Sermon preached on Matthew 6:16-18 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/27/2014 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“When You Fast”
We continue our sermon series today from the Sermon on the Mount and come to the topic of fasting. The Westminster Confession of Faith 21.5 describes solemn fasting upon special occasions as a part of our worship of God. And yet, I find that fasting is something fairly unfamiliar to many Christians. There tends to not be much teaching on the subject, and it is often a topic that Christians have questions about. What actually constitutes fasting? Is it something we still do today? Questions like this come up quite commonly. Because of this, I’m going to begin our message today first with some general background on what the Bible says about fasting. Then, I’m going to have us think more about what this passage uniquely tells us about fasting, as to its ongoing role, and in what ways we should and should not fast.
So then, let’s begin with some basic biblical background on fasting. Let’s begin with a definition based on what we see in the Bible. Fasting is when you withhold food, and sometimes drink for a time, so you can be devoted to a special season of prayer. It’s done to make special appeal to God. The very giving up of such food and possible drink is generally seen as an act of humility and also showing the seriousness of your appeal to God. This is the most basic idea. Beyond that, the additional specifics can vary quite a bit. We can see quite a bit of diversity in the Bible in terms of how long someone fasts for, if they fast individually or with others, or what is the occasion that causes them to fast.
For example, with regard to the length of a fast, we see examples ranging in the Bible from one day, to three days, to three weeks, to forty days. On a practical side note, I might mention that extended fasts can have negative health consequences on the body, particularly if you are withholding drink. God doesn’t promise that people will miraculously overcome such effects. So, you should see your doctor about any physical health concerns you might have before engaging on some prolonged fast.
In terms of the occasion for why someone might fast, we see several reasons in the Bible. One common reason why someone might fast in the Bible is an expression of repentance. Take the example of Nineveh in the book of Jonah. Faced with the threatened judgment of God, they declare a city wide fast, and cry out mightily to God. A second, similar, occasion is in 2 Samuel 12, when King Saul and his son Jonathan die, the people mourn, and weep, and fast. There you have a similar connection of humility and sorrow, though it seems that there was a special appeal for God and his help amidst the national tragedy of losing their leaders in battle. In other words, some notable tragedy might occasion your fasting as a sign of your humility before God and calling out for his help in the aftermath. A third occasion for why someone might fast is when making special request to God for some grave circumstance. I think of the example in Esther when the people of God are threatened with genocide, she is going to go before the king uninvited, which might mean her own death, and so she and her friends fast first before going before the king. Similarly, David prayed and fasted that God would spare his first child born to him and Bathsheba. Again, that’s an example of making a special request to God. A fourth occasion for fasting in the Bible is prior the ordination of leaders in the church. For example in the book of Acts, they fasted and prayed for Paul and Barnabas before commissioning them and sending them off as missionaries.
And so those are some of the biblical occasions that spurred the people of God to fast. In terms of it being a corporate or individual thing — again you see examples of all sorts; how bigger groups, smaller groups, and individuals can all fast, as per the example of Nineveh, Esther, and Job. And even in terms of how you fast in terms of food or drink, not only do we see variety there on whether or not you withhold drink, but you also have the example of Daniel 10:3. There Daniel fasts from delicacies only; in other words he still eats and drinks, but for three weeks gives up meat and wine. So, Biblically, there is quite a lot of diversity in how people fast. But the key elements are the temporary giving up of some material sustenance for a time of special prayer and appeal to God.
With that brief survey of the Biblical data on fasting, let’s now turn more specifically to this passage. I want us to begin by recognizing the ongoing role of fasting. Or to say it another way, to affirm that there is still an ongoing value of fasting in the life of a Christian. Certainly the words of verses 16 and 17 at least imply this to some degree when it says, “when you fast.” Jesus’ words envision that there will be occasions of fasting in the lives of those who are a part of his kingdom.
That being said, some have wondered about the appropriateness of fasting, given the coming of Jesus Christ. This is a fair question, though the final analysis would seem to yet affirm the applicability of fasting for the Christian. The question comes in the fact that Jesus’ disciples did not fast as they were under his discipleship. This comes out in Matthew chapter 9. There Jesus is asked why his disciples do not fast, even though both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist fast. Jesus’ answer is amazing. He said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast,” Matthew 9:15. And so while Jesus was with them, it was inappropriate for his disciples to fast. That was to be a time of great joy, being with the Lord in person. It was a time to celebrate. Some have wondered then if Christians should fast, since Christ is now with us by the Holy Spirit. Well, it is true that he is with us. But at the same time, to acknowledge that he is with us spiritually, is also to acknowledge that he is not with us physically. It’s to acknowledge that we are waiting eagerly for his return. That that the kingdom of heaven which we are now a part of in Christ, is still not here yet in glory. And so it’s Jesus’ response to the question of fasting that said that once he is removed from them, then his disciples would fast. That is exactly something we see them doing even in the book of Acts. Three verses in Acts contain references to the early church fasting after Pentecost. That was something they did after Jesus went back up into heaven, and even after the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church.
And so the new covenant church did find occasion to fast after Pentecost, and we surely will too. As much as we do want to affirm that Christ with us spiritually is a reason to rejoice and not mourn, we also want to affirm that we still live in a sin cursed world where we struggle in many ways, longing for the kingdom of heaven to come in glory. And so it’s actually in that, which we are reminded of the appropriateness of fasting. And it’s in that where we see the rest of this chapter really affirm this kind of thinking.
In other words, the Sermon on the Mount has had this kingdom focus. Jesus is talking about a heavenly kingdom that is coming to earth. In some sense it’s already here, but in a real way it is not yet here. By fasting, we very much express that reality. And we see that in what is affirmed in this sermon immediately following Jesus’ comments on fasting. Just take a look. After talking about two different kinds of rewards one could get through their fasting, an earthly one, or a heavenly one, look at what he says then in the next verses. In verses 19-21, he wants us to take our eyes off earthly treasure to instead put our focus more on heavenly treasure. Isn’t that what Jesus is saying our fasting should be about, per verse 18? Absolutely! The very nature of fasting says this. You say that for a time you are going to give up food and/or drink, give us some of these material things, in order to focus on heavenly things in prayer. The very nature of fasting affirms the priority of the kingdom of heaven over the material things of this age. And so as we continue to look at the rest of this chapter, that is continued to be affirmed in very explicit ways. Look at verse 24. Don’t put your heart’s focus on earthly things like mammon — a word for earthly wealth. Or in verse 25 it explicitly calls us to not worry about what to eat or drink, and again he says the same thing in verse 31. This comes to a climax in verse 33. Instead of worrying about what we eat or drink, seek first the kingdom of heaven! Again, this is at the heart of what fasting is about. It’s an acknowledgment that you are not so concerned about food and drink. Instead you are concerned about the things of your heavenly Father. As we think about fasting from the perspective of the kingdom of heaven, it’s so clear that fasting is quite appropriate for us today.
So, then, how should we and how should we not fast? That’s the most direct point of Jesus in these verses. Well, first he says we should not fast like the hypocrites. That’s verse 16. Notice how he says they fast. They fast by going out of their way to make their faces look disfigured. They put on a sad countenance. In other words, they neglect their appearances and go around with gloomy faces. As hypocrites, they are basically putting on a show with their fasting. They want other humans to see them, and feel sorry for their sufferings and think of them as so spiritual. In a similar way, you can think about how Jesus talked about how the Pharisees were the kind of people to boast of fasting twice a week (Luke 18:12). In other words, it’s wrong to fast in a way that draws attention to yourself by others. It’s wrong to try to get people to notice your physical suffering. This truly is so hypocritical. It truly is so at odds with the very nature of fasting. Think about it. Fasting is supposed to be an act of humility before God. It should be about denying yourself. It should be about giving up things for yourself. You then call out to God. But this hypocritical fasting is actually doing the opposite. Though you might give up some food, you really aren’t denying yourself, nor is it actually an act of humility. By hypocritically fasting like this, you are actually acting out of pride. You are drawing attention to yourself, to gain reputation before man. And so when someone makes their fasting a public spectacle it becomes a way not to humble themselves, but a way to exalt themselves before man. It becomes a way to gain in the world’s eyes instead of giving up something for God’s eyes to see. It becomes about calling out for the world’s attention, instead of calling upon God to see your humble estate. Their reward in this, then, is an earthly one, in that they receive the praise of men. But that is not the reward to seek. And so this is not the kind of fasting that we are to do.
Instead, Jesus says in verse 17 and 18 that when you fast, you should instead anoint your head and wash your face, so that you don’t look like you are fasting before men. When I had briefly mentioned this verse a few weeks ago, I had said that this was saying that we should go out of our way to make ourselves not look like we are fasting. But I want to offer a correction to that after further study. The anointing and washing was likely not something out of the ordinary for people. It probably reflects normal grooming and hygiene practices. In other words, this is simply saying that when you fast, act normal. Don’t go out of your way to look “afflicted.” Rather, comb your hair and wash your face and do your normal things to look normal. Put on your normal appearances and don’t call attention to your fasting. Trust that God knows you are fasting, and that who you should want to see your fasting anyways. Look for God to reward you, not the world.
Well, as we conclude our study today on fasting from this passage and from the rest of the Scriptures, there is a question that comes up here at verse 18. Why should we be rewarded in our fasting? I mean think about it. We’ve seen from the Scriptures that fasting usually is an act of humility. So often it expressly acknowledges our sin. In all of it, it acknowledges how things are outside of our control and that we need God’s hand and help in our circumstances. Why should that act of occasional fasting, that act of mourning for a short time, be something then worthy of God’s reward? I mean, really, if you stop and think about it, apart from God’s grace, we should always, permanently, be in a place of mourning and humility before God. We are sinful human beings who have in different ways disobeyed God and not honored him as we ought. Why would any amount of temporary humility be enough to get reward? Yes, it would be right to humble ourselves in this way, but why should we be rewarded for that?
Add to that question the fact that too often our religious expressions such as fasting are done in ways that are hypocritical and disingenuous. Too often, even if we think we are starting with good motives, we find that we can too quickly fall into the trap of the hypocritical fasting described here. Search your hearts and see that this is the case. Why then could we ever think there be any reward for our fasting?
Well, it’s again, all about Christ, and all about the grace we have in him. For starters, let me point out that Jesus himself began his ministry with fasting. Even though he would not have his disciples fast with him, he himself began his ministry with a concentrated period of fasting for forty days and forty nights. That’s pretty amazing when we think about how fasting is so typically connected with mourning and humility, particularly over our sin. And yet, Jesus himself was without sin. And yet in that fasting, it was a further way in which he identified with us, and shared in the effects of our sin. And it was also his way to affirm that true life was something beyond just physical sustenance. Remember, he told Satan then that man did not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. He simultaneously there fasted for us and for our behalf while acknowledging that he was of a kingdom not of this world.
But even more than his earthly fasting, remember the cross. There he humbled himself even more than that of fasting for forty days. He denied himself, and took up the cross, and gave his life for us. The very instinct we each should have as we think of our fasting, is how unworthy we are. We should each humble ourselves and acknowledge how we deserve God’s wrath and curse. But Christ was stricken, smitten, and afflicted for us, and for our salvation.
This is our Lord and Savior. He identified with us all the way to the cross, where he bore our sins for all our unrighteousness, all our religious hypocrisy, and all the ways we have the wrong focus in life. As those then who come to God in Christ, we come in his merits. We find our reward as we live in Christ. We fast then even in Christ. Why would we be rewarded at all when it comes to our fasting, fasting that is far too imperfectly done? It’s all about grace. This is a truth that true, of course, not just with our fasting. But in all our seeking of righteousness, we rejoice that we do it in and through Christ. That it’s as we look to live this out in Christ, that we find reward. It’s all about his grace through and through as a Christian. Praise be to God.
So then, may we not forget that this occasional element of worship — fasting — that this is something to keep as something occasional for your spiritual life and worship. And when you fast, may you by the grace of God use it to further cultivate in you that recognition that you belong to a heavenly kingdom, even as you live here on earth. That even while you need bread to live in this life, there is a greater nourishment you also need. Feast then especially on Christ when you fast. And when you do it, don’t make it into some public spectacle. Live your normal life in this world, even as you are privately looking to grow in your new life that is not of this world. So then, take this concept and run with it in all the aspects of your Christian life. In all aspects of both your ordinary and occasional acts of worship, do it: In Christ, to be seen by God and not man, appreciating the already and not yet aspects of the heavenly kingdom to which you now belong. And look forward to when that kingdom to come does come in glory. Then there will never again be a need for fasting. Then we will feast in great joy with our Lord at the Great Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Then we will be with the king again in person, and just like before, it would be inappropriate to fast. Oh we look forward to that celebration! And how wonderful it is that by grace we have it as our hope. Praise be to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.