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Life Upside Down 12


Matthew 6:16-18


As we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount, we come to a topic which many of us have little or no familiarity with.  We are talking about the biblical practice of fasting.  You might be saying, what do you mean, I fast for certain things in my life.  For instance, many of us may do an overnight fast to have blood drawn in the morning for medical testing, but this is not the same thing Jesus is talking about.  Some may fast from certain foods for dietary reasons like losing weight or cleansing their colon or something along those lines.  Again, this is not the same thing Jesus is talking about.

Now there may be some who have practiced a fast from certain foods during the religiously established Lenten season.  Now, this may have some similarities and even be viewed by some as biblical fasting.  But even the practice of Lenten fasting is often construed in such a way that it is not the same thing Jesus is talking about.  I suppose it comes down to how the person understands from their heart why they are giving up a particular food for Lenten.  Keep in mind that as we have gone through the Sermon on the Mount, the practices Jesus has brought up in this sermon have been perverted by the religious establishment to a point that these practices no longer have their intended meaning or purpose.

Today we struggle with fasting in one of two ways.  First, much like the Pharisees of Jesus day, many today who practice fasting do it as a religious ritual that has lost it meaning.  In other words, the church I go to says I should give up certain foods for Lent and so I do so without understanding the heart of why I do what I am doing.  It becomes just a religious activity I do because that is what I am supposed to do.  Then the second way we struggle with fasting is that some people see the emptiness of a fast like that and so they choose to never fast.  Thus, we go from one extreme to the other.  We either do an empty and meaningless fast or we don’t fast at all.

Jesus makes it clear in our verses today that neither of those responses are the correct response to fasting.  Let’s read our text and we will dive into this and try to understand what Jesus is teaching us.

Matthew 6:16-18

16 "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,

18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Like the expectation of prayer in Jesus’ sermon, Jesus also has an:

Expectation of Times of Fasting (v. 16a)

And when you fast

It is clear that Jesus knew the people He was speaking to practiced fasting.  It is also clear that He expected them to continue having times of fasting.  He doesn’t say, “If you fast” as though it may be something you do or not do, but He says, “When you fast.”  So already we understand that this is a practice that we should be doing.  Just because we see the practice of fasting not taking place in a biblical manner, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have times of fasting in our lives.  So, what is fasting and why should we fast?

~ What is Fasting?

The meaning of the word translated “fast” in the original language is “one who has not eaten,” “who is empty.”  Simply it means “to be without food or to be hungry.”  Fasting is found in nearly all religions and it is the temporary abstention from nourishment on religious grounds.  Sometimes it is food and water, but usually it is food only.  Fasting is simply a period of time you choose not to eat, and you become empty or hungry.

There are examples all over the Bible of fasting.  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament outlines many of the eighty-nine times the word “fast’ is used.

~ Mourning or sorrow (1 Samuel 31:13 – 7 days of fast over the death of Saul and his sons).

~ Before Moses receives the 10 commandments (Exodus 34:28 – 40 days with no food or water writing the second tablets)

~ Before Daniel receive his visions from God (Daniel 9:3 – fasting, prayer, sackcloth, and ashes)

~ Submission to God (2 Samuel 12:16ff – David in submission to God spent 7 days praying and fasting for the life of the child he had with Bathsheba)

~ Times of serious prayer (Jeremiah 14:12 – people were fasting concerning the famine and pestilence God brought upon them)

~ Jesus fasted 40 days before entering ministry (Matthew 4:1-11 – after His baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness, there Satan tempted Him during His time of fasting)

~ John the Baptist and Jesus’ disciples fasted (Mark 2:18-20 – Jesus says that fasting will even take place after His ascension)

But simply put, fasting is abstaining from food for a period of time that seems to be appropriate for what the fasting and praying is for.  But why?  What on earth could be the motivation for fasting?

~ Motivation for Fasting

Simply put, to humble ourselves before the Lord.  Leviticus 23 tells us that during the Day of Atonement, that the people were to afflict themselves and most scholars agree that they did this by fasting.  It is a sign of submission and humility before God.  It is an understanding of dependency and submission.  The motivation was to indicate a state of humility before God.  But who is the fast for?  Is fasting to show God the condition of our heart?  Not hardly, He already knows our heart in the matter.  Is fasting for others?  No, we will see in a moment the warnings about that kind of fasting.  Not that there aren’t examples of how people are moved by someone fasting, but when our motivation is to be seen, we have the wrong motivation.

So why fast showing humility before God if He already knows my heart and if it is not to be done to be seen by others?  Fasting is for us.  Fasting is a deepening of our relationship with God.  In all the recorded examples of fasting in Scripture, I believe all of them demonstrate a deeper desire of understanding and knowing God.  A desire for deeper commitment to Him.  But much like any good and godly activity, it can become perverted into a meaningless exercise.

Remember when Jesus told us about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who went to the Temple to pray in Luke 18:11-12?

11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.'

Jesus makes it clear that fasting is about the motivation of the heart.  So, fasting is an abstinence from food for a short period of time to deepen our relationship with the Lord.  It is giving up of something we need to survive, indicating the extent to which I will sacrifice my life for a deeper relationship with Him.  Even when we are mourning over sin or determining His will, fasting is a commitment that says I submit to You and I depend on You for all things in life.  Jesus says “when we fast” indicating an expectation that we will have times of fasting.  For many Christians, including myself, fasting is not a part of life and I wonder if we are not missing something much deeper that God may have for us.  But notice again Jesus’ warning about being seen by others.

Appearance at Times of Fasting (v. 16b - 18a)

16b do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,

18 that your fasting may not be seen by others.

This is the third example that Jesus has used to illustrate the principle that He gave in Matthew 6:1:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” 

So, when we practice righteous activities for the purpose of being seen by others, our reward is simply that, to be seen by others.  This principle applies when you give gifts to the poor (vv. 2-4), when you pray (vv. 5-6), and now when you fast (vv. 16-18).  Our heart’s motivation for doing these things is the most important factor in giving to the poor, praying, and now fasting.

I find it interesting that Jesus said that they put on a gloomy face.  They wouldn’t wash their face so that the streaks of tears could be clearly seen by others.  They would act sad and gloomy so that others would know that they were fasting.  In fact, they would disfigure their faces with ashes to show mourning when they were not in mourning at all.  Jesus calls them hypocrites which simply means that they were play acting.  Like an actor on a stage, they were dressing up and putting on the act of fasting.  Why would they do that?  To look like they were pious and godly to other people.

They made an outward show of piety by making themselves look like they were serious in their fast and as such others would see them as holy and godly people.  Not only did they put ash on their face, but they would not groom their hair, leaving it all unkempt. They may have even put on old clothes that were torn and full of holes or even sackcloth.  A great outward show, but none of it was from a heart’s desire of growing closer to God.  They were far from God and these were acts of self-righteous.  They loved the acclaim of men more than the acclaim of God and that is the reward they receive.

Jesus says, when we fast, we should anoint our head with oil, wash our face and show a normal appearance.  In other words, we aren’t looking for some kind of praise for fasting because this is between us and God.  I don’t think Jesus is saying that no one should ever find out about it, because obviously, unless you are a hermit, others will probably notice you are not eating.  Hopefully, your spouse would notice if you are married.  Besides that, someone may even be inspired when they know you have been fasting and see how much you are growing in your walk with the Lord.  But the point Jesus is making is that our fasting should be motivated from a heart of love for Him, not to be seen by others as holy and pious.

We should not be trying to make our fasting obvious by a gloomy look, however, the other extreme is true also.  When we are in fasting and prayer about some things that are heavy on our hearts, we shouldn’t put on a plastic face of happiness either.  Both are examples of hypocrisy.  We should just act normal.

I think Nehemiah is a good example of this.  Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the King of Persia during the time of the Jewish captivity.  He received news that things were not going well with those who returned with Ezra to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.  The city walls had not yet been repaired and he became burdened about the situation.

Nehemiah 1:4

4 As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

His prayer is recorded for us in Nehemiah 1 and it is an emotional cry out to God in repentance and a plea for God to give them success.  Nehemiah could have put on sackcloth and ashes like many other examples do in Scripture, but he didn’t because he is the King’s cupbearer.  His job would not allow that.  In fact, it was required that the King’s servants be joyful, simply because they were in the presence of the King, if not they were risking not just their jobs, but their lives.  But should Nehemiah put on a fake smile, so the King wouldn’t know how heavy his heart was?  How did Nehemiah look when he was in front of the King during his time of fasting?  Listen to Nehemiah 2:1-2.

1 In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king.  Now I had not been sad in his presence.

 2 And the king said to me, "Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick?  This is nothing but sadness of the heart." Then I was very much afraid.  (Nehemiah could have been killed for not being happy)

Nehemiah then explains his sadness to the King and God uses this to prepare him to lead another group of Israelites back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls.  But the point I am making here is that Nehemiah’s face reflected what was in his heart.  He wasn’t putting on a sad and gloomy face so that everyone knew he was fasting and he didn’t put on a happy face to convince everyone that things were fine.  He was true to what was in his heart and King Artaxerxes recognized that.

Our appearance while fasting should never be about making others think differently about us than what is really true.  We should not seek recognition for fasting and we should not hide what is heavy on our hearts either.  We have already mentioned that those who seek personal recognition for their fasting receive their reward . . . that of personal recognition.  But what is the reward of those who practice genuine fasting from a heart of love for the Lord?

Reward for Times of Fasting (v. 18b)

[Fasting to be seen] by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It is clear that the purpose of fasting is our vertical relationship with God, not a horizontal prestige among others.  God sees us fasting, He sees that our heart is not seeking the ordinary pleasures of human admiration.  He sees that we are not operating in our own strength and discipline to impress others.  Then it says He rewards us.  What is the reward?  The reward is a renewed strength in our relationship.  The reward is answered prayers.  The reward is a stronger dependence on Him.  The reward can be so many things, but all of them relate to a deeper relationship with God.


So, the question that often comes when talking about fasting is whether fasting is for today.  Should Christians fast?  Why or why not?  Is it something that should be important to me?  I think it should be!

First, keep in mind that Jesus took it for granted that people were fasting.  He had an expectation that this was taking place and even the disciples and people in the early church fasted.  However, never was fasting to be a time of purposefully putting our health in danger.  If a person knows that their body will not respond correctly when there is an absence of certain foods in their system, they need to avoid fasting from those things.  So, we should never put our health in danger in order to fast.

Second, fasting should be the result of an inward attitude toward God.  Humility, submission, dependence, and a desire to grow close to God should be what motivates the heart toward a time of fasting.  Keeping in mind that the purpose of fasting is to demonstrate humility and to give full concentration to God.  As our relationship with the Lord deepens, fasting can be a place of sweet communion with our Savior.

When we understand the purpose of fasting, it becomes evident that fasting is for today.  Fasting should be important to me.  It may be that the reason we do not fast is the lack of intensity in our relationship with God.  When we fast, we are saying “no” to our appetite and “yes” to a desire to grow closer to Him.

It may be difficult if not impossible to do a long fast like forty days, but we can certainly take shorter times of fasting.  Maybe we can begin with taking our lunch hour for a time of prayer and Bible reading in devotion to Him one day.  Maybe we could take a full day do fasting when we are not doing physically demanding work to make a day of focusing our hearts on Him in prayer and Bible reading.

What are some biblical reasons for fasting?  Fasting brings a deeper intensity in our prayer.  Fasting is a way of mourning over sin issues, and for others who are not walking with God.  Fasting and prayer for guidance in some difficult circumstances in life.  Fasting for biblical purposes should draw us closer to God. It should help us break away from the desire to satisfy our own lusts and materialism.  I encourage you, consider fasting at times when you feel the need for God’s guidance and strength in your life.