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Biblical Balance and Fasting

admin on April 22, 2015 - 2:53 pm in Bible, Christian Living, Craig Smith

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The subject of Christian fasting is, unfortunately, sometimes the cause of division among believers.  On the one hand we have some Christians who believe and teach that fasting is a key (if not the key) to spiritual power and effective prayer.  On the other hand, we have some Christians who believe (or at least act as though they believe) that fasting is not appropriate in the New Covenant.  Some even go so far as to assert that the practice of fasting is more closely tied to New Age mysticism than to biblical spiritual disciplines.  As is so often the case, the truth is a middle ground somewhere between those extremes.

Below you will find several observations that I offer in the hopes of helping Christians find this appropriate middle – and biblical! - ground.  This is by no means a full-blown theology of fasting.  My goal is only to make some biblical observations that we should keep in mind when considering the discipline of fasting:

  1. The Bible only commands one fast. This was a fast to be undertaken on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:26-28).  Since the Day of Atonement anticipated the coming of Christ who was our final and perfect sacrifice, it is quite appropriate that Christians do not observe this particular fast.  It must be recognized, however, that there are no other commands to fast in the whole Bible. While there are a handful of both OT and NT references to the practice of fasting, none of them are prescriptive; that is, none of the texts command God’s people to fast or even explicitly urge them to do so. 
  2. Even descriptive statements about fasting are relatively rare in the New Testament. In searching for both the verb and noun forms of key terms, we find that fasting is simply not a common subject in the New Testament.
  • The Greek verb for “fast” (nēsteuō) occurs only 20 times in the entire New Testament and only in the context of 7 passages (for example, it occurs 4 times in Matthew 6:16-18 where Jesus tells his followers not to fast in the way that the Pharisees fast). 3 of these 7 passages are referring to the same incident (when Jesus was asked why his disciples didn’t fast like the disciples of the Pharisees and John the Baptist).  So there are really only 5 unique passages in the New Testament that refer to the act of fasting.
  • The Greek noun for “fast” (nēsteia) occurs only 5 times in the New Testament, and 2 of those are used to refer to suffering an involuntary hunger (1Co 6:5, 11:27) rather than a spiritual practice. So there are really only 3 distinct passages that speak about a “fast” in the New Testament.
  1. There are no Biblical texts which directly associate fasting with spiritual power. The only possible text in the New Testament (or the Old Testament for that matter) which might assert a correlation between fasting and spiritual power is found in Matthew 17:21 which supposedly records Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question of why they could not drive out a particular evil spirit:  “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”  This verse is not found in the earliest manuscripts of Matthew but only in those copies from the 5th century and later.  Most conservative scholars agree that this verse was not part of the original, inspired manuscript of Matthew but was added centuries later, which is why most English translations have a footnote calling attention to this fact. (click here for an overview of the art and science of “text criticism”).  Apart from this one highly questionable verse, there are no other texts which assert a connection between fasting and spiritual power or even the efficacy of our prayers.

Taken together, the above observations should be strong warning against teaching that fasting is a missing “key” to spiritual vitality or an effective prayer life. However, this is not to say that fasting is to be avoided or that it should be treated as having little or no value for the Christian today.

  1. Jesus himself practiced fasting in preparation for his ministry. Matthew 4:1-2 makes this very clear:  Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.  If Jesus himself saw value in this practice, then surely we should see value in it as well!
  1. Jesus seems to have assumed that his followers would practice some kind of fasting. Matthew 6:16-18 records Jesus’ instruction on how to fast so that his disciples did not fall prey to the temptation to treat fasting as a badge of spiritual superiority (as the Pharisees did).  Specifically, the disciples of Jesus are not to “put on a gloomy face” but instead should “anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men.”  Such instructions are in keeping with Jesus’ teaching in Mark 2, Matthew 9 and Luke 5 that fasting which is an expression of mourning over God’s absence is not appropriate for Jesus’ followers.  But the fact that Jesus gave instruction on how his followers should fast differently presupposes that fasting of some sort would continue to be part of the Christian life.
  1. The book of Acts reports that fasting was a spiritual discipline practiced by the early Christians as part of their prayers for significant events:
  • Acts 2:14 - While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."[1]
  • Acts 13:3 - Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
  • Acts 14:23 - When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

While no details are given as to why the early church accompanied their prayers with fasting, the fact that prayer and fasting are so linked in Acts should be taken as strong encouragement for believers to follow their example.

Putting It All Together

While the first set of biblical observations serves as a caution against overstating the importance of fasting for the Christian, the second set of observations similarly cautions against underestimating the role of fasting in the Christian life.  Fasting is clearly something that was part of the life of Jesus and of his earliest followers…and should be part of the modern Christian life as well.

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[1] It is worth noting that this verse might suggest a correlation between fasting and hearing from the Holy Spirit.  It must be recognized, however, that correlation does not equal causation; that is, the fact that hearing from the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the same verse as fasting does not provide definitive, or even substantial, proof that fasting is a key to hearing from the Holy Spirit.  This might indeed be the case, but this verse does not provide sufficient theological justification for such an assertion.

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