Is Fasting for Today?
The subject of spiritual disciplines comes and goes as a popular topic for Christian authors and teachers. When in vogue, most listings of spiritual disciplines include fasting as one of the desired if not essential practices. Whether in a corporate setting, be it church wide or national, or for individuals, fasting is often touted as a gateway to God’s blessing, a key to determining courses of actions, or a hallmark of spiritual sensitivity and intimacy with God.
Over the years, when I have questioned whether fasting is a spiritual discipline and whether it is to be practiced by today’s Christian, I have normally been met with incredulity. After all, doesn’t everyone know that mature Christians engage in fasting for some purpose? Nonetheless, it is beneficial to explore whether there exists a biblical warrant for the practice of intentional fasting today.
The terms for fasting occur frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. The basic word for fast in the Old Testament simply refers to abstaining from food. There are five separate terms in the family of words for fasting in the New Testament. The reference is also to abstaining from food.1
An analysis of the various biblical mentions of fasting, including some where the word “fast” is not used, yields a few observations:
Fasting is the abstinence from food for specified length of time (for instance, 1 day, 7 days, 40 days). It is typically voluntary but it can be involuntary (Paul and ship’s crew Acts 27:21,33; Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:5, 11:27; probably also Jesus’ 40 day fast in conjunction with his temptation - Matthew 4, Luke 4, Mark 1).
Fasting was practiced corporately or individually.
In essence, voluntary fasting is self denial. As such, could refraining from anything be considered fasting? In a general sense, yes. However, all Biblical instances of fasting are of food and drink. Refraining from sex in 1 Corinthians 7:5, 1 Samuel 21:4-5; or Exodus 19:15 are not instances of fasting per se.
In Israel, official national fasts were mourning over national calamities or sin.
In Israel, only the annual fast in conjunction with the Day of Atonement was required. This took place on the 10th day of the 7th month when the high priest sprinkled sacrificial blood on the ark of the covenant (Leviticus 16:29 and Acts 27:9).
Other official national holiday fasts in Israel are declared but not divinely commanded.
Fast of 4th month remembering when Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem (Jeremiah 39:52; Zechariah 8:19).
Fast of 5th month remembering when Jerusalem was destroyed (Zechariah 7:3,4; 8:19).
Fast of 7th month remembering when Gedaliah was murdered (Jeremiah 41:1; 2 Kings 25:25; Zechariah 8:19).
Fast of 10th month remembering when Nebuchadnezzar seized Jerusalem (2 Kings 25; Zechariah 8:19)
Other fasts were practiced in connection with a variety of circumstances or purposes.
Entreaty for divine help or intervention or some divine action - Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20:3; Ezra in Ezra 8:21; Daniel in Daniel 1:8-21,10:3; David in 2 Samuel 12:13-23 and Psalms; Nineveh in Jonah 3:5
In connection with worship - Anna in Luke 2:36-38
Mourning over death - 1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12
Making decisions or anticipating certain actions - Esther in Esther 4:16, Nehemiah in Nehemiah 1:4; Israel in Judges 20:26; the early church in Acts 13:1-13, 14:23
Most commonly, fasting was practiced in response to sin and its consequences (1 Kings 21:27; 1 Samuel 7:6; Nehemiah 1:4; 9:1; Daniel 9:3; et al.
Fasting could become an empty religious ritual - God’s people - Isaiah 58:3-6; Jeremiah 14:12; 1 Kings 21:9-27; Pharisees (Thursday and Monday) - Luke 18;12; the disciples of John seem to be lumped in with the Pharisees - Matthew 9:14-15, Mark 2:18-19; Luke 5:33-35.
Apparently Jesus and His disciples did not fast. If they did, no instance is recorded in Scripture. In contrast, they were questioned about their lack of fasting (Matthew 9:14; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33) and were accused of gluttony and drunkenness (Matthew 11:19).
Fasting was often associated with external phenomena such as dressing in sackcloth, ashes, weeping, prostration, an assembly, or typically prayer.
Fasting is not presented as a means to enhance personal spirituality or become more intimate with God. Nor is it suggested as a solution to health and diet issues.
Early history of Christin fasting
Asceticism (renunciation of the pleasures of the flesh in order to enhance the life of the spirit), including fasting, was sometimes prevalent among early Christians during the transition period from Jewish customs and legalism.
The “Teaching of the Twelve”. This document discovered in 1883 is thought to have been written in the late second century AD. It contains a whole chapter devoted to directions concerning fasting and prayer. Fasting was to take place on Wednesday and Friday and the Lord’s prayer was to be recited three times per day.
The Montanists practiced fasting. Montanus, who lived from 135-160 AD, claimed to have special divine revelation. He advocated outward religious observances including fasting. This sect was the forerunner to ascetic Christianity that arose in the fourth century AD.
Teaching of Jesus
NAU Matthew 6:16 "Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 17 "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
Fasting seems to be permitted in Matthew 6. The author uses the same phrase “whenever (Ὅταν) you…” regarding giving to the poor vs 2, praying vs 5, and fasting vs 16. While “when you are praying” vs 7 and “when you fast” vs 17 are both present participles.
“Whenever you fast” of vs 16 (νηστεύητε) is a subjunctive indicating the possibility of fasting - “but if you are fasting and you probably are” (see Machen para 283-88). It is almost like a third class condition of probability. It is followed by the present participle “while fasting” in v 17.
Jesus does not forbid fasting nor does he require it. Rather he says that if a person chooses to fast he/she must do so privately without alerting others of his/her practice.
So, Jesus assumes that his followers might voluntarily fast. However, he admonishes them to avoid fasting with wrong motives like some of their contemporaries were doing. Apparently many were fasting privately but then appearing publicly with the trampings of fasting so others would know they had been fasting. If fasting is advertised then the practice is undoubtedly false piety rather than genuine spirituality. The motive is likely self promotion. Thus, Jesus calls these people hypocrites. The empty ritual described in Isaiah 58 comes to mind when reading Jesus’ sermon.
Matthew 9:14-15 (Mark 2:18-20; Luke 5:33-35)
NAU Matthew 9:14 Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" 15 And Jesus said to them, "The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
Jesus and his disciples were feasting at Matthew’s house while John the Baptist’s disciples were fasting. Thus, John’s disciples pose the “why” question to Jesus.
“Attendants of the bridegroom” refer to either those who assist the bridegroom in wedding preparation and arrangements, or to the guests at the wedding ( as ESV and NIV). This wedding language probably had pointed significance to the disciples of John the Baptist in that John apparently referred to himself as the “friend of the Bridegroom” (John 3:28-29).
In Jesus answer to John’s disciples he connects, if not equates, fasting with mourning. This fits the general tenor of the practice among the Jews.
Jesus says that there is no need for those close to Jesus (attendants or guests) to mourn while Jesus, the Bridegroom, is present. Rather, feasting or joy is appropriate.
The “days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them” likely refers to the cross and the initiation of the new covenant era. At the time of His crucifixion fasting would have been expected as a normal reaction by Christ’s followers.
Matthew 6 and 9 might be harmonized as follows: In 6:16-18 Jesus assumes his followers might wish to fast and admonishes them to do it properly. In 9:14-15 Jesus acknowledges that his followers are not currently fasting but that they might fast following his departure. So, chapter 6 looks to the future time when his followers might fast and chapter 9 identifies that time as the initiation of the new covenant.
Remember the question at hand is whether or not today’s Christian should practice intentional fasting for religious purposes. Fasting for non-religious reasons is not part of the discussion.
Jesus did expect that his followers might fast (Matthew 9). Why? Because they would be sorrowful and frustrated that he was no longer with them. As an expression of mourning because of his departure some of his followers might engage in fasting.
However, does this imply that life in the new covenant era is primarily one of mourning rather than joy? I think not. Indeed, Jesus’ presence was an occasion for joy (see John 3 above). Yet, the resurrection, appearances, ascension, prospect of His return, and giving of the Holy Spirit were also reasons for joy. The new covenant itself was grand and glorious news (Hebrews 8-10). Christians do not mourn Christ’s ascension and present session; they rather rejoice with great anticipation of what is to come.
What do we make of this? Perhaps we are informed by the following observations.
Jesus does not command fasting nor does He even recommend it.
The early church initially fasted in conjunction with major actions (Acts 13 and 14). However, fasting is not mentioned in connection with other subsequent actions, not even in conjunction with the critical decision regarding the core and practice of Christianity as related to Jewish rituals as recorded in Acts 15. Apparently fasting ceased to be part of Christian religious practice.
None of the letters to the churches even mention intentional fasting. Significantly, it is not mentioned in connection with spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6. Nor is it connected with life in the Spirit in Galatians 5.
The pastoral epistles direct and advise church leaders to engage in many practices and refrain from others, but fasting isn’t one of them.
Unlike praying, Christ followers are never admonished to fast nor are they rebuked for not fasting
Fasting is not described as an element of spiritual discipline nor as a means to get closer to God nor as a way to get time or money to engage in ministry.
It appears that fasting was specially connected with the old covenant. However, when the observance of the Day of Atonement ended, the requirement to fast ended.
On the other hand, the new covenant era is a time of great anticipation and joy. Fasting as an expected religious practice or personal spiritual discipline seems out of place.
Thus, fasting is not required or even expected as a part of corporate church life or individual spiritual life. Intentional fasting will not be a public religious practice of Christianity. Instead, some individual Christians might fast voluntarily but privately. And fasting will not be required nor viewed as a mark of spirituality nor a spiritual discipline. In fact, at best, individual intentional private fasting for spiritual purposes will be the exception not the norm.
Fasting was primarily associated with mourning. Intentional fasting was part of the old covenant religious practices but not part of the new covenant religious practices. Involuntary or unintentional fasting obviously occurs in both old and new eras.2
Jesus’ teaching and practice could be understood as follows:
The Jews prior to Jesus and in his day practiced religious fasting under the old covenant scheme. In Jesus’ day, his followers did not fast because Jesus was with them; his presence was a reason for joy or feasting, not fasting. However, when Jesus was crucified his followers might fast because his absence was a cause of mourning. But following Jesus resurrection, his presence was a cause for joy and thus fasting was not expected. Then following his ascension during the current era, even though Jesus is not physically present, the Holy Spirit is. Because this is great cause for joy, fasting is out of place. Throughout all of this but especially in the new covenant era, intentional individual fasting is not required nor is it forbidden but must be done with the right motive and must remain private. And public or corporate fasting is not part of the religious practice of Christians.
1 See the addendum for a listing of the words pertaining to fasting in the Bible.
2 Pastor Dennis Clark cites an intriguing possibility regarding fasting by today’s Christian. He suggests that fasting happens for Christians today unintentionally rather than intentionally. For instance, when deeply engaged in study or prayer or ministry, sometimes a Christian basically forgets to eat or eating becomes unimportant resulting in a missed meal or two. (As per interview with the author 5/3/2018)
Biblical References to Fasting
A. Old Testament Words and Occurrences
צוּם - Verb meaning to abstain from food or to “fast”. As noun meaning the act or state of abstaining from food or fasting (BDB 8071, 8072).
NAU 1 Samuel 7:6 They gathered to 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 sons of Israel at Mizpah.
NAU 1 Samuel 31:13 They took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.
NAU 2 Samuel 1:12 They mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and his son Jonathan and for the people of the LORD and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
NAU 2 Samuel 12:16 David therefore inquired of God for the child; and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground.
NAU 2 Samuel 12:21 Then his servants said to him, "What is this thing that you have done? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept; but when the child died, you arose and ate food."
NAU 2 Samuel 12:23 "But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me."
NAU 1 Kings 21:9 Now she wrote in the letters, saying, "Proclaim a fast and seat Naboth at the head of the people;
NAU 1 Kings 21:12 They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the people.
NAU 1 Kings 21:27 It came about when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently.
NAU 1 Chronicles 10:12 all the valiant men arose and took away the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons and brought them to Jabesh, and they buried their bones under the oak in Jabesh, and fasted seven days
NAU 2 Chronicles 20:3 Jehoshaphat was afraid and turned his attention to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.
NAU Ezra 8:21 Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.
NAU Ezra 8:23 So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty.
NAU Nehemiah 1:4 When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
NAU Nehemiah 9:1 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them.
NAU Judges 20:26 Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel and wept; thus they remained there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening. And they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.
NAU Esther 4:3 In each and every province where the command and decree of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing; and many lay on sackcloth and ashes.
NAU Esther 4:16 "Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
NAU Esther 9:31 to establish these days of Purim at their appointed times, just as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had established for them, and just as they had established for themselves and for their descendants with instructions for their times of fasting and their lamentations.
NAU Psalm 35:13 But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, And my prayer kept returning to my bosom.
NAU Psalm 69:10 When I wept in my soul with fasting, It became my reproach.
NAU Psalm 109:24 My knees are weak from fasting, And my flesh has grown lean, without fatness.
NAU Isaiah 58:3 'Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?' Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, And drive hard all your workers.
NAU Isaiah 58:4 "Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high
NAU Isaiah 58:5 "Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one's head like a reed And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?
NAU Isaiah 58:6 "Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke?
NAU Jeremiah 14:12 "When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them. Rather I am going to make an end of them by the sword, famine and pestilence.”
NAU Jeremiah 36:6 "So you go and read from the scroll which you have written at my dictation the words of the LORD to the people in the LORD'S house on a fast day. And also you shall read them to all the people of Judah who come from their cities.
NAU Jeremiah 36:9 Now in the fifth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, in the ninth month, all the people in Jerusalem and all the people who came from the cities of Judah to Jerusalem proclaimed a fast before the LORD.
NAU Daniel 9:3 So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.
NAU Joel 1:14 Consecrate a fast, Proclaim a solemn assembly; Gather the elders And all the inhabitants of the land To the house of the LORD your God, And cry out to the LORD.
NAU Joel 2:12 "Yet even now," declares the LORD, "Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
NAU Joel 2:15 Blow a trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly,
NAU Jonah 3:5 Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them.
NAU Zechariah 7:5 "Say to all the people of the land and to the priests, 'When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted?
NAU Zechariah 8:19 "Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'The fast of the fourth, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth months will become joy, gladness, and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah; so love truth and peace.’
The phrase “humble your souls” [תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם (Lev 16:29 WTT) from נֶפֶשׁ and ענה] probably implies fasting as in Lev 16:29, 31; 23:27,32; Num 29:7; Isa 35:13; Isa 58:3, 5; Ezek 8:21; Dan 10:12.
B. New Testament Words and Occurrences
νηστεύω - Verb meaning to go without food for religious purposes (Friberg 19024)
NAU Matthew 4:2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.
NAU Matthew 6:16 "Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
NAU Matthew 6:17 "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.
NAU Matthew 6:18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
NAU Matthew 9:14 Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?
NAU Matthew 9:15 And Jesus said to them, "The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast
NAU Mark 2:18 John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they came and said to Him, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?"
NAU Mark 2:19 And Jesus said to them, "While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.
NAU Mark 2:20 "But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
NAU Luke 5:33 And they said to Him, "The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same, but Yours eat and drink.”
NAU Luke 5:34 And Jesus said to them, "You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you
NAU Luke 5:35 "But the days will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days."
NAU Luke 18:12 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get
NAU Acts 13:2 While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
NAU Acts 13:3 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
νηστεία Noun meaning an abstention from food (Gingrich 132)
NAU Luke 2:37 and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers.
NAU Acts 14:23 When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
NAU Acts 27:9 When considerable time had passed and the voyage was now dangerous, since even the fast was already over, Paul began to admonish them,
NAU 2 Corinthians 6:5 in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger,
NAU 2 Corinthians 11:27 I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
νῆστις - Noun meaning not eating (A/S 302)
NAU Matthew 15:32 And Jesus called His disciples to Him, and said, "I feel compassion for the people, because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.”
NAU Mark 8:3 "If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come from a great distance.”
ἀσιτία - Noun meaning abstinence from food (A/S 64) or lack of appetite (Gingrich 28)
NAU Acts 27:21 When they had gone a long time without food, then Paul stood up in their midst and said, "Men, you ought to have followed my advice and not to have set sail from Crete and incurred this damage and loss.
ἄσιτος - Noun meaning without eating (A/S 64)
NAU Acts 27:33 Until the day was about to dawn, Paul was encouraging them all to take some food, saying, "Today is the fourteenth day that you have been constantly watching and going without eating, having taken nothing.