Next Sabbath is the Day of Atonement, and here at Legacy those of us who are members of the Church of God will be fasting. The Day of Atonement is the only day in a year that God commands us to fast in each year, and therefore there must be a reason why fasting is connected to this day. It is therefore my purpose today to give us three reasons why we are to fast on the Day of Atonement next Sabbath.
Reason #1: We Fast Because God Says So
The first, and most straightforward, reason why we fast on the Day of Atonement is because God commands us to do so. He does so very openly and very clearly. It remains our task, as it is with all of God’s commands, to seek both to obey and to understand as best as we are able what we are doing and why we are doing it. Nonetheless, God’s commandment to fast on the Day of Atonement, like most of His commands, is not difficult for us to recognize.
The clearest command to fast on the Day of Atonement is found, like so many of the commands related to the annual Holy Days, in Leviticus 23. Let us therefore turn to Leviticus 23:26-32 to read how God commands us to keep the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 23:26-32 reads as follows: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your Sabbath.”
This particular law gives several commands about how the Day of Atonement is to be kept. For one, it is a holy convocation, a commanded assembly, where believers in God are to meet together to worship Him. Additionally, we are all commanded to make an offering to God and to afflict our souls. We afflict our souls, which refers to our bodies in this case, by eating no food and drinking no liquids during this day between Friday sunset and Sabbath sunset. God promises to destroy a believer who works on this day or who eats or drinks on this day. On the other Holy Days, we are permitted to do what work is necessary to cook for ourselves, though we are prohibited from doing our customary labor. But on the day of Atonement no personal work at all is permitted. Finally, we are also commanded to celebrate on this day, even as we fast from food and water for 24 hours. We do these things because God said so.
Reason #2: We Fast Because Fighting Some Demons Requires Prayer And Fasting
The second reason why we fast on the Day of Atonement is because fighting against the most powerful of demons requires prayer and fasting. In Matthew 17:14-21 we learn a powerful lesson about fighting demons, a lesson that is not often remembered in the context of the Day of Atonement itself. Let us therefore examine this passage today in the context of the symbolism of the Day of Atonement. Matthew 17:14-21 reads as follow: “And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? Bring him here to Me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
Jesus was teaching his disciples an important lesson about the demon world that we would do well to remember today. Demons appear to exist in some kind of hierarchy, and powerful demons require a greater measure of God’s power to resist and overcome. The little boy Jesus healed suffered from a very powerful demon that was more powerful than those his disciples, with their lack of God’s Holy Spirit and faith, could successfully rebuke. Specifically, Jesus Christ told them that some demons do not leave unless we pray and fast first. Remember this point—we will return to it soon.
Let us now turn to Revelation 20:1-3. This passage tells us that Satan the devil will be locked away in the future for a thousand years so that mankind can have peace and be free from Satan’s deceptions. Revelation 20:1-3 reads as follows: “Then I saw an angel coming from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while.”
Here we see that in the future Satan will be imprisoned for a thousand years. Satan has deceived humanity for thousands of years, since deceiving Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He has sought to imprison humanity in deception, oppressing us and exploiting us with cruel and tyrannical leaders or bringing us to despair through anarchy and rebellion. He deceived a third of the angels, according to Revelation 12:4, before that. But his time to harm humanity is nearly done, and we look forward to his ultimate and final defeat.
What does this have to do with the Day of Atonement? Quite a lot, actually. Let us now turn to Leviticus 16 to see a curious ritual on the Day of Atonement that reveals the relationship between this day and the removal of sin and evil from humanity. Leviticus 16:20-22 tells us about an unusual ritual that involved a goat bearing the sins of Israel being led into the lonely wilderness. Leviticus 16:20-22 reads as follows: “And when he [the high priest] has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.”
This particular ritual is symbolic of how Satan will bear the sins of mankind, the sins he tempted and provoked mankind to do throughout the course of human history, and will dwell alone in an uninhabited abyss far from humanity. Every year the children of Israel, without realizing it, portrayed Satan’s defeat and imprisonment while fasting on the Day of Atonement. As the children of God, we are at war with Satan and his demons, and to wage that war effectively requires that we fast from time to time.
Reason #3: We Fast For Righteousness’ Sake
There is another reason why we fast on the Day of Atonement, a reason that we may often forget. For that reason I would like to spend a little bit of time talking about it in some depth. The third reason why we fast on the Day of Atonement is to undo heavy burdens, to free the oppressed, and to show mercy to the afflicted.
We read about this reason for fasting in Isaiah 58:1-11. Isaiah 58:1-11 has a lot to say about the Day of Atonement, and it says it in a way that is often not recognized. It reads as follows: “Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching God. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. Indeed, you strife for fast and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; and when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, “Here I am.” If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”
Not all fasting is equal in the eyes of God. There are right ways and wrong ways to fast. God desires us to fast to afflict our souls, not to oppress or exploit other people. God desires us to fast to seek His will, not to attempt to coerce God into enacting our wills. We fast to humble ourselves, not to exalt ourselves or think ourselves more righteous than others. The Pharisees fasted twice a week in Jesus’ day, but because they fasted for selfish reasons, all their fasting was nothing more than a diet. There is only one fast per year that God Himself commands—the Day of Atonement. It is a fast of liberty, for on it the jubilee was declared freeing people from slavery and returning them to their ancestral lands, so they could farm the land of their fathers and grandfathers.
Of course, many of us fast on times other than the Day of Atonement. We may fast while suffering through a trial to seek God’s will and reconcile ourselves with it. This is fine and proper. Churches often call on their members to fast to seek God’s will in choosing leadership or in times of crisis when God’s assistance is both needed and wanted. This too is fine and proper. But we must remember not to fast so that we can consider ourselves to be righteous. We must remember not to fast to seek our will, to put our people into offices, or to seek our power and our prestige, but rather to seek God’s glory. If we fast for the right reasons, God will bless us, heal us, and answer our calls. But if we fast for the wrong reasons, it’s nothing more than a diet.
Specifically, we should remember that God wants us to fast for mercy, to fast in humility, and to fast for reconciliation between God and man and ourselves with others. We fast to forgive debts, physical and spiritual, not to have strife and hostility with our physical and spiritual families. We fast for mercy, not for judgment. Perhaps that is one reason why the Jews read the book of Jonah on the Day of Atonement. A friend and I once ended the Day of Atonement at the Hillel House at the University of South Florida, and we read out Jonah with the people there, and then after sunset we ate bagels and fish. We read Jonah, a book that has a lot to say about God’s mercy.
For our last scripture today let us therefore look at Jonah 3:1-10. This passage shows the connection between fasting and God’s mercy. Jonah 3:1-10 reads as follows: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord. Now Ninevah was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Ninevah will be overthrown.” So the people of Ninevah believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Ninevah; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Ninevah by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying: “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and best be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish? Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”
Here we see that Ninevah, the capital of a wicked and violent nation, was warned of God’s judgment. They believed God, fasted and repented, and God Himself did not judge them at that time as He had promised. When people fast with a repentant heart and seek righteousness and mercy, God Himself is merciful in response. If we fast for judgment or strife, we bring God’s judgment on ourselves. If, however, we fast to reconcile ourselves with God and with each other, God brings us His peace and His mercy. Seeing as we are all sinners, we all require God’s mercy—it is only through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that any of us can be reconciled to God. None of us is righteous enough to be right with God on our own merits. So therefore we fast on the Day of Atonement for mercy and righteousness’ sake, so that we may be reconciled to God and with each other.
Next Sabbath is the Day of Atonement, and today we have examined some of the reasons why we fast on this day every year. First, we fast without food and water for 24 hours because God commands us to do so. This is reason enough, but there are other reasons why we fast on the Day of Atonement. We also fast because we are engaged in spiritual warfare, and some demons, like Satan, cannot be overcome without prayer and fasting. Finally, we fast on the Day of Atonement because we seek reconciliation with God and with others, and because we seek God’s mercy, rather than to be judged as we deserve. For all of these reasons I will be fasting next Sabbath on the Day of Atonement. Will you be fasting with me?