Definition of Fasting/ Jesus in the Wilderness

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Puritan Board Senior
I was recently conversing with a sister, and the topic of fasting came up. She said she'd always wanted to hear fasting defined- does it always mean abstaining from food and water in the Scriptures? What light can be shed from the historical records outside the Scriptures (both Old and New Testment fasting?) This is not to get around fasting, but rather to know if there's a Scriptural warrant for saying, as some do, that fasting can be giving up the internet or TV for a time to spend in prayer and repentance. There are also those, like myself, who get hypoglycemic and fasting with food/water seems to counteract what is sought to be accomplished.

Also, she said that she doesn't believe that Jesus fasted with food and water in the wilderness, that it was giving up companionship with men to spend time alone- she says that if He fasted for that long, it would show the power of God and be a miracle, but the point of the wilderness was humiliation and trial, not demonstrating a miracle. Is this a tenable position? I mentioned that one of Satan's temptations was for Jesus to turn stones to bread, She said he was indeed hungry at that point, (as the verse prior says), but that fasting doens't necessarily mean not eating.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Luke 4:2 "And in those days he ate nothing."

Ask your friend what those words mean. I don't know about water, but he definitely went without food.

Of course it was a miracle. It was a miracle in his time, just as it was a miracle for the Israelites to live in the wilderness for 40 years, and to be sustained by the power of God. The manna (when at last they received it), and before that the water from the rock, were simply manifestations of miraculous sustenance in tangible ways--which is all that sacraments are. Sacraments aren't themselves the miracle, or course, but they are the signs and seals of it, ordinary and earthly things by which God makes himself known in his works of salvation and judgment. It is because of our weakness that God stoops to speak to us by physical means.

What is Jesus meditating on in those days, if not the Pentateuch? Does he not quote Moses consistently against the devil?

It was a miracle when Elijah recapitulates Israel in his own wilderness trek, "And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God." 1Ki 19:8.

I think your friend should do more listening and meditating on the text, and the whole-cloth of Scripture. As should we all.


Tempus faciendi, Domine.
Someone asked me recently for Reformed sources on fasting. On the hope that you might find something here to answer some of your questions, here's that list.
[and I would welcome any additions to the list that any of you might add]

Presbyterian & Reformed Resources on the Subject of Fasting

Constitutional & Ecclesiastical resources—
PCA Book of Church Order, Chapter 62, Days of Fasting and Thanksgiving. [cf.]

“Concerning Publick Solemn Fasting” in The Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645), [typically bound with any Scottish edition of the Westminster Standards]

PCUSA, Pastoral Letter to the Churches, on the Transactions [i.e., Old School/New School division] of 1838 (Minutes, 1838, p. 48) :
(m) “We will further observe, that the duty of fasting, as united with prayer, appears to be too much disregarded, if not entirely neglected by many Christians of the present day. We agree with our fathers of the Reformation, that the appointment of annual or stated fasts is not authorized under the gospel dispensation; but occasional fasting, both public and private, such as is called for by peculiar circumstances, or by the dispensations of Heaven, are still among the appointed means of grace, and form an important part of Christian duty. Our Saviour said, the children of the bride-chamber would fast when the bridegroom was taken from them; surely such a dispensation as we have lately witnessed, should lead those children to fast.

PCUSA, Pastoral Letter on the Means of Promoting Revivals (Minutes, 1849, p. 424) :
“(f) “Fasting. When our Lord was yet with us, he said, that when he should be taken away, his disciples should fast. Pious men in every age have united fasting with prayer in times of distress, even if speedy deliverance was hoped for. So did Daniel in the case already cited. So did Ezra and all the Jews at the river Ahava, on their return from Babylon, and just before the great revival of God's work among them. Like prayer, fasting has been a part of every system of religion known among men. Some indeed, even in Christian countries, have carried it to the length of superstition, and have thereby impaired their health. Others, who pretended to fast, only exchange one kind of sumptuous eating for another, and thus mock God. We commend not, but rather reprove all such practices. Yet we fear that some among us seldom, if ever, fast at all. We trust this matter will be inquired into, and if there has been a departure from divine teachings, there will be a speedy return to this scriptural duty. The nature of an acceptable fast, and the blessings attending it, are clearly stated in the Scriptures, and especially in the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah.”

Text specific treatments—
Nehemiah 1:4
Nettleton, Asahel, "The Duty of Fasting, and the Manner in which the Duty should be Performed," Sermons, pp. 345-355. Call # BV 3797.N48

Mark 2:20
Barker, Matthew, “A Religious Fast. The Duty Whereof is Asserted, Described, Persuaded, in a Brief Exercise Upon—[text: Mark 2:20], Puritan Sermons, 1659-1689, volume 2, pp. 144-164. Call # BX 9313.P8

Luke 18:9-14
Luther, Martin, "Sermon on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity," Luther's Works, 52.14-233. An introductory sermon to a series on the Ten Commandments. Call # BR330.E5

Topical or general treatments—
Bayly, Lewis, The Practice of Piety, pp. 207-219 [“Of the Practice of Piety in Fasting”]. Call # BV 4501.B38

Boston, Thomas, “A Memorial Concerning Personal and Family Fasting,” Works, II.341-393. Call # BV 8915.B6

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.12.14-21.

__________, “Articles Agreed Upon by the Faculty of Sacred Theology of Paris, with the Antidote” in Tracts and Treatises, vol. 1, pp. 113-115 [Calvin's response or “antidote” is specifically on pp. 114-115] Call # BV9420.A3

Gillespie, George, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies. Dallas: Naphtali Press, 1993. General precepts regarding fasting, pp. 34-35, 280; fasting on the Lord's Day, pp. 187, 189, 196. Call # BX 9185.G55.

Miller, Samuel, The Duty, the Benefits, and the Proper Method of Religious Fasting. Sermons XCVII and XCIX, in The American National Preacher (New York) 5.10 (1831) 146-160. Text: Daniel 9:3. [cf. LSM ii.164-167]
Reprinted as The Duty, The Benefits, And The Proper Method Of Religious Fasting. Dallas, TX : Presbyterian Heritage Publications, c1983; and as Fasting (Dallas, TX : Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1983, Second Edition, 1994) [with spelling and grammatical revisions] Call # BV 5055.M5.
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