What the Bible says about the history and purpose of fasting.
Fasting is enjoying a renaissance. From churches starting the year with a Daniel Fast, to the trendiness of intermittent fasting as a diet plan and the growing popularity of Lent, fasting has entered the mainstream.
But what is the purpose of fasting? And where did it come from?
Fasting is an ancient practice, and almost every major religion features fasting in some way. In the Bible alone, fasting is mentioned upwards of 70 times, as a way to pray, petition God or express grief. It’s important to note that you should consult with a medical doctor before fasting to ensure you do so in a healthy way.
Here are a few examples of fasting in the Bible:
Matthew 4 records Jesus “being led” into the desert where he fasted for forty days. Luke 4 gets more specific saying Jesus “ate nothing during those days.” While abstaining from all food for 40 days is probably not a realistic or healthy option for most people, the idea of setting aside 40 days to fast and pray is at the heart of Lent. It’s interesting to note that it was after Jesus’ period of fasting that he began his ministry. Some scholars suggest this time of preparation was essential for his future tasks.
Moses also did a 40 day fast. God instructed him to chisel two stone tablets and come to the top of Mount Sinai. Exodus 34:28 says, “, “Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water.” It was during this time that God instructed Moses to record the ten commandments.
When Esther’s cousin Mordecai pleaded with her to go before her husband, the King, to save the Jewish people, she knew it was a dangerous task. She instructed Mordecai to:
“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. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
The King heeded Esther’s plea and spared the Jews. Esther 9 records that Queen Esther instructed the Jews to fast for three days each year to celebrate their rescue. Today, this celebration is known as Purim.
The Bible mentions two times Daniel turned to fasting. In Daniel 1, when Daniel entered King Nebuchadnezzar’s court, Daniel asked a guard to, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink.” The guard was so impressed with how healthy Daniel and his friends looked after the ten days, that he changed the diet of the whole court.
Later, after receiving a vision from God, Daniel was so overwhelmed that he embarked on a three week fast.
Daniel 10:3 says, “I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.”
When Ezra and the Israelites were journeying to Jerusalem, they were at great risk for being robbed and ambushed along the way. Before setting out, Ezra “proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.”
Their prayers were answered. Ezra 8:23 says, “We fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.”
Jesus did not tell people to fast, in Matthew 6, He gave the disciples very specific instructions on how not to fast, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”
The New Testament records several examples of fasting, one of the most prominent being when God chose Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. Acts 12:2–3 says, “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. So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”
On their trip, Paul and Barnabas chose leaders for new churches and “with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord” (Acts 14:23).