Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Fasting That Is Pleasing to the Lord: A Nt Theology of Fasting

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Fasting That Is Pleasing to the Lord: A Nt Theology of Fasting

Article excerpt

In this article I will argue that, as an expression of Christian piety, fasting is only appropriate in exceptional circumstances. It should not be a habitual expression of devotion to the Lord. Fasting belongs in the OT, but after the coming of Christ the appropriate sentiment for believers is joy, not grief. That is not to say that it is wrong for Christians to fast, but that it reflects a state that should not be a habitual one. Instead of fasting, Christians should express their piety through joy and through sharing their resources with those in need.

After a brief overview of fasting in the OT, I will discuss the implications of Jesus' words about fasting in Mark 2:19-20 par. Next, I will examine the references to fasting in the rest of the NT and see if they reflect an exceptional or a habitual practice. In the final section, I will sketch the outlines of a new kind of fasting. Without ignoring individual differences in expression, emphasis, and focus, my argument will assume the basic unity and coherence of the NT theological witness.


In the OT, fasting frequently accompanies prayer (2 Sam 12:16, 21, 22, 23; Isa 58:4; Jer 14:12; 36:6; Joel 1:14; Esth 4:16; Ezra 8:21, 23; Neh 1:4; 2 Chr 20:3). Fasting is associated with mourning (1 Sam 31:13; 2 Sam 1:12; Zech 7:5; Esth 4:3; 9:31; 1 Chr 10:12) and humility (1 Kgs 21:27, 29; Isa 58:3, 5; Ps 35:13; 69:11 [ET 69:10]; 109:24; Ezra 8:21), and is therefore especially appropriate in connection with repentance of sins (1 Sam 7:6; Jer 36:6, 9; Joel 2:12, 15; Jonah 3:5; Neh 9:1).1 Occasionally, fasting is used when seeking direction from the Lord (Judg 20:26-27; Dan 9:3).

The only required fast in the OT is on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:31; 23:27-32; Num 29:7). When Israel confessed their sins, fasting was the appropriate expression of their mourning, repentance, and humility.

In later Jewish tradition, some Jews were fasting more frequently, apparently as a sign of their commitment to God. According to the Gospel of Luke, the Pharisees maintained the practice of fasting two days a week (Luke 18:12).2 The disciples of John the Baptist were also pious Jews, and they also considered fasting a sign of godly devotion. They were therefore surprised that Jesus' disciples did not fast (Mark 2:18 par.).


Jesus' response to the Baptist's disciples is very significant. He says: "The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day" (Mark 2:19-20 par.). Jesus compares his presence with the disciples to that of a bridegroom. What this means is that he is in the process of fulfilling the OT prophecies of God's marriage to his people, as the groom's marriage to his bride. The prophet Isaiah had proclaimed to Israel: "as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you" (Isa 62:5). His prophecy is now being fulfilled. When Jesus is present, the groom is present to marry his bride.

At a wedding celebration, it would certainly be inappropriate for someone to say: "in honor of the groom, as a sign of my mourning, I am fasting." Such behavior would of course not be honoring to the groom; it would rather be a serious insult. When Jesus is with his people it is the celebration of his wedding party. In other words, Jesus has not come to invite us to fast, but to feast.

The words of Jesus show the radically new and different nature of devotion to the Lord after the coming of Christ. Whereas the OT devout were characterized by their longing for the presence of God, NT believers are characterized by their joy at his presence. OT believers were yearning to experience God's favor; NT believers rejoice that they always enjoy his favor through Jesus Christ.

This new and different orientation of piety comes very clearly and appropriately to expression in the new approach to fasting. …

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