DUNCAN/True religion, Part 4: Fasting
Please turn in your Bible to Matthew 6:16-18. The Lord Jesus Christ in this passage is addressing the current practice of the Pharisees in His time. They made great pretense about their practice of fasting. Fasting was a time-honored tradition in Israel. They made a great show of it as they fasted. And in so doing, they were missing the whole point of the exercise of fasting. In that context, the Lord Jesus Christ gave instruction to His disciples about their practice of fasting, and in this passage before us, we find out what He says. We see two things in this passage. First, that Christians must avoid the performance of spiritual disciplines for the sake of notice by people. Second, Christian fasting is a normal part of the healthy spiritual experience.
I. Christians Must Avoid the Performance of Spiritual Disciplines for the Sake of Notice by People.
There are many truths to be gained from this passage. The first thing we learn from Christ in this passage is that Christians must avoid the performance of spiritual disciplines for the sake of notice by people. Christians must avoid the performance of our spiritual disciplines, whether it be fasting or giving, or praying, or church attendance, whatever obligations we have in the Word to do as believers, we should not do them in order to be noticed by men. Jesus addresses in verse 16 the issue of hypocrisy and He institutes a stern warning against it. Notice His words in verse 16, “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” In the days of ancient Israel, one of the things that the people of God often did when they fasted, was they actually donned sack cloth and ashes as if they were at a funeral. This was because fasting was supposed to be visible display of humiliation and humility. And so one of the ways that they would display that humility was that they would actually don mourning clothes and go around in mourning because of their own sin. I want you to note that the Lord Jesus does not condemn them for fasting. Fasting is never condemned anywhere in the New Testament, but the Lord Jesus contends prideful, false fasting in the practice of the Pharisees. Fasting isn’t supposed to result in smug self-satisfaction. It is supposed to result in an open display of real humility that reminds us of just how dependent upon God’s grace we are. It is to have us brought down low, so that we might be picked up by God Himself.
We are also reminded that in our performance of religious duties, no matter what we are doing, no matter whether God has commanded us to do those things in the Word, explicitly or not, we are never to do them so that people will praise us. It is very tempting, isn’t it sometimes? To engage in service in the church, to engage in worship in the church, because we know what people will think of us if we don’t do it. We think, “Why, if I don’t participate in that project, what will they think of me?” “Well, if I don’t go to that service, what will they think of me?” And when we begin to think like that, we are joining in with those venerable old hypocrites of old, the Pharisees, and we must be careful that our religious practice, commanded in the Word is done with a view to God, and not to men. Jesus makes it clear in verse 16, that all of our practice of religion ought to be for God and not for the notice of others.
II. Christian Fasting Is a Normal Part of the Healthy Spiritual Experience.
In verse 17 He teaches that Christian fasting is a normal part of healthy spiritual experience. He says in verse 17, “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.” Notice, by the way, the phrase “when you fast,” is actually repeated from verse 16. In verse 16 He has said, “Whenever you fast.” Note that Jesus does not say, if you fast, He says, when you fast. The Lord Jesus expects His disciples to be engaging in the spiritual work of fasting. Since fasting is not one of those things that a lot of us spend a lot of time reading about or contemplating, let me give a brief definition of fasting. Fasting is a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food and/or drink for spiritual purposes. Fasting could actually include the voluntary abstinence from any normal function for a specified period of time for spiritual purposes. We might refrain from some activity or some particular thing that we like to do for a period time for the sake of devoting ourselves to religious practice and reflection. But fasting is the abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. And it is often misunderstood and certainly neglected in evangelical churches today.
Jesus in fact teaches in verse 18 why Christians are to fast. He says in verses 17 and 18, “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Christians are to fast for the pleasure of the heavenly Father and for the good of their own souls. We are not to fast for the approval of men. We are to fast for the pleasure of the Father and the good of our own souls. Jesus is teaching in verse 18 what the proper motivation for fasting is and what the proper goal of fasting is. Christ is concerned not only that His disciples fast, but that they fast for the right reasons. They should not fast so that people will think that they are holy. They are to fast as a token of their earnestness that they are deadly serious about the matter they are bringing to the Lord in prayer. And they should fast because they desire the heavenly Father’s blessings on their prayers and on their spiritual endeavors. Fasting, above all else, is a help to prayer. It is not something that manipulates God into hearing our prayer. But it is something that reminds us of how seriously we are taking the matter that we are taking to the Lord in prayer. It is a way of impressing upon ourselves the importance of the matter that we take to Him in prayer. Fasting is not so much a duty for its own sake, but it is a means to dispose us to other duties, usually prayer. Have you ever engaged in the practice of fasting with your prayer? Give yourselves to this spiritual discipline as your Lord has counseled and watch heaven’s hand of blessing unfold.