to take whatever this things was that was bothering him away from him – “My grace is sufficient for you. For My power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

I don’t remember exactly where it is, but I remember that Paul – I think it was in Colossians, but I’m not sure – said that the persecutions he underwent were so great that he was despairing, even of life. He was at the point where he was ready to give up. He’s a guy that, when he talks about hardships, he knows what he’s talking about.

Many of us don’t really have any idea of what Christian life is all about – not the first clue. We think it’s about trying to win arguments or putting other people in their place – which is down, usually, when we think about it. We think it’s about defending the self, staying one up, having our own way, getting our rights, etc. In 2 Corinthians 10, verse 3, he says:

2 Corinthians 10:3 – For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. We wage war, but it’s not the way the world does it. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, we have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretention that rises up against the knowledge of God. And we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. That last statement helps us understand that he’s talking about…we demolish our own arguments and our own pretentiousness that rises up against the knowledge of God. And we control the way we think to make our thoughts obedient to Christ.

Rather than going on the offensive, Christian life is about living graciously without defending ourselves. And the weapons he speaks of – of unpretentiousness, humility and kindness – are all modeled in the life of Jesus Christ. When He was accused, He didn’t argue. When He was insulted, He was gracious. When He was struck, He didn’t strike back. And yet, He won, didn’t He? So that’s what this is all about.

Colossians 3, verse 1. Paul tells the church there:

Colossian 3:1 – Since then, you have been raised with Christ. Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things – not on getting even, not on being right, not on having control, and the power that comes from money and position – none of those things. For you died – he says in verse 3 – and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.

That’s how it works. When we’re weak, then we’re strong. And so that’s why we fast today. That’s the third reason. Fasting helps us become spiritually strong.

Now I want you to notice what somebody left for me here today – right here at the podium when I walked in. There were three Reese’s peanut butter cups. I wonder who could have done that? Well, there’s an old saying: you never mess with the guy that has the last word. Right?

You know, one year we were on vacation, travelling to visit relatives in California, and we stopped to have a meal at a restaurant. It’s called Bobby McGee’s. I don’t know if it’s even in business anymore. The waiters and the waitresses all wore costumes. One time we were served dinner by Rudolf Valentino and another time by The Lone Ranger. It was kind of a fun place to go. And I remember that, when we went there this time in Tucson, it was the hot summertime. The first thing that happened after we sat down was the bus boy came in with gigantic heavy mugs of icy water, condensation dripping from the glasses. Next, the girl came for the bar order. And you can just get whatever you want there. They have these great big Long Island ice teas, and frozen strawberry daiquiris, and big flagons of ice cold draft beer. And, of course, there were the appetizers – you know, the fried zucchini – big plates of them – fried mushrooms. Then, a trip to the salad or soup bar always came up. They had that in an old-time bathtub with legs on it. It was filled with crushed ice. The salad items were just crisp and cold and set on ice cold metal plates that you could pick from. I remember that time we went there. I ordered prime rib. It was about an inch and a quarter thick – medium rare, just like I like it. I had a beautiful Idaho baked potato with sour cream, butter, melted cheese and chives on it. And the desserts you get after that, well…ice cream sundaes just thick with hot fudge and whipped cream. Just so delicious! Fabulous fruit pies with flaky crusts. But that was all outdone by their specialty, which was cheesecake.

So, are you hungry? Is your stomach growling? Thirsty? Well, that’s all just as it should be. We’re supposed to be like that today. See, I just helped you become more spiritually attuned. Right? I’m not going to tempt you for the rest of the sermon with those things there.

Let’s turn to Matthew 5:6.

Matthew 5:6 –Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. What do you know? Being hungry is a metaphor for righteousness.

Fasting makes us hungry – helps us understand how we are to feel about following God. We’re supposed to crave it, like we crave food, and to thirst for it, like we’re thirsty today.

How are we doing? Are we on fire to become humble like Christ? Burning to learn how to suffer with dignity, anxious to get rid of self and become poor in spirit? Well, we all think we are, but I remember this scripture where God tells us He wants us to be truthful in our inward parts about our inward state. So we all have to wrestle with that, don’t we? So that’s the fourth one, right?

Now let’s look at the last one. I’m going to read you this story out of 2 Kings, chapter 5. This is one of my favorite Bible stories. It says:

2 Kings 5:1 – Now Naaman was the commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master, and highly regarded, because through him, the LORD had given victory to Aram, and he was a valiant soldier. But there was just this one terrible problem. He was a leper. And you know who he had victory over, don’t you? It was over Israel. God gave the victory. Now the bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel. And she had served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master could see the prophet who was in Samaria.” Now this is a girl who has been taken into slavery. And Naaman and his wife must have been pretty nice to her – that she would even say something like that to him – because she wished him well, right? “If only my master could see the prophet who was in Samaria, he would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman – verse 4 – went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel said. And the king said, “By all means, go. I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter he took to the king of Israel read: With this letter I am sending my servant, Naaman, to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy. And as soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robe and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he’s trying to pick a quarrel with me?” So, a little paranoid. So when Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come down to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel. So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. So horses and chariots were war stuff. So he brought his armored column to Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger out to him, saying, “Go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored, and you will be cleansed.” But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the spot and cure my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed? So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, “Wash and be clean.” So he thought about that. And he calmed down. And he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times. And I think the Jordan River, probably, in a lot of places where you could get in it, is just a little…kind of like our river here…sandy bottom. I used to baptize people in stock ponds and rivers and stuff – have to wear chest waders and all that. And you sink in half-way to your knees in the mud and all that stuff. So dipping himself seven times in the Jordan River, which is very muddy and shallow, probably…it’s not easy to walk when you’re half up to your knees in mud, so it was something he had to do. And as the man of God told him, he did that and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. We have a similar saying: soft as a baby’s…yes. So then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God and he stood before him, and he said, “Now I know that there is no god in the world, except for the Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant.” Do you remember what that was? A whole bunch of nice clothes and a whole lot of money. God is so great and we are so stupid. But at least a stupid man was willing to listen. So he wasn’t stupid in the end. And he was willing to obey.

Obedience covers a lot of stupidity. What does God tell us to do? Well, let’s read one of the things He says in Leviticus 23:7.

Leviticus 23:7 – The tenth day of the seventh month is the day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly, and fast, and present an offering made to the LORD by fire.

So fasting is a test for us, isn’t it? The earth won’t open up and swallow us whole if we eat or drink something on this day. Nothing will happen. How do I know that? Because I’ve seen people do it. But we know, if we do that, that we will have failed the test.

I know that some people, because of health reasons, can’t completely fast on this day. And it’s not God’s plan that everybody who is too sick to fast on Atonement, do it anyway and die. That’s not what it’s about. But even those who can’t fast can check in with themselves and see if they are willing to do it if they could. And in that, then, God’s purpose is served.

So fasting is a test of obedience for us. It’s just a little one. But some people can’t even do that. So, if we’re fasting today, that’s a metaphor that says, “I will do whatever you want, God, because I am yours.”

All right. What’s the ultimate result when we follow God, give up our own ways, our own thoughts, our own habits, our own pride and become poor in spirit? Well, we become at one with God. And that’s what this day is about. It’s about that. And fasting is a way of exemplifying and heading that direction. There is a day coming, in the future, when all humanity will, once again, be drawn back to God. See, that’s a promise that He makes to us. And the Day of Atonement pictures the time when God will move to turn everybody back to Him and restore something that has not been seen on earth since the Garden of Eden.