Biblical Data on the Subject of Fasting with Conclusions
by Arlie D. Rauch, pastor at Community Bible Church, Glendive, MT

Old Testament:

First recorded is Moses about 1450 when receiving the Law

8 incidents commanded

No instruction in Pentateuch or elsewhere regarding execution of it (only discussion of its method critical/corrective)

Of 31 OT incidents, 2 are non-Israelite (1 Egyptian and 1 Ninevite)

All that were humanly ordered were ordered by civil leaders

New Testament:

Of 12 NT incidents, all involve Jews (except possibly Acts 13:2-3)

Of 8 Gospel (some parallel) incidents, 2 are historical records, 1 a story, 4 claims/questions with corrective teaching, 1 textually questionable encouraged by Jesus toward His disciples

Of 6 Epistle incidents, 1 is ref. to Jewish Day of Atonement, 2 statements of deprivation, 3 accompany prayer for guidance

No imperatives in NT (only discussion of its method critical/corrective); whereas there are 17 imperatives for "prayer," 9 for "love," 5 for "obey," and many other passages with other imperatives or with imperative thrust

No discussion in Epistles

Whole Bible:

17 incidents are individual (religious or political leaders, with only 1 exception--Hannah); 11 are small group (religious or political leaders); 14 are large group (ethnic/civic/national)

Only fasts ever called for by God (through a prophet--Joel), occasioned by covenant judgment, were not observed

"the Day of Atonement was the only preexilic fast." (ISBE) [practiced, but never commanded]

33 incidents have associations with other activities; 9 do not (of which 1 is a deception, 1 is an instruction for which association might be inferred, 2 are probably supernatural, 2 are simply famines, and the other 3 are records for which association might also be inferred)

29 incidents are credible as per genuine religious definition; 13 are questionable as per genuine religious definition

None are positive as to spiritual value in themselves, at best some are neutral

When repentance is the major emphasis, the benefit is always to those who fast; when prayer requests for various other benefits are the major emphasis, the benefit is usually to those who fast and sometimes to others

Actual NT imperatives of other terms--a sample: 17 proseuchomai, 15 pisteuo, 4 deomai, 2 agrupneo, 1 euchomai; 9 imv. agapao; 4 imv. upakouo, 1 peitho, 1 upeiko; 0 nhsteuw

Questionable as per genuine religious definition: 1 inconsistent with joy and dispensation, 1 prayer, 1 sacrilege, 1 simple failure to eat, 1 supernatural, 2 famine, 6 ritual

Credible as per genuine religious definition: 15 prayer, 6 mourning, 6 repentance, 2 supernatural

Possible purposes for fasting suggested by others (with Scriptural incidents which might fit that purpose):

Acquisition of spiritual renewal (BB [Bill Bright, 7 Basic Steps to Successful Fasting ∓ Prayer (NewLife Publications, 1995)], p. 7): 1 Kin. 21:27; Acts 27:9 ?

Acquisition of divine guidance (BB, p. 7): Judg. 20:26; Ezra 8:21,23; Acts 13:2; Acts 14:23

Acquisition of physical healing (BB, p. 7): 2 Sam.12:16, 21, 22, 23; Ps. 35:13; Ps. 109:24; Matt. 17:21 [text ?] !

Acquisition of resolution of problems (BB, p. 7): 1 Sam. 7:6; 2 Chr. 20:3; Ezra 8:21, 23; Neh. 1:4; Esth. 4:16; Jer. 36:6, 9; Dan. 9:3; Joel 1:14 ; Joel 2:12, 15; Jon. 3:5, 7

Acquisition of heightened awareness of God's presence (BB, p. 16)

Weapon against worldly forces that would rob our satisfaction in God (JP [ John Piper, A Hunger for God (Crossway Books, 1997)], p. 14)

Test to determine whether we love God's gifts more than God (JP, p. 45)

Means to making known, cherishing, and honoring God's name, etc. (JP, p. 78)

Hunger expression for Jesus' coming (JP, p. 83): Matt. 9:14, 15 ?; Mark 2:18, 19, 20 ?; Luke 2:37; Luke 5:33, 34,35 ?

Means to awakening and revival (JP, p. 120; cf. above): 1 Sam. 7:6; Neh. 9:1; Joel 1:14 ; Joel 2:12, 15; Jon. 3:5, 7; Luke 2:37

Other (seemingly incompatible with suggestions of various authors): Deut. 9:9; 1Sam. 1:7, 8; 1 Sam. 28:20; 1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Sam. 1:12; 1 Kin. 19:8; 1 Kin. 21:9, 12; 1 Chr.10:12; Esth. 4:3; Esth. 9:31; Ps. 69:10; Is. 58:3, 4, 5, 6; Dan. 10:3; Zech. 7:5 ∓ 8:19; Matt. 4:2; Matt. 6:16, 17, 18; Luke 18:12; Acts 13:3; Acts 27:9; 2 Cor. 6:5; 2 Cor. 11:27

"Self-control over the body and its appetites" (CE [Compton's Encyclopedia])

"Focusing the mind on God or prayer" (CE)

"Making sacrifice to God (or the gods) for offenses committed" (CE)

Various resources:

"Fasting is depriving the body of nourishment" [for a variety of reasons; totally or partially] (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament on [tsum])

"in the ancient world was a thick coarse cloth, usually dark in color and made mostly from goat's hair (though camel's hair was also used...). ...used as a garment by mourners and those who wished to express contrition. It was worn in such a way as to leave the breast free for beating. ...As a garment of grief and self-abasement, sackcloth was sometimes the dress of the prophet who preached a message of repentance. Such a sight would be a call to trembling and repentance. Both Elijah and John, preachers of repentance, wore garments of camel's skin." (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament on [saq])

"It denotes that which is the result of burning. It is used figuratively for what is without value or loathsome. It signifies misery, shame, humility before God, and repentance and contrition. ...Sackcloth and ashes were the usual indications of repentance and humility, often coupled with fasting. Ashes with dust were the customary signs of mourning. The mourner or penitent threw the ashes toward heaven, so that they fell back on himself, especially on his head, a custom attested among non-Hebrew also. In deep distress mourners sat on heaps of ashes. Ashes on the head were also a token of humiliation and disgrace." (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament on [epher])

association of dirt in Neh. 9:1: connections here between the origin of man, the task of man, and the curse resulting from the fall into sin--certainly an expression of humility (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament on [adamah])

"The practice of fasting, found in all religions, and used here in the specific sense of temporary abstention from all nourishment on religious grounds, is at first more common among the Greeks than the Romans, but then under foreign influences it spread across the whole of the ancient world. The original and most powerful motive for fasting in antiquity is to be found in fear of demons who gained power over men through eating. Fasting was also an effective means of preparing for intercourse with the deity and for the reception of ecstatic or magical powers. ...The fasting of the Graeco-Roman world is not asceticism. It is a rite which is observed for the sake of relations to the spirits and the gods. ...Many aspects of OT fasting are the same as in other religions. ...The most prominent feature, and one which is singular to the OT, is, however, the fact that fasting expresses submission to God, as the phrase [inah nephesh] shows. The fast is an act of self-renunciation and self-discipline which is designed to make an impression of God, to mollify His wrath and to move Him to grant what man desires. ...Fasting, like sacrifice, with which it is associated as a cultic action, tends to become a material achievement performed to one's own advantage. The prophets protest against this externalisation. ...In exilic Judaism, with its legalistic trends, fasting is one of the most important of religious activities. ...But the significance which He [Jesus] ascribes to fasting is wholly different from that which Judaism in fateful misunderstanding tends to associate with the custom. Fasting is service of God. It is a sign and symbol of the conversion to God which takes place in concealment, Impressive display before men defeats the end of true fasting. Fasting before God, the Father of those who turn to Him, is joy. Hence there is no place for melancholy signs of mourning. ...Seen from the standpoint of the Messianic eschatological centre of the message of Jesus, fasting is transcended. But since Jesus is aware of an interval between Now and Then, between the dawn of salvation on earth and its consummation, He finds a place for fasting between the times. It is not, of course, a pious work. It is a sign and symbol of the inner attitude which perhaps hardly needs such a sign and symbol. ...In R. 14 and Col. 2 Paul discusses ascetic and ritualistic leanings in the churches, but he does not even mention the subject of fasting. This leaves us with the impression that the question did not even arise, at least for Hellenistic congregations." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament on [nhsteuw])

"Only one such fast is spoken of as having been instituted and commanded by the Law of Moses, that of the Day of Atonement. This is called "the Fast" in Acts 27 9. ...Individuals and sects differ greatly in the degrees of strictness with which they observe fasts. In some fasts among the Jews abstinence from food and drink was observed simply from sunrise to sunset, and washing and anointing were permitted. In others of a stricter sort, the fast lasted from one sunset till the stars appeared after the next, and, not only food and drink, but washing, anointing, and every kind of agreeable activity and even salutations, were prohibited. Such fasting was generally practised in the most austere and ostentatious manner, and, among the Pharisees, formed a part of their most pretentious externalism." ("Abstinence," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

"It is a matter of common observation and experience that great distress causes loss of appetite and therefore occasions abstinence from food. Hannah, who was greatly distressed on account of her childlessness, "wept, and did not eat" (a S 1 7). Violent anger produces the same effect (20 34). According to 1 K 21 4, Ahab, "heavy and displeased" on account of Naboth's refusal to part with his estate, sulked and "would eat no bread." Fasting, originally the natural expression of grief, became the customary mode of proving to others the inner emotion of sorrow. David demonstrated his grief at Abner's death (2 S 3 35), by fasting, just as the Psalmist indicated his sympathy with his adversaries' sorry plight in the same way (Ps 356 13). In such passages as Ezr 10 6; Est 4 3, it is not clear whether fasting is used in its religious significance or simply as a natural expression of sorrow (cf also Lk 5 33 and see below). This view explains the association of fasting with the morning customs of antiquity (cf 1 S 31 13; 2 S 1 12). As fasting was a perfectly natural and human expression and evidence of the subject's grief, it readily claimed a place among those religious customs whose main object was the pacification of the anger of God, or the excital of His compassion. Any and every act that would manifest the distressful state of the suppliant would appeal to the Deity and move Him to pity. The interesting incident recorded in 2 S 12 16-23 suggests the twofold significance of fasting as a religious act or a mode of appealing to the Deity and as a funeral custom. David defends his fasting before and not after the child's death on the ground that while the child was alive David's prayer might be answered. His fasting was intended to make his petition effectual (cf also 1 K 21 27; Ezr 8 21; Est 4 16). Occasionally fasting was proclaimed on a national scale, e.g. in case of was (Jgs 20 26; 2 Ch 20 3) or of pestilence (Joel 1 13 f). Fasting having thus become a recognized mode of seeking Divine favor and protection, it was natural that it should be associated with confession of sin, as indisputable evidence of penitence or sorrow for sin. Fasting might be partial, i.e. abstinence from certain kinds of food, or total, i.e. abstinence from all food as well as from washing, anointing, sleeping. It might be of shorter or longer duration, e.g. for one day, from sunrise to sunset (Jgs 20 26; 1 S 14 24; 2 S 1 12; 3 35). In 1 S 31 13 allusion is made to a seven daysÕ fast, while Daniel abstained from "Pleasant bread," flesh, wine and anointing for three weeks (Dnl 10 3). Moses (Ex 34 28) and Elijah (1 K 19 8) fasted for 40 days. It is probable that these last three references presuppose a totally different conception of the significance of fasting. It is obvious that dreams made a deep impression on primitive man. They were communications from the departed members of the family. At a later stage they were looked upon as revelations from God. During sleep there is total abstinence from food. It was easy to draw the inference that fasting might fit the person to receive these communications from the world of spirits (Dnl 10 2). The close connection between fasting and insight--intellectual and spiritual--between simple living and high thinking is universally recognized." ("Fast," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

"Early Christianity developed a number of fasting periods: food was not eaten on Fridays in commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ. Later a period of 40 fast days before Easter, called Lent, was set aside to allow Christians to meditate on the sufferings of Jesus. In the 20th century the number of fast days has been dramatically reduced by the Roman Catholic church to two: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday--the beginning and end of Lent. The church formerly required abstinence from eating meat on most Fridays and certain other days, but this did not include any restriction on the amount of food eaten. Protestant churches generally leave fasting to individual choice. In Islam abstention from food and drink is required of all Muslims from dawn until dusk each day of the month of Ramadan. In primitive religions and among believers in present-day animism, fasting is used for several purposes: as a means of entreating spirits; from fear that some foods are either dangerous or holy; and by tribal priests to induce visions." (Compton's Encyclopedia)

"More recently, Dr. Bill Bright, who founded Campus Crusade for Christ in l951 at UCLA, was awarded the richest prize in any field today--the 1996 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion (which Mother Teresa won in 1973; Dr. Billy Graham, in l982). Two years earlier, at 72, Bright had done his first 40-day fast. In accepting the $l million prize, he promised to use it--in its entirety--in promoting the combined power of fasting and prayer among Christians, nondenominationally, explaining: 'I strongly believe that America and much of the world will, before the end of the year 2000, experience a great spiritual awakening. During my 40-day fast, I was impressed to pray that God will call at least 2 million Christians to fast-and-pray for 40 days, for the coming great revival.'" (Fasting Center International; includes quotations from Gautama Buddha 563?-483? B. C., Jesus Christ c. 8-4 B. C.-29? A. D., Mohammed 570?-632 A. D., ∓ Mother Teresa [Internet])

"In summary, we can say that Biblical fasting is them complete abstention from eating and drinking and some other pleasures during the daylight hours of the days of the ninth month of the lunar calendar. It includes acts of charity, alms and justice, and the especial avoidance of anger and quarreling." (Islam in the Bible, Chapter Seven, "Fasting" by Thomas McElwain [Internet])

[Some will claim that 2 Chron. 7:14 requires fasting in the expression of "humble themselves" as seems understood in the Day of Atonement passages (Lev. 16:29-31; 23:27-32; Num. 29:7). However, as John Piper in his book A Hunger for God (a book which promotes fasting) points out on pages 115-118, the passage teaches nothing about fasting and is, in fact, a passage not meant for the Christian Church.]

What it cannot be:

--A means of salvation from eternal condemnation--

Eph. 2:8-9 (all Scripture quotations NASB) "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast."

Titus 3:5-7 "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life."
--A means of sanctification--

John 17:17 "Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth."

Eph. 4:11-16 "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love."

Col. 2:20 "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)-- in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence."

1 John 3:2-9 "Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. And you know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God."
--A means of experiencing God's presence--

John 4:23-24 "But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."

Rom. 8:9 "However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him."
--A means of motivating God (prayer enhancement)--

John 6:37-40 "All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."

Rom. 9:15-18 "For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth." So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires."

James 1:17 "Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow."

Author's conclusion--Fasting is the neglect of food and drink resulting from attention to some other activity (such as mourning or prayer). It could be considered a condition of intensity as it reflects the degree of abandonment to the focused activity. It does not describe so much what is done, but rather what is not done.

When Biblically there was a call, for example, to fast for repentance resulting in aversion of judgment, it was a call to fully attend to the business of repentant prayer to the exclusion of the distraction of life's basic activities. The emphasis was not the fast, the fast was rather the result of the repentant prayer emphasis. The call to 'fast' indicated the intensity of the repentant prayer.

All Scriptural incidents are listed below according to their purpose, though the author is not suggesting that all purposes are valid--this is an attempt simply to show why in the Biblical record people did fast; some obviously did it for the wrong reasons; the twelve purposes listed below are the activity whose attention caused neglect of eating and drinking.


For appointment of elders in early church (Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch)--Acts 14:23--for self

For national direction in Israel--Judg. 20:26--for self

For general in Judaism--for self Luke 2:37; Matt. 6:16, 17, 18

For hearing for Jewish queen by king of Persia (Judah in captivity)--Esth. 4:16--for another with personal repercussions

For national welfare of Judah--for self 2 Chr. 20:3; Jer. 14:12; Jer. 36:6, 9

For physical recovery of Israelites king's son/friend 2 Sam. 12:16, 21, 22, 23--for another; Ps. 35:13--for another

For physical/spiritual recovery of demon-possessed in Judaism (time of Jesus)--Matt. 17:21 [text ?]--for another

For prophetic understanding by Jewish prophet in captivity--Dan. 10:3--for self

For release of Jews from Babylonian captivity--Dan. 9:3--probably for others

For restoration of city of Jerusalem, Jewish capital--Neh. 1:4--for self

For safety of Jewish captives on return to Judah--Ezra 8:21, 23--for self

For selection of missionaries in early church (Antioch)--Acts 13:2--for self

For sending of missionaries in early church (Antioch)--Acts 13:3--for self


Because of barrenness--1Sam. 1:7, 8

Because of death 1 Sam. 31:13 ∓ 1 Chr. 10:12; 2 Sam. 1:12

Because of persecution Ps. 69:10; Ps. 109:24

Because of threat of death--Esth. 4:3

Because of bridegroom's absence--Matt. 9:14, 15 ∓ Mark 2:18-20 ∓ Luke 5:33-35

Confession of sins--always for self or self's group, never for others:

Of Assyrian city Nineveh--Jon. 3:5, 7

Of Jews--Acts 27:9

Of Jews returned from Babylonian captivity--Neh. 9:1

Of King Ahab--1 Kin. 21:27

Of nation Israel 1 Sam. 7:6; Joel 1:14; Joel 2:12, 15

Lack of food: 2 Cor. 6:5; 2 Cor.11:27

Memorial: Esth. 9:31; Zech. 7:5; 8:19

Identifying the 'sinner': 1 Kin.21:9, 12

Fear: 1 Kin. 21:27

Practical righteousness: Is. 58:3, 4, 5, 6

Preparation for temptation: Matt. 4:2

Revelation: Deut. 9:9

Sickness: 1 Sam. 30:12

Meal: 1 Kin. 19:8

Sermon Series (presented at Community Bible Church, Glendive, MT, during January, 1998):

"Commanded to Fast"

An examination of the one non-Israelite fasting related to repentance in the OT commanded by a civic leader (Jonah 3), of the only divine commands to fast (Joel 1-2), and of other commands in the New Testament (assorted) which must clearly take precedence over what is not commanded to the Church today.

"Expected to Fast"
A look at the two NT incidents (Matthew 6:16-18; Matthew 9:14-17, Luke 5:33-39) in which Jesus expects His hearers will fast. Includes a summary of what accompanies fasting in the Bible and today, and of what purposes fasting has in the Bible and today. In Matthew 9 Jesus seems to suggest that the only valid purpose for fasting after His departure was grief at His absence--an unintentional fast. If there is any other valid purpose for fasting in the time of the Church, it should be done for God's sake alone and is a matter of Christian freedom.

"Fasting--a Trouble Ground"
Every place the Bible discusses fasting, there appear doctrinal errors and spiritual problems. This is a look at the four Biblical discussions. It closes with two views of God: the first is the wrong view which sees God as one who is satisfied, impressed, and moved to action by outward ceremonies of self-affliction; the other is the true view which sees God as providing, producing, and hence requiring a changed life with behavior dictated by Him in order to reap the promised blessings.

"Fasting--an Answer"
A quick look at the three incidents of supernatural fasting. Then a discussion of four areas of spiritual accomplishment of which fasting is not the means. Finally, the author's definition of what true fasting is. Though people may fast at times, especially unintentionally as in a time of grief, there is no need for a Christian leader today to call a fast, especially if the local church is impelementing God's plan for the growth of the church as laid out in Ephesians 4:11-16.

Materials Available

The four above messages are available on audio tape. If you wish to receive them, arrangements can be made by contacting the author at

The Biblical data which provided the resources for this study and its conclusions are also available in five extensive charts. The charts organize the material according to order of appearance in the Bible, fasting's associations, Biblical chronology, numbers of participants, and topical emphases. If you wish to receive them, arrangements can be made by contacting the author at