What is the Purpose of Fasting?

Jesus said, “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” (Matt. 6:16) The hypocrites which included the Pharisees, were claiming that by fasting, it showed their profound righteousness and godliness, but it really demonstrated their poverty in these spiritual qualities. They were putting on a show to gain favor with others, but Jesus showed them for what they really were . . . hypocrites. Jesus goes on and says, “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” (Matt. 6:17-18) Jesus takes the issue of fasting and puts it entirely in the private, personal realm. So, when and if his disciples fasted, they were to do it in secret. Thus, in the public eye, there was not to be any indication they were fasting. They were to keep themselves washed, normally clothed and they were not to disfigure their faces as the hypocrites do. You see, it was common for those fasting in ancient times to wear sackcloth and put ashes on their heads. So, their tears and sweat would mingle with the ashes to disfigure their faces. This lead to the sad countenance, together with their audible mourning and rough clothing, would make it very apparent to all that they were fasting. So, if they were fasting, they were seen as being spiritual giants which was the intended impression.

Now, instances of fasting are found in the history of most heathen people and in the Bible. Does God command us to fast today? Is it to be observed as a religious rite? The word fast or fasting occurs 14 times in the Old Testament and 30 times in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, Israel fasted when there was a famine, war, pestilence or death. We read of Christ, Cornelius, the saints fasting, not to mention Zaccheus who fasted twice each week. Generally, fasting during these times was on the second and fifth days of the week and lasted through the day, beginning at sunset of the preceding day. Now, did Christ institute any fasting days for the church? No. And there is no direction by the Divine or apostles to continue to observe regular fasting. Yet, the Pharisees criticized Jesus and his disciples because they did not fast as much as the Pharisees. They asked Jesus, “. . . Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink? And he said unto them, Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.(Lk. 5:33-35). From this passage we learn that: Fasting was inconsistent with the joy which should characterize the disciples while the Lord was with them. Now, an occasion would come when, because of grief over his leaving, they would fast which was evidence of their attitude of the mind and disposition of heart. Jesus kept trying to show the Pharisees that the old patch of Jewish practices should be affixed to the new garment of Christianity (Lk. 5:36-39). Thus, Christ removed fasting from the public realm and classified it as a matter of private devotion. He taught that it is to be observed, if at all, in private without revealing to others and was for the good of one’s own soul. But, it is not a command nor are there penalties for those who do or do not wish to partake in fasting. However, while some may see fasting as a blessings, others do not. But if one is to fast, it should be done for the glory of God. You know, on the sermon on the mount, Jesus gave instructions to the disciples on how to give, how to pray and how to fast, just as if they were of equal obligation. Yet, while prayer and giving are seen as items of public worship and fasting is not, it reveals that fasting be used in the area of private devotions and be restricted to such usage. But make no mistake, fasting does have an important part in the life of the disciple as Jesus indicated. Fasting that is done to the glory of God is rewarded by which its chief purpose is to strengthen us in times of trial and adversary, on all occasions of sorrow and grief, and to turn around attention away from the desires of the flesh to the nourishment of the soul. Therefore, fasting, properly engaged in, can be a source of great spiritual blessing, a discipline of the will and an exercise producing great inward strength, and power.

All of us on occasion, should with firmness, put out of our hearts every illusion of worldly desire, and fleshly appetite, and with prayer and fasting, draw near to God and claim his support and guidance in life. Such an experience would make us all infinitely stronger, richer in faith, and vastly better equipped to live the Christian life. Therefore, in view of the fact that neither time nor manner of observance is given for fasting, we must conclude that these are matters to be determined in each instance, and by each person participating.

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