Bible Questions? Fasting

What is Biblical fasting?

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When we read through the Old and New Testaments, fasting is associated with solemn prayer. Examples of fasting are usually associated with mourning, grieving, repentance or when making critical decisions. At other times fasting takes place when the people needed God’s favour, provision, and protection in a time of trial. An example of this was the fasting of Nehemiah when he was made aware that the Jerusalem wall was broken, the gates were destroyed by fire, and the people were in great trouble and shame. Nehemiah 1:4 says, “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”

Another example is in the book of Esther. Esther would risk her life by going before the king unlawfully to intercede for the Jewish people. In preparation, she requested the people to fast and pray for the favour of the LORD. Esther 4:16 says, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

The same applies in the New Testament. We see many similar examples:

  • In Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus fasted 40 days before His temptation by Satan
  • In Acts 9:9, Paul fasted three days after His encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road
  • In Acts 13:1-5, the elders in Antioch fasted before sending off Paul and Barnabus
  • In Acts 27:33-34, Paul fasted for 14 days while he was at sea on a ship stuck in the storm,
  • And many more passages.

Having described all these examples of fasting in the Bible, it must be noted that the Bible does not make fasting a requirement for the New Testament Christian. Even in the Old Testament, the only mandatory fast was in the Day of Atonement which eventually finds its fulfilment in Christ (Leviticus 16:29-30; Hebrews 13:11-12). 

So fasting in the New Testament is not a requirement and must not be used to assess a believer’s maturity in the LORD. However, Jesus did teach about fasting, and Christians ought to fast as they seek Christ in their situation. So, the question becomes. What does Biblical fasting look like? The answer is best understood by the instruction Jesus gave for fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, saying: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Although the law only required fasting on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29), the Jews observed four other annual fasts after their exile, according to Zechariah 7:5; 8:19. By the time you get to the New Testament, the Pharisees now were fasting twice a week (Luke 18:12). This type of fasting was an outward show of piety and of their supposed holiness. In fact, even some of John’s disciples questioned Jesus as to why His disciples did not fast. In other words, what they were saying was, the disciples of Jesus were not showing a sign of being religiously pious because of their lack of fasting. Matthew 9:14 says, “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus responds to this question in Matthew 9:15 saying, “And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” 

So from Jesus’ instruction and response in Matthew 6:16-18 and Matthew 9:14, we can learn the following about biblical fasting.  

Firstly, do not fast to be seen by others.
Fasting done to be seen by others is hypocritical. The Pharisees went to extreme lengths and inflicted self-suffering to appear to people as though they are devout. These were all outside signs to show people, but the intention of the heart was not right. It all comes down to the genuine desire of the heart and the reason for your fasting. If you fast with a hypocritical heart, then you will receive your reward from what people think, and that is not much. It does not please God. 

Secondly, fast with the right “heart” attitude.
The Biblical method of fasting is precisely the opposite of hypocritical fasting. The Pharisees did it to be seen by men, whereas a true follower of Christ will fast only to be seen by God. Such fasting is pleasing to God. You receive the true reward of God when you fast because you want to grow in deeper fellowship with God, or have a specific purpose to seek God’s direction, or seek God’s guidance, and seek His will to take place in your particular situation. Then you will receive His true reward, which is only found in Christ and His response to you. Amen!

You can fast from food (Daniel 1:8-14) or food and water (Luke 4:2; Acts 9:9) or something else, and for a period of your choosing. It is the temporary self-denial of something in your life so that you can focus on God. It can also be to express your deep need for God’s will and His work in the specific purpose for which you are fasting. 

In conclusion, fasting is not explicitly commanded for Christians, but Jesus does speak about fasting and how you should do it. Our fasting is the temporary setting aside of things for a time in our life because of our deep desire for Christ’s return and our intense need for His work and will in our lives. All of which comes out of our love for Him and He being the true treasure of our life. This is true biblical fasting. 

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