Fasting is the spiritual discipline of abstaining from food and practiced in a great many religions including Judaism and Christianity. Three types of fasting are being presented in the Bible. One is a normal fast which is to abstain from all food and liquids except for water for one or more days. The second is a less restrictive partial fast. While fasting is often linked with prayer, it stands alone as a spiritual discipline and has been referred to at times as continuous “prayer without words.”
Moses and Elijah undertook an absolute fast (no food or drink) for 40 days. Such isn’t advised for obvious medical reasons as it is only possible supernaturally. An absolute fast is mentioned in Esther 4:16 and Acts 9:9 for three days, but even that should only be undertaken with caution and medical clearance. The purpose of a fast is really a heart issue to be known by the Father in heaven, and extremes like prolonged absolute fasting are not required to find divine approval lest one think otherwise. It is a lowly and contrite heart which God finds acceptable.
Jesus Christ practiced the discipline of fasting and taught that it should be a regular part of devotional life. This is made clear in Matthew chapter 6 where it is said by Jesus, “When you fast…” (6:16) in like manner as “When you pray…” (6:6) and “When you do alms…” (6:3). In the same way compromise is common with regard to both prayer and tithing, so also the discipline of fasting has ceased to be fashionable in today’s church except in rather trivial ways like a meal or two for the most part on occasion so one can tell others they have a habit of fasting.
However, the NT church practiced fasting as recorded in Acts (13:2,3; 14:23; 27:33). There are multiple pusposes for fasting, including the honoring of God (Matthew 6:16-18; Luke 2:37; Acts 13:2); the humbling of oneself before God (Ezra 8:2; Psalm 69:10; Isaiah 58:3); in order to experience more grace (1 Peter 5:5); to mourn over personal sin (1 Samuel 7:6), to mourn over the sins of the church and nation (Nehemiah 9:1,2); and to seek grace for a new task ordained by God as did Paul after his conversion experience.
“And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.” Acts 9:9
Fasting is combined with prayer in some situations when facing enemy forces or to gain wisdom and revelation of God’s will. So it was when Barnabas and Paul were sent out from Antioch on their first missionary trip. It was during prayer and fasting that Holy Spirit spoke to a group of prophets and teachers, “Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:2,3).
Disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus, asking why they and the Pharisees often fasted, but the disciples of Jesus did not fast. Jesus replied, “Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast” (Matthew 9:14,15). These present days are time of the bridegroom’s absence, and Jesus is expecting believers in Him to follow the discipline of fasting.
The church is engaged in fierce warfare against spiritual forces ruled by Satan, and Paul tells us to not use carnal (fleshly) weapons in a battle that is spiritual in nature (2 Corinthians 10:4). No weapons are nearly as effective as the Word of God, the name of Jesus, and prayer together with fasting. A church which neglects any of these is not fully prepared to engage in spiritual warfare. Let’s follow the teachings of Jesus instead of our often unbiblical denominational catechisms. “He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”