Fasting in the Bible

Scripture Reading

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.

Matt. 6:16-18

A Word of Caution

Important Disclaimer Message – this week’s Bible Study deals with the subject of fasting in the Bible which typically involves the abstinence of food for a certain period of time. Under no circumstances should anyone fast without first obtaining professional medical consultation, advice and guidance from a qualified and certified physician to ensure there are no underlying and/or prevailing mental and/or physical health conditions that may/could/will be seriously and adversely affected. Moreover, this study only provides a brief synopsis on fasting as recorded in scripture and does not in any way serve as professional medical or psychological counseling. Please refer to the general disclaimer information under the About Us section of this website. Fainting from fasting, being only one possible side effect, is a very real and dangerous side effect that may affect some people more than others. This was even noted by Jesus in scripture, as he said to his disciples, “And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far.” [Mark 8:3] Consider also how the Psalmist made note of this as he wrote, “My knees are weak through fasting.” [Ps. 109:24a]

Scriptural Interpretation

Since one of the objectives in these Bible studies is to let scripture interpret scripture, some caution is to be exercised over the subject of fasting in the Bible. This is not only for potential side effects as noted in the above disclaimer but it is also emphasized since very little is written on the subject of fasting in scripture. Further to this, there is even less information, instruction and guidance on fasting in the New Testament. It is nevertheless mentioned early on in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 10:30, 14:23, 27:33) and also in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 7:5) but in a sense this does not provide substantial content.

:and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

Matt. 6:18

Old Testament Fasting

With that said, let’s first have a look at when fasting was first noted though in the Old Testament. This follows after King David lost his son and then proceeded with a period of fasting, “Then said his servants unto him, What thing [is] this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, [while it was] alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread. And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell [whether] GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?” [2 Sam. 12:21-22] This noteworthy text records the fasting and often associated weeping or mourning from David in repentance and petition for the Lord to spare his judgment upon him for his immoral behavior with Bathsheba.

Several other Old Testament references are made on fasting as examples, with most of them serving as times and opportunities for acts of contrition and supplication before the Lord. These are noted for reference –  [i.e. 1 Kings 21:9,12, 2 Chron. 20:3, Ezra 8:21, Est. 4:3,16, Joel 1:14, 2:15, Is. 58] It is important though to have fuller context on the subject of fasting in scripture since it should not simply be viewed as a time to go hungry in a grin and bear it approach. It isn’t actually so much about the food, it is more about bringing a fleshly appetite(s) into subjection, thus creating less of an impediment to growing closer to God and seeking his will for your life.

As a case in point, this was illustrated in the book of Joel when the Lord spoke to the Israelites, “Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye [even] to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he [is] gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.” [Joel 2:12-13]  A custom no longer practiced, the rending or tearing of garments was an act performed under certain circumstances ranging from conviction over sin to the hearing of blasphemy before the Lord. It typically marked a dramatic experience over something as evidenced by the very action.

The compelling point the Lord is making here is the figurative rending of your heart versus what likely became more for show with the rending of garments. As mentioned in the last study on the importance of prayer, the Lord is similarly seeking the hearts of believers and not simply an outward act of something like the tearing of their garments. Therefore, the rending of one’s heart could be marked by signs of contrition and repentance over sin, mourning, humility, meekness, or being poor in spirit.

Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye [even] to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:

Joel 2:12

Breakthrough Fasting

Time does not permit a complete and in-depth review on the importance of fasting in life, but readers are encouraged to consider reading Isaiah chapter 58. This passage of scripture provides a most interesting illustration of fasting and turning to the Lord. During the midst of the Lord’s plea in this chapter an excellent verse is excerpted here to illustrate the potential spiritual breakthroughs from fasting as part of a comprehensive faith filled life, “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. 58:6]

A similar instance of spiritual breakthrough from both prayer and fasting is recorded from Jesus, “And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could not we cast him out? And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.” [Mark 9:28-29]  This however should not give any implication that fasting simply equates to spiritual breakthroughs, rather these were examples as the Lord deemed in his grace and mercy at certain times.

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. 58:6

Falsity in Fasting

Jesus provided another example of fasting in reference to coming before the Lord in humility, conviction of sin and seeking God with your heart as he shared the following parable with his disciples,

“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 every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

[Luke 18:10-14]

This example creates a compelling case for people desiring to grow closer to God, realizing that merely going through the motions of religious formalities, including fasting, is not the desire that God seeks from us. Nevertheless, there is evidence of sincerity in fasting that prevailed with the early disciples in tandem with prayer after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” [Acts 14:23]

New Testament Fasting

Lastly, it would be remiss to provide a Bible study on fasting without noting the most remarkable example of fasting from the New Testament. This was when Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil, which then follows, “And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.” [Matt. 4:2] This clearly had divine intervention taking place but underscores the importance of fasting in life during incredibly spiritually challenging times. Jesus then refuted numerous temptations from the devil after having fasted for such an extensive period of time.

To summarize and to close off this study on the subject of fasting in the Bible it is very important to remember when scripture provides limited information, one is cautioned to tread carefully and not to draw conclusions, or build assumptions from a few and often obscure examples of fasting. Scripture does not prescribe any such guidance on recommended frequency for fasting, length of time for fasting and readers are highly cautioned in this regard.

I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.

Psalm 35:13b

What does stand out from the limited examples on fasting in the Bible is the prevalence of humility in heart and soul that tends to coincide with this practice as further illustrated, “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.” [Ps. 35:13]  Another illustration of this humility and at times with a strong sense of mourning within one’s spirit is also shared by the Psalmist, “When I wept, [and chastened] my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach.” {Ps. 69:10] 

Readers are therefore encouraged to pray for spiritual guidance over the very notion of fasting, to explore the subject further through other resources and to heed the important message and disclaimer as noted above to ensure this practice safely conforms with their health and mental well being before even considering the introduction of it in their life. The New Testament writers are surprisingly quite silent on fasting and well advised conclusions should therefore be drawn from such silence.

Bible Study Questions

  1. Fasting in the Bible covers a subject that has limited reference in scripture, true or false?
  2. In the section Old Testament Fasting, did David’s fast result in the outcome he desired?
  3. Why do you think other characteristics such as weeping, mourning and remorse are associated with fasting?
  4. In the section Godly Fasting, learn what the disciples were trying to cast out of the man. Hint – Mark 9:17
  5. In the section Falsity in Fasting, why was fasting by the Pharisee not recognized by God?
  6. As the Son of God, why do you think Jesus fasted forty days and nights before his temptation in the wilderness?
  7. If one does not fast, what is something else they can do to draw closer to God in their faith walk? Hint – it starts with ‘p’ and is mentioned in Psalm 35:13.

WORD GUIDE – * (countenance – appearance, as of the face) * (divers – many people) * (contrition – sincere remorse) * (supplication – humble prayer) * (yoke – something used to join animals together, here used figuratively as a burden upon oneself) * (sackcloth – apparel worn during mourning) * ( bosom – archaic term for the heart or breast) * (chasten – to discipline) * (reproach – to find fault)

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