Jesus wasn’t the first man in the Bible to fast forty days. Moses fasted forty days too – twice. The first time for Moses was in Exodus 34:27-28 when he “stayed there (on Mount Sinai) with the LORD for forty days and forty nights, without eating any food or drinking any water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” Moses mentioned this again in Deuteronomy 9:9.
The second time Moses fasted forty days was in Deuteronomy 9 again, this time in verse 18, when “once again I fell prostrate before the Lord for forty days and forty nights. I ate no bread and drank no water” after discovering on his trip down Mount Sinai with the ten commandments that the Israelites had made a cow-like idol out of gold (verse 12).
In the first instance, when Moses fasted, he had no choice in the matter. God told him to go up the mountain in Exodus 34:2 and God had him stay there for forty days without food and water until the commandments had been written on the two tablets of stone. And Jesus had no choice in the matter either, when he fasted for forty days too. We see that in Matthew 4:1, that says “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil,” and the Spirit had him stay there for forty days without food and water until the devil turned up.
So this was all God’s doing. He was the one who had Moses and Jesus taken to the brink of dying from starvation. He did the same thing with Elijah too: In 1 Kings 19:8-9 God had Elijah journey for forty days and nights without food and water, just to give him a message in a cave at Mount Horeb.
But in the history of Israel, these three men were the big three – Moses, Elijah and Jesus, all three of whom appeared at the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17:1-3, because it was through these three men that God’s plan of salvation through Israel would be kickstarted, preserved, and fulfilled.
First, it was Moses, through whom God instituted the laws that would govern and bless the lives of the Israelites, to attract other nations through Israel to him. Through Elijah he then kept Israel from falling victim to the cunning and influence of evil people like Jezebel, who wanted to destroy Israel entirely. And through Jesus he did what the Israelites could never do, and that was resist and defeat the power of the devil. And by having all three men fast to the point of near death, God made it clear it was by his power and not theirs that his plan of salvation through Israel was being fulfilled.
God emptied these three great leaders of Israel of all their human strength and power, because it was his leadership they needed to obey and trust. And Jesus made that clear to the devil in Matthew 4:4,7 and 10, when three times he parried the devil’s temptations with his total obedience to, and trust in, God and his word.
Their fasting, therefore, had nothing to do with voluntary self-denial to get them closer to God. Even when Moses fasted for forty days the second time by his own choice, it was purely for the preservation of Israel, Deuteronomy 9:18-19. God’s plan of salvation through Israel was at the heart of their fasting. And that’s because the whole plan of God through Israel is the story of God’s faithfulness and God’s power making salvation possible.
By God having Jesus fast for forty days, therefore, emptying even his own Son of all his human power and strength, it was clear proof yet again that the story of our salvation is all God’s doing, and not our own.