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Biblical Fasting

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Recently I was asked to give a talk on Biblical fasting and I decided to transcribe it for the blog. I hope it's a blessing!

Fasting is a profound and meaningful practice. It was part of everyday life for the Israelites, for Jesus, for the early Christians, and for all Christians for that matter. Jesus assumed that his followers were fasting and that they would continue to fast. In Matthew 6, he didn’t say “if you fast” he said “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do” because he knew we would be fasting. 

It is only in the last 100 years or so that the modern world has moved away from the practice. For most of the entire history of Christianity, fasting has been part of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. We see in scripture that it was a powerful part of the Jewish culture and accepted practice by the Israelites, the early church, and the church. 

The first mention of fasting in the Bible is found in Judges 20:26 where it says, Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the Lord. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord.” So here is the first time that fasting is mentioned in the Bible but there’s not a moment where fasting was formally instituted or where its function was formally explained. 

We can see through the reading and study of holy scripture that fasting was a part of the Jewish life, a part of their identity. We see instances throughout the Bible where the Israelites were fasting, where prophets called them to fast but to fully understand the functions of fasting, you have to look at the context.

Since Lent is based on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, it makes sense to start with this example of fasting. 

You probably know this story very well but it’s really easy to gloss over it and miss the big picture or context in which it takes place. 

I have to give credit to Tim Mackie from the Bible Project for this insight. If y’all have never seen his bible studies, you are missing out!  

Ok let’s look at what happened to Jesus right before he was led into the wilderness.  In Luke 3 we see that Jesus has just been baptized. And as He was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 

This is a profound encounter with God. Jesus has this powerful moment where God’s Spirit falls and Jesus is revealed as God’s beloved Son. It is a huge momentous spiritual event. 

And then at the beginning of Luke 4, we see that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days where he was tempted by Satan but rebuffed him with the Word of God and then right after his time of fasting in the wilderness, his ministry begins.

So, after a profound encounter with God, he begins a period of fasting, and then his ministry begins.

Now, for a second example of this kind of fasting.

To the Jewish community, when they heard about these 40 days of fasting by Jesus, they would immediately have remembered another time when someone fasted for 40 days, Moses.

In Exodus 24, we see that the Lord called to Moses and told him to come up onto the mountain to give him the Ten Commandments. We know this story but here’s the part that I missed, in Exodus 24:15-16, it says that when Moses went up to the mountain, the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain and Moses stayed there for six days. On the seventh day, the Lord called to Moses again and Moses entered the cloud and went up the mountain where he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.

So Moses, just like Jesus, has had a powerful encounter with God, he begins a period of fasting and then he is given the Ten Commandments.

Do you see the similarities in both of these situations? Isn’t that the coolest thing???

Both have had a powerful encounter with God. Both have encountered God’s presence. Neither of them is asking God for something, neither is seeking a result, fasting just seems to be the appropriate response after having had a powerful sacred moment in the presence of God. Then after this transformational encounter, they both enter a period of fasting.  

So, what is the meaning or purpose of this kind of fasting? Well, sometimes it just seems to be the appropriate response after having had a powerful sacred moment in the presence of God.

So one type of fasting occurs after a powerful encounter with God. It seems to be after a defining moment or some kind of crossroads. Jesus had a powerful encounter with God and was led into the wilderness to fast right before his ministry began, Moses had a powerful encounter with God and entered a time of fasting right before he was given the Ten Commandments.

I’ll give you two more examples of this kind of fasting from the Early Church. 

In Acts 9, Saul has an encounter with the Lord and can no longer see. For three days he is blind and in verse 9 it says he did not eat or drink anything. After three days, Ananias is led to Saul, he lays hands on him and Saul’s sight is restored. Here again, we have an incredible encounter with the Lord where Saul is converted right then and there and goes on to be a major leader of the Church!

Later, in Acts 13, while the people were worshipping and fasting, Notice, not worshipping and praying mind you! Worshipping and fasting, the Holy Spirit tells them to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” And this is so interesting, after the people received this word, they fasted and prayed and after they fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them off. 

This is yet again another transformational moment! This is the very first missionary journey being commissioned. This journey will open the door to the spread of the Gospel like never before. This journey will change the face of the world!

So, again, there seems to be this pattern where fasting is the appropriate response to a profound encounter with God. 

And just an aside, liturgically speaking, as I said before, we are leaving the season of Epiphany, a beautiful season where people like the Wise Men or Simeon and Anna have had a profound encounter with Emmanuel, God with Us, so doesn’t it make perfect sense to be entering a time of fasting?

I think that is so amazing!

The next type of fasting we see in the Bible is fasting when there is a tragic calamity. Over and over again, when a calamity is coming or when a calamity has taken place, the people of God fast. In Psalm 35, David fasts when a terrible sickness strikes his enemy. In Esther, the Israelites are urged to fast to avoid their destruction and Nehemiah grieves and fasts over the idolatrous state of the Israelites' hearts.

We also see fasting used as a means of spiritual warfare. 

In Matthew 17, a man came to Jesus saying that he had an epileptic son who was brought to the disciples and they could not heal him. Later, when the disciples asked Jesus why they could not heal him, Jesus said that it was because of their unbelief but also because “that kind only goes out through prayer and fasting.” So clearly there are types of maladies or disorders that only come out with prayer AND fasting.

Ok, the last reason for fasting, and one that we are probably most familiar with involves turning away from our sin. 

In 1 Samuel 7, the Israelites turned back to the Lord. They put away their idols and repented but it was not enough. Samuel also ordered them to fast so for a whole day the Israelites fasted and confessed.

Another example is in Joel 2, when the Lord God told the people to turn back to him with their whole hearts, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.

It doesn't seem to be enough to pray sometimes. Fasting is required as well.

So, it is very clear through scripture that as we are turning away from our sin we should also fast. Fasting helps us to more fully turn away from our sins.

And it looks like fasting also can make us aware of our sins. When we fast it becomes painfully obvious how out of control our appetites are and how much we are ruled by those appetites.

Ordinarily, I think I am a good person, I think I am a pretty good Christian but during Lent, when I fast something even ridiculously small like coffee, I become really aware of how evil I am. And I am not exaggerating!

Through fasting, I see how much I rely on food and drink and not on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The act of not eating brings me great discomfort and grief. I am reminded of my frailty and I realize that I actually have no control over my life. 

Through fasting, we are all choosing to embody this frailty and, according to the Bible, that does powerful things inside of us.

When we look at this kind of fasting in the Bible, it seems as if fasting is not so much punishing ourselves, but grieving over the state of our hearts and the state of the world. Through this kind of fasting, we ARE asking for a result and we get it every time . . . forgiveness.

In Joel 2:12-13, after the people have fasted and repented, the Lord says, “Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.

So, with all of these examples of fasting, what’s our takeaway? Well, it seems that fasting can be an extremely powerful tool in our lives. Fasting seems to be an embodied expression of prayer, like fasting is praying with our bodies. 

In today’s world, we tend to divide the spiritual from the physical. The spiritual involves thinking and praying so when I need to be spiritual, I am going to think and pray. And the physical is eating. There is a distinction, they are two separate things. But that is not how the Israelites or the church until recently understood themselves. To them, the two, the spiritual and the physical, are intertwined. Your whole body is involved in worship, in prayer, in your spiritual life. It is not enough to just pray, we need to fast as well.

That’s why I love liturgical churches because we involve our whole body: we kneel, we smell, we taste, we feel, we fast and I love that through the season of Lent, the church gives us this unique opportunity to fast.

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