What is the Real Significance of Fasting?
by Tony Warren
Though sundry diverse fasts are purported by some Christians to promote physical health (which may, or may not be true) and to give our requests energy, nowhere in scripture is there any validation that this was, or is the Biblical purpose of fasting. The scriptural definition of fasting is that it was an act or 'work' which people did to show humility in the afflicting of themselves, mourning in repentance before God. But Christians today speak of fasting as a way to subdue the flesh in order to strengthen themselves spiritually, or to 'feel' more virtuous or invigorated. This has never been the fast of Biblical record. Far too many people view the fast as an accomplishment or work of contrition which they (consciously or unconsciously) think God will look favorably upon. However, Biblical theology cannot righteously view fasting in any way as an act of man which brings God's favor. Physical fasting is not a source of God's rewards, nor is it a goad to becoming pious. Today's fast is something infinitely more rewarding than the act of physically starving ourselves.
The word fast [tsowm] literally means to cover or close the mouth, and by implication, to not eat. There is a purpose for every work, and there was a real purpose for fasting. When we search the scriptures we find that fasting was a voluntary act of self affliction in denying oneself food and drink. The purpose of this denial and self abasement was, by this work, one demonstrated himself to God to be in a position worthy of His Grace and Mercy.
The fast was a demonstration of abasement, being brought low to the dirt, and showing self denial as a sign of a contrite spirit in position of humility. An example of this is illustrated in 2nd samuel in the fast of David. The purpose of David's fast was that by his show of humility in contrition, God would answer His prayer and save his son.
2nd Samuel 12:16-17
David afflicted himself, denying himself food and all comforts of bed, lying instead upon the earth, a clear picture or sign of his humility, that God might look upon his affliction and answer his prayer concerning his child. This was the purpose of the Biblical fast, which was affliction and suffering the pangs of hunger in order that some prayer might be answered. We cannot expect to do these works of fasting for favor today, for those physical fasts 'looked forward' to a better work which produced a better fast and favor of God. In the case of 2nd Samuel, David's prayer for the life of the child went unanswered, that this picture would characterize the spiritual truth that the only work which will Save a child of David, is the work of Christ. Only in 'this fast,' which is the true chosen fast, will God deliver the child of David from death.
Some things are not easily understood, but a fast for favor should throw up red flags even on the face of it. Many Christians do not realize that the notion of man suffering in hunger or thirst for God, is really no different than the idea that some people have in South America, where they believe that by afflicting themselves and beating themselves for God, they will somehow be brought closer to God. The same principle is at work in both cases. i.e., the perceived view that suffering for God will make one a better or more spiritual person. But the real affliction that was suffered to make man a better and more spiritual person was not in physical fasting (which merely pointed to Christ's affliction and suffering for us), but the chosen fast of Christ. He is the bread of life taken away for our sakes. It is in this fast that we are made better, our prayers answered and we anointed by the Holy Spirit. A fast in Him is the 'true' fast which will bring our earnest requests and supplications perfectly before God that we are heard, and that we come in a 'true' position of humility in mourning for our sins.
This question of fasting is usually looked at superficially, and seldom addressed in a careful Biblically studious manner. One Christian speaking of the fasts he has had in his life, put it this way.
To put it in simple terms, he is declaring that 'by this' work of physical fasting, he received a reward from God. And let us not confuse supplication with fasting, as some Theologians have done. They are two different things. Praying earnestly is very different from afflicting ourselves bodily by denying ourselves food or drink that we gain some type of blessing thereby. God works through our prayers, but the work of fasting to bring favor, only Christ can accomplish 'for' us.
Holiness or closeness to God is not achieved through ascetic practices. I understand that these are some of the reasons given by some Christians today for fasting, but they are not justified by scripture, nor are they the chosen fasts of God. We grow in spirituality and nearness to God through the Spirit, by obedience to His Word, and in fellowship with Christ. Obedience and spirituality is 'because' we are indwelled by the Spirit, not because we start a fast, nor is this modern view anywhere taught in scripture. Nearness to God most certainly does not come from physically abstaining from foods or drink. Communion with God is not by physical work of denial, but through the physical work of Christ, in His denial for us. It is by His affliction on our behalf that we have a Saving relationship with Him. It is through the work of His affliction that we are healed. Of course Christians are afflicted and persecuted, but we do not afflict ourselves Physically, we understand that Christ fulfilled the type in the fast, for us. It is by His affliction that our prayers are answered and we are brought closer to God.
1st Peter 2:24
Those who fast thinking that for this work of self denial (and it is a work), that they will receive some reward or benefit from God, are altogether on the wrong track. We are rewarded by the fast of Christ. That is to say, by the reward or benefit derived from his self affliction, as opposed to ours. The fact that He was the bread taken away, is the reason that we are Healed and receive benefit or reward. The only reward man receives for 'his own' physical fasting, is perhaps the belief he feels better about himself. But God does not reward man for taking away physical bread, or for starving himself. This is not the chosen fast of God. In scripture, it merely Characterized it! There is no biblical record of anyone fasting for perceived health reasons, and people fasting to appear to be pious or conscientious before men is clearly warned against by God, and this caveat does not only apply to fasting that one physically appear holy, but even against 'boasting that we fast,' in order that we might be looked upon as Holy or good people. We probably all know Christians who boast about physical fasting and what it has done for them. Indeed, they have their reward or benefit! But it has nothing to do with blessings from God!
Many think that because Christ mentions fasting here, this validates their idea that it is biblical to physically fast today. But this verse no more supports this idea, as Jesus mentioning the 6 stone pots of purifying water means that we should have those to purify ourselves today. These old rituals and works were 'shadows' or a [skia] looking forward to New Testament realities. The stone waterpots, the sackcloth and ashes, the anointing oil, etc., they all prefigured the work of Christ. In Matthew 6:16 when Jesus says, 'they have their reward [misthos],' it is illustrating that their work of fasting has it's payment in their glory before men, while the true work of fasting has it's wages in the reward for the work of Christ. In the true fast, this is the work that has our heads truly anointed. In 'this fast' is our faces truly washed. And note, that word translated 'reward' in matthew chapter 6, is the same word translated wages or hire, because it is a work! And the fast that the Lord has chosen is in the 'work' of Christ, not in our own physical abstentions. A fast where Christ is sacrificed that we can deal our bread to the hungry. A fast in which our work is not done that we may be seen of men as good, but because we are born of God. We do it as unto God, because of the work which was accomplished in us. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus said that the righteousness of his disciples must exceed that of these Scribes and Pharisees. This can 'ONLY' be accomplished in the righteousness of Christ, and never in the physical fasts (works) which the Pharisees practiced. '..He who hath an ear, let him hear.'
True holiness and conscientiousness comes when we serve or work for love of God, not for love of fasting or being seen of men to be Holy thereby. Just as in the parable of 'The hypocritical Pharisee and the Publican' in Luke chapter 18 which demonstrates that the Pharisee, thinking that his work of fasting and praying made him holy, was still as dead in trespass and sin. Though he physically fasted, he was unaware that his fasting meant nothing to God. Faith without works is dead. And dead works are they which are 'not the work of Christ,' but man's own works. Indeed, they have their own reward or wages. They show man depending upon his own acts (fasting) to cause some benefit, rather than Christ's. Whether recognized or not, it is the act of pride rather than true humility and dependence upon God.
This parable teaches us that men who depend on their own works, are depending upon dead works. Living works are only in Christ! This Pharisee prayed, "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican." In other words, he was trusting in his own (perceived) good work of fasting and tithing. He pridefully looked upon himself as good because of what he did. But God reveals his physical fasting and giving of tithes meant nothing in regards to it being a help in any way. This man was trusting in a work which did not help him. On the contrary, it was the sinner who in 'true humility' recognized his sin, and who knew that no work or fast that he could do would Save him or make him a better Christian, who went up justified rather than he who physically fasted. His dependance was 'entirely' on the work of Christ, and this is a lesson for us all. In this parable we should see that God is illustrating that good things from Him cannot be obtained by physical fasts, it is obtained only by justification in the deeds of Christ. We must therefore be careful that we do not think that God delights in our punishing the body by denying it food and water, or the punishing it by observing Old Testament rituals or dietary abstinence. Shall God delight in us laying on the earth and throwing dirt over ourselves? This is what men did in scripture, and for the same purpose as fasting. Is God's delight in seeing man deny himself food and water that God might look on this work with favor? No, God delights in obedience and the spiritual things of the heart. He delights not in our denying ourselves food which He has graciously provided, but in our denying ourselves the way of the world. This is a sacrifice far greater than beans and rice.
God's not saying deny yourself food, God is saying 'this' is the chosen fast that He requires. Spiritual abstinence from the wickedness of the world. A fast which may cause you affliction and tribulation because it is in the Chosen fast. It is not necessarily a physical sacrifice, but it most certainly is a spiritual one. This is the true fast which the physical fasts of scriptures 'pointed to.' They were pictures illustrating the character of the work and accomplishment of the affliction of Christ. This truth is put forth Gloriously in Isaiah chapter 58 as God defines the kind of fast which 'HE' delights in. God Himself declares the 'true' fast which He has chosen is very different from man afflicting his own soul in physical fasting, thinking it makes his voice heard on High.
Here God contrasts the physical fasting, with His chosen fast. And His chosen fast consists of loosing bands, lifting heavy burdens, and releasing captives. What does all of this have to do with fasting? Nothing, if we do not understand that God is not speaking of His people practicing a physical fast. Did their physical fasting break yokes from anyone? Did their physical fasting bring all poor out to their house? Did physical fasting clothe the people of Israel, or deal their bread to the poor? These are all Spiritual 'figures' or pictures of Salvation! i.e., Blessed are the hungry, for they shall be filled. The naked will be clothed, and the widows housed. When we share the gospel, we are inviting the poor to come into our house (1st Tim. 3:15). When we preach the gospel we are dealing the covering to those who are naked in sin. We are coming with the robe of Christ's righteousness to cover them (Rev. 3:18). Christians spend a lot of time reading scripture, but very little time hearing what they read. Is a physical fast going to make our voices heard on high? In Isaiah, God says no! It's not a physical fast which make our prayers heard on high, but by the physical work of Christ, the Spirit takes our imperfect prayers 'perfectly' before the Lord. It's not because of anything we do in denial, but because of what has been done for us.
God tells us in these passages that His fast is not for a man to afflict his soul, not for man to bow down his head as a bulrush, not to spread sackcloth and ashes under him. He asks rhetorically, 'wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?' Is the fast God chooses for us to afflict ourselves by not eating or by afflicting ourselves in discomfort? Is that the acceptable fast, or is the fast that God has chosen that which their physical fast merely 'represented?' These physical things are works signifying (a sign of), the true chosen fast. The loosing the bands of the wicked, the undoing of heavy burdens, and the setting of the captives free. Comparing scripture with scripture, the question for us is, which does God say is the 'true' chosen fast, and which is not the fast He delights in?
To loose the bands of the wicked, free the oppressed, and break their yokes are 'figures' of setting the wicked free from bondage to Satan. This is what physical fasting was a picture of. The work which was accomplished when Christ was afflicted and taken away 'for our benefit.' By this fast, we are taking the Salvation of God to the peoples of the world as we send forth the gospel. To this end were we both Called and Chosen.
People look to the Old Testament for justification of Physical fasting in the New, but they don't understand that the fast symbolized things which all were pointing to work by which God would address our prayers. Throwing dirt on their heads, afflicting themselves, mourning, these were all pictures of the humility and affliction which the work of Christ would bring, and the reason God answers our prayers. Not our own work in fasting, but pictures of Christ's work for us. Ultimately, our work of fasting can only be accomplished in Him. These fasts of the Bible characterized this. From fasting for mercy (2nd samuel 12:21), for help (Ezra 8:21-13), for victory in war (Judges 20:26), or for mourning (1st samuel 31:13), they all 'looked forward' to the chosen fast which would accomplish all these things, spiritually. Even the fast of Acts 27 is a spiritual picture of the day of atonement, and the language of 'when the fast was finished, sailing was dangerous' all carry great spiritual implications about end time apostasy. All through scripture, when we read of fasts (example, Jonah 3) it is the picture of being afflicted and sitting in sackcloth and ashes, to illustrate the sacrificial work of humility in our total repentance and mourning for our sins. It is an intimate relationship, because all those who are being Saved by God in the work of Christ, do thereby mourn for their sins.
We go forth with the gospel with tears because, being spiritually enlightened, we now understand that there are so many who are under the wrath of God. And because of this work of Christ within us, we mourn for these dear souls. And we love our neighbor as ourselves, meaning we desire for them the same that we have been given of God. Mourning with fasting is a picture of our being made spiritually alive in the work of Christ.
Here is the captivity set free, and the yokes broken in the chosen fast. Fasting signifies our mourning and repentance and sowing (working) because of Christ. God all through scripture identifies fasting with the gospel of Salvation for this is the fast God has chosen, and not our physical work. We shall not fast as they did of old, to make our voice to be heard on high, it is heard on high through our spiritual fasting in Christ, who is the bread that went away that the Holy Spirit would come and we would sow in tears. Because He went away, we go forth with power, loosing the bands of the wicked and freeing the captivity. It was specifically for this purpose that Christ went away, that we have 'THIS' chosen fast!
When Christ was taken away, then the Church fasts, because Christ (the bread of Life) is taken away. And in this work of being taken away is the chosen fast given strength. By this we have the ability to preach the gospel with power, by virtue of the Holy Spirit that came thereby. God's bounty in sending of the Gospel out only comes when Christ leaves, and there is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit to do this world wide evangelizing that was prophesied of old. Christ was preparing the disciples for just this 'task' of delivering the gospel to all the world, by the chosen fast, characterized in His going away.
When Christ went away, then the fast that God has chosen has come. Then as Isaiah declared, are the bands of wickedness loosed, then are the heavy burdens undone, then are the oppressed set free, and then is every yoke broken. That's what the disciples were commissioned to do when Christ went away. That is the fast that would occur when Christ went away. We do this when we send forth the gospel. Yes, just as God declared, this 'is' the fast He has chosen. Not in afflicting ourselves by abstinence thinking we will be better heard on high, but by the loosing of bonds and the release of those in captivity, the hungry filled, and the naked clothed. These things are spiritually discerned.
Theologians have surmised that Mark chapter 2 says very plainly that the Lord's disciples would physically fast after He left earth, but if indeed this spoke of a physical fast, why then could they not fast as John's disciples did? Why did they have to wait until Christ went away? The answer is seen clearly in those scriptures. It is because it's not referring to the Physical fast, but to a spiritual fast which could "ONLY" occur when Christ (the bread) left earth. If it was talking about a physical fast, there was nothing preventing them from fasting while Christ was there. But the truth is, when Christ went to the cross, then would they have the 'kind of fast' God has chosen. And by 'this fast' would they come with power and be able to cast out demons, move mountains, and cast them into the sea. Only then would they have the faith of Christ by the work of Christ. It's why God talked about the "POWER" that came only by prayer and fasting. Not that human fasting would work miracles, (it won't) but the fast of Christ would work miracles. Read these scriptures carefully with an 'ear' to hear exactly what they are really saying.
So then, if we fast Physically and pray, can we move literal mountains? No! That is not what God is teaching here. For the fast that will remove mountains and in which nothing is impossible to us, is the chosen fast where the 'Kingdom' of Satan is conquered, and our faith is in the Mustard seed, Christ. It is He which started out small, died and was put into the ground, and now groweth into a great kingdom. Again, these things are spiritually discerned. Mountains symbolize kingdoms. This faith which casts the Kingdom of Satan into the depths of the sea and sets men free from the yoke of bondage, is in Christ. This kind cometh but by prayer and fasting. The fast that casts out Satan is obviously the chosen fast. And it just as obviously "cannot" be a literal physical fast! For with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. 'He who hath an ear, let him hear!' When Jesus told the disciples that they couldn't cast out the demon because this kind cometh not but by prayer and fasting, this is what Christ was illustrating. Most certainly He didn't speak of physically abstaining from food, as if that work could accomplish such a miraculous task. No, only the Chosen fast could.
Unfortunately, many Christians have not considered all these things carefully, and thus this misguided idea that fasting will give them this power, make them more righteous, allow them to concentrate more, or become a better person before God, seems ingrained in them. Without the Spirit, nothing will dissuade them from this belief. But the truth is, neither fasting, nor any other religious effort, ritual, or ceremony can make a man more powerful, Holy, or acceptable before God. As evidenced by the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees.
Nevertheless, many Christians keep asking the question, 'why the fasts of scripture then?' The answer is, to characterize Christ's work. It is because they are a picture or figure of how the Church would fast when Christ was taken away, because He is the bread of life by which men live. This picture is the same as the 'physical' miracles that were done. It doesn't mean that we should or can do physical miracles today just because the Disciples did them. No, they were to characterize certain aspects of Salvation. For example, healing the blind was a picture of the spiritually blind being made to see. What Biblical Christian would think that he can make people physically see? Feeding the 4000 with 7 loaves was a picture of the Church feeding those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. What Biblical Christian would think he can feed 4000 today with 7 loaves today? Healing the deaf was a picture of the elect being given ears to hear. Christ having Peter walk on water was a picture of Christ upholding us that we not sink in the depths of hell. Likewise the ships in safety on the sea, fishers of men, casting out demons, etc., these things all characterize Salvation, and do not mean that we should attempt to do these works today. Wisdom is in understanding this.
These scriptures which speak about the 'true' fast and purpose which God assigns it, are not passages which should be discarded or taken lightly. they all have a spiritual story to tell. The Lord Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness, which is a picture of His going away to Heaven when we would have our wilderness journey on earth (see Revelation 12) on our way to the promised inheritance. It is a picture of us in the Chosen fast where yokes are broken and the captivity freed. The little becoming a great Kingdom. The number 40 in scripture signifies trial, or testing. These are all great truths which to some seem as foolishness, but to the spiritual, they are made manifest by God. Let no one think that they have plumbed the depths of the knowledge of the Almighty to 'arrogantly' declare these things untrue. Let man never deny what God has said, when he has said it, nor affirm what God has said, when it is not written in the Holy Scriptures. Let him honorably, as the Bereans, search the scriptures, to see if these things are true.
In conclusion, the fact is, nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to fast. That is a fact. So while God does not prohibit fasting for health or any other reason (besides a work looking for blessing there-from), there is no command to physically abstain from eating in service to God. If someone wants to go without food for a time, and it's not harmful, let him go without food. But there is no real Spiritual merit at all from the act or work of going without food or afflicting the body by fasting in the Biblical sense.
We need not abstain from food or water in order to concentrate on spiritual problems or needs. And it may even be a hindrance to fellowship, because the consequences of considering the outward as the 'real,' may be that many people falsely think that it brings us closer to God. For health reasons, who knows, it may or may nor be beneficial depending upon our state of mind, and our health. But there is no Biblical reason for doing it. No such works or deeds can give us peace of mind, favor, or bring grace. Only the work of Christ can. We should not look to physical fasting anymore than we should look to other old pictures, rites, feasts, abstentions, or ceremonies which point to Christ's work. We shouldn't abstain from food anymore than we would abstain from putting two types of seeds or two types of threads together (leviticus 19:19) today. You won't see Theologians claiming we should go to Jerusalem 3 times a year because it's a everlasting command in scripture. You don't see them pointing to these scriptures saying we should do this because it's in scripture, 'because they understand' that these were figures or types pointing to a bigger 'Spiritual Picture.' And indeed, so was fasting!
May the Lord who is Gracious above all, Bless us as we study His most Holy word, and guide us into it's Glorious truths.
The Christian Counter