"Fasting is consecration to God which sets me apart to God so alone, so singlely in a spiritual struggle that there’s no need for food...Prayer is always linked with fasting. And true fasting always comes out of a pure heart... The problem with fasting - You don’t have a pure heart. You’re not really fasting as a corollary to intense prayer and spiritual struggle. Your heart isn’t right. And that is exactly the problem of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 6:16-18). Their hearts were not right. Their fast was a mockery. There was no legitimate prayer concern. Now it goes like this folks, you will not pray with real intensity unless you have a pure heart. And you cannot have a real fast unless you have that real intensity. So it all begins with your heart. If your heart is totally consecrated to God, if your heart is totally weaned away from the world, if your heart is totally pure as it ought to be, then it will issue in true prayer, in great agonizing prayer and the corollary will be fasting."
- John MacArthur
A Hunger for God
MacArthur on Biblical Fasting
Only one time did God ever command a fast. There is only one compulsory fast from one end of scripture to the other, just one. And it was a general public national fast. Leviticus 16, God said, on the day of atonement, Yom Kippur, that one day a year when sacrifices of the nation are given for the sins of the people for the year past. On that day from sunrise to sunset, you will fast, Yom Kippur. That is the only fast ever given as compulsory by God in the entire scripture.
The New Testament never commands us to fast. The Bible commands us to give again and again, commands us to pray again and again, but doesn’t command us to fast. That just is not a biblical command.
Fasting then, was a personal, watch this, non-compulsory, spontaneous, voluntary act. There’s no structure to fasting delineated in the scripture.
Principle of Fasting
Fasting is total abstinence from food, that’s the idea. In fact, the Greek word, it’s a very simple word, nestea, from nea which means not and estea, which means to eat. It means not to eat; not to eat. To abstain from food.
Period of Fasting
The Bible never prescribes the time for a fast; never. The time depends on the person, depends on the circumstance, depends on the situation, and the need. For example, in 2 Corinthians 6:5 and in 2 Corinthians 11:27, Paul says the same thing twice there. He says in chronicling his life he says, “I was in fastings often.” So that in his lifetime there were fastings, different kinds and different times and different reasons and different purposes and there was no standard uniformity. And by the way if fastings often were true of Paul, you would have thought that he would have said something about the fact that they should be true of us and yet he never uttered a word about that.
Sometimes in the Bible, for example, most commonly, a fast was from sunrise to sunset. You didn’t eat from the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun. That is a fast. There were in many cases in the Old Testament, seven day fasts, such as 1 Samuel 31. Daniel Chapter 10 talks about a three week fast. And then we saw in Luke 18:12 where the Pharisee fasted twice a week. So the times and the length of times are varied depending on the situation in each given element.
Priority of Fasting
Matthew 9:14-15 - The disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus. And they said “why do we,” the disciples of John the Baptist, “who are righteous people, and the Pharisees, who were unrighteous people, fast often? But your disciples fast not.” I mean, we fast all the time. But your disciples don’t fast. I love this answer. “Jesus said unto them, can the sons of the bride chamber mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” Did you get that? Jesus said this is not the time to fast, because we can’t mourn. Now listen to me, to what then is fasting connected? To mourning. Now there’s a hint at what we’re getting at. Fasting is always a corollary to some deep spiritual anxiety. That’s the point.
And Jesus is saying we’re not fasting because there’s no reason to fast. In other words, fasting then apart from some mourning as a source inducing it is meaningless. It is as I say is a corollary to something else not in an end in itself. People who say oh I fasted and I had such spiritual sensitivities. I fasted and I rose to such spiritual heights. No, no, no, fasting is a response, not an inducement to something. And so He says, we don’t fast because there’s nothing to fast about. But look at this, “the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them and then shall they fast.” Now beloved, we are living, aren’t we in the period when the bridegroom is taken from us. The marriage supper of the lamb will occur when we are joined with Christ, but until that time says our Lord, there will be fasting. Why? Because there will be spiritual struggle and there will be anxiety and in my absence it will not be as it is in my presence.
And so I believe in Matthew 9 Jesus is simply saying there’s going to be times of fasting. And throughout the history of the church there have been those times when fasting would be the right response. What am I saying? There is a priority in fasting. It has a priority place in this age. It belongs to this era. It didn’t belong to the disciples when Jesus was present. It belongs to this time and this place and to us in this hour.
Provocation for Fasting
If fasting has a place, then what is it that causes us to fast? If it is a corollary and if it is a response then what is it that brings that response?
Lamentations, sorrow. Fasting is almost a very natural response to the heart and the soul of anxiety that comes in the midst of a mourning or a sorrowing time (Nehemiah 1:4; Joel 1:14; Psalm 35:13; 2 Samuel 3:35; 2 Samuel 12).
Protection is another thing that caused fasting in the Bible. And by that, I mean this. There were times when people were in such severe danger that their fear forced them to fast (2 Chronicles 20:3-4; Ezra 8:21;).
Humiliation and confession. You know, I think in all of our lives there’s been times like this. But we have sinned against the Lord and we have been so deeply troubled by our sin we have been so overwrought by our sin, we have been so disturbed by what it’s done in our hearts that we cannot eat, that we cannot think of food, but that we pour our hearts to God (Acts 9:9; 1 Samuel 7; 1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 10:6).
Revelation. At times when God’s people were either going to receive God’s word or proclaim God’s word, we frequently see a fast. In other words, like Jesus said, “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” And when you’re right at the moment of receiving the word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, that’s when you best know that man does not live by bread.
Revelation received. Acts Chapter 10, Peter was praying and fasting when he saw a vision to go to the Gentile Cornelius with the gospel. Exodus Chapter 24, Moses had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and God gave him His holy law. There are many occasions in the Bible where in the midst of a seeking heart, where food is no concern. God’s word is revealed.
Revelation giving. There seems to be a fasting associated with a preaching or teaching of the word. I see Paul saying in fastings often and maybe some of those fasts were before he began a ministry. I see our Lord fasting 40 days and 40 nights and then He begins His preaching ministry. He drew Himself into the presence of God and He was calling on God to pour that message through Him.
Condemnation. Another thing we see in the Bible that has driven people to fasting is condemnation. There are some sinners in this world that ought to fast and pray. And I’ll tell you something else, there are Christians in this world who ought to fast and pray on the behalf of some sinners in this world.
In Jonah Chapter 3, the message was given to the people of Nineveh that God was going to judge them. And what was their response? The people of Nineveh believed God and proclaimed a fast. They poured out their hearts. They were afraid of the judgment of God. We don’t have enough of that today. If you go around preaching the judgment of God, people get mad at you. And the people that get mad at you aren’t the unsaved, they’re the saved. They say you don’t have any love. That somebody’s going to die and perish and go to hell. I think the loving thing to do is to warn them, don’t you? But we don’t really care about the loss the way we should. When’s the last time you skipped a meal because you were so exercised in your spirit over our nation which is condemned to hell without Christ? Over our world? Over your neighbors? Over somebody you know and love? When’s the last time you had a sense of condemnation, the urgency of anxiety over doom that’s going to come to those without God?
Selection. When the time came in the early church for calling special people to special tasks in spiritual leadership, fasting was a part of it.
When the early church went about to select leadership and ordain people and set them aside for the gospel ministry and to use them for God’s purposes it was no easy matter. They selected people with prayer and fasting, verse 1 of Acts 13. “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers as Barnabas and Simeon, who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch and Saul. And they came together and ministered to the Lord. The ministered to the Lord and fasted.
In Acts Chapter 14, verse 23, “And when they had ordained elders in every church and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord on whom they believe.” When we send out a missionary, it’s as important is if we were sending them out of the book of Acts. When we ordain an elder, it’s as important as if they were ordained by Paul and Barnabas themselves. These things demand prayer and fasting. Selection of the right people is a priestly service offered to God with prayer and fasting.
Direction. There are times in the scripture when people who sought direction, sought it with such deep anxiety that they fasted. I believe in Genesis 24 it is when the servant was to find a bride for Isaac. He was so concerned that God would show him the right lady that he fasted and prayed. I believe it says and I think it’s simply clear. Paul said in fastings often, in watchings often. He was fasting while he was watching. Watching for what? The unfolding of the will of God.
By John MacArthur © by Grace to You. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
The above excerpts were taken from John MacArthur's two part series, Fasting Without Hypocrisy. Click on the links above to read the entire transcripts.
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