Welcome back! In the first two installments of this series, I discussed how fasting is miraculously beneficial to the body and mind as well as some tips on how to start, sustain, and finish a God-glorifying fast. Today, we turn to a hard but necessary lesson for every Christian: fasting should not be considered optional to those who truly want to be like Christ.
Jesus Assumed His Followers Would Fast
“When you fast…” – Matthew 6:16, 17
“The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” – Mark 2:20
There is no getting around the language. In these two passages, Jesus certainly seems to assume His followers would fast. The Greek word for “when” in Matthew 6:16, 17 is hotan, which Strong’s Concordance summarizes as meaning “when,” “whenever,” “as long as,” “as soon as” – the concept of “if” is certainly nowhere in the picture. The definition in Thayer’s Lexicon is even more convincing: “a particle of time…(meaning) at the time that, whenever…used of things which one assumes will really occur, but the time of whose occurence he does not definitely fix.” Sounds pretty definitive, doesn’t it?
This definition makes even more sense in light of Matthew 6:2 and 6:5, in which Jesus, respectively, says “When you give to the needy” and “when you pray.” Same word, hotan. Same concept. In the same way Jesus assumes that His followers will give to the needy and pray, He expects His followers to fast. Few (if any) professing Christians would claim that giving to the needy and praying are optional, unnecessary, or “extreme” practices in the Christian faith. Yet Jesus talks about fasting in the same way and in the same passage and in the same context.
Mark 2:20 is just as convincing, if not more so. When asked why He and His followers do not fast regularly like John the Baptist’s disciples or the Pharisees, Jesus compares the time He is with the disciples to a wedding time of feasting and celebration, but then unequivocally states that His followers will begin to fast after he departs from the earth. No exceptions are mentioned for future generations.
Fasting Means Abstaining From Food
I also feel I need to clarify what is meant by “fasting” in these texts. It is quite true that abstaining from something non-food-related like television, internet, sex, etc. can be considered “fasting.” Those are legitimate, and often beneficial, forms of fasting. But that is not what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 6 or Mark 2. Again, let’s turn to the Greek. The word used for “fast” in Matthew 6:16, 17 is nesteuo, which only refers to abstinence from food and drink (with the common exception of water), as the Jews and the culture of the time would have understoood it. The Old Testament word for fasting, tsowm, means literally “to cover the mouth,” i.e., to not eat.
(Side note: I obviously realize that, because of specific health concerns (diabetes, pregnancy, etc.), completely abstaining from food is not advisable for some. However, there are plenty of healthy dietary fasting options available to those for whom complete food fasting is physically dangerous).
Aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus?
All Christ-followers will agree that we are to be as much like Jesus as possible. Peter exhorts us to “walk in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). And one of the most powerful examples Jesus provided for us was the fast that began His earthly ministry.
After those forty days of intense fasting (during which “He ate nothing” according to Luke 4:2), Jesus emerged from the wilderness as a spiritual powerhouse that took over the world. Immediately He began teaching with authority, healing, casting out demons, and generally just running roughshod over the kingdom of darkness with ease. If such a fast was necessary for the Son of God to go through for His earthly ministry, what makes us think that we can walk “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14) without making fasting a core spiritual discipline? If Jesus thought it necessary to fast for forty days, what is necessary for you to become like Him?
Jesus Wasn’t the Only Example
The fasters from Scripture read like a “Who’s-Who” of the Bible. Moses (40 days)came down from Mount Sinai with his face glowing. Elijah (40 days) called down fire from heaven. Daniel (21 days) shut the mouths of the lions’ when he was thrown in the lions’ den. And on and on and on.
My final point is perhaps my most important. Considering the fact that it’s easy to mythologize Biblical characters, I always point to the great men and women of faith throughout church history as evidence of the necessity of fasting. Throughout my study of church history, I have never, not once, come across a man or woman who made a significant impact on the kingdom of God who did not practice fasting as a regular spiritual discipline. I’ve often offered this challenge in my spiritual disciplines classes: name me one hero of the faith who was not a faster. I have not yet gotten an answer. The list is consistent and relentless. Martin Luther, John Calvin, George Mueller, Hudson Taylor, Andrew Murray, Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, Mother Teresa, David Livingston, Watchman Nee…the list could go on and on for days.
I believe with everything in me that fasting is not only beneficial, but foundational to one’s growth in Christ. Most Christians are stuck at a level of spirituality that they will never leave until they consider fasting. Are you stuck in a rut? No closer to God, nor living any differently than you were years ago? Seek his face through fasting, feed on the Bread of Life, and watch your passions and affections begin to change from worldliness to Godliness.
A hard lesson today, I know, but I speak the truth in love. 🙂 In the next installment of this series, we’ll talk about why fasting moves us into the next level in our walk with Christ. What are its practical spiritual benefits? How does it change us? You don’t want to miss this information!