Should Christians Fast?
Last week, we looked mainly at the Old Testament to gain a basic understanding of what fasting means and what it is for. But is fasting something Christians should do today? Although health-and-wellness fasting is currently popular, religious fasting to many people seems legalistic, old-fashioned, vaguely Roman Catholic, or simply unfamiliar and odd. Should it really be part of the lives of New Testament, Protestant Christians now? Let’s look at the New Testament teaching of Jesus and the apostles and find out.
Jesus famously criticized the religious leaders of Israel for their hypocritical approach to fasting (Matthew 6:16). However, their error was not fasting per se; it was their hypocrisy. In response, Jesus does not forbid fasting; instead, He assumes that His people will fast (“But when you fast . . .”) and teaches them how to do it in a godly way (Matthew 6:17-18).
It’s also true that Jesus’ disciples did not fast during His ministry (Matthew 9:14). But when questioned about this, Jesus clarified that after His physical departure from earth (i.e., after his death, resurrection, and ascension), “then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).
That is indeed what we find in the practice of the apostolic church. In Acts 13, the church in Antioch is engaged in “worshiping the Lord and fasting” when the Holy Spirit directs them to set Paul and Barnabas apart for a special work—Paul’s first missionary journey. “Then,” it says, “after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3). Continuing in the same pattern, Paul and Barnabas fasted and prayed when they appointed elders for the churches they had just planted (Acts 14:23).
It’s significant that the New Testament letters do not contain specific instructions about fasting from food (although Paul does briefly mention husbands and wives agreeing to abstain temporarily from physical intimacy to devote themselves to prayer, 1 Corinthians 7:5). This silence of Paul and the other epistle writers should caution us against becoming preoccupied with fasting in the Christian life. In fact, just as Jesus warned against hypocritical fasting, Paul warns against practices that “have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Christians should always be wary of misguided, self-righteous, outwardly-oriented kinds of fasting.
But on balance, the New Testament evidence suggests that fasting is just as appropriate for Christians today as it ever was in Old Testament times, for the very same reasons God’s people fasted before Christ came. Jesus clearly expects that his followers will sometimes fast, and it seems particularly appropriate in light of Acts for churches to fast corporately at significant moments in church life.
Articulating a post-Reformation, Protestant understanding of fasting in light of the whole Bible’s teaching on the subject, the Westminster Confession of Faith (21.5) describes fasting as an appropriate aspect of Christian worship today, particularly corporate fasting for special occasions:
“The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.”
Grace-Based Action Point
As you consider the place fasting should have in your Christian life, remember first and foremost the fasting of Jesus Himself. I love the understatement of Matthew 4:2, that “after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” Jesus deliberately underwent this fast to demonstrate His own humble human dependence on God the Father (Matthew 4:4), to develop in His own human experience a true sympathy with your human weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15), and to demonstrate His power against Satan even in a physically weakened state. Christian fasting means fasting in union with Jesus Christ, who humbled Himself to save you, who knows the feeling of your weaknesses, and whose power is made most evident at your weakest moments.
Yours in Christ,