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
A. Fasting and mourning. 2 Sam. 1:12
B. Fasting for healing. 2 Sam. 12:16, 2 Sam. 12:21-23
C. Prayer for protection. Ezra 8:21-23
D. Remorse of the sins of the people. Ezra 9:2-5
E. Fear / distress. Esther 3:13, Esther 4:3
F. Prayer for important mission. Esther 4:16
As you can see, fasting normally accompanied a very serious and fervent prayer.
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
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. Joel 2:12-15
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.
A. Jesus fasted. Matt. 4:2
B. Jesus’ instructions on fasting. Matt. 6:16-18
Fasting cannot be a show.
Notice Jesus says “when you fast…”
C. Fasting is associated with mourning. Matt. 9:14-15
“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:
A. After realizing he was persecuting the Lord. Acts 9:8-9
B. Early church fasting, important decision, commission. Acts 13:2-3
C. Facing danger. Acts 14:19-23
Fasting itself is not commanded, 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.