"Fasting, What Should We Do?"
In Luke 5:33-34 Jesus is questioned concerning fasting. He responds in verse 35 saying, "The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days." At the time of the questioning Jesus and his disciples are feasting not fasting. But Jesus makes it clear that a time will come when his disciples will fast. In the Sermon on the Mount Matthew records Jesus as saying, "And when you fast," (Mt.6:16). This is parallel to his other teachings, "when you give to the needy" (6:2) or "And when you pray" (6:5,7). He assumes his disciples will pray, give to the needy and fast. Therefore the disciples of Jesus should consider fasting as a part of their following him as we would prayer or giving.
There is a General and Specific View of Fasting
A general view of Christian fasting carries the idea that fasting aims at spiritual activity but does not always deal with abstinence from food. Richard Foster says,
“Fasting is the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.”1
Martin Lloyd Jones concurs with this idea when he states,
“To make the matter complete, we would add that fasting, if we conceive of it truly, must not be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting. There, I suggest, is a kind of general definition of what is meant by fasting.”2
In a general view of fasting the end is the same as a specific view of fasting. It is for the purpose of some spiritual end. However, the difference between a general and specific view of Christian fasting is what the Christian abstains from. The specific view of fasting is abstaining from food and sometimes drink. We see this in the following passages of Scripture:
Matthew 4:2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights he was hungry.
Daniel 1:12 Daniel and the three young Israelites had, vegetables to eat and water to drink.
Matthew 3:4 John the Baptist, his food was locusts and wild honey.
Ezra 10:6 Ezra, ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.
Esther 4:16 Esther requested, Go gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.
Deuteronomy 9:9 Moses, I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water.
The specific and general view of fasting then is that the Christian abstain from food and drink and anything that is “legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose”.
Fasting, A Bride’s Response to the Absent Bridegroom
Should Christians fast? Does fasting belong in the Church? Is fasting a continuous practice among God’s people from the Old Testament to the New Testament? With the coming of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Christ is the old done away with? Keith Main thinks that fasting went out with the coming of the Messiah. He says,
We have suggested that the joy and thanksgiving that marks the prayer life of the New Testament is a sign of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Fasting in no longer consistent with the joyous and thankful attitude that marks the fellowship.
Fasting ceases to be a crucial issue within the church...Paul, following the lead of Jesus, deliberately diverted the disciples’ attention away from fasting and any form of food asceticism and into prayer, service, and toil on behalf of the kingdom. Missionary work served as a corrective and counterpoise not only to apocalyptic dreaming but also to the outworn and overworked custom of fasting....A sense of Life Eternal is ever breaking in upon us. The believer marches to the sound of music from a different world! And it is exceedingly difficult to reconcile the Risen Christ with fasting forms.3
There is a quiet voice in the New Testament concerning fasting beyond the gospels (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23; 2Cor.6:5; 11:27). There is instruction for the church in other areas of practical Godly living but the insistence of fasting by the apostles is unheard of. There is also the presence of Paul’s teaching concerning the goodness of food,
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared , who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1Tim.4:1-5)
and his insistence that there is a weakness in asceticism in fighting the indulgence of the flesh.
Let no one disqualify you, in insisting on asceticism...if with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to it’s regulations- “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” according to human precepts and teachings? These indeed have the appearance of wisdom in promoting self made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col.2:18a, 20-23)
But does the quiet voice of the apostles and Paul’s positive teaching concerning food and his negative teaching concerning asceticism render fasting useless to the church? There are two passages of Scripture in the Gospel of Matthew that will bring clarity to this question.
In Matthew 6:16-17 we read;
16"And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
Jesus is here giving instructions on fasting. His words, "and when you fast", indicate that he expects his followers to fast. He then gives a negative command in how they should not fast and then ends with his positive instruction emphasizing that his followers will fast by saying, "But when you fast." He uses the same phrase, "and when you", earlier in Matthew 6 in speaking of giving and praying. We would not question whether he wants his followers in the church to give or to pray. Therefore, I would conclude that Jesus expects his church to fast.
The second passage to consider is Matthew 9:14-17,
14Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" 15And 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. 16No 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. 17Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.
The followers of John the Baptist are questioning Jesus concerning his followers lack of fasting. Jesus had come eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, and John the Baptist had come eating no bread and drinking no wine. There seemed to be a contradiction in the godliness of the followers of Christ and John the Baptist and his followers.
In this text fasting seems to be for those who mourn, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”. This is evident in the Old Testament as we see Ezra mourning over the unfaithfulness of God’s people and calling for a fast (Ezar 10:6). And we see Anna yearning and longing, the widow at age 84, through worshiping in fasting and prayer as she waited for the consolation of Israel (Lk.2:37).
But Jesus is teaching that his disciples do not fast because this is not a time for mourning, it is a time for rejoicing because he is with them. He is teaching that the Bridegroom, the Messiah had come and this is cause for rejoicing not fasting. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s merciful promise to be the husband of his people and this is a time of rejoicing.
“19And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and mercy. 20I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD.”(Hosea 2:19-20)
The joy of Israel was made full in the coming of the Messiah, as John the Baptist himself said,
“The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegrooms voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.” (John 3:29)
John the Baptist and the disciples could rejoice for God had come near to be with them. This was not a time of mourning, longing or yearning. It was a time for rejoicing so his disciples did not fast.
However, Jesus does teach in this text that his disciples will fast. He says they will fast when the bridegroom is taken away from them. Jesus remained with his disciples in the earth for a three year ministry and then he died, was resurrected and ascended into heaven with a promise of returning again. It is during this time of his ascension and session at the right hand of the throne of God that his followers will fast. As the apostle Paul says,
“I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”(Phil.1:23-24).
Paul is indwelt by the Spirit of God and he lives by the Spirit but he longs in his desires to be with Christ, the bridegroom. He must remain in the earth to carry out the ministry that Christ has called him to, but yet his desire is to be with the one who has loved his bride, the Church. This is the new wine of fasting, the old patterns of fasting have gone and the new pattern is within the view that the Kingdom has come and the King of the Kingdom is returning, so his bride desires to be with him. His bride lives with this hope of being with her resurrected King who has atoned for her sins and caused her to be born again to a living hope. The Church has tasted that the Lord is good and now she longs for and hungers for the fullness of God’s presence in Christ. Therefore this is why his disciples will fast after he is gone. The Kingdom of God has come and it is yet to come with the second coming of the King, and the Church who has tasted that the Lord is good through the Spirit and the Word, will long for her King in fasting, that by the means of fasting she will have more hunger and satisfaction with His goodness. As John Piper says,
“This is the essence of Christian fasting: We ache and yearn -and fast- to know more and more of all that God is for us in Jesus. But only because he has already laid hold of us and is drawing us ever forward and upward into all “the fullness of God”.4
Reasons for Christians to Fast
Standing on the shoulders of others who have gone before us and listening to their words is helpful in directing our own lives in our particular callings. I want to give a series of quotes from those who have walked before us to give encouragement in reasons for our own practice of fasting.
John Calvin wrote,
“Whenever men are to pray to God concerning any great matter, it would be expedient to appoint fasting along with prayer.”5
Fasting and prayer go together for "great matters". Fasting is not a manipulation tool to get God to do the bidding of his church. The church is to pray in the will of God according to his Word, but fasting will change the churches praying as she hungers for the will of God to be done and for the glory of God to be revealed in all that he does. Nehemiah fasted and prayed before God (Neh.1:4). Daniel devoted himself to fasting and praying (Dan.9:3). The early church worshiped and fasted and prayed before deciding whom to send out to preach the gospel (Acts 13:1-3).
This statement by Calvin leads us to another purpose in fasting, to seek God’s guidance. There are many great matters before the church, but the sadness in the church is that we do not see them as great matters. The church at Antioch was seeking God’s guidance in sending out their first missionary force. This same practice was used by Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:23 as they sought the Lord’s will in appointing elders in the newly founded churches. David Brainerd fasted in seeking the Lord’s guidance in his entry into ministry,
“I set apart this day for fasting and prayer to God for his grace; especially to prepare me for the work of ministry, to give me divine aid and direction in my preparations for that great work, and in His own time to send me into his harvest...I felt the power of intercession for precious, immortal souls; for the advancement of the kingdom of my dear Lord and Savior in the world; and withal, a most sweet resignation and even consolation and joy in the thoughts of suffering hardships, distresses, and even death itself, in the promotion of it...My soul was drawn out very much for the world, for multitudes of souls. I think I had more enlargement for sinners than for the children of God, though I felt as if I could spend my life in cries for both. I enjoyed great sweetness in communion with my dear Savior. I think I never in my life felt such an entire weanedness from this world and so much resigned to God in everything.”6
As the church longs for God, they are to long for God’s guidance in what he calls them to do.
Martin Luther said in a sermon on Matthew 4:1 in 1524,
“Of fasting I say this: it is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, praying, for studying or for doing anything else that is good. Under such circumstances God’s Word cannot remain. But one should not fast with a view to meriting something by it as by a good work.”7
Fasting for the purpose of subduing and controlling the body is what Luther calls for. Christians are full of the world and it’s delights and often far from God and their callings. This is not an asceticism that cannot control body, but a discipline that elicits hunger for God and those things that God loves as good. As Martin Loyd Jones states,
“There can be no question whatever but that physical bodily states and conditions do have a bearing upon the activity of the mind and of the spirit, so that the element of fasting must be considered in this particular relationship of body, mind and spirit.”8
There is a direct relation between our bodies and our souls and a discipline of the body in fasting in hungering for God and his glory to be revealed to his people through the works he has ordained for his disciples to conduct is necessary at times.
Jonathan Edwards encourages fasting for the reviving work of the Spirit of God in his church.
“I suppose there is a scarcely a minister in this land, but from Sabbath to Sabbath used to pray that God would pour out his Spirit, and work reformation and revival of religion in the country, and turn us from our intemperance, profaneness, uncleanness, worldliness and other sins; and we have kept from year to year days of public fasting and prayer to God, to acknowledge our backslidings, and humble ourselves for our sins, and to seek of God forgiveness and reformation; and now when so great and extensive a reformation is so suddenly and wonderfully accomplished, in those very things that we have sought to God for, shall we acknowledge it?”9
This longing for the work of God for revival and reformation is a longing for God to come into the presence of his people and so give them a taste that he is good, that by his Spirit and Word he causes his people to long for him, and put off, as filthy garments, all those sins that they have been so long satisfied with. And to this end it appears fasting is necessary. This is why he would call church members to spend time in beseeching the God of all goodness privately and together in fasting and praying with these words,
“The state of the times extremely requires a fullness of the divine Spirit in ministers, and we ought to give ourselves no rest til we have obtained it. And in order to do this, I should think ministers, above all persons, ought to be much in secret prayer and fasting, and also much in praying and fasting with one another. It seems to me it would be becoming of the circumstances of the present day, if ministers in a neighborhood would often meet together and spend days in fasting and fervent prayer among themselves, earnestly seeking for those extraordinary supplies fo divine grace form heaven, that we need this day.”10
Christians must long for the glory of God to be revealed in the work of his gospel through sound preaching, right ordering of the sacraments and the discipline of the church. And this longing is expressed in fervent prayer and fasting. Church members must long for God themselves in fasting and prayer that God’s people may long for him and taste and see that he is good through hearing the Word by broken and contrite vessels who have an appetite for God. As Cornelius Plantinga Jr. states,
“Self indulgence is the enemy of gratitude, and self discipline usually it’s friend and generator. That is why gluttony is a deadly sin. The early desert fathers believed that a persons appetites are linked; full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for righteousness. The spoil the appetite for God.”11
1. Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline; The Path to Spiritual Growth, cited by Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Navpress, p.152
2. D Martin Lloyd Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, IVP Eerdmans, Vol.II, p.38
3. Keith Main, Prayer and Fasting; A Study in the Devotional Life of the Early Church, Carlton Press, p.84, 54, 60-61. cited by John Piper, A Hunger for God, Crossway Books, p.30-31
4. John Piper, A Hunger for God, Crossway Books, p.48
5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeil, Ford Lewis Battles, Vol.I, p.1242
6. Jonathan Edwards, ed., The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, p.80-81
7. Compiled by Ewald M. Plass, What Martin Luther Says, Concordia, Vol.I, p.506
8. D. Martin Lloyd Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, IVP, Vol.II, p.37
9. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Vol.IV, p.331
10. ibid, p.507
11. Cornelius Plantinga Jr., quoted in the Reformed Journal, November 1988, cited by Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, p.51