Matthew 6:16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
In Matthew 6:2, 3 we read where Jesus says, “When you give…” and we understand the implication. Giving to support those in need is not an optional add-on to the Christian life. Giving to support the church and the work of the gospel are understood as part of our responsibility as Christians.
In Matthew 6:5, 7, and 9 we read Jesus say, “When you pray…” and once again we understand that Jesus expectation is that His people will be a people of prayer. Giving and prayer are disciplines that faithful believers have engaged in for 2,000 years and I’m guessing that none of us would argue that Jesus no longer expects us to do these things.
There is an ongoing expectation that all who follow Christ will pray to God and give to support the spread of the gospel. This is made plain when Jesus says, “When” not “if.” Now, if we apply that same logic to verses 16-18, then we must conclude that Jesus expects fasting to have its place in our lives as well. Just in case you are not convinced, listen to what Jesus told the disciples of John when they asked about His position on fasting.
Matt 9:14 The disciples of John came to (Jesus), saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
In both of these passages, Jesus is not teaching on whether or not we should fast. He is assuming that we will and teaching us how to do it and how not to do it. Jesus is clear that fasting is a normal and expected discipline of the Christian life; but for many of us we just don’t understand why?
What is fasting? Why should we fast? What should we fast from? When should we fast? All of these questions and more surround this topic and this morning we are going to get a crash course on a spiritual practice of God’s people that we see taking place in the OT, the NT and throughout the history of the church right up to our own day.
There are four things I want to cover in this sermon and they are: I. Survey of Fasting throughout Scripture, II. The Hypocritical Fasting of the Pharisees, III. What Fasting is really about, and IV. The Gospel implications.
I. Fasting throughout Scripture
The first instance of fasting comes in Judges 20 and it is in response to a battle between two of the tribes of Israel and the fast was a sign of mourning and grief. In 1 Samuel 7 all of Israel gathered to fast and pray for God’s forgiveness and for God to deliver them from the Philistines. In 2 Samuel 12, David wept and fasted seeking God’ grace to heal the child born to Bathsheba.
The prophet Ezra called for the people returning from exile to fast and ask God for safe journey back to Jerusalem. Esther asked all the Jews to fast on her behalf as she made plans to go before her husband, the king of Persia, to plead for the safety of her people. You can read about fasting in the Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets. It was a common practice among the Pharisees, the disciples of John and was practice by the early church after Jesus’ ascension.
But what is it? What are all of these people doing? Fasting is the voluntary abstinence from food, or some other regularly enjoyed gift from God, for spiritual purposes. Now, why do I include things other than food in my definition? For two reasons, one that is practical and another that is Biblical. Practically speaking, it is not medically advisable for some people to fast from food. For those with diabetes it could be quite dangerous. Because of this, I encourage those who are medically unable to fast from food, to find some other regularly practice and to set it aside in order to focus in a specific spiritual need.
Second, when we read 1 Corinthians 7:5 we see Paul talking to married couples who have made an agreement to abstain from sex for an agreed upon time. He tells them to limit that time so as not to give Satan an opportunity to tempt them to sin. To be fair, this passage doesn’t mention fasting, but I find it reasonable to conclude that there are gifts from God other than food that we might voluntarily choose to forgo in order to focus on a specific spiritual need.
In scripture, we see about 9 different types of fasting.
1. A Normal Fast - Involved abstaining from all food, but not from water. In Matthew 4, we read that “After fasting forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry.” The text doesn’t say anything about him being thirsty and since we know that the human body can’t function without water for more than 3 days we assume that He was drinking water during this time. To abstain from food while still drinking water is the most common way that Christians fast today.
2. A Partial Fast – Is a limitation in diet but not from all foods. Daniel and the other three Jewish men chose to eat only vegetables and water in Babylon (Dan 1:12).
3. An Absolute Fast – Is to abstain from both food and water. The fast that Ezra and Esther called for included abstaining from both food and drink. After Paul was converted on the road to Damascus the text tells us that he didn’t eat or drink for 3 days (Acts 9:9).
4. A Supernatural Fast – When Moses met with God on Mt. Sinai we read that he, “Stayed on the mountain forty days and nights, (he) ate no bread and drank no water (Deut 9:9).” Elijah did the same thing in 1 Kings 19 and oddly enough it happened on the same mountain. Both of these fasts are indications of God’s miraculous provision following a unique calling. IOW, don’t try this at home.
5. A Congregational Fast – in Joel 2:15 we read, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders…” We even see evidence of this in Acts 13 as the church in Antioch were gathered together, worshipping the Lord and fasting.
6. A National Fast – Involves leaders calling on the whole nation to seek the Lord’s blessing through fasting and praying together. In Nineveh the king called for the entire nation to fasting sackcloth and ashes and to repentance of their sin because the king had heard the preaching of Jonah that judgment from God was coming.
7. A Regular Fast – There was only one regularly prescribed fast for the Jews and it was on the day of Atonement. It was prescribed to help the Jews recognize and mourn over their sin while also thinking about God’s gift of forgiveness through sacrifice.
Today, many denominations follow a liturgical calendar that calls for fasting during the time of Lent, between Ash Wednesday and ends 3 days before Resurrection Sunday. Lent is forty days devoted to identifying with the temptation and suffering of Jesus Christ. This devotion focuses on self-denial, fasting and meditation on Jesus bearing the weight of sin on the cross.
8. An Occasional Fast – These occur when a specific need arises such as Esther’s need to come before the king. Jesus seems to be referring to this type of fast when he teaches that the day is coming when His disciples will fast after He leaves them and goes to be with the Father (Matt 9:15). The idea is that we fast to show our longing for Christ’s return.
9. A Private Fast – This is the type of fast that Jesus is talking about in Matthew 6:16-18 and these occur when someone chooses to fast over a private matter where they might be seeking to grow in some spiritual way or they may be seeking God’s guidance, God’s blessing, or God’s help over some deep need in their lives. It might be done to express grief or remorse over sin or some tragic life event. A Christian may choose to fast in preparation for an important decision or the beginning of some new phase of life/ministry. Or maybe there is a reason that I haven’t mentioned.
But in the end fasting always has a purpose and that purpose is to express one’s need for God, one’s hunger for God in a very focused way. There’s more to fasting than not eating food, just like there is more to prayer than just quoting what we learned as a child.
Without having a spiritual goal in mind our desire to fast will simply become a battle with our bellies. If you have ever tried to fast then you know it can be very challenging, but to fast without a purpose is a failure from the start. The goal of fasting is to replace one hunger for another, to abstain from one need in order to pray for a greater more pressing spiritual need.
Now, I know that this is a lot to take in, but I want us to have a fairly thorough picture in our minds of what the Bible has to say about the subject of fasting. Now, with that broader understanding, let’s turn our attention back to Matthew 6 and keep digging into this subject.
II. The Hypocritical Fasting of the Pharisees (V. 16)
Matthew 6:16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
Jesus only talks about fasting on two occasions. He speaks about it here to warn us against making it some public spectacle aimed at getting attention. Then He spoke about it later saying that the time would come when it would be appropriate for His disciples to fast. But let’s talk about what is going on here in this text.
Once again Jesus is teaching us to avoid a hypocritical way of fasting that is aimed not at helping someone grow closer to God but aimed at putting on a show for the people. These folks are aiming to call attention to themselves by intentionally disfiguring their faces so they would stand out and be seen. The phrase is strange, but it is almost as if these folks are putting on make-up so that they will look like they are in pain, or sick. These folks are going out of their way to stand out and be seen.
John MacArthur points out that the Pharisees were known to fast twice a week, on Monday and Thursday.
“They claimed that these days were chosen because they were the days Moses made the two separate trips to receive the tablets of law from God on Mt. Sinai. But those two days also happened to be major Jewish market days, when cities and towns were crowded with farmers, merchants and shoppers.”
IOW, they fasted on the days when they would have the largest audience. They were trying to appear righteous but acting righteous is not the same as being righteous. So, Jesus tells us to beware! Beware of behaving like you are part of His Kingdom while your heart is fixed on the idolatry of self, because the treasure room of idolatry and hypocrisy is empty.
Can we be honest, hypocrisy is an exhausting game and there is no reward at the end. To go through all the effort to convince people of something that isn’t true is a terrible way to live. You have to ask, why? Why would someone work so hard to make people think they truly loved God when in reality they just love themselves and they want to be the star of their own show. Remember that the term hypocrite has its roots in the Greek Theater and basically means “actor.”
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Hollywood isn’t filled with happy and satisfied people. The glitz and glamour of that world gives the appearance that everyone is equal, happy, wealthy and truly fulfilled in life. But if we’ve learned anything about Hollywood over the last several months, it’s that the show doesn’t stop when the cameras stop rolling. The beauty and fame are nothing more than whitewash hiding a soul that is vicious, corrupt and wicked.
The problem with false religion is that at its core it is nothing more than pride. It is the idolatry of self and true fasting isn’t about exalting our idols, it’s about assassinating them. The hypocrite gets it all wrong and it still left empty and broken when it’s over.
III. What Fasting is really about (V. 17-18)
17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
This seems backwards but it’s not. Instead of hiding the fact that we aren’t faithful, like the hypocrite, Jesus wants us to downplay the fact that we are. He tells us that when we fast we need to clean ourselves up a bit. Wash your face, comb your hair. Why? Because your appearance has nothing to do with the real goal. Fasting is not about looking more spiritual, it’s about pursuing God in the heart.
Fasting isn’t really about food either, it’s about God. It’s not about getting less of something, it’s about getting more of Him. Fasting is not about showing how good you are at self-denial, it’s about recognizing how much the world, the flesh and the devil get in the way of our hunger for God.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Fasting is not about our performance, it is not about our self-denial, it is not about being seen; fasting is about replacing one hunger with another.
We don’t live in a world where a hunger for God is encouraged. Let’s face it, we don’t live in a world where hunger of any kind is encouraged. When we are hungry we eat. When we want something, we go and get it. When we are tired we take a day off. When we are stressed we buy something, or eat, or binge watch on Netflix. When we have a hunger for something, our culture is ready to serve up 10 things that say they can make it all go away. But they can’t.
The things of this world can’t satisfy us, they can’t make our pain go away, they can’t make our stress disappear. They can only mask our brokenness. But fasting for God is an expression of our deep need of Him, not stuff. It is an acknowledgment that we need God, that we want more of Him, more of His grace, more of His presence, more of His blessing. It is a physical exclamation point to the spiritual cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
John Piper writes,
The heart of fasting is longing. We are putting our stomach where our heart is to give added intensity and expressiveness to our ache for Jesus. We fast to express our longing or our ache for all the implications of Jesus’s power in the present moment that isn’t completely realized. We want to see people healed. We want to see people saved. We want to see marriages redeemed. We ache, and we long for this to happen; therefore, we ask Jesus to come by putting this exclamation point of longing at the end of our desires.
The problem with hypocritical fasting is two-fold. First, it seeks the wrong reward, namely the esteem of other people rather than the blessing of God. Second, it masks one love for attention under the pretense that they truly love God.
But the type of fasting that Jesus calls us to is to seek God. He calls us to go about our day as normally as any other so that our focus will not be on men, on food, or on ourselves; but will be fixed on God, whom we need more than anything. And Jesus’ promise is that the God we seek through our private fasting is the God who will reward us.
Ultimately the reward of fasting is that we get God. When we turn from the temporary satisfaction of food and we seek the full and overwhelming satisfaction of God, we will have our reward.
IV. Practical steps to your first fast and some Gospel implications.
1. Start small – start with one meal, or two meals.
2. Have a plan – what is the spiritual purpose that you are seeking? Time with God, prayer for others, a specific need…fasting without a purpose is just going hungry.
3. Consider how it will affect others – tell your spouse of your plans, or your parents if you still live at home. Talk it through with people you respect and trust.
4. Go through with it – pick a date, set things up and take the step. Consider joining the elders who fast and pray on the first Monday of each month. Fast that morning, that afternoon or that evening and join us in praying for the church, for our ministry, for the needs within the body, for God to grow us in unity, faithfulness and love.
Now let’s think of some gospel implications.
Why is it so tempting to wear our spiritual accomplishments on our sleeve? Because deep down each of us knows the sober truth that we aren’t’ what we should be. But we desperately want others to think we are. We think that putting on a mask will make things OK, but the problem is that our audience can’t fix us.
But the gospel drags our hearts into the light of Christ, where He not only exposes our sin, but puts us back together. The gospel teaches us that fasting is not about incentive-based performance; but about the posture of our hearts toward God. A posture that knows we can’t make it on our own, a posture that knows if we have Christ then we have all we need.
1 Pet 1:8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory…
Fasting is not ultimately about self-denial, it’s about much more than that. It’s about weaning ourselves off the counterfeit and temporary pleasures of the world to find true and lasting joy in our relationship to God through Jesus Christ.
Does fasting have a place in our lives? Can we abstain from basic needs for the sake of our growth in Christ? Yes, but it will be a challenge especially in the suburbs. Self- denial has very little place in the suburbs. Have you scrolled through social media lately? How many posts have you seen where people are complaining about petty problems? How many people complain about the drive-through taking too long, or the barista messing up their order?
We are drenched in a culture of petty irritations and in this culture of imaginary problems the gospel seems foolish. For the cross, is the ultimate symbol of fasting. It is the ultimate symbol of giving up what feels good in order to gain something glorious. On the cross, Jesus said no to the hunger of His flesh in order to pay the price for our salvation.
On the cross, Jesus denied the allure of comfort. He rejected the empty promise that everything is OK. He refused the false hope of easy solutions. He endured the pain and shame of the cross for the reward that the Father set before Him. Because of what Christ has done you and I can have the forgiveness of sins, peace with God and eternal life in Christ.