Christian Fasting: it’s one of those “fringe” things in Christian belief that people are somewhat aware of but not a lot of people are clear about. I’ve never actually heard any teaching on fasting from any church I’ve attended, and I suspect that’s a fairly typical experience for others too. Due to the lack of instruction on the subject, the ideas of fasting range from “something that happened in Jesus’ day that we don’t need to worry about” to “the secret to spiritual break through.”
Both of these cannot be true. If fasting is irrelevant, it’s not the secret to spiritual break through. If it is the secret to spiritual break through, it’s hardly irrelevant!
Along these lines, I got a phone call from a pastor friend of mine sometime ago where the topic came up. My friend had mentioned another pastor in his area who said his elders “don’t make any decisions without prayer and fasting,” and my friend was wondering if he was missing something because his elders prayed but didn’t fast. We talked a fair bit about fasting, but in the end we agreed that neither of us had any sort of serious biblical understanding of fasting. So we decided to hop on our computers and study the topic together. Here’s the fruit of what we learned, and I’ll admit that we were both quite wrong on the topic.
Just going from the ESV, the term “fast” or “fasting” (being a time where one refrains from food or drink) appears 39 times in the Old Testament:
Jg. 20:26; 1 Sam. 7:6, 31:13; 2 Sam. 1:12, 12:16, 21, 22, 23; 1 Ki. 21:9, 12, 27; 1 Chron. 10:12, 2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21, 23, 9:5; Neh. 1:4, 9:1; Esth. 4:3, 16, 9:31; Ps. 35:13, 69:10, 109:24; Is. 58:3, 4, 5, 6; Jer. 14:12, 36:6, 9; Dan. 6:18, 9:3; Joel 1:14, 2:12, 15; Jonah 3:5; Zech. 7:5, 8:19.
There’s a consistent pattern when it comes to the concept of fasting:
- In Judges, the context is when Israel fights against Benjamin and is defeated twice. Judges 20:26 comes after two battles (in which 40,000 Israelites die) and reads: “Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord.” It’s clearly an expression of lament, for the army of Israel knows that the following day they’re going to come in full force against their brothers and slay them in battle. In the beginning of chapter 21, the Israelites are lamenting because they basically wiped out 1 of the 12 tribes.
- In 1 Samuel the context is when Samuel judges Israel and they put away their Baals and Ashtaroths, and 1 Samuel 7:6 says “So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.” Again, it’s clearly an expression of lament (over sin).
- The pattern continues on consistently through the Old Testament. 1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:12, and 1 Chronicles 10:12 are all describing a fast in response to the death of Saul. 2 Samuel 12:16, 21-23 records David fasting in response to the impending death of his son. 1 Kings 21:9, 12, 27 describes a psuedo-fast proclaimed by Jezebel in order to set up Naboth and steal his vineyard (which adds a new twist to the story of Naboth; Jezebel fakes a time of repentance of sin and then hires two men to accuse Naboth of capitol crimes during the time when everyone is mindful of sin. Naboth then gets the brunt of their manufactured conviction). Ezra 9:5 is a fast of lament in response to the sinfulness of Israel. Nehemiah 1:4 records a fast that occurs in response to Nehemiah’s learning of the condition of Jerusalem, and in his fast, Nehemiah confesses the sins of Israel. The pattern continues throughout the Old Testament.
- Only 2 Chronicles 20:3 and Ezra 8:21-23 are times where people are fasting to seek God’s direction/providence…and both are fasts that occur in response to the actual threat of death. These aren’t fasts when someone is looking for a new job, a wife, is “feeling spiritually dry,” or is simply trying to overcome an ice cream addiction.
In 2 Chronicles 20:3 the Moabites, Ammonites and Meunites are attacking Israel when Israel is already weakened internally from both battle and national reforms (meaning that the army isn’t full strength, and Jehoshaphat has recently made internal political enemies who may seize this attack as an opportunity to betray him and claim power for themselves – chapter 18 & 19).
Ezra 8:21-23 reads “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.’ So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.”
Ezra knows that he may have made a BIG mistake in not asking the king for protection of the Israelites that were returning to Jerusalem, so he fasted and implored God to protect the people because, as Ezra 8:24-30 tells us, there was a large group of people (in the thousands) traveling with a millions of dollars in gold, silver and polished bronze (and all that without any escort). If that doesn’t make a person worried for their life, I don’t know what will.
So it’s the consistent (in fact completely uniform) teaching of the Old Testament that fasting is an expression of tremendous sorrow/anxiety; usually lament over sin and sometimes fear of death, and it is a relatively rare occurrence.
This might help us make more sense of the New Testament teaching on fasting:
Again just going from the ESV, the term “fast” or “fasting” only appears 17 times in the New Testament:
Matthew 4:2, 6:16, 17, 18, 9:14, 15; Mark 2:18, 19, 20; Luke 2:37, 5:33, 34, 35, 18:12; Acts 13:2, 14:23, 27:29.
As we will see, there’s a consistent understanding of fasting in the New Testament:
- Matthew 4:2 is Jesus fasting after he “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). I’m guessing that knowing that the devil was a-comin’ would make you fairly aware of your coming need for God’s power. The fasting 40 days is also likely typologically connected to Moses’ being on Mount Sinai for 40 days without eating (Ex. 34:28), a reference which I did not place in the list of Old Testament “fasting” references because of two things: (a) Moses may have fasted involuntarily (i.e. we don’t know if God simply sustained him and kept all hunger pains at bay…or any number of other options), and (b) Moses was in the actual, physical presence of God. For those two reasons, I would not consider Moses’ fast an example of anything normative.
- Matthew 6:16-18 is Jesus condemning the Pharisees for their hypocritical fasting. If fasting is a time of tremendous lament over sin, and the Pharisees were showing off during that time of lament by wearing sackloth and ashes and making a general display of themselves, then their showboating mocks the whole nature of the fast. If repentance becomes an occurrence to boast about piety, then it’s not real repentance.
- Matthew 9:14-15, Mark 2:18-20 and Luke 5:33-35 are all parallel accounts of when Jesus was questioned about why his disciples did not fast. Jesus’ response makes a whole lot of sense if fasting is an expression of lament – “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.” (Matt. 9:15).
- Luke 2:37 simply records that Anna was a prophetess who was regularly in the temple and regularly fasting and praying. It appears to simply speak of Anna as a woman of tremendous piety, and that would make sense of her regular fasting; she was always mindful and repentant of her sin. That would also be a reason why the Lord allowed her to live unto the day she saw the coming of the Messiah. Anna was likely one of the most righteous women in Israel.
- Luke 18:12 records the rich young ruler boasting about his regular pattern of fasting (a pattern which was already condemned by Jesus in Matt. 6 as being indicative of a hypocrite).
- This leaves Acts 13, 14 and 27. Acts 13:2-3 is the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys, and Paul was regularly in danger of losing his life for the preaching of the gospel. I can’t understand the full sense of sobriety with which the church at Antioch sent Paul out (knowing that he may not come back), but I can hazard a guess that they were sorrowful to see him go.
Acts 14:23 comes just after Paul is stoned in Lystra (when men from Iconium and Antioch arrive to stir up the crowd into a murderous frenzy), dragged out of the city and left for dead (14:19). Then, Paul arises (possibly when the disciples heal/resuscitate him) and goes to Derbe (14:20), preaches the gospel there and returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch (the 3 cities that were behind his recent attempted murder). In those three cities he appoints elders, and “with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (14:23). Again, this whole passage is one describing the life-threatening ministry of Paul. How would you feel if Paul comes to your town, gets stoned, and then you’re left to complete the work that he started? Would you be worried for your life?
Uh, yeah. Paul commissions me while his head is wrapped in bandages and the blood is barely dry? *Gulp*
Acts 27:9 is simply a passing reference to the regular annual fast held on the Day of Atonement. No commentary one way or the other.
So there you have it. We have explored every passage in the entire Bible that addresses the topic of fasting…no wait. There’s one more that may come up: Matthew 17:21, but my response there is easy:
Matthew 17:21 isn’t in the canon of Scripture.
Allow me to tag Dan Wallace into the ring:
Here’s the textual note from Matthew 17:21 in the NET Bible:
“Many important mss (א* B Θ 0281 33 579 892* pc e ff1 sys,c sa) do not include 17:21 “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” The verse is included in א2 C D L W Ë1,13 Ï lat, but is almost certainly not original. As B. M. Metzger notes, “Since there is no satisfactory reason why the passage, if originally present in Matthew, should have been omitted in a wide variety of witnesses, and since copyists frequently inserted material derived from another Gospel, it appears that most manuscripts have been assimilated to the parallel in Mk 9.29” (TCGNT 35). The present translation follows NA27 in omitting the verse number as well, a procedure also followed by a number of other modern translations.”
Now we’ve explored every passage in the entire Bible that addresses the topic of fasting. There’s not as much as one would think, and the Old Testament understanding of fasting (the cessation of eating/drinking as an expression of lament over sin or facing imminent death) is not redefined in the New Testament, but rather continued.
Moreover, the regular practice of fasting is condemned as hypocrisy (or negatively portrayed) every time it is mentioned with one exception (Anna in the temple). It is never prescribed, but only described, and it is never performed as a component of a regular effort to seek the Lord’s will in making common decisions.
So, feel free to fast. You’re definitely allowed to; it’s not bad. I would recommend that if you’re a Christian, you should offer a biblical fast, which is either a fast in the face of imminent death (where one is seeking the Lord to avert their/another’s apparently imminent death) or a fast in response to conviction over your sin and involves repentance; turning from sinful thoughts and habits, and replacing sinful thoughts and habits with righteous thoughts and habits (if you repent and don’t have a tangible change of what you’re thinking and doing, you’re not repenting).
I hope this has been an informative blessing to you, and I hope you’ve learned as much as I have!