The Bible is a big book, addressing many truths, so from time to time we read in it teachings that we may have forgotten. One such teaching is fasting. It is a biblical topic, yet many pastors never preach on it. It is a practice that many Christians have never practiced. Abraham Kuyper once lamented: “Today there are still some found among the godly who fast. But very few. The practice has gradually died out. We no longer have congregational fasting. We have become estranged from fasting, and we do not count it among the means of edification” (The Practice of Godliness, 97). Many neglect this teaching and know little about it, and there are some who shun it as somehow leading to legalism, rationalizing that it is an “Old Testament” doctrine. However, this is not only a biblical teaching and practice, but one that is also relevant in our time.
What Is Fasting?
Simply, fasting is the opposite of feasting. Fasting is a religious abstaining from food for a set period of time in order to humble body and soul before God as a help in drawing near to him in prayer. The ancient Christian theologian Tertullian said that when we fast we “assail heaven . . . and touch God’s heart” (Apology, 40.15). As sixteenth-century English theologian William Ames put it, “Fasting is most religious when the whole mind is so attentive to seeking God that it is called away from the thought and care of the things of this present life” (The Marrow of Theology, 265). So important was fasting to our spiritual forefathers that it is described as one of the duties of worship required by the second commandment (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 108).
Examples of Fasting
The Scriptures abound with examples of fasting throughout the history of God’s people. God’s law required all his people to engage in a public fast once a year on the Day of Atonement, describing it as “afflict[ing] yourselves” (Lev. 16:29, 31). Joshua and the elders of Israel fasted after the defeat at Ai (Josh. 7:6). When there was a civil war in Israel in the days of the judges, the people of God fasted (Judg. 20:26). All throughout the days of Samuel the prophet, Saul, David, and the kings, we read of public and private fasting (1 Sam. 7:6; 31:13; 2 Sam. 1:12; 12:16, 21–22; 1 Kings 21:27; 1 Chron. 10:12). When the people of God prepared to return to the Promised Land from their exile in Babylon, we read that Ezra “proclaimed a fast . . . that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey” (Ezra 8:21). After they returned, we read that “the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads . . . and confessed their sins” (Neh. 9:1–2). The Psalms and Prophets abound with fasting (Isa. 58:1–12; cf. Pss. 35:13; 69:10; 109:24; Jer. 36:6; Dan. 6:18; 9:3; Joel 1:14; 2:12; Zech. 7:5). For example, Daniel fasted from meat and wine for three weeks (Dan. 10:2–3). Even the Gentile Ninevites fasted (Jonah 3:5). At the time of the dedication of our Lord at the temple, we read that Anna the prophetess had been fasting in preparation for his coming (Luke 2:37). Our Lord (Matt. 4:2) and his apostles also fasted (Acts 14:23; 2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27).
Did Jesus Address Fasting?
This is no mere Old Testament practice. Our Lord Jesus engaged in several conversations about fasting. On one occasion, the Pharisees tried to trap him as always, while on another, John’s disciples sought clarification from him because they and the disciples of the Pharisees fasted often and prayed, while, they noted, Jesus’ disciples did not fast (Matt. 9:14). In Luke’s gospel they said that Jesus and his disciples did exactly the opposite of fasting: “but yours eat and drink” (Luke 5:33). While John’s disciples and the Pharisees fasted, Jesus’ disciples feasted. To them this was such a scandal because fasting was an act of piety and humility that was a part of the life of the Lord’s people for well over a thousand years, but now, all of a sudden, this teacher, Jesus, arrived on the scene, and his disciples did not fast. Didn’t they want to be pious? Why did Jesus’ disciples not participate in this spiritual exercise?
To answer, he gave three illustrations about fasting. First, he used the illustration of a wedding: “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” (Matt. 9:15). When you are at a wedding and then at the reception in the presence of the groom, what is the atmosphere like? It is joyful—you do not fast at a reception celebration, you feast! So when the groom is present, you feast; when the groom is absent, you fast. Jesus is the groom and his people are the guests (and the bride—the metaphors are many). This imagery of a joyous wedding comes straight from the Prophets. As Isaiah said, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isa. 62:5; cf. Isa. 54:5–6). While Jesus was with his guests, they feasted in joy at the coming of the kingdom. Therefore, Jesus’ disciples were not being impious but were celebrating the coming of their king, their groom. So Christians are not to fast? No, that is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus goes on to say: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and they will fast in those days” (Luke 5:35, emphasis added; cf. Matt. 9:15). That is the key phrase. A time was coming when Jesus would leave, and fasting would once again be appropriate as a means of expressing our longing to see him in the fullness of his kingdom.
Second, Jesus used the illustration of a garment: “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” (Matt. 9:16). What Jesus is saying is that he has brought something new, like “unshrunk cloth.” What he has brought cannot simply be patched onto the old covenant that existed between the Lord and his people. Jesus has come to fulfill everything before him and to inaugurate a new covenant. In the terms of the illustration, he did not come to patch the worn-out clothes of the old covenant, but he came to clothe his people in new, satisfying clothes.
Third, Jesus used the illustration of wine: “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matt. 9:17). Again, Jesus did not come to put the new covenant into the old covenant. In the Prophets, the image of wine depicts the joy of the new covenant: “And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine” (Joel 3:18); “The mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (Amos 9:13). If the new wine of the new covenant were put into the old wineskins of the old, the only thing that would happen would be bursting the skins and losing the wine. But Jesus came to put the new wine of the new covenant into the new wineskins of his redeemed people. In this way, as Jesus says, “both are preserved” (Matt. 9:17).
How Should We Fast?
How should we fast as new covenant Christians, then? Let me offer four practical directions from the Word of God.
We Fast Freely
We learn from all the examples of fasting in the Old and New Testaments that fasting is prescribed by God in his Word, yet we are to do so freely. Note well Jesus’ words that assume fasting is a free Christian exercise: “then they will fast” (Matt. 9:15; Luke 5:35). In contrast to the Pharisees, who fasted to be seen, hoping to earn favor with God, twice in Matthew 6 Jesus says “when you fast” (Matt. 6:16, 18).
What does this mean? It means that you are free to fast. There is no prescribed time of the year in which you must fast. There is no prescribed length of time for which you must fast. There is no prescribed diet or lack thereof in fasting. There is no particular method required of you. In all these you are free. John Calvin said of congregational fasting in the context of Rome’s required fasts: “The time, the manner, and the form are not prescribed by God’s Word, but left to the judgment of the church” (Institutes, 4.12.14).
We Fast Humbly
We also fast humbly. There is a contrast between the disciples of John, who boasted that they fasted “often” (Luke 5:33), and Jesus’ matter-of-fact, under-the-radar comment: “They will fast in those days” (Luke 5:35).
There is a great contrast between the Pharisees, who flouted their fasting by walking around with looks of hunger, pain, and anguish on their faces so that people would know they were fasting (Matt. 6:16), and Jesus’ disciples. Isaiah spoke of the Pharisees when he said, “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure” (Isa. 58:3). Joel rebuked Israel for the same thing: “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments’” (Joel 2:12–13, emphasis added). Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for this, saying, “They have received their reward” (Matt. 6:16). Instead, it is far better to be seen and rewarded by God: “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” (Matt. 6:17–18). Jesus is saying that outwardly we are to look and act normal and that inwardly we are to be in humility before God, seeking his face in prayer. Your reward is that God will see you and grant you the desires of your heart.
We Fast Seriously
Third, we fast seriously. This is not medical fasting or fasting to lose weight. This is serious business with God. The things that led to fasts in the Old and New Testaments were wars, plagues, ordinations of leaders, repentance from sin, and other such serious matters in the life of God’s people. We fast seriously individually as well as corporately. Calvin said, “Pastors, according to the need of the times, should exhort the people either to fasting or to solemn supplications, or to other acts of humility, repentance, and faith.” He went on: “Whenever men are to pray to God concerning any great matter, it would be expedient to appoint fasting along with prayer” (Institutes, 4.12.16).
For example, in Acts 13:1–3 we read of the ordaining and sending of Paul and Barnabas to the mission field: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting . . . then after fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2–3). We read again in Acts 14:23 that when elders were elected in the churches, there was fasting and prayer. The apostles and our forefathers would be shocked at how flippantly and perfunctory our procedure is for nominating, electing, and ordaining ministers, missionaries, elders, and deacons. During the Reformation in the Netherlands, before elections were held for officers in the church, there would be a whole day of fasting and prayer for God’s will to be done (Pettegree, Duke, and Lewis, editors, Calvinism in Europe 1540–1610, 163). It is important to qualify this by saying that while our fasting is serious, we do not fast with all the outward rites and expressions of the old covenant—tearing our garments (Joel 2:13), putting on sackcloth (Neh. 9:1), or covering our head with ashes (Dan. 9:3). Nor do we fast in a legal spirit, as if it somehow earns us favor with God. The Puritan Matthew Barker said, “All our duties, even our fasting and humiliations, ought to be performed evangelically,” that is, in a gospel-centered way, with faith, hope, and love in Christ (Puritan Sermons, 2:157–58).
We Fast Prayerfully
Finally, we fast prayerfully. Our forefathers labored to say that it is not fasting that brings us before the face of God but the prayer that arises out of it. This is why men like Archbishop James Ussher called fasting merely a help and assistance to prayer (A Body of Divinity, 346). The Dutch preacher and theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel said, “Fasting, in and of itself, is not a religious practice. It is only so when it is a seeking after God by way of fasting. . . . Fasting serves but one purpose: to facilitate the humbling of the soul; it has no significance beyond that” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4:5–6). Finally, this is why William Ames carefully distinguished between worship and things that promote and prepare us for worship (Conscience, 4.21.5–8). Prayer is at the heart of worship, while fasting is that which “helps us make free, ardent, and more continued prayers” (The Marrow of Theology, 265). The importance of pointing this out is to keep us from superstitious fasting or from thinking our fasting earns us anything with God. Fasting is only a means to prayer.
We need to revive the biblical practice of fasting. As à Brakel said, “It is sad—sign of great decay in the church—that so little work is made of fasting, both in public as well as secretly. Therefore all who wish to lead a life of tender godliness and desire to see the good of Zion ought to stir themselves up to exercise this duty. . . . Do not allow this practice to die out” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4:9).
As we revive this practice, let us come before the Lord in a spirit of dependency upon his presence, praying with confession of our sins, begging him for his blessing upon our lives and the lives of our churches, and the giving of spiritual life to our world. I pray that as disciples of Jesus, we will join our hearts together in prayer and fasting, longing for the return of our groom, individually as well as corporately, when we are called together for this purpose.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA. He has authored several books, among them Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Children and In Living Color: Images of Christ and the Means of Grace.