WHEN YOU FAST
Matthew 6:16-18 NET
16 “When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. 17 When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.
Last month, when Penny and I began our focus on the commands of Christ in Matthew 6, I explained what Jesus meant by his instruction to “be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people” (6:1). These displays of righteousness were habits that the religious experts of Christ’s day practiced. They considered these three habits marks of healthy relationships. We have already looked at two of those habits.
The first habit was introduced in 6:2 with the words “whenever you do charitable giving.” Giving to the needy was considered a mark of spiritual maturity, and it helped maintain a healthy relationship with others. If God blessed a person, that person was expected to pass on the blessing to those who needed it.
The second habit was introduced in 6:5 with the words “whenever you pray.” Praying to God was a mark of spiritual maturity and it helped maintain a healthy relationship with God.
Today, I want to talk about the third habit of highly successful religious professionals. That was the habit of fasting.
Fasting is a means of displaying righteousness (6:16).
Jesus says “when you fast.” He did not say “if you fast.” Jesus endorsed every one of these signs of spiritual maturity. He expected that his apostles would be doing a lot of giving, a lot of praying, and a lot of fasting. Like giving and praying, fasting is a legitimate way of showing that you have a commitment to God and you discipline yourself because of that commitment.
The Old Testament prescribed fasting on Yom Kippur – the day of atonement.
“This is to be a perpetual statute for you. In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you must humble yourselves and do no work of any kind, both the native citizen and the foreigner who resides in your midst, for on this day atonement is to be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins; you must be clean before the LORD. It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you must humble yourselves. It is a perpetual statute” (Leviticus 16:29-31).
The actual commands were for the Israelites to humble themselves, to remain ritually clean, and to cease all work on that day. Regularly fasting that one day of the year became a way to set that day apart so that God’s people could celebrate what he was doing for them by atoning for their sins.
This is not the fasting that Jesus was talking about in Matthew 6. The fasting on the day of atonement was a national fast. Jesus was talking about a personal voluntary fast.
Jesus himself voluntarily fasted, and we read about that earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 4. There, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights, endured temptation from the devil, and overcame that temptation. He emerged ready to do the ministry that God had called him to do.
We learn something about the voluntary fast from that incident. We learn that fasting can be a way to prepare yourself spiritually for something that the LORD is calling you to do.
When you face a decision that you have to make, and you want to make sure that you are making your choice based on God’s will, not just your own inclination, fasting can help you do that.
If you are facing a challenge, and you want strength from the Lord to help you overcome that challenge or endure a time of difficulty, fasting can help you do that. Sometimes people fast over some personal problem or social tragedy or injustice. You might feel that just praying about your concern is not enough – you want to do more. So, the Lord might be inviting you for an extended time of prayer and fasting. If a sin you are being tempted to commit, a loved one’s illness, COVID-19, racial injustice, or the war in Ukraine is on your mind a lot, maybe you should consider praying and fasting about it.
Fasting can be abused (16).
We need to keep in mind that Jesus brought up all three of these habits of displaying righteousness because all three of them had been hijacked by the hypocrites. Jesus told his apostles not to “look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting.”
Just as giving and praying could be ruined by doing it with the wrong motive, the same thing is true of fasting. If you fast just so people can see you fast, that is the only result you’re going to get from your fast.
The question of fasting comes up one other time in Matthew’s Gospel. That is when the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask him why he and his disciples were not publicly fasting the way they were. They asked: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t fast?” (Matthew 9:14).
Jesus responded: “The wedding guests cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).
You see, Jesus was a publicly recognizable figure. Since his apostles were his entourage, everything they did had to fit the mission of their master. Jesus said it was like they were the wedding guests, and he was the bridegroom. While the wedding ceremony is going on, you don’t fast.
But Jesus also implied that something was going to happen to change the situation, and when that something happened, the apostles would have times of voluntary fasting, just like John’s disciples. The bridegroom was taken away.
Fasting can be done right (17-18).
Jesus told his apostles “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” When fasting is done right, nobody knows about the fast except the faster and the Father. It’s not to display your devotion before others. It’s to spend time with the one you are devoted to.
Now, it’s not always going to be possible for everyone not to know. If you are married, your spouse will know. Your children might need to know why you are not coming to the table. But the best rule is to keep the information as limited as possible.
There is also a danger that we can presume too much because we are fasting. We can get really discouraged if we have expectations that fasting is going to change us into super-saints, and fix all our problems.
Isaiah faced this with his people. They asked God “Why don’t you notice when we fast? Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?” (Isaiah 58:3). But Isaiah reminded them that they were not just fasting. They were also arguing, brawling, fist fighting, mistreating each other, failing to take care of the homeless, ignoring the oppressed, and failing to give to the needy. God is not going to be impressed if I’m doing that. It doesn’t matter how many meals I skip.
God wants to know that you love him – enough to spend quality time alone with him in prayer. God wants to know that you love your neighbor – enough to give to those in need. God also wants to know that you love yourself – enough to every now and then stop paying attention to your ordinary needs and focus on the things that can only come from God.
God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and told his people: “Is this really the kind of fasting I want? Do I want a day when people merely humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the LORD? No, this is the kind of fast I want. I want you to remove the sinful chains, to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke, to set free the oppressed, and to break every burdensome yoke. I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behavior will go before you, and the LORD’s splendor will be your rear guard. Then you will call out, and the LORD will respond; you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’ (Isaiah 58:5-9).
If you live like the devil, fasting is worthless. But if you live like God wants you to, when you fast, He’s going to show up. When God shows up, miracles happen.
— NOTES —
the Law and fasting
“The third “act of righteousness” of which Jesus speaks is fasting. The Law of Moses seems to have required at the most only one day of fasting per year. (Leviticus 16:29 in the NIV speaks of denying oneself on the Day of Atonement, which is assumed to be a reference to fasting.) The Pharisees, on the other hand, fasted twice a week and boasted about it. They loved to demonstrate how grievously they were suffering when they fasted, and their performances impressed many people. But they did not impress God at all” (Albrecht, 94).
“The Law of Moses seems to have required fasting at the most only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Voluntary fasting on other days might be practiced as a expression of grief or of sorrow over sin” (Albrecht, 135).
New Testament and fasting
“New Testament believers are not required to fast at all. If, however, you want to fast, Jesus says, if you feel that fasting will help you to keep your sinful flesh under control and to concentrate your attention on spiritual matters, by all means fast. But don’t even mention it to anybody” (Albrecht, 94-95).
“Early documents give evidence that the church practiced fasting as a regular discipline quite as assiduously as the members of the Jewish community” (Beare, 230).
motives for fasting
“The communal fasts such as are prescribed for the Day of Atonement (in the Priestly Code, Lev.16: 29-31, etc.) are not envisaged, but only private fasts such as might be undertaken by individuals as an expression of grief, or of penitence, or of preparation for. communion with God (Neh.1:4; Dan.9:3; 10:2f., etc.). Here it is indicated that individuals might undertake a fast as a work of merit, hoping that God will reward them for their piety. The ‘hypocrites’ no doubt entertained such hopes, but they’ also wanted to win the admiration of their neighbors. They, therefore, show obvious outward signs of their fasting; they look gloomy, and even ‘cause their faces to disappear’ (that is the literal meaning of ἀφανίζουσιν yap τὰ πρόσωπα αὐτῶν), perhaps by smearing them with ashes? Whatever they hope from God, their primary desire is to win a reputation for exceptional piety. This is all the reward they will ever get; they are paid off in full by the gain in social prestige” (Beare, 179).
“Matthew says that, in addition to almsgiving and praying (see 6:2-6), Jesus spoke about fasting as another way of reminding ourselves how our relationship with God works. As with every other action, we’re tempted to make the act of fasting about ourselves — “You’re fasting? You’re so conscientious!” [v.l6]. Instead, says Jesus, let fasting help you allow God into your life; let it remind you who knows your need for nourishment better than you [vv. 17-18]” (McCarren, 28).
“As with almsgiving and prayer (w. 1-6), Christians who fast are not to call attention to their pious practice. The verb aphanizo, “neglect their appearance,” literally means “disfigure” or “render unrecognizable.” It may refer to covering one’s head with a cloth (Jer 14:4) or with ashes (1 Macc 3:47), or neglecting to wash (v. 17). The point is that adulation is its own reward, and no further benefit will accrue to one who is ostentatious in fasting” (Reid, 45).
Isaiah 58: The Lord Desires Genuine Devotion
1 “Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet! Yell as loud as a trumpet! Confront my people with their rebellious deeds; confront Jacob’s family with their sin!
2 They seek me day after day; they want to know my requirements, like a nation that does what is right and does not reject the law of their God. They ask me for just decrees; they want to be near God.
3 They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast? Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’ Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires, you oppress your workers.
4 Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls, and fistfights. Do not fast as you do today, trying to make your voice heard in heaven.
5 Is this really the kind of fasting I want? Do I want a day when people merely humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the LORD?
6 No, this is the kind of fast I want. I want you to remove the sinful chains, to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke, to set free the oppressed, and to break every burdensome yoke.
7 I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behavior will go before you, and the LORD’s splendor will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call out, and the LORD will respond; you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’ You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.
10 You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed. Then your light will dispel the darkness, and your darkness will be transformed into noonday.
11 The LORD will continually lead you; he will feed you even in parched regions. He will give you renewed strength, and you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring that continually produces water.
12 Your perpetual ruins will be rebuilt; you will reestablish the ancient foundations. You will be called, ‘The one who repairs broken walls, the one who makes the streets inhabitable again.’
13 You must observe the Sabbath rather than doing anything you please on my holy day. You must look forward to the Sabbath and treat the LORD’s holy day with respect. You must treat it with respect by refraining from your normal activities, and by refraining from your selfish pursuits and from making business deals.
14 Then you will find joy in your relationship to the LORD, and I will give you great prosperity, and cause crops to grow on the land I gave to your ancestor Jacob.” Know for certain that the LORD has spoken.
“See Isa 58, in which the prophet declares that God does not delight in sackcloth and ashes but in the fast which looses the bonds of wickedness, frees the oppressed, brings bread to the hungry, shelters the poor, and covers the naked. What counts is not external show but humility; a person’s attention should be directed towards others in order to help them, not in order to learn what good things others think about him” (Davies, 617).
The Temptation of Jesus
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
2 After he fasted forty days and forty nights he was famished.
3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”
4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city, had him stand on the highest point of the temple,
6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will lift you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”
7 Jesus said to him, “Once again it is written: ‘You are not to put the LORD your God to the test.'”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur.
9 And he said to him, “I will give you all these things if you throw yourself to the ground and worship me.”
10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You are to worship the LORD your God and serve only him.'”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and began ministering to his needs.
14 Then John’s disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t fast?”
15 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast.
“Matthew … could be telling the early Church why they should practice fasting” (Anderson, 33).
“There is some discrepancy between 5.4 and 9.15. In this last Jesus declares that the wedding guests (=his disciples) cannot mourn (diff. Mark, who has ‘fast’) as long as the bridegroom (= Jesus) is with them. So the text of Matthew both addresses the disciples as those who mourn (5.4) and at the same time excuses them for not mourning while Jesus is with them. The seeming contradiction, however, is only one aspect of the tension created by the fact that the kingdom of God is both present and coming in the gospel tradition (see on 4.17). And while in 5.4 the weight comes down on the future coming of the kingdom, in 9.15 the presence of the kingdom is being proclaimed” (Davies, 448).
Albrecht, G J, and Michael J. Albrecht. Matthew. Milwaukee, Wis: Northwestern Pub. House, 1996
Anderson, William A. Gospel of Matthew. Place of publication not identified: Liguori Pubns, 1999.
Beare, Francis W. The Gospel According to Matthew: Translation, Introduction, and Commentary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982
Davies, W D, and Dale C. Allison. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Volume I. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988.
Fogarty, Philip. Matthew. Dublin: Columba Press, 2010.
McCarren, Paul J. A Simple Guide to Matthew. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.
Reid, Barbara E. The Gospel According to Matthew. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2005.