In Matthew 4 the story is told how Jesus felt the Holy Spirit urge him to go into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days in preparation for a testing of the devil. Then the devil came to him in his very human state of hunger and weakness saying, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
This temptation occurred at the start of Jesus’ ministry. Since Jesus could have certainly turned the stones into bread as the devil suggested, or had a thousand angels come to his aide with whatever food he wanted, what is really going on in these verses? Why doesn’t Jesus make himself something to eat and be done with his fast?
The first clue to what is happening here is when Jesus said, “It is written.” He is referring to what was said by Moses to the Israelites at the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert. At that time, the people were camped by the Jordan River on the verge of entering the land that had been promised by God to them centuries before they became slaves in Egypt as punishment for disobeying the Lord. All of the adults that left Egypt were dead by this time, never to see the Promised Land because of their ingratitude and complaining along the journey. It was their children who would get to enter the Promised Land. This was the last time that Moses would spend with the Israelites to instruct them, as he too was not allowed to step in the Promised Land because of his disobedience against God. He then reiterated God’s covenant with his people one last time as a final warning.
[Moses said], “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these 40 years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord… Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.”
In this temptation the devil is twisting God’s words by saying, “Come on, Jesus, even the Israelites got their manna bread from heaven, make some bread for yourself and you will be obeying Scripture.” But in quoting Moses, Jesus instantly unravels the devil’s twisted words. The devil is acting like he wants Jesus to follow God’s word but in actuality is using Scripture against him. He suggested that Jesus trust in himself and his own ability to stop his hunger in that moment, not by listening to what God wanted him to do next and waiting on God’s word to know when to break his fast. God wills for us too to make God’s word more important than even the food we put into our mouths, and trust him to lead our every step.
The relationship between Moses and Jesus in these verses is apparent. Moses lead the Israelites as they wandered for 40 years in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. Similarly, Jesus was now becoming leader to take the Israelites – and the rest of us – into our Promised Land of being reconnected to God and gaining access into heaven. Each day of Jesus’ 40 day fast represented one year that the Israelites wandered in the desert.
Other people in the Bible have also fasted for long periods of time. Moses fasted for 40 days while he was with the Lord on Mount Sinai, where he received the 10 Commandments (Exodus 24:18). Elijah fasted for 40 days as he journeyed to a mountain where he too spoke with God (1 Kings 19:8). Daniel fasted for 3 weeks and was visited by an angel (Daniel 10). So what is the significance of fasting in preparing a person to hear a word from God and being able to withstand the devil’s schemes to tempt us into sin?
The Bible tells us that fasting is to be done to break the chains of anything that binds you,
[To] break every yoke of oppression… the pointing finger and malicious talk (Isaiah 58:9).
It is to be done so you can use the money you would have spent on your own food and shelter to help those in need.
To share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter [and] when you see the naked, to clothe them (Isaiah 58:7).
It is to be done in a spirit of humility, weeping and mourning, seeking God’s forgiveness for ourselves and pleading for mercy upon our wicked generation and upon our enemies.
The Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads… They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors (Nehemiah 9:1,3).
[My enemies] repay me evil for good and leave me like one bereaved. Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting (Psalm 35:12-13).
And it is to be done in secret, not paraded around like you are more righteous than others for having fasted.
But when you fast [do it] so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:17).
When we do fast in this manner, we are promised to be healed, that God will hear us when we pray and ask for his help, that he will guide us and provide for us, as well as strengthen us in our weakness.
Your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58:8-9, 11)
We can see there are many benefits from fasting, but do we have to do it for 40 days in order for a fast to be effective? We know that people can survive a long fast, but 40 days is pushing it to the limit of human capability. Incidentally, there is no reason to believe that this was done without drinking water as the human body needs water more than it does food. However, for shorter periods of time (3 days max) it can be done.
Esther fasted without both food and water, along with all the Israelites, for 3 days when she prepared in prayer to approach her husband, the king, to plead mercy upon her people, because it was against the law for her to approach him without being summoned and she could be put to death for it (Esther 4:16). When Saul (later renamed Paul) was blinded by the Lord, he too did not eat or drink for 3 days (Acts 9:9). So unless we have a clear command from God about a longer fasting, 3 days would be the most it would be suggested to do.
I feel that God’s people need to fast and pray for our brothers and sisters being murdered by fanatical Muslims around the globe. Notice that I said fanatical; not all Muslims are bad and it’s always the extreme nutjobs in every faith that make bad representatives. If you want more information on how to undertake fasting and prayer, I found this site to be helpful: Personal Guide to Fasting