The Old Testament has many references to fasting and prayer. The Day of Atonement is the annual call for the congregation to fast. But what does the New Testament say on this topic? Let’s find out the honest truth of whether fasting is necessary for Christians today.
Part 2 in the Series of Prayer and Fasting
The Day of Atonement was the annual call of the Hebrew children to fast all day without performing any work. The term “afflict your souls” was known by the Hebrews to mean “fasting”.
While this was the only law requiring them to fast, there are many references to the Israelites fasting before God for answers to their problems. One example is found in Ezra 8:21-23 with God answering them in Ezra 8:31. You can read more about the connection between humility and fasting in Part One of this series on fasting.
However, the question arises as to whether Christians are instructed to fast today, after Jesus’ resurrection. It’s alluded that fasting is an Old Testament practice and not valid for Christians today.
Before we turn to the New Testament, let me mention what a “fast” is in general terms, in case you are not aware.
Fasting is the abstinence of food for a period of time to accomplish a spiritual purpose.
We’ll go into detail on the fasting topic in other parts of this series. For now, let’s answer the question we have at hand: is fasting necessary for Christians today?
The Truth About Fasting from Jesus
Let’s begin with the conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus found in Luke 5:33-35. Also Matthew 9:14-15 and Mark 2:18-20.
33 And they said unto him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink?
34 And he said unto them, Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them?
35 But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. [Bold emphasis mine.]
The Pharisees were continually criticizing Jesus for one thing or another. And now they are questioning and criticizing Jesus about His disciples not fasting.
To paraphrase Jesus’ response, He said that while they are with me, there is no need to fast but there is coming a day when I am no longer with them, then they will need to fast.
Did you catch that truth about fasting? While His disciples were with Him, they didn’t need to fast, seeking God for direction. They had Jesus with them and that was enough.
The latter part of Jesus’ response probably escapes a lot of people. Jesus said that when He is no longer with them, His disciples would then need to spend time fasting. It sounds like a prediction as opposed to a command. Is that your understanding as well?
This post by All About God teaches that Biblical fasting is a necessary practice for the Christian church today. They also mention the proper method of fasting as well as the benefits of fasting.
But, back to the Scripture text above. Look at the wording Jesus used. He said the children of the bridechamber. Without going into a deep dive on this, Strong’s Concordance says it is the bridal bed.
Who is in the bridal bed but the Bride of Christ? Is Jesus referring to more than the disciples? Is He referring to the Christians, that they will need to fast in “those days”? Were the days going to be more difficult causing the believers to spend time in fasting and prayer? Something to ponder.
Did the Disciples Fast After Jesus Left Them?
So, the next question begins. Do we have any recorded evidence that the disciples spent any time fasting after Jesus ascended into heaven?
Turn with me to Acts 13:1-3 to read what the prophets and teachers did in Antioch. Acts 13:2 says they ministered to the Lord and fasted. The Holy Spirit spoke to them and instructed them to send out Barnabas and Saul.
Then the group of men fasted a second time, Acts 13:3, this time laying hands on the two men before sending them out to the mission field.
They fasted twice which means that between verses 2 and 3, they waited a day or so before the second fast which included the laying on of hands.
This truth about fasting was in the setting of a corporate fast since it was a group of men together.
The second account of a group fasting for direction is in Acts 14:21-23. They prayed with fasting and commended (ordained) them (the newly appointed elders) to the Lord. Did you notice that this was done in every church, verse 23? The truth about their fasting is, it wasn’t a one-time thing but a regular practice for the early church.
Fasting was a regular practice in the First Century Church.
While we do not have a record of every time that Paul fasted, we do know that he fasted often. In 2 Corinthians 6:4-5 Paul was giving an account of his ministry and listed “fastings” as one of the many practices he did regularly.
Turn the pages over to 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 to read another list of Paul’s ministry practices where he mentions that he was without food or water because it was unavailable (not fasting) and also in “fastings often.”
Paul was careful to mention the two as different from each other. One is not eating for a lack of food and the other is abstaining from food though it was available. Fasting is when you choose not to eat food.
So, from these two passages, Paul mentions that he fasted often and regularly. How often and how regular, we do not know, and nor does it matter.
Paul also taught the believers in Corinth that fasting and prayer is an acceptable practice and it is the only time that a husband and wife can deprive each other. 1 Corinthians 7:5.
A Gentile Roman centurion, Cornelius, a God-fearing man, had been fasting and in prayer for four days seeking direction from God. His time of fasting resulted in his salvation and water baptism. You can read the full account in Acts 10:30-48.
Based on the above Scripture passages, do you think that it is necessary for Christians to be fasting with prayer today?
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What Did Jesus Teach About Fasting?
Let’s start with Matthew 6:1-7 of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught three important truths concerning:
He mentioned specifically these topics because of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. Did you notice that Jesus used the word “when” and not “if” in verses 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7?
We are not going to talk about giving money, saving that for another post. But let’s look at what He said about prayer and fasting.
In Matthew 6:5-7, Jesus clearly taught them two things, how not to pray and the better way to pray. We are not to pray with hypocrisy as the Pharisees did.
But when you pray, let your prayers between you and your Father in heaven. In other words, don’t go telling everyone of your private prayers. However, if you are in a group prayer meeting, your prayers won’t be of a personal and private nature (usually) but more of a corporate nature.
When you fast, Matthew 6:16-17, don’t be like the hypocrites letting everyone they meet know that they were fasting. That was all the reward the Pharisees were going to get, the pats on the back for “attaboy!”
No, that’s not how believers are to fast. Jesus said WHEN you fast. He didn’t say IF you fast but WHEN you fast. This sounds like He expected His disciples to fast. AND this was said before the Pharisees criticized Him for His disciples not fasting. Remember that verse in Luke 5:33-35, Matthew 9:14-15 and Mark 2:18-20?
To me, and I could be wrong, but Jesus clearly had an expectation that His followers would continue to fast and pray as necessary.
And as we read in the accounts in the Book of Acts, clearly the prophets and teachers did fast as necessary.
This Goes Out by Prayer and Fasting
Here’s a great example of Jesus teaching how important prayer and fasting is, and I believe, even for today.
Turn to Matthew 17:14-21 to read the account of the “lunatic” (KJV term) who needed deliverance. The father of the son spoke with Jesus and said “I brought my son to your disciples but they could not cure him”, Matthew 17:16.
Skip down to Matthew 17:19-21 where the disciples asked Jesus why couldn’t they cast out the demon. What did Jesus say in verse 21? “This kind goes out by prayer and fasting.”
Jesus was constantly in prayer and probably, though it isn’t recorded, fasting as well. It sounds like the disciples hadn’t spent much time in fasting and yet, it seems that Jesus was saying that fasting was necessary. Even while He was still with them. Hmmmm. Something to ponder. Oh, and definitely prayer was necessary as we saw Jesus in prayer many times during His ministry.
The Main Point about Fasting for Today
The question has been, is fasting necessary for Christians today, and while we see that Jesus taught the crowds and His disciples the correct way to fast, He did not make it a command.
Believers are not commanded to fast but if they choose to spend whatever time is necessary for prayer and fasting, it would benefit them greatly.
Fasting is often for the purpose of dealing with sorrow or seeking God’s direction in life or interceding on behalf of someone else. It is even beneficial for the healing and deliverance ministry. It is not to be done through vain traditions or under guilt since Christians are not under the Law of Moses.
If you have a need to fast, then, by all means, spend time in fasting and prayer. Let yourself be led by the Holy Spirit in whatever you do.
Keep in mind these other points as well.
- Fasting is an attitude of the heart involving humility as mentioned in 2 Chronicles 7:14. More on that in Part One of this series, Is Humility Part of Fasting and Prayer?
- Conduct a fast because you desire to fast and not to manipulate God to answer your prayers the way you want. You cannot control God to do what you want.
- Remember that fasting is a private practice, don’t make a public announcement that you are fasting.
- Let the Holy Spirit direct you when to fast and for what purpose.
- Don’t become ritualistic or legalistic about fasting. Making it a “must-do” thing that needs to be checked off negates any value in fasting.
- If you do decide to fast regularly but then you forget one week, don’t worry about it. It isn’t a command or law that you must do.
- Fasting reminds us that the Lord is our chief pleasure, and it trains us to keep it that way. It helps us remember that “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” can only be found in His presence and at His right hand (Ps. 16:11). Source: Should Christians Fast?
That’s a Wrap
Well, does that help answer the question, is fasting necessary for Christians today? It does for me.
Let me conclude this study:
- We learned that Jesus taught “when you fast” meaning that He expected His followers to fast.
- He said that His disciples do not fast when they are with Him but there would come a day when He leaves them, that they would then fast.
- The apostles, prophets, and teachers fasted as seen in Acts.
- Paul regularly fasted.
- At least one Gentile believer fasted.
- Jesus did not make fasting a requirement or law. It is optional for everyone.
- Be led of the Holy Spirit as to if and when you fast.
- The benefits of fasting today is that God honours fasting when it is performed with a sincere attitude. Source: Is Fasting for Christians Today?
I hope this has been beneficial in helping you learn what the New Testament teaches concerning an Old Testament practice.
More in this series on Prayer and Fasting:
Part 1 – Is Humility Part of Fasting and Prayer? Learn about the importance of a right heart toward God when fasting.
What are your thoughts about fasting for Christians today? Is fasting necessary or helpful? I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Cindy Barnes has been called by God in the early 80s to be a teacher of His Word. She is a serious student of the Word, focusing on the Inductive Bible Study Method since 2007. Her passion is to teach women how to study the Bible using this method. In addition, she desires for women to develop an intense yearning to draw closer to God through reading and writing out the Bible.
Cindy teaches hundreds of women in her private online Bible Study Group who express their joy of growing deeper in their spiritual walk.
You can stay in touch with Cindy on Facebook through 215 Ministry.