Although commanded by God only in connection with the “Day of Atonement” in Leviticus 16, the practice of religious fasting grew throughout the Old Testament to become a major expression of a person’s spirituality. Its perversion was confronted by God in Isaiah 58, but that did not stop the steady slide of the nation into their legalistic approach to this spiritual practice. In this second article on fasting, we will begin exploring this practice in the intertestamental era as well as the New Testament.
Jewish Fasting in Intertestamental Times
By the time of the New Testament, Jews had normalized the practice of fasting to rival other righteous activities such as giving alms and praying. Pharisees required fasting and, in their perspective, believed it merited God’s favor or attention, prescribing it twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.
While Luke is obviously in the New Testament, it throws light on how fasting had grown within the intertestamental time. In Luke 18, Jesus gave the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican and noted their prayers. Each man aligned on opposite sides of what we heard in Isaiah 58. One man believed fasting was meritorious as he focused on all the good works he had done; the other repented as he focused on the mercy he needed.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’”—Luke 18:10–13
Jesus, and Isaiah 58, make clear which one of the men left justified (Luke 18:14). God was concerned about striving against sin, not fasting from food. The Pharisee did not mention the spiritual discipline of praying, which God commanded. He focused on the sins he didn’t practice as well as his habits of fasting twice a week and tithing on all he had.
His prayer demonstrated that paying tithes and consistent fasting were meritorious practices for this man. There is the obvious problem of conflating the means of grace and merit. However, this also demonstrates how far the practice of fasting had come since the Old Testament. The Mosaic law called for one annual fast. Old Testament leaders had called for additional fasts at specific times; in intertestamental times, two fasts had become solidified in the weekly religious calendar. Now we can turn to fasting in the New Testament.
By following the vocabulary of fasting, we will note when fasting appears in Scripture and how the subject is treated. The New Testament Greek word associated with fasting is nestis. This is a noun which essentially refers to a person “who had not eaten” or “who was empty.” Obviously, fasting was the purposeful intent to do so. There are only a few uses of nestis which apply in this way, so let us consider them.
In Matthew 4, the New Testament introduces the subject of fasting as Jesus prepared for His battle with Satan. Matthew 4:1–2 says, “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.” This leaves us with questions about Jesus’ motivation. Was Jesus fasting here to equip Himself to withstand the devil? Was His fasting to give us an example to follow? Why did He fast? There is no specified answer.
However, the context of the passage leads us to conclude that Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights in order to manifest His divine sonship. Within the Gospel of Matthew, there is an ongoing theme of Jesus being the “better son” or “greater son” of God in contrast to Israel, who was also “God’s son”.
Matthew had already compared Jesus to Israel in this manner, arguing that they were both sons of God called out of Egypt. Matthew 2:13–15 says,
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call My Son”.
Jesus’ physical journey to Egypt was so that He might be in a situation where the same thing that was true of Israel, would be true of Him. They were both in Egypt and called out of it by God. By quoting Hosea but applying it to Jesus, not Israel, Matthew established a contrast that would be picked up in chapter 4.
Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was similar to Israel’s wilderness wandering. He was there for “forty days and forty nights;” they were there forty years. His fasting was to place Him in a physical condition comparable to that of Israel. Israel was tested while in a condition of being deprived of food and water while in the wilderness; Jesus was tested while similarly deprived and in the wilderness as well. The difference was in the result. Israel complained and murmured against God to the point of rebelling against God their Father. Jesus, however, did not rebel in a wilderness temptation when deprived of food and water. He was faithful to His Father. Though weakened, He was victorious. He is the greater son.
Therefore, this was not a statement on the merits of fasting. The fasting was to place Him in a state of deprivation from which He would demonstrate His faithfulness to the Father when tested. He was living the righteous life expected of God’s Son- an early foreshadowing of future victory.
Jesus addressed fasting head-on in Matthew 6 in the Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 6, Jesus addressed the contemporary practices that made up Jewish righteousness. These practices needed reform, so Jesus contrasted these practices with true righteousness. His was a righteousness that would “surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).
Jesus exposed their spiritual practices as being done for personal glory before men, rather than spiritual humility before God. He described how habits of the giving of alms, prayer, and fasting were sinfully twisted by the people. They performed for public adulation and personal validation as the Pharisee did, as demonstrated in Matthew 17.
It needs to be stated that Jesus was not commanding a new practice. He was regulating what was already happening at that time. Other than the Day of Atonement, God had not commanded fasting, nor would Jesus do it in Matthew 6.
Jesus’ point was that, when participating in Pharisee-called fasts, the people must not participate in the hypocrisy that accompanied the practice. This was accomplished by concealing the fact you were fasting (6:16–18). Fasting was to be done in front of God, not people.
One might ask, isn’t Jesus calling for fasts by regulating it? Doesn’t the instruction presume the prescription? Two things should be kept in mind here.
First, Jesus’ instruction was necessary and helpful to keep the Day of Atonement fast. Such fasting connected to that day should be done towards God.
Second, in Matthew 23:1–3, Jesus told His followers to obey the Pharisees’ authority, but not to do what Pharisees do.
“Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them.’”
They were to obey those in authority over them, as long as they were not required to disobey God’s authority.
However, the practices were not to be done with the wrong motive which led to abuse. These man-made fasts were unnecessary, but not disobedient, when practiced before God. They were of no value at all when practiced before man. Therefore, there is Christian freedom to participate correctly in fasts, and there is a good warning of the temptations to sin while fasting.
In Matthew 17:21, after the transfiguration, Jesus, Peter, James, and John descended the mountain to find a large crowd had confronted the other disciples (17:1–14). There was controversy regarding a man’s son, who was brought for healing (17:15–16). The disciples were unable to help as they had in other contexts, and it perplexed them. Jesus resolved the problem by casting out the demon which had afflicted the son.
In private, the disciples asked Jesus why they were unable to cast out the demon (17:17–19). Jesus’ response focused on the “littleness” of their faith by way of a parable (17:20). Verse 21 goes on to quote Jesus as saying, “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” On the surface, this seems to encourage supercharging prayer requests by fasting.
However, in various English translations, this verse is designated for further explanation. The ESV, the NASB (2020), and the NIV leave the verse out of the text with an explanatory marginal note. The NASB (1995) puts the verse in but informs the reader that the best Greek manuscripts do not have the verse. The KJV, the NKJV, and older English translations leave the verse in without comment. Although they are good for the most part, these older translations are not based on the best Greek texts that the church has in its possession. These manuscripts do not contain the verse.
What are we to make of this verse that does not have strong manuscript support? First, it is spiritually unwise to build a doctrine or practice on a text that isn’t in Scripture. Second, Jesus’ meaning is best understood without verse 21—God answers the prayers of the faithful. It is completely unnecessary to add fasting to our spiritual prayer practice because prayer is sufficient to cast out even extraordinarily difficult demons. And that shouldn’t surprise us.
James 5:17–18 indicates that it was the earnest prayer of Elijah that both stopped the rain and then started it again. It was prayer, not fasting or prayer and fasting, but prayer by itself that stopped and started the rain.
Moreover, those who advocate fasting unintentionally create a major problem. Their position tends to belittle or denigrate the power of prayer unless accompanied by fasting. However, God’s children don’t need to pray and fast to be heard by God. We don’t need to catch His attention. His arm doesn’t require twisting. He’s our heavenly Father. Moreover, God cannot be manipulated or impressed into acting outside of His will (cf. 1 John 5:14–15).
Therefore, when we pray, we must be willing to receive His answer, not try to get around it by adding fasting to our prayers. Christian, you do not need to wonder, “If I had just fasted, would I have had my prayer answered in the affirmative?” The answer is, no, you would not have. Faithful prayers are sufficient prayers.