Fasting in the Ancient World – Matthew 6:16-18

Of the three disciplines in Matthew 6:1-18, fasting is the most difficult because evangelical Christians have been hesitant to participate in fasts. For most, they would prefer a good potluck to a fast!

However, fasting was common in the ancient world and is still an important spiritual discipline for many religious people. The practice of fasting is considered a critically important method for getting in touch with spiritual things. For example, Bonhoeffer said “Satiated flesh is unwilling to pray and unfit for self-sacrificing service” (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 158). McKnight considers this an example of the instrumental view of fasting: one fasts in order to gain some spiritual benefit. But he also states clearly this view of fasting is simply not found in the Bible (McKnight, Sermon, 193).

Jesus does not command almsgiving, prayer or fasting. He simply assumes his disciples will do these basic spiritual disciplines. What he commands is a re-thinking of the how these commonly practiced spiritual acts of worship should be done. In all three cases he turns the focus away from the one doing the act and toward God.

What did it mean to fast at the time of Jesus?

In the Old Testament, fasting was required only on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-31, 23:26-32), Acts 27:9 simply calls the Day of Atonement “the Fast.” But there are other examples of fasting in the Old Testament in response to either an important or terrible event. The death of a loved one is often associated with “sackcloth and ashes,” perhaps fasting as well. In 1 Samuel 31:13 the people of Jabesh Gilead mourn the death of Saul by fasting for seven days. In 2 Sam 1:12, David and his men fasted and mourned Saul and Jonathan (although this fast only lasted until the evening). In Judges 20:26 the people fasted before the Lord all day before a battle the following day. In 1 Sam 7:6 Saul commanded a fast until a battle was won (although this is considered a rash vow). The people responded with fasting in response to the judgment of God in the exile (crises Isa 58:3-5; Jer 14:12; Zech 7:5). This is similar to the fasts in Esther 4:16 and Ezra 8:23. Psalm 35:11-16 is an example of responding to oppression. David has been attacked by “malicious witnesses” and his response is sackcloth and ashes (cf., Psalm 69:10-11). For Second Temple period Jews, fasting had been encumbered by additional regulations.

There are a few examples of fasting in the New Testament which is not associated with mourning. In Luke 2:37 Anna is described as fasting and praying in the Temple. Paul and Barnabas are appointed to a mission after prayer and fasting (Acts 13:2-3) and Paul and Barnabas appointed elders only after a time of prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23). Paul refers to fasting in 2 Corinthian 6:5 and 11:27 although he may mean a time of hunger since it is in a list of suffering he has experienced.

Luke 5:33 states John the Baptists and his disciples “fasted often,” as do the Pharisees (Mark 2:18/Matt 9:14). In contrast, the disciples of Jesus did not fast in the same way.

The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Thursday and Monday. According to tradition, Moses ascended Mount Sinai on Thursday and descended on Monday. Those two days were the “market” days, when Jerusalem was the busiest, and fasting would have the largest audience. The early Christian church manual Didache 8 says “But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, so you must fast on Wednesday and Friday.”

Fasting was important in the early church and is mentioned thirty times in the New Testament and it is never condemned. As in the Old Testament, fasting marked times of sorrow or prayer, often accompanying a decision. Keeping the Old Testament texts cited above in mind, a person might fast during the day and have a small meal in the evening.

Polycarp, To The Philippians 7.2 Therefore let us leave behind the worthless speculation of the crowd and their false teachings, and let us return to the word delivered to us from the beginning; let us be self-controlled with respect to prayer and persevere in fasting, earnestly asking the all-seeing God “to lead us not into temptation,” because, as the Lord said, “the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.”


Bibliography: N. K. Gupta, “Fasting,” page 270 in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Second Edition).

7 thoughts on “Fasting in the Ancient World – Matthew 6:16-18

  1. Often fasting is thought of as giving up something in one’s life to gain benefit. However, McKnight states that fasting is not about gaining some benefit and focusing what can be gained out of fasting, but rather fasting a response to the sacred moments of life. The point of fasting is to have a whole-body response to life and its dangerous, grievous, and severe moments. (p. 194). The greatest command is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Matthew 22:37). In order to love God as fully as this, the church needs to engage in the spiritual discipline of fasting. Fasting is a form of spiritual discipline that honors God through the body. Fasting in grievous movements as well as on a regular basis is important. In the day and age where people love food, it can be hard not to abstain from eating. I myself find it hard to resist a fresh cookie when I am hungry. However, the discipline of fasting shows that the person trusts God and is willing to give up something as important to life as food in order to glorify Him and become closer in their relationship with Him. The purpose of fasting was simply to make the faster more willing and joyous in following the Lord. As backwards as it sounds, engaging in self-restraint can allow the joy of the Holy Spirit to be more present in one’s life. This is why the practice of fasting was seen as so important and critical to the Jewish faith.

    • This is a great post, I agree with everything you said. Fasting is a discipline and one that can be very beneficial. The pain of it can cause great reward. We are to give our everything to God and fasting is a true way to show the discipline we have for our relationship with Him. It is very true we all do love food and it can be very hard to turn it down, but doing this for Christ shows how we want to grow closer and focus solely on Christ. “He expects his disciples to practice what he teaches, and he warns those who don’t want to practice what he teaches about God’s judgement (Matthew 7:13-27) (McKnight, pg.135). We should be trying to please God and practice what he is teaching us.

  2. Fasting was a very common thing back in the day, as you can see it is found in scripture many times. It is not as common today, but fasting is also something that is done in private so we do not see when people are doing it. My dad used to fast a lot, and I am sure he still does every once in a while. On those days when he is fasting I will notice that he will wake up and be in the word and be on his knees worshiping to God. That is the point of fasting, to put all of your focus on God and see his power. The attention ion is to to be on God rather than on yourself, that is why it is done in private. McKnight makes a point about how fasting it not just giving one thing up, “Fasting is the voluntary choice not to eat at all for a specific period in response to something”(McKnight, pg. 200-201). Saying that you are giving up chocolate as fasting takes the real meaning away from actually fasting and that is not sacred to God. Fasting sounds kind of difficult, but it can worth it to get closer to God and be connected with him on a new level.

  3. Fasting happened quite often back in the Old and New Testament, and was even required at times (Day of Atonement). This is much different from today, as we do not see nearly as many people fasting. In my church, every year we would do a 30 hour famine to raise money for a particular organization. We would fast for 30 hours and ask for people to support us. During this time we would spend time with God and time serving. McKnight says “Instead of promising blessings and benefits, we can call attention to the grievous moments of our lives, our church, and our communities and urging God’s people to fast” (p. 202). Fasting for a purpose is something that should still be done today. We are not promised anything in return for fasting, but rather it is a time to rely on God and connect with him. Fasting is definitely something that is not done as much as it should be in today’s society. We, as Christians, should look to the Bible to see the way that they fasted and model after them.

  4. Fasting seems to be a topic that many are quickly defensive about. People are uninterested, believe it is not a necessary practice anymore, or simply do not want to take part in fasting. What is important to remember about fasting is that it is voluntary. Like you mentioned above, Jesus does not command fasting, rather He assumes believers would want to take part in fasting to grow closer to the Lord. Fasting is not just something that we do. It requires us to examine our hearts. When we fast our motive should be a state of urgency for God. When we look at the examples from Scripture that are provided above, we see how in each case those who participated in fasting were in distressing circumstances and realized that they needed spiritual guidance and strength from the Lord. In our churches today, we often miss the fact that fasting is not solely an outward expression. Many churches will do 24 or 30 hour fasts for fundraisers, and I am not against these sort of things, but I believe that fasting is designed to be much more intimate than that. I once heard that fasting is an outward expression of an inward reality of a broken heart. Fasting should align with our desire for a deepening relationship with God. McKnight says, “fasting enters into how God interprets, experiences, understands, and explains significant events” (194). Fasting is a humbling experience, because it is not something we can conquer in our own strength. Our bodies are used to being nourished by food, but fasting requires us to be nourished by God alone. It allows us the chance to align ourselves with God and what He desires. McKnight writes, “God’s people, in effect, took up the posture of God” (194). It is a disciple that should be practiced for the purpose of wanting to become more like Christ. Ephesians 5:1 says, “therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Jesus practiced what God’s Word teaches, as should we.

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