Question #419

What about fasting?

I quickly glossed over your questions and answers page. You may have an answer to my question imbedded in the masses already. Ok, Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount, "when you give...when you pray...when you FAST." Fasting is expected. I want to know more about the historical and Biblical accounts of fasting. How did this practice start in Jewish and Christian culture? How do we do a successful fast today? How do we know it is successful and pleasing to God? How often should one fast? I just want a little guidance in doing a fast because I don't want to miss any opportunity to be in deep fellowship with my Father. Any advice about this subject will be greatly appreciated.

The Answer:

This answer is taken from Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., & Bromiley, G. W. (1995). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (632–633). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans. Since the question is basically inquiring about the history of fasting, this source is a good source for that information.

Note that in the Old Testament God commanded only one fast per year and that on the Day of Atonement. Fasting was sometimes practiced but never commanded in the New Testament. That does not mean that it cannot be a good practice. It means only that it is not a required practice. My mother quietly fasted one day a week for much of her life. It was never known until some of her writings were discovered after her death.

nestis [hungry, fasting], nesteuo [to hunger, fast], nesteia [suffering hunger, fasting]

  1. The Meaning of the Word. nestis means “one who has not eaten,” “who is empty,” then “who fasts.” nesteuo means “to be without food or hungry,” but mostly “to fast.” The noun nesteia means “suffering hunger,” usually “fasting.”

  2. Fasting in Antiquity. Fasting is found in all religions. It is the temporary abstention from nourishment on religious grounds. At first it is more common among the Greeks than the Romans, but it spreads over the whole of the ancient world. Fear of demons plays a role in it; it is also seen as a means of preparing for dealings with deity. The mourning fast is due to fear of demonic infection. Egyptian priests fast before entering the sanctuary. Fasting also prepares the way for ecstatic revelations. There is little relation between fasting and ethics in antiquity.

  3. Fasting in the OT and Judaism. The OT uses various terms for fasting. Many aspects of OT fasting are the same as elsewhere. There is a mourning fast for the dead that expresses sorrow (1 Sam. 31:13). Moses fasts before receiving the commandments (Ex. 34:28), as does Daniel before receiving his visions (Dan. 9:3). Fasting also expresses submission to God, whether in the case of individuals (2 Sam. 12:16ff.) or the people (Judg. 20:26 etc.). Prayer accompanies fasting (Jer. 14:12), especially penitential prayer (1 Sam. 7:6). The one who fasts often takes the posture of a mourner (cf. 1 Kgs. 21:27). Fasts last one day (Judg. 20:26); three days in Esth. 4:16. In the seven-day fast of 1 Sam. 31:13 the actual fasting is only during the day. The only cultic fast is on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29ff.). Special fasts are set up to remember the fall of Jerusalem (Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19). The prophets protest against the view that purely external fasting gains a hearing with God (cf. Jer. 14:12; Is. 58:1ff.). For them true fasting is a bowing down of the soul that leads to moral action. Judaism finds an important place for fasting. Apocalyptists prepare for revelation by it. Fasting confirms vows and prayer. It has efficacy with God for forgiveness, healing, and exorcism, although true fasting necessarily involves repentance. The devout make the second and fifth days of the week into additional fasts, but there is never fasting on special feast days, days of preparation, or the Sabbath. Longer fasts of up to 40 days occur, and much stress is laid on gestures of mourning in fasting. The Pharisees, the disciples of the Baptist, and the Therapeutae all observe fasts. Philo extols nēsteía as ascetic restraint. Rules are set up for the public fasts, and individual fasting tends to replace sacrifice after the destruction of the temple, since it grants expiation, guarantees a divine hearing, and produces sanctity. Yet there are warnings that penitence is also required, and students are advised against excessive fasting.

  4. Fasting in the NT. Jesus opens his ministry with a 40-day fast corresponding to that of Moses. But Jesus as the Mediator of the new covenant has already received God’s revelation, and he fasts in order to be equipped to confirm his messianic dignity and power. He seems not to engage in special fasting during his ministry, but he would naturally observe the public fasts, and he does not forbid his hearers to fast. For Jesus, however, fasting is service of God and a sign of true conversion. It must be done in secret and not accompanied by open signs of mourning. His disciples do not fast like those of the Baptist (Mk. 2:18ff.), for the presence of the Messiah means rejoicing as at the presence of a bridegroom. The new age is an age of joy. Only the age of waiting (which will begin again after his death) is a time of fasting (cf. Jn. 16:20). The eschatological message of Jesus transcends fasting, but since there is a gap between the dawn of salvation and its consummation there is room for fasting, not as a pious work, but as the sign of an inner attitude. The sayings about the patch and the wineskins are linked to the question of fasting in Mk. 2:18ff. This link preserves the insight that the new age has come as an age of joy. Yet fasting goes hand in hand with prayer in Acts 13:2–3 and 14:23, when missionaries are sent out and elders are appointed. The epistles do not mention fasting; it is not listed even in Heb. 13:16.

  5. Fasting in the Early Church. Voluntary fasting on specific days returns in the early church (Wednesday and Friday in Did. 8.1). The Easter fast is laid on all Christians in the second century (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 5.24. 12ff.). Fasting before baptism also comes into vogue (Did. 7.4), as does fasting before communion. Reasons given for fasting are to strengthen prayer, to prepare for revelation, to express sorrow, to help the poor with the food saved, and to reconcile penitents with God. Criticisms of fasting are based on the OT prophets (Barn. 3. 1ff.), and there is a tendency to subordinate the rite to inwardness and to the ethical (Hermas Similitudes 5.3.5ff.). But the early church shows little awareness of Jesus’ distinctive approach to fasting.

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)