This study was made to reveal what the Bible says about fasting. Fasting is one of the most powerful tools that a Christian can make use of when it is accompanied with prayer and a study of the Scriptures. God says: "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). He also says: "But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ" (Ephesians 4:15). We can know and walk in God's perfect will while on this earth, and we can successfully finish our course on this earth as Jesus and Paul did.
As I have approached this study, I find that the following questions always seem to arise: (1) should fasting be a practice in this New Testament age, or was it done away with as an Old Testament ritual? (2) what is the purpose of fasting? (3) what is a fast; i.e., is it doing without food or food and liquids? (4) how long should a fast be? (5) how often should one fast?
There are some 53 references to fasting in the Bible (see accompanying tables). At least 20 of them are in the New Testament. As will be discussed more fully herein, Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), said: "When you fast ... ". He also said that his disciples would fast after the bridegroom was taken from them (Matthew 9). Paul spoke of "fastings often". On more than one occasion, Jesus spoke of the attitude one should have when fasting. It is hard to deny that fasting should be faithfully practiced by Jesus' disciples today.
Fasting is an attitude as well as an action. A wrong attitude annuls the act. It destroys faith and makes the act a trial and of none effect as the thoughts that come turn the mind to physical rather than spiritual well-being. The end of the fast becomes the prime target rather than the blessings of communicating freely with God.
Fasting is not a trial when entered into with prayer and praise. Faith in its purpose and benefits makes the difference. We do not become dull nor do we destroy our bodies in the process. Rather, we tone our bodies, sharpen our spirits, and are edified. God's hand on us is sufficient to sustain and keep us to produce positive results.
WHAT IS A FAST?
According to Strong's Concordance, fasting is abstinence from food. However, a number of Scripture references note that fasting included abstinence from water as well.
There are six specific examples (witnesses) in the Bible to fasting without both food and water: (1) Moses, when he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28), neither did eat bread nor drink water for 40 days and nights; (2) Moses, when he returned to the mount to commune with God about the sins of the Israelites, neither did eat bread nor drink water for 40 days and nights (Deuteronomy 9:18); (3) Ezra, when he mourned for the transgression of the Israelites who had been carried away captive to Babylon, did eat no bread nor drink water (Ezra 10:6); (4) Esther and the Jews in Babylon, when they were seeking favor for Esther before the king and for their deliverance from the death sentence hanging over them, did not eat bread nor drink water for three days and nights (Esther 4:16); (5) the kind, nobles, all the people, and their herds and flocks, when they were seeking God's mercy and the reversal of His decision to destroy Nineveh, did eat no food nor drink water (Jonah 3:7); (6) Paul, after his Damascus Road experience, did neither eat food nor drink water for three days (Acts 9:9).
In no place that I can find in the Scriptures is there a statement that fasting may be properly accomplished with the consumption of water and/or other liquids. There is, of course, "Daniel's fast", which many refer to, wherein he refrained from eating the king's meat and dainties and did drink no wine (Daniel 10:1-3). This is not identified by the Bible as being a fast.
GOD'S CHOSEN FAST
Isaiah tells us of the kind of fast which God has chosen: "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?" (Isaiah 58:6, 7).
True worship is more than "religious" ritual - going to church, listening to Scripture readings, uttering meaningless prayers, etc. It is to develop our relationship with God and to learn His ways more completely. God does not want us fasting or acting pious when we have unforgiven sins in our hearts and perform sinful practices with our hands. More important even than correct worship and doctrine is genuine compassion for the poor, the helpless, and the oppressed.
We cannot be saved by works of service without faith. But our faith lacks sincerity if it doesn't reach out to others. Fasting can be beneficial, physically and spiritually, but at its best it helps the person doing it. God says He wants our service to go beyond our own personal acts of growth to acts of kindness, charity, justice, and generosity. Pleasing God is more than what we don't eat, drink, or do. It is what we do for Him and for others that gets His attention.
Following the above verses, we find the blessings which the God kind of fast provides: "Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in" (Isaiah 58:8-12).
The blessings listed in this passage of Scripture are: (1) our lights shall spring forth as the morning; (2) our health shall spring forth speedily; (3) our righteousness shall go before us; (4) the glory of the Lord shall be our reward; (5) we shall call and the Lord shall answer; (6) we shall cry, and He shall say, "Here I am;" (7) our light shall rise in obscurity and our darkness shall be as noonday; (8) the Lord will guide us continually; (9) the Lord will satisfy our soul in drought and make fat our bones; (10) we shall be like a watered garden; (11) we shall be like a spring of water whose waters fail not; (12) our descendents shall build the old waste places; (13) we shall raise up the foundations for many generations; (14) we shall be called "Repairers of the breach" and "Restorers of paths to dwell in".
Obviously, we shall be blessed in spirit, soul, and body, if we take away our yokes, quit blaming others, stop speaking vainly, and have compassion for the hungry and the afflicted. The price of humbling ourselves in this way is insignificant in comparison to the rewards.
A RIGHT ATTITUDE
When Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, He made clear the attitude we should have in our prayers and our worship of Him: "And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:9-14).
The Pharisee did not go to the temple to pray to God, but to announce to all within earshot how good he was. He had not been humbled at all by his fasting and giving of tithes. These acts had been performed "religiously" and for the purpose of drawing attention to himself. In no way did he submit himself to the position and authority of the Lord. The tax collector, on the other hand, went recognizing his sin and begging for mercy. That got God's attention and He justified the man. The Pharisee went away without gaining anything.
Self-righteousness is dangerous. It leads to pride, causes a person to despise others, and prevents him from learning anything from God. Worse yet, it prevents him from entering into the blessings of God's kingdom.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also spoke of a right attitude for His disciples. In that place He addressed specifically the attitude we should have when fasting: "Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly" (Matthew 6:16-18).
Fasting was mandatory for the Jewish people only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:32). It was a 24-hour fast to afflict their souls. The Pharisees voluntarily fasted twice a week to impress the people with their "holiness".
Fasting teaches self-discipline, reminds us that we can live with a lot less, and helps us appreciate God's gifts. It also gives us more time to pray.
Jesus condemned hypocrisy - fasting in order to gain approval from people. He commended acts of self-sacrifice done quietly and sincerely. He wanted people to serve Him for the right reasons, not from a selfish desire for praise.
HOW LONG SHOULD A FAST BE?
As may be seen in the accompanying tables, the fasts recorded in the Bible are of varying lengths. As far as I can determine, there is no specific time requirement. Some fasts lasted a part of a day, and others lasted varying periods of time up to forty days. Only David's fast on behalf of his and Bathsheba's baby failed to produce positive results. Of course, some of the fasts had no goal other than mourning. These have not been considered as having relevance on how long one should fast. The ideal length, it seems to me, is that which produces the answers to questions and/or other actions sought by the hand of God. We need to remember that it isn't the act which counts, but whether God sees in us a humble and repentant heart. When He does, He will surely answer and act according to our needs as He sees them.
In the examples given on the accompanying tables, some marvelous and wonderful results are recorded. A review of them reveals that: (1) Moses had tremendous fellowship with God on two occasions, and he received detailed instructions with regard to the way he and the Israelites should live and conduct their affairs; (2) the Israelites gained victory over the Benjamites after having been defeated twice by them; (3) the Lord thundered with a great thunder against the Philistines on behalf of the Israelites and put them to flight; (4) when king Jeshoshaphat and Judah fasted, sought the Lord, sang, and praised God concerning the move of Moab and Ammon against them, God caused the enemies' armies to fight and destroy each other. It then took Jehoshaphat and the people three days to gather the spoils; (5) when Ezra and those going with him to Jerusalem fasted and sought God for safe passage, they received His protection, both for themselves and for the temple treasures they carried with them; (6) when Ezra fasted and mourned for the Israelites who had taken strange wives from other nations, the people gathered and developed a list of the guilty men; (7) when Nehemiah fasted, prayed, wept, and mourned before the Lord, he received the favor of the king that he had desired; (8) when Esther and all the Jews in Babylon fasted and prayed for deliverance from the sentence of death that was hanging over them, God set them free; (9) when the king, the people of Nineveh, and all their herds and flocks fasted, God repented of His intention to destroy the city; (10) when Jesus fasted, He triumphed over Satan; (11) a lunatic demon left a boy at the hands of Jesus after He had fasted and prayed; (12) Cornelius and his household were saved and baptized in the Holy spirit after he had fasted and sought the Lord; (13) Paul and Barnabas were commissioned after they and others had fasted and prayed; (14) Paul and all a ship's crew were saved from savage storms after they had fasted.
These results establish the fact that God's power is released to set free those who take Him seriously and seek Him with a humble and repentant heart. Fasting was most certainly a key element in each example. It, along with prayer, prepared the people to receive God's best.
SOME FINAL WORDS
Jesus would never have said that His disciples would fast after He had gone to be with the Father (Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:20) if He knew that they would not. And He would not have encouraged fasting in other ways, as He often did, if He did not expect future generations of disciples to do that very thing.
Fasting is meant to afflict the soul; i.e., put down the demands of the flesh. In t his process it will "tenderize" the mind and heart and make them more receptive to the voice and mind of God. It is a valuable tool that can benefit greatly all who approach and practice it in the right spirit.
Paul made note that he was "in fastings often" (2 Corinthians 11:27). He did not equate this with being "hungry and thirsty" in this treatise about all of the things that had gone on during the time of his ministry. They were separate items in his list, as a careful reading of this verse will reveal. He used fasting as the tool it is meant to be.
As a final note, let me say that there are no words in the Bible to suggest that we are to wait for the Holy Spirit to direct us to fast, though He may very well do so. The passages that tell us that Jesus was led of the Spirit to be tempted of the devil do not say that he was required to fast. They simply state that He fasted forty days and nights at that time. In all the other Scriptures that refer to fasting, the people involved initiated the fasts on their own, as far as I can determine from my study of the Scriptures. They had needs and they wanted answers. They didn't wait for the Holy Spirit to move them, as far as I can tell. They proceeded to do what they had been taught is a good way to get deliverance, direction, etc.