Tonight I want us to study fasting together. It’s a subject that doesn’t get discussed that often, and yet it is a very Biblical topic, both in the Old Testament and in the New. What is fasting? Why did people in the Bible do it? Should we fast today? These are some things I hope to cover tonight.
There are actually a ton of scriptures that refer to fasting—too many to include all of them in this lesson. But what I hope to do is use quite a few examples from the Old Testament to give us an accurate sense of when and why people fasted. Then we’ll look at what Jesus says about it. Finally, we’ll consider a couple of examples from Christians in Acts.
Let me first share with you the overall understanding I have arrived at from studying this, and then we’ll look at several examples so you can see what I mean.
Fasting is to refrain from eating. In some cases it meant to completely refrain from any food or drink, but often it seems to have referred mainly to food.
Fasting goes hand in hand with prayer. In fact, it seems the primary purpose of fasting is to have a fervent request heard by God.
Fasting is almost always associated with being in grief or distress. It accompanies a plea for mercy, help, rescue, or forgiveness. Many times the fasting person is also wearing sackcloth, a sign of mourning.
So these are some things to look for in these examples. Let’s consider some.
II. Old Testament Examples
Fasting and mourning:
2 Sam. 1:12 And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
Fasting for healing:
2 Sam. 12:16 David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground.
2 Sam. 12:21-23 Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
Prayer for protection
Ezra 8:21-23 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. 22 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.” 23 So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.
Grief over the people
Ezra 9:2-5 For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” 3 As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. 4 Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. 5 And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God,
Fear / distress
Esther 3:13 Letters were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.
Esther 4:3 And in every province, wherever the king's command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.
Prayer for important mission
Esther 4:16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”
As you can see, fasting normally accompanied a very serious and fervent prayer. Now we might wonder: was fasting helpful? Did God take note of it? It appears so.
Consider the example of Ahab:
1 Kings 21:20-21 Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. 21 Behold, I will bring disaster upon you. I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.
1 Kings 21:27-29 And when Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly. 28 And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 29 “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son's days I will bring the disaster upon his house.”
God noted how Ahab had humbled himself, and fasting was part of that. Imagine if Ahab had heard Elijah’s words of judgment and said, “oh, that’s terrible! I’ve been a horrible person. So…what’s for supper?” If he carried on as usual, it would imply that he was not really that remorseful. But the fasting and sackcloth and general demeanor showed that he was deeply affected.
Knowing what we do about human tendencies, it shouldn’t be surprising that fasting turned into an empty ritual. At which point, of course, it becomes meaningless.
Isa. 58:3-9 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. 4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
What God has always cared most about is true repentance from the heart. Any form of worship or reverence without this is not accepted.
But it is clear that fasting, when joined with a sincere heart in prayer, is seen by God.
Through Joel God called for a fast as part of true repentance:
Joel 2:12-15 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly;
Hopefully we’re getting a good sense of when people fasted and the fact that fasting was effective in communicating with God, but we may still be wondering: why? How does not eating have anything to do with prayer?
I found a helpful statement by David that sheds light on this.
Psa. 35:11-14 Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me of things that I do not know. 12 They repay me evil for good; my soul is bereft. 13 But I, when they were sick— I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. 14 I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother; as one who laments his mother, I bowed down in mourning.
David is saying his enemies were hateful toward him, but he was kind toward them, even praying for them when they were sick. But notice how he prayed. Three things are mentioned: clothing, fasting, posture.
Think of how each of these affects our mood. Do you feel different in your favorite pair of jeans compared to your work clothes? Or you church clothes compared to something you lie around the house in? Do you feel different when you get dressed up? To a certain extent, clothing has an effect on our mood.
Sackcloth is like burlap, a very rough, uncomfortable fabric. It would be the opposite of your lounging-around clothes, something to actually make you uncomfortable.
Posture: When someone stands and stretches you feel better. Body language tells a lot about what someone is feeling. And if we want to get into a humble frame of mind, we can bow or kneel or even prostrate ourselves.
Now think of how fasting fits with this. Think of how eating your favorite food lifts your mood. On the other hand, being hungry is an uncomfortable feeling. Like wearing sackcloth.
So fasting is a way of putting oneself in the right frame of mind to be serious and fervent in prayer.
Think of this another way. What does it say about Joseph’s brothers that right after they threw him in a pit, they sat down to eat? Or imagine this, you sit the family down to deliver some terrible news. And when you’re finished, one of the kids says, “what’s for supper?” Or you find out your child has done something really bad, and you confront them about it. He or she says, “I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” Then the next thing you know, they’re in the kitchen looking for a snack. What would you conclude?
On the other hand, how often have you realized that someone was bothered about something because they didn’t feel like eating, or barely touched their food?
The point is, there is a connection between being deeply troubled by something and eating. By fasting, not only are we showing that we are concerned or remorseful or grieving, it might also help us get into the right frame of mind.
III. Jesus’ teaching
Now let’s move to the New Testament to see what we can learn from Jesus about fasting.
Matt. 4:2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
Jesus’ instructions on fasting (context 6:1)
Matt. 6:16-18 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Fasting cannot be a show.
Luke 18:11-12 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
Notice Jesus says “when you fast…”
Fasting is associated with mourning
Matt. 9:14-15 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “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.
“then they will fast.” Fasting is not commanded anywhere that I can find in the NT, but it seems to have been expected.
IV. Church examples
There are three examples of the early Christians fasting in Acts:
After realizing he was persecuting the Lord:
Acts 9:8-9 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Early church fasting, important decision, commission
Acts 13:2-3 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
Acts 14:19-23 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
The principle behind fasting is taught in James 4:
Jam. 4:8-10 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
This attitude is what is most important. Fasting itself is not commanded, as I said earlier. But it was obviously a very common practice among people throughout the Bible, including Jesus and the early church.
Which should probably make us think: should I be fasting more?
Or maybe to put it another way, what benefit are we missing out on by not fasting?
Could our prayer lives be stronger?
As a recap, here are some situations when fasting would be appropriate:
- When you are mourning
- When someone, friend or enemy, is sick
- When you are repenting
- When you are facing danger or troubling times
- When making a very important decision
Basically any time that you are especially mindful of the need for God’s help, comfort, forgiveness, guidance, etc. Fasting will show that you take it seriously, and it will help you be earnest in prayer.