The Bible records only one specific time that Jesus fasted during his time on earth. Just after his baptism, Jesus immediately was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he fasted for forty days, according to the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4:2). The Gospel of Matthew further explains the fast was “forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:2).
What does it mean that Jesus fasted, and why did he do this? And what does the length of Jesus’ fast teach us about spiritual disciplines and their role in our lives?
When and How Long Did Jesus Fast?
In the Gospel of Matthew, just after Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan river, we’re told that heaven opens, the Spirit of God descends upon him, and the voice of God can be heard declaring, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).
Then, Jesus immediately heads into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).
The Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and was tempted for forty days.
“He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry,” Luke 4:2 describes.
The baptism and temptation are immediately followed by the beginning of Jesus’s travels, as he traveled Judea teaching and preaching God’s word to any who would listen. Many say the temptation prepared him for his ministry.
Where Did Jesus Fast?
Scholars believe that Jesus fasted in the Judean wilderness, which is near the Jordan River. They believe the high mountain, where the devil took him at one point, was called the Mountain of Temptation, an isolated and secluded locale that overlooks the city, but is steep and very difficult to climb.
What Happens in This Story?
In both accounts, Jesus fasts, which means he voluntarily reduced or eliminate his intake of food. Luke’s account tells us “he ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry” (Luke 4:2).
The devil tempts Jesus during this time, attempting to take advantage of Jesus’s weakened state. He tells Jesus to turn a stone into bread, to throw himself off the cliff (to demonstrate how the angels would save him), and to worship him (the devil) in exchange for the splendor of all the kingdoms of the world.
Jesus counters each of the temptations with the Word of God.
To the challenge to turn the stone to bread, Jesus counters the devil with the truth that “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).
To the challenge to throw himself off the cliff, Jesus counters with, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt. 4:7).
And to the challenge to bow down and worship the devil, Jesus counters, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matt. 4:10).
Then the devil left; Jesus passed the test and did not succumb to temptation.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Kyle Cottrell
Why Did Jesus Fast?
Jesus likely fasted to prepare himself for ministry by drawing closer to God. One of the reasons people fast is to get their body into a weakened state where they can focus on the basics of life and hear God’s voice better without all the so-called creature comforts that can both soothe and distract us.
Jesus knew he had hard work ahead of him, and he needed to get his mind straight before he began performing miracles. Having just been declared the Son of God at his baptism, he needed to regain his humility and cling to God so he could truly fulfill his Father’s work.
He also knew he needed to understand the vastly weaker mind of humankind, a sinful and sometimes rebellious people who desperately needed their savior Messiah, the Christ.
Did Jesus Drink Water or Eat Anything While Fasting?
Fasting involves reducing food intake and sometimes eliminating food entirely. We’re not told the specifics. Some scholars believe Jesus ate nothing at all, which is what Luke 4:2 indicates. Others think he scrounged the barren landscape for scraps of very little food intake—virtually nothing.
Most agree he likely drank water during this time, for the fast only specifies he “ate nothing,” not that he drank nothing.
How Did Jesus Fast for Forty Days?
Scientists believe people can go without water a few days and without food for a few weeks at most—forty days is far longer than this. Assuming he drank water but consumed no food, Jesus would likely have not lasted forty days if he were a typical man.
But Jesus was not a typical man—He is the Son of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit and endowed with supernatural gifts that enabled him to fast whatever length of time was needed. The fast was designed to get him to a weakened state so that he’d draw closer to God, yet be perhaps more susceptible to the temptations—making his victory over these temptations even more of a win.
Even if he did have some food during the fast, it still would have left him in a weakened physical and mental state.
During the fast, he likely conserved energy and moved as little as possible. Likely he prayed and spent time meditating in the presence of the Lord.
When the devil came, he was ready.
What Is the Point of Fasting?
Some people fast for weight-loss reasons, but most people fast for spiritual reasons.
Typically, people do a spiritual fast as a way of denying themselves pleasures of the flesh, or even just basic sustenance, in order to reach a heightened state of consciousness and knowledge of the Lord. Jesus would have fasted to draw closer to God and focus on his spiritual self, pushing aside the physical needs and wants as best as possible.
Today, we often do a spiritual fast for similar reasons. We fast to deprive ourselves and gain greater spiritual insight. We fast to decrease our own strength so we can be strengthened by relying on the Lord. We also fast to be in solidarity with those who suffer.
How Can We Do a Fast Today?
If you are interested in trying a spiritual fast, remember—you are not Jesus, so heading into the wilderness alone for forty days is not a recommended option. However, there are some ways you can fast safely. The Bible mentions fasting dozens of times as a way to pray, to grieve, or to draw close to God.
First, be sure to consult a medical doctor before fasting to ensure you do so in a healthy way. Next, experts recommend you start slowly with short periods at a time and build up to longer periods. Stay hydrated, and don’t make denying all food the goal. Rather, understand the point is to get to a place of physical denial so you can better focus on your spiritual heart.
And finally, keep your focus on prayer and on God. Use the time to get honest and vulnerable with your Creator.
Jesus’s forty-day fast in the Bible was an important part of his life and prepared him for his earthly ministry. We don’t know if Jesus fasted just this once, or if he made a habit of fasting. The Bible only mentions this fast.
But when he emerged victorious from the wilderness, he was in right relationship with his Heavenly Father, ready and willing to do all God wanted him to do—including die on a cross for the sins of the world.
Learning about Jesus’s fast can teach us a lot about him, about the importance of time alone with God, and about what we can learn when we step away from physical comfort and embrace difficulty for a season.
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.