What is Fasting?

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:16-18

Welcome, Young Believer! I want to slow down at the beginning of this post and make a small course correction before we begin defining what fasting is. For the last month, we've been discussing various topics regarding how a person is supposed to live once they've become a Christian. This has meant a lot of "do this" or "don't do that" types of posts just like today's post. However, I want to be very clear that we cannot work our way into being right in God's eyes or being justified before Him. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone! The "good works" part of being a Christian is a result or the fruit of our lives being transformed by God's grace at work in us by His Spirit!


With that in mind, the reason we gather together, spend time in His Word, worship in song, and humble ourselves through fasting is not because we are good but because He is good and worthy of our praise.


When Do We See Fasting in the Bible?

To understand what fasting is and how we are to fast, we should start by looking at who, when, where, and why the people of the Bible fasted...


So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. Exodus 34:28

I believe the earliest example we see of fasting is of Moses when he returns to Mount Sinai after breaking the first tablets of the Law that the Lord had given His people. If you can find an earlier example, let me know in the comments! So Moses fasted while he received the Law and the renewal of God's Covenant with His people Israel. In this context, the Bible doesn't specifically say why this was the case only that this is what happened.


Now the next place we see fasting is actually through the traditional practice of the Jewish people in obeying God's commands for the Day of Atonement when the High Priest would make sacrifices for himself, his family, and all the people so to atone for their sins.


“And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. Leviticus 16:29-31

Though not stated explicitly, the people seem to have interpreted the command to "afflict yourselves" as being a command to fast. When this command was given was shortly after the deaths of Aaron's sons, Aaron was Moses' brother and the first High Priest. His sons had gone in before the Lord with unauthorized fire and incense and they were consumed by fire from the Lord because of this inappropriate worship. This would have been a time of mourning and of fear, the people and Aaron would have wondered how they were to go in and worship God under the threat of being burned up! How beautiful is it that God doesn't make them wait very long for an answer but commands them in how they are to be restored to Him?!


The next time we see fasting directly happening in the text is in the time of the Judges when Israel went to war against the Tribe of Benjamin. This story is maybe one of the most graphic and tragic in the Old Testament. A man living in the remote region of Ephraim found out his wife had been unfaithful to him. She fled to her father's house in Bethlehem among the tribe of Judah and after months of waiting he pursued her. After staying nearly a week in the home of his father-in-law the man would not be persuaded to stay any longer but took his wife and servant though it was nearing evening and left. It was getting late when they approached the city of Jebus (that would become Jerusalem but was currently inhabited by Jebusites) the man's servant advised that they enter the city for the evening and continue on their way in the morning. The man disagreed because it was a city of foreigners and instead chose to go on until they reached another Israelite city, either Gibeah or Ramah. As the sun was going down they came to Gibeah where they decided to rest for the night.


In those days when you were a traveler, there were no hotels or inns where you could stay in a strange town. Instead, you would wait in the city square until someone gave you hospitality by taking you into their home. For a while, it looked as if no one would take the couple in for the night until at last an old man came into the city from working in his fields and agreed they should stay with him for the night. Late in the night the men of the city came and surrounded the old man's house with evil intent... here is you're trigger warning now because this is where the graphic description of these men's sin begins.


They pounded on the door and commanded the old man to give them the visitor he had taken into his home so that they could violate him. The old man argued with them and offered instead his own virgin daughter and the wife of the man, but the men of Gibeah would not agree. At last, the old man shoved his guest's wife out to the men on the street and shut her out of his home. The men of Gibeah raped her to death, in the morning her husband awoke and readied to leave but found her dead on the threshold of the house. He took his body's wife home, divided it into twelve pieces, and sent one to each tribe of Israel. Imagine the horror of those who received these packages and learned of what they meant! So the people of Israel came together to hear the man's story and upon hearing went up together against the city of Gibeah demanding that the guilty men be given to them so that justice could be served. The Tribe of Benjamin to whom the city's inhabitants belonged refused to give the men up. After the second battle in which Israel was losing badly, the tribes gathered before the Lord at Bethel.


Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. And the people of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?” And the Lord said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” Judges 20:26-28

The next day they did indeed win the battle and 25,000 men of the Tribe of Benjamin were killed, their land was left in ruins, and the other tribes of Israel swore that there would be a curse on anyone in their tribes who gave wives to the remaining sons of Benjamin. This deeply sinful tribe was totally cut off from the inheritance of God's people in judgment for their sin. In the next couple of chapters, God's mercy for this lost tribe is also described, but that's not the focus of our study today. Here we see that the armies of Israel fasted and mourned before the Lord in a time of great violence and loss while seeking direction from Him.


We'll see this pattern repeated several times throughout the Old Testament where sin and crisis occur the people when they're following God or ready to turn back to Him, will fast. Hannah and Job fast because of their great grief before God. David fasts on several occasions mourning the death of King Saul and Prince Jonathan and later in grief over his own sin. Esther fasts while she seeks the courage and wisdom to go before the King of Persia on behalf of her people when Haman seeks to destroy them. Daniel fasted in similar days of great trouble for those who worshiped God and not the kings or gods of Babylon and then Persia.


Where then does that leave fasting in the New Testament?


Well, we've actually already briefly mentioned the first example of this in our post about Responding to Temptation, Jesus fasts after being baptized when He is led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Later in His ministry, Jesus taught His followers how to practice fasting when they did participate in this form of worship.


“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:16-18

Not long after this John the Baptist's disciples came to him with questions of their own about Jesus' disciples' behavior.


Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. Matthew 9:14-15

We see the promise that Jesus' disciples would indeed fast once He was no longer with them fulfilled in the Early Church of Acts. We see an example of this in the selection and sending out of Paul and Barnabas on Paul's first missionary journey.


Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1-3

Near the end of Paul's ministry as he was being taken by the Romans to Rome to stand trial for things he had been teaching across the Empire his ship was caught in a great storm at sea. The sailors were in such great fear that they did not eat for nearly two whole weeks and tried to escape the ship by rowboat in hopes of finding land. However, Paul told the soldiers who guarded him that if these men succeeded in leaving the ship then everyone's lives would be lost. The escape was quickly stopped and in the morning Paul told all aboard that they should eat and regain their strength because he knew that a hair aboard would be harmed.


As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. Acts 27:33-36

When the daylight came they could just make out a bit of land and the sailors made a daring plan to run the battered ship ashore. Instead, they wrecked the ship upon a reef but everyone aboard was able to swim safely to shore. This rescue from the stormy sea certainly couldn't be what the Romans expected whether sailor or soldier yet they lived!


What is Fasting?

After all these examples we can pick out a few key things to define what we mean by fasting and Christians today should still practice it.


Fasting is an act of self-denial from some food, all food, or food and water both. It is done in times of humility because of great sin, tragedy, or longing. Those who fast are seeking God with the hope that He will answer the sins of others against them with justice, their own sin with mercy and restoration, the crisis with victory, and the desire with His will. We can fast individually as David did or we can fast together as a church. When we fast it is not to be for our own piousness, but because we are seeking God relentlessly in this way. It's not for us to be seen, but for God's will to be revealed in our lives!


If you have more questions about fasting please place those in the comments. We would also love to hear from you in the chatbox if you're needing prayer about a situation that is leading you too fast. I also highly recommend, as always, that you find a mentor in the faith that will help to walk you through these issues as you grow in your faith. This one journey you were never meant to take alone!


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