Fasting was not part of our experience in the church where I grew up. But when I went to Bible College it became an important part of my life. A number of guys in my dorm fasted together occasionally, and my buddy, John, and I diligently read books on proper fasting (no food at all—only water).
For me, a typical fast was three days, but I fasted five days on two or three occasions. My longest fast was seven days, but I didn’t consider it successful because I thought of girls much of the time.
The purpose of fasting was for discipline and, more importantly, for spiritual growth. Every time I thought of food during a fast, it immediately reminded me of my reason for fasting; then I would meditate on that issue. It usually worked well.
So what’s the deal with fasting? Some believers consider it an essential spiritual practice, while others never fast at all.
Today we hear what Jesus says about it.Jesus’ Disciples are Questioned for not Fasting
The last we read, Jesus and his disciples were feasting in the house of Levi the tax collector. The Pharisees were upset that Jesus ignored their table fellowship rules and ate with Jews who did not practice their rules of ritual purity. In light of the feasting, the question of fasting arises. The two stories might not be connected, but they do go well together.
Mark 2 states:
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”
The Old Testament mentions certain times that people fasted. Leviticus 16 requires the Israelites to fast (deny themselves) on the annual Day of Atonement. People also fasted during special times of penitence or mourning, such as the Israelites (1 Samuel 7), David (2 Samuel 1), Ahab (1 Kings 21), the sacred assembly (Joel chapters 1 and 2), and the Jews in Esther 4.
Moses is said to have fasted 40 days when receiving the law (Exodus 34), and the people of Judah fasted during a severe drought (Jeremiah 14).
Mark doesn’t identify the people who question Jesus, but Matthew says they are disciples of John the Baptist; they might have been fasting because John was in prison or already executed. We don’t know much about fasting among John’s disciples, though John himself ate a meager diet; but the Pharisees apparently included fasting in their discipline of personal piety. Jesus told a parable in Luke 18 describing a Pharisee this way:
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
Even if this is only parabolic, Jesus could not make his point if it didn’t accurately reflect some Pharisaical attitudes, and it is consistent with the statement in Matthew 9 that Pharisees ‘fast often’. Apparently it had become a legalistic ritual. We learn that a few decades later descendants of the Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays.
So how did Jesus react to the question?
Jesus Speaks of Guests and the Groom
Jesus was not intimidated by the question about his disciples:
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them.”
Jesus responds with one of his favorite themes—the wedding feast. Fasting might be appropriate on some occasions, but certainly not at a wedding feast when the groom is right there. This is no time for fasting but for feasting and enjoying his presence with them.
The point is that Jesus is with his disciples just as the wedding guests are with the groom. It is a time for celebration—not deprivation. It is a time to enjoy the relationship and absorb his teaching and example while they can. The question on fasting could be a judgment on the disciples or simply a sincere question, but Jesus was not intimidated by any implied condemnation.
Another point is that Jesus is not just any teacher. It is reasonable for both a teacher and their disciples to fast if they are focused on a past person or event (Moses, the law), or perhaps a future event (liberation from Rome, the coming Messiah). However, Jesus was the person and event. It was all about him as the unique son of God—who he was, what he taught, and what he did to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth.
How could his disciples fast under these circumstances?
Jesus Didn’t Say His Disciples Should Never Fast
“But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.”
This does not necessarily predict his early execution. The reality is that all teachers eventually die and are no longer available to their followers, but Jesus also knew the record for those suspected as trouble-makers by Rome.
And Jesus says that when that time comes, his disciples will fast—perhaps in mourning, as in the Old Testament. But in light of his resurrection and presence among us I don’t see such fasting as appropriate today.
So Jesus does not instruct the disciples never to fast. In fact he provides guidelines on how they should do so. Matthew 6 reports:
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Fasting is a personal action for a specific purpose. It should never become a ritualistic show of piety.
Did Jesus’ Followers Fast?
Though the New Testament rarely mentions fasting outside the Gospels, we find fasting in Antioch on a special occasion and then again in the first mission effort.
From Acts 13 and 14:
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
Early Church Fathers mention fasting, and the Didache chapter 8 says:
Your fasts should not be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays. You should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
It seems that fasting had already become a ritualistic act for some.
What about Us?
Should believers fast today? I didn’t fast after graduating from college, but I believe the answer to this question is up to each individual. Fasting can be beneficial; but I don’t think we should fast legalistically in ritual piety.
Next time, we will see what Jesus says about trying to fit the kingdom into our old religious systems.
Articles in this series
Jesus Begins His Work:
The Beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Anointed One
Do Jesus’ Words and Actions Demonstrate Empathy — or Judgment?
Does Jesus Disagree with John the Baptist’s Message of the Coming Judgment of God?
Why Didn’t Jesus Recruit Better Help for His Galilean Work?
Did Jesus Really Heal People?
Do Demons Exist?
Jesus Adds a Shocking Twist to Healing
Jesus Calls a Fifth Follower—and What a Loser!
Jesus Refuses to Ask His Disciple to Fast
Entering the Kingdom Requires Abandoning Old Religious Systems
Jesus Gets into Trouble for Disrespecting the Law
What Do We Learn from ‘Jesus Begins His Work’?