Ezra 8:21: Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek of him a straight way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.
How do you proclaim a fast? Should you proclaim a fast? Is it right to ask that a whole congregation fast all at once?
As far as Ezra was concerned proclaiming a fast was as a means of seeking God, a sign of humility and an expression of neediness.
By eating the forbidden fruit the first family showed their pride and rejection of the rule of God. I am talking about Adam and Eve.
In fasting, there is the expression of humility and dependence on God; conversely, eating the fruit (by Adam and Eve) signified independence from God.
Ezra was going to seek God for a straight way, the right way, for a safe journey, and that journey represented a new responsibility for him (Ezra 7:1-8:32).
He was the leader of a delegation that was taking valuables from Babylon back to Israel. It was a new chapter in his life, where he was changing location, going to a new place. He believed he needed help in this time of his transition. And he sought it through fasting and prayer.
He refused to lean on the arm of flesh (Jeremiah 17:5) by asking the king to supply security personnel, determined to lean on the everlasting arm. This means fasting is not “nothing”; it is big deal for those who want to have a walk with God, those who depend on God. It is the rejection of human strength to take on the strength of God.
Ezra called for fast, and there was no dissenting voice in the camp, as much as we know, meaning that they all saw the necessity for such a fast, believed enough in the leadership of Ezra and saw things from his perspective, having gained his vision.
Queen Esther also called for a fast. We do not know the length of the fast embarked upon by Ezra and his people but for Esther, it was three days and night of no eating or drinking, what you can call an absolute fast.
It was a time of a “national” emergency. Someone had gone to the king and moved him toward the destruction of all the Jews in the land at a particular date. If that had taken place, it means that there would be no Jesus Christ to come and save the world, if the nation that was to produce him, have all been wiped out, the plan of God for the earth was in serious jeopardy.
To stop this satanic agenda, Mordecai made a call to Esther that she needed to get to the king as a queen, for him to change his mind. But the problem is: you only approach the king without invitation, on the pain of death; hence Esther’s call for a fast. She called for an intense fast. The whole Jews in the capital city were to go without food or water for three days (night and day); they needed a rescue from God as the date determined to have them wiped out by the enemy of Israel drew near. And there was a reversal of fortune on that day for them. The nation was saved.
In Nineveh, the king called for a fast (Jonah 3). It was also in the face of impending danger to the nation. There was no fasting-sacrifice too much because the danger they faced just like Israel in a foreign land was that of being wiped out. So they fasted for their own good. They decided to express their need for salvation from their impending doom through a fast, and the prophesied evil was averted.
In the New Testament one example of corporate fasting that we see was done by the leadership team of the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). Who decided to separate themselves not because they were in mortal danger but as an expression of corporate hunger for the presence of God?
Another place where corporate fasting was mentioned it was as part of the arrangement for ordaining elders, leaders in the churches that Paul and Barnabas founded (Acts 14:23). In fasting, they sought to invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit in a corporate setting, to help the people to carry on the work of leadership in that place. Remember that it was during a time of fasting that the Holy Spirit was invoked (in Antioch) and he said Paul and Barnabas should be set apart for a new role and they were thus energised for it.
However, Jesus seemed to condone the lack of fasting of his disciples as opposed to the practice of the Pharisees, and the disciples of John (Luke 5:33-35). Though he himself went without food for forty days and forty nights at the beginning of his ministry, it seemed he had a lax attitude towards fasting when it comes to his disciples. When people criticised his disciples for not fasting, He defended them saying: “they don’t need to.”
He criticised the prevailing manner of fasting at that time (Matthew 6:16-18). Then, fasting had become a part of public relations for the religious. Jesus described some people as hypocrites, who were fond of looking sad and making a scene of themselves when they fast to show how deeply religious they are, they seek to gain attention of the people when they fast so that they would be seen as really spiritual.
Jesus said that is what they are seeking (human attention) is what they will get and nothing more. They should not expect God to account to them any blessing because of the fast. That means that going without food without the right attitude delivers no spiritual value.
So throughout the time he (Jesus) was with the disciples, he taught the people on faith, and on following Him unflinchingly. He wanted them to focus on him.
When he spoke on why his disciples do not need to fast, he said it was because they don’t need to fast when he is with them. When with them, they have no need since he is all they need. But when he leaves, he said they will fast. It means fasting is a decision they will make when He is no longer with them in the flesh.
The occasions in the book of acts when the leadership of the church fasted happened based on what Jesus said that his disciples will fast when he is no longer with them.
Back to the original question of the validity or otherwise of congregational fasting; I don’t believe there is any hard and fast rule to it. Remember that the bible says that anyone who eats does so unto the Lord and anyone who does not eat, does not eat to the Lord (Romans 14:3-8). What that means is that the one who fasts (and in this case, the congregation who fast) should make sure it is focused on the Lord and the one who don’t, should still maintain an attitude of devotion to God.
Whatever the case, there is the biblical promise for reward of fasting; there is a release of new vision, new commission in fasting. There is renewal of spiritual strength in fasting, there is the denying, stifling the works of the flesh in fasting to release the spirit.
Don’t reject congregational fasting, cutting off yourself from the blessing in it. However you should ensure that your faith is not in fasting but in God.