Pastor David B. Curtis


"When" You Fast

Matthew 6:16-18

Delivered 02/09/2003

In Matthew 6, Jesus focuses attention on a very basic matter - worship. In this section he contrasts true worship with hypocrisy.

Matthew 6:1 (NASB) "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.

This is a general statement about practicing righteousness. In the following verses, Jesus develops that concept in three areas which were crucial to the Jews in their plan of worship. The first area of practicing righteousness, which we have already looked at, is the matter of alms - giving and performing acts of mercy; a subject Jesus discussed in verses 2 through 4. Then, for seven weeks, we looked at the subject of prayer, addressed in verses 5 through 15. Now in verses 16 through 18, we will look at the subject of fasting. Practicing righteousness in this passage refers primarily to worship in the matter of giving, prayers, and fasting.

Jesus begins this section with a word of warning:

Matthew 6:1 (NKJV) "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

The warning of Matthew 6:1 is not intended to keep you from practicing your righteousness before men. In fact, you are commanded in Matthew 5:16 to do that. But the warning of Matthew 6:1 is that you are not to be practicing your righteousness before men "to be seen by them". "To be seen by them" has a construction in the Greek concerning purpose or design. You are not to do your righteous acts for the purpose of being seen by men so you will look good.

The crucial matter is the motivation for practicing your righteousness. That, in fact, is the subject of the entire section: Why are you doing this righteous deed before men? If your motivation is for them to see your work and honor you, you will have no reward from God. But if you are doing the righteous deed before men because you want them to see the character of God and glorify Him, then you will be rewarded by God. The phrase "to be seen by them" becomes the issue in each of these areas.

In the last several studies, we were warned about the potential for hypocrisy in the areas of giving and praying. In each of these areas, Jesus compared what should be done with what should not be done. The hypocrites of His day were pretending to be worshipers of God when they were really only trying to please men. Jesus warned His followers not to be like the hypocrites. The very things that we do to worship God - giving, prayer, fasting - can turn out to be nothing but hypocrisy if our attitude is not right. If it is not done for God's glory and His glory alone, it is not worship, it is hypocrisy.

Matthew 6:16-18 (NKJV) "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.

This was our Lord's first word on the subject of fasting, and like His first on prayer it consists in a warning against hypocrisy in this worship.

We don't hear much about fasting these days, I have never heard a message on it, and there certainly are not many books about it. I think that is because we are living in a society that ranks "eating" as the number one passion. We have been programmed to eat at set times. There may be no hunger involved, we eat out of habit, "because it's there". As a general rule, Americans eat too much and too fast. 80% of Americans are over-weight. Many are very dependent upon food - not just for survival; for dealing with anxiety, depression, boredom, and many other emotional disturbances. Rather than eating to live, many live to eat. With this all in mind, we can understand why fasting can be an unpopular subject.

So then, what purpose does fasting have? How we answer this is absolutely important, because of its potential pitfalls. Our tendency with any spiritual discipline such as fasting is to drift either to legalism on one side or extreme asceticism on the other side.

There are those who feel that fasting needs to be bound upon all Christians as a matter of faith. They have made rules and reasons for fasting and try to control others in this exercise. Then there are those who consider fasting totally unnecessary, undesirable, and very inconvenient. In short, they feel as though they can ignore all that is said in Scripture concerning the practice of fasting. Wesley once said, "Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason, however, others have utterly disregarded it." Of course, we should avoid either extreme. It is imperative that our view of fasting be Biblical. Even though this subject may be a touchy one or one that we are comfortable in ignoring, I think that we do need to take a new look at the spiritual discipline of fasting.

If asked what the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life were, how would you answer? Let me put it this way, what is it that you as a Christian need in your life in order that you might live a healthy and growing Christian life? What are the essential practices for a vibrant spiritual life? I think that most Christians would say they are: Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and witnessing. But prior to this morning, how many of you would consider fasting a Christian discipline?

I don't think that many Christians view fasting as a spiritual discipline. But I think maybe we should! There are more teachings on fasting in the New Testament than on repentance and confession. Jesus taught more on fasting than on baptism and the observance of the Lord's supper. Because the Bible has so much to say on the subject, it is only right that we seek to understand Biblical fasting.

Matthew 6:16 (NKJV) "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.

This verse seems to indicate that fasting is as much a part of the Christian life as giving and praying (the context of these verses). Jesus says, "when you fast." Not "if." He seems to take it for granted that His disciples will fast--as much so as He assumes by His "When you do a charitable deed", and "When you pray", that they would be men of giving and prayer.

Is He then commanding us to fast? I really don't think so. I think Jesus was teaching a group of people who commonly practiced fasting. The Pharisees and many Jews had as part of their week, a fast. So, although Jesus said, "When you fast," He does not say, "You must." Jesus never commanded fasting. He did not say, "You shall fast." But He did expect that members of the Kingdom of God would practice fasting. Should we as Christians fast? I think so!

I believe that many of us here share a deep desire to be more intimate, more devoted to God. But something gets in the way of that devotion. The desire we all have to walk in close fellowship with God is shared with a desire for the things of this world. The weakness of our hunger for God is not because He is unsavory, as John Piper puts it, but because we keep ourselves stuffed with other things. In other words, we are so full on food & entertainment, that we have no appetite left for God.

Is there something wrong with food or moral entertainment? Of course not, but because these things are not bad, we often don't realize that they can be to blame for our lack of hunger. We devote so much of our time to computers, investing, TV, surfing the web, work, shopping, exercising, talking on the phone, home repair, and even our Christian work; all of which are fine, but taken together, can leave us so inebriated that we have nothing left for God.

Fasting is that discipline which tries to recapture our hunger for God. It says to God, I am willing to forgo anything in order to be in your presence. Fasting provides an atmosphere whereby we are prepared to face up to the dulling effects of food and all those things which we continually nibble on. If I told you that I had hidden 10 million dollars in your house, and that you could keep every cent if you found it, what would you do? Would you go home this afternoon and watch television or take a nap? I doubt it. I bet you would skip CSI and American Idol, and just about every other activity and would take your house apart searching for the money. Fasting expresses that passion to know Him more. Some time after Moses watched the Lord part the Red Sea, he said to the Lord, "Show me your glory". Now Moses saw the glory of the Lord when the Lord closed the waters, delivering them from the Egyptian armies! But for Moses, the only glory that He really wanted was to rest in the presence of God. It is with that heart, one that longs to be in the presence of God, that we need to consider the Biblical discipline of fasting.

Richard Foster says, "More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us." Thus, it helps us to uncover what is really inside. For example, if you are one who eats in order to feel better, to forget, then the absence of food will make that clear. It can reveal to us just how much pain, pride, or anger is inside of us. If we had a terrible morning, the one thing that might get us by was knowing that we were going out to lunch. But, all of a sudden you realize that you are fasting. You are forced to consider another way of dealing with your feelings. Piper writes of fasting, "Humbly and quietly, with scarcely a movement, she brings up out of the dark places of my soul the dissatisfactions in relationships, the frustrations of the ministry, the fears of failure, the emptiness of wasted time. And just when my heart begins to retreat to the delicious hope of eating supper at Pizza Hut, she quietly reminds me: not tonight." Our fasting proves the presence and fans the flame of our hunger for God, and through it, God wants to awaken us to the reality of His presence.

What Is Fasting?

"Moreover, when you fast" - the Greek word for fast is nesteuo, which means: "to abstain from food". The Hebrew word for fast is tsowm, which means: "to cover over (the mouth), i.e. to fast" Throughout Scripture, fasting is referred to as the abstaining of food for spiritual purposes. Fasting, as discussed in Scripture, has nothing to do with diet. Some people write books for Christians and talk about the merits of fasting. Fasting may have its merits for physical or health reasons, but that has nothing to do with what Jesus is talking about. He is talking about fasting related to spiritual matters. Biblical fasting always centers on spiritual purposes. In Scripture, the normal means of fasting involves abstaining from all food, solid or liquid, but not from water. Luke 4:2 describes for us Jesus' fast of forty days. We are told, "He ate nothing," and at the end of the fast, "He was hungry." From a physical standpoint, this is the manner in which Scripture describes fasting. There are other fasts described in Scripture, such as the partial fast in Daniel:

Daniel 10:3 (NKJV) I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.

And the absolute fast in:

Esther 4:16 (NKJV) "Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!"

So, fasting is not eating for a period of time. It could be skipping a meal or not eating for forty days.

What Is The Purpose of Fasting?

The only fast that was commanded under the Law of Moses was on the day of Atonement:

Leviticus 16:29-31 (NKJV) "This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. 30 "For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. 31 "It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever.

Even though the word "fast" is not used in this passage, we see from other passages that "afflict your souls" is a reference to fasting:

Ezra 8:21 (NKJV) Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions.

The word "humble" here is the same Hebrew word as "afflict" in Leviticus 16:29. It is the word 'anah. The Hebrew word has the idea of: "to humble". We see from Isaiah that through fasting we "afflict our soul" or humble ourselves:

Isaiah 58:5 (NKJV) Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the LORD?

So, we "afflict the soul" or humble our self before God by fasting. Fasting is an expression of humility before God!. Notice what David said:

Psalms 35:13 (NKJV) But as for me, when they were sick, My clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting; And my prayer would return to my own heart.

It was through fasting that David humbled himself.

Joel 2:12 (NKJV) "Now, therefore," says the LORD, "Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning."

"Turning to God" is an act of humility - they were to do this with fasting. Fasting is also described as crying out to God in:

Jeremiah 14:12 (NKJV) "When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence."

So, fasting is turning to God, crying out to God, an act of humbling our self before God. These all express dependence and humility.

How many of you want to experience God's grace to the fullest? God has promised to give grace to the humble:

James 4:6 (NKJV) But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: "God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble."

We all struggle with pride, but it seems to me that we can humble ourselves before the Lord with fasting.

Fasting helps us to focus in prayer. Fasting and prayer are almost always linked together in the Scriptures, or it would be more correct to say, "Prayer and fasting", (Matthew 17:21; Acts 13:3 and 14:23) which indicates that the latter is designed as an aid to the former.

Fasting, either total or partial, seems to have been connected with seasons of peculiarly sincere devotion in all ages. Notice how the people responded when Jonah preached to Nineveh:

Jonah 3:5-9 (NKJV) So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. 6 Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. 7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?

This city wide fast was designed to express their deep humiliation before God and was an appendage unto their crying "mightily" to Him. It was not a duty performed in response to any express commandment from the Lord, but was entered into voluntarily and spontaneously.

In circumstances of grave danger, the kings and prophets of Israel called on the people to engage in fasting as well as prayer. When thousands in Israel fell in battle before the Benjamites, Judges records:

Judges 20:26 (NKJV) Then all the children of Israel, that is, all the people, went up and came to the house of God and wept. They sat there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening; and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.

When the Moabites, Ammonites, and others combined against Jehoshaphat in battle, we are told that he:

2 Chronicles 20:3-4 (NKJV) And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. 4 So Judah gathered together to ask help from the LORD; and from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD.

In a time of national calamity, Joel cried:

Joel 1:14 (NKJV) Consecrate a fast, Call a sacred assembly; Gather the elders And all the inhabitants of the land Into the house of the LORD your God, And cry out to the LORD.

In addition to these examples of public fasting, Scripture also mentions that of many individuals. When his child by the wife of Uriah was sick, we are told that:

2 Samuel 12:16 (NKJV) David therefore pleaded with God for the child, and David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground.

When Nehemiah was informed that the remnant of his people left of the captivity in the provinces were "in great affliction and reproach", and the wall of Jerusalem was broken down and its gates burned with fire, he:

Nehemiah 1:4 (NKJV) So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

When Daniel desired the deliverance of the children of Israel from their captivity in Babylon he:

Daniel 9:3 (NKJV) Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.

Now just in case you're thinking that fasting in the Scriptures was confined to the Old Covenant, think again. When the church at Antioch sought God's special blessing upon the success of His servants in the Gospel, they:

Acts 13:3 (NKJV) Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.

When Paul and Silas were about to establish local churches, they "prayed with fasting":

Acts 14:23 (NKJV) So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

This prayer and fasting was connected with the serious task of appointing Elders to the Church. Paul also talks to the Saints at Corinth about fasting:

1 Corinthians 7:5 (NKJV) Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

As we look at these passages, we see that this was done in every Church, not just the "Jewish" congregations. Fasting is a Christian act, not just a carry over from Jewish law.

So, why fast? It is a means of humbling ourselves before God. It helps us to focus our prayers. It is a way of saying, from time to time, that having more of the Giver surpasses having the gifts. In other words, we express to God, "Food is good, your many gifts are good, but you are better!" It helps restore our focus from ourselves and the good things God places in our lives, to the giver of those good things, ensuring that God remains preeminent above everything. This kind of God-centered fasting tenderizes our hearts, helping us to find our contentment in Him rather than the gifts He gives.

Let's consider for a moment what fasting doesn't do:

1. Fasting does not inspire or provoke God to love you. Again, it does not, in any way cause Him to love you in a greater way. God loved us before we ever knew Him.

1 John 4:19 (NKJV) We love Him because He first loved us.

2. Fasting doesn't make us holy. God has already made us holy and blameless through Christ's finished work on the Cross. We don't fast to get more of God but that we would experience, in a more profound way, the reality of God's presence in our lives.

3. We don't fast so that God would forgive us, but because He has already forgiven us!

Colossians 2:13 (NKJV) And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,

4. Fasting is not a substitute for obedience. Some people fast as penance, as though their fasting will somehow balance out their disobedience. Sometimes, when a believer isn't walking closely with the Lord, when the inward reality of their faith has begun to fade, they will retreat to the outward forms of the faith such as fasting. I suppose this makes sense; there is nothing on the inside, so they attempt to adorn their outside with religious garb. It doesn't work. The bottom-line in all of this is that whenever we embrace a spiritual discipline in order to get God to love, forgive us, or make us holy. we have gotten ourselves into legalism.

When we embrace spiritual disciplines because of the revelation that He loves us as fallen and sinful people, and that He loves us in our weakness because of Jesus Christ, that gratitude awakens in us a passion to be wholly the Lord's in every area of our lives. And when we choose to express that gratitude and humility through fasting, God chooses to reward us.

Psalms 81:10 (NKJV) I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt; Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.

Fasting is our expression of an open mouth that says to God, "We want more of you!" I want to be utterly devoted to you, my Lord. No other gods, no other love.

Matthew 6:17 (NKJV) "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,

This statement is not to be taken absolutely and literally, but relatively and figuratively. These words of Christ must be understood in the light of their setting, their scope being quite apparent from the context. In oriental countries, where the air is hot and dry, it is the common custom to anoint the head and face with oil and ointments. The idea here is that when you fast, don't draw attention to it. Don't walk around like you're about to pass out, hoping someone will ask you, "What's wrong?" So you can say, "Oh, I'm fasting. Aren't I spiritual?

Believer, do you understand that God rewards fasting?

Matthew 6:18 (NKJV) "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.

I love that. Our Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward us when we fast! But the passage says more than the fact that He will reward our fasting, it explains the kind of fasting He rewards. Indeed, God rewards those who keep their gaze focused upon Him as they fast, rather than on the praise of men. As He sees our heart affectionately turned toward Him, seeing that we are not out to impress others with our spiritual discipline, but in humility, expressing our needs and longings to Him, then we can be sure that He will reward us.

What is the reward? It could be a deepened realization of God's presence in our lives. Over and over again Scripture reminds us of God's promises to meet with or draw near to those who stop depending on themselves and seek God as their treasure.

Like prayer, when we fast, we are looking away from ourselves to Christ as our only true help, our only hope. Both fasting and prayer cry out, "Father, I am empty, but you are full; I am hungry, but you are the Bread of Life; I am thirsty, but you are the fountain of Life; I am broken, but you are the Healer." We fast because we know in our heart that nothing on earth can satisfy our deepest longings beside God, that no one else can minister to our sick friend like God, that no one else can heal our land like our God, that no one can free us from the bondage of sin like our God.

Let's look for a moment at some of the potential dangers of fasting. We have already mentioned legalism. So let me turn to what might be the most harmful and most common danger of fasting; that is, Spiritual Pride. Fasting is used in most cultures for religious, health, and even political reasons. For example, Muslims around the world celebrate Ramadan, where they fast from sunup to sundown. But if you ask them why they are fasting, they really don't know why. In fact, throughout the month, the big question is, "Are you fasting?" There is a great desire to look spiritual during this time. This kind of spiritual pride can creep up in Christian fasting as well. Jesus says:

Matthew 6:16 (NKJV) "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.

If a group of believers at church decide to fast for a time, it is not difficult for us to fast also in order to look spiritual. Who has not felt how rewarding it is to be admired for our discipline or our zeal or our devotion? This is a great reward among men. Few things feel more gratifying to the heart of us fallen people than being made much of for our accomplishments - especially our religious accomplishments. The danger of this kind of hypocrisy is that it is so successful. People will see you and be impressed. The aim of receiving the praise of men will likely come about, but that is all you will get!

Now, if you are fasting and someone finds out, you haven't sinned. The value of your fast is not destroyed if someone notices that you have skipped lunch. Many years ago, when I was a youth pastor, I used to fast once a week. Each Thursday I would fast for 24 hours. During that time, I would work on memorizing Psalm 119. The church I was working for had just hired a new Music Pastor, and he moved in on a Thursday, I helped him move. Later we went to get something to eat. When I didn't get any food, he began to question me on why I wasn't eating. He finally said to me, "Are you fasting?" Should I have lied to him in order to keep my fast a secret? No, of course not! Being seen fasting, and fasting to be seen are not the same. Being seen fasting is a mere external event. Fasting TO BE SEEN is a self-exalting motive of the heart.

Certainly when Jesus fasted, His disciples who lived so closely with Him knew that He wasn't eating. The issue isn't whether you tell anyone or not but rather why you are telling them. The motive for giving, praying, and fasting is what matters, not whether the acts are public or private.

How Will You Fast?

If you agree with me that fasting is a spiritual discipline which humbles us before God, I would think that you would want to fast. What kind of a fast will you do? You must decide whether you will fast for a day, a meal, half a day, several days, a week, or more. I would recommend beginning with shorter fasts. Perhaps breakfast and lunch, or a 24-hour fast.

What type of fast will you undertake: Only water or will you include juice? A healthy person can easily handle going with only water for a season. As you consider fasting, take notice of all the reasons you are using to convince yourself you shouldn't. I am too busy, I need the energy from food to enable me to fulfill my responsibilities at work, I usually eat out with people at lunchtime - what will I tell them?

Consider how much time you will spend in prayer during your fast. Perhaps you can pray and worship through the times you would normally eat. Prayer must always be joined to your fasting. They always go together.

Consider how often you will fast. Because God is not so much interested in the outward form, but the inward change fasting produces, the effects of fasting are more significant if you embrace it as a practice in your walk with God. Perhaps once each month.

Well, that is it. We looked at the reasons for fasting, the dangers of fasting, and the rewards of fasting. Now it is your turn. Should you fast? I can't answer that for you. Though, my prayer is that you will embrace fasting as part of your walk with God. I really long to see us, as a body, grow in our hunger for God.

In the daily pace of modern society, it is easy to lose our focus on God. That's why, as Christians, it is critical that we fast from time to time to help bring us a truer sense of God's desire for our lives. Through fasting and prayer, our communication with the Lord moves to a dynamic and highly sensitive level.

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