When You Fast
Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 12:22PM
Jeff Smith in Discipleship, Fellowship, Worship

Fasting is a complicated subject and one that is met both with a great deal of emotion on one side and almost complete apathy on the other. While it is clear that the early church practiced religious fasting, that custom is often swept aside as a holdover from its Jewish traditions. If the early church–both collectively and individually–practiced fasting, however, surely it is at least worth our consideration.



I. History of Fasting

A. Word Study

1. our English word for fasting comes from the Greek feminine noun Nesteia (nhsteiða, Strong’s #3521, pronounced nace-ti'-ah)


2. further back, the Hebrew lexicon carried with it a literal connotation of afflicting the soul or oneself

3. fasting, then, was naturally unpleasant, but done either through a state of natural grief or as a sacrifice before God whom the fasting person hoped would provide some blessing or relief

a. it is not fasting to refrain from eating while sleeping over night, even if the first meal of the day is called “breakfast,” nor is it fasting to eat little or less because of a nutritional diet or doctor’s orders

b. a religious fast is not a political statement or prisoner protest; it is about emptying oneself before God

c. fasting is not a matter of displaying one’s piety as a spectacle before others at all and that is what ruins the practice for many people today–both those who do it that way and others who might have been persuaded to fast but were turned off by the spectacle

4. fasts were usually for one day, sunup to sundown, and allowed water to be drunk; some fasts were as long as three or seven days (see First Samuel 14:24); Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted forty days (see Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9, First Kings 19:8, Luke 4:2)!


B. Law of Moses

1. only one fast was ordained by the Law of Moses on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-34)

a. afflicting oneself involved both prayer and fasting as an acknowledgement of sin and the need for mercy

b. work was strictly forbidden on what was considered “a Sabbath of solemn rest” (see Leviticus 23:26-32)

c. animal sacrifice, however, was also an important part of the ritual and you can imagine how the “pleasing aroma to the Lord” of cooking flesh would only heighten the hunger and sense of emptiness and sacrifice in the bodies and minds of the worshipers (see Numbers 28:26-31)

2. David wrote in the sixty-ninth psalm something that was quoted by Jesus as he cleansed the temple of its merchandisers, but the song continued, “When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach” (10).

3. and there is the warning to us not to reject fasting as a mere Hebrew custom or pattern of the modern sects, nor to make the object of reproach people who do fast religiously


C. Times of Distress

1. although a single day of fasting was imposed on the congregation of Israel, individuals often fasted on their own in times of great distress

a. when Israel contemplated war with Benjamin, “They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord” (Judges 19:26).

b. more memorably, David fasted while the child he conceived with Bathsheba lay ill (Second Samuel 12:16-23)

c. but the people did sometimes fast as a public memorial to people who had died, as when David proclaimed a fast following the deaths of King Saul and his son, Jonathan (see Second Samuel 1:12)

d. they fasted often to commemorate disasters that had befallen them or to seek to prevent impending threats against them–remember the Jews throughout Persia fasting as Queen Esther prepared to lobby on their behalf following the decree that Haman arranged to have them exterminated

2. fasting was a way the people tried to let God know that they understood their sorry position before him and that they were willing to empty themselves that he might fill them with mercy and blessing (Nehemiah 9:1-3)

3. the purpose for the fasting is evident–to afflict one’s soul, not as an act of asceticism or penance, but to humble one’s spirit and reconnect with God

a. we take food for granted when we have plenty of it and can easily forget where it came from and the effect of plenteous meals is that we can get filled up on our independence and self-reliance, forgetting how much we rely upon the Giver of every good gift

b. people who lived from seedtime to harvest did not have that luxury and it really isn’t one that we can afford either

c. fasting served to remind them of where they stood in relation to God


D. Ministry of Christ

1. Jesus began his ministry by fasting forty days in the wilderness, perhaps weakening his body while strengthening his soul to stare down the devil’s temptations

a. the adversary, however, exploited his hunger by challenging him to turn stones into bread, whereupon the Lord famously replied, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

b. when the temptations were ended, “behold, angels came and were ministering to him” and it is easy to imagine that he would hope they brought something to eat with them

2. Jesus and his little band of followers, however, were not known for fasting much at all (Luke 5:33-39)

a. John’s disciples fasted, especially as they waited for the forerunner’s work to reveal the savior; the Pharisees fasted, but not because they were afflicted with conscience, but because they enjoyed the admiration of the people who watched their show

b. Jesus says that his disciples would fast when the occasion called for spiritual affliction, not just to satisfy people’s conception of religious ritual


E. Early Church

1. the church at Antioch practiced fasting as part of their ministry preparation (Acts 13:1-3)

2. the churches in Galatia fasted in conjunction with the vital work of ordaining overseers in each church (Acts 14:21-23)

3. the apostle Paul fasted, perhaps by necessity as a hardship of ministry, but also taught its place in the lives of disciples, making it and prayer the only reasons for which a husband and wife might consent to forego conjugal relations for a while (see Second Corinthians 11:23-28, First Corinthians 7:5)


II. Should We Fast?

A. We Certainly May

1. there is sufficient evidence in the ministry of Christ and the work of the early church to prove that Christians certainly may fast but not as part of some required ritual like that which existed in the Day of Atonement

2. we might fast unconsciously when we are grieved by something, being unable to eat simply because our insides are all churned up with emotion already

3. some will fast as an act of pride or asceticism, afflicting the body with a nutritional hair shirt that serves more to inflate one’s ego than humble his spirit (Colossians 2:20-23)

4. fasting, especially when accompanied with prayer, still has the potential to empty the spirit before God in an act of private humility or collective petition (Psalm 35:11-14)

5. the fact is that the prayers of a properly humbled person are the ones that are more likely to be heard and granted; fasting may play a role in the success of your petition (Ezra 8:21-23)

6. fasting, however, is not a substitute for repentance, nor is it a guarantee of success (Luke 18:9-14 and Isaiah 58:3-9)


B. How To Fast

1. one part of fasting is easily understood–stop eating!–for some specified period of time like a day or maybe just a portion of a day if you have never done it before

2. take it seriously, as seriously as you would treat prayer, not as some kind of fad or joke or unauthorized ritual

3. fast in times of distress or guilt or remembrance or soberness, to heighten your sensitivity to reliance upon God for wisdom and blessing or relief

4. but the temptation is always to proclaim your fast to everyone else (I see it frequently on Facebook and church websites) and that cheapens the fast by making it a public statement rather than a personal gesture (Matthew 6:16-18)



While we cannot require anyone to fast, it is clear that the early Christians recognized certain blessings that flowed from abstaining from food for a period of time, while one focused instead on prayer, repentance and humility. Surely, there will be occasions in the life of the disciple and the congregation in which fasting is just as much indicated.

Article originally appeared on ElectronicGospel (http://electronicgospel.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.