Dr. Richard L. Strauss
May 17, 1992
Purpose: To encourage believers to fast and pray.
Just about twenty years ago Mary and I faced one of the most difficult decisions of our lives. We were ministering in Huntsville, Alabama to a growing congregation whom we dearly loved. Things were going well, and we were content to remain there as long as God wanted us there--the rest of our lives, if that was His choosing. That's when Jim Welch called from Escondido and told me about Emmanuel Faith Community Church. The leadership of the church was interested in me as a candidate for the pastorate here.
After several conversations, I agreed to come and preach some Sunday. But I asked Jim not to announce me as a candidate because I was perfectly happy where I was and was not looking for a change. I still remember that Sunday morning when he first introduced me to the congregation. He said, "I believe this is the man whom God has chosen to be our next pastor!"
I wanted to run off the platform and yell, "No, no, no; I'm not coming here!" And to top it all off, right after the last service, over on 7th Street--we were standing around outside the building: a few leaders of the church and some of the pastoral staff--my wife in a very loud voice so that all could hear said to me, "You know, that wasn't a very good sermon. Why did you preach that sermon this morning?!"
But in spite of the lousy sermon, and in spite of my negative feelings, the congregation of this church voted shortly after that to extend a call to pastor the church, and we faced a momentous decision.
The only thing I knew to do was to seek God's direction like I never had before--to seek His direction diligently. So with Mary's blessing I went off by myself to a secluded lakeside cabin to which we had access and spent a period of time in prayer and fasting. God's guidance came as I read consecutively through the book of Isaiah. I don't know why I chose Isaiah. But God answered very specific questions that I had asked Him in the book of Isaiah. And I knew in my heart that God wanted me to come to Escondido. Within twenty-four hours, Mary was one with me in my decision, and from that day to this, we have not had one tinge of doubt about being exactly where God wants us to be.
I tell you that story because it involves two significant activities for which we are promised rewards. I'm not saying that I'll get any reward for my time in that cabin twenty years ago. That depends on a number of factors. But I am saying that, generally speaking, God is going to reward us for faithfully praying and fasting.
The first of those two subjects is familiar to all of us. Whether we practice it or not, we all know that prayer is important. We know it is essential in our Christian lives and our walk with God, and our spiritual growth. Fasting, however, is almost unheard of in our day.
Let's look at both of them, and see their connection to rewards. You'll find them discussed in Christ's Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6. Let's look first at prayer. I want to begin talking about its importance.
Prayer, Matthew 6:5-6
a. The Importance of Prayer
No true Christian would dispute the value and importance of prayer. We would all probably agree--at least intellectually--with that famous statement of E. M. Bounds in his book Power through Prayer, that "prayer is not a little habit pinned on to us while we were tied to our mother's apron strings; neither is it a little decent quarter of a minute's grace said over an hour's dinner, but it is a most serious work of our most serious years" (Power through Prayer, p. 26). That's a great quote. And true.
Leaf through the gospels, for example, and you'll see that Jesus taught it. See the importance Jesus attached to prayer. He said, "Ask, and it will be given to you" (Matthew 7:7). He taught "...that men always ought to pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1). He said, "And whatever you ask in my name, that I will do that the Father be glorified in the Son" (John 14:13). "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you" (John 15:7). "Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (John 16:24).
The early church took Him at His word. They prayed. Trace the growth of the church through the Acts of the Apostles and see the emphasis on prayer. For example, after Peter and John had been threatened by the Jewish religious authorities, they met with their fellow believers for prayer. "And when they prayed, the place where they assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:31). Of course, the result was that many more came to know the Savior.
Read the New Testament epistles, and see again the indispensible nature of faithful prayer. For example, to the Ephesians Paul wrote, "...praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit" ( 6:18). He encouraged the Thessalonians to "pray without ceasing" (1Thessalonians 5:17). We're to be in an attitude of prayer all the time, in constant communion with our Lord. Is that the way you live your life?
Study the progress of the church through the ages and you will discover that every great spiritual awakening in history has been accompanied by effectual, fervent prayer. If I were to ask you what one single thing would make the greatest contribution to the salvation of souls, to the spiritual growth of believers, to the success of God's work, and to the solution of our problems, most of you would answer correctly: You would say PRAYER!
And it is something we can all do. Not everybody can stand up in front of a group of people and preach or teach the Word of God. God has not enabled everybody to do that. Not everybody can minister spiritual joy and blessing to others through music. God gives certain people talent and abilities that others don't have.
But every true believer can talk to God. Every person who knows Jesus Christ listening to or reading this message today can pray! Everyone. Without exception. It would have powerful consequences if we did. It's the most important thing we can possibly do, and yet so few believers really do. Isn't that strange that we don't practice what we say we believe? Prayer meetings are the least attended services in the church.
A survey I read several years ago indicates that the average evangelical Christian layperson spends less than four minutes a day in prayer, and that includes grace before meals. And this in spite of being promised eternal rewards for spending time in our heavenly Father's presence. And that's what I want to zero in on.
Having reminded ourselves of the importance of prayer, let's look secondly at that reward.
b. The Reward for Prayer
Listen to what Jesus said.
Read Matthew 6:5. "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward."
Hypocrites pray to impress other people. They're play actors--in fact, the word "hypocrites" came from the Greek stage. They are pretending to be something they're not. And they're good at what they do.
The Jews of Jesus' day had established specific times each day that they were supposed to pray--9 a.m., 12 noon, and 3 p.m. That was their tradition. And some of them made sure they were in some prominent place at those hours--like in the temple, on the steps of the synagogues, or on some busy street corner. Then they would pray long, demonstrative prayers in impress the people who were watching them. Jesus assured them that they had their reward--the praise of those people. "Isn't he spiritual? What a godly person! My, how she can pray!" That's it! Don't expect any other reward for praying with that kind of attitude.
As we learned when we looked at rewards for charitable giving, you only get one reward for any one good deed. So, if you get the praise of people, that's it. There will be no other reward in the future.
Read Matthew 6:6. "But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."
Now Jesus isn't saying that it's wrong to pray in public. Please don't misunderstand what the verse is teaching. Jesus often prayed in the presence of other people. And He encouraged us to agree together in prayer (Matthew 18:19), which would require praying with other people. The believers in the early church prayed together. And God honored it. Don't try to use this verse to justify staying away from a prayer meeting.
But make sure your attitude is right when you pray with other people. If you are concerned about what other people are thinking of you, you have the wrong attitude. Prayer is to lay hold of God, not to impress other people. And I'm afraid that some people may pray long, flowery prayers in order to impress others with their piety. Jesus says it would be better to go into a private room somewhere, shut the door and lay hold of God in secret. The purpose of prayer is to lay hold of God, not to impress other people.
D. L. Moody was a man of prayer, but he had little patience with people who prayed long, ostentatious payers in public. He said, "Some men's prayers need to be cut short at both ends and set on fire in the middle." He also said, "A man who prays much in private will make short prayers in public." I agree with that.
The story is told of an occasion in one of Moody's meetings when a man had been asked to pray and was going on and on interminably. Moody was getting more and more disturbed. Finally, he stood up, walked to the pulpit where the man was praying, put his hand on his shoulder, and said, "While our dear brother is finishing his prayer, let's all turn to the hymn book and sign."
Evelyn Christenson, in a book on prayer, pointed out that eight-ninths of an iceberg is below the waterline--out of sight. Only one-ninth is visible above the surface. Our prayers should be like those icebergs, with about one-ninth showing in public prayer, and the other eight-ninths out of sight in secret. Maybe that's what Jesus is really saying here.
When we pray with the right attitude for the right reasons, God is going to reward us openly. He doesn't say how. He doesn't say whether it will be public praise, greater inheritance, higher status, or just what. We just don't know. We'll have to trust Him to give us what is right and best. Remember the parable of the workers in Matthew 20. The point being: don't bargain with Him. Just trust Him to do what's right and what's best and He will. But we may be assured that faithful prayers offered in the right attitude will be richly rewarded in heaven. That's the promise of our Savior.
Mary has an 87-year-old aunt who dearly loves the Lord and has been a great example to us in this matter of faithful praying. She is in a rest home now in Pennsylvania. She's beginning to lose her sharp mental edge. The last time we saw her, she barely knew us. But when she used to visit us here in Escondido, after breakfast every morning she would go into her room for at least an hour to pray. She didn't make a big deal about it, but if we walked past the door we could hear her. She has prayed faithfully for us through these years, and we're going to miss that when she's gone. And I would surely like to have the reward she's going to receive in glory. She's going to have one, I can assure you. She did exactly what the Lord Jesus encouraged us to do here.
I can have that reward, if I will get as serious about prayer as she has been. And so can you. Take what Jesus said seriously and put it into practice. Pray. Without ceasing.
Pray while you're rinsing the dishes, or vacuuming the carpet, or mowing the lawn. Pray in your car as you rush from one business appointment to another. Praise God and worship Him in prayer. Lay hold of Him for your own needs, for the needs of your Christian friends, for the needs of our missionaries. Pray for our country, which is facing such desperate decline and moral decay. Pray for the needs of a lost and dying world. Lay hold of God in prayer "...and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."
What an amazing, unspeakable privilege. We mortal beings have the privilege of entering in to the presence of the Almighty God. Infinitely holy. Powerful. Wonderful. He's the Creator of the universe. We can actually enter His presence in prayer. He invited us to come boldly. And on top of it, He promises to reward us for doing it. Isn't that incredible?! And yet how little do we take advantage of the opportunity we have to pray.
How much time did you spend with time this week? Will you take the challenge from Jesus in Matthew 6, and spend time in His presence? This has been a great challenge to me. Lay hold of God in prayer!
What Jesus has just taught us about prayer, He repeats regarding an activity that is often linked to prayer in Scripture: fasting.
2. Fasting, Matthew 6:16-18
a. The Importance of Fasting
There is only one Old Testament command for the Jewish people to fast, and that was on the day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31, which actually says, "afflict your souls"). Most Bible commentators believe that God was encouraging them to fast on that day. But there are numerous examples of people fasting on other occasions, and for a variety of reasons.
They might fast in preparation for some spiritual service, as Moses did when preparing to receive the law of God (Exodus34:28). They might fast as a sign of mourning, as David did at the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:12). They might fast during times of national danger or disaster, as Nehemiah did when he heard if the plight of the captives who had returned from Babylon to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:1-4). They might fast when seeking wisdom and understanding from God, as Daniel did when seeking to know God's future for Israel and Jerusalem (Daniel 9:3). They might fast as an indication of repentance over their sin, as the inhabitants of Nineveh did (Jonah 3:5). That's just a small sampling of why people fasted in the Old Testament.
Jesus Himself fasted at the outset of His ministry, probably to concentrate on the work His Father had sent Him to do (Matthew 4:2). And the early church fasted, to concentrate on prayer and spiritual ministry, such as commissioning missionaries (Acts 13:2-3), or appointing elders (Acts 14:23).
And that seems to be the primary New Testament reason for fasting: concentration. It is not hunger strike designed to get God's attention, force His hand and make Him do what we want Him to do. Fasting is a means of giving total concentration to prayer, to divine guidance, or to spiritual ministry. We are nowhere commanded in the New Testament to fast. We are told many times over to pray, but we are never commanded to fast. That may be why we seldom do it. But it would have great value if we did.
For one thing, it would be good for our health. Most of us eat too much anyway and fasting would have a cleansing effect on our bodies. Medical science tells us that it does if it's done in the proper way. For another thing, doing without periodically, might help to keep us from becoming slaves of our appetites, and help us have a greater appreciation for what we do have. Last, but not least, since the mind and the spirit are dulled when the body is indulged, fasting would clear our minds and sharpen our perception for prayer, for understanding God's Word, for detecting sinful attitudes and habit patterns in our lives, and for ascertaining of God's will.
I must confess to you that I do not speak from vast experience. I have not practiced fasting with any regularity. Quite frankly, I hesitate to preach about something I have not tried to practice faithfully. I don't always practice what I preach, but normally I try. Fasting is not something I've tried to do regularly. But let me give you the testimony of another: Dr. Charles F. Stanley, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta. Many of you watch him on television. He's a good Bible preacher. This is what he says:
"Confronted with a crucial decision of my life, I prayed and read the Scriptures, but I failed to receive guidance. Then I remembered a conversation during a visit with my grandfather, an evangelist. Then in his seventies, he fasted one day a week, and often a week at a time. Extraordinary answers to prayer, the fruitfulness of his ministry, his perfect health, and the power and authority with which he prayed seemed directly tied to his habit of fasting. Perhaps it would work for me, too. On my knees I told God I would not eat until he gave me clear guidance. Within three days I received an answer, one I have never doubted. From that day to this, God has never failed to give me guidance after I have fasted and waited upon Him" (Moody Monthly, May, 1975).
Dr. Stanley does fast regularly and encourages his congregation to do the same.
So maybe it would have value for us. Maybe it would be something worth considering. Even though it is not commanded in the Scripture, maybe we should consider doing it.
Now while Jesus did not command us to fast, He seemed to assume that we would. And He gave us a good reason to do it: the promise of reward.
b. The Reward for Fasting
Read Matthew 6:16. "Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward."
During the Babylonian captivity, separated from the temple worship and the sacrifices, the Jews developed the notion that fasting was a way of proving their devotion to God. And it was only a short step to thinking that it proved their superior piety to other people as well. So it tended to become for many of them an empty ritual, which some Jews practiced regularly two days a week (Luke 12). But it was more for show than for spiritual ministry.
They made sure people knew they were fasting. They walked around with ashes on their faces to make themselves look pale and sad. They wore tattered clothes to dramatize their self-sacrifice. Others would look on and say, "My, aren't they spiritual?" And as Jesus pointed out, they have their reward. That's it! The praise of men will be all they get.
Of course, what He says about fasting would be true of any self-sacrifice for God. Some of you have made great sacrifices for the Lord. Nobody knows about it, except your closest loved ones--who had to know about it--and the Lord. Someday God is going to reward you openly for that.
It's possible that some of you have made sacrifices, but have made sure that people knew about it. You told a few people, and were happy that they told a few others. You got a little praise for it. Well, if that's what happened, enjoy your praise, Jesus says, because that's all you're going to get. There isn't any future reward for it.
Read Matthew 6:17-18. "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."
There it is--the promise of reward for fasting. We can count on it, so long as we do it to honor and serve the Lord, rather than to impress the people around us. We don't have to fast if we don't want to. There's nothing that says we have to do it. We're not commanded to fast in the Scripture. It's our decision to make for yourself. It's between you and the Lord. But the opportunity to earn eternal reward is there, if we want to avail ourselves of it.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
The obvious lesson from what Jesus taught about prayer and fasting is that it's not enough to perform righteous deeds, however wonderful they may be. Prayer and fasting are wonderful deeds. But they have to be done with the right attitude and the right motive. That's what Jesus is teaching us. They need to be done out of love for the Lord and a desire to honor Him. Only true believers can do that.
Only those who truly know Jesus Christ as their Savior and have the Spirit of God dwelling in them can do good deeds with the right attitude and for the right reasons. Others can do good deeds, but they won't be rewarded for them. So what it really boils down to this morning is: Do you know Christ as your personal Savior? Have you been brought into a personal relationship with the living God through faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Bible teaches very clearly that the way to know God is through His Son--specifically through His Son's sacrifice on Calvary's cross. He died there in our place, He paid fully for our sin, and now He asks us to acknowledge our sinfulness and our total need of His grace, and cast ourselves upon Him and His grace for our eternal salvation.
The moment we do that, He assures us of spending eternity in heaven. He comes into our lives in the Person of His Spirit, and enables us to obey Him and to begin doing good things for the right reasons and in the right way, which will then earn us reward in heaven.
Entrance into heaven was provided by the death and resurrection of Christ. Reward in heaven is earned by allowing the Spirit of God to take control of our lives and produce in us His righteousness.
So the question facing us this morning is two-fold:
- Have you trusted Christ as your Savior from sin, so that the Spirit of God dwells in you, to enable you to do these good things for the right reasons?
- And if you've trusted Him as your Savior, have you yielded your will to Him so that He can produce in you and through you His righteousness, which will have great reward?
Let's bow before His presence right now and deal with these two issues, shall we?
Number 1: Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior from sin? I'm not asking whether you're a good person or a religious person. That's wonderful if you are, but that won't get you into heaven. Admitting your sin and putting your faith in Christ as Savior is what opens heaven's door, according to God's Word. If you've not done that before, we invite you to do it right now, just where you sit, in the quiet of your own soul. Talk to God, will you?
"Lord, I'm a sinner. I acknowledge it. I believe Jesus paid for my sin--that He went to Calvary for me--that He rose again to give me His life. Lord Jesus, I receive you as my Savior right now. Come into my heart and save me from sin."
If you've never made that decision, would you do that today?
Number 2: Christian, have Jesus' words in this Sermon on the Mount been a challenge to you, particularly in the area of prayer? Are you spending time in His presence? Are you serious about this most important issue of the Christian life? Would you make some commitments today?
Father, hear now our prayer, we pray. I pray that You would give us the courage and the will to carry through and to do what we've committed to do today. We are looking forward to great things as a result. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Continue to RW-11: You and Your Enemies