IS FASTING A REQUIREMENT
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.
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:
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).
The first time fasting is mentioned in the New Testament is in Matthew 4:2. The context is the temptation of Jesus.
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.]
The next passage we want to look at is Matthew 6:16-18.
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.
The next passage is Matthew 9:14-15:
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.
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.
The next passage is 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:
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.
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:
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.
The next passage is Acts 13:2-3:
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).
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
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.
After studying the subject of fasting I have come to the following conclusions:
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.