Fasting: Then and Now – Matthew 6:16-18

Pastor Scott L. Harris
10/18/1992; January 24, 1999

Fasting: Then and Now
Matthew 6:16-18


This morning we come to a topic that many are probably unfamiliar with – fasting. We may recognize the word and may know its meaning. Some of you may even think you have fasted before because you were forced to do so for some medical test or as part of a diet to lose weight. Some of you may come from religious traditions in which some sort of fast was practiced on particular occasions -, i.e., the Lenten season, etc. However, I doubt that there are more than a handful of people in the room that have ever fasted in the Biblical sense. Why? Two reasons. First, the proper Biblical practice of fasting, as expressed by our Lord in the passage we will be examining this morning, was quickly perverted and those parts of the church that have practiced fasting have not done it correctly. Second, the evangelical church has largely ignored the subject as a reaction to the excesses that have occurred within Catholicism and other Christian traditions.

This morning I have two goals in my sermon. The first is to make us aware of fasting. We need to know what the Scriptures say about why and how it is to be done. That should both motivate us to fast and to avoid doing it improperly. My second goal is to take a principle from this text and apply it to our daily lives. I hope your goal is to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord. Even though we are talking about a rather obscure subject this morning, there is an important principle that we can draw from it for helping us in our daily lives.

Turn with me to Matthew 6:16-18 to examine our text. “And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

This is the third example that Jesus has used to illustrate the principle that He gave in Matthew 6:1, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”  (See: Where Does Your Reward Come From?). This principle holds when we do something for other people such as give alms (gifts to the poor, 6:2-4). If we give in such a way as to draw attention to ourselves with the motive being that we want men to think well of us, then the only reward we will receive is the praise of men. We do not receive anything from God.  (See: Giving From the Heart).

This principle also holds in our personal relationship with God Himself. If we pray in such a way as to draw attention to ourselves, again, with the motive being that we want others to think well of us, then the only reward we will receive is the praise of men. God will give no reward because He does not pay attention to prayers that are not really directed to Him. Our motivation to pray has to be to talk with Him, not those who may be around us. Our practice is to pray with confidence that He knows our needs before we even ask. Our prayers are to be God centered by seeking the glorification of His name, for His kingdom to come and for His will to be done. Prayer is centered on God, not on requests for our kingdom to expand and our will to be done. The requests we do make are to be made humbly as people who know that God is our provider, Savior and protector according to His precious promises. If our prayers are not God centered, then they are not truly prayers and there is no promise of a reward from Him.  (See: The Proper Purpose & Practice of Prayer).

In our text this morning we find that the same principle holds true in the personal discipline of our own spiritual lives. If we fast in such a way as to bring attention to ourselves, our motive being that we want others to think well of us, then there is no reward other than the praise of men.

This was the error of the Scribes and Pharisees. They did some good things but with the wrong motive. They wanted to gain the acclaim of men. When they fasted they did it in such a way as to make sure everyone around them knew that they were fasting.

Fasting Then

But before we can condemn their practice we should know what Scripture says about fasting so that we can see their error clearly. What does it mean to fast? What is its purpose? How should it be done?

The word translated here as “fast” simply means to voluntarily abstain from food. There were different kinds of fasts and they varied in their practice. The Mishna records that the practice during the day of atonement was abstaining from all food and water. Most common though were fasts in which water could be taken, but food could not. There were also partial fasts such as that of Daniel and his three friends in Daniel 1 in which they abstained from the King’s food and ate only beans and water.

There is no specific command to fast in the worship of God, yet fasting was a common response by the person seriously seeking after God. Some have held that God commanded a fast to be held on the Day of Atonement. Whether or not this is a specific command, the purpose of fasting is well described in Levitcus 16:29 & 23:27 which both say, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD.” The phrase, “humble your souls” is supposed to be what signifies the fast. Whether that phrase particularly means a fast is debated, but the fast was to signify a humble state of the heart.

The personal religious fasts that are recorded in Scripture demonstrate this purpose of humility before God. Wicked King Ahab heard the prophecy of Elijah against him and 1 Kings 21:27 records his response, “And it came about when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently.

he humbled himself before the Lord.” Ahab fasted as part of his demonstration of repentance. The Lord responded to it in 1 Kings 21:29, “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days . . . “.

The basic purpose of the fast is a demonstration of the humility of the one fasting in his dependence upon God. There is usually an intensity of emotion involved. It may be the anguish of repentance such as in the case of Ahab as already mentioned. Or it could be the distress of impending danger such as when King Jehoshaphat proclaimed a national fast in Judah when they were threatened with attack by the Moabites and Ammonites in 1 Chronicles 20:3. Or it may be the turmoil of soul that comes when a loved one is ill. This is recorded of David when the child he had by his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba became ill. Nathan the prophet had already prophesied that the child would die because of David’s sin, but David fasted and prayed saying in 2 Samuel 12:22, “I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.” Fasts were also common responses in mourning when a friend or loved one died. The men of Jabesh-Gilead fasted for seven days upon King Saul’s death.

Even though there does not seem to be any specific command to fast in the worship of God, the Scriptures do record many examples of fasting by godly people. We have already mentioned several. Let me mention several more. The first fast recorded is that of Moses in Exodus 34:28 when He was on Mt Sinai. “So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” The intensity of meeting with God precluded eating and drinking and God sustained him.

In a somewhat similar manner we find Daniel fasting in Daniel 9 & 10. Daniel was so intense in his prayer and in seeking after God that he neglected food. Daniel 9:2-3 says that as Daniel was examining the prophecies of Jeremiah he realized that the time of Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the desolation of Jerusalem was nearly fulfilled and so Daniel gave his “attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fastings, sackcloth, and ashes.” That demonstrates not only the humility of this godly man but also his intense desire to know God and understand the revelation God had given him. In Daniel 10 we find Daniel in a partial fast – “I did not eat any tasty food, nor did meat or wine enter my mouth, nor did I use ointment at all, until the three weeks were completed.” Daniel was in mourning for the understanding of the revelation given to him. How our lives would be different if we had that same intensity in our desire to know & understand the Scriptures.

Fasting was a fairly normal part of the life of the godly, but they did not have a set schedule of fasting. They so sought after God that they would not let eating and drinking get in their way when something intense came up in their walk with Him. They themselves, not the cravings of their physical body, were in control of their lives. Jesus recognized the normality of fasting when He says in our text, “but you, when you fast . . .”.

But as with any godly activity, it can become perverted. The Scribes and Pharisees lost sight of the purpose of fasting. Instead of seeing it as a means to the end of a closer walk with God. They saw it as and end in itself which was the demonstration of their superior righteousness. Luke 18:12 records the boastful prayer of one of the Pharisees in which he brags on himself, “I fast twice a week.” This was apparently the common practice among these religious leaders at the time of Christ. Supposedly this was in commemoration of Moses going up on Mt Sinai on Thursday and coming down on Monday. Interesting enough, their fasting also happened to correspond to the two major market days of the week when the largest crowds would be in town.

Jesus says of them that their practice of fasting was to put on a gloomy face. They would neglect their appearance in order to be seen by men. There is a word play here in the Greek that emphasizes their hypocritical nature. They would disfigure their faces with ashes to that they might be “unseen,” but their purpose in doing so was to “be seen.” They made an outward show of piety by making themselves look like they were serious in their fast. Not only did they put ash on their face, but they would not groom their hair, so it would be all disheveled. They would put on old clothes that were torn and full of holes. A great outward show, but none of it was from true righteousness, only self righteous and they were far from God. They loved the acclaim of men more than the acclaim of God.

Fasting Now

The question now arises about fasting in our time. Is fasting a practice that was to continue into the church age? Is fasting something that we as Christians should also consider as a legitimate practice of righteousness? From the scant amount of material written on the subject by the conservative evangelical church as a whole, you would conclude that fasting is not important and does not need to be practiced today. However, the simple fact is that fasting is still for today. As already pointed out, Jesus, in the very passage we are studying, takes it for granted that fasting will occur by those that follow Him when He says, “but you, when you fast.” Jesus Himself fasted for forty days and nights in the wilderness prior to His temptation by Satan (Matthew 4:2). The church at Antioch (Acts 13:2) fasted and prayed when Paul and Barnabas were called as missionaries. Paul and his companions fasted and prayed before appointing Elders in the various cities they were working in. History shows that it was a common practice in the early church. So why don’t we do it?

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his discussion of this subject pointed out that a large part of this is our over reaction to the excesses that occurred within Catholicism and other Christian traditions.

Historically we find that it did not take long for the proper purpose of fasting to be perverted within the church. Asceticism, and in particular that practiced within the monastic movement, brought about the worst distortions of why fasting was to be done. They did not copy the error of the Scribes and Pharisees by proclaiming their fasting publicly, but they did copy one of the their other serious errors. They came to believe that fasting in itself would bring about spiritual gain. Instead of fasting being part of a response to an unusually intense time of danger, suffering, penitence or search for the mind of God on a matter, it became a regular part of their self abasing asceticism.

Asceticism brought a perverted model of spirituality, and that model remained throughout the middle ages. They traded the inward reality for the outward facade. The extremes that were already reached by the fourth and fifth centuries (300-400 AD) are seen in these examples. Isidore of Alexandria touched no meat, never ate enough, and, as Palladius related, often burst into tears at table for shame, that he, who was destined to eat angels’ food in paradise, should have to eat material stuff like irrational brutes. Marcarius the elder, or the Great, for a long time ate only once a week, and slept standing and leaning on a staff. Marcarius the younger lived three years on four or five ounces of bread a day, and seven years on raw herbs and pulse (beans). A fellow named Batthaeus, that by reason of his extreme abstinence, worms crawled out of his teeth. Another fellow named Symeon spent 36 years praying, fasting, and preaching, on the top of a pillar thirty or forty feet high, ate only once a week, and in fast times not at all. Such are some of the cases to which fasting was carried by the ascetics. These are some of the more extreme cases, but the same mind set about the spiritual reward in fasting continued.

The problem of course is that it confused the outward practice with the inward reality. Scripturally, fasting was to arise from the heart, but this was corrupted like so many other things into a method of trying to change the heart by an outward action. Abuse of fasting still occurs for still the same reasons, though not to the same extremes. I had a friend that was a messianic Jew. He had some problems with his adult son in this area. The fellow was so given to fasting that his physical health was actually deteriorating.

When the reformation occurred there was a lot of reaction to what had occurred and does occur within Catholicism. In that process even some things that are proper were also laid aside. John Calvin wrote concerning fasting, “Many for want of knowing its usefulness undervalue its necessity. And some reject it all together as superfluous, while on the other hand, where the proper use of fasting is not well understood, it easily degenerates into superstition.” It is because of the over reaction to those that have practiced fasting superstitiously that we have ended up in America today with a conservative evangelical church that knows little to nothing about fasting.

Proper Fasting: How is fasting to be practiced today?

First, remember the purpose of fasting. Contrary to what is claimed by mystics, including Christian mystics, nowhere in Scripture do we find that fasting is the means by which a person can have heightened spiritual experience, visions, special insight or awareness. The purpose of fasting is to demonstrate humility and to give full concentration on God. As one writer put it, “People who are consumed with concern before God do not take a lunch break.” That brings up another reason for the lack of fasting today. We simply lack both that kind of intensity in our relationship with God and the self discipline to say no to our appetite. In my own life I have failed in fasting because my stomach would growl and I thought I had to feed it. More successful were unplanned fasts in which I was so consumed in study of something that God had laid on my heart that I would not think about eating, and when stomach would growl I would keep telling it, “I’ll feed you in a minute, let me finish this page first.” Eventually it would be so late that I would just go to bed exhausted by my pursuit to understand and know God and His word.

Second, remember that there can be no correct fasting apart from a right heart, right living and a right attitude. Throughout the Scriptures we always find that fasting and prayer go together. The fasting is to be as a result of the intensity by which we are bringing our concern to God. One thing I hope we have learned in this series on Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that prayer must have the right motive, practice and content. Prayer must be God centered. Fasting is an aide to intense prayer demonstrating our humble dependence upon God and our intense seeking after Him.

Third, fasting is never to be something mechanical. The only regular fast seems to have been the Day of Atonement. Jesus is our atonement, so Christians do not observe Yom Kippur. All the other fasts in Scripture were based on circumstances as they arose. National days of fasting were called due to danger or need for national repentance. Individual fasts occurred for similar reasons. Scripture associates fasting with mourning, times of sorrow, overwhelming danger being at hand, conviction of sin, and with intense seeking after and understanding of God.

So, should you fast? Yes, as the Lord burdens your heart with something. How should you fast? As Jesus describes in our passage. Matthew 6:17, “But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

Some have taken this to extremes as well. They say that you are to be the exact opposite of the Scribes and Pharisees. They wanted everyone to know that they were fasting, we should make sure that no one knows that we are fasting. They made themselves out to look very sad and appear very bad. We should therefore put on a happy face and appear very nice. They put on a frown, you put on a smile. They were dirty and disheveled, you look as sharp as can be. But this is not what Jesus is talking about. He is not telling us to hide behind a plastic face. That is the opposite presentation as these false religious leaders, but the hypocrisy is the same. One of the problems within the Christian community is that we put on these false faces thinking that is what we are supposed to do, and by doing so we shut ourselves off from being ministered to by other and us ministering to them.

The things that Jesus says to do here are the normal things that are done in daily life. Essentially Jesus is saying to act normally and do not call attention to yourself. The anointing of the head was the standard grooming practice. Oil was put on the head so a person would look better. Often the oil would be lightly scented and act like a perfume. The face would be washed to give a clean, fresh appearance. Remember that the streets were dusty and a person would get dirty a lot faster than we do in our society with our paved streets and sidewalks. When you fast, do all your normal grooming and put on your normal clothes and look normal. Jesus is not telling us that we have to make a special effort to ensure that no one knows that we are fasting. We are not trying to hide, just to dress and look normal.

A good example of proper fasting is seen in Nehemiah. We do not have time to look at all the details here, but in brief we find that Nehemiah is a Jew during the time of the captivity and is serving as the cup bearer to King Artaxerxes who was the King of Persia. Nehemiah receives word that things are not going well with those who had returned to Jerusalem under Ezra some 13 years earlier. The people there are in distress and the walls of the city have still not been repaired. Nehemiah’s response is, “Now it came about when I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4). His prayer is also recorded and it lets us know that he is deeply grieved over this situation. With all this on Nehemiah’s heart, what should his outward appearance be? Should He put on sack cloth and ashes? He might do that (as did Job, Jacob, and several of the kings and prophets did) except he has a job as the king’s cupbearer, and he does not have that privilege. How should his face look? Should he plaster a plastic smile across it so that no one will know that there is something on weighing on his heart? In one sense he should because to be in the presence of a Persian king with anything other than joy could lead to your death. The idea being that just being in the presence of the king should lead to great joy, and if it did not, then you were disrespectful of the king. That could cost you your life immediately.

What happens? Nehemiah 2:1. “And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid. (Remember, the king could kill him for that). And I said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers; tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.” As the story continues Artaxerxes sends Nehemiah back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. But take note of the proper practice of fasting and prayer by Nehemiah. Nehemiah continues his normal routine, but the matter on his heart did cause his face to appear sad, and God used precisely that to open the door to His fulfilling Nehemiah’s prayer.

Fasting is proper in our day and age, but it must come as the response to something God has laid upon it. We do not proclaim to others that we are fasting and neither do we hide it. As Martyn-Lloyd Jones said, “In order to avoid looking sad, don’t put a grin on your face. Forget your face, forget yourself, forget other people altogether.” Your concentration is to be on God.

The Principle of Godly Living

That is the principle of godly living that I want to bring out. Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Act naturally in doing that without concern for what other people think. Or stated another way, be concerned only about what God thinks. Seek to please Him, not other people. Or, to paraphrase Martyn-Lloyd Jones, forget your face, forget yourself, forget other people, but remember God!

The major problem with the Scribes and Pharisees is that they traded in true righteousness which comes from the heart for the shallow falsehood of a legalistic system of outward self righteousness. A lot of what they did was in itself okay to do. It is good to give alms in public, and to pray in public, and to fast in public, but it is not good to do any of those things in order to gain the attention and acclaim of other people. A bad motive can turn a good practice into unrighteousness. Whenever we do something for the purpose (or hope) that someone else will find out about it so that they will think we are good, then we have stepped over the line and fall into the same trap as the Scribes and Pharisees.

This principle applies to more than just the three examples (alms, prayer & fasting) Jesus used to illustrate this principle. Don’t practice your righteousness in order to be seen by men. Practice your righteous deeds in such a way that men will glorify your father which is in heaven. This principle covers a multitude of situations and gives us instruction on how we are to behave.

In public worship, how should we sing? Loud, soft, or not at all? Should we sing the melody or the harmony? Answer? It depends on your motive for doing what you do. Scripture tells us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord (Ps 100 and others). Who am I singing for and why am I singing? If your motive is to impress the people around you with your wonderful singing, then you have a problem. If you have a terrible voice and you do not sing, then you have the same problem. You are more concerned with what people think about you than what the Lord thinks. In both situations the heart has to be changed. Forget about your voice, forget about yourself, forget about what others think, remember you sing as a response to God in praise of Him. (Now if your voice is really bad, consider singing softly as common courtesy- but sing!).

What about those that sing in front of the congregation. Their purpose is supposed to be to bring praise to the Lord by edifying the congregation through song. But if their motive is to impress the congregation rather than the Lord then there needs to be a change of heart, or the only reward received will be the applause of the congregation.

What about serving the Lord in some leadership capacity within the church? Again the principle applies. It is to be done as a response of the heart to serve the Lord and bring glory to Him. If any leadership position is entered into pridefully with the idea that it is something that will impress others, then there is a problem. I have met many pastors over the years that are impressed with themselves and think others should be impressed with them simply because they are pastors, and especially if they have some sort of Bible degree. They have a problem because being a pastor and having a degree or several degrees does not impress God, and it is what He thinks that we are supposed to be concerned with.

What about how you treat your spouse and children in public? It is good if you treat them well in public, but does that match how you treat them in private. Again we will face the same question. If you treat them well in public, but not in private then you are out to impress people, not God, because He sees you in private as well as in public. We are to love our spouses and show them respect and kindness all the time because that is pleasing to God.

Other things: taking communion, coming to church at all, the kind of car you buy, etc.

If you diligently apply this principle of seeking to please God alone and not be concerned about anything else, then you will not only avoid the pitfalls of self righteousness, but you will live a truly righteous life from the heart. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them” (Matthew 6:1). Instead, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). “Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Consider these principles and then consider if God would not want you to fast in response to the things He lays upon your heart. If you need a reason to fast, then just consider that current state of our nation and what our children are inheriting.

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