What Does the Bible Say about Fasting?
- Meg Bucher Writer and Author
- 2020 24 Jun
Fasting is often accompanied by prayer in the Bible. In the Old Testament, fasting was symbolic of grieving or repenting of sin. In the New Testament era we live in, fasting is a way to grow closer to God, much like we do through prayer. Similar to God’s instructions on prayer, fasting is to be a largely private affair. “Fasting is a temporary renunciation of something that is in itself good, like food, in order to intensify our expression of need for something greater - namely, God and his work in our lives,” John Piper informs on desiringGod.org.
Scripture is clear, as we learn from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, fasting is not to be a showy act of legalistic and religious pomp and circumstance. Fasting is a personal connection to our God, a reflection of our commitment to and recognition of our dependence on Him.
Examples of Fasting in the Bible
Fasting is mentioned over 70 times throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament, there were two types of fasting: public and private. According to the Harpercollins Bible Dictionary, public fasts were accompanied by prayer, supplication, and sackcloth, while private fasts were seen of acts of penance. Below are some examples of fasting in the Bible, and there are many more examples to be found.
Moses Fasted before Receiving the Ten Commandments
“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
Moses fasted for 40 days and forty nights, without food and water Scripture says. It’s not possible for humans to survive that long without food or water. Here, we witness a supernatural fast in the pages of Scripture. Only God could sustain Moses for that long without substance. At the end of the fast, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
Daniel Fasted and Prayed to Understand a Vision
“I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.” Daniel 10:3 ESV
This particular fast is in response to a vision Daniel had, but this is not the first time in Scripture to record Daniel fasting. Daniel 1:8 reads, “But Daniel resolved he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank.” The food and drink the king’s court was consuming violated the laws God’s people followed, and so David denied himself in obedience to the Lord. For Daniel, fasting preceded revelation in regard to his vision as to what would happen to God’s people in the future.
David Fasted in Mourning the Loss of His Son and Best Friend
“And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the LORD and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.” 2 Samuel 1:12, ESV
It’s common to find fasting, especially in the Old Testament, as an expression of grief and sadness. Though King Saul had chased David viciously, the king’s son Jonathan and David were best of friends. Later in David’s life, he also mourned the loss of his own son. “David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died” (2 Samuel 12:15-18 ESV). According to the NIV Study Bible, his servants were afraid to tell David his son had died, fearing his reaction. If the child in fact was only seven days old, he was not even named or circumcised yet, and so not counted among the Israelites.
John the Baptist Fasted by Sticking to a Strict Diet throughout his Life
“Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” Matthew 3:4 ESV
John the Baptist lived in the wilderness and survived on a diet one who lived in the wilderness might survive on. “John the Baptist observed one almost continual fast, his diet being locusts and wild honey, his disciples naturally had great respect for that rite.” The Fourfold Gospel Commentary, John’s ways held purpose. “John’s simply food, clothing and lifestyle were a visual protest against self-indulgence.” (NIV Study Bible)
Jesus Fasted in the Desert when Tempted by Satan
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.’ And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.”’” Luke 4:1-4 ESV
Jesus did not need food to sustain Him. Fully God and fully man, He knew His Father’s Word and will. The providence of the Father would sustain Jesus through the forty days in the desert. A supernaturally divine fast, impossible for just a man to survive, but Jesus was not just a man. He was the Son of God. The very Word of God quoted the Word of God: “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
The Early Church Fasted before Appointing Leaders and Elders, and When Enduring Trials
“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 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.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” Acts 13:1-3 ESV
The early church was under severe persecution. They had an uphill battle ahead of them, yet they persevered. There was fasting prior to the consecration of teacher and elders (Acts 13:2-3) and during times of trials (Acts 27:1-38). The strength they gathered in getting as close as they could to God, many times through fasting, gave them the strength and supernatural direction they needed to make decisions about leaders and carry the gospel message forward.
How to Fast According to Scripture
“When you fast, do not look somber 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.” Matthew 6:16-18
Many scholars are quick to point out that Jesus does not say “if” we fast, but “when.” It was assumed that followers of Christ would fast. However, Jesus also makes a point to shut down any legalistic or religious formality to fasting, telling his followers they should not be fasting to be noticed, nor fast in such a way as to draw attention.
Jesus’ command for people to pull themselves together before they go out in public was to highlight the importance of fasting as a connection to God. Only He needs to know we are fasting. Fasting reminds us to be grateful to God for His providence and provision. “The understanding is that we would recognize fasting as a habit of grace, a gift from God which He has given to His people in order for us to have a greater, heightened, awareness for the things of God,” Stephen Um says for thegospelcoalition.org.
Matthew 9:14-17 says, “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisee 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. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (ESV)
Jesus told them to fast after He had gone to heaven. That’s our cue. The new wine that can’t fit into old wineskins signifies Christ came. For believers, His presence is an everyday reality through the Holy Spirit. We are created to crave more of our heavenly Father, and our souls ache for the day our Savior returns. Fasting is a way to express the ache and desire, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
“Christian fasting is unique among all the fasting of the world,” says John Piper, “It is unique in that it expresses more than longing for Christ or hunger for Christ’s presence. It is a hunger that is rooted in -based on- an already present, experienced reality of Christ in history and in our hearts.”
Fasting is a form of worship, an acknowledgment that we need God more than food. Fasting is not the same as a diet; nor is losing weight the goal of a fast. Gratitude for the food God provides gives worship to God! In all we do, the aim is to keep God on the throne of our hearts, the center of our lives, and the top of our minds.
Should Christians Still Fast Today?
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:17-18
Jesus did not command fasting, but it was a normal occurrence in His earthly time, and it would have made sense to His followers to take up this practice as a spiritual discipline. Fasting is not just for food, but food is widely used in different types of fasting. Fasting from food should be progressive and can be full or partial. Sam Storms, in his Crosswalk.com article, “What Christians Need to Know about Fasting,” lists the following different types of fasts: a partial fast, abstaining from a particular food; a liquid fast, abstaining from all solid foods; an absolute fast, abstaining from all food and liquids, and a supernatural fast, as in Moses refraining from eating or drinking for 40 days.
Fasting could be refraining from Netflix, spending the time it takes to binge a whole season in prayer or dedicate the same amount of time in prayer as our weekly screen time report reveals. Put thought into what you are abstaining from, and your fast can be short, intermittent, or longer. There’s not one type of fast that fits all; it’s important that the fast is between you and God rather than a group fad you’re joining.
A Prayer for Fasting
Praise You for this day, and Your purpose for it. God, when we yearn to be close to You, to hear You clearly, remind us of the obedient pursuit of fasting and prayer. Clear our heart of all clutter threatening to throw us off focus and drift from Your will for our lives. Thank You for Jesus, Father. For sending Your one and only Son to earth, and to die on the cross sacrificially for us. Let us love You with all we are, glorify and worship You through fasting, prayer, and the everyday choices we make with each day You bless us with. Give us the strength and perseverance to walk through jubilant times and somber ones, all in a way that brings honor to Your name.
In Jesus’ powerful name we pray, Amen.
The bottom line is, fasting is an important part of the Christian life. Right alongside prayer, fasting is how we grow closer to our great God. We celebrate Jesus’ victory over death here on earth but look forward to the immensity of His presence upon His return.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/RoterPanther
Meg writes about everyday life within the love of Christ as an author, freelance writer, and blogger at Sunny&80. Her first book, “Friends with Everyone,” is available on amazon.com. She earned a Marketing/PR degree from Ashland University but stepped out of the business world to stay at home and raise her two daughters. Besides writing, she leads a Bible Study for Women and serves as a Youth Ministry leader in her community. She lives in Northern Ohio with her husband, Jim, and two daughters.
This article is part of our larger Spiritual Life resource meant to answer your questions about the Bible, God and the Christian faith. Visit our most popular questions on “What does the Bible say about…” questions answered by well known Christians and theologians to find more inspiration. Remember that as you read these articles, the Holy Spirit will give you understanding and discernment to make the right decision for your walk with Jesus Christ! If you know others struggling with these faith questions, please share and help others discover the truth on these controversial topics.