We as Christians profess that we are Christians of the New Testament in the sense that we use the New Testament as our guide to faith and strive to emulate the positive examples we find in the New Testament and obey its commands. One practice that is never specifically commanded in the New Testament and yet is present in multiple examples in the lives of Jesus and the Apostles is fasting. Let us spend some time examining what the Scriptures show us about fasting.
Before we examine the Scriptures, however, it is profitable to define our term “fasting:”
Abstaining from food.
The act of abstaining from food (Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language).
The Greek word for “fasting” as used in the New Testament is nesteia, and Thayer’s defines it as:
1) a fasting, fast
1a) a voluntary, as a religious exercise
1a1) of private fasting
1a2) the public fast as prescribed by the Mosaic Law and kept yearly on the great day of atonement, the tenth of the month of Tisri (the month Tisri comprises a part of our September and October); the fast accordingly, occurred in the autumn when navigation was usually dangerous on account of storms
1b) a fasting caused by want or poverty
We can see, therefore, that fasting is the voluntary practice of abstaining from food consumption for a spiritual purpose. Now that we have seen what fasting is, let us look at the Scriptures in regards to fasting.
Jesus and Fasting
We see from the New Testament that Jesus fasted on some occasions. He fasted in the desert before being tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:2), and since He fulfilled the Law and kept it properly, He also fasted on the Day of Atonement. Jesus also spoke in regards to fasting in Matthew 6:16-18:
“Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen of men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou be not seen of men to fast, but of thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall recompense thee.”
If we are to fast, we are to do it not to be seen by men but as a part of our private spiritual devotion to God.
The Apostles and Fasting
The practice of fasting did not cease at the Cross. We have many examples of the Apostles fasting.
And as they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said,
“Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.”
Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away (Acts 13:2-3).
And when they had appointed for them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).
We also see Paul speaking to the church in Corinth about his activities in 2 Corinthians 6:1-5:
And working together with him we entreat also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain (for he saith, “At an acceptable time I hearkened unto thee, And in a day of salvation did I succor thee: behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation”): giving no occasion of stumbling in anything, that our ministration be not blamed; but in everything commending ourselves, as ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings…
We can see, therefore, that fasting was a part of the faith of the Apostles and generally done in conjunction with prayer.
Now that we have seen that fasting is an acceptable practice, done by our Lord and His Apostles before us, we might well ask why they would fast in these circumstances. Fasting– abstaining from food– is a demonstration of self-control and sanctification. By abstaining from food, one sets himself apart and does not engage in the normal rituals of food consumption, and is able to devote all of his energy and concentration upon the object of his prayer and meditation. This is why we see fasting done most often in conjunction with prayer– since the faster is not eating food, he has set himself apart from most persons and is able to focus his energies entirely upon his prayers and devotion to God.
Limitations Regarding Fasting
It must be noted again that fasting is never specifically commanded in the New Testament, nor are any specific guidelines given as to how long a fast should be or how strict of a fast one should engage in. We ought to keep in our minds the message of Colossians 2:20-23:
If ye died with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, do ye subject yourselves to ordinances, “Handle not, nor taste, nor touch” (all which things are to perish with the using), after the precepts and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and severity to the body; but are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh.
We are not to bind upon ourselves or anyone else any exercise in fasting or any other form of asceticism in a misguided attempt to curb the indulgences of the flesh, but, as we have seen from the examples in the New Testament, fasting can be a good way to help focus one in prayer to God, being set apart from the world.
Shall We Fast?
We have now seen the New Testament examples regarding fasting and the limitations imposed upon such concepts. We have seen that Jesus and the Apostles did fast, the latter especially in times of prayer, and that we are not to fast to be seen by men nor to fast to attempt to somehow curb the desires of the flesh. Should we fast today?
Fasting is an activity that is not spoken of much nor seemingly practiced in churches of Christ today; many people either do not think about it or think of it as another first century practice not done today. Some have developed ideas that “fasting” represents a time when one is so involved with studying the Scriptures that they neglect meals. While it is certainly possible to fast when studying the Scriptures, and perhaps could help one focus more on one’s study, the New Testament demonstrates fasting to be much more than that, and most often tied to prayer. We ought to no longer neglect the example placed before us regarding fasting and consider when it is appropriate to fast.
Fasting is certainly an approved practice by the examples of Jesus and the Apostles in Scripture; using these examples, we could find appropriate times to fast, such as when elders are installed in a church, when we are praying for direction in our lives or when we are about to make a life-altering decision, or really whenever we want to be more devoted and more focused in our prayers to our Lord. Fasting can be done for a few hours or the majority of a day; forty days of fasting would be difficult on anyone and not recommended!
What shall we say in regards to these things? We must again emphasize that fasting is not commanded of us from the Scriptures, but when we are praying to our Lord and we desire fervently to devote ourselves more deeply to our prayer or feel the need to focus and concentrate better on Him in prayer, we can follow the examples of Jesus and the Apostles and engage in fasting. In so doing, we set ourselves apart in our devotion to the Lord in prayer and be all the more fervent in our communication with our God.