Is Fasting for Christians?
IN ANSWER to that question you may have been told: “Yes, for Jesus recommended fasting for his followers.” If you are a practicing Catholic, you would respond in the affirmative, for you recognize certain fast days, and in particular you always fast before taking “Holy Communion.”
Did Jesus really recommend or command fasting for his followers?
In the instances recorded in the Bible, fasting was done as an expression of sorrow and repentance for sins or when under distressing conditions. (Dan. 10:2, 3; 1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Chron. 20:3, 4) Also, persons might fast when in sore need of divine guidance or at times when unusual concentration on some service to God was necessary.—Judg. 20:26; Esther 4:16.
ATONEMENT DAY, WITH ITS FASTING, PICTORIAL
However, neither Jesus Christ nor his apostles commanded Christians to observe fasts. On the other hand, the Scriptures do not forbid them to fast. In the instances where Jesus gave counsel on fasting he was speaking to Jews under the Law covenant. (Matt. 6:16-18; Luke 18:9-14) Under the Law, fasting was to be observed at certain times and on certain occasions, notably on the Day of Atonement.
On this day, the tenth day of the seventh lunar month, the Jews were to ‘afflict their souls.’ (Lev. 16:29-31) This included fasting, as indicated by the words of David, who said concerning distressing conditions that he underwent: “With fasting I afflicted my soul.”—Ps. 35:13; compare Isaiah 58:1-5.
On Atonement Day the Jewish high priest made offerings for the sins of the entire nation. It was a day reminding the Jews of their inherent sinfulness. It was a time to acknowledge their sinful condition before God and to manifest sorrow and repentance. Therefore they were required to fast. And it was no mere formalism.
Why, though, did the Jews have to fast repeatedly, every year, whereas the Christian congregation is not commanded to fast at all?
The apostle Paul helps us to understand this by his comments on the sacrifices offered under the Law. He says that these sacrifices sanctified the offerers “to the extent of cleanness of the flesh,” but that they did not make them ‘perfect as respects their conscience.’ These Jewish worshipers were viewed by God as clean to the extent that they could approach him. They were not as the unclean pagans. But they were reminded of their sins again next year on Atonement Day. The cleanness they enjoyed was only a ceremonial cleanness, typical or pictorial of the complete cleanness of conscience that Christians enjoy through the sacrifice of Christ “once for all time.”—Heb. 9:9, 13, 28.
The Christian congregation, being cleansed of its sins, does not need to set aside a day for fasting and repentance each year. Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of his congregation by his sacrificial course. He fulfilled what was foreshadowed by the Day of Atonement. This “day” in fulfillment ran from the time of his baptism until his appearing in heaven before God to offer the merit of his sacrifice. (Heb. 9:24-26) At Pentecost, 33 C.E., about 3,000 persons added at one time acknowledged their sins and repented of them, which sins included bloodguilt for Christ’s death. Faith in his sacrifice really resulted in cleansing from sin.—Acts 2:37-39, 41.
Nevertheless, does not the individual Christian need to fast when he unintentionally commits sins from day to day? No, he can draw on the sacrifice of Christ given “once for all time.” On the basis of this sacrifice he may always “approach with freeness of speech to the throne of undeserved kindness, that [he] may obtain mercy and find undeserved kindness for help at the right time.”—Heb. 4:16.
“HOLY COMMUNION” OR “THE LORD’S EVENING MEAL”
But what about “Holy Communion,” also called the “Last Supper” or the “Lord’s Evening Meal”? The Scriptures make it very clear that fasting before its observance is not required.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in the city of Corinth about this memorial meal. They had been treating the occasion as a time for eating together first at the meeting place. This, of course, led to bad results in the midst of their sectarianism. While some had plenty to eat and drink, others had nothing to eat and so went hungry. This preceded the communion meal, and because some overindulged they missed the significance of the Lord’s Supper. Paul reproved them, saying: “You do have houses for eating and drinking, do you not?” and, “If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, that you may not come together for judgment.”—1 Cor. 11:21, 22, 34.
Additionally, the “Lord’s Evening Meal” being a ‘communion meal’ (a meal of joint participation), it is not an occasion for sorrow over sins and for repentance. The basis for communion meals is found in the Law, and there communion meals were not occasions for making offerings given in sorrow and repentance for sin. They were classed as voluntary, vow or thanksgiving offerings. (Lev. 7:11, 12, 16) The “Lord’s Evening Meal” therefore provides opportunity to review and be thankful for what Jehovah God and Jesus Christ have done for Christians through Christ’s sacrifice, and to consider the unity of the congregation of Christ and the ministry that all share in common. (1 John 1:3) It is not a distressing or sorrowful time. Fasting for a period of time before the meal is therefore not a Scriptural requirement.
LATER ADDITIONS TO THE INSPIRED TEXT
However, someone may ask: When Jesus’ disciples could not understand why they had been unable to expel a certain demon, did not Jesus say: “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting”? (Mark 9:29, Authorized Version [9:28, Douay]) No, he did not say this, for the oldest and best manuscripts do not include the words “and fasting.” These words were evidently added by Bible copyists. It appears that these copyists advocated and practiced fasting and so they added references to it repeatedly where it was not found in earlier copies. This is true not only of Mark 9:29 but also of Matthew 17:21, where they inserted the entire sentence above quoted; of Acts 10:30, where Cornelius is made to say he fasted; and of 1 Corinthians 7:5, where Paul is said to recommend it to married couples.a
INSTANCES OF CHRISTIAN FASTING
What, then, was Jesus’ purpose when he fasted for forty days and nights? This was when he was led by God’s spirit into the wilderness where he was tempted by the Devil. Here was a distressing situation where he sorely needed divine help. Also here he concentrated deeply on the course of sacrifice ahead of him. Both Moses and Elijah also fasted for forty days and nights. In all these instances these men doubtless received divine assistance.—Matt. 4:1, 2, 11; Deut. 9:9; 1 Ki. 19:7, 8.
Jesus’ followers also fasted in special circumstances, particularly when there was great concern for divine guidance. Thus we read of certain ones in the Christian congregation at Antioch, prophets and teachers, who were “publicly ministering to Jehovah and fasting.” This was at a time when there was great persecution against the disciples, and when God’s spirit directed that Paul and Barnabas be sent out on their first missionary tour among the Gentiles.—Acts 13:2, 3.
Again, when Paul and Barnabas were establishing congregations in Galatia, they needed strong, mature men to take the lead in the newly formed congregations. To be sure that their choice was right, they ‘offered prayer with fastings’ in connection with making the appointments.—Acts 14:23.
Jesus was not giving his disciples a command to fast when he said: “Days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Jesus was merely foretelling what actually did happen to his followers later when he was put to death. They were undoubtedly so upset that they did not want to eat.—Matt. 9:15.
The apostle Paul speaks of himself as fasting (according to the reading of the Authorized Version) at 2 Corinthians 6:5 and; 2 Co 11:27. But here the situations the apostle speaks of are obviously such as were beyond his control. The expression is more properly rendered “times without food” and “starving,” “hunger,” “without food.”—New World Translation, The Jerusalem Bible; Revised Standard Version.
In the Christian congregation at Colossae, some were being ensnared into ascetic practices. Undoubtedly this was due primarily to the influence of Jews who tried to bring Christians back under the Law, insisting that they observe its precepts. Paul wrote to those being misled: “Why do you, as if living in the world, further subject yourselves to the decrees: ‘Do not handle, nor taste, nor touch,’ respecting things that are all destined to destruction by being used up, in accordance with the commands and teachings of men? Those very things are, indeed, possessed of an appearance of wisdom in a self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body; but they are of no value in combating the satisfying of the flesh.”—Col. 2:20-23.
So today, Christians may fast for a limited time for practical reasons. But they should not do it feeling it is a religious requirement placed on the Christian congregation. Whatever they do they do with a view to serving Jehovah more fully, as the apostle said: “He who eats, eats to Jehovah, for he gives thanks to God; and he who does not eat does not eat to Jehovah, and yet gives thanks to God.”—Rom. 14:6.
a Compare Authorized and Douay versions with The New English Bible and The Jerusalem Bible.