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Three Kinds of Biblical Fasts

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

There are many ways to categorize biblical fasts, but no matter how you divide them up, label them, or place them into boxes, they really reduce down to only three kinds. Those three categories are fasts of mourning, petitionary fasts, and fasts of holiness. In one way or another, all fasts fall under one of those headings.

Fasts of mourning are probably the most common in the bible. These are fasts which express sorrow and humility. They are often associated with repentance and a desire to return one’s life to God’s will. This is the kind of fast that Nehemiah called for after he learned the fate of Jerusalem’s destroyed walls and gate (Nehemiah 1:1-10). He used the fast to express great sorrow, but also to call his people to change the way they had been living and to ask for forgiveness. While Jesus was on earth, his disciples did not fast, but Jesus predicted that they would fast in sorrow after his crucifixion (Mark 2:18-20). These kinds of fasts help us to organize and prioritize our values.

Petitionary Fasts are likely the next most common fast. These are praying fasts in which we ask for something specific from God. The fast is designed to show our earnestness and our understanding that God is the all powerful source of good. This is the fast that David was using to ask God to save his child after God struck the child with sickness because of David’s terrible sins (2 Samuel 12:1-23). It is the fast that Ezra uses when he is requesting safe passage for his people from his enemies (Ezra 8:21-23).

Fasts of Holiness are found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Holiness is a word that describes something that has been set apart for the purpose of serving God. Fasts of Holiness are designed to dedicate something to God, or to demonstrate one’s holiness. This was the kind of fast that Daniel engaged in when he ate only vegetables and water and refused to eat a pagan King’s food in order to avoid defiling himself (Daniel 1:8-16). In refusing to partake in the King’s diet, he was aligning himself with God, and thereby maintaining his holiness. When Paul and the apostles were laying the foundation of the church by establishing local faith communities and appointing elders to them, they fasted as a means of committing those elders and their communities to the service of the Lord (Acts 14:23). They were engaging in a fast to set them apart and establish their holiness.

Since Jesus assumes that we will fast as Christians (Matthew 6:16-18), which of these categories will you use at your next fast?

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