What Is Fasting in the Bible?


Fasting is an expression of spiritual faithfulness to and dependence upon God. The Bible mentions fasting in both the Old and New Testaments. In addition, devout people in Scripture, like Moses, Elijah, Esther, and Jesus, fasted for different purposes. As a result, some people today practice one of the types of fasts that the Bible describes. For these reasons and more, many people want to know more about fasting.

Fasting in the Bible is refraining from eating and sometimes drinking for a designated time in order to express devotion to God. Reasons people fast vary. Some desire God’s guidance on an important decision. Others want his protection or provision. People also fast to draw nearer to God.

What does refraining from food for a time communicate to God? Why not just pray instead? What are the three types of fasting? Who should some people seek wisdom from before fasting? What did Jesus say about fasting? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

fasting in the Bible
What is the most extreme form of fasting? See below

The Three Kinds of Fasting in the Bible

One pastor explained fasting this way: “Fasting is an external expression of an internal reality. When we fast for a meal or a day or a week, we remind ourselves that more than our stomachs long for the pleasure of food, our souls long for the presence of God.” [1]

Fasting doesn’t replace prayer. Prayer is important, powerful, and effective (Jas. 5:16). Fasting is like prayer in that it’s communicating with God, but it includes physically depriving oneself of a need for a time. The physical sacrifice is so God might observe a person’s zeal and consider their petition.

The Bible describes three different kinds of fasting that have different degrees of intensity about what a person is refraining from and for how long. To purify, a person who practices the least intense form of fasting isn’t necessarily less faithful or spiritually strong than those that engage in severer forms.

(1) Fasting from food alone

Fasting from food (and not from drinking, too) is the most common type of fasting in the Bible. New Testament scholars believe that when Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness before the devil tempted him, he refrained from food alone. Though fasting may have weakened his body, it strengthened his spirit to defeat the enemy.

In his Gospel, Luke mentions that after his fast, Jesus was hungry, but he doesn’t say that he was thirsty. “For forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He was hungry” (Luke 4:2, ESV).

Jesus’ fast may have made the devil’s first temptation of turning stone into bread more enticing (v. 3). It also made Jesus’ reply of “man shall not live on bread alone” more profound (v. 4).

(2) Fasting from eating and drinking

The most extreme form of fasting is abstaining from eating and drinking. Since human bodies can’t go more than a few days without water or else they die, people can’t practice this type of fasting for long. The supernatural exception to this is when Moses fasted from eating and drinking for 40 days (Deut. 9:9).

Paul fasted from eating and drinking for three days after his conversion. Acts 9:9 reads, “And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (ESV).

Ezra also abstained from food and drink for a short time: “Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib, where he spent the night, neither eating bread nor drinking water, for he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles (Ezra 10:6).

Esther also abstained from food and drink to save her people: “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” (Est. 4:16).

fasting
Wondering how to choose a fast? See below

(3) Partially fasting from eating but not drinking

The prophet Daniel described when he fasted for three weeks because he was overtaken with sorrow. Rather than abstaining from all foods, he only fasted from certain ones.

Daniel 10:2-3 read, “In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks” (ESV).

Many scholars believe there were probably physical benefits to this fast, yet it also resulted in a vision that gave Daniel valuable insight into God’s activity and plans. The prophet didn’t commit to a partial fast because his faith was weak. On the contrary, even a partial fast can be an act of devotion to God.

Choosing a type of fast

If a person has never fasted before, the partial fast mentioned in Daniel is a great place to start. However, a person can choose different foods that Daniel did that represent a sacrifice to them. Some may choose only to eat vegetables. Others may decide to go without meat or coffee. To be clear, the point of fasting isn’t weight loss but expressing fervency to God.

One factor that may determine what kind of fast a person commits to is their health. For example, it’s probably unwise for most older adults and young children to fast. Furthermore, those with health issues directly impacted by eating and drinking, like diabetes, would be wise to consult a doctor before significantly changing their diet, even for a short time.

It may also be wise for a person who is considering fasting to talk to their pastor. Fasting is a physical activity (or lack of one), but it’s a spiritual expression of request. Pastors care about the faith and wellness of their congregation. They may be able to offer wise advice and spiritual support for those refraining from eating and drinking for a designated time.

Bible fast
What did Jesus say about fasting? See below

Other examples of fasting in the Bible

Fasting for protection. Elijah flees from Jezebel. 1 Kings 19:8 reads, “And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

Fasting in private. Jesus instructed the Jews on proper fasting. Matthew 6:17 reads, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.” While Jesus never commands people to fast, many commentators observe that Jesus assumed some would.

Fasting with integrity. Zechariah questions people’s motive for fasting. Zechariah 7:5 reads, “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?'” Similarly, Isaiah 58:3 reads, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”

Fasting with a confession is often part of fasting. Psalm 69:10 reads, “When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach. Joel 2:12 aligns with this theme: “Yet even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” (cf. 1 Sam. 7:6)

Fasting with a petition. Ezra 8:23 reads, “So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.” Similarly, Acts 13:2 reads, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

Application

Christian author Donal Whitney writes, “Fasting can be an expression of finding your greatest pleasure and enjoyment in life from God. That’s the case when disciplining yourself to fast means that you love God more than food, that seeking Him is more important to you than eating. This honors God and is a means of worshiping Him as God.” [2]

References:
[1] Follow Me by David Platt. p. 119.
[2] Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney. p. 176.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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