IS FASTING A REQUIREMENT
OF THE NEW COVENANT?
Written by Ron Hutchison
February 27, 2006

I recently heard a lesson presented on the subject of fasting.  The lesson was presented in a fine way, and you could tell that the brother who presented the lesson had put a lot of study into it. I appreciated this lesson, because it prompted me to study this subject in greater detail than I had in the past.

I have been taught all my life that fasting was a part of the Old Covenant and as such had been done away with at the cross.  As I listened to this lesson, one of the comments concerned me.  The comment was this:  "we pride ourselves as part of the restoration movement of speaking where  the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent, but where is our teaching on fasting?"  I understood the speaker to be saying that we cannot claim that we have restored New Testament Christianity until we restore the practice of fasting. 

[Note: I think it is a mistake to talk about being "part of the restoration movement" as if there were others who were trying to restore New Testament Christianity.  The Disciples of Christ and the Christian Church, who are considered to be "part of the restoration movement" by some, have long ago stopped "speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent." In fact, they left those who are making that plea a long time ago. They are both full-fledged denominations. It is also a sad fact that there are more and more congregations that call themselves churches of Christ, who are no longer making the restoration plea.] 

Is fasting a requirement of the New Covenant?  Have we failed in restoring New Testament Christianity if we do not teach about fasting?  If fasting is a requirement of the New Covenant, then we certainly cannot claim we have restored New Testament Christianity if we do not teach and practice it. We also sin if we do not practice fasting because we are leaving out God's requirement.  Thus we ask, is fasting a requirement of the New Covenant?

FASTING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT     

The Bible speaks of fasting in several passages. One of the words that is translated "fasting" in the Old Testament (tsuwm) is used 20 times in 17 verses (Judges 20:26; 1 Samuel 7:6; 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12; 12:16,21,22,23; 1 Kings 21:27; 1 Chronicles 10:12; Ezra 8:23; Nehemiah 1:4; Esther 4:16; Isaiah 58:3,4; Jeremiah 14:12; Zechariah 7:5).  Another Hebrew word that is translated fasting is tsowm.  It is used 25 times in 21 verses (1 Kings 21:9,12; 2 Chronicles 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Nehemiah 9:1; Esther 4:3; 9:31; Psalm 35:13; 69:10; 109:24; Isaiah 59:3,5,6; Jeremiah 36:6,9; Daniel 9:3; Joel 1:14; 2:12,15; Jonah 3:5; Zechariah 8:19).

After reading these passages we may conclude that fasting under the Old Covenant was associated with the following:

  • Repentance of sin (either of an individual or a nation and it was often accompanied by prayer).

  • Mourning or sorrow (sometimes at the death or near death of a loved one or of the nation of Israel losing a battle or war and thus it was often accompanied by weeping).

  • As a substitute for obedience (of course this was wrong).

  • As a way to humble oneself before God.

The Bible also uses another word which evidently includes fasting in Leviticus 16.  This chapter gives general directions for the celebration of the Day of Atonement.  Verse 29 says, "This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you."  The Hebrew word translated "afflict" is "'anah." Brown, Driver and Briggs' Hebrew Lexicon defines this word as, "to afflict, oppress, humble, be afflicted, be bowed down."  Thus, on the Day of Atonement, the Israelites were commanded to afflict or humble themselves.  Evidently included in this "humbling" was fasting because the Day of Atonement is called "the Fast" in Acts 27:9. In fact, one of the definitions that Brown, Driver and Briggs gives of "'anah" is "to weaken oneself."  Fasting would be one way to do this.  The Psalmist said, "But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting; and my prayer would return to my own heart" (Psalm 35:13). How did the Psalmist humble (afflict - 'anah) himself? With fasting. 

We can conclude from this brief study of Old Testament passages that fasting was not only practiced on different occasions by God's people under the Old Covenant, but that it was commanded on the Day of Atonement.

FASTING IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

What does the New Testament teach about fasting? Are Christians who live under the New Covenant of Christ commanded or required to practice fasting as a part of their Christian walk?

We will look at all of the passages found in the New Testament that speak of fasting in seeking an answer for this question.

The words translated "fasting" in the New Testament are "nesteuo"  used 21 times in 16 verses (Matthew 4:2; 6:16,17,18; 9:14,15; Mark 2:18,20; Luke 5:33,34,35; 18:12; Acts 10:30; 13:2,3); "nestis," used 2 times in 2 verses (Matthew 15:32; Mark 8:3 Here the word is translated "hungry" and in the context is not speaking of fasting as a religious practice); and "nesteia" the noun form of "nesteuo" which is used 8 times in 8 verses (Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29; Luke 2:37; Acts 14:23; 27:9; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27). 

Matthew  4:2

The first time fasting is mentioned in the New Testament is in Matthew 4:2.  The context is the temptation of Jesus. 

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." But He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:1-4)

Jesus had fasted for forty days and nights.  He was at one of His weakest moments and that's when Satan likes to strike.  Satan used the fact that Jesus had been fasting to place the first temptation before Him.  "Command that these stones become bread," he said.  To which Jesus replied, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."  It was true in Jesus' life and it ought to be true in every Christians' life that God's word (spiritual food) is more important to us than physical food.  Certainly, there would be nothing wrong with a Christian going without food (fasting) to study and meditate on God's word, provided you are healthy enough to do so. However, I don't see anything in this passage that would indicate that fasting is binding under the New Covenant. [Note: There are dangers in fasting. I would suggest you investigate the possible benefits and dangers of fasting (doing without food) before you do it.] 

Matthew  6:16-18

The next passage we want to look at is Matthew 6:16-18.

"Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

The argument has been made, that in the context of Matthew 6, Jesus mentions several things that are required under the New Covenant.  In verse 2 He mentions doing charitable deeds. In verse 5 He mentions prayer. And then in verse 16 He mentions fasting.  The conclusion that was reached is that since charitable deeds and prayer are required of Christians then fasting must be also.  However, I cannot agree with this conclusion for the following reason: I know from other passages that doing good to all men (Galatians 6:10) and prayer is required of Christians (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but I don't know of any passage that requires Christians to fast.  I know (as we shall see) that some Christians in the first century fasted, but I don't know of any passage that binds fasting on Christians. Do you? 

The lesson of Matthew 6:16-18 is that when we render service to God we should not do so to be seen by men. There can be no doubt that in this context Jesus is speaking of religious acts that the Jews often participated in.  This passage, however, does not bind fasting on Christians today.

Matthew  9:14-15

The next passage is Matthew 9:14-15:

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.

These verses have been used to teach that Christians must fast.  The argument goes like this: "Jesus said that when He is taken away, then His disciples would fast.  He has been taken away, thus we must fast today."  However, the fallacy of this argument can be seen when we look at the parallel verses in Mark and Luke. 

The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to Him, "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. (Mark 2:18-20).

Then they said to Him, "Why do the disciples of John fast often and make prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink?"  And He said to them, "Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days." (Luke 5:33-35).

Notice that both Mark and Luke add a qualifying phrase to "and then they will fast."  That phrase is, "in those days."  What days are "those days?"  The phrase "in those days" were the days when Jesus was delivered up in the first century The attitude of the disciples when Jesus was delivered up is illustrated by Jesus Himself in John 16:16-24. The sorrow the disciples experienced when Jesus was taken away soon turned into joy when they saw Jesus after His resurrection.

There is nothing in these passages that teach that fasting is binding on those who live under the New Covenant. 

Luke  18:10-14

The next passage is Luke 18:10-14.

"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 'I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' "And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:10-14).

Certainly, everyone would recognize that this is speaking of those fasts that the Jews practiced while the Old Covenant was still in effect. There is certainly no authority for us to conclude that because the Pharisee fasted that Christians are obligated to fast today, and I don't know of anyone who would take this view.  Luke 2:37 also falls in this category.  "and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day."  These people were simply doing what they had done as Jews living under the Old Covenant.
 

Matthew  17:21; Mark  9:29

Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29 are parallel passages. Matthew's account reads like this:

 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" So Jesus said to them, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."  (Matthew 17:18-21). 

I have never heard of anyone who believes that this passage binds the practice of fasting on Christians.  We know these events took place under the Old Covenant.  However, the conclusion has been drawn that this passage teaches that fasting makes prayer more effective.  I don't think this is the lesson that Jesus was setting forth.  If it is, then we ought never to pray unless we are fasting, because we want our prayers to be most effective at all times.  Jesus simply makes a statement that casting out the kind of demons under consideration took two things - prayer and fasting.     

Acts  10:30

The next passage is Acts 10:30. It is in the context of Peter going to the house of Cornelius and asking him why he had sent for him.  It says:

So Cornelius said, "Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God.'" (Acts 10:30-31). 

There is no authority for concluding that because Cornelius fasted that Christians must fast today.  Fasting was evidently a part of Cornelius' service to God before he obeyed the gospel. That's all we can conclude from this passage. 

It is interesting that the angel told Cornelius that his prayer had been heard by God and his alms were remembered in the sight of God, but it doesn't say anything about his fasting.  Prayer and alms are commanded of Christians under the New Covenant, but I know of no place where fasting is commanded.

Acts  13:2-3

The next passage is Acts 13:2-3:

Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, "Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.

There is no doubt that this is talking about something that occurred after the New Covenant went into effect.  It occurred after the church was established. It was done by Christians. Does this passage bind fasting on Christians today? 

Acts 13 records a very significant event.  It is the sending of Barnabas and Saul (Paul) to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.  It is a turning point in the history of the church.  Here we have the statement that Christians fasted.  What should we conclude from this?

First, we must remember that these men were Jews.  When Christ instituted the New Covenant there were some things that the Jewish Christians continued to practice that had been practiced under the Old Covenant with God's approval. We can certainly appreciate the Jews dilemma.  It would be very hard to give up something that you knew was authorized by God and something which you had been taught all your life was binding on you.  In fact, some of the Jewish Christians were so unwilling to accept the fact that the Old Covenant had been done away, that  they taught that the Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved (See Acts 15).  There was much controversy concerning this in the first century.  In fact, there are many passages in Paul's writings where he deals with this false teaching concerning the binding of  the Old Covenant on the Gentiles (Study the books of Romans and Galatians).

Second, it is my conviction that there was a period of time when God allowed the Jews to transition from the Old Covenant to the New and thus allowed them to continue to practice what they had been practicing under the Old Covenant. The revelation about the Old Covenant being taken out of the way, and the realization of that fact, was not accomplished all at once. Remember, it was during this time that the New Testament books were being written. Thus the completed written revelation of the New Covenant was not yet finished and everything that needed to be revealed was not yet revealed.  Evidently, even the apostle Paul did not fully appreciate the fact that the Old Covenant was to be done away completely for the Jews, until further revelation was given to him in the books of Hebrews and Ephesians. A good example of Paul's attitude toward the law before these books were written is found in Acts 21:23-26.1 It seems to me that this passage shows that there was a period of adjustment for Jewish Christians during the first few years after the establishment of the church, during which time the New Testament was being completed and further revelation was being given on this subject. The Jews had to learn that all of the Old Covenant was done away. But they had to have the time to be taught and to accept this.  Fasting was a binding part of the Old Covenant, but as a requirement it was one of the things that was taken out of the way when Jesus nailed the Old Covenant to His cross (Colossians 2:14). The men mentioned in this passage, were practicing something they had practiced all of their lives under the Old Covenant during a time of transition from the Old Covenant to the New. It would be wrong for Christians today to practice some of the things that the first century Christians practiced that were a part of the Old Covenant (i.e. offerings and sacrifices) because that transition period is over, and we have the completed revelation in which we learn that we are not authorized to practice these things today. 2

But someone might ask, "isn't the example in Acts 13:2-3 one that we should follow today?" It is true that we have in this passage an example, or more accurately, an account of action.  However, the fact that we have an account of action does not mean that it is a  binding account of action for Christians today.  We might illustrate it like this: In Acts 20, we have a record of first century Christians meeting together on the first day of the week to worship God.  They met in an upper room and partook of the Lord's Supper.  Here we have an example of first century Christians (with the approval and encouragement of an Apostle of Jesus Christ) meeting in an upper room to worship God and partake of the Lord's Supper.  We follow the example of these Christians in meeting together to worship and in partaking of the Lord's Supper on the first day of the week. However, we do not necessarily follow their example in meeting in an upper room. Why not?  Because we have further teaching on the necessity of meeting together on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:1-2), and of partaking of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11ff).  However, we learn from such passages as John 4 that the physical place where we meet is optional. This shows us that there are some accounts of action of the first century Christians that are binding on us today, and some that are not.  I would place the first day of the week, partaking of the Lord's Supper and prayer in the binding column because we have further teaching in the New Testament that shows that they are binding on Christians today. I would place meeting in an upper room, fasting, and laying hands on someone in the non-binding category because nowhere does the Bible teach that those aspects of the first century Christians' example is binding.  I know of no passage where the New Testament teaches that fasting and laying hands on someone is binding on Christians today.   (This same principle applies to Acts 14:23).

1 Corinthians  7:2

The last three times we have fasting mentioned in the Bible is in 1 Corinthians 7:2, 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:27 (here given in their immediate contexts).

Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of fornication, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:1-5).

The church at Corinth was made up of both Jews and Gentiles.  The fact that there were Jews in the church at Corinth can be seen in Acts 18:1-8.  Perhaps, the custom of the Jews to fast is what is referred to in this passage. We also learned from our study of the case of Cornelius that some Gentiles practiced fasting. But again, we have the statement made that requires us to conclude that some of the first century Christians fasted (evidently with Paul's encouragement). However, there is nothing in the context that binds fasting on Christians. 

2 Corinthians  6:5 and  11:27

But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. (2 Corinthians 6:2-10).

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ?; I speak as a fool; I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness; besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:22-28).

These two passages deal with the apostle Paul and many of the things he faced when he preached the gospel.  Did he fast? Yes.  Paul was a Jew. Jews practiced fasting.  But the fact that Paul fasted at times does not mean that fasting is binding on Christians today.  As we said above, we have the example of some of the first century Christians fasting.  However, we have no binding examples.  The fact is that the word "fastings" as used in the context of both passages quoted above indicate that he was forced to fast or forced to go without food because of the persecutions which he had to endure.  In these two passages the word "fastings" is simply indicating he went without food. It does indicate that these "fastings" were the type of fasting that is under consideration in this study.

CONCLUSION

After studying the subject of fasting I have come to the following conclusions:

  • Fasting was a requirement under the Old Covenant on the Day of Atonement.

  • Fasting was practiced at other times under the Old Covenant but was not necessarily required.

  • Fasting was practiced by some Christians during the first century, possibly as a hold over from the Old Covenant until further revelation was completed. It was also practiced by some Gentiles as in the case of Cornelius.

  • Fasting is not a requirement of the New Covenant, i.e. it is not binding for Christians today. 

Can a Christian fast if he so desires? I would say that it depends on the reason for his fasting.  If he is doing it to be seen by others to be more religious or spiritual, he would be wrong in doing it (Matthew 23:5). If he is doing it because it was practiced under the Old Covenant on the Day of Atonement, he would be wrong in doing it (Galatians 4:10-11). If he is doing it so that he can dedicate himself to studying God's word and praying, or for some personal benefit either physically or spiritually, then there would be nothing wrong with it that I can see. 

There is one more thing that I would like to point out: It is invalid to conclude that because we don't teach and practice fasting that we cannot restore New Testament Christianity. The reason this is true is because fasting is not binding under the New Covenant.

If someone has some input they would like to make concerning this subject, or if you believe the conclusions I have come to are wrong, please write me and let me know.


Endnotes:

1.  McGarvey makes an interesting comment about Paul's attitude toward the Old Covenant at the time the events recorded in Acts 21 take place. 

"That which renders this proceeding a more striking exhibition of Paul's present attitude toward the law is the fact that in it he participated in the offering of sacrifices, which seems to be inconsistent with his repeated declaration of the all-sufficiency of the blood of Christ as an atonement for sin. I think it must be admitted that subsequent to the writing of the epistle to the Ephesians, and more especially that to the Hebrews, he could not consistently have done this, for in those epistles it is clearly taught, that in the death of Christ God had broken down and abolished 'the law of commandments contained in ordinances,' which he styles 'the middle wall of partition' (Ephesians 2:13-15); that the Aaronic priesthood had been abolished (Hebrews 9, 10). But in Paul's earlier epistles, though some things had been written which, carried to their logical consequences, involved all this, these points had not yet been clearly revealed to his mind, and much less to the minds of the other disciples; for it pleased God to make Paul the chief instrument for the revelation of this part of his will.  His mind, and those of all the brethren were as yet in much the same condition on this question that those of the early disciples had been in before the conversion of Cornelius in reference to the salvation of the Gentiles. If Peter, by the revelation made to him in connection with Cornelius, was made to understand better his own words uttered on Pentecost (Acts 2:39), it should cause no surprise that Paul in his early writings uttered sentiments the full import of which he did not apprehend until later revelations made them plain. That it was so, is but another illustration of the fact that the Holy Spirit guided the apostles into all truth, not at one bound, but step by step.  In the wisdom of God the epistle to the Hebrews, the special value of which lies in its clear revelations on the distinction between the sacrifices and priesthood under Moses and those under Christ, was written but a few years previous to the destruction of the Jewish temple, and the compulsory abrogation of all the sacrifices of the law; and that thus any Jewish Christian, whose natural reverence for ancestral and divinely appointed customs may have prevented him from seeing the truth on this subject, might have his eyes opened in spite of himself." (J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Company, 1893, pgs. 208-209).

Thomas Warren commented:

"In the book of Acts there is something of a progression of revelation of information. [1] The gospel was preached to the Jews, with remission of sins offered through Christ (Acts 2:1-47).  [2] The gospel was preached to the Gentiles (Acts 10-11).  [3] It was settled that Gentiles who became Christians were not required to obey the law of Moses (Acts 15).  [4] Apparently, for a time, Jewish Christians were allowed to continue to offer sacrifices of the law.  [5] But some books written subsequent to the events of Acts 21 (such as Ephesians and Hebrews) make clear that Chrsitians are not to offer such sacrifices (e.g. Ephesians 2:13-16; Hebrews 9:11-10:4). "  (Thomas B. Warren, National Christian Press, Moore Ok, When Is An Example Binding?, pg. 138).

2. Brother Warren commented:

"From the evidence of the total context, the proper use of logic (valid reasoning) demands the conclusion that what Paul did in the temple, as recorded in Acts 21, was optional for him but is not optional for men living today. Paul could then do it without sin: men living today cannot do it without being guilty of sin.  To illustrate the principle involved, it should be noted that today parents may, without sin, have their sons circumcised as a hygenic measure or as a social custom, but it would be sinful for them to do such as a religious act. . . So the action of Paul in Acts 21 was optional and temporary - not sinful for him, but sinful for men living today." (ibid, pg 139).


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