Why did Jesus fast?
When Jesus joined John in the wilderness of Judea, two surprising events occurred. He was baptized by John in the Jordan River then the Spirit of God drove him into the wilderness to meet the devil. We might expect Jesus to join John in a preaching campaign to lead Israel to the kingdom of God, but that is not what happened. Why would the Son of God need to be baptized and why did the Holy Spirit lead him to a face-to-face encounter with the devil?
The fast of Jesus described in Matthew 4:2 is an important clue to understanding those questions and gives Christians reasons to include fasting in their practice of following Christ in the world today. First, we should consider what fasting involves. If you have health concerns (such as diabetes), that might be impacted by restricting certain foods or a change in diet, consult your physician before beginning a fast.
While the practice of self-denial can include abstaining from a number of things in our life (television, social media, etc.), fasting requires not eating food. There are two parameters for fasting. One is what you eat and drink and the second is how long you abstain from eating and drinking.
Types of Fasting
A basic fast involves not eating food during the day with the fast being broken at the evening meal. A typical basic fast involves one day where two meals are not taken. This fast can be modified to exclude meat and bread but include vegetables and fruit. A basic fast includes water and can include fruit juice and milk.
A basic fast with one meal eaten each day can be extended for several days. People can fast this way for many days with the Muslim fast during Ramadan being an example of a basic, month-long fast.
An absolute fast excludes all foods and water (or other liquids). In many cases an absolute fast for one day can be practiced safely. An extended absolute fast is unusual and can be damaging to health. A physician should be consulted when considering an absolute fast.
So why did Jesus fast? How is fasting connected to his baptism and his encounter with the devil in the wilderness?
Matthew tells us that Jesus went without food for 40 days and nights. This suggests an absolute fast of no food and no water. After this fast, Jesus became hungry and the tempter came to him. Jesus took this meeting seriously.
It is easy to lose sight of the humanity of Jesus in our devotion to him as our Savior. His hunger reminds us that Jesus was a man. At times Christians slip into thinking that, of course, Jesus had special knowledge or could do uncommon deeds: He was and is, after all, the Son of God. As a man he needed to practice prayer, study of the Scriptures, and fasting.
When Jesus came to John to be baptized in the Jordan River, and when the Spirit of God led him into the wilderness to meet the devil, Jesus was preparing for the challenge of a three-year ministry leading to the cross. He needed the blessing of his Father in Heaven to provide the power and the purpose to accomplish the work God called him to fulfill.
Jesus fasted to dedicate himself to God and for the work of God. Fasting was an appeal of humility before God in preparation for his calling and work. Likewise, Moses committed himself to an absolute fast of 40 days (Exodus 34:27, 28; no food, no water) when God gave him the words of the covenant to be written on stone tablets. Elijah fasted 40 days before meeting God at Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:8) and receiving the commission to anoint Hazael and Jehu as kings and Elisha as his successor (vv. 15, 16). When Mordecai learned of Haman’s plot against the Jews, he called the people of God to prayer and fasting because of the terrible news (Esther 4). Esther asked for three days of prayer and fasting before she met with King Ahasuerus (v.16).
What Jesus Taught
So, we read that Jesus practiced fasting in his devotion to God. What did he teach about fasting?
Jesus recognized that fasting was necessary to strengthen his relationship with God, but so was feasting. The disciples of John came to Jesus with a question about fasting: “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered that when in the presence of the bridegroom it is a time for feasting. When he is absent, it will be a time for fasting (Matthew 9:14,15).
Jesus taught a balance of fasting and feasting; it is important to remember that we have much to celebrate because of God’s provision. Feasting and gratitude are the appropriate response to the glory of God. Fasting can be an appropriate practice when facing a crisis, a decision, injustice, or the need for repentance.
When we choose not to eat, we remind ourselves of two things. First, we are not the ultimate source or focus of life, so fasting is a statement of humility. Second, fasting connected with prayer and the Scriptures reminds us that God is the creator and sustainer of life; he and his will are the reasons for our fast.
Which brings us to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:16-18. The Lord instructed his disciples to attend to their appearance during a fast just as they would on any other day. A somber appearance should not announce our fast to the people around us. The disciple of Jesus who goes about his day informing people, “I’m fasting; no food for me at lunch,” is getting his reward in the moment and from people. Jesus reminded us that God sees the heart and recognizes our fast while we are dressed and going about our daily tasks.
Fasting and the Early Church
Luke records that the leaders of the church at Antioch regularly fasted and prayed. During one of these sessions, the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Paul to the work of preaching the gospel and planting churches (Acts 13:1-3). Fasting and prayer are key practices to dedicate and prepare laborers for the kingdom of God.
Luke also noted that Barnabas and Paul made prayer and fasting a key practice in every church they started (Acts 14:23). As they identified and taught leaders for those congregations, they dedicated them to the Lord with prayer and fasting. If we recover the practice of fasting while we select leaders, we could strengthen our discernment about candidates.
Does fasting have a place in the practice of Christians today? Fasting is a statement of humility that, when properly practiced, deeply connects us to God and provides fuel for our faithfulness and strength for our obedience to Christ. Fasting is appropriate when seeking justice for the afflicted, repentance for sin, preparation of leaders, fulfilling our calling, and deepening our relationship with God.
I have found that fasting weekly along with prayer and reading the Scriptures is an important practice in my battle against pride and self. I hope people notice not the fast each week, but the character of Christ developing in me as I follow him.
Mark Pike is Senior Campus Minister with the Christian Student Foundation at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. He and his wife Lynn are members of Bethany Christian Church in Anderson, Indiana.