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What Does the Bible Say About Fasting?

Is fasting merely the avoidance of eating? Or is there a deeper meaning found in the Bible? How can there be a profound purpose behind this practice?

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Jose Hernandez: Hi, my name is Jose Hernandez. I live in Denver, Colorado. I’ve wanted to ask a question: What does the Bible really actually say about fasting?

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Brother Bob Pellien: Thank you very much, Mr. Hernandez, from Denver, Colorado. Thank you very much for your question. There are a lot of people who have an incorrect understanding [of] fasting, which really makes your question so much more important because it’s not only you that will learn but everyone who is watching the program today and has some preconceived notion about what fasting is. So, let’s get to it.

Fasting during Lent

Brother Bob Pellien: It is with great anticipation every year that members of the Roman Catholic Church begin the season which they call “Lent.” They begin it by having an Ash Wednesday ritual wherein ashes are placed on the forehead—and we’re going to read in just a little bit, a little bit more about the history of those ashes that they use. They place ashes on the forehead for all the members of the Roman Catholic Church. That begins a period of fasting, which by the way, is defined by the Catholic Church [as] a period of time during which members avoid eating certain foods. 

But here’s the thing—is that correct? Is that the true application of a fast? Is fasting really something that’s recorded in the Bible at all? 

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Is fasting recorded in the Bible?

Brother Bob: Let’s hear it at the outset—yes, absolutely. It is biblical but here’s the thing as well: they [the Catholic Church] have misunderstood it. What is it that they have misunderstood about fasting? And what is the basis of fasting when they point or [attempt] to point to the Holy Scriptures as the basis of their version of fasting? Here’s one of the things that they look at and let’s read it together. It’s recorded here in the Book of Exodus chapter 34, and let’s listen together here in verse 28:

So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

[Exodus 34:28 New King James Version]

Brother Bob: In this verse, we can conclude that what they have [misconcluded], I guess I should say, that everyone then should undergo a fast like what Moses did when he went up on the mountain, which was to go a period of time without eating or drinking. That’s what Moses did. That’s what we just read. So they then impose that upon the members of their church during the Lenten season. They turn to that as one of the Biblical basis for what they do. 

Why did Jesus Fast?

Brother Bob: By the way, is there any real mention of fasting during the Christian Era of time, the time of our Lord Jesus Christ

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Does the Bible mention fasting during the time of Christ?

Brother Bob: Again, the answer is yes, and let’s go ahead and cite that. That’s recorded here in the Book of Matthew chapter 4:2 where it says this:

And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.

[Matthew 4:2 New King James Version]

Brother Bob: Here, dear friends, we can see that Jesus did also experience fasting. He experienced a period of time when He did not eat. What was the result? He became hungry. So when people read this, they draw the immediate conclusion that fasting is going for a period of time without eating and becoming hungry because, well, Jesus got hungry; we noticed in that verse However, becoming hungry—that was not the purpose of Jesus for going up there in the mountain and going for a period of time without eating. That wasn’t the point. He went up there and He was praying, and praying, and preparing earnestly for His public ministry. 

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Jesus went up to the mountain and fasted, not for the purpose of becoming hungry, but to prepare Himself for His ministry.

Brother Bob: That was a profound purpose. He went up on that mountain, He separated Himself from everyone else, and He devoted Himself to the personal preparation for that profound mission that was given to Him, set before Him by God.

Simply during that devotional prayer, He was not distracted by anything including eating. That was not His purpose. After reading those events of Moses and Jesus, the mistake that the Catholic Church elders have made, and even others too, is that they have similarly misunderstood the actions that Jesus took. So let’s take a moment to read from an authoritative author of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the ways [in] which they have misunderstood.

In the Manual of Christian Doctrine written by a seminary professor, which by the way was edited by John Joseph McVey, here on page 317 they wrote this important statement. I quote:

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“What does the second commandment of the Church order us to do? It orders us to fast and to abstain from flesh meat on certain days of the year.”

Manual of Christian Doctrine edited by John McVey, page 317

Brother Bob: So here in that authoritative book of the Catholic Church, dear friends, they have given a commandment to their followers, and they said it’s really—they use the word—it’s an order to their followers that they must abstain from eating certain foods at certain times during the year, and that’s due to their fasting rituals, especially during the time of Lent. 

Biblical reasons for fasting

By the way, does the Bible give any instruction from the Lord that fasting should be done in the first place? The answer’s a definitive yes. The Bible [mentions] fasting, but did the Lord mention fasting—that it would be something that He would be pleased with if it was done properly? So it’s important to God that if one is going to choose to fast, that they would not just make up their own idea of what fasting is and command that, but rather it would be done properly and it would be done in a way as prescribed by the Lord. First of all, is there any kind of fasting that the Lord would find acceptable to Him? 

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Question: What kind of fasting is acceptable to God?

Brother Bob: Let’s read from the book of Joel. Joel, chapter 1: 14 reads this way:

Consecrate a fast, Call a sacred assembly; Gather the elders And all the inhabitants of the land Into the house of the Lord your God, And cry out to the Lord.

[Joel 1:14 New King James Version]

Brother Bob: Is there a fast the Lord would be pleased with? Well, He gave an instruction to His ancient people to consecrate a fast. 

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To consecrate a fast

Brother Bob: But how has it been done by the Roman Catholic Church? They made their own idea of what fasting is, which it’ll be important to note here, dear friends, has become a very common and accepted understanding and a common implementation of fasting. It’s been embraced by so many people even outside of the Roman Catholic Church. Let’s take another look at some of their writings concerning fasting. So let’s take a look in the Handbook of Catholic Practices in their authoritative writings here on page 187. I quote:

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Ash Wednesday. In ancient days, Christians who are guilty of grave fault had to undergo public penance. For this purpose the bishop on this day was wont to bless the sackcloth which was to be worn by the penitents during the forty days… Pope Urban VI (c. 1300) commanded that, as an act of humility, all the faithful receive these blessed ashes. The ashes are blessed by the priest, vested in alb, violet stole and cope, before Mass begins. The priest then places some on the forehead of each with the words: “Remember man, that thou are dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”

Source: Handbook of Catholic Practices by M. Catherine Frederic, page 187

Brother Bob: So dear friends, you can see here that the dates concerning fasting and the ashes and all of those things dates back to about 1300. But during the time of our Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles, was there any discussion about fasting? Was there any mention of it in a time of the early Christians? 

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Was fasting mentioned during the time of the early Christians?

Brother Bob: Let’s take a look and turn back to the Holy Scriptures once again. Here in Matthew chapter 6:16, let’s take a look:

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.

[Matthew 6:16 New King James Version]

Brother Bob: So yes, dear friends, there was a mention of fasting during the early Christian Era. It was in the form of a correction. Jesus was correcting them because there were those that were doing it, there were those that were fasting, but they were doing it for the wrong reasons. They were doing it in the wrong way. They were doing it to be seen—to be seen as some kind of a ritual or some kind of a ceremony, some kind of an outward thing instead of the true and spiritual, genuine intent as prescribed by the Lord. 

So is there anything else that we must understand about the history or the evolution of the fasting that’s being done and being taught in the Roman Catholic Church? There is, dear friends. Let’s take a look at it. Here, yet another one of the authoritative authors, one of their books, this one titled The Question Box written by the priest named Bertrand L. Conway of the Paulist Fathers, they call themselves. Here in their book page 441 and 442, they wrote this:

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What do Catholics mean by the Ember days? The Ember Days are the Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at the beginning of the 4 seasons, which the church appointed as special days of fasting and abstinence. The Romans, at the beginning of the time of seeding and harvesting, performed certain religious ceremonies to implore the help of their gods: in June for a good harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding. The church Christianized this Pagan custom, and set aside these seasons as special times of prayer and thanksgiving. They are first mentioned by Pope Leo the great (440-461) who declares they are of apostolic origin, although there is no proof whatever of his assertion.

Source: Question Box by Rev. Bertrand L. Conway, page 441-442

Brother Bob: So dear friends, yes. Although fasting was something important to be done, it has become very different than what was originally expected or instructed by the Lord here in the Holy Scriptures. It instead became something by the Catholic Church as we’re reading here, became something with once again roots in ancient pagan cultures. 

Will God be satisfied with the rules and rituals enacted around fasting when those roots and rituals have their roots in manmade teachings? Especially paganism? Can the fasting done nowadays, which is using ashes, begins with the use of ashes on their forehead or other physical abuse of one’s own body, other forms of self-abasement in order to have that [intention] of giving glory to God, and the removal of sins and sensual indulgences, if you will. That’s what’s being taught during the Lenten season, that those things would be effective in removing sin, removing sensual indulgences, and giving honor to God. But will it do so whatsoever? Can it have any value? [The] answer of the Bible. Colossians 2:23:

Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

[Colossians 2:23 New International Version]

Brother Bob: So here, dear friends, once again the Bible makes clear that we’ll have no value. We’ll not be removing sin. They can put all the ashes, they can do all those outward things that they do, but it will not remove sin. It will not do anything to glorify God. Why will they have no value? If we include in our reading verse 22, it says:

These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.

[Colossians 2:22 New International Version]

Brother Bob: That’s the reason! Because they’re based on human commands, they’re based on human teachings, so of course, they will have no value anymore. They can come up with all kinds of rules regarding fasting, all kinds of, “Don’t eat this food, don’t eat that food.” Those are not the things that will make a person holy. It’s a manmade rule concerning fasting. 

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Man-made rules concerning fasting will not make one holy. 

Brother Bob: Those rules are very different [from] the rules or the expectation that comes from God concerning fasting. So the obvious next question, dear friends, is: What is God looking for? What is fasting in the eyes of God? What did He have to say about the kind of fasting that He is expecting to be done? Is it that we’ll put ashes on our forehead or whip our bodies or go for extended periods of time without food as our service to Him? Is that what He’s looking for? Isaiah 58:3-5. It reads this way:

The people ask, “Why should we fast if the Lord never notices? Why should we go without food if he pays no attention?”

[Isaiah 58:3-5 New International Version]

Brother Bob: Allow me to pause here, dear friends. Here, that’s what they were doing. They were just going simply for a long period of time without foods and God was not satisfied with that. That’s not the simple thing that He was looking for. Let’s continue:

The Lord says to them, “The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. Do you think this kind of fasting will make me listen to your prayers? When you fast, you make yourselves suffer; you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that?

[Isaiah 58:3-5 New International Version]

Brother Bob: In a series of rhetorical questions here, dear friends, God was challenging His people that were performing the kind of fasting that the Catholic Church is teaching. They even include the ashes to connect to the kind of pagan customs that were done in ancient times when they would actually layout on the sackcloth and ashes and present themselves as someone greatly suffering. 

Clearly, God was not pleased with them, and He won’t be pleased today with that kind of fasting that’s being done wherein those ashes are used in outward actions and the outward appearances of suffering and then going for extended periods of time without food for the purpose of removing sin, for the purpose of sanctifying one’s self, other things that people do during this period of time called Lent. 

People are convinced that it’s going to remove their sin. It’s going to make God happy and more pleased with them because they’ll whip their back or they’ll suffer, they’ll do this and that. Maybe they’ll even do such things as harm their body like that. And they’ll say, “I’m doing it for God.”

But what should we not forget? We should not forget that God even gave the instruction to the Christians through the apostle Paul, I Thessalonians 5:23, that we should preserve our body. It should be preserved, not harmed. It should be preserved whole without fault. 

May the God who gives us peace make you holy in every way and keep your whole being—spirit, soul, and body—free from every fault at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

[1 Thessalonians 5:23 Good News Translation]

Brother Bob: That runs contrary to what the kind of fasting that’s being done by others. 

So, in a more serious issue, dear friends, that we have to include in our discussion before concluding this topic here is this: Remember what we read earlier from the official writings of the Catholic Church? We read it from their Manual of Christian Doctrine, the commandment of the church wherein they ordered—they used that word—they ordered their members to fast and abstain? That fasting was including abstaining from flesh meat on certain days of the year.

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“What does the second commandment of the Church order us to do? It orders us to fast and to abstain from flesh meat on certain days of the year.”

Manual of Christian Doctrine edited by John McVey, page 317

Brother Bob: Dear friends, we have to include this because what does the Bible have to say about the fasting that they’re commanding? What does the Bible have to say about that fasting commanded by the Roman Catholic Church? We’ve got to turn to the Bible here to have an answer. The Bible’s response to that. We can’t finish this topic without including 1 Timothy chapter 4:1, 3, which read this way:

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.

[1 Timothy 4:1, 3 King James Version]

Brother Bob: So dear friends, the avoidance of eating meat, it’s not a doctrine from God, but in fact, it’s a doctrine from the enemy of God. 

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Abstaining from meat is a doctrine of the devil.

Brother Bob: Of course, that being none other than the devil himself. So what has God said? Dear friends, What does God want concerning the kind of fasting that He would be pleased with?

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What does God want concerning the kind of fasting that He would be pleased with? 

Brother Bob: Is it the kind that’s being done in the Roman Catholic Church with the ashes and the outward visual effects of fasting, such as they prescribe during the time of Lent? Is God looking for something to be done outwardly like that for others to see, for others to measure? 

Biblical reasons for fasting

Brother Bob: Or is it truly something of a far more spiritual nature, such as was done by Moses as we read earlier when he went up on the mountain and received the 10 commandments for the Israelites? And the time of our Lord Jesus Christ when He also went up on a mountain and prepared Himself for something profound, something very special that He was about to begin that mission from the Lord? They prepared so deeply, prayed so earnestly that they didn’t even stop to eat. That’s not what they were there for. They were not distracted by all these other things, even including eating. Was the avoidance of food the issue of fasting? Or was it their devotion to doing what is good, doing what was right in the eyes of God? Was it just avoiding food or was it their absolute commitment to what was in front of them, their task entrusted to them from God? Dear friends, let’s let God answer that. So we quote again from the Holy Scriptures Isaiah 58:6-9. I quote: 

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

[Isaiah 58: 6-9 New International Version]

Brother Bob: Dear friends, what is the more important part, or the more important understanding of true fasting beyond just merely separating one’s self from too much food? As described here, it’s leaving behind and separating one’s self from oppressing others, being unwilling to help others. But instead, God said fast: help the poor, shelter them, feed them, don’t oppress the poor. Fasting is inclusive of doing what is good. 

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Help the poor. Shelter them. Feed them. Don’t oppress the poor. Fasting is inclusive of doing what is good. 

Brother Bob: [Fasting is] taking action in righteousness, in service to God, and to our fellowmen. What is another important element of true fasting that is described in the verses we have just read? Here it also is recorded in the Book of Hebrews, chapter 12, verse 1:

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

[Hebrews 12:1 New King James Version]

Brother Bob: Dear friends, if it’s the laying aside of the weight of sin, doing what is right in the eyes of God, all that He commands us to do and doing it His way, not our own way—that, that is true fasting. That’s in the Bible.

Dear friends, when you’re ready to learn more, when you’re ready to continue learning about the fundamental teachings that are found here inside the Church Of Christ, please visit 

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incmedia.org 

Brother Bob: There, you’ll find various series of programs all dedicated to answering your questions, spiritual questions here in the Holy Scriptures. 

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Do you have questions about the Bible?

Brother Bob: Anytime you would like us to send us your video question, email your questions to us at and we will respond to them here on this program. 

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answers@incmedia.org 

Brother Bob: Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you again next time on That’s in the Bible.

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What Does the Bible Say About Fasting?