Lesson 3 – Fasting


Lesson Aim:  To understand how Jesus’ original audience understood fasting based on the Old Testament and to show the value of fasting for God’s people today.

Scripture:  Matthew 6:16-18.


Fasting is one of the three “acts of righteousness” Matthew included in his gospel in chapter six.  Similarly, with respect to the acts of almsgiving and prayer, Jesus was also concerned that God’s people would fail to receive our reward, “when we fast.”  Please note Jesus did not say “if we fast.”  Even though His original audience may have been fasting “to be seen of men,” they did not need an explanation for the word “fast.”  In fact, the church members who read Matthew’s gospel also understood fasting.  The Apostle Paul and other church leaders often led the church in fasting before they made a decision about an important event (Acts 13:2, 3; 14:23).  Fasting was a regular part of life in the homes of the members (I Cor. 7:5).  Fasting was also practiced by people like Cornelius who were seeking the truth about life (some manuscripts, Acts 10:30).  The heathen city of Nineveh fasted after they heard Jonah preach (Jonah 3:5).

The Greek word “nesteia” has been translated fasting (from ne, a negative prefix and esthio, to eat).  It means to voluntarily abstain from food (Psa. 109:24).  Jesus fasted when He was about to start His earthly ministry (Matt. 4:2).  His disciples did not fast while He was with them on earth; however, He said they would when He left them.

Then the disciples of John came to Him saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”  And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?  But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”  Matthew 9:14, 15

It is apparent the present day church leaders do not place much, if any, value on fasting.  If some do, the writer of this has not been privileged to have participated in this act of righteousness.  This being true we will need to attain our information about fasting from the Old Testament.


The house of Judah had several regularly prescribed fasts during their captivity.  These fasts appeared to be practiced for the purpose of entreating and seeking the Lord God (Zech. 8:21).  As Jesus warned in His time on earth, they may not have always been seeking the Lord.  For God had asked them; “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month for the past seventy years, was it really for Me that you fasted?”  Zech. 7:5.

Thus said the Lord of Hosts; the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the seventh, and fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah, joy and gladness and cheerful feasts…Therefore love the truth and peace.  Zech. 8:19

As Ezra was leading a group of Jews back to Jerusalem from their seventy year captivity in Babylon, he arranged for some Levites to join them.  Ezra, a priest and scribe, organized a fast for the people (Ezra 8:15-23; Neh. 8:1, 2).

There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.  … So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and He answered our prayer.  Ezra 8:21, 23

The purpose for these Jews fasting was to humble themselves before the Lord in order to petition Him in prayers.  Ezra thought the Lord heard their prayer and responded in some manner.  Nehemiah mourned, fasted and prayed about Jerusalem while he was the cup-bearer for King Artaxerxes in Susa (Neh. 1:4).  After the Jews had finally returned to Judea and the people were settled in their towns, Nehemiah, now the governor, called an assembly.  Ezra was asked “to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.”  Neh. 8:1.  “They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month.”  Neh. 8:14 (see 16, 17).  The Lord instituted this Sabbath of rest or “Feast of the Tabernacles” which followed the “Day of Atonement” on the tenth day of the seventh month, called Tishri (Lev. 16:1-34; John 7:2).

On the 24th day, following several days of listening to Ezra read from the Book, the people “gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads.  Those people of the Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners.  They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers.”  Neh. 9:1, 2.

Three elements worked to bring them to the point of confessing their sins and separating from foreigners.  One, God was speaking to them through His word.  Two, they were talking back to God in prayer.  The third element was their fasting.  This is the “meat” of our lesson.  How did their fasting play a role in this scenario?  What was the benefit of their fasting with a “single eye,” that is, to be seen only by God?  We will let this thought incubate in our minds and take it up later in our lesson.  Mental incubation and fasting may be co-workers to reward people who practice fasting.

Let us examine another case.  The Benjamites found themselves at odds with their fellow countrymen because of an offense one of their citizens had committed.  The Benjamites refused to release the guilty party.  Civil war raged between the tribes.  Israel lost 40,000 men in the battle with their brother tribe, Benjamin.   The issues we will need to consider in this situation is this:  Benjamin was able to mobilize only 26,000 swordsmen against Israel’s 400,000.  Israel first inquired of the Lord about which tribe should go into battle.  God appointed Judah to go first.  They lost 22,000 men and retreated.  Israel next inquired if they should continue to battle their brother tribe. The Lord said “go.”  They did and another 18,000 Israelites were killed.  The following was the third act in this conflict:

Then the Israelites, all of the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the Lord.  They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the lord.  …  They asked, ‘Shall we go up again to battle with Benjamin our brother, or not?’  The Lord responded, ‘Go, for tomorrow I will give them into you.  Judges 20:26-28

For the benefit of our study about fasting please consider these questions; What was the relationship of their fasting to the victory God gave them?  Did the fact that they abstained from eating all day convince the Lord their tears were real?  Did their fasting help validate their “burnt offering,” an aroma pleasing to God (Lev. 1:4-9).  Fellowship offerings were also made along with fasting (Lev. 7:11-18). The fact was the Israelites lost the first two battles in spite of their massive troop strength.  After this the Israelites gathered at Bethel to meet before the Lord.  They offered burnt and fellowship offerings after weeping and fasting all day.  How did their fasting play a role in the Lord giving them the victory over their enemy?  The answer to these questions will help us to understand the value of fasting for the Lord’s people today.  Let us study the issue and think about it.  There will be no learning without thinking.  Of course, there can be no thinking without learning something to think about.  The foregoing scenarios are something to think about and then there is more.

The Jews who lived in every province of King Xerxes’ domain fasted after Haman influenced him to destroy the Jews (Esther 4:3).  Mordecai asked Esther to approach her husband, the king, on behalf of their people.  Her reply to her cousin, Mordecai was:

Go assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.  I and my maidens also will fast in the same way.  And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.  So Mordecai went away and did just as she had commanded him.  Esther 4:16, 17

“So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai, and the king’s anger subsided.”  Esther 7:10.  This incident gives us the physical definition of fasting.  It meant to abstain from food and in this case water.  Three days of fasting is enough time to completely empty a person’s digestive system of food.  Evidently, fasting calls for a discipline beyond the limits of most Christians.  Perhaps we have not faced up to the seriousness of being “salt and light” for the Lord.  When we understand what Paul was telling Timothy about what will happen to us when we live “godly lives,” we will see the need for fasting (II Tim. 3:12).

Queen Esther believed God would be involved; therefore, the fasting exercise the Jews did was for His attention.  It was not done to be seen by anyone but God.  We can assume the Jews throughout Susa, as well as Esther and her maidens, prayed continuously during their three days of fasting.  Therefore, we have a people who had enough discipline to go hungry and thirsty for three days and who, no doubt, prayed for the success of Esther’s mission.  Although God is not directly mentioned in the Book of Esther, the Jews believed He was aware of their plight.

Perhaps, we can gain some insight by examining the events that took place at Saul’s death.  The Philistines defeated King Saul and his army.  “So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day.”  I Sam. 31:6.  The people of Jabesh Gilead “took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.”  I Sam. 31:13.  Deep sorrow was accompanied with fasting for a long period of time.  Later David received word about Saul’s death.  Although the defeat of Saul was an advantage for David’s future, personally, the shock of the events and the concern for Israel’s future drove David and his men to mourn, weep and fast for hours.

Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them.  They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan and for the army of the Lord and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.  II Samuel 1: 11, 12

Several years later David fasted and pleaded with God to change His decree that his and Bathsheba’s illegitimate son would die.  Please read II Samuel 12:11-23.  David hoped God would be gracious to him and let the child live.  Although David lay on the ground and pleaded with God while he fasted it did not change God’s intention.  What we can learn from this is that David humbled himself and fasted because he thought this was the only avenue of appeal to God to be gracious to him.  Even though it did not work for him in this case, he probably was correct in his analysis of the benefit of fasting.

The following are some other cases of fasting in the Old Testament that we can include in our analysis of fasting and its benefit for those of us who want to practice this form of worship to God.

And they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the Lord, and fasted on that day, and said there, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’  And Samuel judged the children of Israel at Mizpeh.  I Samuel 7:6

And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes.  And I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said, ‘Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and loving kindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments.  Daniel 9:3

And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.  II Chronicles 20:3

The following was in response to the threat of a great horde of locust to be sent on Israel by the Lord God.

Put on sackcloth, O priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar.  Come, spend the night in sackcloth, you who minister before my God; for the grain offerings and drink offerings are withheld from the house of your God.  Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly.  Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.  Joel 1:13, 14

Who knows?  He may turn and have pity and leave a blessing.  Joel 2:14

The foregoing happenings were all uncommon circumstances.  The Lord God was about to make a major move.  It threatened the safety and well being of His people because, as a whole, they had sinned.  How did the peoples’ fasting give them hope of the reversal of God’s intent to punish them?  Weeping, covering themselves with sackcloth and praying was one part of their response to God’s move; however, fasting required a different kind of effort.  Fasting for a prolonged period, or even one day and night, requires discipline.  People generally avoid self discipline of this nature until, perhaps, as a last resort.  They were willing to discipline themselves to fast only after their acceptance of the fact that the situation was threatening.  How many times have we determined to go on a diet?  How many times did we fail to discipline ourselves to continue on the diet?

Not all fasts are acceptable to our Lord God and Father.  In our text Jesus could have been thinking of Isaiah’s warning to the forefathers of the Jews He was addressing.  We will want to note what Isaiah pointed out that was wrong with Judah’s fast.  Then we will want to note what was right.

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it?  Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’  Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.  Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.  You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.  Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only for bowing one’s head like a reed and lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:  To loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.  Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and the Lord will say:  Here am I.  Isaiah 58:3-9

Fasting with a “single eye” means to fast with God as our audience.  This is the lesson Jesus wanted His original audience to understand.  It appears they may not have understood the reward of which He spoke.  God clearly explained the reward for us through His prophet, Isaiah.  In essence, He said what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:13-16.   Fasting has the potential power to help Christians function as “salt and light.”  How does it do it?  We have this question answered in our study of the foregoing scenarios in the Old Testament.  We have understood that proper fasting always meant “let’s get serious about our religion.”  Stop playing around with our God, our lives and especially sin in our lives.  If we have a problem with a specific sin we need to completely humble ourselves in “sackcloth and ashes” – perhaps not physically, but certainly spiritually.  We need to divorce ourselves of all pride and talk to the Lord in prayer.  We have understood that fasting is a strong supporter of such “laying bare our souls” in prayer.  We may need to add to this period of self-examination, prayer and fasting, a study of God’s word.

Isaiah, while speaking for God, suggested that fasting should help us to be more sensitive to the needs of others.  Hungry people can empathize with other hungry people.  People who are on a fast are hungry, at least in the beginning period.  Fasting will lead us to be better stewards in the things God has put in our control while on earth.

When we are fearful of apparent disaster and cannot help ourselves, we need the power of God’s hand.  If He knows we are serious about what we are requesting of Him, as we have witnessed, He is more prone to listen.  He may change things for us.  When disaster strikes our nation, our loved ones or ourselves, fasting is appropriate for the occasion of working through our sorrow.  When the sorrow is very deep, most people don’t feel hungry.  Fasting helped David and others to weep in the presence of God.  As Christians, we know our Father cares.  We know how sensitive He is because Jesus was sensitive to the sorrow of others when they lost their loved ones.  What more can we say than if we truly desire for God to give us wisdom to live holy and righteous lives, we will combine fasting with our prayers.  The leaders of the church did when they desired God’s wisdom in the ordaining of elders and direction in evangelism.  Please review the introduction.  Meditation requires an environment free of distraction.  The digestion process of food requires blood that could otherwise be supplied to the brain for thinking and meditation.  A stomach that has been emptied of food for a few days will, perhaps, not be a distraction to thinking that leads to meditation.


The bridegroom has returned to heaven.  The churches of Christ today claim to be in the same relationship to God and Christ as the body of believers were in the New Testament.  Why have we decided to remain almost completely silent on fasting?  We certainly cannot be accused of fasting to be seen of men.  On the other hand, we do not fast, as a church, to be seen of our Heavenly Father.  Why do we not fast?  We sing, pray, give gifts and remember Jesus’ suffering on the cross each Lord’s Day because we believe these acts of righteousness have value.  But we rarely, if ever, fast as a church.  It is evident that we do not expect the Lord to reward us as a disciple of fasting.

Perhaps this is the same reason we have left out fasting as a part of our teaching.  This is not to say that some are not practicing fasting, some are.  However, it is conspicuously left out of our teaching curriculum.  We have no record of the New Testament church fasting as a ritual, or with any regularity, such as their taking the Lord’s Supper.  We found the New Testament church practicing fasting when they had a serious decision to make.  Jesus declared there is a reward for those who practice fasting with the right motive.  Fasting, like the giving of alms, and praying, should not be done to win the approval of man.  They might win us some applause from men but the real reward that can be ours for doing these things will not be there.  We must do them with the motive that God is our audience and that there is a reward for us.

What is the reward in fasting?  Why did Jesus fast when He was about to start His work on earth?  Why did the New Testament Christians fast when they were about to make a great decision or undertake a work?  If God is to see in secret and reward, then surely they were seeking that reward by fasting along with their petitions.  The only way any of us will really ever know the value of fasting is to practice “experimental faith.” We will need to try fasting.

When a Christian wants to undertake a service for God in this world, it must be done in such a way that “they see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.”  We need to research this program thoroughly and without any distractions.  We must have already known what God teaches on this service.  We are only trying to take God’s divine teachings and turn them into a spiritual work with our lives.

Fasting can be just as much a part of our righteousness as the giving of alms and prayer.  However, it must be done with the right motive.  Jesus said we should maintain our normal appearance.  Do not put on a gloomy face to try to impress man about our dedication to God.   We may not do much fasting today; however, we sometimes put on gloomy faces to impress others of our weighty task.  This really is not even a very good way to get rewards from men and it certainly gets no reward from God.  We do not lay up any treasures of character with God in heaven for eternity when we fast with the wrong motive.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Define physical fasting.
  2. What does I Corinthians 7:5 suggest about personal fasting?
  3. Why do many of us who are “in Christ” not fast today?
  4. Why did Jesus and His disciples not fast as did John, the Baptist, and his followers?
  5. Name two occasions when Paul and the leaders of the church fasted.
  6. What were the three elements in the Ezra/Nehemiah scenario that may have influenced the Jews to confess their sins?
  7. What was the reward for Israel after they gathered at Bethel and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings along with fasting?
  8. What might be significant about three days of fasting?
  9. How was the fasting at the death of Saul different from the other examples?
  10. How will Christians ever be able to know the value of fasting?
  11. Why did David fast when God decreed that his son would die?
  12. Describe the relationship of fasting to prayer in the Old Testament examples?
  13. List the main things we learned from Isa. 58:3-9 about right and wrong attitudes in group fasting.
  14. What may be the reason churches do not practice fasting more than we do?
  15. What is wrong with a Christian going about letting everyone know they are fasting?

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