This article is not meant to be an intensive study on the topic of fasting. It is meant to put into perspective some of the things attributed to fasting today.
In the beginning God told Adam to eat freely from all the fruit trees in the Garden except from one. There was no need to fast in the beginning. After Adam disobeyed fasting was done to show repentance and deny our flesh that can bring sin.
The Bible mentions fasting over 70 times. The practice of fasting is not taught in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of Moses) but in the historical books (2 Sam. 12:16; 1 Kings 21:9-12; Ezra 8:21) and the prophet’s writings (Isa. 58:3-5; Joel 11:14; 2:15; Zech. 8:19). There was no fasting when Israel was led out of Egypt into the Promised Land. The first time fasting is mentioned in Scripture is connected with Moses. In Chapter 34 of Exodus Moses did not eat for forty days and nights while He was on the mount with God receiving the 613 commandments. In Verse 30 we read: When Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone ... Moses came down from the mountain glowing on his face, but it wasn’t fasting that gave him the glory of the Lord, it was because he was in God’s presence that whole time.
Fasting was sometimes done as a sign of distress, grief, or repentance. Jehoshaphat called all of Israel to a fast when they were opposed by the Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chron. 20:3). National fasting was called during times of extreme crisis, such as a plague, a military threat (Judges 20:26-28) or the death of a king. Those about to return with Ezra from the Captivity fasted at the river of Ahava in the face of the dangers faced on the journey Ezra 8:21-23 “Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, “The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him.” So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer.”
Fasting was also sought to avert heavy catastrophe. Esther and the Jews of Shushan fasted when they heard of the destruction that was planned by Haman (Esther 4:3,16; 9:31). Esther decided to go on a fast for three days, abstaining from both “food and water” (Esther 4:15-16). A fast often lasted from sunrise until sunset, 2 Samuel 1:12. It could be a total or partial abstinence from food (Psalm 35:13). Daniel, Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego eat only vegetables and drank water (Daniel 1:15). Daniel 10:2-3: “In those days I, Daniel, was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled. This was not a fast from food. Daniel afflicted his body and limited his diet going without the normal delicacies of meat or wine for three weeks.
Fasting accompanied asking God to intervene: “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.” (Psalms 35:13). Even the city of Nineveh (who were gentiles) reacting to Jonah's preaching at the king's order fasted and put on sackcloth on both man and animals (Jonah 3:5). Fasts were appointed on occasions of great national calamity in order that the people might humble themselves before the Lord on account of their sins, and avert His wrath and have God give them favor (Judges 20:26; 1 Sam. 7:6; 2 Chron. 20:3; Joel 1:14; 2:12; Jer. 36:9; Ezra 8:21; Neh. 1:4). Jehoshaphat called for a fast in all Israel faced the Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chron 20:3).
Fasting was also connected to grieving-David fasted after hearing that Saul and Jonathan were dead (2 Sam. 1:12). Fasting accompanied mourning for the dead (1 Samuel 31:13.) David also fasted and prayed for seven days that his son by Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, would be spared (2 Sam.12:15-22), but God did not answer this prayer.
We read in Jeremiah 36:1-10 how the people did evil. God gave His word to Jeremiah. In the midst of their ways of evil, the king and people fasted. On that day Jeremiah ordered Baruch to read God’s word to them and fast, so they were to turn from their evil way.
After the law was established, the only time God required fasting was required was one day a year, on the Day of Atonement. It was a total fast with no food or drink from sunset to sunset on the tenth day of the seventh month (Yom Kippur) of the Hebrew calendar. Lev. 23:26-32 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. “And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God.” For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people.” And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. “You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.”It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath”(Leviticus 23:26-32).
This passage has fasting synonymous with “afflicting one's soul.” We gain some insight here about how the Hebrews viewed fasting as “afflicting one's soul.” The Mosaic Law prescribed this once a year fast - as “the day of fasting” (Jer. 36:6) on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) known as “the fast” (Acts 27:9). “It shall be a holy convocation for you” (Lev. 23:27-29.) The fast would last a single day where they would abstain from food of every kind from evening to evening. He who fasted was afflicting himself - his soul.
(Lev. 16:29-31; 23:27; Num. 30:13). A humbling (or affliction) of the soul before God is repentance and shame on account of one's sin, it is the sacrifice of ones personal will, which gives fasting its value. It breaks the normal activity of life. In the Old Testament sackcloth was put on ashes were scattered on the head or the rending of the garments (2 Sam. 13:19; 1 Kin. 21:27; Lam. 2:10; Jonah 3:5-8). It was a day of individual and national atonement. Today Judaism’s alternative to the method of atonement as instructed by Moses is the affliction of the body through fasting without an offering.
In private fasts ordinary food was allowed. When the fast lasted only a single day it was the practice to abstain from food of every kind from evening to evening, whereas in the case of private fasts of a more prolonged character it was merely the ordinary food that was abstained from. To manifest a still profounder humbling of the soul before God is repentance and mortification on account of one's sin and the punishment with which it had been visited. It was not unusual to put on sackcloth, rend the garments, and scatter ashes over the head (2 Sam. 13:19; 1 Kin. 21:27; 1 Macc. 3:47; Lam. 2:10; Jonah 3:5-8). In 1 Sam. 7:6 it is said that Israel “drew water and poured it out before the Lord, and fasted on that day.” To “pour out your heart like water” Lam. 2:19 seems to denote inward dissolution through pain and misery. In connection with the fast it would be a practical confession of misery and an act of deepest humiliation before the Lord. (from New Unger's Bible Dictionary)
There are also anniversary fast days observed from the time of the Jews captivity (The seventeenth day of the fourth month, Tammuz July). A fast was instituted in memory of the capture of Jerusalem (Jer. 52:6-7; Zech. 8:19). For the burning of the Temple (2 Kings 25:8-9; Zech. 7:3; 8:19), on the ninth day of the fifth month (Ab August). On the third of the seventh month (Tishri, October), in memory of the death of Gedaliah (Jer. 41:4; Zech. 7:5; 8:19). The tenth day of the tenth month (Tebeth, or January), in memory of the commencement of the attack on Jerusalem (2 Kin. 25:1; Jer. 52:4; Zech. 8:19). The fast of Esther is kept on the thirteenth of Adar (Esther 4:16).
God says, “When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by
you” (Jeremiah 29:13-14).
History shows us that with the growth of the Phariseeism fasts became normal pious exercises. The Pharisees fasted regularly on the second and fifth day of every week (Matt. 9:14; Luke 18:12). It is said because Moses supposedly ascended the mount on a Thursday for the second tablets of the law and returned on a Monday. Moses did not eat bread or drink water during the 40 days and 40 nights he was on Mount Sinai receiving the law from the Lord as he was engulfed in the shekinah glory (Ex. 34:28). Paul went without food and water for three days when he saw the glory of Jesus and heard the voice to repent and was converted “And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9).
The “Didache” which was a known as a early church manual- they had the disciple fast before they were baptized, but this can be considered a church tradition, it is not spoken of in the New Testament. We are not form a doctrine outside the Scripture and then use the Scriptures to support our doctrine. In the whole New Testament with all the commands from the apostles, there is not one that mentions fasting as a requirement for spirituality or for battling demonic forces as it is used today (Acts 13:3; 14:23; 2 Cor. 6:5).
Fasting is found in ascetic practices of other religions and is often used to physically cleanse and purify ones body (Col.2:20-21). New-Agers, who are usually vegetarian, do fasts to purify their spirit and body. Fasting does have a rejuvenation effect on the body. Nearly all animals instinctively fast when they are ill, when we fast our organs and glands get a much-needed rest. The body is able to concentrate on other things besides digestion. The Bible refers to “fasting” with spiritual goals in mind. In a general sense fasting can give us control over the weaknesses of our flesh we normally may not have. In a more specific sense fasting can help you concentrate on spiritual matters. We set aside our everyday activity to concentrate on the Lord.
[ed. Note: It is not recommended to fast long periods of time especially those who have conditions like hypoglycemia. Fasting can be a very uncomfortable experience. Some people some get “splitting” headaches; get very weak or dizzy. It can also change ones metabolism depending on how sensitive one is]
Going without food or water was not automatically effective in accomplishing the desires of those who fasted. In the prophet Isaiah's time, people complained that they had fasted and that God had not responded to their fast. In Is. 58:3-4 the prophet declared that their external show was useless. The fast that the Lord requires is to loose the bonds of wickedness, has action-undo the heavy burdens, feed the hungry, shelter the poor, and clothe the naked (Is. 58:5-7). It is obvious in the passage from Isaiah that the people did not fast because God asked them to. They found a particular pleasure in fasting. Jeremiah 14:12 shows God's attitude to their fasting without repentance, “Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burn offerings and grain offering, I will not accept them. I will destroy them with the sword, famine, and plague” (Jeremiah 14:12). Fasting does not guarantee to move the hand of God.
God questions the people’s motives by their fasting. Zech. 7:2-7: (also 8:6) “the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Chislev, when the people sent Sherezer, with Regem-Melech and his men, to the house of God, to pray before the LORD, and to ask the priests who were in the house of the LORD of hosts, and the prophets, saying, “Should I weep in the fifth month and fast as I have done for so many years?” Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying “Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: 'When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me-- for Me? 'When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves? 'Should you not have obeyed the words which the LORD proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?’”
When we come to the New Testament record one of the first activities we find is Anna in the Temple as she “served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37).
Right after Jesus was baptized He was led into the wilderness on a 40 day fast as a test to prove He was the Messiah. “And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry”(Matthew 4:2). Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights and then the Devil came to tempt him at his weakest point in the flesh but he was strong in the Spirit.
Besides Jesus, there were two others who fasted 40 days. Moses: “And he was there with The Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments” (Exodus 34:28). Elijah: “So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God. And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (I Kings 19:8-9)
John the Baptizer also led his disciples to fast (Mark 2:18) until the groom, the Messiah was revealed. Matthew 9:14-15 “Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” This answer was given more than once to different groups of people. The Pharisees often fasted. One day they and the scribes asked Jesus, “Why do the disciples of John fast often and make prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink?” And He said to them, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? “But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days”(Luke 5:33-35).
In a prediction of His own death on the cross (John 16:19,20, 22) Jesus said to his disciples, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me. I tell you the truth you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve but your grief will turn to joy. Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice and no one will take away your joy.” The cross was tragic but necessary. “A little while and you will no longer see me and again a little while and you will see me.” They would see Him after the resurrection. The cross gave them a time to weep and mourn, while the world rejoiced. In verses 22, 23 He clearly indicates his departing would be short. The resurrection brings comfort and joy- the joy of the Lord is our strength today. We fast now because when Jesus returns we will feast with him.
The Pharisees were accustomed to fast twice a week-Monday and Thursday. The church later appointed Wednesday and especially Friday as days of half-fasting or abstinence from flesh in commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus. In remembrance to the Lord's words, “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).
“By the second century the custom of fasts before Easter became ingrained, which, however, differed in length in different countries, being sometimes reduced to forty hours, sometimes extended to forty days or at least to several weeks. Perhaps equally ancient are the nocturnal fasts or vigils before the high festivals, suggested by the example of the Lord and the apostles. On special occasions the bishops appointed extraordinary fasts and applied the money saved to charitable purposes, a usage that often became a blessing to the poor.
By the sixth century fasting was made obligatory by the Second Council of Orleans (A.D. 541), which decreed that anyone neglecting to observe the stated time of abstinence should be treated as an offender. In the eighth century it was regarded as praiseworthy, and failure to observe subjected the offender to excommunication. In the Roman Catholic and Greek churches fasting remains obligatory, whereas in most Protestant churches it is merely recommended.” bibliography: J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture (1940), 3-4:11-12, 456-58; I. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 2 vols. in 1 (1967), 1:121-28 (from New Unger's Bible Dictionary)
It was the Pharisees that insisted on fasting to be justified with God. Jesus explained “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men-- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 'I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat 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 who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).
Our Lord firmly rebuked the Pharisees for their open hypocritical pretense in their fasts (Matthew 6:16-18). He did not appoint any fast as a requirement for living a spiritual life (Mt.9:14-15; 11:18-19). Here is what Jesus said about fasting. Matt 6:16-18: “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, “so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
Jesus did not require one to fast but said when you do, not to follow their example. Jesus is referring to these men as actors who wanted to have the look of intense dedication for God. The principle is not to parade what you do for God before men. Those who do this get no reward for their self- exaltation.
“Fasting”- is making a decision to go without food or drink. Your decision to fast is a personal matter- it is between you and God. It is not to be displayed for spiritual self-promotion. We are not to tell people when we are fasting or even look like we are. But how often do you hear people purposely say I’m fasting for this and that. The Lord said that when they fasted, their clothing should be the same as on other days. There should be no special clothing or colour. He also said we should not disfigure our faces as the hypocrites do. They were to anoint their heads! Their custom in times of mourning was not to anoint the head. Their whole system of fasting was wrong. Jesus did not replace it with another kind of fasting. He merely pointed out that it was unacceptable to God.
Do we need to fast to gain something from God? Will it give us a spiritual boost in grace?
2 Corinthians 1:20 states, “For in Him (Jesus Christ) every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes”. Verse 21 says that we are established in Christ. Every promise is ours. If God has given us every promise, by His grace, we do not need to fast to gain them. We need to apprehend them by knowledge, know His word and apply it.
Cornelius was an unbeliever, at the time of his vision he was fasting Acts 10:30 “So Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing”
We are told in Acts 10:2 he was a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. It wasn’t his fasting that moved the hand of God but it coupled with his desire to know more had the angel appear who said So to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4). In verse 31, the answer from heaven was “Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembers your gifts to the poor.” It was not because of fasting that he and the other Gentiles were called into the body of Christ.
So what about fasting today? Today there is an exaggerated importance of fasting in the church- sometimes the Lord can lead us to fast; but we cannot use the Old Testament as a pre-scripted promise in fasting for God to break the sin over cities and save nations. Fasting does not move the hand of God quicker or make demons weaker. There are those that believe by continued prayer and fasting around the clock they can alter the spiritual atmosphere - destroying the demonic strongholds in the air. Only then will revival break out city to city- nation to nation. The Bible gives no such solution.
There is no methodology of fasting that will lead us into victory, we do not need to dress in sackcloth, confess our own and our forefathers’ sins.
In two places in the New Testament epistles prayer and fasting were coupled for the setting aside of men called to be missionaries (Acts 13:2;13:26). The church in Antioch fasted Acts 13:2 and sent Paul and Barnabas out on the first missionary journey with fasting and prayer Acts 13:3. Paul and Barnabas prayed with fasting at the appointment of elders in the churches Acts 14:23. Paul suggested that husbands and wives might abstain from intimacy to give themselves to fasting and prayer when necessary (1 Cor.7:5-6), when they are in conflict. Paul instructs not to deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment.
The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”(Acts 2:42). Fasting is absent in the list of what they did as they gathered in the church. Obviously they (the apostles) did fast but not as requirement. Some believe fasting will give us victory in everything, that is the key to having the Holy Spirit move. We read in Acts 2 that the outpouring of the Spirit occurred while they were in prayer in the upper room without any fasting.
Old Testament Prophets were called without their fasting and all the apostles in the New Testament were called without fasting. There is no emphasis on eating or not eating. In Romans 14:17, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.”
What about Matthew 17:21, “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” The King James has used this verse but many consider it spurious, as an addition, as it is not found in many ancient manuscripts. Most English Bibles omit this verse in Matthew by placing it in brackets. (A footnote is given stating, “Many manuscripts do not contain this verse”). Jesus said it was because of their unbelief.
To fast would mean one would have to wait for days before they would engage in the deliverance. As in Mark 9:29 Thayer's says this is an inserted word added by the translators for better readability in the English. There is no actual word in the Greek text. - Jesus said to them, “This kind (demon) can come out by nothing but prayer” seems to be more conducive to the entire teaching of Jesus (Mt. 9:14-15; Mk.2:19 his disciples did not fast). Whether the concept to fast is in the text or not, we do know the disciples had a certain amount of authority given to them, but Jesus wanted them to pray to be more effective. Only this way can people to be released from certain types of violent demons. The emphasis is to pray to cast out this particular kind of demon. Jesus wanted them to ask Him, instead of rely on the certain amount of authority he gave the 12 and the 70.
You can pray without fasting, but fasting should always be accompanied with praying. Here are some of promises that back up the idea of prayer without fasting. James 5:16 says, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” It does not suggest or promise that by adding fasting it will make our prayers more powerful or receptive. “The prayer of faith shall save the sick” without fasting included. All through the New Testament we see the apostles instructing the church to pray, they pray for the people and pray for one another (James 5:16). Nowhere is fasting instructed to give them the edge in evangelism, or victory over demonic powers.
Israel will fast again just before the Day of the Lord - the Tribulation- Joel 1:14-15 Consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is at hand; it shall come as destruction from the Almighty.
Joel 2:11-12 “The LORD gives voice before His army, for His camp is very great; for strong is the One who executes His word. For the day of the LORD is great and very terrible; who can endure it? “Now, therefore,” says the LORD, “Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” V.15-16 Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and nursing babes; let the bridegroom go out from his chamber, and the bride from her dressing room.”
Everyone will probably fast at one point in there life. The Lord may lead one to fast at times but it is not on an equal basis with praying. Fasting denies the flesh and has one yield to the Spirit. Prayer and fasting is a spiritual discipline. Fasting, accompanied with prayer focuses the mind and heart to be devoted to the things of God, not on physical or earthly things. Seeking God is to be occupied with the word, prayer and doing His commands. There are times when one ceases from all other normal activities (working or eating) to be dedicated in prayer and the Word. The seeker will devote his whole time to “praying” or “reading the Word,” concentrating on the Lord despite ones body crying out for food. This results in our spirit being strengthened and having a renewed sense of direction and mission.