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I’m so glad you’re joining us today.
If you’re new to the show, I hope you’ll visit CelebrationOfGod.com to learn more about this discipleship experience. Our introductory episodes will help you better understand what we’re all about and how we hope to help you worship God better this year than you did last year. We also want to equip you to help the people in your life worship God better this year — they may be friends, family, fellow church members, or even strangers, but God wants to use you to mature them.
I also hope you’ll listen to the series we just finished up last week. It’s all about how we can be merciful as God is merciful.
The Year Long Celebration of God is part of the Evermind Ministries family along with Truth.Love.Family., Faithtree Biblical Counseling & Discipleship, and AMBrewster ministries. Evermind is dedicated to keeping God’s truth at the center of the human experience, and — once again — I’m honored to have you join us today to learn what the Bible has to say about fasting.
In order to assist you in learning this information we have free episode notes, transcripts, and fasting resources at CelebrationOfGod.com which is linked in the description of this episode.
And now let’s get started.
We’ve talked about fasting from time to time over the past three years. It’s an important concept — one that many modern Christians don’t understand let alone do.
So, today, my goal is to look at as much of the biblical data on the subject as possible as well as answer the questions “How can we use fasting to worship God?” and “Does the Bible command Christians to fast?”
Now, unlike the rest of our episodes, I’m leaning heavily on someone else’s notes today. Earlier this year my Sunday school class went through a number of Christian disciplines, and we had one full class dedicated to fasting. So, I asked the teacher if I could combine his notes with mine and present it on the show, and he was more than happy.
And the basis of this outline began with notes from Capital Hill Baptist Church’s Core Seminar.
And speaking of notes, today’s episode notes will be very full of Scripture passages. I likely won’t be able to read them all or even cite them all on the show, so make sure you download today’s notes so you have all of the relevant passages.
Okay, so let’s start with . . .
1. An Introduction to Fasting
A. Definitions of Fasting
The most inclusive definition used by many today is summed up well by Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones, “abstinence from anything that is legitimate in and of itself for some special spiritual purpose.”
This can include technology, sugar, and even sex — as we see in I Corinthians 7:5, “Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.”
However, there is a narrower definition of fasting that refers to “voluntary abstinence from physical nourishment — food and drink — for special spiritual purposes."
For the scope of this study, we’re going to deal only with this type of fasting. This is the type of fasting we see in the Scripture. And though you may be able to point to the I Corinthians 7:5 passage to reference a “sex fast” of sorts, it’s not actually called a fast, so we need to be careful assuming that all the other clear passages about fasting apply to activities and items other than food and drink.
And — obviously — we’re not talking about any kind of fasting done solely for health purposes. We will mention the health benefits of fasting on Part 3 of this series, but those are not our primary concern.
So, with that foundation laid, let’s look at . . .
B. Fasting in the Old Testament
One of the earliest commands for fasting comes as one of a number of expectations God had for observing the Day of Atonement. I’ll put a number of references in the show notes for you (Leviticus 16:29, 21, 23:27-32; Numbers 29:7), but after reading the passages you’ll probably notice that the English words “fast” and “fasting” don’t appear in the text.
I won’t take time to go into now — instead I’ll save it for a future talk on the Day of Atonement — but the Jews interpreted one key idea in those passages as a reference to fasting. Thankfully, though, we don’t have to rely on hearsay because in Acts 27:9 we learn about the fateful voyage of Paul where he was shipwrecked. Not only does the chronology line up around the Day of Atonement, but Paul specifically refers to the observance by referring to it as “the fast.”
And it will be helpful to recognize that this fast was expected of the Jews. It wasn’t optional.
Then, much later, after the Exile in Zechariah 8:19 we read of a number of national fasts that landed on the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months.
And then as we continue reading the Old Testament we’ll see some occasional fasts . . . some by individuals and some by a group of people. And I’ll include references to those as well (II Samuel 12:22; Judges 20:26).
But we don’t just learn about the times and frequencies of fasting, we also learn about much of the motivation for fasting.
Fasting often gave expression to grief (I Samuel 31:13; II Samuel 1:12, 3:35; Nehemiah 1:4; Esther 4:3; Psalm 35:13-14), penitence (I Samuel 7:6; I Kings 21:27; Nehemiah 9:1-2; Daniel 9:3-5; Jonah 3:5-8), and humility (Ezra 8:21; Psalm 69:10).
And fasting was often also directed towards securing the guidance and help of God (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9; II Samuel 12:16-23; II Chronicles 30:3-4; Ezra 8:21-23).
So, we see that some fasts were commanded by God, some were instituted by men, and most of them had a very God-ward focus.
Now let’s turn our attention to
C. Fasting in the New Testament
Let’s transition from the Old to the New by considering the Jewish Practice in the first century.
Obviously, they were still observing the Day of Atonement (Acts 27:9 [Leviticus 16:29-31, 23:27-29; Numbers 29:7]). But we also learn from Luke 18:11-12 and Matthew 9:14 that the pharisees fasted every week on Monday and Thursday.
And in Luke 2:36-37 we learn that Anna the prophetess, who prophesied over the infant Jesus at the Temple, had a habit of worshipping the Lord with fastings and prayers.
One of the most famous fasts in the Bible happened while Jesus was in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-4). And the fasting of Jesus’ disciples is assumed in Matthew 6:16-18.
We also learn in Acts that the leaders of the church fasted when choosing missionaries (Acts 13:2-3) and elders (Acts 14:23).
And Paul twice refers to fasting in some of his letters. (II Corinthians 6:5, 11:27 [Acts 9:9; I Corinthians 7:5]).
Now, with the exception of the Day of Atonement, many of the fasts weren’t necessarily expected from the church, but it was something we know they were doing.
Now, you may wonder what the significance of all of this is for modern Christians, but we’re going to save those thoughts until later in the episode.
Alright, so we’ve been briefly introduced to the instances of fasting in the Bible. Now let’s turn our attention to . . .
2. The Components of Fasting
As we work through all of the examples of fasting in the Bible, we can see that there are at least four components of fasting. Fasting is often described in terms of what is given up, who participates, the duration of the fast, and how often the fast is conducted.
Let’s consider . . .
A. The Degree of Abstinence
It’s fair to observe that an otherwise normal fast is abstinence from all food and drink. We see this in Esther 4:15-16; Ezekiel 10:6; Acts 9:8-9; and Deuteronomy 9:9.
An example of what may be considered a partial fast — which is a limiting of diet, but not complete abstention from food — may be found in Daniel 1:12. Of course, there are others who believe that the timing presented in this text had more to do with the duration of the test than the duration of the fast, but I think it’s fair to say that good men disagree on this point.
However, elongated fasts did not presuppose that the participants ceased drinking necessary water.
Now, let’s look at . . .
B. The Number of Participants in the Fast
Sometimes a fast was private. This is the kind of fast about which Jesus was talking in Matthew 6:16-18.
But there were also small group fasts. Acts 13:1-3 illustrates that we can fast with other Christians as a shared commitment
And then the last category could be called a congregational fast. This fast can be conducted by an entire congregation of God’s people. Esther 4:16 describes a fast of all the Jews in Susa. Nehemiah 9:1 describes a fast by the entire nation of Israel. And Joel 2:15-16 is a third example of a congregational fast.
C. The Lengths of the Fast
When it comes to how long the fasts lasts, it’s clear that there are many options because the New Testament doesn’t give any commands about length.
We learn about fasts that cover part of a day (Judges 20:26-28), one day (Jeremiah 36:6), three days (Esther 4:1, Acts 9:8-9), seven days (I Samuel 31:13), ten days (Daniel) twenty-one days (Daniel 10:2-3), and even the three different forty day fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus (Deuteronomy 9:9, I Kings 19:8, Matthew 4:1-2).
And finally, let’s consider . . .
D. The Frequency of Fasts
I believe there are three categories for this. The regular fast was on a repetitive schedule. The Day of Atonement is a good example of that (Leviticus 16:29-31). And the Pharisees in Luke 8:12 congratulated themselves for fasting twice every week.
Then there’s the occasional fast which appears to be motivated by a perceived need. Most of the fasting examples in Scripture seem to fall into this category.
And then there’s the continuous fast. Examples of this would include Samson, John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4), and the Nazarites who all abstained from various foods and beverages for long portions or the entirety of their lives.
Okay, so those are our definitions, examples, and facets of the fasting in the Bible.
So, now the main question on all of our minds is . . .
3. Should Christians Fast?
Now, in order to answer this question, I believe it’s really important for us to take a step back and consider the main truths the Bible teaches about food and drink in general.
Before I read one such passage, I want to encourage you to listen to episode 109, Celebrating God with Your Food. I’ll put a link in the description of today’s episode so you can easily find it. Fasting is an important way we celebrate God with our food, but it’s just one way.
Alright . . .
A. The New Testament sets divine expectations for our food and drink.
Let’s consider I Timothy 4:1-5, “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.”
This is an interesting place to start on the topic of fasting. Generally speaking, food and drink are part of God’s good creation and from which we are not meant to abstain if it is received with thanksgiving.
It seems that Paul is eager to warn against a kind of asceticism that exalts fasting in such a way that God’s goodness in the gift of food is overlooked or distorted.
This leads us to conclude that Christian fasting is not some form of asceticism. In Colossians 2:20-23, Paul warns against that kind of severe lifestyle. He says that it dishonors Christ by rejecting the sufficiency of His person and work.
I don’t often quote John Piper, but I like what he says concerning this passage: “This is a strong warning against any simplistic view of fasting that thinks it will automatically do a person spiritual good. It is not that simple. ‘Severe treatment of the body’ may only feed a person’s flesh with more self-reliance.”
In these texts as well as Romans 14:3-6 and I Corinthians 8 we see that fasting can be good or bad, beneficial or harmful.
And so now it is important to acknowledge that . . .
B. Fasting is nowhere commanded in the New Testament, yet it is abundantly clear in Scripture that Jesus assumed His followers would fast.
In one of Heath Lambert’s most recent episodes on his podcast, Marked by Grace, he deals with this very point. I’ll link the podcast in the description for you.
Nowhere in the Bible are New Testament Christians commanded to fast, but everywhere that fasting is discussed, it is assumed that New Testament Christians — Jews and Gentiles — would be fasting. And this is significant for two reasons.
Let me start with the negative.
First, Heath Lambert and I believe that God doesn’t command fasting because living in this fallen world sometimes requires people to eat.
Some of you have health issues that would make it dangerous to stop eating even for a portion of the day.
I believe Jesus recognized that modern individuals would have health issues not experienced by most in the New Testament times. And had He directly commanded that we had to fast, many of you would be in a conflict of conscious.
But it’s not commanded, and — likely — for this very reason.
However, second, the obvious assumption is that Christians will obviously fast. Let’s look at Matthew 6:16-18. In this passage, Jesus Himself gives us a negative command, a positive command, and a promise.
The negative command is that we should not look somber when we’re fasting — like we’re suffering as we fast.
The positive command is that no one should be able to tell by your appearance when you’re fasting. The only observer of your fast should be God.
And the promise is that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Now, please notice again that Jesus gives no specific command about when, how often, or how long we should fast. Just like all of our obedience, fasting is not to be a legalistic routine. Instead, it’s a privilege and an opportunity to seek God’s grace.
So, with all of this said, I argue that we should use fasting as much as possible as part of our worship of God. We’ll talk more about what this looks like practically in a couple of episodes, but — for now — the reality is that fasting is a powerful tool to use in our celebration of God. And the burden falls on us to know, understand, and utilize this glorious resource.
Therefore, I must warn that it’s hard to read the Scriptures and assume that God is perfectly pleased with us when we’re ignorant of what it means to fast and when we knowingly don’t do it even though we could.
But I also want to look at Matthew 9:14-17, “Then the disciples of John *came to Him, asking, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?’ 15 And Jesus said to them, ‘The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. 17 Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.’”
Who is the bridegroom? Jesus. When was He taken away from His disciples? When He ascended into Heaven.
After that time, the disciples would fast again. Of this observation, John Piper says: “It is true that Jesus has given the Holy Spirit in his absence, and that the Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of Jesus.’ So in a profound and wonderful sense Jesus is still with us . . . . Nevertheless, there is a greater degree of intimacy that we will enjoy with Christ in heaven when this age is over. So in another sense Christ is not with us, but away from us (II Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). In other words, in this age there is an ache inside every Christian that Jesus is not here as fully and intimately and as powerfully and as gloriously as we want Him to be. We hunger for so much more. That is why we fast.”
Now, there is still so much more to say about this. To be honest, knowledge and understanding are super important because they are the necessary foundation of living wisely, but without the wise application, God is not glorified by our mere knowledge and understanding. We need to be doers of the Word.
This means that we need to talk about practical ways we can take what we’ve learned about fasting and apply it to our Holiday and Everyday worship of the Lord.
And that’s exactly what the next two episodes are all about.
In the meantime, I encourage you to visit CelebrationOfGod.com and check out our podcast series page. There you will find this series along with a Fasting Bible Reading that includes a ton of passages concerning fasting.
I encourage you to do your own study. I believe an honest understanding of this subject will lead you to see the important part it can (and may need) to play in your obedience to God.
Please share this series on your favorite social media outlets, and don’t hesitate to reach out to Counselor@CelebrationOfGod.com if you have personal questions and struggles that need specific guidance.
And join us next time as we seek to better know, love, and worship God and help the people in our lives do the same.
To that end, we’ll be discussing Fasting and the Holidays.
The Year Long Celebration of God is a discipleship experience designed to equip followers of Christ to better know, love, and worship Him as they help others in their lives do the same. We exalt God, teach His people how to practically worship Him every day of the year, and train them to disciple others.
Whether it's a small group, church, classroom, one-on-one, or community relationship, this resource is guaranteed to draw people closer together as they draw closer to God.
AMBrewster is the creator of The Year Long Celebration of God and host of its podcast.