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There is a difference between the New Covenant and the Old Covenant, and there is a difference between Old Covenant Fasting and New Covenant Fasting. Before we get into New Covenant Fasting, let's look at the foundational concept of fasting: what it was, how it was practiced, and what it was for.
What is fasting? What is its purpose? When the disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus about fasting, because they were curious to know why Jesus’ disciples did not fast, Jesus responded to them that it was not possible for the wedding guests to, “mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them.”
“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:15, ESV)
He goes on to say that, “…days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” In Jesus response to John’s disciples, he assumes that fasting is parallel to mourning. Christ teaches that there is a direct parallel between “not eating food,” and “grieving.” So, fasting is an act of mourning. It is an act of grieving. David writes in the Psalms that when his enemies were sick, he fasted for their recovery:
“But I, when they were sick— I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest.” (Psalm 35:13, ESV)
You’ll notice in this text that fasting is described as a means of “self-affliction.” It is a means whereby we, through self-affliction, strive to bring our physical state into conformity with our spiritual state. God commands one fast to be held in all of the Old Testament. This fast is to be held on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:
“Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord.” (Leviticus 23:27, ESV)
Fasting is when we don’t eat food, and that makes our stomach churn from a feeling of emptiness and hunger. Have you ever noticed that when you are deeply grieved and in anguish over something tragic that you feel this same churning in the pit of your stomach? It is very possible that fasting is a means whereby we bring our physical and emotional state into conformity with our spiritual state. Fasting, in the Old Testament, is clearly a tool that God gives to His people to bring down their physical state to a depth that is consistent with spiritual despair. For example, Moses intentionally fasted to demonstrate his sorrow over the sin of Israel when they worshiped before the Golden Calf. In his farewell sermon, Moses says,
“And I looked, and behold, you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had made yourselves a golden calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you. So I took hold of the two tablets and threw them out of my two hands and broke them before your eyes. Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger. For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the Lord bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also.” (Deuteronomy 9:16–19, ESV)
We learn three things: (1) Fasting is tied to mourning, an emotional state of being marked by regret or sorrow over loss, (2) Fasting is tied to self-affliction, and (3) Fasting is tied to Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, in which the nation of Israel was expressing sorrow for their sin. Mourning, physical-self affliction, sin: these are the elements that make up the practice of Fasting. From this we can define fasting as an act of mourning where we afflict ourselves by refusing to eat food, inducing a state of hunger, for the purpose of expressing sorrow and repentance to God for our sins, bringing our spiritual and physical state into conformity with each other.
Fasting could be described as the exclamation point at the end of a prayer for repentance, to emphasize one’s grief, sorrow and contrition before God. But this is Old Covenant Fasting, not New Covenant Fasting.
To hear or read a full sermon on this passage, please click here.