By Norman E. Fultz
In a recent Bible class as we were considering Acts 14:23 regarding elders in the early church, someone called attention to the fact that the passage also mentions prayer -and fasting and questioned why we do not fast today? Members of the class were assigned to see what they could find out about fasting with the results to be discussed the next week. Since this is a topic not frequently discussed, perhaps it will be of interest to readers of this journal.
The term “fasting” simply means to abstain from food or drink for a period of time longer than the normal time between meals. It may be for a relatively short interval (Judges 20:26) or for several days (Esther 4:15-16). It may be either a deliberate action on the part of the abstainee (Acts 13:2) or necessitated by a lack of food, therefore the result of the immediate circumstances (1 Cor. 4:11; 2 Cor. 6:5; Matt. 15:32). It may be either total abstinence or “abstaining from customary and choice foods” (Thayer on Matt. 11:18). The occasions prompting deliberate fasts were several, as we shall see a bit later. A fast might be either individual (2 Sam. 12:16) or a group affair (2 Chr. 20:3).
Origin Of Fasting
An interesting comment appears in Crudent’s Concordance: “Fasting has, in all ages, and among all nations, been much in use in times of mourning, sorrow, and afflictions . . . . There is no example of fasting, properly so called, to be seen before Moses; yet it is presumable that the patriarchs fasted, since we see that there were very great mournings among them, such as that of Abraham for Sarah, Gen. 23:2; and that of Jacob for his son Joseph, Gen. 37:34.”
The first instance of fasting enjoined on Israel was that of the day of atonement, the tenth day of the seventh month. It is called “afflicting the soul” (Lev. 16:29-30; 23:27-28; Isa. 58:3, 5). It was to be as strictly observed on that day as was the cessation from any work (Lev. 27:29-32). By the time of Jeremiah, it was referred to as “the fasting day” (Jer. 36:6) and later simply as “the fast” (Acts 27:9). Moses commanded no other fasts, though the practice of fasting became more widespread with the passing of time.
Expansion Of The Practice
Since no other fasts were enjoined by the law, we may only wonder how the practice became more widespread. Perhaps since the day of atonement was one of such solemnity and “affliction of the soul,” the practice easily became associated with other occasions of affliction, sorrow and mourning whether of an individual or of the Hebrew nation. It seems to have developed as a response on the part of those facing hardship, in deep penitence, seeking to avert national calamity, or deeply imploring God about other matters. We shall consider some illustrations of these.
Facing hardship. When Israel fled before the face of the few men of Ai, “Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the Lord until the eventide, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads” (Josh. 7:6). Being upon his face before the Lord “until the eventide” is thought by some to infer that they fasted for at least part of the day in question. David fasted days while his child by Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, was ill (2 Sam. 12:15-23).
Deep penitence. Ezra fasted for some period of time when grieved for the great transgression of Israel in taking of foreign wives (Ezra 10:6). See also Neh. 9:1-2.
When Israel put away Baalim and Ashtoroth at the insistence of Samuel, they “fasted on that day and said there, We have sinned against the Lord” (1 Sam. 7:6). And in the days of Joel, through him, God pled “turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning . . .” (Joel 2:12).
In their civil conflict with Benjamin, after a heavy loss in battle and not knowing whether to further engage the effort, “the children of Israel, and all the people, went up, and came unto the house of God, and wept, and sat there before the Lord, and fasted that day until even. . .” (Judg. 20:26). And Saul of Tarsus, during his days of penitence, “neither did eat nor drink” for three days (Acts 9:9).
To avert a national calamity. When Judah was under attack by Moab, King Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast for the nation (2 Chr. 20:3-4). Much later, when Mordecai asked Esther to intercede for the Jews before the king of Persia, she countered by suggesting a three day fast by him and the Jews in Shushan the palace while she and her maidens also fasted before her going in unto the king uninvited to seek favor for the Jews (Esther 4:15-17). And to prevent the overthrow of Nineveh threatened by Jonah, “the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth . . . .” (Jon. 3:5). In his effort to call the nation to repentance and prevent the devastation of which he was warning, Joel called upon the people to “Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly” (Joel 1:14; 2:12, 15).
When deeply imploring God. Hannah, when she was imploring God for a son, “wept, and did not eat” (1 Sam. 1:7-18). Ezra, preparing to lead a group of captives from Babylon to Judea, “gathered them together to the river that runneth to Ahava” and “proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance . . . . So we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was entreated of us” (Ezra 8:15, 21, 23). And of Anna the prophetess it is said that she worshiped God with “fastings and with supplications” night and day (Lk. 2:37).
It is to be noted from all the above that though only one fast was actually commanded by Moses, the many instances of fasting apparently met with God’s approval. However, in the days of her apostasy, the Israelite nation was rebuked for hypocritical fasting (Isa. 58:3-4). They were externally “afflicting the soul,” but “in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours,” and “ye fast to make your voice heard on high,” Isaiah charged.
Jesus and Fasting
In reality, Jesus had very little to say about fasting. In Matt. 6:16-18, He warned against hypocritical fasting as Isaiah had done. In saying that it should not be done to be seen of men, He indicated that fasting was a private matter between the person and the Father. Once when questioned about why John’s disciples and the Pharisees fasted often but His own disciples did not fast, Jesus stated that a time would come in which they might well fast, “when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them.” He thus shows that fasting is associated with deep sorrow or remorse. But here again he did not suggest that fasting would become a regular ceremonial type of thing. The inference is that it is a private matter. Furthermore, in the parable of the old and new garments and wineskins, He shows that fasting (probably as a prescribed act or ritual such as that of the Pharisees) is a part of the old observances and not of the new which He enjoins (Matt. 9:14-17; Mk. 2:18-22; Lk. 5:33-39).
On one occasion when the disciples were unable to cast out a demon and asked why, Jesus replied, “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21; Mk. 9:29). However, this is a disputed text. The American Standard leaves the whole verse out in Matthew’s account, relegating it to a footnote and explains, “Many authorities, some ancient, insert verse 21.” In Mark 9:29, the passage says, “This kind can come out by nothing, save by prayer.” And again the footnote adds, “Many ancient authorities add and fasting.”
As Mr. Cruden said, “It does not appear by our Savior’s own practice, or any command that He gave to His disciples, that He instituted any particular fasts, or enjoined any to be kept out of pure devotion.”
It is true that Jesus Himself in the wilderness “fasted forty days and nights”, but He did not enjoin such on His follower
Early Christians Fasted
Not all fasting was devotional. Fasting, simply “not eating” was sometimes the result of the circumstances, there simply being no food. This was the case when Jesus fed the five thousand and again when He fed the four thousand (Matt. 15:32-38; Mk. 8:1-9; 6:33-44). It was likely also the case in some, if not all, of Paul’s fasting (1 Cor. 4:11; 2 Cor. 6:5; Phil. 4:12), with the exception of the time between his seeing the light on the road to Damascus and the coming in unto him of Ananias when “he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink” (Acts 9:9) and when elders were appointed in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch and Pisidia (Acts 14:23). Whether he was among those who fasted on the fateful ship bound for Rome is a bit difficult to ascertain (Acts 27:21, 33).
The instances of fasting on the part of the early Christians was apparently devotional. However, there are only two undisputed instances of such fasting, to my knowledge. Of some at Antioch of Syria, whether the disciples generally or the “prophets and teachers” specifically, it is said “they fasted” (Acts 13:2, 3). And again as noted above, when elders were appointed on Paul’s first preaching tour it is said they “prayed with fasting” (Acts 14:23).
Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 7:5 to husbands and wives regarding the conjugal rights of marriage not being withheld “except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer” most assuredly indicates something of a devotional air. But “fasting is not found in some of the older manuscripts in this passage; therefore, not in the ASV and other translations. In fact, of the many versions I checked, only the King James and the Phillips paraphrase had “fasting.” A footnote in The New Testament From 26 Translations said, “`Fasting’ is now recognized as not adequately supported by original manuscripts.”
The reference to Cornelius “fasting until this hour” (Acts 10:30) runs into the same difficulty, it being found in the King James, but not even in Phillips. The same footnote is affixed in the N. T. in 26 Translations as that on 1 Cor. 7:5.
After summarizing the references to fasting in the New Testament, Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary says, “There are, therefore, in the New Testament only four indisputable references to voluntary fasting for religious purposes, two by our Lord in the Gospels, and two in the Acts of the apostles. Jesus does not disapprove of the practice, but says nothing to commend it. The apostolic church practiced it, but perhaps only . as a carry-over from Judaism, since most of the early disciples were Jews.”
Why don’t we fast? In view of what we have seen in this study, we conclude that while there is nothing inherently wrong in the practice and that while one may fast if he so desires, let it be a private matter. There is no basis upon which fasting as a devotional ceremony may be imposed on a congregation.
Truth Magazine XXIV: 48, pp. 775-776
December 4, 1980