People are getting healed. Lives are being transformed. Truth is being expounded as never before. And yet, at this point in Jesus ministry, people have an urgent question that Jesus must answer: John’s disciples fast often and say prayers, and those of the Pharisees do the same, but Yours eat and drink.

Do you catch the insinuation behind the question? Forget all the things that you are doing…why aren’t your disciples as spiritual as these other guys? And what was the chosen barometer of spirituality?

Fasting.

Christ’s response is fascinating: You can’t make the wedding guests fast while the groom is with them, can you? But the time will come when the groom will be taken away from them—then they will fast in those days.

If I understand Jesus correctly here, he is telling his questioners that fasting is not primarily a ritualistic discipline, but a reactionary one. To put what He said another way, in times of rejoicing there is no particular call to fast. In times of emergency, there is.

This text led me to a study of times when people fasted in the Bible. I discounted the supernatural fasts (40 days and 40 nights…these cannot possibly be examples for believers today) and focused on when people were actually fasting…and why. These occasions can be divided into at least five categories.

Mourning or Sadness

Perhaps the best example of this kind of fasting is found in Nehemiah 1:4, where the patriarch mourns when he hears of the sad state of Jerusalem. Other examples include II Samuel 1:12 and 12:15-17, Psalm 69:10 and 35:13-14.
Times of Crisis or Persecution

The quintessential example of this would be Esther 4:15-16, where the queen requests that everybody fast and pray before she went in to the king in an attempt to save her people. Another example can be found in Acts 13:1-2. While those verses don’t tell us why exactly the apostles are fasting, a look back at 12:1-2 makes it clear.

Repentance from Sin

When the wicked king Ahab repented of his egregious sin in I Kings 21:25-27, one of the outward signs of what appears to have been a genuine inward repentance was fasting. Other biblical figures who included fasting in their repentance were Daniel, Joel, and the people of Nineveh.

A Manifestation of Sin

Several times in Scripture fasting is an outward manifestation of inward sin. This can be pride (Luke 18:12) or incomplete repentance (Isaiah 58:3-7). In both cases, fasting does the faster absolutely no spiritual good.

An Act of Service or Worship

When it comes to actual examples of people fasting in the Bible, I only came upon one possible example where it was considered an act of service – the case of Anna in Luke 2:37. An argument could be made that this was a special situation for a person with a special mission in life.

So…what now?

After analyzing these texts, the temptation is to say “well…I can see no reason why I need to be fasting now. After all, Jesus didn’t make an issue of it.”

But…not so fast! (see what I did there?) Have we never been so grieved by our sin that food took a back seat to confession and prayer? Have we never been so anguished over a situation in our lives or in the life of our church that we put off feasting for intercession? Have we ever been so grieved by events in our lives or the lives of our brethren and loved ones that the idea of eating is distasteful to us?

If this is the truth for us (as I suspect it is for most), we should perhaps be perplexed at the hardness of our own hearts, instead of relieved that we don’t have to fast.

These devotionals are adapted from studies in the book of Luke being given at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Paço do Lumiar, Brazil. The first in the series can be found here.

Header painting: Fish Market by Joachim Beuckalaer