Session #051 Fasting Frowns
Scripture Matthew 6:16-18
Summary In Matt 6:16-18, Jesus used fasting as the third illustration of how one is not to draw attention to himself where such acts of piety are concerned. This teaching examines the place of fasting in the lives of New Testament believers. Don’t miss the connection between the three examples that Jesus used, and the implications for those serious in knowing their kingdom assignments.
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. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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
In the passage above, Jesus speaks against flaunting our fasting to others. This set of verses makes up the final part in the wider passage of Matthew 6:1-18, where Jesus speaks against taking pride in and showing off our spiritual practices, or more specifically, our acts of righteousness. Since the practice of fasting remained in the New Testament, it is still relevant for Christians today, in its outward functions, and more importantly, in the appropriate attitudes behind it, which is the emphasis of Matthew 6:16-18.
The Outward Functions of Fasting
Across the Old Testament and New Testament, fasting, which is simply the abstinence from food, has been consistently practised in a variety of contexts and associated with different purposes.
Fasting is a means of justification, sanctification, and repentance. In the Old Testament, the Lord instituted the statute for Israel to practice the afflicting of one’s soul, which involved fasting and was to be done in conjunction with the priest making atonement for the people (Leviticus 16:29, 30). When the Lord spoke through the prophet Joel, he called Judah to repentance “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he referred to fasting as a means of sanctification when he advised married couples to abstain from sex occasionally to fast and pray to guard against temptation (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Fasting is a means of receiving revelation. Moses fasted on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights as he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). While the prophets and teachers in the Church of Antioch were fasting and ministering to the Lord, they received instruction from the Holy Spirit to separate Barnabas and Saul for God’s work (Acts 13:1-3).
Fasting is a means of intercession and ministry. When the LORD struck David’s child with an illness, he interceded for the child’s life by fasting and laying “all night on the ground” (2 Samuel 12:15, 16). When Jehoshaphat received news that “a great multitude” was coming against Judah, he proclaimed a fast throughout the kingdom for God’s intervention (2 Chronicles 20:1-3). When Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for the churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, they accompanied it with prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23).
Fasting is a means of identifying as a mature Christian, given how Paul defended his ministry by referring to his own fasting together with other afflictions like imprisonment and sleeplessness (2 Corinthians 6:5).
The Attitudes Behind Fasting
The ultimate focus of fasting should be on God and it can only be effective insofar as the attitudes behind it are aligned with that focus.
Fasting should ultimately be directed to God. For example, in the context of intercession, it is likely that the captives of Judah remained in captivity as long as they had partly because of their insincere fasting. When they sent word to the priests and prophets to question the necessity of weeping and fasting in the fifth month, the LORD responded rhetorically through Zechariah by asking if Judah had even fasted during those seventy years for the LORD, with a double emphasis on his words “for Me” (Zechariah 7:1-5).
Fasting should ultimately be about drawing near to God. When the disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus why his disciples were not fasting, he stated figuratively that there was no need to fast while he was with them physically, and vice versa, that his disciples would fast when he was no longer with them (physically), alluding to the fact that fasting was ultimately about being with him.
Coherently speaking, just as fasting draws us near to God’s presence, it should likewise draw us into greater alignment with Him, such as in how we love and desire Him, fear Him, obey Him, exercise faith in Him, suffer for Him, and even experience freedom in Him.
When Jesus spoke against flaunting one’s practice of fasting to others in Matthew 6:16-18, He was illustrating using a relevant example of how people can misappropriate fasting with the wrong attitudes, where the focus is on them (and their self-righteousness) instead of God. Such people go out of their way unnecessarily to make known their fasting to others. In doing so, they render their fasting ineffective and are only left with the “reward” of any ill-gotten admiration they might get from others (Matthew 6:16).
As we strive to appropriate fasting to be aligned and assigned for the Lord, we should first seek to adopt the proper attitudes towards it before we seek the Lord’s provision through it.