In the Old and New Testament period, in the early church, in the church throughout the centuries, and in America and throughout the World people have fasted.
Fasting in the Old Testament. According to Bible records, the practice of fasting among the Jews began with their great leader and deliverer, Moses. He by far has given us the greatest (or most extreme) example. For he fasted without food or water for forty days on two consecutive trips to Mount Sinai—eighty days and nights! It had to be a miracle. For no one in his own strength can fast much over three days without water.
Our next example was King David. I think he fasted often, but there are only three instances recorded in the Bible: (1) He fasted with his men over the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:12); (2) he fasted when he was in grief over his near death child, as he lay all night on the ground pleading for God to restore him to life (2 Sam. 12:16); and (3) we also see him fasting in Psalms 69:10. Here he fasted because of how much he loved God, and because of the pain he felt over seeing how much God was dishonored. In verses 9 through 12 David wrote, “[The] zeal for Your house has eaten me up, and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me. When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting, that became my reproach. I also made sack cloth my garment; I became a byword to them. Those who sit in the gate speak against me, and I am the song of the drunkards.”
Another great one for fasting was Elijah who lived in the desert. On one occasion he lived on the strength of one meal for forty days (1 Kin. 19:8). This, as with Moses, was a great miracle.
The next four in line (as recorded in scripture) were Jehoshaphat, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. They not only fasted individually, but they became known as great leaders in fasting. They led their people to fast in times of great need (2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21, 10:6; Neh. 1:4, 9:1; Esther 4:3, 16).
But the one I think is most famous for fasting was Daniel. What a great man of God He was. His whole life was full of fasting with prayer.
These I have listed are not the only ones who fasted. They are just the ones recorded. Derek Prince, in his book, Shaping History through Prayer and Fasting, has suggested that from the time of Moses up to the time of Christ fasting was a regular and accepted practice. He states, “Fasting was an accepted part of religious duty among the Jewish people in Christ’s day. They had practiced it continuously from the time of Moses onward.”
Fasting in the New Testament. Two of the more prominent ones who fasted in New Testament times were John the Baptist and Anna. John, whom Jesus declared as being a great one (Matt. 11:11), ate nothing but locust and wild honey (Matt. 3:4). Anna, who, after her short-lived marriage of seven years, chose not to depart from the temple, but served God with fasting and prayer night and day (Lu. 2:37).
But we must not forget also the example of Paul. As he traveled from place to place, preaching and teaching he fasted often, not only of food, but also of sleep and other things. He wrote of himself: “…in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—besides other things, what comes upon me daily…” (2 Cor. 11:27-28).
Now because of those like Paul, and many others, who set the example of fasting, the church became known for fasting, especially among its leaders. Whenever there was a big decision to make they prayed and fasted about it until God led them. Such was the case with the appointing of Barnabas and Saul as missionaries. In Acts 13:2-3 we read, “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.”
Fasting in the early church. It is well known that the early church, for about 400 years after Christ, was faithful in fasting. Many were known to fast twice a week! According to Wesley Duewel, in his Mighty Prevailing Prayer, “Epiphancus, the writer of perhaps the first Christian encyclopedia on the Bible, asked rhetorically, “Who does not know that the fast of the fourth and sixth days of the week (Wednesday and Friday) are observed by Christians throughout the world?”
Fasting in the church throughout the centuries. As the church became corrupt and power driven, fasting dropped off. But throughout the centuries God has been faithful to restore a remnant of his grace. With Christian groups that sprung up like the Waldensians (in the twelfth century), the Hussites (in the fifteenth century), the Moravians and the Huguenots (in the sixth century), also with Marten Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, Charles Finney, and many others, God kept His church alive. For they sought God through prayer and fasting just as the early church did.
Fasting in America. Undoubtedly, the practice of fasting in America has had much to do with its spiritual roots. When the Pilgrims came to America in 1620 they sought to restore the church to its original condition as depicted in the New Testament. To achieve this they instituted united and public prayer and fasting. Says Derek Prince: “…special days of prayer and fasting became an accepted part of the life of Plymouth Colony.” Prince goes on in his book to set forth how that pattern of fasting by the pilgrims was followed in years to come by governing bodies and by our most famous presidents. George Washington, Adams, Madison, and Lincoln were among those who set aside special days of prayer and fasting.
But such practices as these have not been heard of in America (or in most places in the world) for a long time. Some churches have fasts, some individuals fast, but for the most part, fasting is something we read about in history. It’s not practiced much at all any more. Why not?