One issue that Christians have wrestled with has been the role of the Old Testament in our theology and our walk with Jesus. Does the Old Testament have relevance to us? Are there principles that should guide us, or is it totally out of date? Matthew 13:52 gives us insight into this question: “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” To me, the meaning of this verse is fairly obvious. A good Bible teacher uses both the New and Old Testaments. There are truths in both that apply to us in our daily lives. This is the second in a series of the New Testament use of the Old Testament.
In our previous post, we saw how one NT writer (Paul) was using the OT in a way that might seem unusual - taking an OT principle and "translating" it, so to speak, into a NT principle with the gospel and Christ taking the place of the Law and the OT commands. In this post, we will see how an Old Testament practice, fasting, is used differently in the New Testament church.
One of the reasons for fasting in OT times was to get God's attention so that He might change a bad situation. When David committed adultery with Bathsheba, they produced a child. The prophet Nathan revealed David's sin and told him that the child would die. (Read the whole story here: 2 Samuel 12:1-23)
The child that Uriah’s widow bore to David ... was very sick. David therefore inquired of God for the child; and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him in order to raise him up from the ground, but he was unwilling and would not eat food with them. Then it happened on the seventh day that the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was still alive, we spoke to him and he did not listen to our voice. How then can we tell him that the child is dead, since he might do himself harm!” But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David perceived that the child was dead; so David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” And they said, “He is dead.” So David arose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he came into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he came to his own house, and when he requested, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:15-23)
David understood something that those around him did not understand. He knew that it was possible that God might spare the child if he fasted and prayed for mercy. He also lay on the ground. He did this even though God had said that the child would die. He believed that God might change His mind. Once the child was dead, there was no more reason to continue this fast. Of course, in this case, God did not relent. His judgment stood firm. Sometimes, when OT saints would fast this way, they would put on sackcloth and spread ashes on their faces. They afflicted themselves to try to get God's attention.
Esther did a similar thing when she and her people were in a very dangerous place. The Jews were about to be wiped out by their enemies at the command of the Persian king. As queen, Esther was uniquely positioned to plead for her people to the king. Unfortunately, even the queen had to be summoned to come before the king to petition him. To arrive unsummoned meant death, carried out immediately. She had not been able to speak to the king. She risked her life, going before him to plead her case. Before that, however, she and the Jews in Susa fasted for three days, eating and drinking nothing at all. The purpose of the fast was so that God would allow Esther to enter the king's presence and petition him without harm. (It was not, as some have suggested, to break the power of witchcraft. See below.*)
“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.” (Esther 4:16)
It worked. Esther was allowed into the king's presence without harm and she was able to save her people. This is a wonderful and powerful use of fasting under the Old Covenant, but the question is: Should we do this today? Of course, Jesus made it clear that we should fast at various times in our Christian lives. He said,
"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18)
So fasting is a New Testament practice, but it seems that Jesus changed the rules on fasting. No more sackcloth and ashes. No more getting God's attention by afflicting oneself. What about the fasting itself? Do we fast to change things in this world like Esther did and David tried to do?
We do not fast this way in the New Testament era. We do not need to fast to get God's attention. We can instantly get His attention by using the Name of Jesus in prayer. The rules have changed quite a bit with the coming of Jesus. We should not go back to the OT way of fasting.
Why, then, do we NT Christians fast? Fasting keeps the flesh under. The flesh can dominate us at times and hold us in bondage. When we constantly feed the flesh with physical food and we constantly attend to its needs, we have trouble hearing from God. Fasting allows us to pay more attention to the Holy Spirit and hear God's voice more clearly. We are more sensitive to Him and His leadings. When we pray, we can then more accurately pray what God wants us to pray. Hearing God more clearly also gives us more confidence in what He has told us to do. Then, when we face challenges, we can face them boldly.
In other words, fasting does not change God, it changes us. We are the beneficiaries of the fast. When we are called to fast and pray, either individually or corporately, it is not the fasting that moves God, but believing prayer. Prayer changes things. Fasting changes us and makes us better able to hear God and pray.
As mentioned above, fasting can be used to break fleshly bondages. I had a friend who was "addicted" to drinking coffee. She drank about 50 cups per day. (Won't that kill you or something?) She fasted for several days just from coffee and broke that fleshly "addiction". We can fast in different ways according to the need. I do not recommend, however, going on a complete fast - no water at all - as Esther did. That can be dangerous. Some have ended up in the hospital because their fasting was severe or prolonged. I personally have never fasted more than two days. The goal of NT fasting is not to afflict oneself but to simply keep the flesh from dominating us.
I have used fasting for the times when I have had to hear from the Lord about something important, like making a big decision. Before moving here, I fasted so that I could hear Him more clearly and accurately so that I would be sure to know and do His will. We sometimes need a little help in hearing from the Lord. Often we would rather get someone else to tell us what to do rather than hear from God for ourselves. We lack confidence. Fasting can help us hear and be confident.
I believe in fasting, but I do not believe in simply taking the OT practices and bringing them into the Church. We are in a different, and better, position than the OT saints were. We have the Name of Jesus to use in prayer. We do not need to get God's attention with a bleeding sacrifice or fasting with sackcloth and ashes. Jesus paid the price so that we could "get an audience with the King" any time we need to.
[*Excursus: Fasting does break the power of witchcraft or demons as has been suggested recently. In the Hebrew book of Esther, witchcraft is never mentioned at all. The fast was for Esther that she might not die when she entered the presence of the king. Besides the OT clearly teaches that "No curse can touch Jacob; no magic has any power against Israel." (Numbers 23:23) So witchcraft could have had nothing to do with it. Even when the disciples could not cast out a demon and Jesus told them that "This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting", most translations and ancient manuscripts do not say "and fasting". The problem that the disciples had was not a lack of power or authority. Jesus had given that to them. The problem was with their unbelief. Fasting would have given them the ability to overcome that unbelief by being more sensitive to what God had told them and more confident in their authority. We have authority in the Name of Jesus to cast out demons. In the OT, an anointed singer and psalmist would play and sing to relieve people from demonic attacks. They did not fast to do so.]