Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Matthew 6:16-18
“The man who never fasts is no more in the way to heaven than the man who never prays.” So said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who refused to ordain anyone who did not fast at least twice a week. Lest you think this requirement too severe, consider the authoritative words of our King in Matthew 6:16-18. In these verses Jesus assumes that His disciples will be fasters. The same language is used for fasting as for giving and prayer, “when you . . .”. For the Christian fasting should be just as natural as giving and prayer. Maybe that’s the problem!
Matthew 9:14-15 Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.
Those days have now come! We are expected to fast.
The issue here (as with Jesus’ teaching on giving and prayer) is motivation. Why do you fast? For the praise of man or for the glory of God?
In our text today, Jesus contrasts the motivation of the hypocrite with that which He requires of His disciples. When the hypocrite fasted, he would walk around with a sad face. He wanted everyone to know how much he was suffering. Some people look like this all the time, but that’s not the point. These people were deliberately letting people know they were fasting. If someone would come up and ask them why they looked so sad, they would immediately and mournfully respond, “I’m fasting.”
The hypocrites would also “disfigure” their faces. The word translated “disfigure” literally means to cause to disappear. This is a reference to the practice in Jesus’ day of the “hypocrites” who covered their face in ashes in order to let everyone know they were fasting. They would do this so that as they would walk through the streets with their faces covered with ashes, people would say, “There goes a godly man.” When these hypocrites overheard such statements they were satisfied. They had gotten what they wanted. They had their reward!
By contrast Jesus says that His disciples should wash their face and anoint their heads with oil whenever they fasted. The point is to not advertise your fasting. If someone finds out, make sure that it is not because of the way you presented yourself. When you fast only before God the Father, He will reward you openly!
That’s the meaning of the text. It deals with our inward motivation when we do our religious duty of fasting. Jesus is emphasizing that it is not only important what we do, but also why we do what we do. When we give, we should give for God and not man. When we pray, we should pray for God and not man. When we fast, we should fast for God and not man.
Although we now understand the meaning of the text, since this topic is so infrequently preached and practiced I would like to spend some time this morning explaining.
First, what is fasting? Don Whitney in his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life has defined biblical fasting as “a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes” (152). It is fasting by a Christian, he says, because “fasting by a non-Christian obtains no eternal value because the discipline’s motive and purpose are to be God-centered.” It is voluntary because it is not to be coerced. And it must be for spiritual purposes.
We understand that fasting is about abstaining from food for a certain period. Many of you have fasted before a medical test or procedure. Each of us fast every night from bedtime till the time we rise. That’s why we call the first meal of each day “breakfast”, we’re breaking our overnight fast. But these fasts are not biblical or Christian fasts. Merely abstaining from food does not qualify as a Christian fast.
Believe me when I say that this is a difficult topic for me. Not only is our society set up to work against any form of self-denial, my own body and appetites are strongly opposed to this practice. I like to eat. I wake up wanting to eat and while I’m eating breakfast I’m thinking of what I’m going to have for lunch. My wife has summarized my approach to eating by saying that she eats to live, but I live to eat. That’s a good and accurate summary.
Let me add that there are some who cannot abstain from food for long periods of time for medical reasons (e.g. diabetics or those taking certain medications). This doesn’t mean that you’re exempt from the discipline of fasting. I gave you Don Whitney’s definition earlier, I also like Richard Foster’s who defined fasting as “the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.” In other words, there are other things of which you can deny yourself in order to pursue spiritual goals. Anything (not just food) that is part of your normal, everyday life can be laid aside temporarily or permanently for the purpose of pursuing godliness. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains in his classic commentary on the Sermon on the Mount,
To make the matter complete, we would add that fasting, if we conceive of it truly, must not only be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting. There, I suggest, is a kind of general definition of what is meant by fasting (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 314).
Don Whitney has listed the variety of fasts found in the Bible (153-154):
- A normal fast involves abstaining from all food, but not from water.
- A partial fast is a limitation of the diet but not abstention from all food.
- An absolute fast is the avoidance of all food and liquid, even water.
- The Bible also describes a supernatural fast that requires God’s supernatural intervention in the bodily processes.
- A private fast is what Jesus was speaking of in Matthew 6:16-18 when He says we should fast in a way not to be noticed by others.
- Congregational fasts are the type found in Joel 2:15-16 and Acts 13:2.
- The Bible also speaks of national fasts. See 2 Chronicles 20:3, Nehemiah 9:1, Esther 4:16, and Jonah 3:5-8.
- There was one regular fast that God commanded under the Old Covenant. Every Jew was to fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-31).
- Finally, the Bible mentions occasional fasts. These occur on special occasions as the need arises.
The Purpose of Fasting
As we’ve defined the term, “fasting” must be done for specific spiritual purposes. Again, Don Whitney has provided a great service to us by summarizing in ten categories the purposes of fasting in Scripture. The following is a summary of his summary (pages 156-170).
To strengthen prayer. There’s something about fasting that sharpen the edge of our intercessions and gives passion to our supplications. So it has frequently been used by the people of God when there is a special urgency about the concerns they lift before the Father. The Bible does not teach that fasting is a kind of spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding. If we ask for something outside of God’s will, fasting does not cause Him to reconsider. Fasting does not change God’s hearing so much as it changes our praying.
To seek God’s guidance. There is biblical precedent for fasting for the purpose of more clearly discerning the will of God. Fasting does not ensure the certainty of receiving clear guidance from God. Rightly practiced, however, it does make us more receptive to the One who loves to guide us.
To express grief. As mentioned in Judges 20:26, the Israelites wept and fasted to express grief for the forty thousand brothers they had lost in battle. Grief caused by events other than a death can also be expressed through fasting. Christians have fasted because of grief for their sins and as a means of expressing grief for sins of others.
To seek deliverance or protection. One of the most common fasts in biblical times was a fast to seek salvation from enemies or circumstances. Fasting, rather than fleshly efforts, should be one of our first defenses against persecution because of our faith.
To express repentance and the return to God. Fasting for this purpose is similar to fasting for the purpose of expressing grief for sin. But as repentance is a change of mind resulting in a change of action, fasting can represent more than just grief over sin. It can signal a commitment to obedience and a new direction.
To humble oneself before God. Fasting, when practiced with the right motives, is a physical expression of humility before God, just as kneeling or prostrating yourself in prayer can reflect humility before Him.
To express concern for the work of God. Just as a parent might fast and pray out of concern for the work of God in the life of a child, so Christians may fast and pray because they feel a burden for the work of God in a broader scope. A Christian might feel compelled to fast and pray for the work of God in a place that has experienced tragedy, disappointment, or apparent defeat.
To minister to the needs of others. Those who think the Spiritual Disciplines foster tendencies of introspection or independence should consider Isaiah 58:6-7. In the most extensive passage in Scripture dealing exclusively with fasting, God emphasizes fasting for the purpose of meeting the needs of others.
To overcome temptation and dedicate yourself to God. Ask Christians to name a fast by a biblical character and most will probably think first of the supernatural fast of Jesus prior to His temptation in Matthew 4:1-11. There are times we struggle with temptation, or we anticipate grappling with it, when we need extra strength to overcome it. Fasting for the purpose of overcoming the temptation and of renewing our dedication to God is a Christlike response.
To express love and worship to God. Fasting can be an expression of finding your greatest pleasure and enjoyment in life from God. That’s the case when disciplining yourself to fast means that you love God more than food, that seeking Him is more important to you than eating. This honors God and is a means of worshiping Him as God.
Our ultimate goal in fasting should be God Himself. John Piper has stated this well. He wrote of the reward of the Father in this morning’s text,
Seeking form God the reward of God’s all-satisfying supremacy puts all other desires to the test. Are they for God’s sake? This is the ultimate reason why Jesus called us to fast without wanting to be seen by others. Not just so that we could get worldly desires satisfied from God rather than men (and thus make God party to our spiritual adultery), but so that we would count God himself as our desire, and all else a subordinate spinoff of his enthralling glory.
And so we ask, as we fast and pray, Do we want to conquer bad habits and old enslavements, to remove every obstacle to the fullest enjoyment of God, so that people might see and give him glory? Do we want our prodigal sons and wayward daughters to come home because this would honor God’s name? Do we want our churches to grow because the hallowing of Christ’s name is at stake among unbelievers? Do we want China and North Korea and Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Lybia to open their doors to the gospel for the sake of the advance of the kingship of Jesus? . . .
This is what Jesus is calling us to – a radically God-oriented living and praying and fasting. So for the sake of your own soul, and in response to Jesus, and for the advancement of God’s supremacy in all things for the joy of all peoples, comb your hair, and wash your face, and let the Father who sees in secret observe how hungry you are for him with fasting. The Father who sees in secret is brimming with rewards for your joy and for his glory. (A Hunger for God, 79-80).
What spiritual desire do you have that will advance God’s glory that you can begin to fast for?
How will you fast? What will you give up in order to seek God’s face and show Him how much more you desire His glory than your satisfaction with whatever you’re giving up?
When will you fast? When will you start? Can you set aside a day or days now?
To not fast isn’t an option. Fasting is expected for a Christian. The only questions are why, how and when. May God grant that we will fast in such a way that at the end of the day we may say, “To God be the glory, great things He has done!”