Fasting in the new Testament

In this article we would like to think about fasting as we see it in the new Testament.
We find relatively few articles on this subject, that is one of the reasons why I would like to dig some deeper into this. Fasting is a forgotten art.

1. The word fast, fasting.

In the Greek the words fast and fasting come from the word “nesteia”.
What does this word mean?

Strong:
G3521 nēsteia
From G3522; abstinence (from lack of food, or voluntary and religious); specifically the fast of the Day of Atonement: - fast (-ing.)

When we look at the basic meaning of this word we see abstinence, an abstinence from food for a set time. As we will see in our study, the length of fasting differed a lot, it depended on the occasion.
Moses and Jesus fasted for 40 days, the Jews fasted  twice a week and David fasted for 7 days when his son was ill.
Reasons for a fast were also different. We find David who fasted for his son that was dying. We find the city of Nineveh fasting as a sign of repentance. We find examples of fasting when loved ones had passed away and we find examples of fasting in times of dedication.

The common aspect in all these examples is seeking the Lord in a very real way, seeking Him and drawing closer to Him.

As we consider fasting in the new Testament we find that fasting find it’s origin in the rules that God gave the nation of Israel.

2. Fasting in the gospels.

A. Matthew 4: 23

Mat 4:23  And Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people.


From this passage we learn that Jesus came to preach the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus came to set forth His teachings for new Testament disciples. What we learn in the gospels is the teachings of Jesus concerning His kingdom.

Jesus prepared the way for the new Covenant. (Hebr. 9: 15- 17; 7: 12)
So, what we see and find in the words of the four gospels and in the new Testament is what we as Christians are guided by.

B. Luke 4: 1- 2

 

Luk 4: 1  And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led in the Spirit in the wilderness

Luk 4: 2  during forty days, being tempted of the devil. And he did eat nothing in those days: and when they were completed, he hungered.

 

We learn from this passage that our Master fasted for 40 days.
We also see this in the life of Moses, Ex. 34: 28, and we see it in the life of Elijah, 1 Kings 19: 8

 

In the example of Jesus we see that when the time came that He was tested, He took time to fast. We see that when Jesus realized important times were coming He took the time to separate Himself to God and to seek His Father through fasting.

This is a wonderful lesson for us, whenever we are about to set out and do important things in our lives, we should take the time to seek Gods face, and we can seek that the best through prayer and fasting.

C. Matthew 6: 16- 18

Mat 6:16  Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen of men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward.

Mat 6:17  But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face;

Mat 6:18  that thou be not seen of men to fast, but of thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall recompense thee.

From the sermon on the mount we learn that Jesus taught his followers about fasting, like He taught them about good deeds and to offer up prayers.

However, we learn in the above passage from Jesus that when we fast we are not to do it like the hypocrites, they only do it to be seen by men.
From this we learn that fasting needs to have the right motive.

          -Compare Luke 18: 12

Fasting is not a ritual that we observe at certain times, no fasting should have a real object and that could be twice a week but it can also be only once a year.

And so we read in Matthew 5: 20: “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven”.

Our righteousness needs to exceed that of the Pharisees. The Pharisees did all they did to be seen, however true Christians do what they do in secret. The only reason for doing what they do is because they love their Father.
And so we understand that fasting is something that only pleases the Father when we do it for the right reasons and the right motive.
When we fast, we need to do it as He has set forth.

D. Matthew 9: 14, 15

Mat 9: 14  Then come to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?

Mat 9: 15  And Jesus said unto them, Can the sons of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then will they fast.
Mat 9: 16  And no man putteth a piece of undressed cloth upon an old garment; for that which should fill it up taketh from the garment, and a worse rent is made.

Mat 9: 17  Neither do men put new wine into old wine-skins: else the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins perish: but they put new wine into fresh wine-skins, and both are preserved. 

When Jesus is approached on the question that His disciples did not fast he replied with three reasons 1) That the sons of the bridechamber will not mourn when the bridegroom is with them.

Jesus foretold his listeners that the time would come when His disciples would fast, but it would not be till He would be gone.
2) No man puts a piece of undressed (new) piece of garment upon an old garment.
3) No men puts new wine into old wine-skins.

The point that Jesus is making is that there are times when fasting is inappropriate. When the situation doesn’t call for it, nothing is gained by doing it.
The tendency of men has been to elevate religious sacraments over true devotion toward God. There is no inherent virtue per-se in fasting, in praying, in singing, in the Lords Supper. Abstaining from food does not bring one closer to God or secure His blessings. Fasting is only of value when the situation calls for it and that was the message of Jesus in this passage.

E. Matt. 17: 14- 21

Mat 17: 14  And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a man, kneeling to him, saying,

Mat 17: 15  Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is epileptic, and suffereth grievously; for oft-times he falleth into the fire, and off-times into the water.

Mat 17: 16  And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.

Mat 17: 17  And Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you? bring him hither to me.

Mat 17: 18  And Jesus rebuked him; and the demon went out of him: and the boy was cured from that hour.

Mat 17: 19  Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast it out?

Mat 17: 20  And he saith unto them, Because of your little faith: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

Mat 17: 21  But this kind goeth not out save by prayer and fasting. 

As we consider these verses and especially verse 21 we come to understand the great power of prayer and fasting.
The disciples had tried to cast out the demon, but it had not worked, when Christ comes He does cast out the demon.
First off all Christ rebukes the disciples for their unbelief, faith in God would have casted out this demon. However, Christ also tells His disciples that the demon that was in this boy was of a certain character that it could have only come out by prayer and fasting.
This shows the great power of prayer and fasting.

F. Luke 18: 12

Luk 18: 9  And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:

Luk 18: 10  Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

Luk 18: 11  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.

Luk 18: 12  I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

Luk 18: 13  And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

From this passage, although the outward form is condemned by God, that fasting does not always have to be long.
It was not uncommon to do it twice a week. This helps us to understand that fasting could be, probably, for a couple of hours.

3. Fasting in the early church.

 As we consider fasting in the early church, we have a number of passages that help us.

A. Acts 13: 1- 3

Act 13: 1  Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers, Barnabas, and Symeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen the foster-brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.

Act 13: 2  And as they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.

Act 13: 3  Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.

In this passage we see that as Barnabas and Paul were selected for a certain task, and that it was confirmed with the laying on of hands, prayer and fasting.

In this example we see that the laying on of hands was being practiced in the early church as a way of confirmation.

(Note: The laying on of hands is mostly used as a way of transferring spiritual gifts, however in this example we see that it was used as a way of confirmation for a certain task)

B. Acts 14: 21- 23

Act 14: 21  And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, and to Iconium, and to Antioch,

Act 14: 22  confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.

Act 14: 23  And when they had appointed for them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they had believed.

 

When we look at this passage we see that when elders were appointed in churches, that this appointment came with prayer and fasting.

These examples (point A and B) show that the early church, when important decisions were being made that it was connected to prayer and fasting.

This helps us to understand that when we have to make decisions that are very important and crucial that a time of prayer and fasting is called for.

Also, we see that when elders and deacons are appointed, when we send out evangelist in their work, it needs to go together with prayer and fasting.

C. 1 Kor. 7: 5

1 Co 7: 3  Let the husband render unto the wife her due: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.

1 Co 7: 4  The wife hath not power over her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power over his own body, but the wife.

1 Co 7: 5  Defraud ye not one the other, except it be by consent for a season, that ye may give yourselves unto fasting and prayer, and may be together again, that Satan tempt you not because of your incontinency.

This passage will help us to understand that there can be a time in the lives of couples that fasting and prayer has a very true meaning.

 

From the context we understand that the Christians at Corinth were going through a very rough and difficult time. I think therefore that this is good by reason of the present distress that is upon us”, we might not know exactly what the “present distress” was, but we know it was a hard and rough time.


Under these circumstances we find that Paul gives couples advice to stay together and to render to one another their rights on the virtue of marriage.
However, he also tells them that, if by consent, they can give specific time to prayer and fasting.

This shows us that couples can take time for prayer and fasting.


(Note: Not all translations have fasting and prayer in this verse. Some versions speak only of prayer) 

4. Fasting in the life of Paul

In the life of Paul we see an examples of fasting.

2 Kor. 6: 4- 5

2 Co 6: 3  giving no occasion of stumbling in anything, that our ministration be not blamed;

2 Co 6: 4  but in everything commending ourselves, as ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses,

2 Co 6: 5  in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings;

2 Co 6: 6  in pureness, in knowledge, in long suffering, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in love unfeigned,

 

From this passage we learn that Paul was in fastings often.
We do not know details of his fastings, but we do know that he was in fastings. 

We learn the fasting was a common thing in the early church.

We read about Paul: ”Be ye my imitators as I have imitated Christ”. (1 Kor. 11: 1)

If we are to grow fully into the image of Christ, let us fast together with Him, with our Master.

When we take a quick look at the Old Testament we find examples of fasting very often.

Fasting was called upon when the nation of Israel was about to be wiped out in the days of Esther. (Esther 4: 16)

David fasted when his little child was sick. (2 Sam. 12) Ezra called for a fast when the nation needed to confess their sin. (Ezra 8: 21)
The city of Nineveh fasted as a sign of repentance (Jona 3: 5) In the book of Joel we find a fast as a sign of repentance (Joel 1: 14; 2: 15)

In all these examples we find a common goal in fasting, the goal was to seek God in a very deep and real way, fasting was always connected to seeking the face of God and to plead with Him.

Let us follow our Master Jesus.

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