Fasting

Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, 'How is it that John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?'

Jesus answered, 'How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.' (Mar 2:18–20)

Not all Christians are familiar with fasting, so we'll begin with a definition. Fasting involves the voluntary abstinence from all or certain foods (and on rare occasions liquids as well), for a period of time, for spiritual purposes. It can also include voluntary abstinence from marital relationships for the same purposes (1Co 7:3–5).

Fasting may sound daunting to some Christians but it's possible for every Christian to fast in some way, even if it only means forgoing certain (perhaps choice) foods for a short time. That is known as partial fasting but, as with all other forms of fasting, if it is done unto the Lord it will be accepted by him.

Is fasting obligatory?

Fasting has featured prominently in the history of Israel and the church and details of fasts are recorded in both the Old and New Testaments. But is fasting obligatory for Christians today? In the passage we are studying some people asked Jesus why his disciples did not fast and, in answer to their question, he described himself as a bridegroom.

The New Testament presents Jesus as a bridegroom and his church as his bride; one day both bride and bridegroom will be united at the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6–9). However, in his teaching, Jesus referred to himself as the bridegroom and his disciples as the guests, or friends (Luk 5:34), of the bridegroom.

In Jewish culture it was regarded as an insult for guests to fast (a sign of mourning) at a wedding feast (a time of celebration). And even though his wedding would take place in the future, Jesus was already with his guests and that was a cause for rejoicing. The time was coming when he would be taken from them (his ascension: Act 1:11), and on that day they would fast.

The Greek word translated 'on that day' can mean either a single day or an indefinite period of time, which it does in this context. Luk 5:35 translates it as 'in those days' (plural), meaning the present day—the time when our Lord is no longer with us physically.

Furthermore, when speaking to his disciples, Jesus didn't say 'if you fast', but 'when you fast' (Mat 6:16)—an assumption that they would fast after he had left them. So, even though the Bible doesn't teach that fasting is compulsory for Christians, I certainly believe our Lord expects us to fast. Now let us look at some reasons for fasting.

Fasting emphasizes repentance

Fasting is an outward sign of mourning and often accompanies repentance. When Jonah delivered God's message to Nineveh: 'Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown (Jon 3:4)', the Ninevites believed God, put on sackcloth and fasted (Jon 3:5). The king issued a proclamation, saying:

'Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.' (Jon 3:7–9)

When God saw how the Ninevites reacted to his warning and how they turned from their evil ways and sought his face with fasting, he had compassion on them and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened (Jon 3:10).

Similarly, after his conversion on the Damascus road, Saul neither ate nor drank for three days (Act 9:9). There was no need for him to undertake such a fast except, like the Ninevites, to demonstrate the depth of his repentance.

Fasting brings directions from God

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Act 13:1–3)

The Bible tells us that while these prophets and teachers were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit gave instructions for Barnabas and Saul to begin the next phase of their ministry.

But is it necessary to fast before God will give instructions to his church? Isn't it in his own interest that it is built according to his plan and purpose? If that is so, then why do we need to fast to receive directions from him? Please read Dan 10:1–14, which gives insight into what can happen in the heavenly realms.

Daniel, an Old Testament prophet, had received a revelation from God about the future but couldn't understand its meaning. So he went without choice food for three weeks (a partial fast) while he sought the Lord in prayer.

Eventually, an angel appeared to him in a vision and told him that since the first day he had begun to ask for understanding and to humble himself (fast) before God, his words had been heard and the answer had been sent to him. However, a satanic power had resisted the angel for twenty-one days until victory was won and the message was delivered.

This passage of Scripture illustrates the spiritual battles that are being fought daily in the heavenly realms for God's will to be done on earth.

Daniel had fasted and prayed for three weeks—the exact length of time the angel had been wrestling with the satanic power. What would have happened if Daniel had stopped fasting? It is quite probable that he would not have received the answer he was seeking. Fasting aids victory in spiritual warfare.

In the same way, Satan would have opposed any attempt by Paul and Barnabas to take the gospel to the Gentiles. But as the leaders in Act 13 sought God with fasting, satanic opposition was overcome and God's timing for their missionary journey was revealed. Please note, also, that these same men fasted and prayed before sending Paul and Barnabas on their way.

Fasting is a God-given way to add power and urgency to our prayers and enables us to receive understanding of spiritual truth. It also helps us to receive directions from the Lord, both for ourselves and for his church.

Many Christians, when faced with important decisions to make in their lives, have given themselves to prayer and fasting and have received wisdom and instruction from the Lord.

Fasting delivers from evil

To go without liquids, even for a short period of time, is an extreme form of fasting and is usually only practised in times of emergency.

When the evil Haman plotted to destroy the Jews in the kingdom of Xerxes (Est 1–10), Queen Esther asked them to fast from food and drink for three days and three nights before she petitioned the king. The result of the fast was that Haman was hanged and the Jews were saved from their threatened annihilation.

That fasting brings deliverance from evil was also taught by Jesus. On his return from the Mount of Transfiguration he was met by a man who complained that his disciples couldn't drive out the demon that was tormenting his son. Jesus rebuked the evil spirit and it came out of the boy.

His disciples asked afterwards why they couldn't drive it out, and Jesus told them that that kind comes out only by prayer and fasting (Mar 9:14–29).

Fasting aids personal sanctity

Another reason for fasting and, in my opinion, the most beautiful reason of all, is to show our love and devotion to God. When we deliberately withhold food from ourselves for spiritual reasons we are saying, 'Lord, you mean more to me than my body.' It's a demonstration that our spiritual lives mean more to us than our physical lives.

Jesus said that such fasting, even though it may be done for no other reason, will receive its reward:

'When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.' (Mat 6:16–8)

Jesus wants us to know that if we fast in the proper way we will be rewarded by our Father in heaven. We are not told how, or when, but only that we will be—and God keeps his promises!

Practicalities of fasting

If you feel the Lord is speaking to you about fasting, pray about it and let him use you in this way. Remember that most things in life can be achieved through prayer alone, but some can be achieved only through prayer and fasting (Mar 9:29). Can we afford to ignore such a God-given way to empower our prayers?

Michael Graham
May 2002
Revised April 2019

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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