Biblical Fasting


Dr. John Hoole – June 4 & 11, 2017




This morning we come to a topic that some may be unfamiliar with – FASTING.  We may recognize the word and may know its meaning.  Some of you may even have fasted before some medical test requiring you to fast.  You may have come from religious traditions in which some sort of fast was practiced on particular occasions – like the Lenten season, Etc.  But, have we fasted in the fully biblical sense?  We will discuss this as we investigate what the Bible says about fasting.


Our text today is found in Matthew 6:16-18.  I want to include the first verse of chapter six with our reading.


Matthew 6:1, 16-18 NKJV


1       Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.


16     Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.

17     But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,

18     so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.


The teachings of Jesus in the first 18 verses of Matthew 6 is one of warning.  Not warning us from doing them – but in how we do them.  He is warning us to examine our motives for our participation in any acts of righteousness.  As illustrations, He uses three separate acts of righteousness to show what He means.


We have already spent considerable time discussing the first two – giving and praying.  The third illustration Jesus gives is fasting.  And like the first two, Jesus corrects what the people see in the lives of those He calls hypocrites.  He says that “Spiritual Exhibitionism” – doing our acts of ministry for the applause and approval of others is a real danger in everyone of our lives.  Not one of us is exempt.  Each of us like to be recognized for a job well-done.  But if that recognition and approval is the primary reason for doing it, we are showing that our motives are wrong.


Religious people all over the world feel that it is important, even necessary, to demonstrate their piety by various forms of self-denial.  And through the ages the most common form of self-denial has been to abstain voluntarily from food and drink in order to devote oneself more fully to their god, to placate their god’s wrath or to obtain His favor.


Fasting is prominent in Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity, among other religions, and has served ritualistic, ascetic, religious, mystical, even political purposes.  It is required for:


         • Moslems during Ramadan (sunrise to sunset) for one month.

         • Jews on Yom Kippur

         • Catholics during Lent and Advent.


Many ancient pagans believed that demons could enter the body through food.  When they felt they were under demonic attack they would fast to prevent more evil spirits from gaining access to their bodies.  The yogis of most eastern religions and cults have always been committed to fasting often for long periods of time.  And during these periods of lengthy fasting, they believed they gained mystical visions and insights.


In modern western society, fasting has become popular for purely physical and cosmetic reasons, and is recommended in some diet programs.


Since fasting is an almost universal practice among the religious people of the world, one might expect that the Pharisees, highly religious people that they were, would be among the world’s most prolific fasters.  And indeed they were.  It is most likely that when Jesus mentioned the hypocrites in Matthew 6, He had some of the scribes and Pharisees in mind.


The Pharisees’ devotion to fasting was derived from the direct teaching of the Old Testament, as well as the oral traditions and numerous regulations designed to help faithful Jews walk with God.


During the Old Testament times, we see in the written record that many faithful believers fasted.


         --       Included among them would be:  Moses, Samson, Samuel, Hannah, David, Elijah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel.


         And in the New Testament, we read of the fasting of Anna, John the Baptist and his disciples, Jesus, Paul, and others.


In giving His third example of how we should participate in acts of righteousness, Jesus says,…


Matthew 6:1 NKJV


16     Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.


Just as Jesus did not discourage the giving to the poor and need, or in praying, so likewise he refrains from speaking against fasting per se.  He actually assumes his disciples will fast… can be seen in the words “when you fast…..”.  And yet, on another occasion Jesus is found defending his disciples for not fasting (Matthew 9:14-17).


In any case, here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is interested in condemning the abuses of fasting as seen in some people, and warning that this is not the way He wants his followers to fast.


As mentioned before, fasting is practiced in both the Old and New Testaments.  In the King James Version, fasting is mentioned at least 85 times.  But what began as spiritual self-discipline was prostituted into an occasion for pompous self-righteousness.


The fasting of the Pharisees had assumed an air of acting, for they let it be known to all that they were fasting.  They did this by disfiguring their faces and neglecting their appearance.  Some would wear glum and pained expressions on their faces.  Some would go about their business unwashed and unkempt -- maybe even sprinkle ashes upon their head.  The motive behind this display of fasting was to make a public impression regarding their piety.  It was to inform their peers that they were fasting


Almost anything that is supposed to serve as an outward sign of an inward attitude towards God can be cheapened by this hypocritical piety.  And Jesus remarks that those who fast for people will be praised by people.


So, Jesus offered an alternative.  Fasting should be done secretly, without any visible change in one’s normal appearance or hygiene.  Jesus said genuine fasting should be between the one who fasts and the One for whom one fasts.  Jesus knows the temptation is great to leak to the public the fact that one is fasting so He impresses upon on us (in verses 17-18) to take great care to camouflage it.


Jesus instructs us to be sure that our righteousness not be confused with outward displays.  The questions we each need to ask of ourselves is, “Whom am I trying to please by my religious practices?  And, in the end, Jesus says that when fasting is done out of sincere devotion to God it will be seen and rewarded by Him.


Before going further, I think it would be good to talk about what fasting is and why people do it.  There are a lot of different ideas out there about what it is, and why you should do it.  It has to be more than when you are requested to fast prior to a doctor appointment.  And, certainly, we will see that it is definitely different than going on a diet.  The Christian’s primarily fasts for spiritual purposes and not for health reasons




Fasting is the voluntary abstaining from eating or drinking for a period of time -- whether long or short.

Nown: NESTIS means “one who has not eaten,” “who is empty,” then “who fasts.”


Verb: NESTEUO means “to be without food or to be hungry,” but mostly “to fast.”


The adjective NESTEIA means “suffering hunger,” usually “fasting.”


Fasting, as a voluntary act, is a form of self-denial.


John Wesley, who shook the world for God during the Great Awakening which gave rise to the Methodist Church, near the end of the 18th century, believe strongly in fasting.  He urged the early Methodists to fast every Wednesday and Friday.  He felt so strongly about fasting those two days, that he refused to ordain anyone in Methodism unless they agreed to do it.


The roll call of other great Christian leaders who determined to make prayer with fasting a part of their lives read like a hall of fame -- Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, Matthew Henry, Charles Finney, Andrew Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and many more.


Why were they so convinced of the need for fasting and prayer?  And how does fasting cause the fire of God to fall upon the life of the individual and the Church?


There will come times in your lives, as you move into the truly spiritual realm, that you will be so taken up with a burden to pray, that you will not have the time for, nor give thought to, eating.  The need to pray will become such a burden that you forget all else but prayer.


Fasting has been ordained by God to allow the soul to concentrate more strongly on eternal and spiritual matters.  Fasting does not mean that we look on the material necessities as being unclean.  It means that there are times when we need to concentrate more on worshipping God in prayer, and so, for a time, we lay aside even those things which are both allowable and needful.


Bill Bright (Founder of Campus Crusades for Christ):


         ”Fasting reduces the power of self so that the Holy Spirit can do a more intense work within us.”


Fasting is a primary means of restoration – of revival.  By humbling our souls, fasting releases the Holy Spirit to do His special work of revival in us.  This will change your relationship with God forever, taking us into a deeper life in Christ and giving us a greater awareness of God’s reality and presence in our lives.


Fasting helps to purify us spiritually.  Lee Bueno, author of “Fast Your Way to Health” says:


“Fasting burns out our selfishness.  In fasting we willingly…….give up one of life’s greatest pleasures [eating].  Fasting is the foundry in which we are purified.  Its fires refine our faith….”


Fasting increases our spiritual reception by quieting our mind and emotions.


         Dr. Julio Ruibal, says:


“Fasting helps to clear up our spiritual reception.  It is not that God begins to speak louder when we fast, but we begin to hear Him better.”


Fasting also helps in other ways:


         •  It brings a yieldedness, even a holy brokenness, resulting in inner calm and self- control.


         •  It renews spiritual vision in a person.


         •  It Inspires determination to follow God’s revealed plan for your life.


Andrew Murray writes:


“Fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice everything, [even] ourselves to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God.”


Derek Prince, author and teacher, says that fasting is…


“…..a tremendous lesson in establishing who is the master and who is the servant.  Remember, your body is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master”


According to Galatians 5:17, the flesh or carnal nature always strives to be in control.


The questions I want to cover in our lesson on fasting are:


         •  Is fasting commanded by God?


         •  Why should we fast?


         •  When should we fast?


         •  How long is a fast?


         •  What is included or excluded from a fast?


         •  How should we fast?




It appears the only time fasting was commanded was during the time of Moses.  According to Leviticus 16:29-30, God establish for Israel a permanent statute to be observed on the 10th day of the 7th month.  On that day, according to this passage, the people humble their souls before God.  They were to fast for cleansing of sin.


Let’s read this Passage.


Leviticus 16:29-31   (NKJV)


29     This shall be a statute for ever for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your country, or a stranger that dwells among you:

30     For on that day the priest shall make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD.

31     It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever.




The Day of Atonement.  Now known as…..”Yom Kippur.”


We find the name given later in the Book of Leviticus.


Leviticus 23:26-32 NKJV


26     And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

27     "Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord.

28     And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God.

29     For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people.

30     And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people.

31     You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.

32     It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath."


In either of these passage in Leviticus, did you hear any mention of fasting at all?  And yet, this is recognized by the Jews as a God-ordered day of fasting.


Did you recognize one phrase that was repeated several times, other than that this was to be a sabbath of rest.  The phrase is “afflict your soul.”  The NIV translates this phrase as “deny yourself.”  Phrases like “afflict your soul” or “chasten your soul” is understood to be a reference to fasting.  How do we know that?


Take a look at Psalm 69:10 (NKJV)


10     When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that became my reproach.


Ezra 8:21 (KJV) adds,


21     Then I 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.


Isaiah 58:5a NKJV


5       Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul?


A couple of weeks ago, while we were studying the Lord’s Prayer, I mentioned the topic of parallelism.  It is a writing style, where one phrase is written, followed by a second phrase essentially saying the same thing, but in a different manner.  This verse uses that pattern, and that fasting is the same as afflicting one’s soul.


We know, historically, that for 3,000 years the Jewish people have always observed Yom Kippur…….as a day of fasting.  We also have the New Testament authority for this.  A passage in Acts describes Paul’s journey, by sea, as a prisoner to Rome.


Acts 27:8-9 NKJV


8       Passing it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea.

9       Now when much time had been spent, and sailing was now dangerous because the Fast was already over, Paul advised them,


This trip occurred in early October (our calendar), and was a time of great risk on the open sea.  The “fast” to which he refers is the Day of Atonement which is mid to late September.


Both the Old and New Testaments speak favorably of fasting and record many instances of fasting by believers.  But except for the one-a-year fast mentioned in connection with the Day of Atonement, here is no other place where fasting is commanded.  Rather, it is shown to be an entirely non-compulsory, voluntary act.


Often fasting is mentioned in association with weeping and other acts of humility before God.


Joel 2:12-13   (NIV)


12     'Even now,' declares the LORD, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.'

13     Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God,……


In the New Testament, Luke records the account of a prophetess named Anna who is her eighties never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying” (Luke 2:36-37).  Jesus set the example for us by fasting 40 days at the beginning of His ministry.


Even though fasting is not commanded by Christ, His words in Matthew 6 show that for him it was a matter of when believers would fast, not if they would do it.


Why is it necessary to fast?


In looking at all the passages in the Bible on fasting, it appears there are at least two reasons to fast.


1.  Breaking the enemy’s strongholds


When Jesus was tempted by the devil, He was able to overcome Him because His fasting had given Him spiritual strength.


Isaiah 58:6 NKJV


6       Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke?


I have read the writings of some where they say that fasting moves the hand of God, when, actually, it is to make Satan turn loose of the things he is holding.  Fasting will undo the heavy burdens, set the oppressed free, and break every yoke of the enemy.  Fasting is an important key to getting the victory over hard situations that do not seem to respond to normal prayer.


2.  Building Faith


Fasting builds our faith.  This is what Jesus meant when he spoke to the disciples in Matthew 17:21.


The disciples had asked Jesus why they were unable to cast a demon out of a child.  He said, in Matthew 17:21 (NKJV): However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."   He was telling them if they wanted their faith to be at such a level as casting our demons, then they must fast and pray for their faith to increase.




Let’s see if we can learn when to fast from the times it is mentioned in the Bible other than when it is referring to the Day of Atonement.


1.      During times of severe testing and temptation from the enemy.


Luke 4:1-2 NKJV


1       Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,

2       being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry.


Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, having just previously been baptized by John and having the Holy Spirit descend upon Him.  But, immediately we find the devil tempting the Lord, therefore, He fasted.  Jesus took very seriously His struggle with temptation.  He fasted a long time – 40 days.


We also find Jehoshaphat fasting when they were threatened by the nation of Edom.


2 Chronicles 20:2-4 NKJV


2       Then some came and told Jehoshaphat, saying, "A great multitude is coming against you from beyond the sea, from Syria; and they are in Hazazon Tamar" (which is En Gedi).

3       And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.

4       So Judah gathered together to ask help from the Lord; and from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.


The king stood in the assembly of the people at the temple and prayed to God….


12     …..we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; Nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon you."


The Holy Spirit responded, speaking through the prophet Jahaziel:


15b   Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God's.


17b   Tomorrow go out against them, for the LORD is with you.'"


Esther and Mordecai fasted before she went before the King to plead for Israel’s deliverance.  The nation of Israel was in exile in the land of Persia.  A wicked man named Haman had risen to great political power and had persuaded the king to destroy all the Jewish people.  Unknown to the king, his wife – Queen Esther – was a Jew.  She set an example to all generation of the power of fasting and prayer.


Esther 4:15-17 NKJV


15     Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai:

16     "Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!"

17     So Mordecai went his way and did according to all that Esther commanded him.


The decree of the King had established that nobody could approach the king without him sending for the person.  This included his wife.


Esther knew that breaking that law might mean her death unless on her approach to the king, he nodded his approval as she entered the room.


After three days of fasting and praying, Esther went to see the king, knowing that it was the only hope for her people.  To her relief he smiled his approval.  In fact, he was so pleased to see her that he boastfully offered to give her half of his kingdom.  Instead, Esther asked for the lives of the Jews.


2.      When needing God’s guidance in great decisions.


When Jesus was about to choose the 12 disciples, He fasted and prayed all night (Luke. 6:12).  Jesus was sinless, yet he felt the need of concentrating His soul in uninterrupted communion with the Father, to make sure He knew His Father’s choice in this matter.


Notice also Acts 13:2, when it comes to making important decisions.


Acts 13:2 NKJV


2       As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."


The disciples fasted before choosing whom to send on a missionary journey.  The Holy Spirit spoke to them while they fasted.  If you have a great decision to make, try fasting before the Lord.


In Acts 10, we find Cornelius fasting and praying when God directed him to send for Peter.  Peter proclaimed the gospel to Cornelius and his family.  and they received it with gladness.


3.      When carrying out difficult tasks in the church.


Acts 14:23 NKJV


23     So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.


The early Christians prepared themselves by fasting for important activities within the congregation -- in this case, the ordaining of elders.


Acts 13:3 NKJV


3       Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.


4.      Fasting is useful before great and mighty acts are performed.


There are times when faith alone is not enough.  At these times prayer joined with fasting is necessary.


Mark 9:29 (NKJV)


29     So He said to them, This kind can come out by nothing but by prayer and fasting.


There are differences in mighty works.  Some require more power from above than others.  Fasting can be a means to obtaining the needed power from God.


5.      When some particular thing is acting as a hindrance to your prayers.


You may not know precisely what the hindrance is…..nor fully understand why.  You just know there is something impeding your communion with God in prayer.  Fasting helps us break through the barrier and give us that inner sense of spiritual penetration.  At the same time, fasting helps to cleanse our souls of any impure motive.


6.      To entreat forgiveness and restored fellowship with God.


         That could be when praying for yourself or for others, like family members.


Moses fasted forty days because of the sin of Israel - Deuteronomy 9:15-18


Ahab fasted to show his repentance after Elijah warned him of judgment because of the murder of Naboth.  - 1 Kings 21:17-29.  The Lord decided to delay punishment until his son assumed the throne.


Nineveh fasted at the preaching of Jonah - Jonah 3:4-10.  The Bible records, “Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil ways, God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.


Daniel fasted and repented on behalf of the sins of Israel - Daniel 9:3-5.  He entreated God to restore them from exile in Babylon.  God allowed them to return to their land.




The NORMAL meaning of fasting involved ABSTAINING FROM ALL FOOD BUT NOT WATER.  Sometimes the fast was only partial……a restriction of diet but not total abstention


Daniel 10:2-3 NKJV


2       In those days I, Daniel, was mourning three full weeks.

3       I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.


On rare occasions there was the ABSOLUTE fast as in the case of the people of Nineveh, who also included their animals in their fast - cf. Jonah 3:5-10.  The same was true in the case of Queen Esther - Esther 4:16.  In Acts 9:9, Paul said he neither ate nor drank during his 3-day fast.




What about the length of a fast.  There doesn’t seem to be any set rule, where different lengths of fasts are for different reasons.  The Lord did not set up any specific duration that we are to fast.


A fast was often for ONE DAY, from sunrise to sunset, and after sundown food would be taken - Judges 20:26; 1 Samuel 14:24; 2 Samuel 1:12; 3:35.  A fast might be for ONE NIGHT, as we find in Daniel 6:18.  The fast of Esther continued for THREE DAYS, day and night, which seems to have been a special case - Esther 4:16.  David fasted SEVEN DAYS when his child was ill - 2 Samuel 12: 16-18.  The longest fasts recorded in Scripture were the FORTY DAY fasts.  Moses, Elijah, and Jesus - Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2




Finally, let’s take a look at how Christians should fast?


1.      Not to be seen of men.


Back to our original text in Matthew 6:16-18.  We read that our fasting was not to be done in a way that makes people know you are fasting, where it is done for show, and for the praise of others.  He goes on to tell us that the Father will see what we do in secret and reward us.


But is fasting to be done in absolute secrecy?  Not any more than is giving and praying to be done in absolute secrecy.  All of these acts fall under what verse 1 calls “acts of righteousness.”  And yet, Christ said in Matthew 5:16 that our acts of righteousness will be seen by others, but when they are, they should be done in such a way that would cause others to glorify our Father in heaven.


The important thing is the motive we have for doing our righteous acts so that we, as it is state repeatedly in this Passage, are not as the hypocrites.


When it comes to fasting, many of the fasts that we have read about in both the Old and New Testaments were groups of people.  It is impossible to have a group fast and not have others know you are fasting.  If the pastor calls a fast, asking us to raise our hand to signify our participation, that is not a violation of what Jesus is stating in Matthew 6.  That is, unless you raised your hand with the hope that others would think better of you.  The intent of Matthew 6 is not so much secrecy, as it is not to be doing it for show.


2.      Not as some regular ritual


Matthew 9:14-15 NKJV


14     Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?"

15     And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.


3.      Not without true repentance


Isaiah 58:3-6 NKJV


3       'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?' "In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, And exploit all your laborers.

4       Indeed you fast for strife and debate, And to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, To make your voice heard on high.

5       Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the Lord?

6       "Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke?


                   God expects true repentance and a humbling of our heart during fasting.


Some practical suggesting for fasting:


1.      Don’t go out and fast just because it sounds like a neat thing to do.  Take the subject seriously.  Fast only when the occasion is a serious one -- one in which you desperately desire God’s help.


2.      If you have never fasted before,  start slowly, fasting only for brief periods of time.  End slowly, gradually breaking your fast with fresh fruit and vegetables in small amounts.


3.      Fast when you have time to spend in prayerful focus on God and his direction.  Remember the purpose for fasting.  Remember to humble yourself before God.


There is probably much more that could be said on the subject of fasting.  I hope that this is enough to stimulate your thinking on a subject which has often been neglected in both study and practice.


And remember, as with any subject, the Word of God is the last word, not John Hoole.  But I do hope I have directed your attention sufficiently to His Word to cause you to ponder what you will do with this act of righteousness.