“When exercised with a pure heart and a right motive, fasting may provide us with a key to unlock doors where other keys have failed; a window opening up new horizons in the unseen world; spiritual weapons of God’s providing, ‘mighty…to the pulling down of strongholds.’” —Arthur Wallis
Old and New Testament Practice
Fasting from food for spiritual benefit was taught and observed by both Old and New Testament saints. Men and women of spiritual renown throughout history have fasted. This list includes Moses the lawgiver, David the king, Elijah the prophet, Esther the queen, Daniel the seer, Anna the prophetess, Jesus the Son of God, and Paul the apostle. Fasting is an avenue of clearing the mind and spirit in humility before God, and it opens the door to a deeper spiritual connection with the Lord. There is no true spiritual benefit to fasting when it is a mere physical observance. Historically, fasting for many people became nothing more than an outward act of piety. Ascetic practices alone have never drawn mankind into a closer relationship with God. In all areas of spiritual devotion, outward manifestations and observances are only as strong as the inward spirit which seeks to please the Lord in humility and holiness. John Wesley said, “Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason, and others have utterly disregarded it.” There is a biblical practice of fasting that is of great benefit to God’s children still today.
The term “fasting” has taken on different meanings and many have applied the term to any act of self-denial or physical deprivation. While Christians should be moderate and exercise self-control, the Bible word for “fasting” refers specifically to abstaining from food. It is important that we neither add to nor take away from the simplicity of this meaning.
A Sign of Mourning
Fasting was used as a sign of mourning, distress, and grief. When King Saul died, upon receiving the news, David fasted until even (2 Samuel 1:11-12) and others fasted for seven days in mourning and respect (1 Chronicles 10:11-12).
Mosaic Fast for Atonement
Under the Mosaic law, a one day fast on the “Day of Atonement” was the only regular, public fast that was commanded by God. “There shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls…. And ye shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement” (Leviticus 23:26-32). “To afflict your souls” was understood as fasting from food. It was reflective of mourning and humility of spirit before God. David “chastened his soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10). On the Day of Atonement, fasting was accompanied by offerings and it was to be a day without work. The Jews of the New Testament continued to observe this fast (Acts 27:9).
Four Annual Jewish Fasts
In addition to a day of fasting when the words of the Lord were read (Jeremiah 36:6), there were four annual fasts that the Jews publicly observed to commemorate the four main events of the destruction of Jerusalem (Zechariah 8:19). Other than these set fasts, fasting in the Old Testament was private unless a specific need arose where a public fast was called. The occasions of the Old Testament fasts give insight to the power and purpose of fasting today.
The first recorded public fast as a religious ceremony is recorded in Judges 20:26. The children of Israel were in a time of war and came to the house of God and “wept, and sat there before the LORD, and fasted that day until even.” God intervened in their behalf and gave them the victory. Similarly, when overwhelmed, Jehoshaphat cried out to God when Judah was invaded. He “proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” and the people came to seek God and ask for His divine help (2 Chronicles 20:2-7). In response to their heartfelt petition, God responded: “Be not afraid nor dismayed by reason of this great multitude; for the battle is not yours, but God’s…. stand ye still, and see the salvation of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 20:15-18).
Power of Petition
The power of petition through fasting is observed again when the Jews in Babylon were threatened with a decree of death. Queen Esther instructed the Jews to gather and “fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day” (Esther 4:16-17). God honored the fast and granted clemency to His people. Ezra and the exiles on their way back to Jerusalem were faced with a dangerous journey. Rather than ask the king for a military escort, Ezra said, “we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was intreated of us” (Ezra 8:21-23). God proved again His regard for fasting and prayer.
King David had a pattern of personal fasting. He humbled his soul with fasting (Psalms 35:11-13) to more fervently seek God in prayer. After his sin with Bathsheba, their son was sick unto death. “While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept….But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast?” (2 Samuel 12:15-23).
Fast of Repentance
Fasting was often tied with seeking repentance from God. Moses fasted forty days and nights for the sin of the people (Deuteronomy 9:18). God spared Ahab from pronounced judgment when he repented and humbled his heart in fasting (1 Kings 21:27-29). The people of Nineveh believed God’s judgments as proclaimed by Jonah and they fasted (with even their animals) and sought God to change His mind. God honored their fasting and repentance and turned His anger from them (Jonah 3:5-10).
Daniel set his face before the Lord “to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting” (Daniel 9:3). He devoted himself to imploring God for mercy because of the sin of his people. It was during this time of fasting that the angel Gabriel appeared to Daniel and gave him wonderful prophecies and understanding of the coming Messiah (v21-23).
Fasting, while rarely commanded by God in the Old Testament, was successfully used by God’s people in time of trouble and need. They fasted for forgiveness from sin, when loved ones were sick, and for deliverance from their enemies. They fasted in humility and contrition of spirit before God to seek His divine help, favor, and intervention.
New Testament Examples
While the Pharisees turned fasts into spiritual bondage, there were those who continued to fast with a spirit to glorify God. Prior to Christ’s ministry, Anna, a prophetess, “departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:36-37).
In preparation for ministry, Jesus was “led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred” (Matthew 4:1-3). It is noteworthy that Moses fasted forty days before receiving the law from God. Elijah, representing the prophets, fasted for forty days; and now Christ, the author of the New Covenant, also fasted for forty days. While this is the only record of Christ fasting, Jesus left an example of denying Himself of physical food to more deeply drink of the spiritual cup of ministry that was set before Him. Christ was fortified and equipped for battle, even in temptation, through His time of fasting and supplication to God.
Tacitly Instructed by Christ
While fasting was never commanded in the New Testament, it was tacitly instructed by Christ and confirmed through the practice of the apostles and early morning church. Jesus said, “Moreover when ye fast…” (Matthew 6:16). Jesus did not say, “If you fast.” He knew that His audience was cognizant of the practice and importance of fasting. It was understood that fasting was part of the life of a devoted servant of God.
The disciples of John the Baptist came and inquired of Jesus: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?” (Matthew 9:14). Jesus responded, “The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast” (v15). The disciples clearly did not fast as frequently as some of the other Jews and it raised questions in people’s minds. While various teachings have arisen from this passage, in its simplicity, Jesus was not bound to any law or observance of fasting. As long as Jesus was with His disciples, they did not have the need to enter into the physical observance, for they were in the presence of the King; but, after Jesus went back to the Father, “then shall they fast.” After Jesus ascended, there is record in deed that the church fasted as part of their devotion in seeking God.
For Divine Power
At one point, the disciples failed to cast a devil out of a child. Jesus instructed them on the importance of faith and further said, “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:17-29). Based on previous scripture, at this time the disciples did not have a pattern of fasting and yet they cast out evil spirits and healed various diseases. Jesus was emphasizing the importance and value of faith. He took this as a teaching moment, most probably pointing forward to when He would be absent in the flesh. The level of faith that was necessary to have this kind of power would only be attained though a deeper spiritual connection with God obtained through fasting and prayer.
After Jesus was revealed to Saul on the road to Damascus and Saul was commissioned to take the gospel to the Gentiles, Saul fasted for three days (Acts 9:9). This again was a time of preparation for ministry and for the divine anointing of God on a life. The apostle Paul proved himself as a minister of God with much fasting (2 Corinthians 6:4-10). He laid aside the temporal and physical things of life to dedicate himself fully to seeking God for power and anointing.
Early Church Seeks Guidance
As the church at Antioch worshipped the Lord “and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:2-3). Here is an example of the early church fasting and praying. It was then that the Holy Spirit gave a divine call for service. With more fasting and praying, hands were laid on these men for divine unction. The Galatian churches ordained elders with fasting and prayers (Acts 14:23). Oh that men of God today would have the same burden and seriousness about the call of God. Their fasting reflected the soberness and sincerity of neediness for direction and guidance from the Holy Spirit. If the church today wants the power and anointing in the gifting of old, it is going to take the same dedicated sincerity in seeking the Holy Spirit.
Fasting was not relegated to the Old Testament alone but was practiced by the New Testament church. While never intended to be a bondage or an indication of spirituality because of an ascetic practice, fasting is a part of the devoted life. Fasting is a personal decision that should be motivated by the Spirit of God in recognition of our desperate need of God working in our lives. There are times of public fasting as in days of old when there is a common need. When God’s people join together in prayer and fasting in collective humility before God, Satan trembles. Fasting is a time to focus the mind and body on the things of God and deny the flesh that the focus can be on the spirit.
Fasting is not a means of twisting God’s arm nor is it a hunger strike to force God. Fasting is an expression of sincere desire and purpose. It can be an indication of humility and an occasion of seeking for God’s power. It can be an opportunity of great spiritual growth and a time for the Spirit of God to manifest Himself in guidance and anointing as in no other forum.
Purity of Motive Required
Fasting is only valuable when it is done in obedience with an open and honest heart. God reproved the children of Israel in Isaiah 58:3-6 for fasting with the wrong spirit. “Wherefore have we fasted?” they asked. They fasted and still God did not answer. God told them that they fasted for “strife and debate.” They were fasting carnally and were seeking their own desires and wishes. They were not submitted and humbled before the Lord. God did not accept the fast of which they partook. It is vital that our fasting is not done to get our own fleshly way or after our own designs. Fasting is to be a time of reflection and honesty. God will not honor the fast that is ritualistic and after the pattern of man. God asked another question in Zechariah 7:5-7. “When ye fasted…did ye at all fast unto me, even to me?” The people were fasting and yet were living in disobedience. It was hypocritical worship just as it is today when people fast and yet are not obeying God in other areas of life. This is the self-righteous fasting of the Pharisees.
“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” (Matthew 6:16-18).
A Personal Experience
Fasting is an intensely personal experience whether practiced individually or collectively. With the right spirit and with temperance regarding our body as the temple of God, fasting and prayer is valuable as exemplified by both Old and New Testament. If God’s people sought the Lord with greater fervency and consistency in fasting and prayer, is it possible that the power of God would be manifested in a greater way? Are there failures that could be turned to victories? Are there more sicknesses that could be healed? Are there more questions that would be answered? Would there be greater signs and a greater outpouring of God’s anointing?
“Turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning…turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness” (Joel 2:12-13).
The bridegroom is no longer here in the flesh, and it is time for His disciples to fast! ■