The word "fast" in the Greek is "nesteuo," which simply means to go without food. This term is used in the New Testament twenty-one times. The Hebrew word is referenced forty-seven times in the old Testament (either the act of fasting or the declaration of a fast). Interestingly, as Jesus addresses this idea of fasting, we do not see a command to fast being given. Here are the two examples from scripture:
"And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Notice that Jesus is not commanding anyone to fast. When He says, "And when you fast...", He is assuming that fasting is taking place. His purpose is not to exhort us to fast, but rather, to give us an example of what to do and not to do when we fast.
And they said to him, "The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink." And Jesus said to them, "Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days."
In this instance, once again, Jesus is not giving a command to fast. In His answer to the question of why His disciples were not fasting He gives insight and clarity for the true meaning and purpose behind the discipline of fasting. In other words, Jesus was saying "to truly understand this idea of fasting would lead to truly understanding who I am and what it means to you that I am here". Jesus would make it known that there would be a time to come when His disciples would begin to fast again. In order to truly understand Jesus' response to the question, we need to look at a few examples of men and women fasting:
2 Chronicles 20:1-4
After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle. Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, "A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar" (that is, Engedi). Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD.
Fasting for God's deliverance from trouble
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods.
Fasting for protection
When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. He went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king’s gate clothed in sackcloth. And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.
"Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish."
Fasting for God's divine intervention, for courage, for political leaders
"But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
Fasting for healing
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
Fasting for vision and discernment of God's will
No matter what our reason for fasting, it is about seeking His face and humbling ourselves before Him. The first ultimately leads to the second. In other words, if we seek Him and find ourselves in His presence, there can be no other reaction but ultimate humility. In seeking His face we recognize that there is no greater resource, no greater power, no greater influence than God almighty.
“Christian fasting, at its root, is the hunger of a home-sickness for God.” -Piper
By fasting, we are reminding ourselves and declaring to God that we desire Him and Him alone more than anything else in this world...even food. By fasting, we are declaring that we need God's ultimate deliverance, protection, intervention, healing, wisdom, discernment, vision, etc.
Every time my stomach growls I am reminded to seek His face and walk humbly before Him. I am reminded that it is His will that I ultimately seek for my life and the lives of those around me.
The reason why Jesus' disciples did not need to fast is because there was no need to seek the face of God. God almighty was right there in their midst. Jesus was saying: "If you only knew who I was, you would know that you are standing face to face with the GREAT I AM...the CREATOR of the universe. There is no need to fast. Rejoice in my presence for now! "
- Scripture does not command us to fast. It assumes we are fasting.
- We see in scripture where fasting is done privately as well as corporately.
- Fasting is not a supernatural way to get God to do what I want Him to do.
- Fasting is primarily about a declaration of our absolute desire and need for God and God alone.
- Time and time again throughout the course of history God has moved mightily in answer to the prayers of such devoted men and women.