The Biblical Meaning of Fasting

The Biblical Meaning of Fasting

Ramadan has just ended and so is the fasting period for Muslims. Fasting during the daylight hours of the Ramadan month is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and therefore considered to be of utmost importance for everyone who claims to be a real Muslim. You cannot be a Muslim if you do not fast during Ramadan.

The question that many Muslims ask is: Do Christians fast? The truth of the matter is, many Christians do fast. Although we find no explicit command in the New Testament for Christians to fast, there are indications that fasting was a normal practice in the Old Testament and even during the time of Jesus. So why do Christians fast if the Bible does not command them to? What is the biblical meaning of fasting?

Fasting Defined

The word fast in the Bible is from the Hebrew word sum, which means “to cover” the mouth or from the Greek word nesteu, meaning to abstain.”

Although fasting is generally defined as going without food and/or drink for at least a day or more, fasting in the biblical sense is a spiritual discipline that is defined as a voluntary abstinence from or the renunciation of anything that is in itself good, such as food and drinks, with the purpose of realigning one’s heart desires according to the will of God in their lives; it is also to intensify one’s expression of needs for something greater.

Fasting in the New Testament

First, let me just say that fasting does not have the same place in Christianity that it does in Islam. For a Muslim, not fasting during Ramadan jeopardizes his ability to be with Allah in paradise. In Christianity, fasting or not fasting has no bearing with one’s salvation, because salvation (or eternal life), is received by grace through faith alone in the Lord Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-9).

What does the Bible have to say about fasting? More importantly, what was Jesus’ stand with regards to fasting? In the New Testament, the first mention of fasting is in Luke 2:37 wherein a prophetess named Anna, the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, is said to have never left the temple. Instead, she stayed there day and night worshiping God with fasting and prayer.

 “And this woman (Anna) was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.” – Luke 2:37

In this instance, fasting is said to be one way of serving God. There is no indication whatsoever that Anna was required to do this. Her fasting and prayer seemed to have been prompted by a felt need. Perhaps, Anna was so burdened at the coming of the Messiah that she spontaneously devoted much of her time to fasting and prayer.

Jesus also fasted when He was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-4; Mark 1:12-13). For 40 days, while Jesus was under tumultuous attack by Satan and in the presence of wild beasts, He ate nothing (Luke 4:2). But was this a fast? Although Matthew used the word fasting, Luke didn’t.

Matthew used the aorist participle nhsteuvsa, (“had fasted” – Matthew 4:2), which accordingly is used throughout the New Testament to indicate “abstinence for religious purposes.” The indication in Matthew is that Jesus was engaged in a religious fast for 40 days; it was not just a mere exercise of self-denial.

Just like the prophets in the Old Testament did, Jesus fasted in times of intense spiritual needs. Therefore one can say with relative certainty that fasting was a key element in Jesus’ spiritual journey.

Jesus’ Teaching on Fasting

As I said earlier, fasting does not have the same place in Christianity the way it does in Islam. We find no explicit command to fast in the New Testament. However, there are indications that it was normal and that Jesus expected His disciples to fast.

In Matthew 6:16-17, Jesus says, “And when you fast,” not, “If you fast,” which seems to indicate that He expected His followers to be fasting. Jesus was not teaching on whether we should fast or not. He is assuming we will fast and is teaching us how to do it, and especially how not to do it.

“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.” – Matthew 6:16

This is even clearer when Jesus insisted in the passage that our fasting should not be for the sake of impressing other people. Instead, we should keep other people from knowing that we are fasting by washing our face and combing our hair. Jesus warns us of the spiritual danger of hypocritical fasting (Matthew 6:16).

Hypocritical Fasting

Hypocrisy is trying to look on the outside different from who you really are on the inside. Jesus calls them hypocrites because they decide to fast, but instead of concealing that they are fasting they made it plain that they are fasting. To appear humble and sorrowful, these hypocrites allowed their hair to become disheveled, poured ashes on their heads, and did not wash their faces.

Like prayer and alms giving, fasting was reduced to a hypocritical system. In response to all this hypocrisy, Jesus said, “They have their reward in full” (Matthew 6:16). In other words, Jesus is saying that if that is the reward you’re aiming at in fasting, that is what you will get and that will be all you get.

Proper Way of Fasting

What then is the kind of fasting that would meet God’s approval? In Matthew 6:27-18, Jesus tells His followers how He wants fasting to be done. They were to anoint their heads and wash their faces. In the Jewish culture, anointing one’s head and washing one’s face were reserved for joyous occasion; it’s not done for daily hygiene or cosmetic reasons.

Christians are taught to fast without drawing attention to themselves. When we are fasting, we must fix our hair and wash our face so people will not know that we are fasting. If you are really fasting for God then nobody else needs to know. Our goal is to be seen by God not man.

It’s easy to do religious things if other people are watching – praying, reading the Bible, going to church, etc. And when they see us doing all these, they may be inspired to do the same. So it’s not really all that bad.

“But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.  ” – Matthew 6:17

But fasting for Christians should be radically focused on God. Fasting means “a heart hunger for God.” The heart that motivates fasting is supposed to be a heart for God. In that sense, fasting is a great test and confirmation of God’s reality in the life of a Christian since in many situations God is the only one who knows you’re fasting.

If God is not real to you, it will be miserable to endure something as difficult as fasting when God is the only One who knows what you’re experiencing. But the last verse of the passage says, “Your Father who is in a secret place and who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:18). What could be the reward that Jesus promises from the Father? Whatever that is, we know that it will be for your joy and for His glory.

How Long Should You Fast?

There’s not a set length of time that makes Christian fasting acceptable. In Bible times, fasts generally last for a day (Judges 20:26). Occasionally, fasts lasted for 3 days (Esther 4:16) or even 7 days (1 Samuel 31:13). On three occasions, fasts lasted 40 days: when Moses received the 10 commandments (Exodus 34:28), when Elijah encountered God (1 Kings 19:8) and when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-4).

The duration of your fast depends on the Lord’s conviction. I believe that fasting is a covenant between the believer and God, and it doesn’t matter how long you will do it. What’s important is that you’re doing it with the right motives. You can go without food for 40 days for all the wrong reasons. On the other hand, you can skip a single meal or two, because you truly want to honor God.

Fasting in Secret?

Is Jesus saying that you have done wrong if people know you’re fasting? Not at all! What He’s saying is that it is wrong to fast for the purpose of impressing people. The issue here is your motive for fasting and not who knows about it or what they think about it. Are you doing it for God or for people?

We know from the book of Acts that fasting is a spiritual discipline which was practiced widely by the early church (Acts 13:2-3; Acts 14:23). We also know that communal fasting was practiced, that is, a group of Christians fasted together for a particular reason. The point here is that even if you’re fasting with other people you must keep your fasting a personal thing between you and God only. That way, your motives won’t be in question.

I don’t think it’s wrong for a Christian to tell someone that he or she is fasting, especially when they ask why he/she is not eating. However, it is important that this act of humility is done for God, not for others to know and see. Why are you fasting? What’s your motive? It’s important to guard our motives in fasting because the reason we fast will determine how it will affect our lives.

Conclusion

The Word of God does not specifically command believers to fast but prayer and fasting is definitely something that Christians should be doing. Why? Because Jesus expects us to do it. The purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off the things of this world in order to focus our thoughts on God.

While fasting is meant to be a private act between the believer and God and to draw us closer to God, at the same time it should ultimately lead us to feed those who are hungry, help the oppressed, give clothes to those who are in need and provide shelter for those who have none (Isaiah 58:6-7).


*Recommended Resource:

The Power of Prayer and Fasting – eBook By Ronnie W. Floyd

Publisher’s Description

The hand-in-hand spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting is not a gimmick or a spiritual fad, although its neglect in recent decades makes it a new discovery for many Christians. Instead, as author Ronnie Floyd explains, prayer and fasting is a Scripture-ordained act of obedience—a means of humbling ourselves before God, drawing closer to Him, and making room for Him to speak and act in our lives.
This newly revised and updated edition of The Power of Prayer and Fasting offers fascinating firsthand stories of the difference prayer and fasting has made in Floyd’s life and others, compelling explanations of how this discipline works in a Christian’s life, practical guidance for those who have never fasted before, and finally a stirring call to revival.

 

2 Replies to “The Biblical Meaning of Fasting”

  1. Hi Alice, I really liked your article for a couple reasons. Personally to me as a new christian, it defined the meaning of fasting for me. The other reasons were set out as below.

    1. You have a Great site layout

    2. You mention great fasting definitions twice in the text but they basically add up to foregoing things to try and be closer to God. I can understand that because in this day and age we are swamped by stuff in our everyday lives.

    3. Loved your pop ups over the scripture quotes !!

    Great work Alice :))

    1. Hi Billy, thanks for the great comment, to God be all the glory!

      Living here in Arabia for almost 8 years has made me appreciate the sacrifice that every Muslim does during the month of Ramadan. Imagine fasting for at least 16 hours everyday for one whole month in obedience to what their prophet and their holy book have mandated. If every Muslim, even as young as 7 or 8 years old and the aged among them, can hold their appetite for 16 hours daily, why can’t Christians we?

      On the other hand, I am thankful that fasting or any other good deeds, is not the basis for our salvation. Otherwise, nobody will be saved. But that it’s all based on the finished works of Christ on the cross. All we have to do is receive it by faith.

      But let me also say that good deeds are the fruits of a genuine faith. So even though there is no explicit command in the Bible for Christians to fast, we are encouraged to do so as a means to let God know that He alone is sufficient for us.

      Other than a means to cleanse our body from anything that’s not beneficial, fasting in the biblical sense helps us focus our thoughts on God so that we can hear clearly from God. Fasting also helps to strengthen us spiritually and helps us grow and mature as Christians.

      God bless!

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