What Is Fasting? A Biblical Definition

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Many people call many sacrifices a “fast,” but what is actually a true Biblical fast? Let’s take a look.

What is a Biblical definition of fasting?

The Old Testament word for fast is tsuwm צוּם (Strong’s H6684), which literally means to cover the mouth. This implies no food or drink is going into your mouth when you’re fasting. Think about it: if you cover your mouth, how much can you take in? Nothing, and when you fast, nothing should enter your mouth. To fast is to choose to give up eating and drinking for a time for a spiritual purpose, goal, or need for ourselves or others. Biblical examples illustrate this definition: 

  • In Esther, facing the destruction of the Jews, Esther requested that the Jews fast for her, as she prepared to go before the king. She told Mordecai, “Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day” (Est. 4:16). 
  • In Luke 5:33, Jesus was asked, “Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink?” Notice, they knew Jesus’ disciples were not fasting because they were eating and drinking.
  • When the people of Nineveh heard Jonah’s message, they believed God and proclaimed a fast from the greatest to the least among them (Jonah 3:3-10). The king “caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water” (Jonah 3:7). Man (and even the animals) fasted, and that was described as not tasting anything, not feeding, and not drinking water.
  • Even Paul, in Acts 27, spoke to those on the ship who had been fasting, and “besought them all to take meat, saying, This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing” (Acts 27:33). How much had they taken while they continued fasting? Nothing, not even one thing, and Paul encouraged them in the next verse to end their fast for their health and take some meat, and he took bread.

Is not eating meat a “fast” in the Bible?

Some consider taking a break from meat as a “fast,” but Biblically, a fast is not just giving up meat; it’s giving up everything that we eat (as the earlier examples illustrate). In fact, in the Bible, meat included many things we mmm-EAT but don’t typically call “meat,” such as: 

  • herbs and fruits with seeds from trees (Gen. 1:29-30)
  • every moving thing (Gen. 9:3)
  • fine flour with oil (Lev. 2:4)
  • corn (Lev. 2:14)
  • fish (John 21:5-6)
  • bread (Acts 2:46; 27:34-35)

So meat in the Bible included all of the above – a variety of food that was eaten beyond just animal flesh. If we were to not eat everything the Bible calls “meat” we’d accomplish a real Biblical fast – eating nothing! Though some choose to give up what they define as meat for various reasons, giving up animal flesh alone is not a Biblical fast and it should not be practiced instead of a Biblical fast. In the New Testament, Paul addressed those in the latter times who command people “to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:1-5). Abstaining from meat alone is not what the Bible calls a fast.

What about Daniel?

Many people call the diet of Daniel a fast, but what does the Bible say? Daniel 1:5-16 describes king Nebuchadnezzar appointing a daily provision of his meat and wine to those who were to stand before him. Daniel purposed not to consume the same things the others did, and he, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were given pulse (vegetables) to eat, and water to drink. After 10 days, their countenances appeared better than the others. They made a sacrifice, giving up the other food and drink options, but it is NOT described as a fast or called a fast in scripture.

Sacrifices

Jesus taught, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself” (Matt. 16:24), so making sacrifices is an important part of coming closer to God and following Him. We can give up various things, but a fast according to scripture is not eating or drinking. Other sacrifices we make are not described as fasts in the Bible. Even in English, we call the first meal of the day breakfast because while we are sleeping, we are fasting (not eating or drinking anything) and the food we consume at break-fast breaks the nightly fast. Choosing to not eat or drink while awake is not something we naturally enjoy, but fasting the Bible way provides spiritual benefits that outweigh any challenges. Let’s do it the Bible way, and get the Bible results.

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2 thoughts on “What Is Fasting? A Biblical Definition”

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