A Biblical Exploration of Fasting

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.

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.

Never.

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!

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17 thoughts on “A Biblical Exploration of Fasting

    • Well, that’s actually an easy one. Matthew 17:21 isn’t in the Bible.

      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.”

  1. Ah. Yes I just did a check. My favorite translation is NKJV which uses the same manuscripts as KJV. So NKJV NT is based on the textus receptus(or a flavor of it) . I grew up on KJV and then as an adult favored the NKJV. I think that your definition of a biblical fast is not mutual exclusive of asking God for a new direction. The ezra 8:21 that you quote in the KJV says : “to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance”. Perhaps some of the people you mentioned in your earlier posts use Bibles with OT books based on masoretic texts which would yield the term “right way”. And I wouldn’t be surprised if these fasting elders repent and are led by conviction to fast before decision making. Good post, I like how you went to the Word.

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  3. Hi, it’s Marie, I am so glad to see new postings, was growing concerned. Could please you and Mrs. pray for problems with my sight, esp. right eye, and right ear??? Balance problems are created it is awful it occurs in ”episodes” and because I had a fall in 11/2010 that is not fully resolved it also makes me very nervous. I am kind of embarrassed to put this for all to see but everyone you seem to know is a believer (as far as the column!!!) so I hope you are doing much recovery I Truly do. I am disabled anyway so these issues just put me over the edge. Thank you. Yes, I see a good ENT. As early as my 20’s was told right ear canal extra narrow. Then a test in 2009 proved the ear flat-lines (shuts down). +++

    I want to show Faith. Here is a Prayer for you and yours. Dear God In Your Son Lord Jesus Christ’s Name, Whose Power No Foe Can Withstand, I come boldly into Your Throneroom, asking for Your Mercy and Your Healing of Any and All Health Concerns for Mennoknight’s Family: his Mrs., his entire family, of course Mennoknight himself. Place Please Your Mighty Hand Upon All Areas of Their Lives Requiring Your Intervention and Healing, no matter what those Areas may be for All is known unto You The One Yet The Trinity, The Alpha Yet The Omega, First and Last, Giver of Free Will, Blamed by the Foolish without knowledge for Your Kindness in Creating People not Puppets, oh Most Loving God, in Your Son’s Name, Please You have Done so Many Mighty Works in their lives and in my own, Let Us Forcefully Recall Your Mercies Upon Us and Renew Our Faith and Thank You for Your Healing of All Illnesses and Any Other Problems, In Your Word We Believe and in spite of human frailty on my part, please forgive me and love me and Thank You for Listening and Acting Immediately, You Know I Respect You and Fear Boldly coming to You In This Manner, yet Your Word says I Have the Right to do so, Your Loving yet imperfect human, Marie. Thank You, Send, Amen. +++ ❤ ❤ ❤

  4. Alright, I have managed to read the column and comments. I once knew a young boy around age 19, he was convinced of the ”Power Of Fasting” and was fanatical about it. He would talk of The Word constantly as he was doing the necessary repairs (he was the son of the then current maintenance engineer at the complex). He was always speaking of esp.visiting his father’s property in an isolated area of Wisconsin, known for it’s beauty. Esp. there, he would fast and describe actually a delerious (msp?) sort of feeling and stated repeatedly he ”did it because that is what his church taught and to honour God” he would not even ask if one was a believer although he knew I was though, yet all I could see in his description was a young man suffering from very low blood sugar and involved with a sect rather than a ”religion”.

    Given I had never given serious thought to fasting, after reading your column, I have known people who drank juices only and called it fasting, people who ate only one meal a day and called it fasting, and a few like the young man described above, no eating at all: for days at a time. Or drinking.

    Now that I have read your column, I realize my belief had always been ”fasting” as associated with life-and-death situations, as is pointed out in the Scripture References you provide. This belief, in my case, I now understand just came to me naturally from the account of Christ in the Garden of Gesthemane for the 40 days and nights, showing His humanity conflicting with His Son of God Side, His human side so confronted with the torture to come He sweat actual tears of blood, asking, asking, asking, struggling, struggling, struggling. Those same intrinsic factors are reflected in the majority of the verses you brought to us: life and death situations.

    Except for Anna, and it was very unusual, or so I thought (?) for a woman to be so honoured at that time in history as to be part of the Temple.

    I must say the truth: the only times I recall ”fasting” had nothing whatsoever to do with Him or life and death it was merely to meet society’s expectations as a method to break a weight plateau. What a disgusting reason to fast in view of the examples you have given.

    We really do serve (in my case I guess I should say ”attempt to serve”) a Most Forgiving God.

    Thank you Mennoknight for a very special column and making the brain cells find out I had a belief without even knowing why I had the belief. +++

  5. Thankyou! I’ve been trying to figure this out for the past few years too. I’ve been a part of ministries/ churches and read books that run the spectrum…. from mandatory monthly staff fasting day to coerce God’s blessing (money) by showing impressing him with our piety….to completely ignoring the topic…to making it about healthy lifestyle/ diet/ and “spiritual formation”. I’ve really only ventured into fasting in the last few years out of complete brokenness (and knowing we were completely dependent on the mighty hand of God moving)….life saving, soul saving, deliverance in a couple different circumstances. God moved in a completely mind blowing, red sea parting, miraculous way in both!..much to our surprise. The most recent was after seeing the condition of our newest adopted son confined to a small crib in what could be compared to a Nazi concentration camp in a foreign institution. His condition had deteriorated SO much since the pictures we had seen of him a year earlier in a different orphan home. His paperwork had also become “stuck” in a foreign gov’t office for no apparent reason at all for several months with an official refusing to sign. We were up against impossible odds. We were helpless…and our son was dying…”Pharoah” refused to release him…and we knew our God was stronger than all of it. We wept, prayed, and spent 3 days fasting….within that same week the papers were released and our son was released into a loving Christian foster home to wait for us and something totally amazing happened on our end of the paperwork too. It was crazy! But it had nothing to do with any power we had, or any technique or trick up our sleeve to coerce the hand of God….he just compelled us to join into the battle for this child and watch in amazement as he accomplished exactly what he had already purposed to do. In that time of emptying myself I discovered a worship that comes in heartache….praising God for who He is regardless of what he chooses to do or not do on our behalf. Trusting he is sovereign in it all, and knowing he sees and knows and is working…even we we don’t see the big picture. For me it was engaging in the lament filled worship and coming before God completely empty handed.

    From examples in scripture I’ve read before it seems that periods of fasting also came before a big change/ a God sized deliverance/ or high stakes endeavor / ministry. I suspect God calls us into that fasting because of what he’s about to do…to have us engaged and prepared, more than it does any “releasing” of spiritual power.

    I have some experience…but “experience” can be deceptive without theological Biblical understanding as well! So THANKYOU for doing the brain work in that, and for a good overview on fasting.

    • Mennoknight I am very very ill would you please pray. I cannot fast. Have blood sugar problems. My email address is cvsk12@comcast.net yes i contacted nathan he was helpful: webcasts. i mostly bedboud. please pray. In Christ, marie

        • Dear Mennoknight, Thank you so very much for your Christianity. Thank you for the online sermon site. I will most definitely check http://www.gty.org and yes there is something else you could possibly choose to do for me from 2,000 miles away: I want to know about illness and Biblical perspectives. Tactfully I want to know the power of prayer in lives of people you have closely known with illness and the results you have seen. I wish no I pray I had someone committed to the Lord to discuss at least a few times the issue of illness with from a Biblical perspective who have gone through it and are going through the many aspects of illness yet are Believers. haha That is not a lot to ask is it. In Christ, Marie
          p.s. I called myself “Inspector Clue So-So” before ever coming across your great blog, discovered through an amazon review you had written. Thought you would get a chuckle out of my self-imposed nick-name.
          Your message means so much thank you for being a True Christian. Marie +++

  6. It is good to see someone with a sober view of fasting in a world with so many misconceptions. I do see Jesus saying in Matthew 6:16 “when you fast” –>> which is perfectly a part of your conclusion, but I do see some room for it to imply that fasting could be a regular part of a Christian’s life.

    The other thing I noticed about fasting when I did this same study, and you made a passing comment about this in the post, is that Biblical fasting was never ‘just not eating ice cream for a month,’ etc., it always entailed not eating. Indulge as I share a fun story.

    In 2012, I was at a conference and I went to lunch with a small group of people. One man was telling us about his 3 unsaved adult children. A woman in the car encouraged him to keep praying for them and to fast for them. She then told us how she and her friend had fasted for an entire month while praying for her friend’s husband to be saved. “Boy, were we happy when he finally accepted the Lord,” she told us. “I bet you were!” I said, “You must have been STARVING after not eating for a month!.”

    “Oh, we just skipped breakfast,” was her reply. Maybe God is not as hard to manipulate as some of us believe. ;-p

  7. Thank you for your insightful words on fasting. Unfortunately you did not cover every subject in the bible concerning fasting. There was a devil (dumb and deaf spirit) that vexed a young boy. This devil could not be cast out by the disciples. Jesus cast the devil out and then told the disciples, there unbelief was the reason. He then gave the way to approach this specific type of demon through “prayer and fasting.” Therefore, fasting is also a means of bringing the body into subjection, and releasing the faith and power for specific situations. Jesus walked in “the power of the spirit” after he fasted 40 days.

    • Unfortunately you didn’t read the comment thread. I dealt with Matthew 17:21 there.

      Seeing that Matt. 17:21 isn’t canonical text, it seems that your claims about “bringing the body into subjection” and “releasing the faith and power” are unfounded.

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