The practice of the spiritual discipline of fasting is not very common in society today. According to Whitney, it is the most feared and misunderstood of all the spiritual disciplines. Many view it as something that is only practiced by fanatical believers who often abuse their bodies for what they claim is the glory of God. However, when one examines the Bible closely he or she must give proper consideration to the discipline of fasting. Fasting is actuallyreferred to more times in the Bible than even a doctrine as important as baptism (Whitney 151). Prominent figures throughout biblical history fasted. Moses, Elijah, John the Baptizer, and even Jesus Christ himself practiced fasting. This is reason enough to delve into a study of the biblical discipline of fasting and what part, if any, should fasting play in a modern-day Christian’s life.
A proper definition of fasting would be a good place to begin this discourse. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes a fast in the following way: “to abstain from food” or “to eat sparingly or abstain from some foods” (261). A more biblical definition of fasting would be a complete (or partial) abstinence from food (or certain types of food) for a limited period of time, observed for religious reasons (Mulhern 1322; Linder 406).
As mentioned earlier, fasting is mentioned more times than baptism in the Bible. Fasting is referred to in the Bible seventy-seven times to baptism’s seventy-five times, depending on how you count the references (Whitney 151). There are several different kinds of fasts mentioned in the Bible. Fasting normally means abstaining from solid or liquid food for a period of time but usually not water (Foster 49). This appears to have been the case for the fast that Jesus held that is recorded in Luke 4. Sometimes a partial fast from certain types of food were observed. “I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks” (Dan. 10:3). On very rare occasions, the Bible speaks of an absolute fast that is abstaining from all food and drink, even water. “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Ester 4:16). Paul is another example: “Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:8, 9). Absolute fasts should not be performed for more than three days. The human body cannot go longer than three days without water. There is, however, evidence to support that Moses and Elijah held forty-day absolute fasts. “When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water” (Deut. 9:9). “And he [Elijah] arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8). These fasts, if no water was had, must have been supernatural in nature.
Fasts in the Bible were not only done on an individual basis. Occasionally, the Bible speaks of public fasts that are held in times of national emergency. “After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle. Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi). Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD” (2 Chron. 20:1-4).
Another reference similar to this is found in Joel. “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber” (Joel 2:15-16).
Ezra records an account of fasting to show repentance of sins. “In response to the preaching of Jonah, the entire city of Nineveh including the animals… fasted” (Ezra 8:21-23). Fasting for similar reasons, in small groups of believiers, can be very rewarding (Lemmons 132). Lemmons goes on to say that if a group is fasting together they should be sure to pray for each individual member of the group throughout the fast. Congregation-wide fasts seem to be encouraged when facing important decisions such as the appointment of elders. “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Act 14:23).
In the Jewish tradition, it seems that there were four regular fasts in place by the time of Zechariah. “Thus says the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. Therefore love truth and peace” (Zech. 8:19). The Pharisees were known for their fasting. “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:12). Paul says the he was engaged in “fastings often” (2 Cor. 11:27).
Fasting seems to have been used for a variety of reasons. First, fasting in the Old Testament seems to be “an outward expression of sorrow, affliction, and morning…