Matthew 6:16-18 (14)
In His third aspect of the ‘religious’ life, Jesus looks at fasting, beginning again with the negative before going on to the positive.
“Moreover when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; so that you are not seen by men to be fasting, but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” (Matt 6:16-18)
If, like me, you take great pleasure in food then it is easy to see that to take on this discipline of fasting can lead us, when asked why we are not eating, to say with that pained super-spiritual voice, ‘Oh I`m fasting.’ Don`t we feel righteous and self-content? Jesus said, ‘They have received their reward.’
Let us look at various examples of people fasting, in the Old Testament, to discover their reasons and then compare that to what had become the norm for the ‘religious’ of Jesus’ day.
The Law required the Jews to fast only on the Day of Atonement, ‘Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present an offering made to the LORD by fire. Do no work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the LORD your God. Anyone who does not deny himself on that day must be cut off from his people.’ (Lev 23:27-29). This reminded them that it was God who had brought them out of Egypt, although they were sinners who didn`t deserve it, and had provided food for them in the desert. Fasting emphasised that it was God`s provision, in this case food, that they depended upon. Before giving Israel the Law they were told to sanctify themselves to meet with God, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations” (Ex 19:15). A part of this was fasting from sexual relations for three days.
When the Israelites had sinned and God had subjected them to oppression by the Philistines, Samuel told the people to seek God with all their hearts. ‘On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the LORD.”’ (1 Sam 7:6). A sign they were putting away all other gods.
King Jehoshaphat called the people to fast when his enemies came against him so that God might see how earnest they were and deliver them. ‘Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah.’ (2 Chron 20:3)
At the end of the exile Esther had called the people, “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Est 4:16). Then she went in to see the king. This one day fast became the first part of the annual feast of Purim and was followed by two days of feasting. This was something the people did to thank God for delivering them from Haman`s plot.
Moses fasted for ‘forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread, nor drank water,’ (Exo 34:29) when he received the Ten Commandments, but this was a super-natural fast in which God sustained him. King David fasted when his son lay dying in the hope that ‘the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ (2 Sam 12:22-23) Daniel fasted when he couldn’t understand Jeremiah`s prophecy or the vision given to him, that God might give him revelation.
Wicked king Ahab, after Elijah had proclaimed God`s judgement on him, ‘he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.’ (1 Kings 21:27). God relented and spared his life. When the king of Nineveh heard Jonah`s preaching he proclaimed a fast and the entire population humbled themselves, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:9). God spared the city.
All these examples show us that the usual reasons for fasting are to seek God without any distractions, to humble ourselves, to be serious about putting away sin and a desire to know His will. They have nothing to do with how we look to those around us but focus on our closeness with God.
The ‘hypocrites’ of Jesus day, the play actors, loved to be seen and recognised for their piety. So they used fasting as another way of being seen. The Pharisees had gone from fasting once, or perhaps twice a year, to twice a week and didn`t everyone know it?
In order to be seen they would ‘disfigure’ their faces, in the same way a character actor today is made up to play the part, and dress, most probably, in sack-cloth, the traditional fasting garb, then parade round the streets so people could say ‘Look how religious they are.’ It was all show, there was no humbling, seeking after God, desiring to know His will or repentance from sin. It was all outward show and they had been seen. That was their reward.
How like those to whom the Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah.
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. “Why have we fasted,’ they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” (Isa 58:1-5).
To anyone looking at them, they seemed to be doing all the right things, attending worship regularly and wanting to know what God had said. They never missed a Bible study or prayer meeting and when called to fast you could rely on them. The one thing they could not understand was why all their efforts brought no response from God. He was looking, not, at what men see when hypocrites put on their best ‘religious’ appearance, but at their lives and hearts and He didn`t like what He saw. He wanted to see lives that matched their piety.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” (Isa 58:6-10)
When Jesus was asked why His disciples didn`t fast, He declared they would fast after he was taken from them. (Mark 2:19-20) Jesus fasted before beginning His ministry and before selecting His disciples. They, in turn, fasted before making any significant decisions, such as sending out Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys. It was so they might be certain of knowing God`s will that the disciples fasted.
Fasting is not an annual event or even a ritual done on a certain day of the week. For the kingdom citizen there are no set rules regarding fasting. Sadly because of this many Evangelicals rarely, if ever, fast which is sad as Jesus does promise a reward. It is however something that should be done but done with the right motives. Anything else is just play acting.
A word of warning! Fasting is not a lever to twist God`s arm to get our own way. It is rather a means that we can and should use to draw near to God, putting aside all distractions, in purity and humility to know His will and be serious in prayer.