What is the connection between prayer and fasting? | Psephizo

I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible, or a theme or section of Scripture, and the ideas that it expresses. At the end of this piece I list the previous articles I have written for them. Here I explore what Scripture says about fasting in relation to prayer. Prayer and fasting are often closely associated within the disciplines of Christian spirituality. This association finds its roots in Jesus’ teaching in the new Testament. In Matthew 6 part of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus closely associates the disciplines of prayer, giving, and fasting under the umbrella title “acts of righteousness”. When you give to the needy…when you pray…when you fast… (Matt 6.2, 5, 16). Rather than propose the idea, Jesus appears to simply assume that these three disciplines are a regular part of life for his Jewish listeners. And Matthew, in recording them, assumes they will continue to be a natural part of life for all those who follow Jesus, both Jew and Gentile. The association between the two in the early Church was strong enough for references to fasting to be added into some early manuscripts. In Mark 9.29, in response to the disciples’ question as to why they couldn’t deliver the unclean spirit from a boy, Jesus replies “this kind can only come out with prayer”. Some early copyists have added in the reference to fasting (you can see this in the footnotes to most English Bibles) and others have added the double reference to prayer and fasting in the parallel account in Matthew 17.21. Fasting in the Old Testament Fasting is portrayed as an intense form of devotion at various points in the Old Testament, either as a regular but occasional act, though mostly in response to some kind of crisis. The only positive mention of fasting is the first one. When Moses goes up Mount Sinai to be in the presence of God and receive the Ten Commandments, he fasts for 40 days and nights (Exodus 34.28)—an antecedent to Jesus’s fasting in the desert, which we often miss. (There is a remarkable Jewish tradition which says that when Moses previously went into the presence of God with 70 elders, “they saw God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24.11) means that they actually fed on the presence of God himself. Perhaps this is what Moses was doing during those 40 days!) The only mandatory period of fasting set out in the Torah is connected with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement: The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the LORD (Lev 23.27). The phrase “deny yourselves” has been consistently interpreted as a reference to fasting, and this sets up the connection between fasting and repentance or mourning over our sins. More broadly than, fasting becomes a sign of grief and regret. And so the people of Israel fast in repentance and grief when Samuel points out their sin (1 Sam 7.6) as well as when Saul and Jonathan are killed (2 Sam 1.12). Later in the narrative, King David fasts in repentance at his adultery and murder (2 Sam 12.16). In exile, Daniel fasts and prayers at his grief for the sin of his people (Dan 9.3). In the face of an unnamed sin and disaster, Joel calls the people to ‘fasting with weeping and mourning’ that they might again know God’s blessing (Joel 2.12–13). And when Esther decides to risk her life by pleading with the king for her people, she entreats all the Jews in the city to fast and pray on her behalf (Esther 4.16). Fasting is an occasional sign of intense prayer, grief, and longing for God to act. Fasting in the New Testament But by the time that we reached the New Testament, things seem to have radically changed. We can see the transition in the intertestamental period, in the book of Tobit (third or second century BC): Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold (Tobit 12.8) Fasting has become a regular habit during this period, just at the time when messianic expectation was also growing—the hope that Israel would be delivered from its enemies, set free to worship in holiness, the people would be purified, and God would once again visit his people (Luke 1.74–75). The regularity of fasting, and its association with messianic expectation, is confirmed in the gospels, especially the gospel of Luke. Early on his ministry, Jesus and his disciples are criticised for not fasting in the same way that both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist fast. In Mark 2.18, the accusation is a general one, but in Luke’s gospel, the issue becomes clearer: John’s disciples often [Greek: pukna , frequently] fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking (Luke 5.33). Luke goes on to tell us what “often” actually means; in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we hear the Pharisee both proudly “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18.12). And from an early Christian teaching document, the Didache , we even know which day the Pharisees fasted on! Chapter 8: But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week [Monday and Thursday]. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation [Wednesday and Friday]. In response, Jesus makes it clear that fasting is a sign of longing for the Messiah; now that he is with them, they can enjoy feasting! But when he is gone, and they long for his return, that is the time to fast again. We are therefore not surprised to find that fasting regularly accompanies prayer amongst the early Jesus followers, not only as a routine part of their devotion, but also in preparation for particular times of ministry (see for example Acts 13.1–3). And this practice of regular, intermittent fasting has continued in the life of the church. John Wesley would not ordain anyone who didn’t follow the practice set out in the Didache of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Fasting and feasting Fasting from food was not unknown in the ancient world—but this pattern of intermittent feasting and fasting seemed very strange to them. For Christians, ‘feast’ days celebrated a world made by God and all the good in it; alongside this, ‘fast’ days signify repentance, mourning and longing for deliverance—just the sort of practice you might adopt if you were awaiting the coming of a Messiah and the hope of the age to come. Intermittent fasting is the dietary expression of the ‘now and not yet’ of the kingdom of God (or, to use a theological term, the ‘partially realised eschatology’) we find in the New Testament. We do not fast from things that are wrong; these call for repentance. Instead we fast from the good things God has given us, because we know there is better to come. We fast in anticipation of an answer to the prayer: ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’! On that day, we will feast in the very presence of God himself. My previous articles have been on the themes of: the phrase ‘Word of God’ the theme of ‘Mission’ the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘ the ministry of ‘Healing’, the question of ‘Welcome’, the biblical understanding of ‘Justice’, the biblical view of creation what the Bible means by the term ‘church’. what the Bible says about grief and grieving. what is so good about the Old Testament? Why should we welcome the stranger? How can we rejoice in an imperfect world? What does scripture say about disability? What are the scriptural roots of our understanding of preaching? How do we make sense of the psalms of conflict? What does Scripture say about poverty and our response to it? What is the meaning of Sabbath? What is it like to encounter the person of Jesus? What does Joel tell us about the promises of God?

This content was originally published here.

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