When Jesus sat to eat with his disciples and the publicans, the Pharisees demanded to know why they were not fasting (Luke 5:33). That’s a great question. Why weren’t they fasting? After all, fasting is taught all throughout the Old Testament.
Fasting in the Old Testament
When Nehemiah learned how Jerusalem had been burnt to the ground the people had been taken captive, there was fasting:
And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned [certain] days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven… (Nehemiah 1:4)
When the Jews learned the rulers of the day were going to murder them, there was fasting:
And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, [there was] great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing… (Esther 4:3)
When Daniel realized the Jews’ captivity was about to end, there was fasting:
And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes… (Daniel 9:3)
When God told his people to repent from their sins, there was fasting:
Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye [even] to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning… (Joel 2:12)
The law even commanded fasting once a year on the Day of Atonement:
And [this] shall be a statute for ever unto you: [that] in the seventh month, on the tenth [day] of the month, ye shall afflict your souls… (Lev. 16:29)
The phrase, ye shall afflict your souls, referred to the sacrifice they were to make in repentance (i.e. fast).
The purpose of fasting
Fasting literally makes us weak and weakness is a good thing:
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor. 12:9)
Fasting takes our focus away from material things and allows us to focus on spiritual things:
Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. (Matthew 6:24-25)
It is a sacrifice and sacrifice is necessary in our service to God:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service. (Romans 12:1)
It teaches us obedience by teaching us self-discipline:
Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered… (Hebrews 5:8)
Fasting during the time of Christ
Jesus responded to the Pharisees by saying, “Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them” (Luke 5:34)? In order words, do you mourn at a wedding? Of course not. You mourn at funerals, not weddings.
Through the Old Testament–namely, the Song of Solomon–we learn how God would one day “marry” his people. He would be the bridegroom and we would be the bride. Christ, being God in the flesh, was that bridegroom. With him on the earth, there was no need for the disciples to fast. Furthermore, fasting was not required by God on the days the Pharisees required it and fasting should have been done in private service to God anyway (Matthew 6:16-18).
Fasting in the New Testament era
Jesus went on to tell the Pharisees, “But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days” (Luke 5:35). There is a sense in which the Lord is absent from us (2 Corinthians 5:8). As a result, we have returned to a state where fasting is a good and acceptable practice for us.
For instance, Paul and Barnabas fasted when they had a spiritual decision to make:
And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)
While we do have liberty as to when we might fast, we should still practice it today when we desperately need the Lord’s help, feel a great burden to repent, in an effort to intimately worship, or when simply seeking guidance on a matter.
Great Bible question! Keep them coming. Email me anytime.